East-West tension defined the Cold War, but its legacy is the victory of hope over fear
The Cold War began to end 10 years ago, not with any great decision grandly proclaimed but with a hapless official spokesman fumbling his lines. On Nov. 9, 1989, Gunter Schabowski, Berlin district secretary for the ruling East German Communist Party, was supposed to announce a decision by his bosses to allow a limited and controlled flow of East Germans through the Berlin Wall, to take effect the next day. This concession would, they hoped, relieve the pressures on the German Democratic Republic that had been mounting throughout the summer and fall, as Mikhail Gorbachev made it increasingly clear that the Soviet Union would no longer prop up its fellow Marxist-Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe. Schabowski slipped up on a detail, however, telling a televised press conference that the new rules were to take effect "immediately, without delay."
Within hours, excited East Berliners had overwhelmed the border guards, forced open the crossing points, and surged into West Berlin, forbidden territory for as long as most of them could remember. Soon they were dancing on top of the wall, chipping away at it with hammers and crowbars, and then quite literally toppling it with bulldozers and backhoes. The very symbol of a continent divided for almost half a century--indeed of a world so divided--came tumbling down, almost overnight.
Nobody on either side had anticipated this: The wall had seemed as permanent a fixture of the Berlin landscape as the Cold War had appeared to be within the post-World War II international system. That such a forbidding structure proved so fragile surprised everyone. But even then, few who witnessed the wall's collapse would have guessed what was soon to come: that the division of Germany would disappear within a year, or that in just over two years the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist.
Today we take for granted what astonished us then: We assume, far more easily than we should, that the process that began with the opening of the Berlin Wall and ended with the Soviet Union's essentially peaceful breakup could only have happened in the way that it did. History works like that: Our view of the past is so much clearer than our vision of the future that we tend to forget that the past once had a future, and that it was just as opaque to those who lived through it as our own future is for us today. My college students were between 8 and 11 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. They've known only a pitifully weak Russia that cannot keep its borders secure, its military intact, its economy afloat, or its prime ministers in office. How, they wonder, could such a country have ever caused Americans and their allies to fear for their future?
I suggest, as an answer, a short time- machine trip. Set the dial first for November 1989, the anniversary we're commemorating, to get a sense of the unexpectedness of what happened and of the euphoria it produced. Then go back in 10-year intervals from that event. A very different picture emerges.
November 1979: Jimmy Carter is in his third year as president of the United States, and the mood is anything but euphoric. The American Embassy staff has just been taken hostage in Tehran, following the overthrow of a longtime friend, the shah of Iran. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas have deposed the Somoza regime, an even older ally. The Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev has deployed a new generation of SS-20 missiles aimed at European targets and is openly encouraging Marxist revolutions in what Carter's national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has called an "arc of crisis" running from Southern Africa to Southeast Asia. The Russians are on the verge of invading Afghanistan and are threatening to crack down on Poland, where the Solidarity trade union movement is only beginning to test its capacity for resistance. Still reeling from defeat in Vietnam, the disruptions of Watergate, and a continuing energy crisis, Americans are confronting the prospect of double-digit inflation and unemployment. Detente is dying, if not dead, and a highly visible Committee on the Present Danger has been insisting that if nothing is done to reverse these trends, the credibility of the United States as a superpower will not survive. Ronald Reagan has announced his intention to run for the presidency, precisely with a view to restoring it.
November 1969: The United States is mired in an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia. Although Richard Nixon's new administration has promised gradually to withdraw American troops, some 500,000 remain in Vietnam--most disillusioned about their mission, many demoralized and on drugs, and some even challenging the authority of their officers. The Air Force is secretly bombing enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia, while at home antiwar protests have mounted to such an extent that Nixon has had to ask the "silent majority" of Americans to help him avoid national humiliation. The Soviet Union has overtaken the United States in the production and deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles, thereby ending an American superiority in strategic weaponry that had prevailed since the beginning of the Cold War. In striking contrast to the Americans' failure in Vietnam, the Soviet Union has crushed Alexander Dubcek's reform movement in Czechoslovakia and has threatened to respond similarly to such experiments elsewhere. China, still in the throes of Chairman Mao Zedong's Great Cultural Revolution, is preparing for nuclear war--not with the United States, as one might have expected, but with its erstwhile ideological ally. How would the Americans react, a Soviet diplomat has discreetly inquired in Washington, if the Russians were to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Chinese?
November 1959: Soviet space achievements--the first ICBM, the first artificial Earth satellite--have caused a crisis of confidence in the United States, where an aging Dwight Eisenhower is presiding over a country seriously worried about its apparent inferiority in science and technology. The Soviet leader is the ebulliently bumptious Nikita Khrushchev, who is claiming to be turning out rockets "like sausages," capable of devastating any point on the face of the Earth. He has challenged the exposed position of the United States and its allies in West Berlin, has exploited growing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, and has just returned from a highly publicized visit to the United States, where he repeated his frequent prediction that America's grandchildren would live under communism. Just to the south, a young guerrilla fighter and occasional baseball player named Fidel Castro has come to power in Cuba--with the result that the former playground for American gangsters and vacationers already seems well along the path that Khrushchev has laid out.
November 1949: Joseph Stalin is alive and in command inside the Kremlin, while Harry S. Truman is president of the United States. The Soviet Union has consolidated its post-World War II sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, forcing the United States to respond with the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and most recently the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--an unprecedented peacetime commitment to the defense of an increasingly desperate Western Europe. The Russians have just exploded their first atomic bomb, several years earlier than expected, and Truman is under pressure to respond by building thermonuclear weapons with a thousand times the destructive power of the device the Americans had dropped, only four years before, on Hiroshima. Mao has proclaimed the People's Republic of China and will soon depart for Moscow to forge a Sino-Soviet alliance, thereby confirming communist control over most of the Eurasian continent. Allegations of espionage within the United States are creating an atmosphere of near hysteria, which Sen. Joseph McCarthy will soon exploit and which his critics will name for him. Meanwhile, George Orwell has published 1984, a profoundly pessimistic vision of survival in an apparently endless Cold War.
What this brief trip through time suggests is that for anyone living in November of 1949, 1959, 1969, or 1979, the Cold War's outcome would not have been at all clear. If anything, it looked as though the Soviet Union and its allies might win: There was a remarkable gap between what people thought was happening and what we now know to have happened. Fears outweighed hopes for so long that when the latter actually prevailed it was a completely unexpected development.
It's now the historians' task to explain this triumph of hopes over fears. It helps to have partial access to Soviet, Eastern European, and Chinese archives. Before the Cold War ended, the American public had more than enough information from Western sources to expose the shortcomings of the United States and its allies, but historians could only hint at those that may have existed on the other side. We now know much more, and what emerges is a pattern of brutality, shortsightedness, inefficiency, vulnerability, and mistrust within the Marxist-Leninist world that dates back to the earliest days of the Cold War.
Just as important, though, is our knowledge of how the Cold War turned out. The view from inside any historical event is bound to be limited--and the Cold War was an unusually protracted event. We have a better sense now of where it's going to fit within the long sweep of history. And we can see, more clearly, why so much of what the West feared never came to pass.
A list of such fears, for an American at the end of 1949, might well have included the following: that, as Orwell's novel suggested, authoritarianism could be the wave of the future; that, as the Marshall Plan and NATO implied, Europe was in danger of becoming a Soviet sphere of influence; that, as Mao's victory seemed to indicate, international communism was a coordinated, monolithic movement; that, as the Soviet atomic bomb appeared to show, a new and far more devastating world war loomed on the horizon; that, as the spy cases revealed, the nation's most closely held secrets were transparent to the enemy. Today, half a century later, we can see how each of these fears became hopes, and then accomplishments, and then the means by which the West prevailed in the Cold War.
Authoritarianism. It was not at all unreasonable in 1949 to have feared the eventual triumph of authoritarianism: Democracy and capitalism had hardly enhanced their reputation during the 1930s, and the United States and Great Britain had defeated Nazi Germany in World War II only by collaborating with Stalin's Soviet Union. There were plenty of people who, during those difficult years of Depression and war, saw at least a short-term denial of liberties as a necessary evil and found a certain allure in a vision of socialism they hoped would overcome the shortcomings of capitalism. But as postwar economic recovery proceeded, it began to reward lateral rather than hierarchical forms of organization: Only the decentralized, largely spontaneous market system could make the millions of decisions required each day if the supply and demand of goods and services was to be kept in balance. And with freedoms so obviously suppressed in the authoritarian East even as they flourished in the democratic West, it became increasingly hard to see how coercion could ever lead to equity. It was no coincidence, then, that as the Cold War neared its end, democracies were replacing, rather than succumbing to, dictatorships. Or that the first modern examples of what Marx understood a proletarian revolution to be--a spontaneous mass movement led by workers and intellectuals, aimed at achieving liberty and justice--occurred only in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in the Soviet Union in 1991.
Spheres of influence. We can now see, as a consequence, that the spheres of influence the United States and the Soviet Union maintained in Europe were always asymmetrical: The first existed by invitation, the second by imposition. Stalin may well have expected the Europeans to welcome him as a liberator at the end of World War II, but when that did not happen--largely because his regime's reputation preceded its armies--he could establish his authority only by imposing it. But that caused the Europeans beyond his reach to invite the Americans to remain as a counterweight. Europe was divided, as a result, but there was dissimilarity in the division: Washington's sphere of influence arose by consent; Moscow's by denying it. That distinction made all the difference in how the Cold War came out, because it allowed the NATO countries to legitimize the American presence through free elections that repeatedly ratified it. No such opportunities existed within the Warsaw Pact: hence the ease with which it fell apart in 1989-90 when the only glue that had kept it together--Moscow's determination to use force--itself dissolved.
International communism. The consolidation of Soviet authority in Eastern Europe, together with Mao's victory in China, caused many Americans in 1949 to worry that the Kremlin commanded not only the traditional resources of a great state but also the subversive capabilities of a purposefully expansionist ideology. If Marxism-Leninism continued to advance as it had since the end of World War II, then the Western democracies could find themselves surrounded by hostile communist states. What happened instead, though, was that as communists took over states, the states took over the communists. Quarrels over how to align a common ideology with dissimilar national interests led first the Yugoslavs, and then the Chinese, and then the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, to challenge Moscow's authority. By the 1970s the American diplomat W. Averell Harriman could point out, with total accuracy, that it was the Soviet Union that now found itself surrounded by hostile communist states. And by the end of the 1980s, so little was left of the international communist movement that it was difficult to remember why the West had ever feared it in the first place.
The bomb. The Soviet atomic bomb also alarmed the West in 1949, but its effect over the long run was to make war with the United States not more likely but less so. The single most important characteristic of the Cold War--the reason we attach the adjective to the noun--is that it went on for so long with such high levels of tension without ever producing a direct military clash between its major antagonists. The obvious explanation is nuclear weapons, which expanded the potential arena of military conflict to such an extent that the superpowers had no way of fighting each other with any assurance of keeping their own territories insulated from the resulting violence. Since wars had mostly arisen, in the past, over the protection of territory, this was a fundamental change in the way nations thought about, and used, military force. The Cold War may well be remembered as the point at which the costs of hot wars, at least among the great powers, became too exorbitant, the benefits too problematic, and the issues that had always before provoked such wars too insignificant. The fact that the Soviet Union collapsed with its military power intact is as eloquent an indication as one might want of such power's ultimate irrelevance.
Espionage. Even the spies look less sinister now than they did in 1949, despite the fact that we now know there were more of them than anyone then suspected. For the Cold War also changed our thinking about secrecy. Whereas the idea in the past had been to conceal information from enemies, a paradoxical side effect of ICBMs was the reconnaissance satellite, from which very little could be concealed. The Americans and the Russians soon saw the benefits of this new technology and agreed tacitly to tolerate it: Neither side made any effort to shoot down such spies in space, as a well-known spy in the sky, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, had been shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. The strategic arms limitation agreements of the 1970s could hardly have worked without overhead surveillance. But if transparency made sense when it came to the arms race, might it have at earlier stages of the Cold War? We know little, as yet, about how Stalin used the information his spies provided. There is reason to suspect, though, that on balance it reassured him by minimizing the possibility of surprise, just as reconnaissance satellites did for a subsequent generation of Cold War leaders. If that is the case, then some future historian may well revise what we think of the spies as well, finding that even in those deep fears there was some hope.
The world has spent the past half-century having its worst fears not confirmed. That is a big difference from the way in which it spent the first half of this century, when the opposite happened. No one could have anticipated, in 1900, that the next five decades would see unprecedented violence, including two world wars, a nearly successful effort to wipe out an entire people, and the invention of the most lethal form of military technology in human history.
But it is equally the case that few people at the beginning of 1950 could have imagined that the five decades to follow would witness great-power peace--that, although the world was hardly free from violence and injustice during the second half of the 20th century, the record was decidedly preferable to that of the first half. Fears did become hopes, although it took us a while to begin to realize what was happening. With the dancing feet, and then the hammers and crowbars, and then the bulldozers and backhoes at the Berlin Wall, however, a certain amount of progress in human affairs became difficult to deny.
This story appears in the October 18, 1999 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.