Gorbachev did not end the Cold War alone — the West won

Gorbachev decided to fold up the Soviet Union without a military confrontation, for which he certainly deserves praise, but to present him as a man who ended the evil of European Communism out of a deliberate choice is a misreading of history, and one designed to minimise to essential contributions of Reagan and Thatcher.
reagan and gorbachev
Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev shaking hands with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.
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The death of Mikhail Gorbachev aged 91 has opened a predictable sluice-gate of eulogies from the world’s great and good which taken together present a totally false narrative about how Soviet Communism was finally defeated. Statements from Joe Biden, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, President Emmanuel Macron and many others present the picture of a saintly man of peace who deliberately chose to end the Soviet system out of the kindness of his heart. In fact, Gorbachev was given absolutely no choice but to abandon Communism, because the USSR had been left economically and morally bankrupt and broken by the far-sighted and brave policies pursued by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, ably assisted by Pope John Paul II.   

Gorbachev had no intention of tearing down the Berlin Wall before Reagan demanded it. He did decide to fold up the Soviet Union without a military confrontation, for which he certainly deserves praise, but to present him as a man who ended the evil of European Communism out of a deliberate choice is a ludicrous misreading of history, and one designed to minimise the essential contributions of Reagan and Thatcher.

For Gorbachev had initially hoped to save Russian Communism by reforming it, but in so doing he unleashed forces that spelt doom for the very system he was initially trying to strengthen. ‘He wanted a more efficient Soviet Union’, the Estonian leader Vaino Valjas said of him, ‘but finished with no Soviet Union at all.’

Gorbachev was as much of a Cold War warrior as any other Politburo member until Western policies forced him to renounce the Communist creed; he was its youngest member when the Soviets deliberately shot down the South Korean civilian airliner KAL007 on 1 September 1983. ‘We have to show precisely in our statements that this was a crude violation of international conventions,’ he told the Politburo. ‘We mustn’t remain silent at this moment; we must take up an offensive position. We must support the existing version, and develop it further.’ They therefore put out the statement that ‘the violation of Soviet airspace … was a deliberate provocation by imperialist forces … capable of distracting from the USSR’s peaceful initiatives.’

In December 1984, Gorbachev, whose reputation was that of a technocrat, visited London as part of a Soviet parliamentary delegation. Margaret Thatcher identified a chance to reduce Cold War tensions without reducing pressure on the Soviets. On their car journey to Chequers from London, Gorbachev commented on the farms he saw, which led to a discussion of Russian agricultural organisation, during which ‘Mrs Thatcher left him in no doubt about her view of collective farming,’ according to her foreign policy advisor Charles Powell. 

Lunch then consisted of a discussion on the relative merits of the capitalist versus communist systems, and in the drawing room over coffee, Gorbachev showed a willingness to engage in open-ended discussion on arms control, which Thatcher immediately passed on to Ronald Reagan, opening the opportunity for the Reagan-Gorbachev Geneva summit the following year. ‘I like Mr Gorbachev,’ Thatcher told the BBC, ‘we can do business together.’ All the time she kept up maximum pressure on Russia in terms of the deployment of American missile systems in Britain.

After the Geneva summit, Gorbachev naively told Fidel Castro, Kim Il-Sung of North Korea, and the Chinese Politburo that he had got the better of Reagan. ‘The talk with Reagan was a real skirmish,’ he reported to them. ‘No-one had ever talked so frankly and with such force to the President before.’ The Politburo concluded that Gorbachev’s diplomacy had ‘placed the present American Administration on the defensive and landed a serious blow on the ideology and policy of their “crusade”.’ 

A similar boastful miscalculation followed Gorbachev’s historic meeting Reagan in Reykjavik in October 1986, when the Russian leader told the Politburo on his return that ‘we have scored more points in our favour than we did after Geneva. … In the representatives of the American administration we are dealing with people who have no conscience, no morality … In Reagan at Reykjavik we were fighting not only with the class enemy, but one who is extremely primitive, has the looks of a troglodyte and displays mental incapacity.’ By then the USSR had been on the receiving end of five years of resolute Anglo-American foreign policy, with the prospect of at least another three to come. 

There are two persuasive but mutually exclusive explanations for the collapse of European Communism, which the British historian and political philosopher David Pryce-Jones has described as the ‘High Road’ and the ‘Low Road’ points of view:

The High Road argument is that the implosion of Communism was all Mikhail Gorbachev’s doing, and that he should receive praise for his nobility or blame for his stupidity, depending on one’s outlook. He happened to believe in the perfectibility of Communism, and that he was the man for the task. In the nature of things, this mindset could bring only contradictions fatal to the system. The alternative Low Road argument is that through the fraught years of the Cold War, the United States established the superiority of its institutions and values, obliging the Soviet Union to accept that it could not compete in the long run. Through NATO, the United States built and maintained a coalition of democratic allies. More than anything else, the costs of military technology in general, and of meeting the challenge of [the US’s Strategic Defense Initiative] Star Wars in particular, exposed the Soviet Union’s centralised economy as an inefficient sham. 

If one adopts the unhistorical High Road argument that gives the ultimate credit to Gorbachev as world leaders are doing in their eulogies today – then it necessarily detracts from the brave, and ultimately more important, work done by giants and heroes such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Irving Kristol, Roger Scruton, Robert Conquest and so many others. 

Pryce-Jones’s mention of the ‘Star Wars’ initiative is important, and also tends to undermine the ‘High Road’ rationalisation for the collapse of Communism. President Reagan’s proposed initiative was for a system that would use satellite technology to detect and destroy incoming Soviet nuclear missiles, thereby nullifying at a stroke the Soviet Union’s threat of nuclear annihilation. At Reykjavik, Gorbachev insisted that the project be abandoned, but Reagan instead trebled the spending on it. The following February, tacitly admitting defeat, Gorbachev instead proposed to abolish intermediate-range missiles in Europe, which Reagan enthusiastically took up, and a treaty to eliminate them was signed in June 1988. The former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky likened Reagan’s confrontation with the USSR over the arms race in space and elsewhere to challenging a terminally sick man to run a marathon. 

By 1988 Gorbachev had to face the fact that his country’s archaic command economy had been woefully overhauled by the Capitalist market economies of the West, and his hopes of strengthening Communism by reforming it had utterly failed, and that the USSR could no longer compete in the arms race. 

Communism was ultimately unreformable since it contradicted all the best attributes of human nature. Once Gorbachev finally recognised this and allowed Communism to collapse without bloodshed (except in Romania), the West became love-struck with him, making him Time magazine’s Man of the Decade and awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize, which did not go to either Reagan or Thatcher. Yet it was they, not he, who had dedicated themselves to undermining and eventually defeating European Communism, and without their efforts it might have been many more decades before it finally collapsed. 

This week, world leaders missed the opportunity of pointing out the essential truth that Mikhail Gorbachev’s contribution to history was not that he chose to dismantle Communism out of a belief in liberty and decency, recognising the immorality of the Soviet regime, but rather that he accepted the victory of Capitalism without trying to contest the fact on the battlefield. RIP.

Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts is the author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny. He is the Roger and Martha Mertz Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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