John Lewis Gaddis, author of a half-dozen books on the topic, is the nation’s foremost historian of the Cold War. So when in the 1980s he dismissed Ronald Reagan’s goal of ending the Cold War, arguing instead that the American-Soviet competition had settled into a stable “long peace,” it would have been natural to conclude that Gaddis, the august expert, was right.
He was wrong, of course. Gaddis explains why in his crackling-good, recently published book, The Cold War: A New History. It holds lessons for today in its reminder of how inspired people, armed with truth and morality, can force epochal historical changes.
In the 1970s, the Cold War had entered its détente phase, which for the U.S. meant managing the Cold War, not winning it. This seemed reasonable enough. “It took visionaries–saboteurs of the status quo–to widen the range of historical possibility,” Gaddis writes. In the West, these saboteurs were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. In their qualities and in their arguments, there is the distinct echo of George W. Bush.
As Gaddis puts it, “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.” It fell to the saboteurs to remove the world’s “mental blinders.”
“They used to the utmost,” he writes, “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.”
When the might of the rival superpowers was measured in material terms–how many missiles, with how much throw-weight–they realized the power of “a moral and spiritual critique of Marxism-Leninism.” When stability had come to be valued above all, they sought change. When the truth–most importantly about the nature of the Soviet Union system itself–had become obscured, they spoke it.
Gaddis quotes Thatcher: “I had long understood that détente had been ruthlessly used by the Soviets to exploit western weakness and disarray. I knew the beast.” Gaddis comments, “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.”
Bush looks at the absurdity of a Middle East blotted with dictatorships, and of a great religion producing monstrous suicide bombers, and dares to try to create something better. He realizes the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the status quo in the Middle East and in the precincts of Islam that tolerate mass murder, and says so unapologetically. This doesn’t make him the next Reagan or Thatcher by any means, but he has some of their vision and fearlessness.
How Bush’s struggle turns out is anybody’s guess, but no one should doubt that the status quo is again in danger of sabotage. The difficulties in Iraq have made some commentators–on both the right and the left–vest too much faith in the power of inertia. A couple of millennia after Heraclitus declared that all things are flux, they think that they are all stasis.
It is true that history often stands in place, but sometimes it gallops. This is why it is foolish to make sweeping statements about which countries are inherently suited for a given political system. Was Afghanistan fated to live under a monarchy as it did in the 1950s? Or under a Soviet puppet regime as it did in the 1980s? Or a fanatic theocracy as in the 1990s? Or an American-influenced democratizing government as it does now?
Fate has little or nothing to do with it. As Gaddis reminds us, even Karl Marx acknowledged, “Men make their own history.” They did during the Cold War. They do now.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate