Too often these days, the Cold War is treated as ancient history — as something from a simpler age of the world. It ended years before the advent of the high-speed Internet, Google and Facebook. It ended a decade before the Sept. 11 Islamist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in New York. It was a confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR, which sounds a lot simpler than the polyvalent landscape of 2012. Now we have the tumult of the Arab uprisings — mixing promise and menace; the Islamist terror webs probing for targets within our shores; Iran closing on nuclear weapons; North Korea testing nuclear bombs and long-range missiles; the rise of a militant China and a nationalist dictatorship in Russia; and economic debacles in the West that just keep compounding. What possible lessons could be gleaned from the Cold War to address the enormous complexities of our world today?
Actually, the Cold War, in the doing, was not simple at all. The Soviet Union had a home address at the Kremlin, but its nuclear-armed regime also worked through satellites, proxies, fronts, terrorists, propaganda and a Brezhnev doctrine that meant the formidable spread of a murderous totalitarian system — a system of revolutions that killed some 100 million people, by estimates of “The Black Book of Communism,” an overview of the horrors, published in 1999.
On the American side, just over 30 years ago, it was a dark scene. Saigon had fallen in 1975; the Soviets had rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, and were meddling heavily in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. In Poland, the Soviet satellite regime was trying to crushing the independent Solidarity trade union, which was challenging its lock on power. The Free World was rife with intellectuals, political pilgrims — useful idiots — who saw capitalism as the vice of a decadent West, and who, indifferent to facts, looked for salvation to the Soviet Union.
That was the context in which Ronald Reagan took office. He took office determined to turn this around, and he took his message in a big way to the American people, and to the world. His first year in office, 1981, he delivered a Christmas message in which he laid out in detail the case against the brutalities of the Soviet-backed government of Poland, with its “killings, mass arrests and the setting up of concentration camps.” He spoke bluntly of the Soviet regime as “totalitarian” and he spoke about the importance of freedom:
In the years that followed, despite the storms of protests and ridicule, he stood up to the Soviet Union. He deployed Pershing and Tomahawk missiles in Europe, he called the USSR the “evil empire.” He went to West Berlin and to the shock of many who favored diplomatic euphemisms over truth, he told Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall.”
Reagan made clear and credible what America required. This changed the dynamic to such an extent that in 1989, the year after Reagan left office, Germans tore down the Berlin Wall. Eastern Europe shook free of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union itself began to crumble. On Christmas day, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president, and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Here is his astounding speech that Christmas, inevitable when it finally came, but almost unimaginable when Reagan was delivering his first presidential Christmas message 10 years earlier.
Why does this matter today? Because it is at bottom the same fight now going on around the globe, the old human struggle for freedom, against forces and ideologies that oppose it. A big lesson of the Cold War is that leadership matters. When America has truly led in this world, good things have followed. If America’s president will not step up to lead this fight, if America’s government busies itself with bearing “witness,” leading from behind, and nodding along as new dictatorships replace the old, if America’s president chooses to fall back, stand aside and simply hope that history will of its own accord swing in a benign direction, then it is the job of Americans who see it otherwise to keep alive the ideas that won the Cold War — the ideas that capitalism and freedom are vital to those marvelous aims of peace on earth and dignity of mankind, and in that cause, American leadership is sorely needed. These are not merely matters of history and nostalgia. They are mighty ideas that need revisiting, rebroadcasting, teaching and proud defending, as guides to a better future, and inspiration for those who might yet emerge to lead us. And with that, a Merry Christmas to all.