Gorbachev did not end the Cold War; he bowed to reality
It was 1988 and President Ronald Reagan was speaking at a summit in Moscow. In a style few could imitate, Reagan told a joke. It happened like this:
“An American, bragging to his Russian friend, says the United States is such a great country that anyone can walk up to the White House and shout, ‘The President of the United States is a liar and a crook. ! But the Russian shrugs. ‘So what?’ he says. “In my country too, anyone can walk to the Kremlin and shout ‘The President of the United States is a liar and a crook!'”
As British historian Martin Sixsmith (he was a journalist in Moscow at the time) described in his new book, “The war of nerves“, “Reagan flashed his winning smile as he weaponized the humor of the Russian people to score ideological points for the Russian state.” Yes indeed. Reagan was quite strategically minded, which his opposites ideologies still refuse to accept.But we are somehow ahead of ourselves.
Almost 30 years ago before Reagan playfully teased the Soviet Union inside the Soviet Union, an agreement was reached between American and Soviet leaders to hold joint exhibitions in the two countries. This turned out to be a monumental mistake for the Soviets. It was arguably one of the biggest mistakes made by the leaders of the repressive country beyond the massive insult to human nature that was communism itself. Imagine allowing an American exhibition in Moscow that would showcase, among other things, typical American cuisine.
It was 1959 and, as Sixsmith reports, “more than 2 million visitors came to see it during its six weeks”. The queues to get a glimpse of the life of the “enemy” were seemingly endless. Sixsmith cites jazz musician Alexei Kozlov’s recollection of how Soviet leaders “lost their grip on so many people by lifting the Iron Curtain for even a month”. Kozlov reported that “we were amazed and couldn’t believe that people actually lived like this.” Precisely.
Back to Reagan, he understood in a rather unique way what the economic and intelligence establishment in the United States did not understand. As he confided to Richard Allen, his first national security adviser, his approach to the Cold War would be arrogant: “We win and they lose”. Reagan understood this. The American elites did not understand this. Reagan knew innately that communism could never equal freedom.
All of this and more came to mind as I read the various obituaries and commentaries on Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away last week. Almost without fail, Gorbachev’s recollections indicated that he had “ended the Cold War“. What a laugh. Gorbachev did no such thing.
As George Will said, the man who oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet Union didn’t want to. Gorbachev believed very much in this intensely cruel, freedom-stifling and historically murderous nation, and wanted it to survive. Which reminds us that Gorbachev did not “end the Cold War” so much as reality intruded on Gorbachev’s anti-human and rather naïve understanding of humanity. Really, imagine wanting to maintain such a failed country defined by what Hedrick Smith described in “The Russians” as “lines for everything.”
With Reagan, it was not a question of whether the Soviet Union would survive. Reagan knew not. It’s so easy to see the genius of his Westminster speech in 1982 now, but at the time political elites thought he was mad to talk bluntly about a ‘politics’ that would put communism in the rearview mirror, or who more precisely would leave it on “the ash heap of history.” Keep in mind that in 1982 the political crowd thought the Soviet Union was our equal with an economy to match. They didn’t understand it.
In the end, Gorbachev woke up to the reality that Reagan had long understood. In a fitting end to his run at the top of the soon-to-be-gone Soviet Union, he agreed to sign his resignation only so his “Soviet-made pen” wouldn’t work. How very appropriate. Gorbachev didn’t finish anything. Reality once again imposed itself in its tragic belief in what was horribly cruel. Gorbachev ends up “kneeling”. For American politicians to write otherwise, as they have done, is truly shameful.
John Tamny is editor-in-chief of RealClearMarkets, vice president of FreedomWorks, senior research fellow at market instituteand Senior Economic Advisor at Applied Finance Advisors.