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