February 21, 2003


A World of Enemies: Is It All Reagan's Fault? (Nicholas Stix, 2/19/03, Toogood Reports)
People usually seek to explain the fall of the Soviet Union and the East Bloc, via either of two competing theories. A theory popular in the U.S.,
especially among Republicans, holds that Ronald Reagan's 1980s arms buildup forced the Soviets to compete with us, a competition that eventually
exhausted their economy, and caused their system to collapse. By contrast, the theory of choice among many American leftists and foreigners is that the
Soviet Union and East Bloc were brought down by a bloodless, popular revolution - what fans (among them, journalist Paul Berman) of Czechoslovakian dissident playwright and contemporary President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel and his group, Charter 77, called the former Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution."

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan engineered the biggest peacetime arms buildup ever. On June 12, 1987 in West Berlin, he told the Soviet premier--thanks to speechwriter Peter Robinson - "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" And beginning in June, 1989, less than six months after Reagan handed over the reins of power to George Herbert Walker Bush, the world saw the biggest liberation, in terms of sheer numbers, in history. What's not to like?

If the conventional wisdom in the U.S. is correct, and Ronald Reagan's arms buildup caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, then Reagan must get both
the credit and the blame for today's world order, or lack thereof. With all due respect, however, I don't think he deserves either. Reagan cared deeply
about the millions oppressed by Soviet totalitarianism, but he did not cause The Wall to come down.

Alternatively, we are to believe that, inspired by a group of poets and artists who signed petitions and wrote editorials, in 1989, the Czechoslovakian people "shouted down" their communist rulers, and young East Germans simply decided to tear down the Berlin Wall. So, for 44 years, the Czechoslovakians and East Germans (not to mention all the other nationalities who suffered under the boot of Soviet terror) had needed only to mass in the street, and start shouting! Think of all of the missed opportunities! Such silliness will not convince any sober person above the age of consent, much less anyone familiar with the history of Soviet communism.

It was Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that caused The Wall to fall, but not because Ronald Reagan had succeeded in converting him to the cause of
freedom, and not because Gorbachev sought to end the Soviet Union and the East Bloc. Rather, Gorbachev was a vain, confused man. Dreaming of being a beloved dictator, he sought to be both the dictator and the liberator of his people. As Stalin, Hitler, and Mao had already shown, however, the way to become a beloved dictator, is through murdering millions of one's own people, and terrorizing the rest. Most of the citizens whom a tyrant has not yet murdered, will learn to fear him, others will learn to love him, and some will feel both emotions for him. Witness the nostalgia for the "certainty" and "security" Stalin supposedly provided that is still widespread in "free" Russia, and the former Soviet Republics and East Bloc nations.

Gorbachev was a tyrant who stopped tyrannizing. In a tyranny, such a man is soon out of a job, if not dead. Gorbachev expected the Soviets to embrace
him as their leader. Instead, they no longer recognized him as leader, but as the cause of a vacuum in leadership. Soon enough, Gorby was an ex-leader.
In 1991, his resignation as Premier of the Soviet Union was redundant, since as many observers have commented, he was the ruler of a nation that no longer existed. Gorbachev is lucky to still be alive.

Mr. Stix is always an interesting writer, but this seems a bit sketchy. He's offered up three things that are not at all incompatible--the Reagan buildup, internal pressure from dissidents, and Gorbachev's incompetence--as competing causes of the fall of the Wall. In fact the three interlocked quite nicely.

What the Reaganite confrontation with the USSR did--following a decade of detente and three decades+ of containment--was demonstrate to the Soviet leaders that they were going to have to compete with capitalist democracy in development, construction, and deployment of new and sophisticated technologies and militarily defend the most unstable parts of the Soviet Bloc (Grenada, Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan). It was obvious as early as the 1940s that they could do no such thing, that just maintaining rough parity required acquiescence by American leaders. So when it came to things like stealth technology and space-based weapons it was apparent that major reform of the Soviet system would be required.

Mikhail Gorbachev, and those around him, had deluded themselves into believing that they could control such reform and steer it in the directions they wanted. The most important error in this regard was their belief that the Communist Revolution itself was still popular and that it might have worked, but that betrayal of its ideals by Stalin had corrupted it both in terms of popular support and its functionality. So Gorbachev unleashed Perestroika, the campaign to allow more open criticism of what had gone wrong in the Soviet Union, with the expectation that it would be Stalin who bore the brunt of the attacks. Instead, as David Remnick details in his indispensable Lenin's Tomb, the dissidents went after Lenin himself and undermined the very foundations of the Revolution. They showed that, far from being a good thing gone bad, communism had been an anti-human catastrophe from the start. And what is the point of reforming something evil? Why not scrap it and start over?

Meanwhile, having delegitimized the Soviet Union itself, how was Gorbachev supposed to keep its satellites in orbit? And once Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan (1989) and in Nicaragua the Sandinistas lost to Violetta Chamorro (1990), what realistic chance was there to keep the Eastern Europeans oppressed under a system they despised? As prior unrest had shown, in the end it was only Soviet tanks that could prop up the various governments of the Warsaw Pact nations--how was a military that couldn't defeat the mujahadeen supposed to put down uprisings in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc., all at the same time, all while the natives were getting restless at home, and all with a newly confrontational America seemingly just waiting for an excuse to attack?

It's impossible to assign blame/credit precisely among the three players--Reagan, the dissidents, and Gorbachev--but safe to say all three were integral to the process as it played out. Still, we--especially conservatives--should note that in the long run none of them mattered that much: communism was doomed because of what it is, not because of what anyone did. It's just as possible that had there been no Reagan the Soviet Union would have tried to reform a few years earlier and fallen apart then. It's possible that had a hard-liner taken over instead of Gorbachev he'd have tried keeping up with the U.S. for longer and done even more damage to Russia, maybe even tried to "win" in Afghanistan and clamp down on protests in Eastern Europe. This would have been bloodier but would not have delayed the collapse for long, might even have hastened it by sending the lumpenproletariat, whose sons were geing slaughtered in the Afghan War, into the street. Who knows? None of these plays of the hand were dealt.

Here's what we do know: by the 70s even normally sensible Republicans, like Henry Kissinger, considered communism to be a viable political/economic system that the West would have to learn to co-exist with for the duration. To the best of our knowledge, there was no reform movement at the high levels of Soviet government. Dissidents existed but went largely unheard. President Carter fairly accurately captured the dispiritedness of Westen man in his "malaise" speech. It seemed like the Cold War would end, at best in a draw, at worst with American capitalism collapsing upon itself.

And we know that this is what Ronald Reagan had to say to those who counseled accomodation (then, as now, a majority in Old Europe and on the American Left):

We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West but in the home of Marxism- Leninism, the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. The rate of growth in the national product has been steadily declining since the fifties and is less than half of what it was then.

The dimensions of this failure are astounding: a country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people. Were it not for the private sector, the tiny private sector tolerated in Soviet agriculture, the country might be on the brink of famine. These private plots occupy a bare 3 percent of the arable land but account for nearly one-quarter of Soviet farm output and nearly one-third of meat products and vegetables. Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year the Soviet system pours its best resources into the making of instruments of destruction. The constant shrinkage of economic growth combined with the growth of military production is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people. What we see here is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forced are hampered by political ones.

The decay of the Soviet experiment should come as no surprise to us. Wherever the comparisons have been made between free and closed societies -- West Germany and East Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, Malaysia and Vietnam -- it is the democratic countries that are prosperous and responsive to the needs of their people. And one of the simple but overwhelming facts of our time is this: of all the millions of refugees we've seen in the modern world, their flight is always away from, not toward the Communist world. Today on the NATO line, our military forces face east to prevent a possible invasion. On the other side of the line, the Soviet forces also face east to prevent their people from leaving.

The hard evidence of totalitarian rule has caused in mankind an uprising of the intellect and will. Whether it is the growth of the new schools of economics in America or England or the appearance of the so-called new philosophers in France, there is one unifying thread running through the intellectual work of these groups -- rejection of the arbitrary power of the state, the refusal to subordinate the rights of the individual to the superstate, the realization that collectivism stifles all the best human impulses....

Chairman Brezhnev repeatedly has stressed that the competition of ideas and systems must continue and that this is entirely consistent with relaxation of tensions and peace.

Well, we ask only that these systems begin by living up to their own constitutions, abiding by their own laws, and complying with the international obligations they have undertaken. We ask only for a process, a direction, a basic code of decency, not for an instant transformation.

We cannot ignore the fact that even without our encouragement there has been and will continue to be repeated explosion against repression and dictatorships. The Soviet Union itself is not immune to this reality. Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders. In such cases, the very repressiveness of the state ultimately drives people to resist it, if necessary, by force.

While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections.

The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.

This is not cultural imperialism; it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy. Who would voluntarily choose not to have the right to vote, decide to purchase government propaganda handouts instead of independent newspapers, prefer government to worker-controlled unions, opt for land to be owned by the state instead of those who till it, want government repression of religious liberty, a single political party instead of a free choice, a rigid cultural orthodoxy instead of democratic tolerance and diversity.

Since 1917 the Soviet Union has given covert political training and assistance to Marxist-Leninists in many countries. Of course, it also has promoted the use of violence and subversion by these same forces. Over the past several decades, West European and other social democrats, Christian democrats, and leaders have offered open assistance to fraternal, political, and social institutions to bring about peaceful and democratic progress. Appropriately, for a vigorous new democracy, the Federal Republic of Germany's political foundations have become a major force in this effort.

We in America now intend to take additional steps, as many of our allies have already done, toward realizing this same goal. The chairmen and other leaders of the national Republican and Democratic party organizations are initiating a study with the bipartisan American Political Foundation to determine how the United States can best contribute as a nation to the global campaign for democracy now gathering force. They will have the cooperation of congressional leaders of both parties, along with representatives of business, labor, and other major institutions in our society. I look forward to receiving their recommendations and to working with these institutions and the Congress in the common task of strengthening democracy throughout the world.

It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation -- in both the public and private sectors -- to assisting democratic development....

What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people. And that's why we must continue our efforts to strengthen NATO even as we move forward with our zero-option initiative in the negotiations on intermediate-range forces and our proposal for a one-third reduction in strategic ballistic missile warheads.

Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used, for the ultimate determinant in the struggle that's now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.

The British people know that, given strong leadership, time, and a little bit of hope, the forces of good ultimately rally and triumph over evil. Here among you is the cradle of self-government, the Mother of Parliaments. Here is the enduring greatness of the British contribution to mankind, the great civilized ideas: individual liberty, representative government, and the rule of law under God.

Reagan said it. The dissidents believed it and repeated it. Gorbachev and his cronies feared it and sought to avoid it. It turned out to be true and the Wall came down. The great civilized ideas prevailed. There would seem to be plenty of credit to go around.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 21, 2003 9:44 PM

The idea that there can be only one cause for the end of Communism is strangely reminiscent of the antiwar crowd complaining that we should have only one reason to go to war on Iraq. As if anything only has one cause.

What the antiwar folks see as a weakness-- that we have many different reasons and explanations for liberating Iraq-- is really a strength and an explanation. Any one of the reasons is compelling. That all exist is only more so.

Posted by: John Thacker at February 22, 2003 1:01 PM

But there are 6 billion reasons never to go to war again! !!

Posted by: oj at February 22, 2003 1:59 PM

Indeed, the three causes are interlinked in another way: the Politburo chose Gorbachev in large part because they felt they needed younger, more dynamic new blood to counter the threat from Reagan.

Posted by: PapayaSF at February 22, 2003 5:12 PM

the "youthful" Reagan

Posted by: oj at February 22, 2003 6:05 PM