Courtesy Reuters

Misinterpreting the Cold War: The Hardliners Were Right

In This Review

The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War

By Raymond L. Garthoff
The Brookings Institution, 1994
834 pp. $44.95

Forty years ago the foreign policy debate in the United States revolved around the question, "Who lost China?" Today one of its most contentious issues is, "Who won the Cold War?" Advocates of the hard line feel that the events of the past five years have vindicated their strategy. They claim that it was the policy of containment, reinforced by a technological arms race, economic denial, and psychological warfare, that brought down the Soviet Union and communism. Advocates of the soft line will have none of it. They contend that, far from contributing to the demise of communism, the hard-line strategy prolonged the Cold War by arousing deep-seated anxieties in the Russians and making them even more truculent. As for the causes of communism's demise, they are less certain.

Raymond Garthoff's account of the final phase of the Cold War is meant to justify the soft line. By virtue of its massive research, it is likely to acquire the status of a primer for adherents of this approach. The book, which traces the course of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Reagan and Bush administrations, picks up, with some overlap, where its predecessor, Détente and Confrontation, left off. The two volumes, similar in approach and format, complement one another, surveying in minute detail relations between the two superpowers from 1969 to 1991. They are imposing treatises, totaling some two thousand fact-filled pages, nearly every one supported by references to the sources.

Mr. Garthoff identifies three basic approaches to communism and the Soviet Union, each with corollary policy implications. The first, of which President Ronald Reagan was the outstanding champion, he labels "essentialist." This approach assumed that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state driven by a militant ideology and hence intrinsically expansionist; such a power could be restrained and rendered harmless only by determined confrontation. The second, "mechanical" approach, while conceding that the Soviet Union was indeed expansionist, viewed it above all as a pragmatic power that could be "managed" by the astute application of rewards and penalties. The third, "interactionist" approach made light of both Soviet ideology and behavior, focusing instead on the conflict between the two superpowers, which it saw as propelled by a dynamic of its own. For this school, the ultimate reality was the competition itself; to reduce tensions, it was necessary above all to understand and allow for the concerns of the adversary. Mr. Garthoff, whose mission is to enlighten readers about the motives behind Soviet actions, makes no secret that his sympathies lie with the third school. Although he has some good words for the proponents of the mechanical approach, he has nothing but scorn for the "ideologues" espousing the essentialist cause.

Faithful to his premise, Mr. Garthoff depicts in his two histories the complex story of U.S.-Soviet relations from Nixon to Bush as a series of interacting moves by the contending parties. In Détente and Confrontation, he seemed to perceive no difference between the United States and Russia: they were simply armed camps wrestling for global supremacy. In the present volume, written after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., he is willing to concede, rather discreetly, that perhaps, after all, communist ideology, by positing the inevitability of a global conflict between socialism and capitalism, influenced Soviet behavior. Even so, his narrative consists of a succession of episodes, each dominated by a pattern of action, reaction (or overreaction), confrontation, and resolution. None of these conflicts is seen as possessing any substance; each originates in a misunderstanding of the opponent's intentions coupled with misguided views on one's own security. There are no contending values or even interests; there are only misperceptions and fears. Almost all Soviet aggression is explained in this fashion. Explanation used in this manner amounts to justification: Mr. Garthoff's methodology enables him to justify every Soviet aggression, be it the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the crushing of Poland's Solidarity movement, or the shooting down of a Korean airliner in 1983.

A good example of Mr. Garthoff's apologetic treatment of Soviet Cold War policies can be seen in his account of the December 1981 events in Poland. He gives no credit to Solidarity for its remarkable success in peacefully challenging the Communist Party's dictatorship. Nor does he try to explain why Solidarity arose and what its emergence meant. His treatment is coldly geopolitical: the rise of democratic forces in Poland posed a threat to the Soviet regime and left it no choice but to react by either invading Poland to suppress Solidarity or deputizing its Polish surrogates to do so. It chose the second, less violent alternative. Although regrettable, the imposition of martial law in Poland was understandable and justifiable. It was how both sides played the game.

Now admittedly, Solidarity endangered the Soviet regime, but its threat was of a moral, not military, nature. The Polish trade union demonstrated to the world the hollowness of communist claims to represent the working class and showed how workers, in collaboration with intellectuals, could circumvent the seemingly fail-safe internal security precautions of communist regimes. Its ability to do so aroused panic in Moscow, which feared that Russian workers might be tempted to copy the Polish example. This fear served as a stimulus for reform. Clearly, Solidarity was more than a pawn in the geopolitical contest. But Mr. Garthoff refuses to acknowledge the impact of Solidarity on the evolution of communism because he treats all internal dissent in communist countries as a sideshow. Thus, the Czechoslovak Charter 77 movement rated no more than a footnote in the first volume, Solidarity has no separate index entry in the present one, and the Soviet Helsinki Monitoring Group goes unmentioned in both. It is such superficially realistic thinking, blind to human aspirations, that has led most Sovietologists to grievously underestimate the weaknesses of communism and then to be surprised by its collapse.

What renders this book anachronistic is the author's persistent justification of Soviet aggression in terms that echo the official Soviet line of the time, terms that have been publicly repudiated by Russia's own democratically elected leaders from President Boris Yeltsin on down. In a speech to the U.S. Congress in June 1992, Yeltsin implicitly aligned himself with Reagan's view of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and the primary instigator of the Cold War when he declared: "The world can sigh in relief. The idol of communism, which spread everywhere social strife, animosity, and unparalleled brutality, which instilled fear in humanity, has collapsed." These are not the words of someone who sees no significant difference between the parties involved in the Cold War. During the past several years, other ex-Soviet political and military figures have openly admitted their country's aggressive intentions and manipulation of Western liberal opinion. Although newly released archival materials confirm these revelations, Mr. Garthoff, unfortunately, finds no room in his narrative for this evidence.

In the Russia of today, the only public figures who share the author's benign interpretation of Soviet Cold War policies are the reactionary nationalists of the "red-brown" coalition. How paradoxical that an American liberal should find himself in the camp of unregenerate Russian communists and fascists, while the elected president of Russia makes common cause with Western cold warriors!


Proceeding from the premise that in the Cold War the Soviet side acted almost exclusively out of fear for its security, Mr. Garthoff heaps scorn on Reagan and the "ideologues" in his entourage, who, he claims, drove the president to engage the Soviet Union in military and rhetorical confrontations. He does not address the question of why the conciliatory policies of Presidents Nixon or Carter were accompanied by a relentless military buildup and foreign intervention that culminated in the invasion of Afghanistan. He depicts Reagan as a passive accomplice of policies orchestrated by others, an ignoramus driven by a visceral anticommunist sentiment.

Admittedly, Reagan showed little curiosity about the kind of data that Mr. Garthoff has accumulated with such tenacity. Nevertheless, he displayed great discernment and the instinctive judgment of a true statesman, being inspired by a strong moral sense and a sound understanding of what it is to live under tyranny. As someone involved in the formulation of Soviet policy in the first two years of the Reagan administration, I can attest that the direction of this policy was set by the president and not by his staff, and that it was vigorously implemented over the objections of several more dovish secretaries. It rested on a keen grasp of the vulnerabilities of the Soviet regime.

Mr. Garthoff claims that in the early and mid-1980s no one "expect[ed] or fores[aw] that within a decade the Cold War, communist rule, and the Soviet Union itself would come to an end." The statement certainly holds true for him and his colleagues in the Sovietological community. It is demonstrably wrong when applied to President Reagan. Reagan acted with the conviction that the Soviet Union was not strong but weak, that its power rested on police terror at home and nuclear blackmail abroad, and that, being in the profoundest sense unnatural, it did not have long to live. In a speech at Notre Dame in May 1981, to cite but one example, Reagan asserted that "the West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism," and dismissed the whole communist experiment as a "sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written."

Such pronouncements, which ran counter to the academic consensus and earned Reagan in some circles the reputation of a dangerous right-wing fanatic, did not rest entirely on intuition. In the early 1980s the U.S. government occasionally received intelligence reports that depicted in stark terms the internal crisis afflicting the Soviet Union -- intelligence not all that different from the "unvarnished internal reporting of the KGB," to which Mr. Garthoff gives much credit for informing the Soviet leaders that their country was in trouble. The grand strategy of the Reagan administration with regard to the U.S.S.R. was to exploit this crisis by every available means in order to push Moscow toward reform.

In 1984, after leaving government service and shortly before Gorbachev came into office, I summarized this strategy in an article in this journal, where I depicted the Soviet Union as a country in the throes of a "revolutionary situation," whose leaders had no alternative (except war) but to carry out drastic internal reforms. These arguments paraphrased National Security Decision Directive 75, a still classified document dating to December 1982 that spelled out Reagan's Soviet policy.

Subsequent events corroborated these assumptions and the soundness of this strategy. At the beginning of Reagan's second term, Moscow entrusted its leadership to a man convinced that the Soviet Union urgently needed to liberalize at home and adopt a less aggressive stance abroad. As soon as Mikhail Gorbachev proceeded from words to deeds, President Reagan embraced him and, in the author's words, gradually moved from an "essentialist" to an "interactionist" position. Of course, the shift was not a change of heart by Reagan but an adaptation to the altered conditions in the U.S.S.R.

The fundamental weakness of Mr. Garthoff's case is his failure to account for the emergence of a Soviet soft-liner in the midst of the most hard-line of all American administrations. According to his interactionist model, the Soviet leadership responded tit for tat, meeting belligerence with belligerence and accommodation with accommodation. This theory failed to explain why the U.S.S.R. behaved more rather than less aggressively during the era of détente. The theory also fails to explain why the Politburo chose, in response to Reagan's anticommunism, a man committed to perestroika and disarmament. The author's unwillingness to confront this problem subverts the whole theoretical underpinning of his treatise.


Having painted himself into a corner, Mr. Garthoff can offer no plausible explanation for the collapse of communism. If it was neither Western containment nor domestic dissent, then what brought about its demise? And why did the disintegration of the Soviet Union end the Cold War? Since he cannot quite avoid dealing with such questions, he resorts to a single, implausible explanation: Gorbachev. The mere appearance of the new first secretary, descending on the stage of history like some deus ex machina, changed everything. It is a remarkably simplistic conclusion to come out of such impressive research, an extreme version of the old theory of great men as movers of events, long ago abandoned by historians.

Gorbachev, the shining hero of The Great Transition, emerges from nowhere. No satisfactory rationale is offered to explain why a typical product of the Soviet nomenklatura, a man who to this day affirms his faith in the ideals of communism, on being elevated to head both the party and state in March 1985, chose to change the course of his country's internal and external policies so radically. Mr. Garthoff's focus is entirely on the minutiae of the internal party intrigues and the comings and goings of U.S. and Soviet diplomats. He ignores the central question raised by his methodology, namely, why, after four years of Reagan's relentlessly confrontational policies, the Soviet Union did not respond in kind (as the interactionist theory would have it) by appointing a similarly hard-line, belligerent first secretary, but settled on a man of compromise. Something is clearly wrong with the interactionist model. The possibility that Reagan's anticommunism may have had something to do with the Soviet change of course is not even raised. So, for all the diligently compiled facts, for Mr. Garthoff the causes of the Great Transition are shrouded in mystery.


Earlier this year there appeared a book called Victory by Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. It is a fraction of the length of Mr. Garthoff's opus and lacks scholarly rigor. The references are mainly to interviews with officials of the Reagan and Brezhnev administrations, many of which cannot be verified. There is no table of contents or index. Yet this journalistic account comes closer to explaining the end of the Cold War than Mr. Garthoff's treatise, with its 1,794 footnotes.

Victory contends that the Reagan administration formulated and implemented a systematic policy of subverting the Soviet Union, largely through the use of the cia, and that this policy made a decisive contribution to the collapse of communism. Mr. Schweizer opens with quotations from three high Soviet officials supporting his view, one of them the former Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, who conceded publicly that Reagan's programs, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, "accelerated the decline of the Soviet Union."

Among the many illustrations of Mr. Schweizer's thesis is new information on the successful effort of cia Director William Casey in 1982 to persuade Saudi Arabia to cooperate with the United States in lowering oil prices. These moves shattered Soviet hard currency earnings in the 1980s, which depended heavily on energy exports, and adversely affected the entire Soviet economy. The author also provides fresh evidence of Washington's clandestine support of Solidarity after the 1981 crackdown and its help to the Afghan partisans.

Of course, the effect of the hard-line Reagan policies on the collapse of the U.S.S.R. will not be known until all the Russian archives are opened to scholars, notably the so-called Presidential Archive, which holds the minutes of the Politburo sessions of the 1980s. Even then the question may not be incontrovertibly resolved, since, as historians well know, the most important decisions of state are often not committed to paper. Still, one can say with confidence that U.S. policies played an important role in compelling reforms and that the reforms, once launched, unraveled the system. That much is known from statements of ex-Soviet officials and generals. Mr. Garthoff would have done well at least to contemplate this possibility.


The collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Sovietologists and, more broadly, the entire discipline of political science. Never has so much money been allocated to study one country; never have so many academic and government specialists scrutinized every aspect of a country's life from evidence provided by published and unpublished sources as well as eavesdropping devices and satellites. Yet when the end came, the experts found themselves utterly unprepared. To the extent that political science wishes to be treated as scholarship, it clearly behooves its practitioners to confront this failure.

Obviously, this is not the place to undertake such an analysis. Yet Mr. Garthoff's volume invites some remarks on this subject, for it is a serious work, based on a thorough study of a wide range of sources and filled with interesting information. Why would such a massive, earnest effort fail equally to predict what would happen and to explain convincingly what did happen?

The fiasco of Sovietology -- something its practitioners have yet to acknowledge -- may well have had its root cause in the determination of political scientists to act like physicists or biologists in order to earn the kind of prestige accorded to natural scientists. But, as demonstrated well over a century ago by German and Russian philosophers, the study of mankind differs fundamentally from the study of nature, in part because the observer is identical with the object observed and in part because, unlike molecules and cells, human beings have values and objectives that preclude their being analyzed in a value-free, unteleological manner. Thus the investigation of social and political organizations calls for a methodology closer to that employed in history and even literature.

Unfortunately, modern political scientists, ignoring this counsel, have proceeded to dehumanize the study of state and society, turning it into an arid discipline that at its worst resembles medieval scholasticism in its remoteness from life, self-verifying methodology, and self-confirming conclusions. The Sovietologists refused to read Soviet novels and poetry, or at any rate to take them into account, on the grounds that they were "soft" sources, incapable of being assessed scientifically. They ignored history as irrelevant. They treated information supplied by dissident émigrés from the Soviet Union condescendingly because it could not be evaluated according to accepted sociological standards. As a result they missed everything that was vital in that society and that, in the end, made it unworkable: human aspirations and human discontent.

When the study of state and society was called "politics" rather than "political science," it did much more than contemplate the mechanics of "social structures" and the "functions" of institutions. Aristotle began his Politics with a description of the household and concluded it with a disquisition on the role of music in the education of children. Hobbes opened The Leviathan with a lengthy discussion, "Of Man," and Machiavelli, whom Mr. Garthoff cites in the epigraph of his new book, insisted that understanding human nature was essential to the statesman. Their twentieth-century followers have forgotten this reality.

These founders of political theory would probably have understood much better than modern political scientists what went on in the Soviet Union by observing the regime's treatment of its citizens and their reactions to this treatment. Is it too much to ask of those who study politics to bear in mind that their subject is, first and foremost, not "structures," "models," "functions," or geopolitical aspirations and conflicts, but concrete human beings, both in their eternal substance and as molded by their particular history and environment? And that their discipline, for all its use of scientific techniques, belongs not with science but with the humanities?


ffl New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.


Close We are offering free and open access for a short period of time. Read more about why we are doing this.