Authors: Serhii Plokhy
THE LAST EMPIRE
Copyright Â© 2014 by Serhii Plokhy
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ISBN: 978-0-465-06199-0 (e-book)
To the children of empires who set themselves free
T WAS A CHRISTMAS GIFT
that few expected to receive. Against the dark evening sky, over the heads of tourists on Red Square in Moscow, above the rifles of the honor guard marching toward Lenin's mausoleum, and behind the brick walls of the Kremlin, the red banner of the Soviet Union was run down the flagpole of the Senate Building, the seat of the Soviet government and until recently the symbol of world communism. Tens of millions of television viewers all around the world who watched the scene on Christmas Day 1991 could hardly believe their eyes. On the same day, CNN presented a live broadcast of the resignation speech of the first and last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union was no more.
What had just happened? The first to give an answer to that question was the president of the United States, George H. W. Bush. On the evening of December 25, soon after CNN and other networks broadcast Gorbachev's speech and the image of the red banner being lowered at the Kremlin, Bush went on television to explain to his compatriots the meaning of the picture they had seen, the news they had heard, and the gift they had received. He interpreted Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation and the lowering of the Soviet flag as a victory in the war that America had fought against communism for more than forty years. Furthermore, Bush associated the collapse of communism with the end of the Cold War and congratulated the American people on the victory of their values. He used the word “victory” three times in three consecutive sentences. A few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, Bush referred to the implosion of the Soviet Union in a year that had seen “changes of almost biblical proportions,” declared
that “by the grace of God, America won the Cold War,” and announced the dawning of a new world order. “A world once divided into two armed camps,” Bush told the joint session of the US Senate and House of Representatives, “now recognizes one sole and preeminent power, the United States of America.” The audience exploded in applause.
For more than forty years, the United States and the Soviet Union had indeed been locked in a global struggle that by sheer chance did not end in a nuclear holocaust. Generations of Americans were born into a world that seemed permanently divided into two warring camps, one symbolized by the red banner atop the Kremlin and the other by the Stars and Stripes over the Capitol. Those who went to school in the 1950s still remembered the nuclear alarm drills and the advice to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear explosion. Hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and tens of thousands died in wars that were supposed to stop the advance of communism, first in the mountains of Korea and then in the jungles of Vietnam. Generations of intellectuals were divided over the issue of whether Alger Hiss spied for the Soviets, and Hollywood remained traumatized for decades by the witch hunt for communists unleashed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Only a few years before the Soviet collapse, the streets of New York and other major American cities were rocked by demonstrations staged by proponents of nuclear disarmament that divided fathers and sons, pitting the young political activist Ron Reagan against his father, President Ronald Reagan. Americans and their Western allies fought numerous battles at home and abroad in a war that seemed to have no end. Now an adversary armed to the teeth, never having lost a single battle, lowered its flag and disintegrated into a dozen smaller states without so much as a shot being fired.
There was good reason to celebrate, but there was also something confusing, if not disturbing, about the president's readiness to claim victory in the Cold War on the day when Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush's and Ronald Reagan's principal ally in ending that war, submitted his resignation. Gorbachev's action put a symbolic if not legal end to the USSR (it had been formally dissolved by its constituent members four days earlier, on December 21), but the Cold War was never about the dismemberment of the USSR. Besides, President Bush's speech to the nation on December 25, 1991, and his State of the Union address in January 1992 contradicted the administration's earlier
statements about the Cold War having ended not in confrontation with Gorbachev but in cooperation with him. The earliest such pronouncement was made at the summit of the two leaders on Malta in December 1989. The most recent one was the statement released by the White House a few hours before Bush's Christmas speech. It praised Gorbachev's cooperation: “Working with President Reagan, myself, and other allied leaders, President Gorbachev acted boldly and decisively to end the bitter divisions of the Cold War and contributed to the remaking of a Europe whole and free.”