The Economist put it most succinctly. After Ronald Reagan died, the
magazine placed a photo of him on its cover with the words: "The man who
beat communism." Others said much the same.
Now in Sunday's Outlook section, James Hershberg, a Russia expert at
George Washington University, says: Wait a minute. It's a lot more
complicated than that. If you were to pick one person who ended Soviet
communism, it would be Mikhail Gorbachev. If you were to pick a few more,
you'd add the Beatles and the counter-culture they represented to a
generation of Russians. And then you'd have to mix in all the other factors
that led to the stagnation, and ultimately to the unraveling, of the Soviet
empire from within. Moreover, while Reagan uttered some stirring lines
about the Soviet bloc, he fundamentally did not break with the policy of
containment followed by every previous president since Harry Truman.
Hershberg says the exaggeration of Reagan's role reflects a
dangerous American habit of neglecting the world's complexity in favor of a
sentimental, simplistic and self-centered portrait of a vast, important
Hershberg was online Monday, June 28 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss his article, Just Who Did Smash Communism?, and Reagan's role in the end of the Cold War.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
To what extent is the claim that the U.S. had a conscious strategy to spend the Soviet Union into the ground in an arms race a retrospective justification? Many of the arguments for defense spending in the late 1970s and 1980s were based on the assumption that the Soviets had a strong economy and might pull ahead of the U.S.
James G. Hershberg: US nuclear and military build-ups during the cold war were justified on a variety of grounds?most importantly, the argument that the Russians were ahead, or would get ahead, if we didn't build up. (For the prototypical example, see National Security Council report no. 68 [NSC-68], a secret document composed in the spring of 1950, declassified in 1975, and now readily available.) But other factors also played a part, including inter-service rivalry (for example, the air force, army, and navy all claiming they needed nuclear weapons, which helped lead to the nuclear "triad") and domestic politics (presidents needing to satisfying constituencies that they were being "strong" on defense and "tough" on communism). Some officials indeed hoped that this might eventually cause sufficient strain on the Soviets to undermine their system, but this was rarely articulated explicitly?more often, any open acknowledgements of the enemy's essential weakness was seen as a heresy that might undermine the rationale for further build-ups.
Wonderful article. And, finally, someone has mentioned the role that the baby boom generation played in the collapse of the Soviet system, through the Beatles and other musicians and cultural icons of the 60s and 70s. I am tired of all the talk about "the greatest generation" being those who fought in WWII. It was the baby boomers who distinguished themselves by ENDING a war, not starting or continuing one (Vietnam) -- We "peaceniks" have been overlooked. Maybe WE are the "greatest generation."
James G. Hershberg: Thanks for the comment. Marching against the war, attending Stones concerts, and smoking pot didn't require quite as much courage as storming the beaches at Normandy, so I'd refrain from any generational one-upmanship. (I assume you weren't serious, anyway.) Nevertheless, what I was trying to point out was the irony that it was a combination of factors, internal and external, hard power and soft, state and non-state, right and left, that collectively ("dialectically," as Marxists might say) merged to bring down the Kremlin.
Hager City, Wis.:
Why do you think Reagon is percieved by most Americans as being responsible for the fall of communism?
James G. Hershberg: That's obviously a very complex question and I don't pretend to have the full answer. But clearly major parts of it include Reagan's effectiveness as the "great communicator"?which allowed him to convince most Americans during the 1980 election campaign that we were "losing" the Cold War?and the US media's (perhaps inevitable) focus on American actions, and US-Soviet relations, to the detriment of more serious explanations of what was actually going inside the Soviet Union and its empire.
Prof. Hershberg, thank you for the well-written and badly-needed article. I had the good fortune to attend a gala dinner given in honor of President Bush, Chancellor Kohl and Premier Gorbachev at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin to celebrate the 10th anniversary of German reunification. After seemingly interminable speeches, I snuck outside to join the thousands of Germans on Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate, hoisted a beer, and drank to them. The thousands of people who dared the barricades deserve the glory for the fall of Communism. Sadly, many people in the former Eastern Bloc no longer seem to appreciate just what they accomplished -- the sudden, total collapse of a totalitarian regime without a shot fired in anger.
James G. Hershberg: Thanks for the anecdote. In the post-communist race to survive and thrive under capitalism, there's not always much time for historical ruminating. But two non-government scholarly enterprises--The National Security Archive at George Washington University and the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) at the Wilson Center?have sponsored a series of conferences in Central and Eastern Europe involving US, Soviet, and East-Central European scholars and sources to examine the events of 1989 as well as key crisis in the region during the Cold War. (For findings and translated communist documents, see www.nsarchive.org and www.cwihp.si.edu and books on the crises in East Germany (1953), Poland/Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968).) So there is at least a hard core of serious, enthusiastic young scholars that are looking into these matters.
Has anyone written a book on this subject that you can recommend?
James G. Hershberg: Boy, there's a growing library of excellent books now available. But for very accessible books that help show the complexity of the Soviet decline, I'd recommend some classic books by journalists, such as David Remnick's *Lenin's Tomb* and Hedrick Smith's *The Russians* and *The New Russians*; easily the best post-Soviet book on Moscow and the Cold War is Vladislav M. Zubok and Constantine V. Pleshakov, *Inside the Kremlin's Cold War* which concentrates on the period from Stalin through Khrushchev?but also watch for Zubok's forthcoming book on the Soviet ?60s, which will analyze some of the same "soft power" themes my piece examined. On Eastern Europe, you can do no better than read Timothy Garton Ash's essays, originally printed in The New York Review of Books, but compiled in *The Uses of Adversity* (dealing with the Regan years) and *The Magic Lantern* (on the events of 1989). That's just a start?also check the CWIHP website mentioned above for some fascinating translated communist documents on these issues.
I think the end of communism in Europe was expedited by the U.S. outspending the Russians on arms (the Russians couldn't keep up). Unfortunately, some of those Russian arms are now in the hands of the terroists. Is this true?
James G. Hershberg: Regarding the danger of Soviet arms, especially weapons of mass destruction, ending up in the hands of terrorists, Russian governments under Yeltsin and Putin have constantly reassured the world that they have everything under control. However this has been recognized as a danger since the Soviet collapse, and the Clinton Administration launched a program to try to support Soviet nuclear physicists in research programs, and support measures to keep materials under control. There have also been several covert operations in former Soviet republics and allies in Eastern Europe to recover nuclear materials and render them safe. However, experts recognize that the danger still exists, exacerbated by general disorganization and economic pressures which could lead corrupt scientists, guards, soldiers, etc., to part with WMD materials for the right price. Unfortunately, I recall press reports suggesting that this issue--eg, supporting the program to engage former Soviet nuclear physicists on peaceful research--has not been the highest priority of the current administration. I hope the press will raise and investigate the issue in the context of the presidential campaign so voters can make their own judgment.
Whitefish Bay, Wis.:
Was the fall of USSR also partly due to Pope John Paul from
Poland and the solidarity group of Lec Walesa?
Too many factors were happening behind the scenes for
one man, especially an American, to take credit!
James G. Hershberg: You're absolutely right that Pope John Paul II, Solidarity, and Lech Walesa deserve major kudos for the collapse of communism, especially within Poland, which started the ball rolling in East-Central Europe in 1988-89. However, they were less important to the dynamic within the Soviet Union itself, which was the focus of my piece. Moreover, one should certainly award honorable mentions to Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov, and many others for their roles in the long twilight struggle *from the inside*. But I completely agree that crediting one person obviously oversimplifies.
No question, just thanks: I have been making these same points for years (it is utterly ridiculous to give Reagan all or even most of the credit, the Soviet Union was in dire straits anyway, the effect of culture, the effect of Gorbachev, etc.) But while I am educated and well-read, I am hardly an expert historian.
So as you can imagine, it truly made my week to see these ideas espoused by someone as well-educated and expert in these matters as yourself. I feel vindicated. And I will be saving this article for future reference. Thank you!
James G. Hershberg: You're welcome!
Mr. Hershberg, the kids at GW are getting
a lousy education if you're teaching them
what is in your article. Ronald Reagan
didn't just carry on containment, he
instituted a revolutionary policy: Rollback
of the Soviet empire. And it worked, much
to the pain of liberals everywhere.
Thanks for the belly laughs while reading
James G. Hershberg: You're certainly entitled to your opinion. Actually, at GWU, at this as on other issues, I try to give students various alternative major interpretations, suggest further readings, and urge them to decide for themselves. (And sometimes make them do so on mid-terms and finals.) But if my own views provoke them to argue their own, and best of all to dig deeper into the subject, that's fine.
Isn't this just the same sort of misconception that leads most Americans to believe that they made the greatest sacrifice during WWII, when Russia lost 40 times as many as did America fighting Nazi Germany?
James G. Hershberg: I'd agree, and it's very sad that few Americans remembered the incredible sacrifices made by the Soviet Union to stop Hitler, but America hardly has a monopoly on such myopia; despite entering the fight only a week before it ended, Moscow did its best to convince Russians that Russia defeated Japan in World War II, relegating US (and British) forces to the background.
So Reagan didn't win the Cold War?! When he took office, the West was crippled by stagflation. The Soviet empire was rich in natural resources, well-educated and on the march. Its dicators could have ruled indefinitely, just as Saddam, Castro, terrorists and African militias cow entire nations in our "enlightened" age.
Reagan stopped our Cold War bungling -- lost atomic secrets, defeatist containment, MAD, and d?tente, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Afghanistan. The Soviets could match our bombs but not Reagan's innovative missile defense. He reversed containment by rescuing Grenada and courageously supporting the Contras and Mujaheddin insurgents.
Reagan crushed inflation, restored the confidence of the West, and pushed the Evil Empire into the ashcan of history. Contrary to your applause for Gorbachev, the pusher is the winner, not the pushee.
James G. Hershberg: Thanks for your comment, which reflects a very widespread perception that the US was "losing" the Cold War by the time Reagan took office. But I think the ?70s are due for a reconsideration. Yes, countries such as Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia), Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua went socialist or communist. But in tallying up this list of countries to argue that the Soviets were "on the march" in the third world, rarely if ever do analysts mention the two major geopolitical shifts that occurred during the decade: both Egypt and China, which at the decade's start were hostile to the United States, by the end of it had become de facto American allies against the Soviet Union. (Details on request.) Would you really trade Egypt and China for the line-up of third world countries that joined the Soviet "camp"?most of whom turned out to be a major financial burden on Moscow, part of what would later be called "imperial overstretch"?
Moreover, the major international events that contributed to the sense of "malaise" on the international front under Carter in 1978-79?the overthrow of the Shah and rise of Khomeini and Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?turned out in the long run, and even the medium run, to be major disasters for the USSR, accelerating instability in Moslem Central Asia (though we need better sources on this) as well as deepening discontent as the body bags of Soviet soldiers began to come home, hushed up by the Kremlin.
1980 also marked the latest surge of anti-communist upheaval inside Moscow's own empire in East-Central Europe?for the first time openly led by workers, in the form of the Solidarity movement (which quickly gained 10 million adherents)?again, a sign of deep internal corrosion. And the build-up of Soviet heavy missiles and ICBMs in the ?70s which Reagan used to alarm the American public, aided by Committee on the Present Danger devotees like Paul Nitze, that a "window of vulnerability" might soon open to leave the United States vulnerable to a Soviet first strike turned out to be entirely irrelevant to the end of the Cold War?not because of Ronald Reagan's military build-up (which, with the exception, only continued programs started under Carter), but because by then the two sides had build up such enormous nuclear arsenals that nuclear deterrence should have held even if one side build up a theoretical ninth-strike nuclear superiority.
The point, in other words, is that even if Jimmy Carter were re-elected in 1980 (with hardline national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski regnant in the White House), or if John W. Hinckley's aim had been slightly better and George H.W. Bush became president in the spring of 1981, there is no obvious reason to believe (other than the imponderability of counter-factual history) that the end of the Cold War or the Soviet Union would have been delayed by a nano-second: Gorbachev, had he come to power, would have had the same incentives to open up the system, which likely would have led the genie out of the bottle in the form of nationalism (in non-Russian Soviet republics and in East-Central Europe) and pent-up discontent.
Anyway, I don't imagine I'd convert you in a few paragraphs, but would urge you to read further into the history of the cold war and test yor interpretations.
I'm a Ph.D. in Russian history, I've lived in Russia for extended periods, and my wife is Russian. One thing that drove me made during the Reagan beatification was the oft-repeated canard that Russians have come to share the idealization of Reagan for destroying the Soviet Union.
(1) Most regret, for one reason or another, the passing of the Soviet Union.
(2) The person they credit, or blame, for this event is Mikhail Gorbachev.
James G. Hershberg: Thanks for your observations.
You make some very good and valid points in your article. Unfortunately, you are trying to explain chess strategy to a vast nation of people who have a problem keeping a game of checkers straight in their heads.
Other areas where most Americans have trouble analyzing the complexities of the issue include the Israeli-Palistine conflict, energy consumption policies, diplomatic relations with France.
What can/should be done about about the Americans think about complex issues, though?
James G. Hershberg: Ideally, people would turn off their TVs, read more, listen to NPR, travel around the world and meet and talk to people. That might not be entirely practical, alas. In the meantime, the best we could hope for is a more enlightened breed of TV news executives who take the world seriously rather than pander to a lowest-common-denominator view of an audience and give them an endless stream of artificially inflated sensations. But I'm not holding my breath.
The problem is not denying that Russia had losses during WWII. It is unfortunately forgotten that Russia was allied to Hitler. Stalin and Hitler agreed to a partition of Eastern Europe by the Ribentropp-Molotov pact. At the end of the war, Hitler may have been defeated, but Stalin kept the gains which he got from Hitler. There are populations who still live in what was once the former Soviet Empire due the Ribentropp-Molotoff pact. Talking about the Russian losses and not talking about the sacrifices these people still make is just looking at one part of the story.
James G. Hershberg: You're absolutely right--I was just answering the comment, not pretending to give a comprehensive analysis. The doomed Soviet effor to hide the Hitler-Stalin pact secret protocol was one of those "blank spots" (along with Katyn) that so alienated the Polish people, as well as many others who knew of these ill-gotten gains. Conversely, forcing the Kremlin to acknowledge the truth during glasnost was one of many such episodes that undermined the legitimacy of the entire Soviet regime and system and caused Gorbachev to lose control of the process.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Writing about the notoriously complex origins of the First World War, James Joll said that "It is only by studying the minds of men that we shall understand the causes of anything." Robert English proposes that the collapse of Soviet communism was not so much about bankruptcy (the Soviet system was good for another twenty years) or American military build-up, but to the acceptance of the "idea of the West" by Soviet intellectuals beginning in the 70s. Your comments, please.
James G. Hershberg: Sounds plausible--but why start in the '70s. Even in the '50s, Soviet intellectuals were grooving to American jazz, despite (and for some, especially because) the regime banned it as subversive. See, eg, Aksyonov's *In Search of Melancholy Baby.*
Some biographers of Pope John Paul II claim that his trips to Poland and other countries in middle and eastern Europe were a major factor in the fall of communism. Your views?
James G. Hershberg: Sure--in fact, I'd start the narrative of the collapse of communism *in Eastern Europe* to the Pope's trip to Poland in June 1979, which magnified and emboldened the anti-regime feelings that erupted a year later (August 1980) in the Solidarity movement--and which were never entirely squelched, despite Jaruzelski's imposition of martial law in December 1981. But that's not exactly the same thing as the dynamic *within the Soviet Union* which was already well advanced by the time JP2 was selected as Pope in the fall of 1978.
Hello Professor Hershberg,
I was one of your students this spring -- that one poster should be invited to one of your classes -- I found them to be great! Anyways, I was wondering if you believe that had Reagan pursued his hawkish policies during the tenure of an Andropov or Chernenko (possibly Ligachev) the world would have been a much more unstable and dangerous place?
James G. Hershberg: Hi there--you survived!
Since you asked, yes, I think there's little question that RR's hard-line policies in his first time only exacerbated the hostile dynamic in US-Soviet relations already present by the time he took office, and contributed (as did Soviet actions and misperceptions) to the acute superpower crisis in the fall of 1983. I suspect (we'll never know, of course) that had Andropov or Ligachev been in power during RR's second term, that sooner or later there would have been a violent crack-down on dissent (whether internally or in East-Central Europe) that would certainly have put a break on any possible amelioration of bilateral relations. That being the case, yes, probably the world would have been more dangerous--but possibly, paradoxically, in some ways *less* unstable, since both sides by then were fairly comfortable in their Cold War roles. Yet there would have remained, of course, the danger of some unanticipated crisis that brought the world back to the brink, or at least to brinkmanship.
Prague, Czech Republic:
What is the reason -- according to you -- why so many Americans refuse to acknowledge the role of imperfections of the Soviet (as well the satelite) systems concerning the reasons of the fall Communist empire?
James G. Hershberg: I suspect because they haven't had the time or inclination to seek them out, and because the media hasn't had the inclination or time (in their view) to tell them--after all, the Cold War became "old news" as soon as it ended, and the news business here is set up in such a way that a US/White House/State Department reaction is almost always covered far more thoroughly than the event it is reacting to, no matter how peripheral or tangential is the American role or relationship.
I hate to contradict the other "Washington, DC"... okay I don't.
The success of "rollback" has a lot more to do with a late 70's policy of the Kremlin to tell all but the most crucial client states to effectively get lost. By that time, The Soviet union was broke, and couldn't afford to pay what was necessary to keep these states in their orbit. In fact, they were specifically telling their Jr. partners to start sucking up to the West to get foreign aid, etc... This was especially true in Africa and most of Latin America.
In fact, this was already known and run by the CIA at the time. Their Green Book on the SU was noting their imminent economic collapse starting in 1977.
It would be nice if some folks opened a history book, or just read some primary sources before flapping their jaws. Keep up the good work, Prof.
James G. Hershberg: Well, I think the jury is still out on the '70s--we don't have the Politburo minutes, and in fact Moscow still kept massive investment in dubious client-state relationships such as Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, despite some grumbling. But a serious reassessment of the period is clearly way overdue. You might check CWIHP Bulletin #8/#9 (at www.cwihp.si.edu) for some early findings from communist archives (Russian, East German, Cuban, et al.) on the Cold War in the Third World and the Collapse of Detente in the '70s.
College Park, Md.:
While communism came to end in Europe, Reagan did not prevent its existence in China, Cuba, and North Korea. North Korea is now a big concern. Also, Reagan, did not act aggressively when our soldiers were killed in Beirut, Lebanon by militant Islamists. The seed of terrorism was planted then, and Reagan had no foresight on seeing radical Muslims as a serious threat which theyi now are. He also ignored have diplomatic relations with Iran (Iran is now a threat, too). Seems Reagan was too focused on Russians which everyone kind of knew that the Russians would never attack us because they would destroy themselves in the process. While the Jihad has no fear of self-destruction (i.e. dying for their cause).
James G. Hershberg: Interesting that you bring up the "seed of terrorism" by "militant Islamists" during the Reagan era. One frustration of the whole debates over 9/11 and Iraq is that they have been dominated by partisan domestic politics in which participants rush to blame either Bush or Clinton (directly or indirectly) depending on the critic's sympathies and affiliation. What really needs also to happen is a more serious and rigorous examination of America's response and relation to the rise of militant Islam as a political (and then military) phenomenon since the mid-late 1970s.
The job, instead, has been left to historians.
But the problem is that the US government, especially since 9/11, has kept classified most of the pertinent records on US relations with Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.), precluding serious research. There is no excuse, for example, not to:
* fully declassify (meaning, review, not necessarily open up *everything*) records on the US policy toward the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, including the fateful decision to rely on (and arm, finance, and train) radical fundamentalist mujaheddin groups favored by Pakistan. That decision, opposed by some US officials, helped lay the groundwork not only for the Soviet defeat but also the creation of al-Qaida (founded in 1988).
* fully declassify (ditto) the history of our relationship with the Ba'athist (and Saddam) regime in Iraq. As with Afghanistan, one can hardly claim that opening these files would endanger "current diplomatic activities" since the government in question no longer exists. In addition, opening files on Saddam's repressions (as with special US openings of materials on certain Latin American governments) would assist the work of "truth commissions" and those Iraqi courts trying Saddam and other regime figures.
* opening and returning to Iraq (with a copy to the US National Archives or Library of Congress for researchers here) the millions of pages of captured Iraqi documents now apparently gathering dust in Pentagon shelves.
Perhaps the reason that most people see Reagan as the major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was the fact that he was focused on that goal. He was bringing attention to it and uping the stakes when Europe and Reagan's political opponents were trying to appease the SU. They were willing to accept Communism as just another political option instead of recognizing it and fighting it as the evil it was/is.
James G. Hershberg: Thanks for your comments, but I disagree strongly with your contention (which some other Reagan supporters make) that "Reagan's political opponents were trying to appease the SU." Over the course of the cold war, Democratic administrations generally waged the contest with the Soviets as hard as Republicans (for better or worse). You might want to read up on the Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and yes, even Carter administrations before making such a sweeping generalization.
I agree with your thesis, although there's an additional issue you didn't mention. When I visited the USSR in 1979, my immediate reaction was "hey, this place is like Chad with snow." Why wasn't the USSR's deterioration (self-evident to any tourist) evident to U.S. intelligence? CIA's and especially DIA's perpetual wolf-crying built up the USSR to seemingly gargantuan strength, thereby making its collapse seem almost miraculous -- and an event for which a US president could take exaggerated credit.
James G. Hershberg: Well, actually there was a huge battle (actually, a series of them) in the 1970s within the "intelligence community" over how to evaluate the Soviet Union. (For good accounts, see books by John Prados [The Soviet Estimate] and Anne Cahn [Killing Detente].) For a contemporaneous argument that the massive Soviet military expenditures reflected gross waste and inefficiency rather than a thrust for military "superiority" over the United States, see Andrew Cockburn, *The Threat.*
Did Reagan's dirty little wars in Honduras, Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, Grenada, play an important role in ending tight USSR control, or was it internal economic concerns and nuclear dangers with the USA?
Wasn't the payment of the Germans to the Hungarians of $400 million plus for the Hungarians to relax exits of Eastern Bloc residents to Austria in 1990 the major percipatating factor in bringing down the Iron Curtain? Did the USA Bush/Reagan play
a role in getting Germany to take this initiative?
James G. Hershberg: I suspect the US campaigns to support anti-communist insurgencies (what you term "dirty little wars"), especially in Afghanistan, played some role in straining the Soviet system, but a comparatively minor one alongside internal factors.
About the East Germans fleeing to Austria (via Hungary, which had opened up the Iron Curtain), that took place in the late summer of 1989 and was a key catalyst for the East German upheaval that autumn. Reagan was no longer president, of course, and Bush's reactions were restrained and relatively peripheral--the key negotiating role was played by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Thank you for writing your article. Someone needed to question Reagan's overall influence on smashing communism. I would like to get your thoughts on three other theories of why the Soviet Union collapsed. First, debacle in Afghanistan demonstrated that the Soviet government could not rely on its military to police Eastern Europe. Second, the Soviet population began to question the government after the Chernobyl incident was initially covered up. Third, former President Bush helped soothe Soviet fears by promising not to expand NATO eastward into the former Soviet republics ( a promise which has since been broken). Combined, these three factors created a volatile situation that was allowed communism to collapse peacefully.
James G. Hershberg: Thanks for your comments. All three of your theories certainly belong in any serious multi-causal explanation. Particularly interesting is the possibility that, in effect, Afghanistan saved Poland from a Soviet invasion--not in 1989 (when Gorby wouldn't consider such a thing, and told Jaruzelski he was on his own), but in 1980-81, when Moscow seriously considered that possibility. Formerly secret Soviet documents (see the cwihp.si.edu website) reveal that (much like Bush in Iraq, unfortunately) Soviet leaders when they authorized the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 thought they could restore order relatively quickly, leave in a few months, and rely on the regime in Kabul to maintain control. Instead, it became clearly in a matter of months that such optimistic projections were wildly off, and the "limited military contingent" of Soviet troops would have to remain for years. Having been so off the mark in Afghanistan may indeed have strengthened Moscow's reluctance to intervene directly in Poland--instead, it repeatedly pressured the beleaguered communist leaders in Warsaw to do the job themselves. Whether, in the final analysis, the Kremlin *would* have invaded Poland rather than let it fall under Solidarity control (if, say, resistance to martial law had succeeded, and the government collapsed) remains unknown and unknowable.
You are also clearly on the mark by mentioning Chernobyl, which dramatically augmented Soviets' discontent and distrust toward the leadership, and the system, which now was shown clearly (even with Gorby at the helm) to care more about protecting its own image than its citizens' health.
In the early 20th century, the U.S. was fairly industrial, whereas Russia was basically an undeveloped peasant society. Then, within a single generation, Russia industrialized and modernized so fast that by mid-century it had become a world power. Ultimately, its economy collapsed for various reasons. Western orthodoxy says that the Soviet Union failed because it couldn't keep up economically with the US. But isn't that a ridiculous comparison to make given that in 1910, Russia was basically 3rd-world, and the US was more or less 1st-world? Why don't people compare Russian economic development through the 20th century with a country like Brazil, which had comparable resources and potential at the time?
James G. Hershberg: Because that's whom the Soviet leaders themselves compared the USSR to--eg, Khrushchev's claims about overtaking the west in a couple of decades. By claiming to be an equal superpower, Stalin and his successors unwittingly raised his own people's expectations--and when it became clear that the system had so failed to match those expectations (thorugh greater awareness of the West), they paid the price.
I hope Mikhail Gorbachev and our leaders read your excellent article. How do they get hold of it? As I see it no one won or lost the cold war. Rather, mankind won it and Gorbachev's role was essential. I have tremendous respect and admiration for him and his wisdom and vision.
James G. Hershberg: I hope he (Mikhail Gorbachev) continues to contribute to an informed debate about the end of the cold war and Soviet Union by opening fully the many important historical records at his disposal so that scholars can assess them and make them available to the international public.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada:
It's refreshing to see an objective, comprehensive and accurate picture of the fall of communism. To your apt description of the reasons ("American habit of neglecting the world's complexity in favor of a sentimental, simplistic and self-centered portrait"), don't forget to include the adjective "political." The Right has taken extraordinary efforts to try to deify this significantly flawed President because it's good politics. Americans are very nationalistic and love to rally around a strong leader. Republicans are trying to make the man into something he wasn't, because they figure it's in the strategic interests of the Party. The same dynamic operated with respect to Iraq (to decidely negative effect), and remains front and center in Bush's re-election campaign. Why does such a transparently self-interested and manipulative approach seem to be more effective in the U.S. than in other Western countries?
James G. Hershberg: Thanks for your comments. I wouldn't pretend to claim that my article was "objective" (no such thing)or "comprehensive" (definitely not!) but I tried at least to be accurate in my specifics. I'm afraid the United States is not alone in having a malleable and often gullible public opinion, but perhaps the situation here is exacerbated by the role of exceptionalist mythology in Americans' self image. See the excellent piece in The NY Times Sunday Magazine by Michael Ignatieff, which makes these arguments far more eloquently.
Why do you think that the Republicans consider RR to have caused the downfall of communism by his simplistic statements of bringing down the Berlin Wall against the better advice of his advisers and cronies; i.e., the Republicans themselves? Are they merely trying to cover up their own mistakes by sayin RR was right?
James G. Hershberg: I wouldn't pretent to psychoanalyze them, but ... obviously, many truly believe it, because it (a) fits their ideology and (b) they haven't looked very closely at the evidence.