Thursday, December 22, 2011

Simple Words, Complex Maneuverings

The series of events and trends which led to America's victory - really, the victory of Western Civilization - in the Cold War is long and complicated, and subject to various interpretations. To this day, historians disagree as to the precise amount of credit to be given to the various individuals involved - Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, to name a few of the individuals; but also larger movements among the ordinary citizens of regions like East Germany and Romania. There are also less obvious candidates: the American labor union movement, which steadily supported a courageous stance against the Soviets.

In any case, Reagan certainly deserves some credit. We'll let the historians decide exactly how much, but there can be no doubt that there was a certain sophistication hiding behind his simple and folksy facade. His goal was not only to win the Cold War, but to win it while keeping it "cold" - to ensure that no major armed conflict would break out.

To do that, he hit upon a subtle strategy. He would out-maneuver the Soviets economically. By applying pressure to the financial system of the USSR, and meeting them at every turn with no room for escape, he could engineer Russia's economic collapse - which is precisely what happened. Simply put, America built ever more expensive weapons, forcing the Soviets to do the same in order to keep up. Eventually, they simply outspent themselves - they couldn't afford to match our defense spending.

In the pre-1990 world, however, few would have believed that this was indeed the key to defeating communism's world-wide aggression. Those who recognized the threat believed that it would take a military confrontation. To convince citizens of that political view that he had the resolve to defeat the Soviet, Reagan developed an ingenious political vocabulary for which he is now famous. Early in his presidency, at his first press conference, he wanted a bold statement to set a diplomatic tone; he said that

the Soviets will lie, cheat, and steal to get whatever they want.
Reaction to Reagan's strong language was mixed; most citizens acknowledged this as a realistic appraisal of the situation, but the media establishment, largely controlled by left-liberals, feared that Reagan would anger the communists. Further into his presidency, he introduced phrases for which he would become widely loved and hated; he said that the Soviets
preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.
he continued:
I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.
Finally, in 1987, at the climax of the Cold War, Reagan stood in Berlin, and spoke to massive crowds, addressing the Soviet leader directly:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Although these rhetorical flourishes became famous, it was an economic strategy which ultimately defeated the Soviet Union.