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Human Choices that Ended the Cold War

Individual actors and their choices that helped bring the Cold War to an end

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The Human Choices that Ended the Cold War

The following selection of characters is by its nature arbitrary and hardly definitive, but it is meant to illustrate and illuminate, to suggest further topics for research, and to connect the end of the Cold War both to the present (some 15 years on) and to the nearly 50-year past. Perhaps the geological metaphor applies here: These individuals are the human faces for moments of punctuated equilibrium in the evolution of international politics, or earthquakes that expose the long-term grinding of geopolitical tectonic plates.

Chen Yi

What is a Chinese name doing at the top of this list? What did China have to do with the end of the Cold War? Isn’t the Chinese Communist Party still running China today? Didn’t the Party crush its internal opposition with a massacre in Tienanmen Square on the same day in June 1989 that the people of Poland voted their Party out of power? Besides, this particular Chinese man, a Long March veteran, a marshal of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, the titular foreign minister of China during the 1960s, died in January 1972, so how could he have played a role in the end of the Cold War?

The answer to these questions begins with the high water mark of the international communist movement, when Mao’s revolution took over China in 1949. For Communists all over the world, here was confirmation of the inevitability of world revolution and communist triumph. For the aging survivors in Moscow of Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s panzers, here was a shot of adrenalin, a new Communist government in the world’s most populous country and one not imposed by Soviet occupation. For the United States and its new NATO allies, here was escalating danger, a red tide that threatened to wash over all of Asia. The reverberations dramatically heightened the sense of anxiety and danger driving Washington’s decisionmaking, precipitating a political debate over “who lost China?” and fueling a spy-mania based also on real Soviet penetrations.

And yet, within ten years, the Red Sea had divided, the Soviet and Chinese Communists were at loggerheads, screaming at each other in international party gatherings, and actively contending for allegiance and influence. Many factors drove the Sino-Soviet split, not the least of which were Mao’s egotistical grandiosity and Khrushchev’s impulsive emotionalism; but the fact of the split in some sense meant the end of Communism’s pretensions to be the inevitable consort of history. The fallout shaped the decades to come, not only ideologically. For example, one reason why future paramount leader, economic reformer, and Tienanmen killer Deng Xiao-ping was able to keep coming back from his many purges was his performance versus the Soviets during the split: Chairman Mao well remembered his “little terrier” (Deng was under five feet tall) ripping the rhetorical pants off the six-foot-plus Soviet ideology chief Mikhail Suslov during the party debates of 1959.

Within another ten years, the Sino-Soviet split had come to blows and blood. In March and again in August 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops killed each other en masse along their border. Chinese leaders were digging bunkers under the Forbidden City in Beijing and berms as tall as the Great Wall along the roads from the north. American intelligence analysts were on the lookout for a Soviet pre-emptive strike on Chinese nuclear weapon installations.

This is the crisis point at which Chen Yi enters the narrative of the end of the Cold War. Marshall Chen Yi had risen from his Long March days to the highest army rank and even became Foreign Minister of the Peoples’ Republic in the early 1960s. But the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s brought him down, targeting as it did all the elites, high officials, intellectuals, internationalists, and residual Mandarins – the people Mao blamed for turning his revolution into another giant bureaucracy. Chen Yi was luckier than many, since he was not tossed from a window to his death, or sent to collect night-soil in the countryside on starvation rations. He lost his seat in what the Party euphemistically called “the central decisionmaking bodies,” and he was exiled from the Foreign Ministry to a Beijing-area factory where he was tasked to make inspections; but in reality, the factory provided him protection from marauding Red Guards, and in the spring of 1969 he got a high-level assignment, direct from Chairman Mao. Together with three other marshals also suffering in limbo or purgatory, Chen Yi was supposed to take a whole new look at China’s foreign policy in the context of the Soviet threat. Would the Soviets attack? What was the real danger? What should China do differently to prevent such an attack?

At first, the whole group of four marshals resisted the task. They protested that the 1969 Party Congress had already set the official policy, and if their group came up with different recommendations, well, wouldn’t it be back to the reeducation camps for them? But on behalf of Mao, premier Zhou En-Lai assured the marshals that their job was to think outside the box. And so they did. First, the four marshals concluded that the Soviets really would not attack; there was no guarantee that a pre-emptive strike would actually destroy all of China’s nuclear weapons; and China’s manpower reserves and shorter logistical supply lines would give the defenders an advantage in a land war. But the marshals did not stop there. How to head off any future Soviet threat?

At the very moment in August 1969 when the CIA’s assessment concluded there was no chance that China would change its basic anti-U.S. stance, the four marshals proposed just that. In their discussions, they referred to the historic Chinese practice of playing off the “far barbarians” against the “near barbarians.” In their formal report to Chairman Mao, they actually used the phrase “playing the card of the United States.” And Chen Yi personally, in his oral comments when delivering the report through Zhou En-Lai in September, recommended that China seek out high-level diplomatic discussions with the U.S., even the highest level.

Of course, the Chinese calculation met a pair of willing card sharps in the form of President Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger, who were playing their own game (the China card) versus the Soviets, and seeking pressure against Hanoi so they could end the U.S. troop commitment in Vietnam. The rest of this history is well-known: the back-channel messages through Pakistan, Kissinger’s secret trip in July 1971, and then Nixon’s own triumphant visit to Beijing in February 1972. The Chinese evidence suggests that Zhou En-Lai and Mao made careful arrangements to show the Americans, the barbarians, coming to pay tribute to the emperor, including the very first photographs showing Nixon striding forward to shake hands with a stock-still Zhou. Chen Yi was not there to see history made; he had died of cancer only the month before Nixon’s arrival. But one of his group of four, Marshal Ye Jian-ying, personally received Kissinger’s detailed top-secret intelligence briefing on the Soviet buildup on the Chinese border – bringing the story full-circle.

But the ultimate coda to the four marshals’ moment – and the connection to the end of the Cold War – comes from a memo written by Kissinger to Nixon after a subsequent trip in June 1972, at which point Kissinger summarized the relationship in a striking phrase: in effect, the Peoples’ Republic of China had become a “tacit ally.” As the historian Nancy Bernkopf Tucker commented, “At this point, the U.S. had more Communists on its side of the Cold War than Moscow did.” The tectonic plates had shifted, and Moscow was on the fault line.

Ella Jo Baker

For much of Ella Baker’s professional life, she was accused of being a Communist or at least a fellow-traveler; and like Chen Yi, she did not live to see the end of the Cold War (she died in 1986). Yet she made key behind-the-scenes choices that shaped the entire civil rights movement in the United States, that stretched the frame of American political debate, that opened new forms of civic activism, and that forced the U.S. towards greater freedom rather than the repressive path urged by many officials of becoming more like the Soviet Union in order to fight the Cold War. For example, the classified Doolittle Report of 1954 (not released publicly until 1976) defined the Cold War task for the U.S. as follows:

“It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game… If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.”

Ella Baker was one of many who stood against this analysis. She was not out to win the Cold War; she wanted freedom now, at home; and her experience told her that Cold War rhetoric and anti-Communist mobilization were the leading tools used by the authorities (ranging from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to Dixiecrat Senator Strom Thurmond) to thwart the aspirations of African-Americans. The “implacable enemy” for her was the racist power structure of the South and the Jim Crow segregation of the North. She taught workshops at places like the Highlander Center for organizers; and those bi-racial gatherings would soon be featured on billboards across the South as a “Communist training school.” Such attacks had been effective on the older generation of civil rights organizations, in part because they had also seen the pernicious effects of Communist-style cell organizing and front group manipulation. But Baker became the mentor to a new generation that saw “red-baiting” as the establishment’s way to divide and divert. Their contribution to the demise of Communism is what connects Ella Baker’s story to the end of the Cold War.

Born the granddaughter of slaves, Ella Baker made key choices in four turning points of the civil rights movement – turning points that we can see today but at the time, were not nearly so clear. First, immediately after World War II, Ella Baker led the field organization of the NAACP into tremendous growth for the group, especially as black veterans came home from the segregated U.S. military. In the words of the popular song, “You can’t keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree.” By the end of 1947, in large part due to Baker’s efforts, the NAACP boasted a thousand local chapters and more than half a million members. This remarkable field structure recruited the future leaders of the movement, people like Aaron Henry and E. W. Steptoe in Mississippi, who would provide the only continuous local pressure against segregation over decades, a base for all the campaigns to come, and extraordinary examples of personal courage in the face of totalitarian repression and murder.

Then, based in New York City, Baker took on the role of lead NAACP volunteer in the successful struggle to desegregate the City’s public schools – the cutting edge for what would become the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1958 she went to Atlanta where she set up the structure for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ongoing civil rights work, called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and still in existence today. In 1960, she parted ways with SCLC over its centralized, top-down, male-dominated leadership style, and prevented SCLC from taking over the nascent student sit-in movement, which was desegregating lunch counters across the South by direct action. Instead, she invited the students to her own alma mater, Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, for what became the founding conference of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and served as den mother for Snick from then on.

The importance of Snick to the movement was far out of proportion to the group’s actual modest-sized membership and even more modest lifespan (a mere decade or so). With Baker’s inspiration, Snick pioneered new forms of direct action (not only passive civil disobedience), and shocked the nation into real civil rights legislation when Mississippi responded to Freedom Summer 1964 by murdering three volunteers. Snick insisted on decentralized leadership, encouraged self-expression and dissent (to the point of fracture and splinter), focused on bottom-up empowerment (following the local leaders), though practicing non-violence did not shy from self-defense (giving rise ultimately to the call for Black Power), and entertained ecumenical ideologies (Maoism, Troskyism, Fanonism, Pan-Africanism, and others, including an internal staff statement that provides one of the earliest clarion calls for the feminist movement). Some of these strategies worked better than others, and Snick itself broke apart, as did the civil rights movement, over the conflict between black consciousness approaches (such as Stokely Carmichael’s) and the more traditional focus on integration (John Lewis’s “beloved community”), but not before it started the fire that lit the Sixties.

The importance of all this to the end of the Cold War revolves around the notion of legitimacy – or as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” On this dimension, the Soviet Union emerged from World War II with quite a lot of legitimacy. The USSR had borne the brunt of Hitler’s war machine, with 20 million Russians dead. The tide turned for Hitler with the Russian tank victory at Kursk, a year before the Allies managed to land at Normandy. Also, memories of the Great Depression were fresh; capitalism was not so clearly a successful economic system; everyone expected mass unemployment in the U.S. once the armies were demobilized (thus the G.I. Bill to send them to school); and Stalin’s command economy however coercive had apparently wrenched a largely peasant country into modernity and industrialism and enough production to beat Hitler.

In this perspective, the long view of the Cold War is the story of the decline of Soviet legitimacy and the rise of that of the U.S. Ella Baker’s civil rights movement provided the heart of this ideological victory, dealing a fatal blow to totalitarians everywhere as it turns out, even though it was only the thugs at hand in McComb and Birmingham that the movement had in mind at the time. The counter-culture sparked by Snick had subversive resonance around the world, not least behind the Iron Curtain, where a new generation challenged the rules governing sex, music, dress, behavior, speech and ultimately politics (Vaclav Havel’s favorite music was written by San Francisco’s Frank Zappa). And the non-violent resistance tactics refined by the civil rights movement even in the face of overwhelming state power (as during Freedom Summer) became the moral, ethical and practical tools of dissenters in Central and Eastern Europe all the way through the fall of the Wall.

Steve Jobs

Yes, the iPod is brilliant but how did 10,000 songs on demand in a box the size of a chewing gum pack have anything to do with ending the Cold War? What’s the connection, Frank Zappa? Or was it that famous Apple Computer advertisement during the 1984 Super Bowl using the music of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” to contrast Apple’s feisty libertarian vision with that of the giant corporations, the IBMs (using Microsoft programming)? Was that also a metaphor for the Soviet Union? Well, yes.

The United States experienced the middle 1970s as a form of economic disaster: oil embargo, double-digit inflation and unemployment (stagflation, they called it), interest rates up to 18 %, and the president himself describing the American attitude as “malaise.” Yet just at this time the U.S. economy took a major turn – from mainframe to personal computers – that helped doom the Soviet Union. This was not the sole factor in U.S. competitiveness, of course. Pushed by labor unions (as the bumper sticker says, “The folks who brought you the weekend”), the U.S. took many steps after World War II that cumulatively prevented any reprise of the 1930s, ranging from unemployment insurance to minimum wages, bank insurance to securities market transparency, Social Security and Medicare, the interstate highway system to the G.I. Bill – all spectacularly successful government investments in stable economic growth. But the Soviet Union might still have been able to compete, except for the structural change that took place in the 1970s in the automatization of information.

Computers by themselves did not militate against the Soviet style – indeed, mainframes were entirely compatible, indeed highly useful, for central planning and command-and-control decisions, and the technical priesthood who tended such massive computer installations fit the Soviet mold of vanguard cadres and elite control. The personal computer however was a revolution; its atomized individualism posed multiple challenges to Soviet management; and its networked, distributed information processes were 180 degrees from the closed Soviet 5-year plans.

The Cold War fueled the development of computers. For the biggest computer company, IBM, fully half of its 1950s revenues from electronic data processing came from the analog guidance computer for the B-52 bomber and from the SAGE air defense system that the U.S. built after the Soviet nuclear test of 1949. Each computer at SAGE had 60,000 vacuum tubes and occupied an entire acre of floor space. Thomas J. Watson later said, “It was the Cold War that helped IBM make itself the king of the computer business.” The same held true for transistors and chips – as late as 1960, the U.S. military bought nearly 50% of all semiconductors.

But the transition to the personal computer was not driven by the military, but by the Sixties’ counterculture in California. At a time when professional radical Abby Hoffman would make “Steal This Book” the title of his latest opus, many computer hobbyists got their start building “blue boxes” to steal long distance telephone minutes from the monopoly Ma Bell. They talked about “computer liberation” and “technology to the people.” The most famous group of computer buffs was probably the Homebrew Computer Club, which started meeting in early 1975 in Menlo Park, California. In the words of Homebrew’s leader, Lee Felsenstein, “It caught fire, the idea that we don’t have to have large industrial and governmental structures tell us what to do. Technology was very important to us. It’s very important to everybody; that was not an issue. The question was how to deal with it… And our solution was to play around with it and encourage others to play around with it. Mess around, try things.” According to a 2001 “birthday commemoration article” sent by e-mail, “More significant than any individual, design, product, or company that it nurtured, Homebrew was a cultural and technological renaissance that catalyzed the transfer of computing from the insular priesthood of big corporations and government into the hands of individuals.”

The key moment occurred in April 1976 at a Homebrew meeting. A college dropout engineer named Steven Wozniak had been coming for a year, working at Hewlett-Packard and fooling around with the phone phreaker known as Captain Crunch (John Draper). Woz also brought his best friend to Homebrew, a lesser engineer but greater visionary, Steve Jobs. One of their inspirations came from the Altair 8800, featured on the cover of the January 1975 Popular Mechanics, a cheap (under $400) and primitive microprocessor computer that you could build from a kit. Another inspiration was the legendary Xerox Alto, introduced in 1973 but never commercially produced. The Alto was perhaps the most innovative design in computer history, with a mouse, an object-oriented operating system, a graphics user interface, and fast networking with the first Ethernet cards – features that were still cutting edge even 20 years later; but it was a lab curiosity, buried in the bureaucracy of a giant corporation still committed to mainframes and photocopiers.

The two Steves, Woz and Jobs, saw the future more clearly. They set to work in the Jobs’ family garage in Cupertino, and soon came up with the first Apple computers – circuit boards fastened to carved wood. At the April 1976 Homebrew session, Woz typed in the final programming and Jobs did the presentations for the Apple I, which marked the end of toggle switches and the beginning of the interactive graphical microcomputer as a new class of machine. And Steve Jobs envisioned bigger things – the Apple II, a self-contained plastic box with keyboard, screen and printer, the first successful mass-produced personal computer, launched in 1977 and catapulting Apple Computer to the status of fastest-growing company in history. The new word processing and spreadsheet software packages coming onto the market were perfect fits. By 1981, IBM had rushed its own personal computer to market, and although calling it a “PC” was IBM’s only innovation, they outsold Apple and everybody else.

The personal computer changed the information future. From 1978 to 1984, the mainframe share of the computer market dropped from three-quarters to less than half; and the federal share of computer-related research-and-development expenditure fell from two-thirds in the 1950s to one-fifth by the 1980s. The PC was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1983; and in the same year the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) established the protocols for packet switching between networks that marked the beginning of the Internet. The Net featured only about a thousand “hosts” in 1984; but by 1992 there were more than a million.

The Soviet Union was left in the dust. The USSR had been first in Europe in 1950 with an electronic stored-program digital computer (S. A. Lebedev’s MESM), and produced more refined models into the 1960s; but Soviet mainframes from the 1960s on were based primarily on pirated IBM designs, and the East Bloc had no capacity whatsoever for a hobbyist or PC culture. Even their pirated PCs could not measure up. The scholar Karen Dawisha quotes the maker of the Czechoslovak Ondra microcomputer complaining in 1986 about the western PCs, “With these computers comes not only technology but also ideology… Children might soon begin to believe that Western technology represents the peak and our technology is obsolete and bad… [I]n ten years’ time it will be too late to change our children. By then they will want to change us.” The change came in three years.

Max Jakobson

There was political space for the change that happened at the end of the 1980s in large part because of diplomacy by one of Europe’s smallest nations in the 1960s and 1970s. Finland ranked as an unlikely leader of any process that brought down the Soviet Union; after all, “Finlandization” was the largely pejorative phrase describing what the West feared for the rest of Europe – kow-towing to Soviet power, untied from the trans-Atlantic relationship. For the Finns, however, the neutrality that Americans saw as cowardice actually guaranteed their independence.

The crowning glory of Finnish diplomacy arrived with the Helsinki agreements of July 1975, as 35 heads of state and government attended the European Security Conference. Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs about Helsinki: “Proposed by the Soviets in 1954 and intended as a maneuver to undermine the Atlantic Alliance, it was hesitantly accepted by the democracies and concluded amidst bitter controversy. Yet, with the passage of time, it came to be appreciated as a political and moral landmark that contributed to the progressive decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet system over the next decade and a half. Rarely has a diplomatic process so illuminated the limitations of human foresight.”

Kissinger’s own foresight was among those so limited. He saw the CSCE process almost purely as a concession to the Soviets, a trade-off for deals he really wanted like the Quadropartite Agreement on Berlin or the beginning of Mutual Balanced Force Reduction negotiations in Vienna. His own staff aide for Europe, William Hyland, characterized Kissinger’s attitude to Helsinki as one of “disdain.” In his December 9, 1974 senior staff meeting, Kissinger said “I couldn’t care less what they do in the European Security Conference. They can write it in Swahili for all I care.” Kissinger dismissed the significance of the “Basket III” human rights provisions in an October 29, 1973 staff meeting, “Because I don’t believe that a bunch of revolutionaries who manage to cling to power for fifty years are going to be euchred out of it by the sort of people we have got negotiating at the European Security Conference through an oversight.”

In his disdain, Kissinger had lots of company. The New York Times editorialized against the agreements (July 21, 1975) as “symbolically ratifying the territorial status quo, including the division of Germany and Europe and the Soviet Union’s huge annexations of East European territory, including all three independent Baltic states plus large chunks of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Rumania.” Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told the AFL-CIO, “The proposed agreement is the funeral of Eastern Europe. It means that Western Europe will finally, once and for all, sign away from Eastern Europe, stating that it is perfectly willing to see Eastern Europe oppressed, only please don’t bother us.” Ronald Reagan, already running for president against Gerald Ford, said, “I am against it and I think all Americans should be against it.”

The skeptics should have attended the Soviet Politburo session that first discussed the final language of Helsinki. Longtime Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin recounts in his memoirs that the Politburo was “stunned” when it finally saw the Basket III provisions. “Many in the Politburo (Podgorny, Suslov, Kosygin, and Andropov) had grave doubts about assuming international commitments that could open the way to foreign interference in our political life. Many Soviet ambassadors [no doubt including himself] expressed doubts because they correctly anticipated difficult international disputes later on.” In Dobrynin’s account, Soviet foreign minister Gromyko won the argument by proclaiming “we are masters in our own house,” thus implying some noncompliance from the very start.

The Soviets so wanted the “inviolability of frontiers” language they had sought for decades that they drove the Helsinki process forward, believing the ratification of Stalin’s conquests would begin a European security system that could replace NATO. But the diplomats of the West and the neutrals exacted their price as well, the human rights and freedom of movement provisions in Basket III. The Soviets found it hard to object in principle (many of these rights were formally accorded in the USSR Constitution) and in the specific context of their support for détente.

William Hyland wrote in retrospect: “Helsinki… gave the East Europeans a legitimate means to widen contacts with Western Europe, and a framework to expand contacts at future meetings. In those terms the Helsinki conference was and remains a clear success. Indeed, it provided the soil in which the Solidarity movement in Poland could flourish; it allowed the two German states to move closer; it gave the Romanians, Hungarians and Yugoslavs more freedom of action.” Dobrynin wrote that the Helsinki agreements “gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement, a development totally beyond the imagination of the Soviet leadership.”

Credit for Helsinki might well go to Finnish president Urho Kekkonen. He pushed, he hosted, and he presided. But Kekkonen ranks as something of a tragic figure. He played the Moscow card inside Finnish politics, at no small cost to Finnish democracy. He maintained his office from 1956 to 1981, and as one scholar has commented, by the end the country’s elites sought mandates not through elections so much as through attending the president’s court and taking saunas at the Soviet embassy. As the most distinguished Finnish diplomat and historian has framed the debate, the question is whether Kekkonen was “a savior of the fatherland or a Faust who sold his soul to the Kremlin.” So in Kekkonen’s place, and at the recommendation of the scholar of Helsinki, Vojtech Mastny, Finland is represented here by the author of that question, Max Jakobson.

Jakobson’s life captures many of the complexities of the Cold War. Descended from the first documented Jew to arrive in Finland, Jakobson fought against Soviet troops in the legendary winter war of 1940 – alongside Nazi allies. Had the Soviets won, Jakobson would have been shot. Had the Nazis won, he might well have ended in the concentration camps. Only the frozen truce, the narrow line between victory and defeat that ultimately occurred, allowed his survival, and that of Finland.

Jakobson’s career in journalism and then the Foreign Ministry took him to the United Nations from 1965 to 1972, where he chaired the Security Council for a year. His general pro-Western stance and Finnish hyper-activity made him a finalist for U.N. Secretary-General (he lost out in part because of his Jewish ancestry). He went on to Stockholm as ambassador in 1972, and both at the UN and in Sweden helped lead Finland’s efforts to secure the European Security Conference. Ultimately, it was Finland’s offer of a date and a place that made the process concrete, and Finland’s insistence upon a Final Act that brought the heads of 35 governments to Helsinki in the summer of 1975. And as William Hyland concluded, “If it can be said that there was one point when the Soviet empire finally began to crack, it was at Helsinki.”

Alina Pienkowska and Anna Walentynowicz

Helsinki has a competitor for the point at which the Soviet empire began to crack, just across the Baltic at the historic seaport of Gdansk (Danzig in an earlier era) in Poland. Here, in the now-rusting shipyards sprang up the workers’ movement known as Solidarnosc – Solidarity. At every level, Solidarity was a direct assault on Communism, from its very name, appropriating a Communist anthem, to its membership, the proletariat itself rising up against the dictatorship of the proletariat, to its relationship with the Polish Catholic Church (the Polish Pope’s visit to his home country in the summer of 1979 stirred the pot, and at Gdansk it began to boil). At the end of the Cold War, as we have seen, Solidarity led the way out of the Stalinist system.

But Solidarity would never have become such a movement without the direct action and brave choice of two women named Alina Pienkowska and Anna Walentynowicz, at the shipyard gates on August 16, 1980. Walentynowicz was the reason for the strike to begin with. Nicknamed “Mala” or “Tiny” for her diminutive size, she worked as a welder starting in 1950 at the shipyards, often in the farthest narrow crannies of the ship frames where other welders could not reach. After 16 years with a torch, she rose to operate a crane; and on August 7, 1980 – only five months to her retirement – the shipyard managers fired her for gathering candle stubs for remelting and reuse at the memorial to the 44 workers massacred in the police crackdown of 1970.

Seven names appeared on the August 14 petition addressed “to the workers of the Gdansk Shipyard,” urging them to “defend the crane operator Walentynowicz. If you don’t, many of you may find themselves in the same dire straits…” This “founding committee of independent trade unions” consisted of Bogdan Borusewicz, Joanna Duda-Gwiazda, Andzrej Gwiazda, Jan Karandziej, Maryla Plonska, Alina Pienkowska, and Lech Walesa. Pienkowska was a nurse at the shipyard and a widowed single mother, not much larger in her physical presence than the crane operator she was defending. The shipyard responded with a strike that no one expected would amount to more than an hour or perhaps a day occupying the site. But on the second day, factories and workplaces in the entire tri-city area around Gdansk went out on strike in support of the shipyard workers. Partly, this was a tribute to the organizing and outreach that had already been done; partly, it was the resonance of 1970 and the leading role of the shipyards; and partly it was that so many people knew Walentynowycz and the people calling for her defense.

The shipyard director quickly capitulated, agreeing to hire back the fired workers and even grant raises – well beyond the original strike demands. So the strike was over; Walesa sounded the national anthem over the loudspeaker; and the 15,000 workers started streaming out of the yards. But instead of exhilaration, Pienkowska only remembered all the other workers whose grievances haven’t been settled, who are striking to show their support for the shipyard workers but now will be left high and dry. She and Walentynowicz rushed to the gates, where Pienkowska mounted a barrel in order to be seen. She pleaded with the crowd, “People, they’re fooling us. Today we strike, tomorrow repressions.” She and Walentynowicz asked the workers to close the gates and continue the strike for the sake of those other workers who had come out in support and had yet won nothing. Pienkowska declared a “solidarity strike.”

Only a few hundred stayed, but they were the committed ones, the nucleus for thousands and ultimately millions more. With the smaller group, they could work out their bottom lines and their tactics, and there Pienkowska became one of the authors of the famous “21 demands” of Gdansk. Continuing the strike in solidarity with other, smaller workplaces gave the new independent trade union and the whole movement around it the defining character of Solidarity. The core brilliance and moral clarity of Solidarity came from this moment, struggling not just for the best deal we can get for ourselves, but the best deal we can get for everyone.

Anna Walentynowicz still lives in Gdansk, unreconstructed. She had no political career after freedom came to Poland, although a housing project in Buffalo, New York, carries her name. She is bitter about the failed promises of capitalism, and as a pensioner, she feels nostalgia for the security of socialism. She is dismissive, even insulting, about her former allies like Lech Walesa and the newspaper editor Adam Michnik, hob-nobbing with the former Communists and living the celebrity life, while Polish governments both Solidarity-run and ex-Communist have agreed on the economic unfeasibility and necessary shut down of the shipyards. “We wanted better money, improved work safety, a free trade union and my job back,” Walentynowicz told a New York Times reporter in 1999. “Nobody wanted a revolution. And when I see what the so-called revolution has brought – mass poverty, homelessness, self-styled capitalists selling off our plants and pocketing the money – I think we were right.”

Alina Pienkowska and Anna Walentynowycz both spent months in prison during the martial law that tried and failed to crush Solidarity. Clandestinely, Pienkowska married Borusewicz during the five years he spent underground in this time; and the most remarkable moment occurred at the baptism of their daughter. Borusewicz attended, disguised as a woman; and Lech Walesa – or so the story goes – not only did not recognize his old friend, but as is the wont of Polish males, leaned over and kissed his (her) hand. After the collapse of Communism, Pienkowska served a term as a Senator before returning to Gdansk, where she died of cancer, at age 50, in October 2002.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

The death of former President Ronald Reagan in 2004, after a tragic decade suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, brought an outpouring of encomiums that elaborated on the popular idea that Reagan should get the credit for winning the Cold War. In response, a number of scholars cited chapter and verse and original archival documents to demonstrate that the end of the Cold War was primarily a Soviet phenomenon, and specifically the result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” combined with his miscalculations. This either/or debate misunderestimates a third possibility: that in fact it was the interaction between Reagan and Gorbachev, between U.S. policy and Soviet thinking, that contributed to the end of the Cold War.

The Reagan victory school basically argues that the Soviets shifted to less confrontational policies in the late 1980s because the U.S. military build-up and political offensive in the early 1980s raised the costs of confrontation and forced the Soviets into a corner from which there was no escape save for surrender. There are a number of problems with this analysis. To begin with, the victory school tends to exaggerate Soviet strength and aggressiveness at the beginning of the 1980s. Rather than an “evil empire” on the march, the evidence now available from Soviet files shows a Soviet Union ruled by a sclerotic group of gerontocrats presiding over a stagnant economy falling ever further behind the West, a hollow military bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, a dramatic geopolitical imbalance featuring former comrades in China and Egypt as new U.S. allies, and a workers’ revolt in Poland personifying the international proletariat’s rejection of Communism.

As for spending the Soviets into bankruptcy, the Politburo records do show that Gorbachev worried frequently about a new arms race putting too much strain on the Soviet system, so it was part of his motivation. Yet the data from both CIA and Soviet sources show that actual Soviet military spending remained generally flat from 1977 through 1984, went up slightly in the first year of Gorbachev and then down again. Perhaps most persuasive is the counterfactual that posits the survival of Yuri Andropov as Soviet general secretary through the 1980s instead of dying in 1984. Years younger than Reagan himself, Andropov would clearly have made very different choices than Gorbachev did: Among others, Andropov would have played Mussorgsky, not Sinatra, to the East Europeans; and Budapest 1956, where Andropov was the Soviet ambassador, would have been front and center on the minds of would-be dissidents and demonstrators.

The available Soviet evidence also suggests that in fact U.S. policies and actions in the early 1980s delayed, and almost derailed, the Soviet reformers by providing opponents of reform with arguments against better relations with the West and relaxation of internal controls. Gorbachev succeeded in changing Soviet policies in spite of U.S. aggressiveness by changing his own view of U.S. actions to see them as, in part, a reaction to Soviet policies rather than merely an indicator of the inherently aggressive nature of capitalism. The question is how did he make that perceptual shift?

One answer is that Ronald Reagan made such a shift too. The scholar Beth Fischer called this “The Reagan Reversal,” contrasting the hard-line policies of Reagan’s first term to the eager negotiations of his second. In Reagan’s own memoirs, he complained that he never could get talks going with Soviet leaders, despite multiple hand-written letters and evident sincerity, because they “kept dying on me” (Brezhnev in 1982, Andropov in 1984, Chernenko in 1985). Not until Gorbachev did Reagan finally locate a producer – even a co-star – for the movie he had always wanted to make about U.S.-Soviet relations.

That first meeting at Geneva in late 1985 was an eye-opener on both sides. According to Anatoly Dobrynin’s memoirs, the maximum the Soviets hoped to get from the summit was a joint statement against nuclear war. In 1983, Andropov had found reasons to fear an imminent first-strike by the U.S. Reagan was shocked when he learned about this misperception from U.S. intelligence (primarily the defector Gordievsky). Earlier in 1983 the President had viewed the made-for-TV movie “The Day After” about Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear bomb, and gotten his first briefing (two-and-a-half years into his term) on the nuclear war plans that assumed hundreds of millions dead. By the time of Geneva, Reagan was eager to sign the statement that nuclear war could not be won and should never be fought – he had even used the same phrase in a speech in Japan.

As Gorbachev recounted to his aides afterwards, he had found Reagan to be a dinosaur in political terms, but also a nuclear abolitionist. Within weeks, Gorbachev responded in kind with his proposals to abolish nuclear weapons. Dismissed by many in the West as just more Soviet propaganda, this plan seems now to have been Gorbachev’s own turning point on Soviet security. His new national security advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, wrote about it in his diary for January 16, 1986: “Gorbachev’s proposal for a nuclear-free world by the year 2000. My impression is that he’s really decided to end the arms race no matter what. He is taking this ‘risk’ because, as he understands, it’s no risk at all – because nobody would attack us if we disarmed completely. And in order to get the country out on solid ground, we have to relieve it of the burden of the arms race, which is a drain on more than just the economy.”

“Nobody would attack us if we disarmed completely.” This was a remarkable breakthrough, in effect the end of the Soviet insecurity from Stalin’s time through Chernenko’s that motivated their side of the Cold War. This was the way out of the security dilemma that trapped both sides, in which a move seen as defensive by its originator only communicated increased threat to the other party. Arguably, this was a flash of light that Gorbachev picked up from Reagan, beginning at Geneva. His aides, such as Alexander Yakovlev and Chernyaev, had picked up ideas like this from international scientific and educational exchanges.

This new concept fit with the new generational outlook that Gorbachev represented: his cohort were mere kids in Stalin’s and Hitler’s time, their professional experiences were in the bureaucratic consolidation under Brezhnev and the thaw of détente. So if the United States is not going to attack, then the security buffer zone of Eastern Europe looks less and less necessary, and more like a series of debit accounts on the subsidy ledger. Thus, when Eastern Europe started to leave the Soviet empire, Gorbachev and his peers did not necessarily know what to do, but they did know what not to do. As an internal Soviet Central Committee analysis from February 1989 concluded, “It is very unlikely that we would be able to employ the methods of 1956 and 1968, both as a matter of principle, and also because of unacceptable consequences.” And thus the Cold War ended, not with a bang or a whimper, but an ode to joy.