Selected Skirmishes: Tanks, But No Tanks


So there we were, zipping along into the 20th century, a war here, a holocaust there—and blammo! Suddenly, we're in geopolitical heaven. Tyrants are toppling like so many bowling pins at the epicenter of an 8.0 earthquake, with mountains being heaved by masses of humanity yearning to breathe free. These are not the capitalist coffeehouse revolutionaries of Madison, Berkeley, or Soho, mouthing the witticisms of the brothers Marx or the sisters Lenin and ranting of The Struggle while designer costumed in the garb of this season's fashion-conscious Vanguard. No. These are simple men and women who have gone marching without scripts, props, or propaganda.

These quiet folks are the girders upon which all societies hang. But they are flesh and spirit, not iron and ore. And they have finally been given the word: "The coast is clear. You can come out to play now." The souls of common men have emerged from their secret hiding places and have asserted their will over the very governments which were so freely having their way with them. Instantly, the entire world is transformed. And all because of one teensy-weensy policy reform: No Soviet tanks.

Eric Hoffer condemned the 20th century as bloodstained and maniacal beyond imagination: "Some of the disastrous absurdities of the 20th Century: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Versailles Peace Treaty, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration.…the Hitler revolution, the Second World War, the 1960s."

But while the innocents have suffered for the sins of our time, painfully and en masse, they have not been altogether blameless, he noted: "The sickness of the 20th Century has been cowardice—the cowardice of millions allowing themselves to be liquidated by communists and Nazis without hitting back.…The mystery of our time is the inability of decent people to get angry."

But personal anger vs. Soviet tanks produces a very large point spread. And the smart money is still on the tanks. Warsaw's Jews did rise up against the oppressor during the very darkest days of this century, and dug (literally) their own graves. Not that their long-term prospects were bright. But they were decent, and they got angry.

So did the East Germans in 1953, the Hungarians in 1956, the Czechs in 1968, the Poles in 1981. But the Soviet tanks were all gassed up and ready to roll. The tanks won. The heroic dead were a two-fer for the Communist State: (1) the worst "parasites" were flushed from the Body Politic; (2) everyone else learned a basic lesson. A steep learning curve pointed decent people toward cowardice, simply because they were unable to shake off the instinctive biological presumption of all non-extinct species: choose life.

History shows that the demonstration of just a few tanks is very instructive. Unhappily, our files are continually updated; the behavior of approximately one billion human beings has been recently tamed by the dramatic and well-publicized extermination of 500 or 1,000 pop-offs in Tiananmen Square. My, aren't they well behaved, those Chinamen?

Propaganda can help the rulers economize on ammunition, but it is never enough. The Party Line is a joke, minus the bullets to back it up (which make it much less funny, indeed). No sooner had M.S. Gorbachev pulled the plug on the Soviet tank battalions than the Emperors Without Clothes were just a bunch of preposterous, cranky old commies. And, without tanks on the horizon, buck naked. Ceausescu, the one with his own tanks and secret police, went down hardest and best. But there is the little matter of the 4,500 who volunteered to stand before the first line of fire and consecrated Romanian liberation with their blood. (Nicolae's self-designation, "Hero of Heroes," now brings tears, rather than smirks, from those who knew both the poseur and the real thing.) These were decent men, women, and children, and they got angry. They, and their genes, are gone.

Mao's NRA-endorsed postulate about political power omitted certain footnotes. The peoples of the Eastern Bloc had 40 years to get with the program, yet support for Official Truth was so thin that, for example, jury selection in the Ceausescu case was irrelevant; no 12 people in the entire country could be assembled who did not wish "The Truth Itself' dead. Firepower did not buy allegiance.

It did, however, procure demoralization in bulk. Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish writer, ends his novel of the postwar communization. Seizure of Power, with the protagonist—a troubled man of conscience—pondering the darkness descending over his nation. To him "the only important question [was] how a man could preserve himself from the taint of sadness and indifference."

We have learned of countervailing forces; brutal oppression works to destroy men's audacity, but that force is itself an admission of failure which makes it impossible to win men's minds. (Thus, the inner contradiction of Marxism?) "Totalitarianism" turns out to be a misnomer. Terror depresses, but it cannot control the vital human juices which, in time, fill men's veins with hope and freedom.

The virulence of communism was that it proved a crafty motivator, giving men messianic payoffs for believing, accompanied by quick and cruel paybacks for doubting. We have learned from our bitter century that tanks can tame men's actions. But what we now know is that tanks may not corral their souls. We are not yet out of angry, decent people.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis