I was surfing over at the always engaging, Left of center blog, The Newshoggers, when I saw a post by Cernig discussing a NYT op-ed by Martin Walker giving the lion’s share of the credit for the end of the Cold War to Mikhail Gorbachev, a position Cernig strongly endorsed, expounding upon the” Reagan won Mythtique”. A key section from the Walker op-ed:
“According to both Schell and Rhodes, the cold war ended not because Reagan stood firm at Reykjavik but because Gorbachev and his supporters had already decided to stop waging it, or as Gorbachev’s adviser Giorgy Arbatov once put it to this reviewer in Moscow, “to take your enemy away.” Gorbachev understood that the arms race was ruining his country. And then he learned that the radiation fallout from Chernobyl was the equivalent of a single 12-megaton bomb.It was a wondrous accident of history that saw Gorbachev, the determined reformer of a sclerotic Soviet system, coincide with Reagan, the anti-Communist conservative who nonetheless dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons. After Reagan came the first president Bush, whose initial caution about Gorbachev gave way to such enthusiasm that he unilaterally scrapped America’s vast arsenal of land- and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons. Between them, the three men put an end to the first nuclear age.”
The first paragraph begs the question of “Why?” – particularly when Gorbachev’s recent predecessor as General-Secretary and longtime political godfather, Yuri Andropov, had such a drastically different reaction to nearly identical circumstances, despite being perhaps the best informed Soviet leader to ever rule the Kremlin. Walker ( leaning heavily on the writings of Jonathan Schell and Richard Rhodes) credits the Chernobyl disaster causing a Paul on the road to Damascus political conversion in the highest reaches of the Soviet nomenklatura. I find that such a thesis strains credulity, to put it mildly.
Walker would have us believe that a totalitarian system that weathered: approximately 20 to 25 million war dead in WWII, plus; another 20 to 30 million Soviet citizens who vanished into the Gulag under Stalin; that went to the brink of nuclear war with the U.S. under Khrushchev and with China under Brezhnev; that was, at the time, accepting tens of thousands of casualties annually in Afghanistan under Gorbachev; was suddenly undone morally and spiritually by a comparative handful of dead in an industrial accident at a nuclear plant and subsequent bad Western P.R. This is not history but wishful fantasy of an adolescent kind.
Let us be clear, Mikhail Gorbachev deserves significant credit for his share in bringing the Cold War to a sane and relatively soft landing. He exercised intelligent restraint at a number of critical junctures where an ideologue would have provoked a civil war – something the coup plotters who toppled Gorbachev almost did. Gorbachev also understood that the Soviet system was fundamentally incompatible with the emergence of a globalized and highly technological information economy and that if his country did not adapt quickly, it would be left behind. At no time in power, however, did Gorbachev intend to destroy the Soviet Union or abandon “socialism” ( though what socialism was to be in the future, became increasingly vague in Gorbachev’s pronouncements) – these were the unintended consequences of trying to square a circle and make the USSR into a “normal” state via perestroika. A herculean task that exceeded even Gorbachev’s considerable political talents.
The facts are that Gorbachev and the USSR lost the Cold War and then sued for peace out of necessity, not from moral superiority or anti-nuclear altruism. It is a further truth that Ronald Reagan was substantially more correct than most of his contemporaries, Left and Right, on the proper American stance toward the Soviets; and that without his tough but flexible policies, the USSR might have limped along on life support for some time longer, as has North Korea. Possibly, without the challenge of Reagan in the first place, the Soviet politburo might have opted for yet another ailing octogenarian to warm Lenin’s seat after Chernenko died and the “youthful” Gorbachev might have idled as a second tier leader for another decade.
No, Ronald Reagan did not win the Cold War by himself but he contributed to that victory and all attempts to spin Mikhail Gorbachev, a tough-minded and daring apparatchik who wanted to save the Soviet Union, into the grand savior of humanity are just that – empty spin.