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.

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.