reagan and gorbachev -- 11/7/23

Today's selection -- from Origins of the Modern World by Robert B. Marks. The collapse of the Soviet Union:

“The 1973 ‘oil shock’ caused by the OPEC oil embargo, designed to raise world oil prices, compounded global economic troubles first signaled in 1971 when the United States abandoned the gold standard and allowed the value of the dollar to ‘float,’ which it did—down (intentionally, to devalue the dollar and make it possible to pay for oil imports). The U.S. economy was thrown into the horrors of an unexplainable ‘stagflation,’ or economic stagnation and inflation, a combination that baffled economists. A stumbling U.S. economy drew the rest of the capitalist world economy down with it. Crisis? Slump? Recession? Historian Eric Hobsbawm sees 1973 as the end of a post-World War II ‘golden age’ and the beginning of ‘the crisis decades.’  Whatever the 1970s might have been called, it was a stressful time for the capitalist world. 

“But it was worse in the Soviet bloc. Economic growth had been slowing steadily since the 1950s, and it was not possible to supply the needs of the military, industry, and consumers. So consumers suffered, with long lines and waits at grocery stores for basic foodstuffs. Equally, if not more importantly, the ‘productionist’ biases of the system were leading to huge environmental problems that could no longer be avoided. By the 1970s, it was clear that reforms were in order, but getting the huge and unwieldy Soviet bureaucracy to change was difficult, if not impossible, because the Communist Party cadre who staffed the state ministries benefited from their positions. Attempts at reform in other East European countries had been met with Soviet tanks (Hungary in 1956; Czechoslovakia in 1968). Keeping their East European satellites in orbit was getting increasingly expensive for the Soviet Union. 

“In these crisis years for both the United States and the USSR, two political leaders played significant roles in reducing and then ending the Cold War: Ronald Reagan (elected U.S. president in 1980) and Mikhail Gorbachev (selected to lead the USSR in 1985). In part to lift the U.S. economy out of the deep recession he had forced by sharply raising interest rates in 1981-82, President Reagan vastly increased military spending (and the U.S. deficit as well). Reagan hoped a renewed arms race would spend the Soviets into oblivion, and to a certain extent he was right. When Gorbachev came to power, he recognized the Soviet Union could not keep up with U.S. military spending and the threat of a U.S. space-based missile defense system and so sought not just nuclear arms control but arms reduction through agreements with the United States. He hoped his program of ‘glasnost,’ or openness to ideas and culture from the West, would breathe some life into the stale Soviet system, while ‘perestroika,’ or readjustment, would reform party, state, and economy. The Cold War was coming to an end, but so too was the Soviet system. 

Mikhail Gorbachev in one-to-one discussions with US President Ronald Reagan

“Simultaneously, communist power in East European states was being challenged, in part by labor leaders like Lech Walesa in Poland and in part by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Deep economic distress, political corruption, and weakening control from Moscow emboldened East European citizens to make public demonstrations that the state police and armies suddenly refused to suppress. From August 1989 to the end of the year, ‘people's power’ peacefully drove communist regimes from power throughout Eastern Europe. Only in Romania was a Communist Party boss killed. The end of the Soviet Union too was at hand. As the nominally independent republics that constituted the Soviet Union became truly independent, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, rendering Gorbachev's position as head of that state irrelevant. In August 1991 some leaders of the Soviet military tried to use force to bring the ‘union’ back together, but the leader of the Russian federation, Boris Yeltsin, stood up to them; the coup collapsed, and along with it the Soviet Union. By the end of 1991, the United States was the world's sole remaining superpower. 

“The immediate effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union was an increase in the number of nation-states in the world. Mostly, the process was peaceful, an outcome attributed to the cooperation of then American president George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. The former Soviet Union broke up into fifteen new states, the largest of which is Russia, which inherited much of the power, including nuclear weapons, of the former Soviet Union. In one case—Germany—the process yielded one fewer state when the former communist East Germany reunited with West Germany, which dominated the marriage. Czechoslovakia split into two states (the Czech Republic and Slovakia). In the former Yugoslavia, though, civil war, ‘ethnic cleansing,’ atrocities, war crimes, and ultimately military intervention by NATO and U.S. forces accompanied its breakup into six smaller states. In all, the number of territorial states increased to 191 members of the United Nations.”



Robert B. Marks


The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century


‎ Rowman & Littlefield Publishers


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