How We Ended the Cold War | The Nation


How We Ended the Cold War

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Similarly, the scientist-diplomats convinced Gorbachev to abandon the Soviet position of demanding that the United States halt Star Wars before reductions in nuclear missiles could be negotiated. Von Hippel and Jeremy Stone, given their access to Gorbachev, were essential agents of this message, but it was also a view widely held among the most prestigious scientists in the West and readily conveyed to their Soviet counterparts through innumerable visits, forums, books, articles and so forth. By the time the issue was decided, the thundering critique of SDI in America had resonated throughout Moscow. It was an opinion strongly held by Andrei Sakharov, the legendary Soviet physicist who had played an important role in moving Moscow to sign the ABM Treaty in 1972.

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John Tirman
John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. His latest book, The Deaths of Others:...

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Sakharov had informed Soviet officials of the need to separate SDI from arms-reduction talks as early as 1986, and he gave a speech asserting that position to a huge East-West peace forum in Moscow in February 1987, at which Gorbachev was present. Soon afterward, Gorbachev announced the delinking of SDI from arms reductions, and the INF Treaty and START draft soon followed. Gorbachev's public position on Star Wars reflected the view of many of the American scientists who opposed the program: If you want to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, then eliminate nuclear weapons.

Throughout this astonishing process, the many peace researchers and activists involved made concerted efforts to relay the good news of Moscow's depth of change to Western capitals. Both Russians and those from the West were involved in this, briefing policy and opinion leaders, introducing new twists to each extraordinary Gorbachev gambit. By 1989, even before the Berlin wall was a target of German chisels, the West had essentially surrendered to Gorbachev's entreaties.

For all explanations of the end of the cold war, Gorbachev is pivotal. What actually motivated him and how his actions were formulated is crucial. Clearly, the proposals and arguments of the "policy entrepreneurs" were exceptionally influential. This phenomenon is illuminated by Cornell University professor Matthew Evangelista's 1999 book, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War, a thorough and scholarly exploration that delves into the Soviet archives for answers. He concludes that Gorbachev "seemed to welcome transnational contacts--and not only on technical issues of nuclear arms control. He paved the way for transnational activists to challenge the Soviet military's competence within their core domain of planning for conventional warfare in Europe. The influences of foreign scientists and peace activists in preparing the intellectual ground for ending the East-West military standoff in central Europe contributed much to the peaceful demise of the Cold War."

The ingredients contributing to the end of the US-Soviet rivalry are too numerous, too intertwined and too enigmatic to gauge with absolute confidence. The proponents of Reagan's "victory" have a few valid points, as do the centrists, with their emphasis on containment. A full rendering of the topic would have to account for a large number of disconnected factors as well: the Polish Pontiff, the accident at Chernobyl, the growing prosperity of Western Europe, the penetration of new consumer technologies and even influences like rock and roll.

The rivalry was also a multifaceted affair, one of ideology and culture and political styles. First and foremost, however, it was one of armaments. The US-Soviet confrontation was, by the mid-sixties, a highly formalized conflict, attended by vast bureaucracies of arms-making and arms control, strategists for war-making and strategists for coexistence, with universities and laboratories and institutes and manufacturers all in place to sustain it. Only something extraordinary could break up this powerful, self-perpetuating colossus. Ronald Reagan, with his eccentric blend of utter stupidity and deft political acuity, was very much in the tradition of US cold warriors--the bad cop, the anticommunist crusader, the militaristic Commander in Chief. Even SDI was just a twist on a very old theme. It took something more radical--more disruptive and normative--to crack the ice of the cold war.

That disruption was brandished in the cacophonous demand for an end to the nuclear madness that resonated first throughout Europe and then quickly in the United States. It found a soulmate of sorts in the new Soviet leader, who somehow opened his mind to new ideas for disarmament and cooperation. That the peace movement stood at both ends of this triumph, creating a loud and persistent echo from West to East and back again, is one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.

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