Source of greatness
Posted on Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Some years back, a friend attended a Willie Nelson concert to hear the
opening act. A big fan of the venerable hippie bluegrass group, the
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, my friend arrived early to find himself sitting
near the stage among a bunch of drunks emitting Rebel yells and
hollering for “Whisky River.” Polite efforts to quiet them proved
fruitless. The show was ruined. About three songs into Willie,s set, my
friend took his revenge. He stood during a quiet ballad, announced
loudly that he was “all Willied out” and made a big show of walking out.
Many Americans found themselves “all Ronnied out” long before the TV
networks tired of eulogizing former President Ronald Reagan. Yet amid
the blather, there were undeniably moving moments. Everybody wants to be
loved as Nancy Reagan loved her man. For me, the sight of a much older
Mikhail Gorbachev touching Reagan,s coffin, having traveled halfway
around the world to memorialize his fellow Cold Warrior, had a grandeur
all its own. They made history together.
Several aspects of the broadcast media,s near-worshipful approach to
Reagan,s passing deserve skepticism, however. Don,t you love it when the
biased liberal media can,t find any Democrats to interview for upwards
of a week?
God forbid anybody mention the criminal and unconstitutional aspects of
the Iran-Contra scandal. Or Reagan,s support of death squads in
Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua; his refusal to criticize South
African apartheid; his administration,s connection with Saddam Hussein,s
using nerve-gas “weapons of mass destruction,” first against Iranian
soldiers, then Kurdish civilians. Shots of Donald Rumsfeld shaking
Saddam,s hand would have been instructive.
But the most pernicious myth being peddled by ideologues on the right is
that Reagan,s arms buildup alone intimidated the Soviet Union into
quitting the Cold War. Its purpose is to rationalize a U.S. policy of
ceaseless military aggression in the “war on terror,” a policy whose
manifest failure in Iraq is causing many Americans to doubt we,re on the
The first thing to remember is that the Cold War wasn,t really a war.
Nuclear detente prevented World War III. The critical moment was
probably the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, in which JFK and Khrushchev
backed away from nuclear confrontation. Altogether, the struggle lasted
more than 40 years, from Truman,s adoption of the doctrine of
containment through the Marshall Plan, Korea, the Berlin airlift,
Vietnam, the Cuban debacle, anti-Soviet uprisings in Budapest, Prague
and Warsaw to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There was, for
example, no fiercer anti-Communist than Jimmy Carter,s national security
adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
It,s hard to know how to respond to adults who have persuaded themselves
that Reagan brought down the U.S. S. R. by uttering the famous words,
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” in a 1988 speech. Psychiatrists
call such beliefs (like my suspicion that the Cubs might start hitting
if I stop watching) “magical thinking.” Reagan did his manifest duty
like every other U.S. president after 1945.
Soviet archives now indicate that the Russian empire began its steep
descent soon after Stalin died. His paranoid grip on the Communist
murder machine wasn,t quite matched by his successors.
By 1979, when Russian soldiers blundered into Afghanistan, the Soviet
economy and military were rotten at the core. Getting bloodied there by
U.S.-armed Mujahideen (Osama bin Laden among them) helped bring about a
political crisis. Arming Arab fighters was Brzezinski,s idea.
Anybody who read Soviet and Eastern European fiction, whether
Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov, Josef Skvorecky or Milan Kundera, knew that
belief in Marxism had all but vanished. The most underrated non-fiction
book of the 1980s was Andrew Cockburn,s “The Threat,” a brilliant
debunking of Soviet military prowess.
Riding in a New York taxi driven by a Russian army veteran gave Cockburn
the idea of interviewing some of the thousands like him living in
Brooklyn. The result was an acerbic depiction of a Russian military more
Groucho Marx than Karl. Russian tanks fell apart; communications systems
were hopeless; drunkenness and mutiny were epidemic; bombers the CIA
touted as Mach 3 titanium intercontinental threats turned out to be
stainless steel duds. Cockburn resolved the paradox of how a nation that
scarcely had functioning telephones could build a ruthlessly efficient
military machine: It couldn,t. Why couldn,t the CIA figure this out?
Partly for the same reason U.S. intelligence saw WMDs where none existed
in Iraq. From the mid-1970s, a band of “neo-conservative” intellectuals,
including familiar names like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald
Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, began bullying then-CIA director George H. W.
Bush with an ideologically driven vision of the U.S. S. R. as 10 feet
tall and bulletproof precisely when it was falling apart. Politically
shielded by his anti-Communist rhetoric, Reagan ignored the neocons and
trusted Gorbachev. It,s in that brilliant gamble that his greatness, and
Gorbachev,s, can be found.
? Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award.