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.