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Remembering Mikhail Gorbachev

William Inboden | He tried to reform the unreformable but helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end


Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses business executives in San Francisco in 1990. Associated Press/Photo by David Longstreath, file

Remembering Mikhail Gorbachev
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When Mikhail Gorbachev took office as the supreme Soviet leader on March 11, 1985, the Soviet Union (USSR) stood near the apex of its power. It possessed a fearsome nuclear arsenal with some 40,000 warheads and the largest military in the world. It dominated half of Europe through its Warsaw Pact satellite nations, while its influence spanned the globe through communist regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, many of which were sponsored or even controlled by the Kremlin.

Few people realized at the time that the USSR was in fact a decrepit colossus, decaying from within. Its economy teetered on collapse, its military was overstretched and under-equipped, its ideological legitimacy had evaporated, and its subject peoples detested its oppressive yoke.

One world leader who did perceive the Soviet Union’s fragility and rot was U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The other was Gorbachev himself, who died yesterday at age 91.

Mindful of this crisis bedeviling his nation, as the new Soviet leader Gorbachev—a dedicated communist—resolved to reform and preserve the Soviet system, whereas Reagan remained determined to defeat the USSR and end Soviet communism.

Their goals were incommensurate. Yet somehow along the way these two leaders would form a diplomatic partnership that would reduce the threat of nuclear war and bring the Cold War to a peaceful end.

Scholars endlessly debate which leader deserves more credit for ending the Cold War, Reagan or Gorbachev. I am firmly in the Reagan camp, for several reasons, including the fact that throughout his first term as president Reagan sought to bring military, economic, and political pressure on the Soviet system to produce a reformist leader—which it then did with Gorbachev. Reagan continued this pressure throughout his second term, accelerating the Kremlin’s vulnerabilities, while engaging in diplomatic outreach to Gorbachev. Nonetheless, both leaders deserve much credit for courage and strategic vision, and each saw the other as an indispensable partner. Reagan himself believed he could not have accomplished what he did without Gorbachev.

Sometimes the most consequential choices a leader makes are deciding not to act. In Gorbachev’s case, at decisive moments he decided not to stop the people of Eastern Europe from rejecting their communist overlords. Specifically, he did not intervene to stop Poland from holding free elections in June 1989 and did not send in the Red Army in November 1989 to stop the people of Berlin from tearing down the vile Wall that had dismembered their city for almost three decades. In choosing not to act, Gorbachev broke with a half-century of Soviet practice enshrined in the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” as his dictator predecessors had sent tanks and troops to crush anti-Soviet uprisings in East Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, and Prague in 1968.

For all of their negotiations over nuclear arms and the Cold War, Reagan’s most fervent appeals to Gorbachev came over the Christian faith.

Yet Gorbachev also undertook remarkable actions. He proposed and then made dramatic cuts in the Soviet nuclear arsenal and withdrew Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. He released thousands of political and religious prisoners from the horrors of the Gulag. Ultimately, he decided to surrender in the Cold War and allow the Soviet Union itself to collapse, liberating the Russian people from communist tyranny while granting autonomy to former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic states, and the many ‘stans’ of Central Asia. In those respects, he left the world a better place.

However in the final reckoning, by his own terms he failed. He tried to reform a depraved system that was unreformable. He tried to preserve an empire that could not be sustained without coercion. Following multiple coup attempts and the revolt of his own people, he acquiesced in the collapse of his nation, and left office in ignominy on Christmas Day, 1991.

For all of their negotiations over nuclear arms and the Cold War, Reagan’s most fervent appeals to Gorbachev came over the Christian faith. Reagan desperately hoped to see the atheist Soviet leader grant religious freedom to his own people, and come to trust in God. As I describe in my forthcoming book, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink, before their final summit in Moscow in May, 1988, Reagan confided to his diary that “I’m going to tackle [Gorbachev] on religious freedom—not as a deal with us but as a suggestion to him as an answer to some of his problems.”

In their meetings Reagan repeatedly urged Gorbachev to grant the Soviet people religious liberty—and went further in trying to persuade Gorbachev to believe in God. At one point Reagan confessed to Gorbachev that his own son was an atheist.

Continued the president: “One thing I have long yearned to do is serve my son the perfect gourmet dinner, to have him enjoy the meal, and then to ask him if he believed there was a cook. I wonder how he would answer?”

Replied Gorbachev, “The only possible answer is ‘yes.’”

I do not know of any evidence that Gorbachev ever gave up his atheism. But I cannot help but hope that in his dying days he recalled this conversation of thirty-four years ago with his American friend—and turned to God in repentance and faith.


William Inboden

William Inboden is executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and editor in chief of the Texas National Security Review. Previously he served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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