Book review: The Human Factor

Thirty years ago, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Germany was reunified. A wave of mostly peaceful uprisings occurred across the so-called Eastern Bloc in 1989 before finally in 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated completely.

Such developments would have seemed unthinkable only a few years earlier. Russian communism had dominated Eastern Europe since 1917 with the intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States threatening to destroy humanity following the superpower arms build-up which escalated soon after the end of the Second World War.

As Archie Brown demonstrates in this book the fact that this amazing development was able to occur at all owes itself almost entirely to ‘the human factor,’ namely the unique personalities of three world leaders during the second half of the 1980s. The personality of one of these leaders in fact, was especially critical.

Many in the west were alarmed when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980. A onetime Hollywood actor who had been a liberal Democrat until his early fifties, Reagan had strong enough conservative credentials by 1980, that he was able to preside over a thaw in East-West relations without stoking fears that he might be appeasing the Soviets. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meanwhile was not as slavish in her support for Reagan and the US as is sometimes made out. She and Reagan were friends and shared the same ideological free market perspective, but there were occasional fallings out. Crucially, on the major issue of East-West relations, however, she and the 40th US president always stood shoulder to shoulder.

However, it was the third actor, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was utterly indispensable to the whole process. Make no mistake: without Mikhail Gorbachev there would have been no end to the Cold War. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen. The USSR would not have collapsed. Remarkable leaders though they in many ways were, the same cannot be said of Reagan or the so-called ‘Iron Lady.’

Gorbachev’s attitude and politics were utterly unique within Soviet politics at the time. Nor is it true that he (or anyone) was browbeaten into submission by the United States’ continued hard line. There is no evidence to support this whatsoever.

As the only one of these three figures still alive in May 2020, the world really owes the elderly Mr. Gorbachev a huge debt of thanks. As Archie Brown notes, it was he who made all the difference.

Gorbachev, not Reagan and certainly not Thatcher, ended the Cold War.

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War, by Archie Brown. Out Now. Published by Oxford University.

Why all Democrats love war and all Republicans are wet girly sissies

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We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
Qualifications.
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
Even so…

Thatcher didn’t save Britain: and other myths of the era dispelled

Myth 1: Margaret Thatcher “saved Britain”

Whatever else you may think about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, David Cameron and the Daily Mail are clearly wrong. While Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill arguably saved Britain from invasion and President Kennedy’s actions may have saved us from nuclear destruction over Cuba in 1962, Thatcher cannot claim this. Without her, you might argue we might have lost the Falklands, still be strike-bound or a poorer nation than we are currently. Or alternatively, you might think, we would have a fairer, wealthier society, fewer homeless people, less crime and free prescription charges. Either way, Britain would still exist.

Myth 2: Margaret Thatcher “won the Cold War”

Thatcher famously identified Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man she could do business with” early on (in 1984) and this is to her credit. But the thaw in East-West relations had little to do with US President Ronald Reagan, even less to do with Thatcher and everything to with the liberalism of Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s very hard to envisage any realistic scenario where a different British Prime Minister would have made any real difference whatsoever.

Myth 3: Margaret Thatcher, “Milk Snatcher”

She did cut free school milk as Education Secretary, yes. But her Labour predecessors had already done so too. The name “milk snatcher” only stuck because a) she’s a woman and b) it rhymes with “Margaret Thatcher”.

Myth 4: She enjoyed warm relations with US President Ronald Reagan

This is certainly generally true. But they almost fell out in 1982 when the US threatened to remain neutral in the Falklands dispute. They almost fell out again in 1983, when the US invaded the Commonwealth nation of Grenada without even warning the UK in advance.

Myth 5: Thatcher was consistently anti-European

Not so! As Opposition leader, she enthusiastically campaigned for the successful Yes campaign in the 1975 EEC Referendum ensuring continued membership. In power, the Single European Act passed in 1986, went very much further towards pushing the UK towards European integration than the later Maastricht Treaty ever did.

Myth 6: Delusions of grammar

As Education Secretary, she closed more Grammar Schools than anyone before or since.

She was Britain’s first woman prime minister: Okay, this is true!

 

The Forgotten Hero of the Twentieth Century

The 20th century may have been the bloodiest in all human history but it certainly produced its fair share of political heroes. Alongside the likes of Gandhi, Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Franklin Roosevelt, however, should be placed one figure, still living, whose contribution is consistently overlooked.

For make no mistake: Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War. It would not have ended – and it ended relatively peacefully too – without him. Were it not for him we would still either still be enduring the period of unparalleled international tension which resulted from the conclusion of the Second World War or the human race would have succumbed to nuclear destruction.

This is no exaggeration. It is easy to forget now how terrifying the Cold War had become by the time Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985. Both sides in the forty year old East-West stalemate were actively engaged in an unprecedented nuclear arms race. A single spark at any time could have led to a full scale nuclear conflagration.

The US president Ronald Reagan attacked the USSR condemning it as “the focus of evil in the modern world” in 1983. The shooting down of Korean commercial flight 007 in September of that year raised tensions still further. The USSR passed between three elderly leaders – Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko  – in the space of three years.

In such tense circumstances, Reagan remained remarkably gung ho. “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.” He notoriously joked during a 1984 radio sound check. “We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Against this backdrop, the succession of the comparatively youthful Gorbachev (he was fifty-four) was very welcome. His policies of Glasnost and Perestroika eased global tensions immeasurably during the second half of the Eighties as did the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the military quagmire in Afghanistan.

Anxious not to look like an “appeaser” (a charge levelled at President Jimmy Carter by many US conservatives during the Détente of the late Seventies), Ronald Reagan responded with caution to Gorbachev’s overtures. The 1986 Reykjavik Summit, for example, in theory, agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons within the space of ten years. The stumbling block came from the USA not the USSR. Reagan refused to abandon his cherished “Star Wars” programme. In fact, the Strategic Defence Initiative would ultimately prove so expensive and unworkable that it was abandoned by Reagan’s successors anyway.

If there is a serious challenge to Gorbachev’s claim to greatness it is this: he did not actually intend to bring down the Soviet Union. He certainly wanted to liberalise it but he remained a committed Communist. Yet his actions undeniably led to the reunification of Germany, the liberation of Eastern Europe and at least a form of democracy being introduced to Russia.

Today, no one is keen to sing Gorbachev’s praises. In the East, he is blamed for robbing for Russia of its superpower status. In the West, conservatives are eager to claim the Cold War as a victory for themselves.

They do not deserve it. As the architect of the end of the most dangerous period of international tension in world history, Mikhail Gorbachev’s status as one of the living giants of 20th century history has been ignored for too long.