LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, LAWRENCE MARTIN
A Great Northern Loonie is heard from
Fiction has its place -- especially at the time of one's passing. And so, the American airwaves glisten these days with tales about how it was Ronald Reagan who engineered the defeat of communism and the end of the Cold War.
Enlighten us with the (capital T) Truth, O Master.
It was his arms buildup, Republican admirers say, and his menacing rhetoric that brought the Soviets to their knees and changed the world forever. He was a pleasant man, the 40th president, which makes this fairy tale easier to swallow than some of history's other canards. Truth be known, however, the Iron Curtain's collapse was hardly Ronald Reagan's doing.
"Republican admirers", Larry?. Did you count those well known Republicans Lech Walesa
, Natan Sharansky
, Ted Kennedy
, a "senior (and former) Soviet general"
, etc., etc., etc.
It was Mikhail Gorbachev, who with a sweeping democratic revolution at home and one peace initiative after another abroad, backed the Gipper into a corner, leaving him little choice -- actors don't like to be upstaged -- but to concede there was a whole new world opening up over there.
Your evidence, please?
As a journalist based first in Washington, then in Moscow, I was fortunate to witness the intriguing drama from both ends.
That's not evidence.
In R.R., the Soviet leader knew he was dealing with an archetype Cold Warrior. To bring him around to "new thinking" would require a rather wondrous set of works. And so the Gorbachev charm offensive began. The first offering, in 1985, was the Kremlin's unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests. "Propaganda!" the White House declared.
That's not evidence, either.
Then Mr. Gorbachev announced a grandiose plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons by 2000. Just another hoax, the Reagan men cried. More Commie flim-flam.
Then came another concession -- Kremlin permission for on-site arms inspections on Soviet land -- and then the Reykjavik summit. In Iceland, Mr. Gorbachev put his far-reaching arms-reduction package on the table and Mr. Reagan, to global condemnation, walked away, offering nothing in return.
That's not quite what happened in Reykjavik, Larry. According to Harvard's JFK School of Government
proposed the elimination of all offensive ballistic missiles within ten years, and Gorbachev reciprocated by proposing to eliminate the even larger category of all strategic weapons. Ostensibly, it was SDI and its potential for changing the strategic balance of power that motivated such dramatic proposals-but it was also the reason why they were ultimately rejected." (Emphasis added.) So both sides were proposing the elimination of offensive nuclear weapons (Gorbachev including non-missile weapons and Reagan limiting his proposal to missiles) but the Soviets also wanted to kill Reagan's defensive "Star Wars" scheme, as well. Reagan's response
was "What the hell use will ABM's or anything else be if we eliminate nuclear weapons?"
Glasnost and perestroika became the new vernacular. For those in the White House like Richard Perle, the prince of darkness who still thought it was all a sham, Gorby now began a withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. He released the dissident icon Andrei Sakharov and hundreds of other political prisoners. He made big strides on freedom of the press, immigration and religion. He told East European leaders that the massive Soviet military machine would no longer prop up their creaking dictatorships. He began the process of something unheard of in Soviet history -- democratic elections.
Gorbachev didn't withdraw from Afghanistan just for the hell of it. Gorbachev withdrew from Afghanistan when it became apparent that the Soviets could not gain a military victory over the rebels Reagan had armed with Stingers. Remember that, Larry? It's the move that everyone (from lunatic fringes of the political spectrum, at least) now claims resulted in the attack of 9/11. The release of Sakharov followed years of international protest against his imprisonment and was a public relations gesture, no more.
By now, the U.S. administration was reeling. Polls were beginning to show that, of all things unimaginable, a Soviet leader was the greatest force for world peace.
Reeling? No. Reagan did not have a poll driven presidency. He knew what he wanted, knew he could get what he wanted and set about getting it.
An embarrassed Mr. Reagan finally responded in kind. Nearing the end of his presidency, he came to Moscow and he signed a major arms-control agreement and warmly embraced Mr. Gorbachev. A journalist asked the president if he still thought it was the evil empire. "No," he replied, "I was talking about another time, another era."
Note that the major arms control agreement did not include a prohibition on Reagan's Star Wars project, which was the cause of the failure of the Reykjavik summit. So who caved, Mr. Martin?
The recasting of the story now suggests that President Reagan's defence-spending hikes -- as if there hadn't been American military buildups before -- somehow intimidated the Kremlin into its vast reform campaign. Or that America's economic strength -- as if the Soviets hadn't always been witheringly weak by comparison -- made the Soviet leader do it.
That's right: someone's recasting the story, Martin, but it ain't the people who are crediting Reagan with winning the cold war and bringing down the Soviet Union. If everyone knew that the Soviets were witheringly weak economically in comparison to the US, why did Arthur Schlesinger say
in 1982, "Those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse" are "wishful thinkers who are only kidding themselves." And why in 1982, did Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University write
in Foreign Affairs: "The Soviet Union is not now nor will it be during the next decade in the throes of a true systemic crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability." Reagan, on the other hand, told everyone who would listen in the early eighties that the Soviet Union was on its last legs and was ridiculed for his beliefs. Well, he was right, and the experts who pooh poohed him as an ignorant cowboy (sound like more recent political rhetoric?) were dead flat one hundred percent stunningly and absolutely wrong.
In fact, Mr. Gorbachev could have well perpetuated the old totalitarian system. He still had the giant Soviet armies, the daunting nuclear might and the chilling KGB apparatus at his disposal.
Mr. Gorbachev could not have continued anything. The unsuccessful August 1991 coup attempt finished him. By December of that year, he was largely irrelevant and Yeltsin was in charge. The daunting nuclear might and the chilling KGB apparatus didn't help.
But he had decided that the continuing clash of East-West ideologies was senseless, that his sick and obsolescent society was desperate for democratic air.
Sick and obsolescent society? Why it seems like just a paragraph ago you were telling us how Gorbachev could do anything he wanted.
His historic campaign that followed wasn't about Ronald Reagan. It would have happened with or without this president. Rather, it was about him, Mikhail Gorbachev: his will, his inner strength, his human spirit.
Gorbachev's "historic campaign" had stalled by 1990. From InfoPlease
: "By 1990, however, Gorbachev's perestroika program had failed to deliver significant improvement in the economy, and the elimination of political and social control had released latent ethnic and national tensions in the Baltic states, in the constituent republics of Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, and elsewhere. A newly created (1989) Congress of People's Deputies voted in Mar., 1990, to end the Communist party's control over the government and elected Gorbachev executive president."
As for the Gipper, he was bold and wise enough, to shed his long-held preconceptions and become the Russian's admirable companion in the process.
Reagan's "long held preconceptions" were that the Soviet Union was economically and politically incapable of continued existence without witting or unwitting assistance from the West. So what preconception exactly did Reagan shed to become the faithful Tonto to Gorbachev's Lone Ranger?
In the collapse of communism he deserves credit not as an instigator, but an abettor. Best Supporting Actor.
To paraphrase Churchill: Some support. Some actor.