The Cold War Never Ended

Twenty years later, historians still can't figure out why the West won.


The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, by Michael Meyer, New York: Scribner, 272 pages, $26

The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, by James Mann, New York: Viking, 416 pages, $27.95

We don't know the exact hierarchy of motives, but it is certain that Chris Gueffroy was willing to leave his family and friends to avoid conscription into the army. Considering the associated risks, it's likely that the 20-year-old was also strongly motivated to escape the stultifying sameness, the needless poverty, the cultural black hole that was his homeland. In his passport photo, he wore a small hoop earring, an act of nonconformity in a country that prized conformity above all else. But Gueffroy's passport was yet another worthless possession, for he had the great misfortune of being born into a walled nation, a country that brutally enforced a ban on travel to "nonfraternal" states.

On February 6, 1989, Gueffroy and a friend attempted to escape from East Berlin by scaling die Mauer—the wall that separated communist east from capitalist west. They didn't make it far. After tripping an alarm, Gueffroy was shot 10 times by border guards and died instantly. His accomplice was shot in the foot but survived, only to be put on trial and sentenced to three years in prison for "attempted illegal border-crossing in the first degree."

Twenty years ago this month, and nine months after the murder of Gueffroy, the Berlin Wall, that monument to the barbarism of the Soviet experiment, was finally breached. The countries held captive by Moscow began their long road to economic and cultural recovery, and to reunification with liberal Europe. But in the West, where Cold War divisions defined politics and society for 40 years, the moment was not greeted as a welcome opportunity for intellectual reconciliation, for fact-checking decades of exaggerations and misperceptions. Instead, then as now, despite the overwhelming volume of new data and the exhilaration of hundreds of millions finding freedom, the battle to control the Cold War narrative raged on unabated. Reagan haters and Reagan hagiographers, Sovietophiles and anti-communists, isolationists and Atlanticists, digested this massive moment in history, then carried on as if nothing much had changed. A new flurry of books timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of communism's collapse reinforces the point that the Cold War will never truly be settled by the side that won.

It is bizarre to revisit pre-1989 journalism and punditry on Soviet communism. The suffering of the bit players, those pitiable citizens stranded behind the Iron Curtain, was largely ignored in favor of larger political goals. If Ronald Reagan believed the Kremlin to be the beating heart of an "evil empire," many of his angriest critics believed, then Moscow couldn't be all bad. Writing in The Nation in 1984, historian Stephen F. Cohen hissed that, in a perfect world, "fairness would not allow us to defame a nation that has suffered and achieved so much."

Although uniformly anti-Soviet, some conservatives too were guilty of a Cold War–induced moral blindness, defending authoritarian governments in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Iberia as bulwarks against communist expansion. Columnist Pat Buchanan celebrated the authoritarian leaders Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Francisco Franco of Spain as "soldier-patriots" and referred quaintly to the racist regime in South Africa as the "Boer Republic." Others accused America's most anti-Soviet president of impuissance. As early as 1983, neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz proclaimed that Reagan's policies toward the Soviet Union amounted to "appeasement by any other name."

When the whole rotten experiment suddenly failed, eventually bringing to an end not just Moscow's Warsaw Pact client governments but the proxy civil wars it fought in the Third World, instead of engaging in overdue self-criticism many commentators clung to shopworn shibboleths. In 1990 the academic Peter Marcuse, also writing in The Nation, bizarrely claimed that East Germany "had never sent dissidents to gulags and rarely to jail" and expressed outrage that the "goal of the German authorities is the simple integration of East into West without reflection," instead of heeding the pleas of the intellectual class who were at work on a more humane, less Russian brand of socialism.

The weeks and months following the fall of the Wall saw relentless worries, from left and right, about the corrosive influence of Western capitalism, consumerism, and commercial television on the untainted comrades of the Ost. The "prospect of rampant consumerism," CBS News reported in July 1990, "has East Germany's newly elected Christian Democratic Prime Minister, Lother De Mozier, worried." By 1993 Ukrainian National Self Defense, a right-wing populist movement that loathed Russian power, was rallying against the "Americanization of Ukraine through Coca-Cola culture." Even the famously anti-communist Pope John Paul II warned that "the Western countries run the risk of seeing this collapse of Communism as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system."

When the "shock" of capitalism didn't jump-start the moribund economies of the East within a calendar year, many in the Western news media declared the entire project dead on arrival. In 1990 ABC Evening News told viewers that East Germany was already a "victim of an overdose of capitalism." In Southeast Poland, CBS reported, "the transition from communism to capitalism is making more people more miserable every day." Every new election, even in firmly Western-oriented countries such as Hungary and Poland, was greeted with scare stories about backsliding into communism, lurching into neo-Nazism, or both. Even some of the early 20th-anniversary retrospectives last summer trotted out the same familiar story lines, exponential gains in freedom and prosperity notwithstanding.

With the proliferation of "Old Hopes Replaced by New Fears" stories, the long-running intellectual battle over the Cold War retreated into the halls of academia, where the newly (and, it turned out, briefly) opened Soviet archives further undermined the accepted narratives about Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, I.F. Stone, and scores of other causes célèbres of the anti-anti-communists. Western intellectuals were more interested in Francis Fuku-yama's contention that we were witnessing "the end of history" than in who was most responsible for bringing that history to an alleged close.

But when that debate began to revive, it took up right where it left off in the 1980s: at the feet of the decade's most controversial figure, Ronald Reagan. To his legion of critics, Reagan was an unalloyed Cold Warrior, recklessly dragging America toward the precipice of nuclear confrontation and taking the credit that rightfully belonged to reform Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This school of interpretation was influential enough that the anti-communist commentator Arnold Beichman, writing in Policy Review in 2002, accused liberal academics and pundits of "trying to write President Reagan out of history." But after the Berlin Wall fell, the pendulum swung the other way. Reagan's loyal foot soldiers have persistently argued, with some degree of success, that the inspirational rhetoric of the 40th president, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, "won the Cold War without firing a shot." 

No phrase is more associated with Reagan's presidency—and his lifelong crusade against communism—than his 1987 exhortation that Gorbachev, if he really believed in freedom, would come to Berlin and "tear down this wall." Reagan's national security adviser, Colin Powell, thought the line needlessly provocative; the State Department cautioned against "condemn[ing] the East too harshly." The day after the speech, which would become Reagan's most famous, Washington Post foreign policy columnist Jim Hoagland derided it as a "meaningless taunt" that history would surely ignore. Reagan's acolytes, on the other hand, would strenuously argue that the speech was, if not directly responsible for the events of November 1989, at the very least helpful and prescient.

Neither of these readings is accurate, argues journalist James Mann in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. While the Gipper loathed Soviet totalitarianism—his aide Ken Adelman commented that it was the "only thing he actually hated"—Reagan was, Mann argues, a pragmatist who rejected the more belligerent figures in the Republican foreign policy establishment and helped enable Gorbachev's reforms through engagement, not confrontation. 

That Reagan was more dovish than his contemporary critics would allow isn't a particularly radical argument, having been made previously by historians Paul Lettow and John Patrick Diggins and by former Reagan official Jack Matlock. And it is no longer controversial to claim, as Mann does, that Reagan was driven to the bargaining table by a combination of a deeply held revulsion for nuclear weapons and a gut instinct that Gorbachev was a different type of Soviet leader, a man Thatcher believed the West "could do business with."

While Reagan supporters often provide a simple narrative of the Soviet Union's collapse in which resolve alone won the Cold War, Mann's attempt at balancing the historical record leads him to ignore evidence that might muddle his thesis. For instance, he gives short shrift to the financial costs of Reagan's economic warfare—from the arms race to the embargo of the Soviet gas pipeline—that, according to Russian estimates, sucked billions out of the Soviet economy. Instead, he writes, it was "Reagan's willingness to do business with Gorbachev that gave the Soviet leader the time and space he needed to demolish the Soviet system." 

But were it not for the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the American-funded anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, and a withering economy—events not seriously engaged by Mann—would Gorbachev have chosen the path of radical reform? The author of perestroika privately acknowledged that, unless concessions were made to Reagan, the Soviet Union would "lose because right now we are already at the end of our tether." And Mann comments, in passing, that Gorbachev was "eager, if not desperate…to work out agreements that would limit Soviet military spending." As historian Christopher Andrews and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin wrote in The World Was Going Our Way, their accounting of Soviet operations in the Third World, Gorbachev inherited, and for a time continued, the "ruinously expensive flow of arms and military hardware to Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Syria, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Angola, Algeria, and elsewhere."

The idea that Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars," as it was derisively known) single-handedly bankrupted the Soviets, as commonly presented by the president's most partisan defenders, is, as Mann argues, almost certainly wrong. But it wasn't just the conservatives at Human Events who believed the SDI narrative. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn maintained that "the Cold War was essentially won by Ronald Reagan when he embarked on the Star Wars program and the Soviet Union understood that it could not take this next step." Gen. Nikolay Detinov, a high-ranking Red Army official and member of Soviet arms control delegations, admitted that "the American defense spending increase, SDI, and other defense programs greatly troubled the Soviet leadership." But it didn't necessarily bankrupt them.

Recent disclosures from Russian archives suggest that Soviet defense spending, which the CIA could only roughly estimate at the time (only four members of the Kremlin's inner sanctum reportedly knew the true numbers), did not increase significantly in response to SDI. This was perhaps because the system, so battered by the time Gorbachev took the reins of power, simply didn't have the money. 

Mann is surely correct that Reagan's instincts "were much closer to the truth than were those of his conservative critics." And he is also right that, contra those same conservatives, Gorbachev too deserves tremendous credit for opening, and therefore destroying, the Soviet system. But as Henry Kissinger—himself a fierce critic of engagement with Gorbachev at the time—later observed, the Soviet empire may have disintegrated on President George H.W. Bush's watch, but "it was Ronald Reagan's presidency which marked the turning point."

Mann writes that there is "no reason to think" Reagan opposed nuclear weapons upon entering the White House, putting the starting date of his conversion to antinuclearism at "late 1983." But Reagan expressed a deep dislike of nuclear weapons long before his presidency, a fact well-documented by historian Paul Lettow, and there is an obvious continuity between his liberal activism in Hollywood, during which he agitated against atomic warfare, and the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev where, to the horror of his advisers, Reagan nearly surrendered America's entire nuclear arsenal. Michael Deaver, who worked for Reagan during his tenure as both California governor and president, later said that "even in those early years…he would say, 'That's our goal. We want to get rid of them altogether.'?"

The details of the Cold War are still disputed enough that a market exists for books claiming to hold the new key that unlocks the truth. Michael Meyer, a former correspondent for Newsweek and current flack for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, covered Germany and Eastern Europe during the waning years of the Cold War. In The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Meyer declares that his is the "largely unknown" account of the Cold War's end, finally "shorn of mythology." Meyer offers a combative, journalistic rendering of the events of 1989, bookended with warnings that the triumphalist (read: Reaganite) reading of the Cold War was "tragically costly," because "it was a straight line from the fantasy of Cold War victory to the invasion of Iraq."

This might be a unique, if unconvincing, theory of the Cold War's ultimate costs, but contrary to the book's subtitle there is little, if any, information here that makes for an "untold story." Nor is it easy to take The Year That Changed the World seriously when it is threaded with so many factual mistakes and dubious claims. Meyer asserts that the great post-communist film The Lives of Others, which dramatizes Stasi surveillance, is an example of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East), when in fact Ostalgie was its target. Yuri Andropov, contrary to Meyer's claim, certainly did not see substantial "flaws in the Soviet system." It is risible to call East German novelist (and, it turned out, former Stasi collaborator) Christa Wolf a "dissident." Gorbachev's book Perestroika is hardly the "ultimate indictment of communism," considering Gorbachev's admonition that the world "must learn from Lenin" and keep on celebrating the October Revolution. The famous Berlin Wall mural of two Communist leaders kissing, skillfully used by the Hungarian opposition party Fidesz, is of East German President Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev, not Honecker and Gorbachev. The opposition movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were hardly "nonexistent."

There are larger errors too. Meyer is right that President George H.W. Bush was often disengaged from the world-changing events unfolding in Eastern Europe, but he mangles the truth in making this point. While ignoring Bush's shameful address in Kiev warning Ukrainians against independence (famously dubbed his "Chicken  Kiev" speech by New York Times columnist William Safire), Meyer instead oddly mocks Bush's 1990 visit to Poland, when "at a reception in Warsaw, he regaled guests with a list of Polish baseball 'greats'…Stan Musial, Tony Kubek, Phil Niekro." Meyer adds that "as they followed the president around Warsaw and Gdansk, many reporters wondered whether he was fully in touch. Baseball greats?" What Meyer neglects to mention, besides any detail of the backroom diplomacy behind the trip, was that Bush's "reception" was a brief stop to visit 30 kids inaugurating Poland's first-ever chapter of Little League Baseball.

Meyer is exercised by the onerous Cold War "myths" that we all cling to, yet he never engages or identifies those who supposedly propagate them. He rightly denounces the America-centric view of Cold War history but barely mentions the pivotal role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in reunification. France's Francois Mitterand, Great Britain's Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II are similarly absent from the narrative. (As Polish dissident writer Adam Michnik later observed, "It will be a long time before anyone fully comprehends the ramifications of [the Pope's] nine-day visit" to occupied Poland in 1979.)

In place of the old myths, Meyer erects new ones: "For all the problems they faced…most East Germans had no desire to leave their country," he insists, "contrary to the impression fostered in the West. Many if not most were perfectly comfortable with the socialist system that guaranteed them work, low-cost housing and free lifelong health care and schooling." There is no source for this fantastical claim. That a certain measure of nostalgia for the East German dictatorship exists from a distance of 20 years is undeniable, but an opinion poll taken in 1990 showed that 91 percent of East Germans favored unification and, by definition, the dissolution of the "worker's state."

When a free election was finally held in Poland, Meyer writes, "Here and there, a fair-minded minded few appreciated that communists such as General Czeslaw Kiszczak and others had made [elections] possible." In Meyer's view, totalitarians deserve praise because, abandoned by Moscow, they ultimately buckled to mounting pressure from the independent trade union Solidarity. In essence, he is asking the abducted to thank their captors for allowing them to go free. Most Poles likely had feelings closer to those of Adam Michnik, who in 1983 wrote a letter to Kiszczak calling him a "disgrace to the nation and a traitor to the Motherland" and a "dishonorable swine."

In his epilogue, with its digressions on the second Iraq war, Meyer flagellates himself for a post-1989 article he wrote that had a "triumphalist tone," and he urges readers to ponder the wisdom of a Lewis Carroll metaphor: "The world is always partly a mirror of ourselves." As Meyer explains, "We see all things, enemies especially, through the lens of our own hopes and fears and desires, inevitably distorted." One wonders if Meyer believes the Soviet Union—responsible for the forced starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s and for Stalin's bloody purge trials, to name just two of countless atrocities—deserves that notoriously crude yet ultimately accurate label, "evil empire."

Reagan, of course, had his flaws, as voluminously documented by scholars, enemies, and sympathizers alike. But Gorbachev, Time's "Man of the Decade" for the 1980s (unlike Reagan) and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (unlike Reagan), often escapes similar scrutiny. Meyer is more interested in score settling, pointing out that many hard-liners in the Reagan and Bush administrations, several of whom later joined George W. Bush's administration, misjudged Gorbachev's seriousness.

Gorbachev's economic reforms were vague and ad hoc, and they wound up being tremendous failures. His chief foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, grumbled during glasnost that Gorbachev "has no concept of where we are going. His declaration about socialist values, the ideals of October, as he begins to tick them off, sound like irony to the cognoscenti. Behind them—emptiness." As historian Robert Service has observed, Gorbachev intended glasnost as "a renaissance of Leninist ideals," while his books "still equivocated on Stalin." He avoided repeats of 1956 and 1968, when the Soviet military ruthlessly cracked down on its restive satellites, but did send troops to murder residents of Vilnius, Tblisi, and Baku. As Mary Elise Sarotte observes in her new book 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, Gorbachev "had not sought to introduce completely democratic politics into the Soviet Union."

Both Mann and Meyer are correct that without Gorbachev, the end of the Cold War wouldn't have arrived so quickly. And Vaclav Havel is surely right when he argues that Gorbachev's "historical achievement is enormous: communism would have collapsed without him anyway, but it might have happened 10 years later, and in God knows how wild and bloody a fashion." But Mann's case is convincing that the man of the decade, the great peace laureate, destroyed the Soviet Union "unintentionally," not as an expression of any democratic desires.

It is difficult to accept heroic portrayals of those who were complicit in the mass enslavement and murder of their unwilling subjects. The Soviet Union's leaders, out of at least partial desperation, opened the door to democracy a crack, and their restless captives barged right through. On the other side they found VHS players, compact discs, supermarkets overflowing with fresh produce, press freedom, the hurly-burly of markets, multiparty democracy—and an army of fallible historians, journalists, politicians, and pundits, all desperate to prove that they had been right all along.

Michael C. Moynihan (mmoynihan@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.