State funerals in Western European monarchies have always been an occasion for court historians to spin lyrical sagas of a nation's many triumphs. Lacking royalty, the USA still has the corporate media. Increasingly dependent on government favors, they eagerly fill the void. The passing of Ronald Reagan has been an occasion to trumpet once again the proudest claim of the Reagan hagiographers: The 40th president's iron will, firm sense of right and wrong and steady reliance on US military power won the Cold War and issued in a new era of political freedom and prosperity.
A less sycophantic media would not take this claim at face value. The changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and in their relationship to the West were the work of many leaders, grass roots dissidents and intellectual currents Reagan neither controlled nor understood. Reagan often impeded rather than advanced those changes, and the military and ideological excesses of the Cold War bear some responsibility for current global crises.
Reagan is famous for his stinging repudiation of the "evil empire." The line was purportedly a wake-up call not only to Soviet leaders but also to a US foreign policy establishment that had become too comfortable with its Soviet counterparts. Yet repressive and authoritarian as the Soviet bloc was, by the early '80s it already had become little more than a paper tiger. In a recent Los Angeles Times op ed, Andreas Szato, Director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia and a former Hungarian conscript, characterized a 1983 military training exercise as "logistical disarray and utter ineptitude. We were dropped off in a valley somewhere; old trucks dressed up as enemy targets awaited our attack. But the ammunition supplies were late in reaching the artillery units behind us. Hours later, when the cannons unloaded their ordnance, they hit everything but their intended targets."
Well before the end even of Reagan's first term, the Soviet bloc was in deep crisis. Many Eastern block dissidents did value market freedoms, but few wished to dispense with all safety nets. The crisis was also indebted to something Reagan admirers hardly ever celebrate -- '60s culture and its pluralistic vitality. Historian John Patrick Diggins ("The Ism That Failed," The American Prospect, Dec. 1, 2003; interested readers can go to www.prospect.org and find it in the archives) points out that the overthrow of the Soviet bloc represents "the three great antagonists of conservatism: the youth culture, the intellectuals of the '60s generation and the laboring classes that still favored Solidarity over individualism. American neoconservatives like William J. Bennett are haunted by the crisis of authority at home and see knowledge threatened by skepticism everywhere.
"In Why We Fight, Bennett claims that we are in Iraq to take a stand for truth and to rescue 'moral clarity' from the quicksand of liberal 'pseudosophisticated relativism.' But in Eastern Europe, intellectuals took a stand for courage without certainty. ... The playwright Vaclav Havel, associated with Charter 77 and the Prague Spring, took his bearings from the metaphysical anxieties of Martin Heidegger and the existential meditations of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Against totalitarianism such writers stood for skepticism, irony, uncertainty, and a refusal to believe in and yield to an authority that prefers to possess truth rather than pursue it. Soviet communism ended the way American liberalism began: 'Resist much; obey little,' as Walt Whitman wrote."
Gorbachev and a new generation of Soviet leaders became convinced that high levels of military spending and political and economic repression were counterproductive. They offered political and economic reforms and disarmament initiatives. Yet as William Blum, author of Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, points out, Reagan impeded this process. Blum summarizes and corroborates charges by former Soviet ideologue Georgi Arbatov and George Kennan, the foremost US architect of containment that Reagan's refusal to negotiate slowed reforms and weakened Gorbachev's internal leverage. Only after the Iran-Contra scandal was Reagan willing to engage in substantive negotiation with the Soviets. That belated change of course, whatever its motive, was the one bright spot of the Reagan presidency.
In light of the Iraq war, one would think that even our mainstream media would recognize that talk of an evil empire is more than catchy rhetoric. The Manichean impulse to treat all opposition to US interests and policies as Communist-inspired left an ugly and destructive residue; Diggins points out that "thus the fall of the shah in Iran in 1979 was alleged to be as ominous as the fall of the czar in Russia in 1917 -- not because it presaged a religious fundamentalism that one day would become America's mortal enemy but because it signaled the 'prelude' to communism's inevitable march into the oil states." The Reagan administration "saw nothing wrong with America arming Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and establishing a covert alliance with the House of Saud, which would turn out to be the financial angel of al-Qaeda."
Before we cheer "victory" in the Cold War, we would do well to examine the meaning of victory and the price paid for it. Burdened by a half-century of fruitless efforts to match US military escalation, Russia is economically eviscerated, and its democracy is flawed and tenuous. Yet it remains armed to the teeth. In an op ed for the Los Angeles Times last April, Robert McNamara and Helen Caldicott reminded us that Russia still has over 8,000 nuclear weapons targeted at US cities and that its "early warning system is decaying rapidly. As always, the early warning systems of both countries register alarms daily, triggered by wildfires, satellite launchings and solar reflections off clouds or oceans. A more immediate concern is the difficulty of guaranteeing protection of computerized early warning systems and command centers against terrorists or hackers."
The world is awash with terrorists, many of whom regard the US as their mortal enemy. Terrorism has more than one parent. It would be as misguided to attribute terrorism solely to the failures of US policy as to evil foreign empires. Nonetheless, as our citizens mourn President Reagan's passing, a more nuanced assessment of the former president might be in order.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.