Selected Skirmishes: The Morning After
Let's try to get a handle on the situation. For 45 years, we Americans engage in a very scary international poker game—called "brinkmanship" on History 106 midterms—with a truly rotten bunch of Soviet thugs prone to torturing civilians and butchering whole cultures. Our ace in the hole in this match is MAD—Mutual Assured Destruction. The big shots in the USSR wouldn't push the button and vaporize 36 billion pounds of American flesh because we would just incinerate similar tonnage on their team.
This was not one of your better spectator sports. Even the luxury boxes were on the (bloody) field of play. Then poof—without firing a service revolver—we win. A nuclear holocaust is defused. No more nail biting over the Big One. Whew, what a relief that is. And it ought to at least shut up all those whiny, tiny school tots who were bawling to their third-grade teachers about how they couldn't sleep for weeks following the hit mini-series The Morning After back in 1984.
My olfactory senses indicated that the morning after the Cold War smelled just fine. It was considerably cooler than 382 degrees Fahrenheit, which is what I recall the movie version predicted for this day. There wasn't much of a rush to the bomb shelters, and parking wasn't any more of a problem than usual. This, to me, is excellent news.
Yet America is hardly jumping for joy, let alone tossing ticker tapes for Boris the Liberator. Recent surveys of the U.S. public chart plummeting spirits. At our moment of greatest glory we feel ill. This can only be a virulent national attack of PMS: Post-MAD Syndrome.
One of the greatest ironies of politics is that past victories count for much less than future promises, despite the fact that no one believes the promises. The Bush administration is even taking a beating for being overly concerned with foreign affairs: OK, so you won the Cold War and thwarted thermonuclear extinction; you've been neglecting America. Big deal if the Democrats are dwarfs upon the world stage—those problems are solved. (Don't expect the savvy Democrats to make a similar tactical error by actually solving a social problem in any of the cities or states they control.) For better or for worse, success makes one superfluous, as Winston Churchill discovered in post-WWII Britain.
And as Mikhail Gorbachev has now discovered in the ex-Soviet Union. Remember how Gorbachev got himself on the slippery slope to unemployment? He thought that Communism was being subverted by cocktails and corruption and that, along with some pep talks from the Premierski, a more open and honest press would clean things up.
But once glasnost legalized telling the truth, the USSR was well on its way to becoming the UFFR—the Union of Fewer and Fewer Republics. Because Gorbachev actually believed all the official propaganda on Marxist-Leninist dialectical inevitability and the ultimate superiority of socialism, he had no idea that liberalization was so fundamentally subversive.
No previous Soviet leader had been so naive. Lenin became cynical even before assuming power, jettisoning traditional civilities so heartily that Stalin's party purges were merely linear extrapolations. The utopian promises of collectivism became the domain of the Ministry of Information and were last taken seriously by the Soviet leadership sometime around October 1917.
Until Gorbachev. He was hooked so solidly that the party hacks could actually kidnap him and threaten both his life and that of his wife, and upon his escape he could only promise better, truer Communism.
By then Boris Yeltsin was empowered to swipe the mike from Mikhail and read the new script being written by history. To this day Gorby hasn't gotten it. Too bad for him; swell for us. The very first Communist to rule the USSR believed so fervently that he failed to invoke sufficient terror to maintain it: Why waste bullets—and look bad in the partly independent press—to shore up the inevitable?
Ironically again, Mikhail's wild reception in the West further served to sabotage the USSR, whose commander was actually proud of its ideology and sought not to tarnish its repute. (Thus, a humanitarian case for faking Gorbasm.) Gorbachev's reign was marked by a notable embarrassment about sending in the tanks; soon he was reduced to sending in the clowns.
I suspect that the nuclear freeze fanatics (SANE, Cranston for President, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, etc.) from '83 and '84 were less frightened by young children not sleeping at night than they were of Ronnie Raygun (as they cleverly used to mock our president) being re-elected. But if their worst fears were realized, their best-advertised ones were not.
The 20th century has been generously hospitable to despots and tyrants who employed the tools of the modern age for cruelties and genocides never before possible. The human race has now been given a reprieve.
The outbreak of world peace doesn't mean that human misery has been eradicated, the business cycle slain, or personal tragedy vanquished. It does mean that the probability of millions of innocent human beings dying from nuclear MADness has been drastically reduced. I don't know what you were expecting out of 1991, but I'm going to call it a pretty damn good year for mankind.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Selected Skirmishes: The Morning After".