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How Did the Cold War Really End?

Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at the White House, December 1987

In retrospect everything about the cold war’s ending can appear deceptively simple. The Soviet economy could not keep up with that of the United States or, indeed, with the fast-developing market economies in Asia. Thus it was left with no alternative but to undertake fundamental reform. Ronald Reagan’s support for greatly increased American military spending, not least on his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), forced the Soviet Union to admit defeat and to pursue a concessionary foreign policy. Victory went to the side with the greater economic and military strength, and President Reagan, having the stronger cards at his disposal, played them well. In this account Mikhail Gorbachev was enough of a realist to see the direction in which history was moving and to accommodate himself to it.

What are we to make of this? A long-term decline in the Soviet rate of economic growth, together with technological lag, was, indeed, a stimulus to reform, but if the admittedly backward condition of the Soviet economy had been the overwhelming driving force for change, it was rather odd that Gorbachev proceeded to give a far higher priority to radical political reform than to introducing economic reform based on markets. And since the Soviet Union retained the means to destroy the United States, with SDI but a distant and fanciful prospect for preventing this, the Soviet leadership before Gorbachev (as Politburo transcripts from 1983–1984 confirm) saw no reason to alter the country’s defense policy.

Military industry and the space program were the main exceptions to Soviet technological backwardness, and though paying for them was a greater burden than it was for the much larger American economy, it was a price the leadership was willing to pay. Constant warnings of external threat made it relatively easy to mobilize support for military spending, and the nature of the political system was such that grumbling about consumer shortages, a concomitant both of the bloated defense budget and of a nonmarket economy, came nowhere close to provoking mass political unrest. It was not economic crisis that compelled radical reform but radical reform that led in due course to a political crisis.

The notion that the Reagan administration was so successful in turning the military balance of power against the Soviet Union that the Kremlin leaders had no option but to change the system and seek accommodation with the United States is lacking also in historical perspective. It is hard to reconcile with the fact that the East–West imbalance was much more to the advantage of the West in earlier postwar decades than it was by the time Gorbachev entered the Kremlin. Yet those earlier years were a time of Communist expansion. What had changed by the late 1970s and 1980s was a loss of faith in the Communist project on the part of many thinking members of the Soviet intellectual elite and a minority within the political elite. But ideas, especially in a highly authoritarian political system, need institutional bearers if they are to be translated into a fundamental change of policy. In the top-down Communist system, nothing was more important than a reformer acquiring the levers of power attached to the office of Party general secretary.

Gorbachev was the only member of the Politburo on the eve of his succession to the Party leadership in March 1985 with a mind open to far-reaching reform (although it was 1988 before this became support for transformation of the political system). This meant that he was chosen not because he was a serious reformer or because he was a “soft-liner,” for suspicion that he was either (and especially the latter) would have ruled him out of contention. Rather, as the youngest, ablest, and most energetic member of the Politburo, he was seen as someone who might get the country moving again.

More importantly, he already had one hand on the levers of power. The political talents that had secured his accelerated promotion meant that he was number two in the Party hierarchy during the year preceding the death of his frail predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, on March 10, 1985. Gorbachev was therefore able to seize the initiative, convening and chairing a Politburo meeting that same evening. Within twenty-four hours of Chernenko’s passing, Gorbachev was the leader—and, what no one forecast or expected, the last leader—of the Soviet Union. There was a strong element of pure luck—especially for citizens of European states under Communist rule that was not of their choosing—when a man whom another Soviet official described as “a genetic error of the system” acquired the most powerful post in that system.

The liberalization and pluralization of the Soviet political system, to which Gorbachev gave high priority, was as relevant to the ending of the cold war as was the change in Soviet foreign policy. Trust is important in international politics and these internal Soviet developments fostered a growing belief in Western Europe and in the United States that Moscow’s proclaimed “New Political Thinking” was being accompanied by deep change in the regime. At a personal level, relations of trust developed between US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, while Ronald Reagan came to believe in Gorbachev’s sincerity, even though the president’s trust was duly qualified in the Russian phrase he loved to repeat to Gorbachev, Doverai, no proverai (Trust, but verify).

Robert Service has written a well-researched and highly readable history of the end of the cold war that benefits, unlike much writing on international relations, from extensive digging in both American and Russian sources. He makes good use of archival materials, especially those available in the Hoover Institution at Stanford. It is a fast-paced narrative that leans toward diplomatic history, with a strong emphasis on the US–Soviet relationship. Although Service accepts much of the conventional wisdom summarized in my opening paragraph, he does not directly engage with the scholarly literature on the end of the cold war. Hedging his bets on which factors were the most important in bringing it to a peaceful conclusion, he places greater emphasis on the part played by four individuals than he does on differences between the two sides’ material resources. For Service, it is a “Big Four” who should take most of the credit for facilitating the peaceful end of a contest that could have resulted in nuclear holocaust. The four people he focuses on are Reagan, Shultz, Gorbachev, and Shevardnadze.

Following in the footsteps of such writers as Lou Cannon, Jack Matlock, Beth Fischer, James Mann, and James Graham Wilson, Service stresses that for Reagan the pacific component of his “peace through strength” conviction was at least as important as the military element. Moreover, Reagan and Gorbachev shared a belief, far from generally held within their administrations, that nuclear weapons should be banished entirely from the arsenals of their own two countries and from those of other nations. This was an aspiration that horrified British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (even though she was the foreign leader to whom Reagan felt closest) and French President François Mitterrand.

Service is right also in stressing the great significance of George Shultz’s contribution to the qualitative improvement in US–Soviet relations that took place between 1985 and 1988. For a time Reagan refused to choose between the very different approaches to dealing with the Soviet Union on offer from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State Shultz. Weinberger skillfully played up to Reagan’s obsession with protecting the SDI project by warning that the agreements the State Department was prepared to make would scupper it. Ultimately, when it came to negotiating with the Soviet Union, Reagan preferred the judgment of Shultz to that of Weinberger (and of the CIA). Setting great store on his own judgment of people, Reagan, as Service makes clear, developed a respect and liking for Gorbachev.

That is not to say that the American president was as decisively important for the end of the cold war as was Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan’s presidency overlapped with no fewer than four Soviet leaders (for, as he complained, they “kept dying on me”): Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev. During Reagan’s first term the cold war got substantially colder and nothing changed for the better until Gorbachev came to power, particularly after he had his own new foreign policy team in place just under a year after becoming general secretary. It was to Reagan’s domestic advantage that when he actively engaged with Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, his record made it implausible to accuse him of being soft on communism. Yet even Reagan was criticized by conservative politicians and commentators for being prepared to remove from Europe all medium-range and shorter-range nuclear missiles, with the signing of the INF Treaty in Washington in December 1987.

It is clear that a Democratic president would have been given a much harder time for pursuing the same policies. President George H.W. Bush’s extreme caution in engaging with the Soviet Union in the early months of his presidency, and the feeling within his administration that Reagan had conceded too much, showed how daunting conservative political pressures could be for a Republican president lacking Reagan’s hard-line credentials and long-standing reputation as an unrelenting enemy of communism.

Yet unless one were to discount the domestic sources of change in the Soviet Union and hold that both perestroika—the increasingly radical reconstruction of the Soviet system—and the new thinking on foreign policy were no more than a response to the pressures of the Reagan administration, it would be unconvincing (and a sad reflection on the American political system) to conclude that neither a Democratic president nor a moderate Republican would have been able to respond constructively to fundamental change in Moscow. After all, the Bush administration eventually did so.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

That Reagan and Shultz materially facilitated the cold war’s outcome and the manner in which it ended is well demonstrated by Service. He is also in no doubt about the high importance of Gorbachev, although he stops short (in contrast with the Nobel Peace Prize committee) of elevating him above Reagan. More questionable is whether Shevardnadze warrants a place in Service’s “Big Four.” It was certainly important that Shultz and his successor, James Baker, found Shevardnadze to be a congenial and trustworthy partner, as did European foreign ministers, including Britain’s Sir Geoffrey Howe. Shevardnadze was a politically attuned executant of a foreign policy that emanated from Gorbachev and his circle, within which Alexander Yakovlev (starting from his first conversations in Canada in 1983 with the future Soviet leader) was an important influence, as was Gorbachev’s chief foreign policy aide (from February 1986), Anatoly Chernyaev.

At the time of his surprise appointment as Soviet foreign minister in 1985, Shevardnadze, as he readily admitted, was entirely ignorant of international matters. Although criticized in Russia, as Gorbachev has been, for being too accommodating to his American partners, Shevardnadze succeeded in changing the balance of influence within the Soviet Foreign Ministry, promoting open-minded officials and sidelining the more conservative. He was not, however, either an original or a significant contributor to the conceptual side of a changed Soviet foreign policy.

Why, and even when, the cold war ended remain keenly disputed issues. In Russia a growing number of commentators believe it never did end. In the West there has been talk in recent years of “a new cold war,” although that has currently been overtaken by concern with the nature of the Trump administration’s relationship with Moscow and its possible indebtedness to the Kremlin. Although the focus of Service’s impressive book is on what we may call “the real cold war,” he comes close to conflating it with the end of the Soviet Union by taking the story to December 1991. Indeed, he makes that point implicitly when he writes, “America had prevailed, the Soviet Union was no more.” The breakup of the Soviet state, with the exception of Washington’s cautiously expressed support for the self-determination of the Baltic states, was not, however, an American cold war objective. Although Reagan’s own rhetoric on that subject varied and could be ambiguous, it was change in Soviet foreign policy—as well as internal liberalization (or, ideally, democratization) in the USSR—that was sought by successive American administrations, including Reagan’s and the elder Bush’s.

Indeed, for many reasons, the fissiparous movements during the last two years of the Soviet Union evoked ambivalence within the Bush administration. The Bush officials preferred to continue to deal with a partner, Gorbachev, with whom they had established good relations. There was concern also about the possible consequences of dissolution of the Soviet state, including ethnic conflict and, scariest of all, “loose nukes.”

If, in Western perceptions, the cold war was a struggle between Communist dictatorship and democracy, it was fundamentally important that Eastern European countries became non-Communist and independent during 1989 without a Soviet soldier firing a shot. But it was no less consequential that in the Soviet Union itself the pillars of a Communist system had been largely dismantled by the end of that year. “Democratic centralism”—the euphemism for a hierarchically organized, strictly disciplined Communist Party—had given way to wide-ranging public debate. Of particular significance, contested elections had been held for a new legislature with real powers and Communist Party members had stood against one another on radically different political platforms. The Party had been turned, conservative Communists bitterly complained, into a debating society. The erosion of the Party’s monopoly of power was a logical consequence of open disagreement within it on cardinal issues, and when its guaranteed “leading role” in Soviet society was removed from the Soviet constitution in March 1990, the fundamental law was being brought into line with what had become a political reality in the previous year.

By then neither Gorbachev nor any of his closest advisers were even pretending that, under the wise guidance of a Marxist-Leninist party, they were building a communist society. And by the end of 1989 there was no longer an international Communist movement of any continuing effectiveness. Gorbachev’s own socialism had evolved in the space of less than five years into something qualitatively different—not only from the Soviet orthodoxy of his youth but from the reformist communism of 1985—to socialism of a social democratic type. The two foreign leaders Gorbachev found politically and personally most congenial were the former West German chancellor and Social Democrat Willy Brandt and the Spanish democratic socialist prime minister Felipe González. (Brandt gets a passing mention in Service’s book but González does not.)

Public opinion in Western Europe and the views of European political leaders mattered rather more than Service concedes. It is also true that the end of the cold war cannot be understood without paying careful attention to the domestic influences (and constraints) on foreign policy in the United States and in the Soviet Union. What mattered most of all was change of both political practice and of ideas in Moscow. It was there that metamorphosis was needed and, in the second half of the 1980s, occurred.

The cold war began when Communist regimes were imposed in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II. It is logical, therefore, to see it ending by the close of 1989, following the political transformations of that year. A case can, alternatively, be made for viewing the unification of Germany in 1990 as its culmination, although that was not a matter on which the Western partners were in agreement. Both Thatcher and Mitterrand would have preferred to see Germany remain divided, although they could not, at least in public, take a harder line on the issue than Gorbachev, who believed that good relations with a united Germany were in the long-term interest of Russia.

The breakup of the Soviet Union was more a consequence than a component of the cold war’s ending and a consequence also of the interrelated liberalization and partial democratization of the Soviet political system. The independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was supported and welcomed by Western democracies, but their incorporation in the USSR in 1940 had not prevented the subsequent alliance of the Soviet Union, the United States, and the UK and its Commonwealth that defeated Nazi Germany. The dissolution of the Soviet Union took place two years after its political system had been transformed and the cold war had essentially ended. Democratizing reforms and the new freedoms of speech, publication, assembly, and worship brought to the fore countless long-suppressed grievances, including the grievances of a number of peoples in the USSR possessing a sense of nationhood. Hitherto, constant reminders to Soviet citizens of the external threat they faced had kept alive their fear of war, bolstering demands for unity and the need to safeguard the territorial integrity of the Soviet state. The end of the cold war, as manifested by the peoples of Eastern Europe casting aside with impunity their Communist regimes, naturally raised expectations among the most disaffected nations within the USSR.

But the complete breakup of the Soviet Union, as distinct from the formation of a smaller, looser, and voluntary union (minus, at a minimum, the Baltic states) that Gorbachev finally sought, owed more to Boris Yeltsin’s assertion of Russian independence from the union, as a strategy for getting Gorbachev out of the Kremlin and himself into it, than to any other single factor. Since Russia occupied three quarters of the territory of the USSR and contained half of its population, this ploy was a mortal blow to the union—and one that had far more to do with internal Russian politics than American policy.

Notwithstanding a few factual errors and occasional reliance on dubious sources—though he uses a great many excellent ones—Robert Service has produced a notable study of East–West relations, especially US–Soviet relations, during the last years of the USSR. In addition to his extensive reading, he has interviewed some of the main participants in the foreign policy making process, among them George Shultz, Anatoly Chernyaev, and Charles Hill (Hill being for Shultz as invaluable as Chernyaev was for Gorbachev). Less triumphalist than many accounts of the subject, Service’s book does not venture an overarching interpretation of the end of the cold war, but provides a lot of illuminating detail. The evidence it adduces supports the view that active high-level political engagement between the United States and the Soviet Union worked—to the advantage not only of the West but to those who had lived under Communist rule—and that those hard-liners in Washington who strove to avoid contact with Moscow could not have been more wrong. The lessons we draw from the cold war’s ending still matter today, for what has happened since is a less happy story.


Ending the Cold War: What Shevardnadze Did May 11, 2017