I know who really won the Cold War

By Michael Tomasky

There's an old joke that no one who graduated from Harvard is capable of uttering a sentence that begins, "When I was at college..." It's only partly a question of bragging rights: John Harvard's name is talismanic for them, his campus the center of their universe.

The joke is meant to make the rest of us feel all right -- that our little patch of land-grant earth was good enough. I react similarly sometimes about arguments over who won or lost the Cold War. When the question arises in America, there are, let's say, three camps: Ronald Reagan won it; Mikhail Gorbachev, to use James Mann's word, "abandoned" it; or finally, some combination of the two prevailed. Some will toss in that Pope John Paul II was really the guy who kicked things off. Something, and someone, is left out of that argument.

Now, before I go any further, let me pause to praise The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan. Among its other virtues, it is simply cracking-good history. The big stuff and the little things are both attended to with thought and reflection, and brought to vivid life in the writing, from the contours of the debate about the language of Reagan's famous 1987 Berlin speech to why a particular bed was imported from Lisbon to Venice for the president's comfort before a parley. The plotting -- the authorial decisions Mann has made to carry us back and forth between context and action, description and dialogue --  is so well-paced that the book at many times really does read like a good novel.

It also contains what strikes me as more than its share of new revelations. Maybe this reflects my own ignorance, and so be it, but I hadn't even known the name Suzanne Massie until I read this book. She was an amateur (in the true sense) historian and Russophile down to the soles of her shoes. How she managed to get into a president's inner circle is a mind-boggling story, but the role she played in getting Reagan to understand that, underneath the thick and sluggish Communist epidermal layer, there lay a Russian soul that was a more complex and alive organism, was salutary, or at least more positive than not.

I also think Mann's general portrait of Reagan is neither stinting nor overly generous, and probably quite accurate. Mann's Reagan is not an intellectual, but a person with pretty shrewd instincts. I decided at some point while reading this book that perhaps the way to describe Reagan is this: He knew what he didn't know. He hadn't read a lot of history or stacks of policy papers, and for the most part he wasn't going to be bothered. But at least, unlike a certain recent White House occupant, he understood that there were lots of things he didn't know and he seemed to try to keep that in mind and compensate for it. I say all this as one who was not and is not a fan of Reagan, especially on the domestic side, where I think his legacy is for the most part cankerous; and as a believer in the general principle that one ought to bother knowing.

But here -- and this is no reflection on Mann -- is where my mind starts wandering a bit when I read any Reagan v. Gorby history, no matter which side it takes. I keep wondering: What about the people who, dare I say it, freed themselves? That is, if you ask me who won the Cold War, I will answer neither Reagan nor Gorbachev. I'll cast my vote for the courageous people of Eastern Europe, especially Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, and especially the people of Hungary, who are always given the shortest shrift of all. I'll say Walesa and Michnik and Havel, yes, but I'll also say Miklos Haraszti, the Hungarian dissident writer and human-rights activist. And perhaps more than any other name I'll say Gyula Horn.

Who? Horn was Hungary's foreign minister in 1989. In the early summer of that year, he posed for this rather breathtaking photo-op with his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock. Each holds a large clipping shear, and they are cutting the border fence between their two countries. More substantively, in September of that year, it was Horn who made the fateful decision (this is making a very long story very short) that opened the Hungarian border to Austria. If you ask me, once there was one leak in the Iron Curtain, there was no stopping events. In under 60 days, the Berlin Wall was dust. Without its European satellites, the USSR was doomed.

Again, I say none of the above by way of criticizing Mann's work. This was not within the ambit of his book, and yet to his credit he did indeed give seven or eight pages to all this in his epilogue.

I'm simply making a broader point: Like the Harvard grads for whom the old school looms over-large in their imaginations, we Americans think that everything that happens in the world must happen because of something we did or did not do. Reagan played a role in the collapse of the East. No one should deny it. But if "deny" is the verb, then "Eastern Europeans" is the subject: They are, in our histories, routinely denied their agency and their role in setting these events in motion.

Tony Judt, Michael Dobbs, and Paul Berman are three who've told us something of their stories, Judt most thoroughly. Indeed Judt's basic thesis on the fall of the East in Postwar provides ballast to Mann's assertion that the Cold War ended mostly because Gorbachev "abandoned" it. The Eastern European revolutions, Judt explains, could never have happened if Gorbachev hadn't let them happen. He could've rolled tanks into Budapest if he'd wanted to (Mann makes this point as well). But he did not. This process unfolded away from the field of U.S.-Soviet relations but again was probably more important than anything that happened at Reykjavik or any other summit.

So I salute the history that has been written here. As a liberal, I don't easily tire of narratives that show persuasively that a conservative president found success when he abandoned conservatism. But I also await the history that has yet to be written.

Michael Tomasky is editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and American editor-at-large of The Guardian (UK), on whose site he writes a blog.