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The Big Three who ended the Cold War

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War Archie Brown

OUP, pp.512, 25

Historians argue endlessly and pointlessly about the extent to which the human factor rather than brute circumstance determines the course of events. History, geography and economic reality always constrain personal freedom of action. But within these limitations the individual can make a decisive difference. Britain’s war would have taken a different turn if Halifax rather than Churchill had become prime minister in May 1940. Archie Brown’s thesis is that the Cold War could have ended quite differently— much later and perhaps much more bloodily — had it not been for the fortuitous combination of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1997 Brown published The Gorbachev Factor, a pioneering work criticised by some for giving too much credit to the man with whom Thatcher could do business. His new book, lucidly written and scholarly, carries the argument further. Always interested in big ideas (he has written on the history of world communism and the myth of the strong leader), he is fascinated by the evolving interplay between three remarkable but very different people who presided over the ending of the Cold War.

All came from modest backgrounds. The son of a small-time salesman who drank too much, Reagan graduated from an undistinguished university with a mediocre degree in economics and sociology. He worked in sports journalism and films, and honed his political skills as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Dismissed in Europe as a screen cowboy, he nevertheless showed his political mettle by becoming a two-term governor of California.

He moved steadily to the right on a platform of anti-communism and lively suspicion of the Soviet Union, which he publicly denounced as an ‘evil empire’. But observers initially failed to noticed that he also had a vivid awareness of the dangers of nuclear confrontation, and that one of his goals was to get away from what he thought of as the ‘crazy’ policy of mutually assured destruction. To the dismay of some of his close advisers, he reached out to Gorbachev in a mutual search for sanity.


Thatcher came from a more stable but equally modest background. A forceful women of determined intelligence, she made her way to the top of the British political system at a time when the idea of a woman leader was still novel. One of her most attractive qualities was her intellectual curiosity. In opposition, she regularly organised discussion groups with government officials and outside specialists on a wide variety of subjects, and she continued the practice in government. She had made a particular study of the Soviet Union, and disapproved of it strongly. After less than a year in office, she concluded from an informal discussion with Foreign Office officials that the Soviet system was unviable but could only be changed by someone from within the system. A seminar with officials and academics in the autumn of 1983 led to active engagement with the Soviet bloc. She visited Poland and Hungary to bring a message of hope and, in autumn 1984, she invited Gorbachev to London for a visit which changed the dynamic of the Cold War.

Gorbachev came from the most unpromising background of all. His family were poor peasants in southern Russia. His two grandfathers were arrested (but survived) during Stalin’s terror. His father was wounded in the war, and his village was occupied by the Germans. Many of his fellow villagers died of hunger in the years that followed. Ambitious, energetic, intellectually curious, widely read, highly intelligent and hard working, he got a scholarship to Moscow University, a remarkable achievement for a provincial boy. There he began the journey which eventually led him beyond the communist orthodoxies of his youth to become the iconoclastic leader of the Soviet Union who presided over its eventual demise.

Brown believes passionately that without Gorbachev’s courageous optimism, his willingness to confront ossified thinking throughout the Soviet machine, his determination to bring the nuclear confrontation to an end and his refusal to spill blood to preserve Soviet power or indeed his own, Thatcher and Reagan would have had nothing to work with. He rejects President Bush’s claim in January 1992 that America ‘won’ the Cold War, preferring Gorbachev’s own contention that ending the nuclear confrontation meant that we all won.

These are plausible arguments. The trouble is that Russians too believe that it was the Americans who won. They bitterly remember the humiliation, famine and poverty which followed the Soviet collapse, and the way the Americans exploited their weakness, allegedly for their own good. President Clinton’s Russia specialist called it the spinach treatment. ‘It’s bad enough having you people tell us what you’re going to do whether we like it or not,’ President Yeltsin’s foreign minister retorted. ‘Don’t add insult to injury by also telling us that it’s in our interests to obey your orders.’

Gorbachev is widely seen in the West as a loser who understood nothing of economics, foolishly thought the Soviet Union could be preserved as a social democracy and failed to deal with the nationalist forces which led to its breakup. None of his western critics have explained how he could have held the Soviet empire together without sending in the tanks. And none had any better idea for dismantling a command economy without causing the massive popular distress that contributed so largely to the coarsening of Russian politics.

In his own country Gorbachev is regarded as a traitor or a fool, who destroyed a great nation deliberately or at best through incompetence. The good relationship he tried to promote with the outside world withered amid the turbulent emotions of a people who turned — not so very surprisingly — from the humiliations of the Soviet collapse to the specious nationalist attractions offered by Vladimir Putin.

Russia is still very far from becoming the democracy for which Gorbachev and the rest of us hoped. But it is more open, more prosperous and indeed more democratic than it has ever been before. It is anti-historical to maintain that it cannot evolve further.

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