Lead book review

The four men who averted the Apocalypse

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

In March 1987, as Professor Robert Service records in his new account of the end of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher visited Moscow. She had been reluctant to do so, largely out of fear that such a visit would only make it easier for a credulous Reagan — as she saw him — to offer Gorbachev even more concessions. She had also been worried that it would produce nothing for British interests.

Her hesitation to travel to Russia, let alone, as her advisers had urged, solicit an invitation, was perhaps surprising. She and Gorbachev had got on famously — shoes off, in front of a blazing fire — when she had entertained him, then only the Politburo member responsible for agriculture, at Chequers just before Christmas 1984. It was that encounter that had enabled her to tell Reagan — and the world — that Gorbachev was a Soviet leader with whom one could do business.

But when, eventually, an unsolicited invitation did arrive, Thatcher accepted with alacrity, her sense of political theatre as acute as ever. And the five-day visit that followed was a tour de force, as the Iron Lady, clad in fur, took an unsuspecting Russia by storm, visiting a monastery, calling on an ordinary family, meting out to a panel of Soviet television interviewers the kind of treatment usually reserved for ‘Mr [Robin] Day’.

At the Kremlin, Gorbachev tried to re-create for their dinner — just three a side — the kind of atmosphere he had enjoyed in the Chilterns: a log fire, and a specially hung oil painting of a stormy sunset. Sitting in the Foreign Office back in London, I heard an account of that dinner from one of those present. As at Chequers, the two had hit it off, arguing back and forth with real passion about whether capitalism or socialism was better. As they rose from the table, Gorbachev, pointing at the painting, compared their discussion to the storm clouds. Quick as a flash, the Prime Minister replied: ‘Ah, but Mr General Secretary, the light is coming from the West.’

And that is the main theme of Robert Service’s book: the way in which Reagan, supported by his quite exceptional secretary of state, George Shultz, brought first the arms race, and then the Cold War itself to an end. They, along with Gorbachev and his equally unusual foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, are the four giants who bestride the pages of this book. After Reagan retired to California in January 1989, his loyal vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, took up the relay, with another secretary of state, James Baker, in whom America and the world were fortunate. In Bush’s case, however, only after some hesitation about the course set by a president whose visceral opposition to communism had metamorphosed into an alarming effort to abolish nuclear weapons completely.


But Bush and Baker went on to finish the job with skill and fine judgment. They helped bring Germany back together, reached out to the former Soviet vassals in eastern and central Europe, and refused to crow over the dissolutions first of the Warsaw Pact and then of the Soviet Union.

Service shows that, despite their pretensions, other western statesmen played only supporting roles in this drama — except perhaps for Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his ten-point plan for healing his beloved country. After a strong start, Thatcher’s scepticism about Soviet good faith, about disarmament, and about German reunification reduced her influence. So too with Mitterrand, credited with repeating de Gaulle’s dictum that his love for Germany was so great that he wanted there to be two of them.

Cometh the hour, cometh these men, and women (among whom Raisa Gorbachev must be numbered). They saw where history was heading, and got ahead of it, trying with remarkable success to steer mankind to a better future. Of course, sooner or later, the Soviet Union and its empire would have come apart anyway, and most Germans would have come back together in a single state of their own. But it could all have been so much messier, and expensive of blood as well as treasure.

As this book records, MI6’s star agent inside the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky, reported, with great courage and in near-complete secrecy, just how apocalyptic his masters’ view of the West could be, and thus helped avert thermonuclear catastrophe.

Thus, like Suetonius in his lives of earlier generations of statesmen, Service reminds us how individual leaders, sometimes for better but usually for worse, do make a real difference to the course of human history. Gorbachev’s own part itself disproved the Marxist historical materialism favoured by so many Soviet thinkers. Men do make history.

What makes Service’s book special is its scholarship. His terrier-like persistence in digging into previously unexcavated archives in Russia, across America and around the internet gives his view of this slice of our recent past a firm documentary foundation. Good timing has also allowed him to interview some surviving key players, notably Shultz, and the officials who advised and observed them.

Service’s steadfast determination to march in lockstep with the facts, or at least the facts as recorded in the archives, does sometimes make his work a slower read than more sweeping accounts by less scrupulous historians. I confess that just occasionally, in pursuit of another footnote, I hoped, wistfully, for a bit less Livy and a bit more Thucydides. In places, this account felt more like the annals of six decisive years than their high history. Service is a great enough historian every so often to risk a wider judgment, not immediately underpinned by the archives.

One other minor, but related, observation that I never thought I would find myself making: too many of Service’s sentences are too short. His prose marches to a single staccato drum beat, reminiscent of that other great annalist, Tacitus, and his chronicler, Syme. In general, lapidary sentences are good and clear, but 500 pages of the prose equivalent of pavé can be wearing on the intellectual shock absorbers. These small stylistic defects, however, should not detract from Service’s achievement in providing a magisterial account of a turning point in modern history, whose intellectual rigour and robustness make it unlikely to be bettered.

In November 1988, Mrs Thatcher came to Washington to bid her adored, if occasionally alarming, Ronnie farewell, and to set George off on the right foot. Shultz gave a great lunch in her honour on the seventh, ceremonial floor of the State Department. Behind the lectern, he hid his present to her — a collection of his favourite excerpts from the Iron Lady’s oratory, contained, bizarrely, in a replica of one her familiar handbags. Shultz rose to speak, pulling out the handbag. Utterly unaware, I think, of how British ministers and officials upbraided by Margaret Thatcher used to described the experience, the secretary of state solemnly announced that, in recognition of her part in winning the Cold War, he was awarding the Prime Minister the Order of the Handbag. I wonder whether he ever realised why his British guests laughed quite so much.

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  • ardenjm

    Saint Pope John Paul II.
    Airbrushed from your review.
    Central to Prof. Service’s account.

  • Leftism is a societal cancer

    They didn’t save anything

  • Make no mistake: the American men — Reagan above all — did the saving.

    It’s so hard for the European people to acknowledge the leaders of freedom in the New World. I come from the Old World myself. I love it with all my heart and with my reason.

    But do not imagine that you could have won this battle without America, and without a very special sort of American.

    God bless Ronald Reagan.

  • Dukeofplazatoro

    Your e mail leading to the article has a nice misprint in it, reading “Gordievsky” instead of “Gorbachov”. I am sure Gordievsky will be overjoyed as being included as one of the four giants bestriding Robert Service’s account, but I presume you are suffering misprint-by-predicative-text

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