Friday, October 17, 2014

Did Reagan really “win” the Cold War?

With the revelation a month ago that NATO is establishing a rapid reaction “spearhead” military force to counter potential Russian threats to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, this may come as a surprise to some people who thought the “Cold War” was over. NATO intends to post a small force in Poland and conduct “flyovers” by NATO aircraft in the Baltic States. Whether or not this will “frighten” or “deter” Vladimir Putin’s attempt to “reconstitute” the old Soviet Union one region at a time is a matter a debate, but what isn’t is his ideological drift away from democracy toward absolute dictatorship. This has taught the West a hard lesson: You can’t take the corrupting influence of KGB training out of the man, and Putin is a man who knows no other way but the naked use of power within and without Russia’ borders.

I was in the Army during the Reagan administration, helping him “win” the “war”—or so he told us. Of course there was no “war” going on at the time, and there hadn’t been one since the Cuban missile crisis and the failure of the Berlin blockade essentially ended Soviet attempts to challenge the West directly. For the Warsaw Pact, the “Cold War” was nothing more than an ideological construct to create an “enemy” to maintain the illusion of ideological “superiority.” Yet by the 1980s, this propaganda battle simply could not be sustained. Sure, there were a lot of us stationed in West Germany to oppose the “enemy,” but I never saw any of them. even during my time patrolling the Czech border. The “enemy” didn’t want to start a war any more than we did, and what was more, it couldn’t even if it wanted to; internally, the “enemy” was a rotting corpse. 

So how did the Soviet Union and communism in Europe end? Was it because Reagan put increasing pressure on the Soviets to maintain their own military capacity by spending more than it could afford? Certainly it wasn’t because the West ever actually posed a “threat” to the existence of the Soviet Union; the last thing the “decadent” West wanted was another world war. Better of the communist system to fall apart under its own bloated weight.

The reasons why the “war” ended were not difficult to foresee—with or without Reagan’s “tough guy” posturing that belonged to a different (see 1950s’ red-baiting) time. There was no great distribution of economic resources across the various “republics” that comprised the USSR; most of it was concentrated in Russia itself. Nevertheless, much like today, the production of quality domestic consumer goods tended to be a lesser priority that no one wanted but were forced to buy (especially other countries); the economy was kept afloat by the exporting of abundant natural resources, especially oil and natural gas. This export cash maintained the “socialist” state, insofar as education, health care and maintaining “100 percent” employment and housing was concerned.  Of course, this generally allowed a certain worker “apathy” to take hold, since they didn’t even want to buy the things they made. To keep as many people working as possible, manufacturing technology fell decades behind other advanced countries. 

Like Russia today, the Soviet Union’s economy was based on a fraud; its own consumer production was practically valueless for foreign trade, and could not support the domestic economy on its own. Without substantial subsidization by the sale of natural resources, the economy was bound to fail. What made things worse was that much of the manufacturing production was military related, and once the domestic economic sector began to fail—especially with the break-up of the Eastern block and refusal of former Soviet stooges being forced to purchase Soviet-made goods—military spending could no longer be sustained.

It was perhaps inevitable that the people in the Soviet Union would come to realize that the West enjoyed a far greater standard of living and access to plentiful and high-quality goods, and would become dissatisfied with merely surviving. Rather than a “workers’ paradise,” the Soviet Union had become little more than your typical authoritarian state, with only the top echelon of power enjoying anything approaching a satisfactory existence.

It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev, a relatively young man in the Communist Party hierarchy, decided that the time was right to end a pointless Cold War and concentrate the state’s efforts on internal economic reform, which inevitably required political reform. If people saw that they had a “stake” in the improvement of the state, then they would be inspired to be more “creative” and resourceful. 

Unfortunately for Gorbachev, he was for a time only a man of ideas with no authority to actually implement them, because of opposition of the old party apparatus still clinging to power. This changed in 1988, when he had accumulated enough power and support from “new blood” to force the party out of involvement in the running of the country, and formed a state that was more like Western countries, where although he would preside over the whole, the separate “republics” would be essentially controlled by their own governors. 

At the same time, Gorbachev considerably reduced military expenditures, and this inevitably led to the impracticality of maintaining a military presence in Eastern Europe—and that, inevitably, led to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Thus it was Gorbachev who chose to end the “Cold War” not because of anything Reagan had done, but because of long-standing structural and institutional problems that could only be solved by wholesale domestic and foreign relations reform. With the emergence of the pro-West Boris Yeltsin as the first “democratically” elected president of Russia, the “war” was over.

Or at least for awhile. It would seem that there are those who still remember the power they enjoyed during the “good old days.” Putin certainly has, and portraying Russia as being beset by enemies in the West still has some usefulness in advancing his own personal agenda.

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