At the End: the Cold War

Twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall was opened. Unplanned and unauthorized by the powers who controlled the border between east and west, the opening of the Wall signified an end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era. While the momentous nature of act of opening a gate and letting people pass from east to west gained much attention at the time, other factors had been at play that would pave the way to peace and solidify the end of the Cold War in ways which went relatively unnoticed by the general public. Much has been written on the subject but not by authors with huge public followings. In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary, we should look back. The following is a short essay* on one aspect of the end of the Cold War – just enough to pique your interest.

Historian John Lewis Gaddis has written that “the Cold War itself was a kind of theater in which distinctions between illusions and reality were not always obvious.”[1] It was fitting then that thespians took the stage for the final act. While is it common knowledge that President Ronald Reagan graced the silver screen in his younger days, it is less well known that other important actors of the final act had theatrical experience prior to their Cold War roles. Mikhail Gorbachev had been an “aspiring actor,” [2] in his youth, and the influential Pope John Paul II “had been an actor before he became a priest.”[3]The success of such actors on the Cold War stage was not due simply to their arrival upon the stage, but due in great part to the stage setting in which they inherited.

As with the origins of the Cold War, the end of the Cold War is not precise. Unlike hot wars which tend to end with the signing of peace treaties and have a clear chain of events preceding peace settlements, the end of the Cold War is ambiguous.  As historian George C. Herring pointed out, there is a myth that Reagan’s strong posturing and rhetoric are the direct cause of Soviet defeat.[4] Yet, to ascribe to such a myth negates the important role of the other actors and for those who set the stage on which the thespian preformed. Gaddis wrote, “it took visionaries – saboteurs of the status quo – to widen the range of historical possibility.”[5] More importantly, it took actors well versed in the art of improvisation, actors who could recognize the changing dynamics of the Cold War and grasp the opportunities of change. While there are numerous scenes to the last act of the Cold War, three key roles were played by each actor.

First, after the Able Archer exercises, President Reagan “drew the obvious – but for Cold War adversaries often elusive – conclusion that the Soviets feared the United States as much as American feared them.”[6] This shift led Reagan to adjust his strategy. While on one hand he ratcheted up the rhetoric, on the other he became more amiable to negotiations because he knew the United States had the upper hand.

Second, Mikhail Gorbachev recognized that public language was not really the same as diplomatic language, and that politicians like Reagan were acting to an audience. While Reagan certainly had an image to keep and a role to play, Gorbachev had an equally, if not more crucial part to play. He had to convince his people that glasnost and perestroika were positive changes, and that negotiations with the West were not signs of weakness.

The third actor, Pope John Paul II, helped “expose disparities between what people believed and the systems under which the Cold War had obliged them to live.”[7]

The Pope’s visit to Poland revealed that the USSR’s satellite enjoyed no popular legitimacy: They were Puppet regimes hated by their subject population. But Pope John Paul went further. He demystified the power of those regimes. With his words, his presence, and his injunction not to feel afraid, the Pope was for a while the real government of Poland.[8]

It would be wrong to assert that the Cold War, even in its final decade, lacked any real cause for fear, but Pope John Paul II diffused the overwhelming and consuming fear that had dominated the public since the days of Stalin.

The three actors took the world stage and improvised rather than continued the Cold War script where the bipolar status quo was viewed as “more stable than multipolar systems.”[9] The final act of the Cold War commenced once these three actors realized that President Roosevelt had been correct that the fear itself was the only thing causing the fear, and that the political divide could be cracked and then normalized once the people stopped feeling the oppression of the fear. While Cold War theatrics occasionally resurfaced, particularly when Reagan gave his famous “tear down this wall” speech in 1987, they did not deter the movement towards normalization between the United States and the Soviet Union.[10] The real success of the final act in the Cold War play is that while tough talk and grand speeches still placated the public perception of strength, changes were occurring specifically within the Soviet Union.  The stage had been set by the policies of containment, “collapse of détente,” the inherent weaknesses of the Soviet system, and mutual overspending on deadly war machines, but the final act was the result of leader desiring a change in the status quo.

* Due to unexpected issues this week, I am recycling an old essay rather than creating something new to commemorate the anniversary of The Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Endnotes:

[1] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), 195.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 894.

[3] Gaddis, 195.

[4] Herring, 894.

[5] Gaddis, 196.

[6] Herring, 896.

[7] Gaddis, 196.

[8] John O’Sullivan, “Warm Cold Warrior,” National Review 57, no. 7 (April 25, 2005): 38.

[9] Gaddis, 196.

[10] Herring, 898.

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