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How We Ended the Cold War | The Nation

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How We Ended the Cold War

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It is now ten years since the Berlin wall crumbled, but the question of how and why the cold war was concluded still lingers.

About the Author

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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As the apparent winner, the West has tended to regard its triumph as a vindication of cold war policies or, more modestly, as a case of Soviet "exhaustion." Neither of those views is satisfying because each discounts the role played by the peace and antinuclear movements. Evidence is mounting that their influence on events was more important than most historical accounts admit--perhaps even decisive. Recounting this influence is imperative for two reasons. The dominant view of the right and center is that military intimidation was the root of victory, a dangerous axiom then and just as foolish today and tomorrow. Second, the history demonstrates the ability of popular movements to effect change, a lesson that sharply diverges from the habits of historians and news media alike, which generally give far more attention to the actions of elites.

The three main interpretations of the cold war's demise reflect, not surprisingly, the right, center and left of US politics. Since the tearing down of the Berlin wall, the right wing has claimed a resounding victory for Reagan's military buildup and tough talk. Their argument pivots on the intimidating qualities of the US arsenal (especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars"); NATO's deployment of Euromissiles as a rejoinder to the Soviet Union's installation of SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at Europe; the Reagan Doctrine of battling leftist regimes in Southern Africa, Central America and Afghanistan; and the grandiloquent campaign for personal freedom. The rapid expansion of US military spending, it is argued, also threatened Moscow with bankruptcy. Given the dismal prospects of trying to keep up with the American technological juggernaut and protect its puppet regimes, the Politburo sued for peace by electing Mikhail Gorbachev. Some Reaganites even assert that this was their intention all along: to crush the Soviet Union and win the cold war.

Centrists, typically visible as the Democratic Party leadership, view things differently. They argued that the forty-year effort to check and reverse Soviet influence was a bipartisan endeavor. The core of America's strategy--the policy of containment--was forged in the late forties by Truman advisers George Kennan, Paul Nitze and others, and carried out with persevering fidelity. Truman, Kennedy and Johnson played indispensable roles in standing up to the USSR, a Democratic Congress authorized the policy and the money, and even the much-maligned Jimmy Carter ordered up the neutron bomb, the MX missile, Euromissiles and anticommunist actions in the Third World. The European alliance, which included many democratic socialist governments over the years, was vital to the outcome as well. Diplomacy played a major role, as did foreign aid, trade, the communications revolution and other factors. Gorbachev came to be regarded as a kind of improvising reformer who saw the USSR as dysfunctional, but whose perestroika was unworkable and whose glasnost careened out of control. Reagan just happened to be there at the end.

Both views contain some truth, but neither is wholly accurate. There is a third view, that of the left, which sees the cold war as a logical and reprehensible outgrowth of a US political system seemingly dependent on military spending for prosperity, constantly in need of an enemy, determined to maintain class and race privileges for the few, and willing to put the whole world at risk for its perfervid anticommunism. This perspective, which often (though not often enough) imputed similar qualities to the Soviet Union, was the cornerstone of the New Left, which so effectively challenged US policy in Southeast Asia in the sixties and early seventies. By the early eighties, this perspective was invigorated by a mass movement that was a hybrid of many gradations of political sentiments. Its engine was exceptionally broad-based citizen activism, and naturally enough, the demise of the cold war is seen mainly as a result of the loud and persistent public demand for peace stirred by such activism. That included the efforts to stop and reverse the arms race, counteract the power of the military-industrial complex, condemn the US government's comfort with apartheid and overturn the US imperialism conspicuous in Central America and the Caribbean.

Some of the right's claims can be quickly discarded. The call for liberty behind the "Iron Curtain" was hardly unique to Reagan; it had been a standard rhetorical device for forty years. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which established a human rights framework for all of Europe, had been denounced by the right wing. Jimmy Carter, the first President to make human rights a core goal of US foreign policy, was condemned by conservatives for placing human rights above other national interests. The Reagan Administration not only tolerated or even embraced regimes that were among the worst violators of human rights--South Africa, Turkey, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile and so on--it created and funded movements that committed numerous atrocities in the name of fighting communism.

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