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Be not afraid!


Seek truth from facts.


We can’t go on living like this.


THE POPE HAD BEENan actor before he became a priest, and his triumphant return to Poland in 1979 revealed that he had lost none of his theatrical skills. Few leaders of his era could match him in his ability to use words, gestures, exhortations, rebukes—even jokes—to move the hearts and minds of the millions who saw and heard him. All at once a single individual, through a series of dramatic performances, was changing the course of history. That was in a way appropriate, because the Cold War itself was a kind of theater in which distinctions between illusions and reality were not always obvious. It presented great opportunities for great actors to play great roles.

These opportunities did not become fully apparent, however, until the early 1980s, for it was only then that the material forms of power upon which the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies had lavished so much attention for so long—the nuclear weapons and missiles, the conventional military forces, the intelligence establishments, the military-industrial complexes, the propaganda machines—began to lose their potency. Real power rested, during the final decade of the Cold War, with leaders like John Paul II, whose mastery of intangibles—of such qualities as courage, eloquence, imagination, determination, and faith—allowed them to expose disparities between what people believed and the systems under which the Cold War had obliged them to live. The gaps were most glaring in the Marxist-Leninist world: so much so that when fully revealed there was no way to close them other than to dismantle communism itself, and thereby end the Cold War.

Accomplishing this required actors. Only their dramatizations could remove the mental blinders, themselves the products of material capabilities, that had led so many people to conclude that the Cold War would last indefinitely. An entire generation had grown up regarding the absurdities of a superpower stalemate—a divided Berlin in the middle of a divided Germany in the midst of a divided Europe, for example—as the natural order of things. Strategists of deterrence had convinced themselves that the best way to defend their countries was to have no defenses at all, but rather tens of thousands of missiles poised for launch on a moment’s notice. Theorists of international relations insisted that bipolar systems were more stable than multipolar systems, and that Soviet-American bipolarity would therefore last for as far into the future as anyone could see.4 Diplomatic historians maintained that the Cold War had evolved into a “long peace,” an era of stability comparable to those Metternich and Bismarck had presided over in the 19th century.5 It took visionaries—saboteurs of the status quo—to widen the range of historical possibility.

John Paul II set the pattern by rattling the authorities throughout Poland, the rest of Eastern Europe, and even the Soviet Union. Others quickly followed his example. There was Lech Wałęsa, the young Polish electrician who stood outside the locked gate of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk one day in August, 1980—with the pope’s picture nearby—to announce the formation of Solidarność, the first independent trade union ever in a Marxist-Leninist country. There was Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become prime minister of Great Britain, who relished being tougher than any man and revived the reputation of capitalism in Western Europe. There was Deng Xiaoping, the diminutive, frequently purged, but relentlessly pragmatic successor to Mao Zedong, who brushed aside communism’s prohibitions on free enterprise while encouraging the Chinese people to “get rich.” There was Ronald Reagan, the first professional actor to become president of the United States, who used his theatrical skills to rebuild confidence at home, to spook senescent Kremlin leaders, and after a young and vigorous one had replaced them, to win his trust and enlist his cooperation in the task of changing the Soviet Union. The new leader in Moscow was, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev, who himself sought to dramatize what distinguished him from his predecessors: in doing so, he swept away communism’s emphasis on the class struggle, its insistence on the inevitability of a world proletarian revolution, and hence its claims of historical infallibility.

It was an age, then, of leaders who through their challenges to the way things were and their ability to inspire audiences to follow them—through their successes in the theater that was the Cold War—confronted, neutralized, and overcame the forces that had for so long perpetuated the Cold War. Like all good actors, they brought the play at last to an end.


THEY COULD hardly have done this had the stage not been set by the collapse of détente. When first worked out in Washington, Moscow, and other Cold War capitals, that strategy had looked like a hopeful development. It did not free the world from crises, but the new spirit of cooperation did seem to limit their frequency and severity: Soviet-American relations in the late 1960s and the early 1970s were much less volatile than during the first two decades of the Cold War, when confrontations erupted almost annually. This was a major accomplishment, because with the superpowers now commanding roughly the same capacity to destroy one another, the risks of escalation were even greater than they once had been. Détente was turning a dangerous situation into a predictable system, with a view to ensuring survivability for the post-1945 geopolitical settlement, as well as for humanity at large.

Humanity, however, was not particularly grateful. For just as the Cold War had frozen the results of World War II in place, so détente sought to freeze the Cold War in place. Its purpose was not to end that conflict—the differences dividing its antagonists were still too deep for that—but rather to establish rules by which it would be conducted. These included avoiding direct military clashes, respecting existing spheres of influence, tolerating physical anomalies like the Berlin Wall and mental anomalies like the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, refraining from efforts to discredit or undermine leaders on each side, and even a mutual willingness, through the new technology of reconnaissance satellites, to allow spying as long as it took place hundreds of miles above the earth.6 The architects of détente looked forward to the possibility, as Kissinger put it in 1976, of “transform[ing] ideological conflict into constructive participation in building a better world.”7 But because change still seemed dangerous, they agreed to accept, for the foreseeable future, the world as it was. What that meant was that certain nations would continue to live under authoritarian rule while others could elect and remove governments by constitutional means. Certain economies would continue to benefit from the efficiencies of open markets; others would stagnate under central planning. Certain societies would continue to enjoy the right of free expression; others could stay safe only by staying silent. And everyone would still face the possibility of nuclear incineration if the delicate mechanisms of deterrence should ever fail. Détente denied equal opportunity, except in annihilation.

It might have lasted if elites still ran the world, but deference to authority was not what it once had been. There were now more freely elected governments than ever before, which meant that more people could depose their leaders than ever before.8 Democracy still seemed a distant prospect in Marxist-Leninist countries; even there, though, officially sanctioned higher education was making it difficult for governments to prevent people from thinking for themselves, despite the fact that they generally had to keep their thoughts to themselves.9 And where democracy and education had not spread, as in most of the “third world,” another global trend—the advent of mass communications—was making it possible to mobilize movements in ways that leaders did not always anticipate, and could not always control.10 So as it became clear that the nuclear danger was diminishing, that the credibility of command economies was wearing thin, and that there were still universal standards of justice, it became harder to defend the idea that a few powerful leaders at the top, however praiseworthy their intentions, still had the right to determine how everyone else lived. Despite its elite origins, détente required support from below, and this proved difficult to obtain. It was like a building constructed on quicksand: the foundations were beginning to crack, even as the builders were finishing off the façade.


THE CENTERPIECE of détente was the Soviet-American effort to limit the nuclear arms race. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, which got under way late in 1969, had by 1972 produced a Soviet-American agreement capping the number of intercontinental and submarinelaunched ballistic missiles each side could deploy, as well as a treaty banning anything other than symbolic defenses against such missiles. Signed by Nixon and Brezhnev at the Moscow summit, the SALT I accords, as they came to be called, were significant for several reasons. They reflected recognition on the part of both superpowers that a continuing arms race could only make them less secure. They represented an acknowledgment on the part of the United States that the Soviet Union was now its equal in nuclear capabilities, and in some categories of weaponry its superior. They legitimized the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction: that remaining defenseless against a nuclear attack was the best way to keep one from happening. And they accepted satellite reconnaissance as a method of verifying compliance with these agreements. 11 But the SALT process, like détente itself, also evaded issues. One was nuclear arms reduction: the Moscow agreements froze existing ICBM and SLBM deployments, but did nothing to cut them back, or even to restrict the number of warheads each missile could carry. Imbalances were also a problem: SALT I left the Soviet Union well ahead of the United States in ICBMs, and with a smaller lead in SLBMs. The Nixon administration justified this asymmetry on the grounds that American missiles were more accurate than their Soviet counterparts and in large part equipped with multiple warheads. It also pointed out that SALT I placed no restrictions on long-range bombers, where the Americans had long enjoyed superiority, or on the shorter-range bombers and missiles they had placed on aircraft carriers and with NATO allies, or on the nuclear capabilities of Great Britain and France.12 The complexity of that argument made it difficult to sell to the United States Congress, however, which found it hard to understand why it should approve Soviet superiority in any category of strategic weaponry. That left an opening for Senator Henry Jackson—whose Jackson-Vanik amendment would soon strain Soviet-American relations in another way—to secure passage of a resolution requiring that all subsequent arms control agreements provide for numerical equality in all weapons systems covered. Jackson’s resolution complicated the next round of negotiations—SALT II—because Soviet and American military planners had deliberately chosen not to duplicate each other’s strategic arsenals. Now the negotiators would have to find a way, nonetheless, to impose equivalent limits on weapons systems that were not themselves equivalent. “How to accomplish it,” Kissinger recalled, “was generously left to my discretion.”13 It had taken two and a half years to negotiate the 1972 SALT I agreements, which tolerated asymmetries. The SALT II negotiations, which could not, were still dragging on when the Ford administration left office five years later. The Congress—and, increasingly, the Defense Department and the strategic studies community—was no longer willing to trust Kissinger to continue making the kinds of trade-offs among weapons systems that had produced SALT I: his methods, critics charged, had been too secret, too prone to miscalculation, too trusting that the Russians would keep their promises. SALT II was a more open process, but it was also for just this reason a less successful one.14 Jimmy Carter hoped, by dramatic means, to fix it. He had pledged during the 1976 campaign not simply to freeze strategic arsenals but to seek deep cuts in them—he even promised in his inaugural address to move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons altogether. But Carter had taken a still stronger position on human rights: having criticized Ford and Kissinger for failing to press the Russians sufficiently on this issue, he could hardly avoid doing so himself. So Carter did both things at once. He startled Kremlin leaders by calling for significantly greater reductions in strategic arms than the Ford administration had proposed, but he simultaneously irritated them by initiating a direct correspondence with Sakharov and by receiving Soviet dissidents at the White House. Carter himself was surprised, in turn, when Brezhnev harshly rejected his “deep cuts” proposal. SALT II was put on hold yet again.15 If Carter’s decisions were shortsighted, Brezhnev’s more than matched them. By the time the new American administration took office, the Soviet leader had developed serious health problems, brought on in part by excessive drug use.16 This made it difficult for him to focus on the intricacies of arms control, which even healthy leaders found hard to master. As a result, Brezhnev largely relinquished responsibility for these matters to the Soviet military, which undertook a series of initiatives that seemed to stretch the spirit of SALT I. They included ambitious programs for missile modernization and civil defense, together with a continuing emphasis, in strategic doctrine, on offensive operations.17 This made it easier for American critics of arms control to substantiate their own skepticism about SALT II.

Then, in 1977, the Soviet Union began deploying a new and highly accurate intermediate-range missile—the SS-20—against targets in Western Europe. Both sides had positioned such missiles in the past, but the SS-20 was a significant upgrade and the United States and its NATO allies were given no warning. Remarkably, neither was the Soviet foreign ministry: the Politburo approved the deployment solely on military grounds. The Kremlin’s top American specialist, Georgi Arbatov, later admitted that “[m]ost of our experts and diplomats found out about it through the Western press.” It was, Anatoly Dobrynin acknowledged, a “particularly disastrous” decision, because it provoked demands within NATO—completely unexpected in Moscow—for an American counter-deployment.18 By 1979 the Carter administration was ready with a proposal to install Pershing II and cruise missiles at selected sites in Western Europe. The Pershings were reputed to be fifteen times more accurate than the SS-20s. Flying time to Moscow would be about ten minutes.19 Despite these setbacks, the SALT II negotiators finally produced a complex treaty, which Carter and an obviously unhealthy Brezhnev signed at Vienna in June, 1979. But by that time the whole arms control process was under fire from critics within both the Democratic and Republican parties who claimed that it had accomplished nothing toward reducing the nuclear danger, that it had endangered western security by allowing improvements in Soviet capabilities, and that it was unverifiable. Carter submitted the treaty to the Senate nonetheless, but then in a misguided effort to demonstrate his own toughness, he challenged Moscow on what he claimed was the recent deployment of a Soviet “combat brigade” in Cuba. Further research produced the embarrassing fact that the unit had been there since 1962, and that its presence had been part of the deal by which Kennedy and Khrushchev had resolved the Cuban missile crisis. The controversy caused the Senate to delay consideration of the SALT II treaty, and it was still languishing in that body in December, 1979, when NATO agreed to the Pershing II and cruise missile deployments—only to have the Soviet Union respond by invading Afghanistan.20 III.

THE SEQUENCE of events that led it to do so can be traced back to another agreement—even more problematic than SALT I—reached at the 1972 Moscow summit. In a joint statement of “Basic Principles,” Nixon and Brezhnev promised that their countries would seek to avoid “efforts to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other.”21 Taken literally, this seemed to imply that the stability that had come to characterize superpower relations in Europe and Northeast Asia would now extend throughout the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America: that Washington and Moscow would reject whatever opportunities might arise to shift the status quo in those parts of the world. It soon became clear, though, that the “Basic Principles” were not to be taken literally. Like SALT, they papered over cracks.

The Russians welcomed the “Basic Principles” as yet another acknowledgment of parity with the Americans. Brezhnev was careful to insist, however, that the class struggle would continue: “That is to be expected since the world outlook and the class aims of socialism and capitalism are opposite and irreconcilable.”22 The Americans saw the “Basic Principles” as a way to constrain the Russians. “Of course [they] were not a legal contract,” Kissinger explained. They “established a standard of conduct by which to judge whether real progress was being made. . . . [E]fforts to reduce the danger of nuclear war . . . had to be linked to an end of the constant Soviet pressure against the global balance of power.”23 Despite appearances, then, there was no meeting of minds at Moscow on managing spheres of influence in the “third world.” If anything, the years that followed saw an intensified search for unilateral advantages there.

The first opportunity fell to the Americans. The Moscow summit had come as a shock to Anwar el-Sadat, Nasser’s successor as president of Egypt. The Soviet Union had done nothing to prevent Israel from taking the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Six-Day War, and now Brezhnev seemed to be ruling out future efforts to help Egypt get these territories back.24 Sadat decided, accordingly, to end his country’s long-time relationship with the U.S.S.R. and to seek a new one with the United States—which, as Israel’s ally, might be in a better position to deliver Israeli concessions. When Nixon and Kissinger ignored him, even after Sadat expelled some 15,000 Soviet military advisers from Egypt, he found a way to get their attention by launching a surprise attack across the Suez Canal in October, 1973. It was a war Sadat expected to lose, fought for a political objective he shrewdly calculated he would win. For would the Americans let Israel humiliate a leader who had already diminished Soviet influence in the Middle East?

They would not. After the Israelis repelled the Egyptian attack with the help of massive American arms shipments, Kissinger rebuffed a demand by Brezhnev for a jointly enforced cease-fire, even ordering a brief nuclear alert to reinforce the rejection. He then personally negotiated an end to hostilities, earning gratitude in both Cairo and Tel Aviv while the Russians gained nothing at all. Five years later, after negotiations with the Israelis mediated by President Carter, Sadat got the Sinai back, along with the Nobel Peace Prize he shared with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Egyptian leader, Kissinger concluded, had been “a remarkable man.” He seemed “free of the obsession with detail by which mediocre leaders think they are mastering events, only to be engulfed by them.”25 THE MIDDLEEAST

1967, 1979

This may have been subtle self-criticism, for it was Sadat who masterfully dangled the opportunity to eject the Soviet Union from the Middle East—and it was Nixon and Kissinger who took the bait. Détente, Kissinger later claimed, had been “partly a tranquilizer for Moscow as we sought to draw the Middle East into closer relations with us at the Soviets’ expense.”26 But this smacks of retrospective justification: there is little evidence that he or Nixon had this purpose in mind before Sadat made his move. What the episode revealed, instead, was the shakiness of détente: if a regional power could maneuver a superpower into seeking unilateral advantage at the expense of the other—thereby violating its explicit promise to the other—then as Dobrynin observed, détente “was very delicate and fragile.” The 1973 war and its aftermath “definitely damaged the trust between the leadership of both countries.”27 Dobrynin’s superiors were no better at resisting temptations when they arose. In the years that followed, the Soviet Union’s commitment to the class struggle pulled it into parts of the world that, by any realistic calculation of interests, could hardly have been considered vital. At least the Middle East, from which Kissinger sought to exclude the Russians, was strategically significant to the United States. But what was the importance, for the Soviet Union, of Vietnam, Angola, Somalia, and Ethiopia, all countries in which Moscow expanded its influence during the mid-1970s?

The only thing that linked these involvements, Dobrynin recalled, was “a simple but primitive idea of international solidarity, which meant doing our duty in the anti-imperialist struggle.” That pattern had first appeared in Vietnam, where Hanoi’s appeals to “fraternal solidarity” had regularly deflected Soviet pressure to end the war with the Americans, about which Kremlin leaders had never been enthusiastic. But North Vietnam’s victory in 1975—together with the Congressional prohibition on intervention in Angola—shifted the calculations: if the United States could be defeated in Southeast Asia and deterred in southern Africa, then how credible could American strength be elsewhere? Perhaps the class struggle in the “third world” really was taking hold. Such views were strongest, Dobrynin has argued, in the International Department of the Soviet Communist Party: “[C]onvinced that all struggle in the Third World had an ideological basis,” party leaders “managed to involve the Politburo in many Third World adventures.” The military establishment went along: “[S]ome of our top generals . . . were emotionally pleased by the defiance of America implied by our showing the flag in remote areas.”28 It was an unwise strategy, however, because it led the Politburo to relinquish control over where, when, and how it deployed resources: it felt obliged to respond whenever Marxists competing for power called upon it to do so. The policy went well beyond support for “genuine national liberation movements,” Dobrynin noted; instead it amounted “to interference on an ideological basis in the internal affairs of countries where domestic factions were struggling for power.” It was a kind of “ideological bondage.”29 And it quickly became the victim of victories in Vietnam and Angola. “As often happens in politics,” Arbatov has pointed out, “if you get away with something and it looks as if you’ve been successful, you are practically doomed to repeat the policy. You do this until you blunder into a really serious mess.”30 The blunders began in 1977 when Somalia, a Soviet client, attacked a recently installed Marxist regime in neighboring Ethiopia. Under pressure as in Angola from the militant Cubans, the Russians switched sides, leaving the Carter administration to align itself with the Somalis and gain useful naval facilities on the Red Sea. It was not at all clear what Moscow gained by supporting the Ethiopians, apart from the thanks of a brutal dictatorship in an impoverished landlocked country and solidarity with Fidel Castro. These events did, however, further poison relations with the United States. As Dobrynin later acknowledged: We made a serious mistake in involving ourselves in the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia and in the war in Angola. Our supply of military equipment to these areas, the activities there of Cuban troops, and especially our airlift to get them there, persuaded Americans that Moscow had undertaken a broad offensive against them for control over Africa. Although that was not really the case, these events strongly affected détente.

They did little, however, to alter the course of the Cold War. The efforts the superpowers expended on Africa during the 1970s, Dobrynin concluded in the 1990s, were “almost entirely in vain. . . . Twenty years later no one (except historians) could as much as remember them.”31

That was certainly not true of what came next. In April, 1978, to the surprise of Moscow, a Marxist coup took place in Afghanistan, resulting in the overthrow of that country’s pro-American government. The temptation to exploit this opportunity was too great to resist, and soon the Soviet Union was sending aid to the new regime in Kabul, which undertook an ambitious program to support land reform, women’s rights, and secular education. It did so, however, just as the revolution was brewing in neighboring Iran, which in January, 1979—in a severe setback for the United States—forced its long-time ally Shah Reza Khan Pahlavi into exile, replacing him with the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Russians and their new Afghan clients were no more prepared for this development than the Americans had been, and in mid-March a violent rebellion broke out in Herat, close to the Iranian border, which resulted in the deaths of some 5,000 people including fifty Soviet advisers and their families. The Afghans blamed Khomeini, but from Moscow’s perspective the unpopularity of the Kabul regime was also responsible.32 “Do you have support among the workers, city dwellers, [and] the petty bourgeoisie?” Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin demanded of Afghan Prime Minister Nur Mohammed Taraki in a top-secret telephone conversation. “Is there still anyone on your side?” Taraki’s response was chilling: “There is no active support on the part of the population. It is almost wholly under the influence of the Shiite slogans—follow not the infidels, but follow us.”33 It was a meaningful moment in the history of Marxism-Leninism: an ideology that had claimed to know the path to a world proletarian revolution found itself confronting a regional religious revolution for which its analytical tools were wholly inadequate.



Soviet leaders considered military intervention, but quickly decided against it. With the Carter-Brezhnev summit at Vienna approaching, with the SALT II treaty still to be signed, with NATO’s decision on Pershing and cruise missiles not yet made, with Moscow preparing for the 1980 Olympic games, and with détente still alive, it seemed an inopportune time to invade a country known for its skill in repelling invaders as far back as Alexander the Great. “The deployment of our forces in the territory of Afghanistan would immediately arouse the international community,” Kosygin explained to Taraki. “[O]ur troops would have to fight not only with foreign aggressors, but with a certain number of your people. And people do not forgive such things.”34 Nine months later, however, the Politburo reversed itself, launching a massive invasion of Afghanistan, the consequences of which would more than confirm Kosygin’s prophecy. The reasons reveal how “ideological bondage” led to strategic disaster. Having for the most part lost the support of the Afghan people, the leadership in Kabul fell into near civil war during the summer of 1979. In September, Taraki, just back from Moscow, tried unsuccessfully to assassinate his chief rival, Hafizullah Amin, only to have Amin arrest and execute him. That upset Brezhnev, who had personally promised Taraki support; it also alarmed Soviet intelligence, which knew that Amin had studied in the United States and had now initiated quiet contacts with Washington. The concern, as one K.G.B. officer put it, was that Amin was “doing a Sadat on us”—that if left in power, he would kick the Russians out, allow the Americans in, and invite them to place “their control and intelligence centers close to our most sensitive borders.”35 There seemed to be no alternative to replacing the new Afghan leader, but the only way to do that, the Soviet defense ministry insisted, was to send in some 75,000 troops to crush whatever internal resistance or foreign intervention might follow.

And what of the international reaction to such a move? The Vienna summit had now been held, the SALT II treaty was stalled in the United States Senate, and early in December the NATO allies had voted to go ahead with the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles. With all of this in mind, the top Politburo leaders—proceeding with minimal consultation as they had in authorizing the SS-20 deployment—ordered a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Military operations were to begin, with tactless timing, on Christmas Day. No one in the Soviet embassy in Washington was asked to predict the American reaction: whatever it might be, Foreign Minister Gromyko assured Dobrynin, it need not be taken into account. The whole thing would all be over, Brezhnev himself promised, “in three or four weeks.”36 IV.

DÉTENTE had failed, then, to halt the nuclear arms race, or to end superpower rivalries in the “third world,” or even to prevent the Soviet Union from using military force again to save “socialism,” as it had in Czechoslovakia twelve years earlier. That much was clear in January, 1980, a month in which President Carter withdrew the SALT II treaty from the Senate, imposed embargoes on grain and technology shipments to the U.S.S.R., asked for a significant increase in defense spending, announced that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics, and denounced the invasion of Afghanistan as “the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War.” It was a striking shift for a president who, on taking office three years earlier, had hoped to bring the Cold War to an end. Even Gromyko had to admit that “[t]he international situation . . . has taken a turn for the worse.”37 What was not so clear at the time, though, was what all this meant for the global balance of power. Most experts would probably have agreed that it had been tilting in Moscow’s favor through most of the 1970s. The United States had acknowledged strategic parity with the Soviet Union in SALT I, while that country had claimed the right, through the Brezhnev Doctrine, to resist all challenges to Marxism-Leninism wherever they might occur. Despite Kissinger’s success in excluding the Russians from the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations, the 1973 war had triggered an Arab oil embargo, followed by price increases that would stagger western economies for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile the U.S.S.R., a major oil exporter, was raking in huge profits. That made it possible to hold military spending steady as a percentage of gross national product during the 1970s, perhaps even to increase it—at a time when the equivalent United States budget, for reasons relating to both economics and politics, was being cut in half.38 Americans seemed mired in endless arguments with themselves, first over the Vietnam War, then Watergate, then, during Carter’s presidency, over charges that he had failed to protect important allies like the Shah of Iran or Anastasio Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator whose government fell to the Marxist Sandinistas in the summer of 1979. The low point came in November of that year when Iranians invaded the United States embassy in Teheran, taking several dozen diplomats and military guards hostage. This humiliation, closely followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few weeks later, made it seem as though Washington was on the defensive everywhere, and Moscow was on a roll. Kissinger captured the prevailing pessimism when he acknowledged in the first volume of his memoirs, published that year, that “our relative position was bound to decline as the USSR recovered from World War II. Our military and diplomatic position was never more favorable than at the very beginning of the containment policy in the late 1940s.”39 In this instance, though, Kissinger’s shrewdness as a historian deserted him. For it has long since been clear—and should have been clearer at the time—that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies were on the path to decline, and that détente was concealing their difficulties. One hint of this came as early as March, 1970, when in the spirit of Ostpolitik the East German authorities invited West German Chancellor Brandt to visit Erfurt, unwisely giving him a hotel room with a window overlooking a public square. To their intense embarrassment, hundreds of East Germans gathered under it to cheer their visitor: “[T]he preparation for the Erfurt meeting,” party officials admitted, “was not fully recognized as a key component in the class conflict between socialism and imperialism.”40 More serious signs of discontent arose in Poland the following December, when protests over food prices led the army to fire on and kill dozens of striking workers in Gdansk and Gdynia. Significantly, this crisis did not lead Moscow to invoke the Brezhnev Doctrine: instead Soviet leaders ordered an increase in the production of consumer goods—and they approved imports of food and technology from Western Europe and the United States. This made stability in the region contingent not on the use of military force, but rather on the willingness of capitalists to extend credit, a striking vulnerability for Marxist-Leninist regimes.41 Nor was the oil windfall without its downside. The Soviet Union chose to pass along price increases to the Eastern Europeans: this led to a doubling of their oil costs within a year. While not as dramatic as the increases the West faced, the unanticipated expenses undercut the improvements in living standards Moscow had hoped to achieve.42 Meanwhile, swelling oil revenues were diminishing incentives for Soviet planners to make their own economy more productive. It was no source of strength for the U.S.S.R. to be sustaining a defense burden that may well have been three times that of the United States by the end of the 1970s, when its gross domestic product was only about one-sixth the size of its American counterpart.43 “[W]e were arming ourselves like addicts,” Arbatov recalled, “without any apparent political need.”44 And oil fueled the addiction.

From this perspective, then, the Soviet Union’s support for Marxist revolutionaries in Africa, its SS-20 deployment, and its invasion of Afghanistan look less like a coordinated strategy to shift the global balance of power and more like the absence of any strategy at all. For what kind of logic assumes the permanence of unexpected windfalls? What kind of regime provokes those upon whom it has become economically dependent? What kind of leadership, for that matter, commits itself to the defense of human rights—as at Helsinki in 1975—but then is surprised when its own citizens claim such rights? The U.S.S.R. under Brezhnev’s faltering rule had become incapable of performing the most fundamental task of any effective strategy: the efficient use of available means to accomplish chosen ends. That left the field open for leaders elsewhere who were capable of such things.


THEY CAME, like John Paul II, from unexpected origins: perhaps that is what led them to question the conventional wisdom of the 1970s—indeed of the entire Cold War—from unexpected points of view. They took advantage of the fact that détente, despite the hopes held for it, had changed so little. They used to the utmost their strengths as individuals: their personal character, their perseverance in the face of adversity, their fearlessness and frankness, but above all their dramatic skill, not only in conveying these qualities to millions of other people, but also in persuading those millions themselves to embrace those qualities. They made the 1980s astonishingly different from the 1970s. And they began the process of ending the Cold War.

It could hardly have been anticipated, for example, that a long-time follower of Mao Zedong, at five feet in height barely visible beside him, would use the power of the Chinese Communist Party to give his country a market economy: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black,” Deng Xiaoping liked to say, “so long as it catches mice.” Deng’s views on cats—by which he meant ideologies—got him into trouble with Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and at the time of Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, Deng was in exile with his family growing vegetables, chopping wood, working in a tractor repair plant, and nursing his son, whom Red Guards had thrown from the roof of a building, permanently paralyzing him. Mao called Deng back to Beijing the following year, acknowledging that he had “done good deeds seventy percent of the time and bad deeds thirty percent”—only to purge him again in 1976. Always resilient, Deng fled to southern China, hid out, and patiently awaited yet another rehabilitation. It came shortly after Mao’s death in September of that year, and by the end of 1978 Deng had outmaneuvered all of his rivals to become China’s “paramount” leader.45 He had already by then turned the tables on his predecessor by claiming that Mao had been right seventy percent of the time and wrong thirty percent: this now became party doctrine.46 Among the “right” things Mao had done were reviving China as a great power, maintaining the Communist Party’s political monopoly, and opening relations with the United States as a way of countering the Soviet Union. Among the “wrong” things was Mao’s embrace of a disastrously administered command economy. With this pronouncement on percentages, Deng won himself room to pursue a very different path.

It involved experimenting with markets at local and regional levels, after which Deng would declare whatever worked to be consistent with Marxist-Leninist principles. Through this bottom-up approach, he showed that a communist party could significantly, even radically, improve the lives of the people it ruled—but only by embracing capitalism. Per capita income tripled in China between 1978 and 1994. Gross domestic product quadrupled. Exports expanded by a factor of ten. And by the time of Deng’s death in 1997, the Chinese economy had become one of the largest in the world.47 The contrast with the moribund Soviet economy, which despite high oil prices showed no growth at all in the 1970s and actually contracted during the early 1980s, was an indictment from which Soviet leaders never recovered. “After all,” the recently deposed Mikhail Gorbachev commented ruefully in 1993, “China today is capable of feeding its people who number more than one billion.”48 Nor could it have been expected that the first woman to become prime minister of Great Britain would challenge the social welfare state in Western Europe. Margaret Thatcher’s path to power, like Deng’s, had not been easy. Born without wealth or status, disadvantaged by gender in a male-dominated political establishment, she rose to the top through hard work, undisguised ambition, and an utter unwillingness to mince words. Her principal targets were high taxes, nationalized industries, deference to labor unions, and intrusive government regulation. “No theory of government was ever given a fairer test . . . than democratic socialism received in Britain,” she later argued. “Yet it was a miserable failure in every respect.” The results she produced after eleven years in power were not as impressive as Deng’s, but they did show that privatization, deregulation, and the encouragement of entrepreneurs—even, critics said, of greed—could command wide popular support.49 That too was a blow to Marxism, for if capitalism really did exploit “the masses,” why did so many among them cheer the “iron lady”?

Thatcher minced no words either about détente. “[W]e can argue about Soviet motives,” she told an American audience soon after taking office, “but the fact is that the Russians have the weapons and are getting more of them. It is simple prudence for the West to respond.” The invasion of Afghanistan did not surprise her: “I had long understood that détente had been ruthlessly used by the Soviets to exploit western weakness and disarray. I knew the beast.”50 Not since Churchill had a British leader used language in this way: suddenly words, not euphemisms, were being used again to speak truths, not platitudes. From California a former movie actor turned politician turned broadcaster gave the new prime minister a rave review. “I couldn’t be happier,” Ronald Reagan told his radio audience. “I’ve been rooting for her . . . since our first meeting. If anyone can remind England of the greatness she knew . . . when alone and unafraid her people fought the Battle of Britain it will be the Prime Minister the Eng[lish] press has already nicknamed ‘Maggie.’”51 Soon to declare his own candidacy for the presidency of the United States, Reagan had already made it clear what he thought of détente: “[I]sn’t that what a farmer has with his turkey—until thanksgiving day?”52 His rise to power, like that of Deng, Thatcher, and John Paul II, would also have been difficult to anticipate, but at least his acting skills were professionally acquired. His fame as a film star predated the Cold War, even World War II, and gave him a head start when he went into politics. It also caused his opponents—sometimes even his friends—to underestimate him, a serious mistake, for Reagan was as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever.53 His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity. And what he saw was simply this: that because détente perpetuated—and had been meant to perpetuate—the Cold War, only killing détente could end the Cold War.

Reagan came to this position through faith, fear, and self-confidence. His faith was that democracy and capitalism would triumph over communism, a “temporary aberration which will one day,” he predicted in 1975, “disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature.”54 His fear was that before that happened human beings would disappear as the result of a nuclear war. “[W]e live in a world,” he warned in 1976, “in which the great powers have aimed . . . at each other horrible missiles of destruction . . . that can in minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy virtually the civilized world we live in.”55 It followed that neither communism nor nuclear weapons should continue to exist, and yet détente was ensuring that both did. “I don’t know about you,” he told a radio audience in 1977, “but I [don’t] exactly tear my hair and go into a panic at the possibility of losing détente.”56 It was that jaunty self-confidence—Reagan’s ability to threaten détente without seeming threatening himself—that propelled him to a landslide victory over Carter in November, 1980, thereby bringing him to power alongside the other great contemporaries, and the other great actors, of his age.

There was one more—as it happened, another Pole—whose name few people would have known only a few months earlier. A short, squat man with a drooping mustache and jerky Charlie Chaplin–like movements, he had seen the shootings at the Gdansk shipyard in 1970, and had been sacked from his job there in 1976 for trying to organize the workers. Now, on August 14, 1980, with protests mounting once again, the shipyard director was trying to calm an angry crowd. Lech Wałęsa scrambled up on an excavator behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, and said: “Remember me?” Two weeks later—after lots of scrambling to rally his supporters from atop excavators, trucks, and the shipyard gate—Wałęsa announced the formation of the first independent and self-governing trade union ever in the Marxist-Leninist world. The pen with which he co-signed the charter for Solidarność (Solidarity) bore the image of John Paul II. And from Rome the pontiff let it be known, quietly but unmistakably, that he approved.57 It was a moment at which several trends converged: the survival of a distinctive Polish identity despite the attempts of powerful neighbors, over several centuries, to try to smother it; the church’s success in maintaining its autonomy through decades of war, revolution, and occupation; the state’s incompetence in managing the post–World War II economy, which in turn discredited the ruling party’s ideology. But trends hardly ever converge automatically. It takes leaders to make them do so, and here the actor-priest from Kraków and the actorelectrician from Gdansk played to each other’s strengths—so much so that plans began to be made to remove them both from the stage.

The agent was Mehmet Ali Ağca, a young Turk who may have plotted to kill Wałęsa on a January, 1981, visit to Rome, and who did shoot and almost kill the pope in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. Ağca’s ties to Bulgarian intelligence quickly became clear. Soviet complicity was more difficult to establish, but it strains credulity to suggest that the Bulgarians would have undertaken an operation of this importance without Moscow’s approval. The Italian state prosecutor’s official report hinted strongly at this: “In some secret place, where every secret is wrapped in another secret, some political figure of great power . . . mindful of the needs of the Eastern bloc, decided that it was necessary to kill Pope Wojtyla.” The pope’s biographer put it more bluntly: “The simplest and most compelling answer . . . [is that] the Soviet Union was not an innocent in this business.”58 John Paul II recovered, attributing his survival to divine intervention. But Solidarity found its survival increasingly at risk as Kremlin leaders, alarmed that any communist government would share power with anybody, pressed the Polish authorities to suppress it. “Our friends listen, agree with our recommendations, but do practically nothing,” Brezhnev fumed, “[a]nd the counterrevolution is advancing on every front.” It could even take hold within the U.S.S.R. itself: what was happening in Poland was “having an influence . . . in the western oblasts of our country,” K.G.B. chief Yuri Andropov warned. “Additionally, . . . spontaneous demonstrations have flared up in parts of Georgia, [with] groups of people shouting anti-Soviet slogans. . . . So we have to take strict measures here as well.”59 Apart from warning the Poles and cracking down on its own dissidents, however, it was not at all clear what the Soviet Union could do about the challenge Solidarity posed. Reagan’s election ensured that any occupation of Poland would provoke an even harsher response than Carter’s to the invasion of Afghanistan; meanwhile the Red Army was bogged down in that latter country with costs and casualties mounting and no exit strategy in sight. The Soviet economy could hardly stand the strain of supporting Eastern Europe, something it would have to do if, as seemed certain in the event of military action against Poland, the West imposed still further sanctions. Moreover, the Polish situation was not like the one in Czechoslovakia in 1968. General Anatoly Gribkov recalls warning his superiors: In Czechoslovakia, events developed beginning with the highest echelons of power. In Poland, on the other hand, it is the people rising up who have all stopped believing in the government of the country and the leadership of the Polish United Workers Party. . . . The Polish armed forces are battle-ready and patriotic. They will not fire on their own people.60


By December, 1981, the Politburo had decided not to intervene: “[E]ven if Poland falls under the control of ‘Solidarity,’ that is the way it will be,” Andropov told his colleagues. “If the capitalist countries pounce on the Soviet Union, . . . that will be very burdensome for us. We must be concerned above all with our own country.” The Kremlin’s top ideologist, Mikhail Suslov, agreed: “If troops are introduced, that will mean a catastrophe. I think we have reached a unanimous view here on this matter, and there can be no consideration at all of introducing troops.”61 This was a remarkable decision in two respects. It meant, first, the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine, and hence of the Soviet Union’s willingness—extending all the way back through Hungary in 1956 and East Germany in 1953—to use force to preserve its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. But it also acknowledged that the world’s most powerful Marxist-Leninist state no longer represented proletarians beyond its borders, for in Poland at least the workers themselves had rejected that ideology. Had these conclusions become known at the time, the unraveling of Soviet authority that took place in 1989 might well have occurred eight years earlier.

But they did not become known: in a rare instance of successful dramatization, the Politburo convinced the new Polish leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, that the U.S.S.R. was about to intervene. Desperate to avoid that outcome, he reluctantly imposed martial law on the morning of December 13, 1981, imprisoned the organizers of Solidarity, and abruptly ended the experiment of granting workers autonomy within a workers’ state. Ever the actor, Lech Wałęsa had his line ready for the occasion. “This is the moment of your defeat,” he told the men who came to arrest him. “These are the last nails in the coffin of Communism.”62 VI.

ON MARCH 30, 1981, six weeks before the attempt on the pope’s life, another would-be assassin shot and almost killed Reagan. The Soviet Union had nothing to do with this attack: it was the effort, rather, of a demented young man, John W. Hinckley, to impress his own movie star idol, the actress Jodie Foster. The improbable motive behind this near-fatal act suggests the importance and vulnerability of individuals in history, for had Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, succeeded him at that point, the Reagan presidency would have been a historical footnote and there probably would not have been an American challenge to the Cold War status quo. Bush, like most foreign policy experts of his generation, saw that conflict as a permanent feature of the international landscape. Reagan, like Wałęsa, Thatcher, Deng, and John Paul II, definitely did not.63 He shared their belief in the power of words, in the potency of ideas, and in the uses of drama to shatter the constraints of conventional wisdom. He saw that the Cold War itself had become a convention: that too many minds in too many places had resigned themselves to its perpetuation. He sought to break the stalemate—which was, he believed, largely psychological—by exploiting Soviet weaknesses and asserting western strengths. His preferred weapon was public oratory.

The first example came at Notre Dame University on May 17, 1981, only a month and a half after Reagan’s brush with death. The pope himself had been shot five days earlier, so this could have been an occasion for somber reflections on the precariousness of human existence. Instead, in the spirit of John Paul II’s “be not afraid,” a remarkably recovered president assured his audience “[t]hat the years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization.” And then he made a bold prediction, all the more striking for the casualness with which he delivered it: The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to . . . denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.

This was a wholly new tone after years of high-level pronouncements about the need to learn to live with the U.S.S.R. as a competitive superpower. Now Reagan was focusing on the transitory character of Soviet power, and on the certainty with which the West could look forward to its demise.64

The president developed this theme in an even more dramatic setting on June 8, 1982. The occasion was a speech to the British Parliament, delivered at Westminster with Prime Minister Thatcher in attendance. Reagan began by talking about Poland, a country which had “contributed mightily to [European] civilization” and was continuing to do so “by being magnificently unreconciled to oppression.” He then echoed Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech by reminding his audience:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Varna on the Black Sea, the regimes planted by totalitarianism have had more than 30 years to establish their legitimacy. But none—not one regime—has yet been able to risk free elections. Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.

Karl Marx, Reagan acknowledged, had been right: “We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, . . . where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order.” That crisis was happening, though, not in the capitalist West, but in the Soviet Union, a country “that runs against the tides of history by denying human freedom and human dignity,” while “unable to feed its own people.” Moscow’s nuclear capabilities could not shield it from these facts: “Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders.” It followed then, Reagan concluded—pointedly paraphrasing Leon Trotsky—that “the march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”65 The speech could not have been better calculated to feed the anxieties the Soviet leadership already felt. Martial law had clamped a lid on reform in Poland, but that only fueled resentment there and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Afghanistan had become a bloody stalemate. Oil prices had plummeted, leaving the Soviet economy in shambles. And the men who ran the U.S.S.R. seemed literally to exemplify its condition: Brezhnev finally succumbed to his many ailments in November, 1982, but Andropov, who succeeded him, was already suffering from the kidney disease that would take his life a year and a half later. The contrast with the vigorous Reagan, five years younger than Brezhnev but three years older than Andropov, was too conspicuous to miss.

Then Reagan deployed religion. “There is sin and evil in the world,” he reminded the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, in words the pope might have used, “and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” As long as communists “preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.” Therefore:

I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. . . . I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label [ing] both sides equally at fault, [of ignoring] the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.

Reagan chose the phrase, he later admitted, “with malice aforethought. . . . I think it worked.”66 The “evil empire” speech completed a rhetorical offensive designed to expose what Reagan saw as the central error of détente: the idea that the Soviet Union had earned geopolitical, ideological, economic, and moral legitimacy as an equal to the United States and the other western democracies in the post–World War II international system.

The onslaught, however, was not limited to words. Reagan accelerated Carter’s increase in American military spending: by 1985 the Pentagon’s budget was almost twice what it had been in 1980.67 He did nothing to revive the SALT II treaty, proposing instead START—Strategic Arms Reduction Talks—which both his domestic critics and the Russians derided as an effort to kill the whole arms control process. The reaction was similar when Reagan suggested not deploying Pershing II and cruise missiles if the Soviet Union would dismantle all of its SS-20s. After Moscow contemptuously rejected this “zero-option,” the installation of the new NATO missiles went ahead, despite a widespread nuclear freeze movement in the United States and vociferous anti-nuclear protests in western Europe.

But Reagan’s most significant deed came on March 23, 1983, when he surprised the Kremlin, most American arms control experts, and many of his own advisers by repudiating the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. He had never thought that it made much sense: it was like two Old West gunslingers “standing in a saloon aiming their guns to each other’s head—permanently.” He had been shocked to learn that there were no defenses against incoming missiles, and that in the curious logic of deterrence this was supposed to be a good thing.68 And so he asked, in a nationally televised speech: “What if. . . we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” It was an “emperor’s new clothes” question, which no one else in a position of responsibility in Washington over the past two decades had dared to ask.

The reason was that stability in Soviet-American relations had come to be prized above all else. To attempt to build defenses against offensive weapons, the argument ran, could upset the delicate equilibrium upon which deterrence was supposed to depend. That made sense if one thought in static terms—if one assumed that the nuclear balance defined the Cold War and would continue to do so indefinitely. Reagan, however, thought in evolutionary terms. He saw that the Soviet Union had lost its ideological appeal, that it was losing whatever economic strength it once had, and that its survival as a superpower could no longer be taken for granted. That made stability, in his view, an outmoded, even immoral, priority. If the U.S.S.R. was crumbling, what could justify continuing to hold East Europeans hostage to the Brezhnev Doctrine—or, for that matter, continuing to hold Americans hostage to the equally odious concept of Mutual Assured Destruction? Why not hasten the disintegration?

That is what the Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to do. It challenged the argument that vulnerability could provide security. It called into question the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a centerpiece of SALT I. It exploited the Soviet Union’s backwardness in computer technology, a field in which the Russians knew that they could not keep up. And it undercut the peace movement by framing the entire project in terms of lowering the risk of nuclear war: the ultimate purpose of SDI, Reagan insisted, was not to freeze nuclear weapons, but rather to render them “impotent and obsolete.”69 This last theme reflected something else about Reagan that almost everybody at the time missed: he was the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been president of the United States. He made no secret of this, but the possibility that a right-wing Republican anti-communist promilitary chief executive could also be an anti-nuclear activist defied so many stereotypes that hardly anyone noticed Reagan’s repeated promises, as he had put it in the “evil empire” speech, “to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination.” 70 Reagan was deeply committed to SDI: it was not a bargaining chip to give up in future negotiations. That did not preclude, though, using it as a bluff: the United States was years, even decades, away from developing a missile defense capability, but Reagan’s speech persuaded the increasingly frightened Soviet leaders that this was about to happen. They were convinced, Dobrynin recalled, “that the great technological potential of the United States had scored again and treated Reagan’s statement as a real threat.”71 Having exhausted their country by catching up in offensive missiles, they suddenly faced a new round of competition demanding skills they had no hope of mastering. And the Americans seemed not even to have broken into a sweat.

The reaction, in the Kremlin, approached panic. Andropov had concluded, while still head of the K.G.B., that the new administration in Washington might be planning a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. “Reagan is unpredictable,” he warned. “You should expect anything from him.”72 There followed a two-year intelligence alert, with agents throughout the world ordered to look for evidence that such preparations were under way.73 The tension became so great that when a South Korean airliner accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace over Sakhalin on September 1, 1983, the military authorities in Moscow assumed the worst and ordered it shot down, killing 269 civilians, 63 of them Americans. Unwilling to admit the mistake, Andropov maintained that the incident had been a “sophisticated provocation organized by the U.S. special services.”74 Then something even scarier happened that attracted no public notice. The United States and its NATO allies had for years carried out fall military exercises, but the ones that took place in November—designated “Able Archer 83”—involved a higher level of leadership participation than was usual. The Soviet intelligence agencies kept a close watch on these maneuvers, and their reports caused Andropov and his top aides to conclude—briefly—that a nuclear attack was imminent. It was probably the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis, and yet no one in Washington knew of it until a well-placed spy in the K.G.B.’s London headquarters alerted British intelligence, which passed the information along to the Americans.75 That definitely got Reagan’s attention. Long worried about the danger of a nuclear war, the president had already initiated a series of quiet contacts with Soviet officials—mostly unreciprocated—aimed at defusing tensions. The Able Archer crisis convinced him that he had pushed the Russians far enough, that it was time for another speech. It came at the beginning of Orwell’s fateful year, on January 16, 1984, but Big Brother was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in lines only he could have composed, Reagan suggested placing the Soviet-American relationship in the capably reassuring hands of Jim and Sally and Ivan and Anya. One White House staffer, puzzled by the hand-written addendum to the prepared text, exclaimed a bit too loudly: “Who wrote this shit?”76 Once again, the old actor’s timing was excellent. Andropov died the following month, to be succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, an enfeebled geriatric so zombie-like as to be beyond assessing intelligence reports, alarming or not. Having failed to prevent the NATO missile deployments, Foreign Minister Gromyko soon grudgingly agreed to resume arms control negotiations. Meanwhile Reagan was running for re-election as both a hawk and a dove: in November he trounced his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale. And when Chernenko died in March, 1985, at the age of seventy-four, it seemed an all-too-literal validation of Reagan’s predictions about “last pages” and historical “ash-heaps.” Seventy-four himself at the time, the president had another line ready: “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians, if they keep dying on me?”77 VII.

“WE CAN’T go on living like this,” Mikhail Gorbachev recalls saying to his wife, Raisa, on the night before the Politburo appointed him, at the age of fifty-four, to succeed Chernenko as general secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.78 That much was obvious not just to Gorbachev but even to the surviving elders who selected him: the Kremlin could not continue to be run as a home for the aged. Not since Stalin had so young a man reached the top of the Soviet hierarchy. Not since Lenin had there been a university-educated Soviet leader. And never had there been one so open about his country’s shortcomings, or so candid in acknowledging the failures of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Gorbachev had been trained as a lawyer, not an actor, but he understood the uses of personality at least as well as Reagan did. Vice President Bush, who represented the United States at Chernenko’s funeral, reported back that Gorbachev “has a disarming smile, warm eyes, and an engaging way of making an unpleasant point and then bouncing back to establish real communication with his interlocutors.” Secretary of State George Shultz, who was also there, described him as “totally different from any Soviet leader I’ve ever met.” Reagan himself, on meeting Gorbachev at the November, 1985, Geneva summit, found “warmth in his face and style, not the coldness bordering on hatred I’d seen in most other senior Soviet leaders I’d met until then.”79 For the first time since the Cold War began the U.S.S.R. had a ruler who did not seem sinister, boorish, unresponsive, senile—or dangerous. Gorbachev was “intelligent, well-educated, dynamic, honest, with ideas and imagination,” one of his closest advisers, Anatoly Chernyaev, noted in his private diary. “Myths and taboos (including ideological ones) are nothing for him. He could flatten any of them.” When a Soviet citizen congratulated him early in 1987 for having replaced a regime of “stonefaced sphinxes,” Gorbachev proudly published the letter.80

What would replace the myths, taboos, and sphinxes, however, was less clear. Gorbachev knew that the Soviet Union could not continue on its existing path, but unlike John Paul II, Deng, Thatcher, Reagan, and Wałęsa, he did not know what the new path should be. He was at once vigorous, decisive, and adrift: he poured enormous energy into shattering the status quo without specifying how to reassemble the pieces. As a consequence, he allowed circumstances—and often the firmer views of more far-sighted contemporaries—to determine his own priorities. He resembled, in this sense, the eponymous hero of Woody Allen’s movie Zelig, who managed to be present at all the great events of his time, but only by taking on the character, even the appearance, of the stronger personalities who surrounded him.81 Gorbachev’s malleability was most evident in his dealings with Reagan, who had long insisted that he could get through to a Soviet leader if he could ever meet one face-to-face. That had not been possible with Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko, which made Reagan all the keener to try with Gorbachev. The new Kremlin boss came to Geneva bristling with distrust: the president, he claimed, was seeking “to use the arms race . . . to weaken the Soviet Union. . . . But we can match any challenge, though you might not think so.” Reagan responded that “we would prefer to sit down and get rid of nuclear weapons, and with them, the threat of war.” SDI would make that possible: the United States would even share the technology with the Soviet Union. Reagan was being emotional, Gorbachev protested: SDI was only “one man’s dream.” Reagan countered by asking why “it was so horrifying to seek to develop a defense against this awful threat.”82 The summit broke up inconclusively.

Two months later, though, Gorbachev proposed publicly that the United States and the Soviet Union commit themselves to ridding the world of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Cynics saw this as an effort to test Reagan’s sincerity, but Chernyaev detected a deeper motive. Gorbachev, he concluded, had “really decided to end the arms race no matter what. He is taking this ‘risk’ because, as he understands, it’s no risk at all—because nobody would attack us even if we disarmed completely.” 83 Just two years earlier Andropov had thought Reagan capable of launching a surprise attack. Now Gorbachev felt confident that the United States would never do this. Reagan’s position had not changed: he had always asked Soviet leaders to “trust me.”84 After meeting Reagan, Gorbachev began to do so.

A nuclear disaster did, nevertheless, occur—not because of war but as the result of an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. This event also changed Gorbachev. It revealed “the sicknesses of our system . . . the concealing or hushing up of accidents and other bad news, irresponsibility and carelessness, slipshod work, wholesale drunkenness.” For decades, he admonished the Politburo, “scientists, specialists, and ministers have been telling us that everything was safe. . . . [Y]ou think that we will look on you as gods. But now we have ended up with a fiasco.” Henceforth there would have to be glasnost’ (publicity) and perestroika (restructuring) within the Soviet Union itself. “Chernobyl,” Gorbachev acknowledged, “made me and my colleagues rethink a great many things.”85 The next Reagan-Gorbachev summit, held the following October in Reykjavik, Iceland, showed how far the rethinking had gone. Gorbachev dismissed earlier Soviet objections and accepted Reagan’s “zero option,” which would eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. He went on to propose a 50 percent cut in Soviet and American strategic weapons, in return for which the United States would agree to honor the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for the next decade while confining SDI to laboratory testing. Not to be outdone, Reagan suggested phasing out all intercontinental ballistic missiles within that period and reiterated his offer to share SDI. Gorbachev was skeptical, leading Reagan to wonder how anyone could object to “defenses against non-existent weapons.” The president then proposed a return to Reykjavik in 1996: He and Gorbachev would come to Iceland, and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them. Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world. . . . The President . . . would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say “Hello, Mikhail.” And Gorbachev would say, “Ron, is it you?” And then they would destroy the last missile.

It was one of Reagan’s finest performances, but Gorbachev for the moment remained unmoved: the United States would have to give up the right to deploy SDI. That was unacceptable to Reagan, who angrily ended the summit.86

Both men quickly recognized, though, the significance of what had happened: to the astonishment of their aides and allies, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union had found that they shared an interest, if not in SDI technology, then at least in the principle of nuclear abolition. The logic was Reagan’s, but Gorbachev had come to accept it. Reykjavik, he told a press conference, had not been a failure: “[I]t is a breakthrough, which allowed us for the first time to look over the horizon.”87

The two men never agreed formally to abolish nuclear weapons, nor did missile defense come anywhere close to feasibility during their years in office. But at their third summit in Washington in December, 1987, they did sign a treaty providing for the dismantling of all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. “Dovorey no provorey,” Reagan insisted at the signing ceremony, exhausting his knowledge of the Russian language: “Trust but verify.” “You repeat that at every meeting,” Gorbachev laughed. “I like it,” Reagan admitted.88 Soon Soviet and American observers were witnessing the actual destruction of the SS-20, Pershing II, and cruise missiles that had revived Cold War tensions only a few years before—and pocketing the pieces as souvenirs. 89 If by no means “impotent,” certain categories of nuclear weapons had surely become “obsolete.” It was Reagan, more than anyone else, who made that happen.

Gorbachev’s impressionability also showed up in economics. He had been aware, from his travels outside the Soviet Union before assuming the leadership, that “people there . . . were better off than in our country.” It seemed that “our aged leaders were not especially worried about our undeniably lower living standards, our unsatisfactory way of life, and our falling behind in the field of advanced technologies.” 90 But he had no clear sense of what to do about this. So Secretary of State Shultz, a former economics professor at Stanford, took it upon himself to educate the new Soviet leader.

Shultz began by lecturing Gorbachev, as early as 1985, on the impossibility of a closed society being a prosperous society: “People must be free to express themselves, move around, emigrate and travel if they want to. . . . Otherwise they can’t take advantage of the opportunities available. The Soviet economy will have to be radically changed to adapt to the new era.” “You should take over the planning office here in Moscow,” Gorbachev joked, “because you have more ideas than they have.” In a way, this is what Shultz did. Over the next several years, he used his trips to that city to run tutorials for Gorbachev and his advisers, even bringing pie charts to the Kremlin to illustrate his argument that as long as it retained a command economy, the Soviet Union would fall further and further behind the rest of the developed world.91 Gorbachev was surprisingly receptive. He echoed some of Shultz’s thinking in his 1987 book, Perestroika: “How can the economy advance,” he asked, “if it creates preferential conditions for backward enterprises and penalizes the foremost ones?”92 When Reagan visited the Soviet Union in May, 1988, Gorbachev arranged for him to lecture at Moscow State University on the virtues of market capitalism. From beneath a huge bust of Lenin, the president evoked computer chips, rock stars, movies, and the “irresistible power of unarmed truth.” The students gave him a standing ovation.93 Soon Gorbachev was repeating what he had learned to Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush: “Whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with a united, integrated, European economy. . . . Whether we want it or not, Japan is one more center of world politics. . . . China . . . is [another] huge reality. . . . All these, I repeat, are huge events typical of a regrouping of forces in the world.”94 Most of this, however, was rhetoric: Gorbachev was never willing to leap directly to a market economy in the way that Deng Xiaoping had done. He reminded the Politburo late in 1988 that Franklin D. Roosevelt had saved American capitalism by “borrow[ing] socialist ideas of planning, state regulation, [and] . . . the principle of more social fairness.” The implication was that Gorbachev could save socialism by borrowing from capitalism, but just how remained uncertain. “[R]epeated incantations about ‘socialist values’ and ‘purified ideas of October,’” Chernyaev observed several months later, “provoke an ironic response in knowing listeners. . . . [T]hey sense that there’s nothing behind them.”95 After the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev acknowledged his failure. “The Achilles heel of socialism was the inability to link the socialist goal with the provision of incentives for efficient labor and the encouragement of initiative on the part of individuals. It became clear in practice that a market provides such incentives best of all.”96 There was, however, one lesson Reagan and his advisers tried to teach Gorbachev that he did not need to learn: it had to do with the difficulty of sustaining an unpopular, overextended, and antiquated empire. The United States had, since Carter’s final year in office, provided covert and sometimes overt support to forces resisting Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere. By 1985 there was talk in Washington of a “Reagan Doctrine”: a campaign to turn the forces of nationalism against the Soviet Union by making the case that, with the Brezhnev Doctrine, it had become the last great imperialist power. Gorbachev’s emergence raised the possibility of convincing a Kremlin leader himself that the “evil empire” was a lost cause, and over the next several years Reagan tried to do this. His methods included quiet persuasion, continued assistance to anti-Soviet resistance movements, and as always dramatic speeches: the most sensational one came at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, when—against the advice of the State Department—the president demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”97 For once, a Reagan performance fell flat: the reaction in Moscow was unexpectedly restrained. Despite this challenge to the most visible symbol of Soviet authority in Europe, planning went ahead for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Washington summit later that year. The reason, it is now clear, is that the Brezhnev Doctrine had died when the Politburo decided, six years earlier, against invading Poland. From that moment on Kremlin leaders depended upon threats to use force to maintain their control over Eastern Europe—but they knew that they could not actually use force. Gorbachev was aware of this, and had even tried to signal his Warsaw Pact allies, in 1985, that they were on their own: “I had the feeling that they were not taking it altogether seriously.”98 So he began making the point openly.

One could always “suppress, compel, bribe, break or blast,” he wrote in his book Perestroika, “but only for a certain period. From the point of view of long-term, big-time politics, no one will be able to subordinate others. . . . Let everyone make his own choice, and let us all respect that choice.”99 Decisions soon followed to begin withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan and to reduce support for Marxist regimes elsewhere in the “third world.” Eastern Europe, though, was another matter: the prevailing view in Washington as well as in European capitals on both sides of the Cold War divide was that the U.S.S.R. would never voluntarily relinquish its sphere of influence there. “Any Soviet yielding of the area,” one western analyst commented in 1987, “not only would undermine the ideological claims of Communism . . . and degrade the Soviet Union’s credentials as a confident global power, but also would gravely jeopardize a basic internal Soviet consensus and erode the domestic security of the system itself.”100 For Gorbachev, though, any attempt to maintain control over unwilling peoples through the use of force would degrade the Soviet system by overstretching its resources, discrediting its ideology, and resisting the irresistible forces of democratization that, for both moral and practical reasons, were sweeping the world. And so he borrowed a trick from Reagan by making a dramatic speech of his own: he announced to the United Nations General Assembly, on December 7, 1988, that the Soviet Union would unilaterally cut its ground force commitment to the Warsaw Pact by half a million men. “It is obvious,” he argued, “that force and the threat of force cannot be and should not be an instrument of foreign policy. . . . Freedom of choice is . . . a universal principle, and it should know no exceptions.”101 The speech “left a huge impression,” Gorbachev boasted to the Politburo upon his return to Moscow, and “created an entirely different background for perceptions of our policies and the Soviet Union as a whole.”102 He was right about that. It suddenly became apparent, just as Reagan was leaving office, that the Reagan Doctrine had been pushing against an open door. But Gorbachev had also made it clear, to the peoples and the governments of Eastern Europe, that the door was now open.

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