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 United States 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 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 and grass-roots dissidents. 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 wakeup call not only to Soviet leaders but also to a U.S. foreign policy establishment that had become too comfortable with their Soviet counterparts. Yet repressive and authoritarian as the Soviet bloc was, by the early 1980s it already had become little more than a paper tiger.
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. That crisis was indebted primarily to something Reagan admirers hardly ever celebrate - '60s culture and its pluralistic vitality. Szato comments: "The United States had already won the culture war. Some people in my crowd shared a passion not only for Coke and Pepsi but also for such decadent indulgences as poppy tea (a crude form of heroin) and hashish. Kids swapped bootlegged tapes of the latest Western albums. Adults lined up to see movies by the likes of Woody Allen."
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 former Soviet ideologue Georgi Arbatov and George Kennan, the foremost U.S. architect of containment, have meticulously demonstrated, 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 high point of the Reagan presidency.
The Soviets as an evil empire has been more than provocative rhetoric. The Manichean impulse to treat all opposition to U.S. interests and policies as Communist inspired left an ugly and destructive residue. Columbia University historian John Patrick 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-Qaida."
Before we cheer "victory" in the Cold War, we would do well to take a closer look at what that victory means and the price paid for it. Russia, burdened by a half century of fruitless efforts to match U.S. military escalation, is economically eviscerated, and its democracy is flawed and tenuous. Yet it remains armed to the teeth.
In a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Robert McNamara reminds us that Russia still has more than 8,000 nuclear weapons targeted at U.S. 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."
And the world is awash with terrorists, many of whom regard the United States as their mortal enemy. Such terrorism has more than one parent. It would be as misguided to attribute terrorism solely to the failures of U.S. 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 is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to firstname.lastname@example.org
©2004 Bangor Daily News.