News

Debate Still Rages Over Who Won Cold War

Controversy over Soviet communism's collapse continues 20 years after 1989 East European revolutions

Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (r) with Austrian counterpart Alois Mock cut through barbed wire of former Iron Curtain marking border between East, West in Sopron, Hungary, 27 Jun 1989
Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (r) with Austrian counterpart Alois Mock cut through barbed wire of former Iron Curtain marking border between East, West in Sopron, Hungary, 27 Jun 1989

Multimedia

Audio

The 20th anniversary of the 1989 East European revolutions has re-opened contentious debate over who won the Cold War and what caused Soviet communism to disintegrate so rapidly in its final years. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was a symbolic milestone, heralding the break-up of the Soviet Union two years later. Looking back, many people directly involved are still asking:  Was Soviet communism defeated? Was it overthrown? Or did it simply collapse from within?

The rapid succession of events which marked the end of the Cold War is not in dispute. Poland's historic roundtable talks between the banned Solidarity trade union and the ruling Communist Party took place in the spring of 1989.

<!-- IMAGE -->

Within months, Hungary had reintroduced a multi-party system. By the end of the year, the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia saw dissident playwright Vaclav Havel elected president.

And on the night of November 9, tens of thousands of Berliners flocked to the wall which had divided their city since 1961.

The timeline of these events is clear. But controversy still surrounds the question of why Soviet communism crumbled so quickly.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus has consistently argued that the system collapsed from within.

<!-- IMAGE -->

"Since the very beginning, I have been advocating the rather unpopular concept that communism was not defeated, [but] that it collapsed or simply melted down ... Communism was at the end of the 1980s already too weak, soft, old, and emptied of all meaning to exist much longer," Mr. Klaus said.
 
Joseph Nye is an influential foreign policy expert and former high-ranking Clinton administration official. Nye agrees with Mr. Klaus that the primary causes of the Soviet collapse were economic failure and the decline of communist ideology.

He says that from the 1970s on, the Soviet economy proved unable to adjust to an increasingly information-driven global production system. Nye also points to what he calls the exhaustion of communist ideas he says had become "authoritarian and dictatorial" under Stalinism.

"So, by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it fell not under a barrage of artillery, but under hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who had lost faith in the ideas," he said.

But Nye says the choices made by Mikhail Gorbachev following his 1985 appointment as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party hastened the collapse.

"He wanted to save communism but in the process of trying to save it, he accelerated its demise … So his policies of perestroika, [or, economic] restructuring, and then glasnost, or openness, speeded up the disintegration of the Soviet empire," Nye said.

<!-- IMAGE -->

Richard Pipes, a leading authority on Russia and a former anti-Soviet crusader who served in the Reagan administration, also stresses Mr. Gorbachev's pivotal role.

He relates a conversation with the former Soviet leader's closest advisor, Alexander Yakovlev, about how top Kremlin officials came to view the system as permanently flawed.

"Yakovlev said … that 'we tried initially, during the first three years of Gorbachev's tenure, to improve the system - [to] accelerate it - but keep it intact. And we found in 1988 … that it was unreformable. You could not change it.  Therefore, steps were taken virtually to abolish it,'" Pipes said.

While systemic failure was the key factor for some observers, others highlight the role played by individuals working to defeat Soviet communism from within.

Longtime dissident Miklos Haraszti co-founded the Hungarian democratic opposition movement in the mid-1970s.

Haraszti says the Soviet system collapsed because the East European opposition successfully broke the communists' monopoly of information.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (r) with Austrian counterpart Alois Mock cut through barbed wire of former Iron Curtain marking border between East, West in Sopron, Hungary, 27 Jun 1989
Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (r) with Austrian counterpart Alois Mock cut through barbed wire of former Iron Curtain marking border between East, West in Sopron, Hungary, 27 Jun 1989

"It has collapsed because of the conscious work of [a] new generation of opposition inside [the East European satellite states] which worked for two decades on building up an alternative system of information, knowing that's the most important [objective]," he said.
 
Haraszti credits earlier generations of Soviet dissidents whose work, he says, blazed the trail.

"They all knew they have absolutely no possibility [to change] the system. They simply behaved morally, and that was very, very important. And I would say their moral example was irreplaceable. They clearly knew that all they can do is go to prison … and they did it," Haraszti said.

He says reforms undertaken by communist dictatorships never lead to systemic change without an active opposition creating what he calls a "civil society movement."

In July 1989, Mr. Gorbachev formally renounced the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, a policy which had justified the Soviet imposition of communist party rule in the East European satellite states.

Richard Pipes says the decision was a watershed event.

"[Gorbachev] let the leaders of Eastern Europe know that if they took a path of reform the Soviet Union would not interfere militarily as it had done before in [1956 in] Hungary and in [1968 in] Czechoslovakia ... If he had not done that, I think none of the reforms which occurred in Eastern Europe would have taken place ... This was the key decision which made possible all the other events leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall," Pipes said.

But he also says former U.S. President Ronald Reagan had an "enormous impact on the fall of communism."

Czech President Vaclav Klaus speaking in Washington DC, October 2009
Czech President Vaclav Klaus speaking in Washington DC, October 2009

Other American commentators go further, arguing that the U.S. military buildup and moral leadership under Mr. Reagan actually won the Cold War.

Helle Dale is a foreign affairs specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"The critical importance of American leadership … happened through military deterrence of the Soviet Union … and it also happened through the power of international broadcasting and public diplomacy from the United States that carried on the ideological fight behind the Iron Curtain," Dale said.

But Nye tells VOA that while the power of U.S. ideas and its ability "to deter Soviet aggression" are essential to understanding the end of the Cold War, neither are root causes.

"The collapse of Soviet communism … was a process of erosion … I think to call it defeat creates too much of an impression that it was from the outside. I think a good deal of what happened was from the inside."

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the debate continues. The definitive history of the Cold War's end clearly has yet to be written.


Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus
This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs