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A Remarkable Disconnect From Context and Causation

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.

12 Responses to “A Remarkable Disconnect From Context and Causation”

  1. JoseAngel from Monterrey Says:

    I remember the first time I heard of Gorvachev, I was very young then, 14 or so, and we were visiting an uncle house in San Antonio, Texas, and I remember our American friends feeling sympathy for Gorvachev and his perestroika and glasnost reforms, after all, one always feel sympathy for a reformer in a country governed by a dictatorial regime, that is, you are supposed to sympathize if you live in a democracy and don’t understand the inner workings of a country under a one-party dictatorship. In those days, we in Mexico were also living under a one-party dictatorial regime, and one that had lasted for almost as long as the Soviet Union, about 70 years. We had elections, but they were fraudulent and it was only window dressing, the party controlled the elections, counted the votes and they always won, they controlled the army and police and the economy as well.  And something I learned about dictatorial regimes was that each new leader that got to power would quickly start promising changes and talk about transforming the country dramatically. In Mexico, every newly imposed president came out with a ¨huge public works program¨, or a program for ¨transparency¨ or even “morality” or “cultural revolution”, yet all these programs were a way for these dictators to legitimize themselves in front of the people who did not elect them, to become popular, but the programs were never complete programs, they were only a public relations program, and in the end, the corrupted state bureaucracy will keep the money for the programs and everything remained the same, the status quo continued. Dictators always dream of being popular and loved by the people.  The Soviet Union was in this regard no different than Mexico or China or other countries. Dictators are always busy weaving their fragile power networks to continue in power and Gorvachev was no different, he needed popular support too weave his power grid. But the truth is that he turned out to be a weak and mediocre man in Russia’s darkest hour, while he hid away somewhere, Boris Yeltsin stood up leading the Russians, the very reason why Yeltsin emerged as the new leader of the country, and the reason why Gorvachev became irrelevant afterwards, to the point of being humiliated by Yeltsin several times. Had he been the true reformer, he would have remained in power or at least walked out with honors. It was not the case.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, left wing and profoundly anti-American writers in Europe and other parts of the world, including America, were quick to credit Gorvachev for the end of cold war and the dismantling of the Soviet Regime, some others credited Pope John Paul II, and others might have wished to credit Mitterrand or someone else. Some of these views have persisted to our days.   But I hope historians give due credit to the United States, and Reagan. Without them, I have no doubt the Soviet Union will still be there.  

  2. CKR Says:

    Hi Zen –

    I would have to agree with you that Chernobyl probably wasn’t the only turning point.

    As to why Gorbachev took different policies than Andropov, he was of a different generation and could see past the old ways of thinking. Not to mention that both Andropov and Chernenko were losing their health and were pretty much place-holders.

    And I’m wondering what you think was the marker of Gorbachev’s "losing" the Cold War. It seems to me that conceptualizing the interaction as win-lose leads to far too much of the neocon triumphalism and the demands for Russia to bow down to the "winners" that characterized too much of US politics through the nineties and continues even today, although Russia’s oil wealth has muted that somewhat.

    And don’t forget all that went on in the satellites, but even more so in the Soviet Republics, where Estonia developed the subtle but definitive moves out from under Moscow’s domination. Boris Yeltsin even used some of their tactics.

  3. Lex Says:

    Another big turning point was Matthias Rust flying a light plane undetected from
    Finland and landing in Red Square, 1987.  This humiliated the Soviet military, who had spent some ungodly percentage of GNP for decades — only to have some kid blow past their defenses like they weren’t there.  That gave Gorbachev leverage against the military, who looked like incompetent idiots.

  4. zen Says:

    hi JoseAngel,

    While I think you are correct that Gorbachev was angling for legitimacy in his intraparty struggle against the old guard, it’s too harsh to call him ” mediocre”. A failure, yes but mediocre ppl cannot fail on so grand a scale becuae their horizons are far too narrow. Mostly they just muddle along.

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,

    Great question. For Gorbachev personally I think the turning point was when he began prioritizing political reform over economic reform. The expectations for improvement that he raised were beyond the capacity of the Soviet system to meet
    , even as the populace felt ever more free to express their dissatisfaction. This was more the last window of opportunity slamming shut on the USSR as Gorby’s predecessors handed off a catastrophe for him to fix. As a system, the turning point was the 1960’s when the nomenklatura rejected Khrushchev’s attempts at reform ( which included reining in military spending and diversifying the economy) and embraced creeping neo-Stalinism, third world adventurism and plowing 1/3 their GDP into military, security spending and redundant heavy industry.

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Lex,

    Yes, I think Ogarkov was sacked for that one and some top official deadpanned " We thank the young man for pointing out the flaws in our air defense system". I believe Rust also had painted his plane like the Red Baron and buzzed around the Kremlin.

  7. CKR Says:

    Good answers, Zen.

    But more like last economic/political mistakes than "losing the Cold War," which included international perceptions of Soviet communism versus other sorts of systems, mainly open democracies, and the military face-off in its various manifestations.

    Seems to me that "losing the Cold War" would entail some realization on the part of the losers that there was no way out. Gorbachev remained bullish on communism and believed it could be fixed (may still believe that), although there must be a point, perhaps the one you give, when he felt he lost control over events. Certainly the August 1991 attempted coup must have been that for him.

  8. Dave Schuler Says:

    Hmm.  I’ve touched on this before but I see a somewhat different answer than any of the above for the collapse of the USSR:  generational change.  When the leaders of the USSR stopped being Sons of the Revolution (like Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev) and became bureaucrats (like Gorbachev), they stopped behaving like Sons of the Revolution and started behaving like bureaucrats.  That marked the end of the USSR.

    I don’t give Gorbachev a great deal of credit.  I think that his was the natural bureaucratic reaction.  Does Reagan deserve some credit?  Yes, but not for <b>winning</b> the Cold War.  He deserves credit for refusing to lose the Cold War which certainly was within our power.

  9. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,

    We could have lost at many points and in different ways though I think one of the likeliest possibilities would have been the quiet Finlandization of our allies, either after WWII or in the 1970’s, had we opted for a return to a more isolationist and accomodationist posture. Or continuing overreach to exhaustion on our part. Either way, Moscow would have striven to  fill the global power vacuum.

  10. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,

    Gorbachev’s dilemma was that Communism was unsalvageable – at least to the proportion that the system retained the primary characteristics of Soviet Communism. Deng Xiaoping’s ideological pragmatism  " It does not matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice" would have served Gorbachev better than perestroika.

  11. fred lapides Says:

    As I recall–and yes, I was around and not a kid then–Ronnie outdid Russia on spending for "defense" and ran us up a huge debt. Russia unable to compete with our arms and thus the arms race no longer made sense to a country (Russia) deep in debt. We ran up a huge deficit too but we are not supposed to9 mention this. Now, with Iraq, we can note our deficit.

  12. zen Says:

    Hi Fred,

    Defense spending as a percentage of GDP under Reagan peaked at slightly over 6% of GDP in 1987. This compares favorably with JFK’s peak of around 8% which later rose under LBJ due to the Vietnam War.

    Despite a much smaller economy, the Soviet Union fielded a comparable superpower military, trying to make up for in quantity (such as tanks, fighters,MIRVs and megatonnage) where it lacked an edge in quality. Globalsecurity.org, estimated that the USSR was spending 15-17 % of their GDP to achieve military parity.


    Many Russia and military experts feel that even this figure represents an underestimate of 75-100 %. Post-1991 evidence indicated that the CIA had regularly overestimated the total size of the Soviet economy and, thus, underestimated the true proportion of Soviet military expenditures.

    Reagan’s policies in toto increased the national debt, government revenues, government spending, the budget deficit and real growth of GDP. To the extent that we can disaggregate defense spending as the portion of the accumulated debt under Reagan, it is to my mind, money well spent to be rid of the Soviet Union without war.

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