Americans are a future-oriented people, disinclined to dwell on the past. Since the cold war reached its abrupt and unanticipated end, their inclination has been to focus on what is to come next, whether it be a new world order, a democratic crusade, or simply a return to pre-totalitarian power politics. This temperamental inclination has been strengthened by what they are turning away from. The cold war went on for a long, long time. It was in many ways a dreary and monotonous conflict in which highlights were few and significant movement rare. After the first few years, the battle lines were clearly drawn, the positions static, the strategies fixed, and the official rhetoric known by heart. What a relief, then—especially for intellectuals, whose preferred game is interpreting the new—to turn away from it and to contemplate an international scene suddenly full of novelty, drama, and unpredictable movement.

And yet the cold war cannot be dismissed as something that is not only over but done with. As well as celebrating victory and trying to anticipate the future, we shall have to go back and think seriously about it again. It is not only that there are lessons to be learned from it, though there are. And it is not merely that there are questions to be answered, and that the way they are answered will determine the allocation of a significant amount of political credit and prestige—though there is that, and it is not negligible. It is that we simply have too much intellectual and moral capital invested in the cold war, have been too much shaped by it, to write it off as an episode that is no longer relevant.

Most of us have lived our entire adult lives until now against the background of the cold war. We have spent a great deal of our time reading, thinking, writing, and arguing about it. Because of its pronounced ideological component, it was a conflict that engaged intellectuals to an exceptional extent and that attached unusual importance to their opinions and loyalties; and as they were important to it, so was it important to them. Monotonous it may have been, but it was also momentous. As the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin said of it while it was still going on, it was an open war “fought between two civilizations and two systems of ideas which return different and conflicting answers to what has long been the central question of politics—the question of obedience and coercion.” In addition to that central question, the cold war raised serious issues and initiated bitter debates about the motives and intentions of the participants, the strengths and weaknesses of their conflicting ways of organizing human affairs, the wisdom of various policies and strategies.

Until very recently, all these arguments took place while the cold war was still in progress, its plot still unfolding and ourselves participants able to see it only from the inside. Only now, and for the first time, can we view it from the outside—can we, so to speak, walk around it and contemplate it as a finished thing. Instead of an ongoing story, it is a completed one whose ending is known; and knowing the ending casts a new light on earlier opinions and debates.



Looking back, what is striking is how rich in irony the whole cold-war experience was. Applied to a situation, as opposed to a mode of discourse, the Oxford English Dictionary defines irony as: “A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.” In terms of the sense of the promise and fitness of things that prevailed among Western intellectuals, the experience of the last 45 years rings with such mockery.

The cold war ended with a smashing victory for what we have come to think of naturally as the democratic-capitalist ideology and system, and the prestige of both ideology and system is now at an all-time high. Nothing would have seemed less likely to most intellectuals when the cold war began, or for a long time after that. Indeed, in the 1940’s the compatibility and interdependence of democracy and capitalism, so readily assumed today, were not generally accepted. On the contrary, they were widely considered to be at odds with each other, with capitalism working to destroy the equality and sense of community that were deemed conditions of genuine democracy, and democracy requiring a “fairness” and social justice that frustrated the reward system necessary to drive capitalism. So George Orwell could write in the preface to his allegorical novel Animal Farm, as if he were merely pointing to the obvious: “Yet one must remember that England is not completely democratic. It is also a capitalist country with great class privileges. . . .”

It is not an exaggeration to say that by the 1940’s capitalism had substantially lost its legitimacy in the eyes of most Western intellectuals. The intervention of World War II and its vast impact on our imagination tend to exaggerate the historical space between the Great Depression and the beginning of the cold war. Yet only a few years separated them, and the stagnation, suffering, and despair of the 1930’s were still very fresh memories at the time of Churchill’s “iron-curtain” speech in 1946 and the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947. Many intellectuals continued to believe then, as most had believed a few years earlier, that the capitalist system was in terminal crisis, its days numbered. After all, insofar as there had been economic recovery, it had come about not as a result of any spontaneous self-correcting process but because of the demands created by war; so rather than contributing to the moral rehabilitation of the system, it tended only to confirm already established theories about the intimate connection between capitalism and war.

In 1945, one of Britain’s leading historians, A.J.P. Taylor, was able to assure his BBC audience that

Nobody in Europe believes in the American way of life—that is, in private enterprise. Or rather, those who believe in it are a defeated party, and a party which seems to have no more future than the Jacobites in England after 1688.

Orwell at this time routinely wrote off capitalism as a failed system which “has manifestly no future.” For him, this was by no means to be viewed as an unmixed disaster. As he observed of the economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek in a review of the latter’s famous attack on socialism, The Road to Serfdom,

He does not see, or will not admit, that a return to “free” competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.

If Orwell is thought to be too singular to be representative, consider the views of his friend Cyril Connolly, an influential editor and man of letters. Connolly was essentially apolitical, with no serious ideological commitments, but he was the possessor of a fine nose for prevailing intellectual moods and trends (the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who also knew him well and observed him closely, thought him to be “the most typical man of his generation”). When Connolly came to consider England’s position in the postwar world, he saw its destiny as that of “holding the balance between American capitalism and Soviet Communism, defending Western Europe from the reactionary imperialism of one and the oppressive bureaucracy of the other.” This passage is interesting in at least three respects. First, and consistent with the popular and vulgarized Marxism which then passed for sophistication, it chose to characterize the West not in terms of democracy but of capitalism, readily accepting the primacy of the economic over the political. Second—and this is something it shares with the passage quoted earlier from Taylor—it carefully distanced itself from the capitalist cause by describing it as “American,” as if Britain had really nothing much to do with the invention of capitalism. And third, it opted for neutrality and what Jeane Kirkpatrick was later to label the doctrine of “moral equivalence.” Acceptance of that doctrine—and the flirtation with the concept of a “third force” that naturally went with it—were in fact much more prevalent in the early years of the cold war than they were to become in the post-Vietnam era. True, Orwell insisted that if one had to choose between Russia and America, there was no question that the latter was preferable. But the fact that he felt it necessary to make the point indicated the prevailing climate, and even he presented it as a matter of the lesser evil and rather desperately searched for a social-democratic “third force” that would relieve him of the necessity of making such an invidious choice.

When Connolly decided to close down his successful and influential magazine, Horizon, in 1949, the last sentence he wrote in his last editorial was:

It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.

The style may be a little florid for contemporary tastes, but it was to be a much-quoted sentence and may fairly be taken as reflecting the pessimism of a generation of Western intellectuals in the year in which, with the establishment of NATO, the cold war took its definitive shape. As the whole of Eastern Europe was already under Communist rule by this time, and as 1949 also saw the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the first testing of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, it was easy for a generation already seriously alienated from their values to conclude that circumstances justified deep pessimism concerning the prospects of liberal democracy and capitalism.



The huge irony in all this is, of course, that those attitudes prevailed at the beginning of an epoch during which both capitalism and liberal democracy were to achieve spectacular and unprecedented success. In the four decades from 1950 to 1990, the gross national products of most capitalist countries doubled and doubled again, and the prosperity was broad-based. It was during these years that ordinary people throughout the Western world had their first real taste of affluence—when home ownership, higher education, access to decent medical care, vacations abroad, the ownership of automobiles, televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines all came to be normal rather than exceptional. All this happened, moreover, while the West was simultaneously bearing the burden of the cold war, devoting a great deal of its resources to the setting up of much-enlarged welfare states, and divesting itself of empires.

It is powerful evidence of the resistance of the ideological mindset to empirical evidence that, for a very long time, the prosperity that was plain to see all around made little impact on intellectual orthodoxy in the West. Undue attention was given to residual pockets of economic backwardness; new definitions of poverty were manufactured to sustain the case against capitalism, definitions that bore no relationship to the grinding conditions of only a generation before; the West was accused of basing its prosperity on the exploitation of the third world (“neocolonialism,” “neoimperialism”), though the economies of many third-world countries—particularly those that most enthusiastically embraced the market economy—were also growing rapidly. When all else failed, comfortably off middle-class intellectuals followed the lead of the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith and attacked affluence itself for its crass materialism, vulgarity, and dependence on the creation of spurious wants. And at a time when the economies of the West were drawing away from those of Communist countries like an express train drawing away from a mule cart, Galbraith propounded his theory that the democratic-capitalist and Communist-totalitarian systems were actually converging—and was given a respectful hearing.

As far as the reputation of democracy was concerned, things were a little better, but not much. During the years when democracy was fighting for its life, Western academics subjected it to a behavioralist analysis that stripped it of most of its idealism, denied the validity of the notion of a common purpose, and stressed the centrality to the system of the self-serving preoccupations of competing interest groups. There was little interest in—and by implication little validity to—the classical “great issues.” In the 1960’s liberal democracy suffered a serious crisis of faith, when an adversary culture denounced and disrupted its institutions and mediated procedures, in the name of spontaneity, sincerity, and direct action. Initially mainly the vehicle of students, that culture quickly gained the support of many leading liberals. While this constituted the main betrayal of liberal democracy during the cold-war era, it is also true that many conservatives and dedicated cold warriors showed little confidence in the robustness of democracy, even as they defended it. Bewailing the absence of will, staying power, and seriousness of democratic societies, and emphasizing their divisiveness, capacity for illusion, and softness, conservatives were anything but happy warriors confident that their cause would triumph. They were motivated more by the fear of defeat than by the expectation of victory.

Liberal democracy survived and recovered from the assault of the counterculture, and in the mid 1970’s—the overthrow of dictatorial regimes in Portugal and Spain are usually considered the starting point—democracy began to gain ground globally in what Samuel Huntington of Harvard identifies as a third significant wave of democratic advance in modern times.

This wave, like so many others, caught Western intellectuals entirely unprepared. The extent to which it did so may be gauged by the fact that Daniel P. Moynihan, one of the most perceptive of their number and one who was unambiguously committed to the democratic cause, was able to write in the tenth anniversary issue of the Public Interest, which appeared in 1975, that

. . . liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19th century: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there, and may even serve well enough for special circumstances, but which has simply no relevance to the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going.

Eight years later the French political commentator, Jean-François Revel, published a whole book—How Democracies Perish—devoted to the thesis that “Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.”

Such, then, was the prevailing pessimism, and in some cases hostility, toward both capitalism and democracy—attitudes which persisted even into the later stages of the cold war. And yet the verdict of history was going decisively in the other direction. Even as liberal intellectuals continued to berate capitalism, the political leaders of the social-democratic and labor parties of the world, men subject to the practical test of winning votes in elections, were abandoning socialism and recognizing the superiority of the market economy. Even as the death knell of democracy was being sounded by intellectuals, it was rapidly gaining ground in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Between the 10th and 25th anniversaries of the Public interest—between, that is, 1975 and 1990—Huntington calculates that over 30 countries abandoned authoritarian regimes in favor of democratic ones.



Other ironies abound. While intellectuals maintained that the world was poised on a knife edge and traded in terms like “the delicate balance of terror” and “brinkmanship,” and while the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists used as its logo a clock perpetually set at five minutes to midnight to signify the imminence of disaster, the cold war was in fact one of the most stable conflicts in history. Not only was there no world war, but after the first years, and with the possible exception of the Kennedy-Khrushchev conflict over Cuba, there was never any serious danger of one. Decades went by without a decently threatening superpower crisis. In Europe, the epicenter of the cold war, from the beginning to the end hardly a drop of blood was shed, not a foot of territory changed hands, not a frontier was violated. So exceptionally stable was the whole thing, in fact, that it may have left an unfortunate legacy of complacency, causing people who should know better to underrate the importance of stability or to take it for granted, an unfortunate attitude in a new age that gives every indication of being dangerously volatile.

A connected irony is evident in the attitudes toward nuclear weapons that prevailed during the cold war. It was those weapons that were supposed to make the “balance of terror” so delicate, and scribes like the scientist-novelist C.P. Snow solemnly and fatuously demonstrated the inevitability of nuclear war in a matter of a few years in the absence of general nuclear disarmament, while the aged philosopher Bertrand Russell sat on cold pavements to dramatize the cause. All in all, no other issue was given as high a priority by intellectuals during the cold war as “banning the Bomb.” And yet it is surely true that it was only the existence of nuclear weapons that kept the cold war cold. Certainly it is difficult to think of another case in history where such a level of intense hostility, backed by massive and growing stocks of arms and sustained for such a lengthy period, did not result in active warfare; and it is also difficult to identify any factor other than the existence of nuclear weapons that can explain why this conflict was the exception. All this was clear to a Churchill well past his prime, when he spoke of the “process of sublime irony” by which the hydrogen bomb had brought mankind “to a stage where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” But it escaped most intellectuals.

Nuclear weapons also had one other effect that went largely unacknowledged: they and they alone kept the cost of the cold war within bounds and made it possible for the West to defend itself while also enjoying unprecedented prosperity and the expansion of welfare provisions. Though it became standard rhetoric to rail against the “insane waste” of nuclear weapons, they were in fact very cheap in comparison with conventional arms and troops, and they made it possible to balance Soviet military power with military budgets of well under 10 percent of GNP (under 5 percent for most countries other than the United States) for most of the cold war. Without nuclear weapons, the Western democracies could only have defended themselves by becoming hugely expensive garrison states with immense standing armies—which would have meant forgoing both prosperity and welfarism.



Perhaps the most striking and interesting instance of the “mockery of the promise and fitness of things” in the whole cold-war experience is provided by the gap between the way Western intellectuals perceived Communist totalitarianism and what that system’s dismal and feeble end revealed it to be. In a sense this represents a mirror image of how intellectuals got democracy wrong, though in this instance it was not only liberal intellectuals but conservatives and dedicated anti-Communists who were at fault.

From the beginning, conservatives stood in awe of totalitarianism and accepted uncritically the claims made for it both by its own spokesmen and by Western theorists and commentators. From Arthur Koestler’s explanation of how men were brought to confess to treachery they had never committed; to George Orwell’s terrible image of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face—forever”; to Hannah Arendt’s discourse on “total domination,” “total terror,” and the “totally different” character of totalitarian government; to Whittaker Chambers’s conviction that he was joining the losing side when he became an anti-Communist; to Jean-François Revel’s gloomy observation that for a system that had so many failings to grow so strong must mean that it embodied “a principle of action and monopolization of power more effective than any mankind has ever known before”—all these sources, and more, impressed on the conservative imagination a concept of totalitarianism as almost irresistibly coherent, confident, efficient, penetrating, and dynamic. To it were attributed a vast and terrifying capacity to discipline, mobilize, and transform individuals and whole societies, its combination of messianic ideological appeal, unbridled use of terror, and deployment of modern technology and techniques seeming to represent power of an unprecedented order.

Besides being implacably powerful, totalitarianism—in crucial contrast to authoritarianism—was seen as virtually immutable and indestructible, except as the result of defeat in war (or, as George F. Kennan argued, the prolonged frustration of its expansionist drive) by an outside power. True, writers on totalitarianism usually included in the small print a theoretical recognition that one day it would die, in the sense that all things ultimately die, but the emphasis was always on its invulnerability, its capacity to control and manipulate, to atomize and crush. The theoretical allowance of ultimate mortality apart, the only change envisaged in the early, Stalinist days of the cold war, when the ideal type of totalitarianism was taken to approximate closely to the reality, was that the totalitarianism of the Soviet system would steadily become more total, as it realized itself more fully. Later, as empirical evidence accumulated, awareness grew of the huge gap between the theoretical model and the reality of Soviet conditions: of the falling life expectancy, of hospitals without sewerage and running water, of rampant alcoholism, of pervasive corruption and cynicism. While all this led over time to a modification of the image of the Soviet system as successfully messianic and dynamic, it did little to lessen conservative belief in the regime’s internal control and capacity to perpetuate itself. Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke for most convinced anti-Communists when he said that even if the system’s innards were rotten, it still had hands of steel.

And then in a very brief period of time and without a serious struggle, the whole thing collapsed.

Let it be conceded that by the early 1980’s—that is, before Gorbachev had come to power and launched perestroika, one or two people in the West—Richard Pipes of Harvard, for one, Ronald Reagan for another—had come to realize that the Soviet Union was in a state of serious crisis. Their published views establish that they had. But while such people were of crucial importance, they were also very, very few in number, and in any case their insight came late in the day. For most of the cold war, almost all conservative intellectuals, along with most others, bought the whole kit and caboodle of totalitarian claims, and claims made on totalitarianism’s behalf, more or less at face value. Now that we know those claims to have been grotesquely false, the question arises: why were they so readily accepted?



Part of the answer is implicit in what has already been said about the loss of faith in liberal democracy and the market economy. G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism that “those who have lost their faith in God do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything” has general application, and the dogmatism and confident ruthlessness of Communism were especially effective in convincing the confused and disillusioned that it was irresistible. (Having mentioned God, I should perhaps add that those conservatives with a strong personal religious faith—the leaders of the New Right, for example—were not appreciably more skeptical than other conservatives concerning the claims made on behalf of totalitarianism.)

The ground was also well prepared in other respects. One element conducive to making intellectuals receptive was the enormous prestige that science and technology had achieved by the early decades of the 20th century. Politically, this translated very readily into a belief in the possibility of a wholly rational, efficient society achieved by the application of scientific techniques of control—what the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott described as “the assimilation of politics to engineering . . . what may be called the myth of rationalist politics.” Some very eminent scientists—for example, some of the leading young scientists at Cambridge University’s famous Cavendish Laboratory in its interwar heyday, a group that was later to garner an impressive crop of Nobel Prizes—subscribed to and propagated this belief. There was a keen interest in those branches of science that dealt in, or could be utilized for, control—eugenics, behavioral psychology, cybernetics—and vast powers were attributed to them, as well as to activities like advertising and political propaganda that drew on their alleged insights and techniques. The strength of this kind of thinking was reflected in the literature of the period—in, to take three examples from the 1930’s, H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come, Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (in which, as the Oxford Companion to English Literature briskly summarizes the plot, “Social stability is based on a scientific caste system. Human beings, graded from highest intellectuals to lowest manual workers, hatched from incubators and brought up in communal nurseries, learn by methodical conditioning to accept their social destiny”). The more all this was accepted, the weaker became the belief in an essential and indestructible human nature and the stronger the conviction that, given enough time and the application of scientific knowledge, everyone could be molded and manipulated into any desired shape. Against such a background, accepting the feasibility of “New Soviet Man” was not particularly difficult.

This background also helps explain the belief, quite widespread by the 1960’s, that successful revolution against any reasonably functioning state, let alone a totalitarian one, was no longer feasible because of the increasingly sophisticated techniques and machinery of control available to governments. (The irony here, of course, is that some of the developments that were deemed to weigh the odds most decisively in favor of state power—particularly those in communication—were soon to contribute significantly to the undermining of that power. Even as Western intellectuals emphasized the propaganda, control, and mobilizing powers of modern communications, the insidiously subversive work of the transistor, the tape cassette, the copying machine, and the personal computer had begun.)

As science prepared the way, so did history—or at least ideological versions of it, as deterministic theories of historical inevitability gained ground in the early part of the century. To the extent that it was accepted that a preordained historical pattern was unfolding, whoever could most successfully claim to understand and represent that pattern enjoyed an immense political advantage. “Men could be fought,” Isaiah Berlin observed, “but once ‘History’ herself took the field, resistance was vain.” It was Marxism-Leninism which advanced the most intellectually elaborate and pretentious claim to represent history—and which was therefore deemed the most scientific. That, together with the fact that it had established a power base in the world’s largest state seemed to many—including many non-Marxists—to validate its claim to represent the future.

To a very large extent, and until quite late in the day, the argument between intellectuals of the Left and of the Right was not so much about the validity of that claim—like the Victorian Liberal Sir William Harcourt, conservatives tended to concede that “We are all socialists now,” in the sense that the steady march to collectivism seemed inevitable—but about whether it was something to celebrate and hasten or to fear and delay. The fact that conservatives went as far as they did in accepting the prevailing view of historical inevitability, and of the power of science and technology to mold human beings, indicates the limitation of their conservatism and the extent to which they, hardly less than their counterparts on the Left, were creatures of the Enlightenment.



As well as being a contest between the democratic West and the Communist East, the cold war was also a contest between Left and Right in the Western democracies. How does the decisive outcome of the first struggle bear on the verdict concerning the second? Who comes out of it better in terms of understanding what was at stake and supporting sound policies?

It is possible to maintain, of course, that no particular person or group deserves credit for the West’s victory—that it was merely a case of an intrinsically superior system inevitably prevailing over an inferior one. Some now argue that, far from being enormously formidable as widely believed until recently, Communism was fatally flawed from the start and always carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. So it was really no contest. Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, seems to be implying something along those lines in the opening pages of his recent book, Exporting Democracy, when he contrasts democracy as a “natural” state—“in the sense that it answers something innate in human nature”—with Communism which “began less with a theory of human nature than with a theory of history, one that has long ago shown itself to be erroneous. The system it spawned proved as unnatural as democracy is natural.”

I do not find this line of argument convincing. While one system was and is infinitely superior to the other in human terms, I do not think that that in itself settled the outcome of the conflict. Certainly, virtually no one argued that it would while the struggle was still in progress and its outcome not known. States can be deeply flawed and yet, in the absence of external intervention, can survive indefinitely without collapsing in the way that the Soviet Union has just done. The Ottoman empire was “the sick man of Europe,” and the condition of the Hapsburg empire was “desperate but not serious” for generations, but it took the Great War of 1914-18 to destroy them. There is always the need for some precipitating factor.

It is not in any case altogether clear that totalitarianism, flawed and evil as it is, carries within it the seed of its own destruction. Try the Nazi Germany test. Are we convinced that had it not been defeated in war—had it even won—Nazi totalitarianism would still, and of necessity, have collapsed from internal causes? Are the blatant failures of the Soviet system—the inability to do something as basic as harvest, store, and distribute food, for example—clearly intrinsic weaknesses of totalitarianism, the kind of thing sure to happen in any country saddled with such a system? If not, then arguments based on the allegedly inherent self-destructive character of totalitarianism cease to be available as an explanation, and the intervention of some other factor or agent is required. So the question remains: who or what contributed most to the collapse of Communism and its empire?

If history is likely to give any one group major credit it will be, I believe, the American policymakers of the mid- and late 1940’s: that group of wise men—of whom Secretary of State Dean Acheson was the key figure—that was responsible for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and, not least, the Bretton Woods agreement which established the basis for an open, liberal international trading system. It was these men who set the conditions both for the containment and frustration of Communism, and for the longest sustained period of economic expansion in the history of the world. There was nothing inevitable about containment, and there was nothing inevitable about the economic recovery of Europe and Japan and the phenomenal development of world trade—they were all politically contrived. If they had not been, there would have been nothing inevitable about the collapse of Communism, either.

That having been said, the 1940’s are pretty remote by now and when people discuss who can claim credit for victory in the cold war, they usually have more recent actors and events in mind. In those terms there are three competing candidates whose claims may be considered: conservatives, liberals, and Gorbachev.

Taking these in what I consider to be the order of ascending credibility, liberals really find great difficulty in mounting any sort of positive case for themselves. They have been out of office for the last ten years. In recent decades, too many of them are on record as disputing the reality or the point of the cold war, too many have argued for accommodation, too many have found it difficult to condemn the Soviet system—have even praised it and maintained it was not very different from ours—too many of them have done all these things for them now to be able to claim responsibility for the victory with any conviction.

Examples abound to support these assertions. There is, for instance, Professor Paul Samuelson’s confident assurance, given in 1976, that it was “a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable.” There is Professor Jerry Hough’s once influential thesis that Brezhnev’s regime was a modern pluralist one, not very unlike our own. And, as always, there is the loquacious and egregious Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, writing in that symbolic year, 1984, only a matter of months before Gorbachev assumed the leadership and declared a crisis:

That the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years . . . is evident both from the statistics and from the general urban scene. . . . One sees it in the appearance of solid well-being of the people on the streets. . . . Partly the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.

(Failure does not deter Galbraith, or dent his confidence. On February 10 of this year he was issuing an authoritative warning to the readers of the Los Angeles Times concerning “a terrible tendency to exaggerate the role of technology in war, and especially in its extreme manifestation, which is air power.”)

I do not think it unfair to say that latter-day liberals—say from 1968 on—typically gave higher priority to ending the cold war than to winning it. And the easiest and fastest way to end a war is to lose it. Liberals did not, of course, advocate outright capitulation. But they did accumulate a record of favoring concessions under pressure, of preferring to withdraw rather than withstand, of being prepared to mollify and condone, of characterizing firmness and unqualified opposition to Soviet totalitarianism as “provocative,” “counterproductive,” and indicative of an “inordinate fear” of Communism, of preferring an anti-anti-Communist posture to a simple anti-Communist one.



All this being so, on the whole liberals have preferred—understandably and sensibly from their point of view—to approach the question of who deserves credit by casting doubt on conservative claims rather than by advancing their own. They have tried to do so in two ways: by sponsoring and endorsing the idea that Gorbachev has done it all; and by subtly changing the question at issue.

So we come to the Gorbachev claim. Let me give two examples of the promotion of Gorbachev by liberals. Sidney Blumenthal of the New Republic begins Pledging Allegiance, his recent book on the 1988 presidential election, by quoting the Soviet spokesman Georgi Arbatov telling an American audience: “We are going to do something terrible to you. We are going to take away your enemy.” The initiative, you see, was entirely with Gorbachev and his group—they were doing the “doing,” while the West’s role was the passive one of having something done to it, and that something was the removal of a treasured object of hate and fear. Far from having contributed to the end of the conflict, then, Western cold warriors wanted to perpetuate it and were dismayed to be deprived of it.

Three hundred and fifty pages later Blumenthal ends his book with the claim that Gorbachev’s conception of a “common European home” is actually the Soviet response, unfortunately delayed 40 years by the cold war, to Roosevelt’s grand design of liberal internationalism at the end of World War II—a brazen attempt on Blumenthal’s part to link a new liberal icon to an old one.

Strobe Talbott, writing in the issue of Time magazine that declared Gorbachev “Man of the Decade,” dismisses what he calls the “conceit” that Gorbachev is a consequence and vindication of Western policy, and says flatly: “Gorbachev is responding primarily to internal pressures, not external ones. The Soviet system has gone into meltdown because of inadequacies and defects at its core, not because of anything the outside world has done or not done or threatened to do.” That is, Western policy was entirely irrelevant (at least it has become so by the second sentence, where the “primarily” of the first has been replaced with the uncompromising “not because of anything”). Talbott ends his six-page essay with a firm conclusion: “. . . whatever the next stage of history comes to be called, there is no question that Gorbachev has made it possible.”

Let me make it clear that I do not belittle the importance of Gorbachev. His combination of realism, boldness, and incompetence has been very important in shaping the course of events. But unless one is prepared to treat his appearance as a total accident, there is a need to explain why the Soviet system threw up such an unusual leader at this particular time; or, conversely, why the leader it threw up became so unusual so quickly after assuming power. As far as I can see, the internal situation was not qualitatively much different in 1985 from what it had been in, say, 1982 or 1978. The crisis was chronic rather than acute, and the real “meltdown” did not take place until after Gorbachev, through an inept launching of perestroika combined with a large measure of genuine glasnost, had managed to convert a merely desperate situation into a fatal one.

The only obvious new, vital factor in the mid-1980’s was the Reagan administration and the cumulative effects of its policies: the substantial and sustained American arms build-up; putting the Pershing missiles into Germany; the application of the Reagan doctrine (particularly in Afghanistan); the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); the refusal throughout the whole first term to play the summit-détente game; the harsh, uncompromising denunciation of the Soviet system. All this must surely have had a daunting, traumatic impact on a regime that was already in deep trouble and had just made a tremendous effort to achieve strategic supremacy, on the assumption that the United States had lost its stomach for the fight.

So it seems to me that the Gorbachev explanation does not displace the Reagan or conservative explanation but is complementary to it. At least one well-placed Russian goes even further. Ilya Zaslavsky, a leader of the democratic bloc in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies, maintains that the originator of perestroika was not Mikhail Gorbachev but Ronald Reagan.



The second way in which liberals have tried to deny credit to conservatives is by changing—or confusing—the subject. That is, instead of addressing the question, “Who advocated the sounder policies, implemented them most effectively, and thus had the greatest effect on Soviet behavior?,” they attempt to replace it with “Who understood the cold war, and particularly the Soviet Union’s part in it, best?” In doing so, they try to make understanding, rather than prescription and impact on events, the vital test.

The reason they do so is clear. The conservative record on policy is pretty well unassailable. Once they had been disillusioned concerning the feasibility of “rollback” and “liberation”—a process that was virtually complete after the Hungarian uprising of 1956—conservatives became the most consistent supporters of the other basic policy, that of deterrence. They regularly supported defense budgets sufficient to make these policies effective. They were never seduced by unilateral disarmament, “Ban the Bomb,” or “Better Red Than Dead”; never equated concern about the Soviet threat with “paranoia” and “obsession,” as many liberals did.

While liberals were entranced at various times by peaceful coexistence and détente, conservatives were suspicious and kept their eye on the Soviet arms build-up. And it was at a time when conservative-supported policies were being implemented most vigorously that Communism collapsed. So there is not much scope for the liberals to attack on the policy front.

When it comes to understanding, on the other hand, I think that conservatives are somewhat more vulnerable. Not as compared with the Left, which was consistently wrong about the Soviet Union. And not entirely so, for their understanding of the moral character of Soviet totalitarianism—that it was an unmitigated evil that had to be fought at all costs—was absolutely sound (though nothing drew more fire from the Left than this “moralism,” routinely represented as “intolerant,” “provocative,” “fanatical,” and “dangerous”). That apart, however, it has to be conceded that conservatives often exaggerated the extent and durability of Soviet power and the threat it represented—not grotesquely, as Talbott asserts, but significantly. They did so sometimes for political reasons—to counter complacency, to get bigger defense budgets, to further careers—but they also did so out of conviction. For, as we have already seen, they accepted—more or less uncritically—a theory of totalitarianism that attributed to it implacable power and a virtually immutable nature.

The columnist Michael Kinsley has seized on this and sought to use it to undermine the conservative case. Mockingly, and in the spirit of someone drawing attention to an obvious absurdity, he writes, “Conservatives, having said the collapse of Communism would not happen, now claim credit for it.” But what is there to mock in that? Politics is not an academic exercise in which success or failure is measured by comprehension tests. It is a practical activity, and whether or not conservatives deserve political credit depends not on what they understood but on what they did—and, by and large, they did the right thing.

It might be said that conservatives won the cold war by virtue of character rather than intellect; won it despite having a flawed understanding of the enemy and of the strength of their own side; won it while having little confidence in the outcome until the very end; won it, one might say, by displaying the old-fashioned phlegmatic qualities of a peasant army—stubbornness, perseverance, endurance, and a simple uncomplicated sense of right and wrong. To stay the course while being deeply pessimistic about the outcome is, after all, a very conservative way of achieving victory.

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