- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

PRAGUE | You know the story. There was Athens, and there was Sparta. Athens was a commercial republic, a democracy. Sparta was a militarist oligarchy. Athens had philosophy, academia, arts, sciences. Sparta had military drills.

Sparta won.

In the 1970s, America was the new Athens, the Soviet Union the new Sparta. Who would win this time? There was no reason to expect the modern era would be any different. Militarist oligarchies always seemed to triumph over weak, self-doubting democracies.

The communist ruling classes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and ‘80s were cynical opportunists. They cared only for power, wealth and status. And they simply knew that power, brute force, would always prevail over human desires for freedom and democracy. Western self-doubt only aided their cause.

Then Ronald Reagan appeared on the scene. He terrified the brutes, scared the hell out of them, compelled them — for the first time in their lives — to entertain a terrible thought: “What if Athens (Western democracy) is not conquered by Sparta (Soviet militarism) after all? What if, this time, Athens defeats Sparta? With that man in the Oval Office, it’s possible. Nay, it’s likely. Inevitable…”

We can only guess their mental processes: “Comrades, we must be careful. He is tough, probably a madman. We must avoid conflicts with him; otherwise we lose. In fact, we already have lost the arms race. We must take precautions, negotiate a smooth transition of power from communism, embrace democracy and a free-market economy; otherwise a bloody revolt of the people would smash us. We shall surrender power to dissidents — in exchange for our immunity and amnesty. After all, we do not care about socialism at all. In the new capitalist society, we could be happy capitalists.”

That, in short, is the basic story of how Reagan won the Cold War. For those of us who suffered under communism, he was our liberator. As Britain’s Margaret Thatcher said: “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.”

Reagan was the first American president who did not wish merely to coexist with Soviet communism but sought to destroy it instead. His approach to that crazy ideology and to its monstrous regimes is best illustrated by his own words, spoken the very first year of his presidency: “I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.”

The words kept coming. He infuriated Moscow’s leaders a year later, telling the British Parliament in 1982, “The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies.”

And again, in 1983, in his immortal — and much-criticized at the time — “evil empire” address: “Let us be aware that while Soviet rulers preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world. … I urge you to beware the temptation … to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

How did Reagan win the Cold War? He deployed medium-range missiles in Western Europe to counterbalance Soviet SS-20s already deployed in Eastern Europe. He imposed an embargo on construction of Soviet pipelines to the West (restricting revenue of hard currency). The Polish Solidarity labor movement received secret funding. Anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia received aid, and Grenada was liberated by military action in 1983.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), announced in 1983, was perhaps the most crucial factor. The idea of a high-tech missile defense scared the Soviets to death. They knew their moribund socialist economy would not be able to compete with such a massive buildup. They had to negotiate — and from a position of weakness, at that.

Until 1983, the Soviets had a fighting chance to win the Cold War. After 1983 and the deployment of U.S. Pershing 2 and cruise missiles in Western Europe, they could hope only for a stalemate.

Then in 1986, when Reagan refused to give up SDI — derisively dubbed “Star Wars” by skeptics — at the Reykjavik summit, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had only one option left: negotiate from a position of weakness, quit the arms race, let Russia cease being a superpower on an equal standing with the U.S., and hence lose the trust, allegiance and healthy fear of his collaborationist allies abroad. By the late 1980s, the game was over.

Mr. Gorbachev’s intent was not to abolish communism but to reform and strengthen it. In order to compete with Reagan economically and militarily, he also introduced economic reforms under his “perestroika” program. In order to have perestroika work, he needed to allow at least limited freedom of speech for economic matters, and thus “glasnost,” or openness, was born.

And still the people demanded more.

Communism did not collapse on its own. Tyrannies can endure for long periods if they are brutal enough. Why did the Soviet empire collapse in the late 1980s instead of the late 1970s? Because previously, there was no Western pressure against the Soviets. It was the time of President Carter and detente.

There was, however, very definite and sustained pressure in the 1980s — generated by Ronald Reagan.

The American people had the good sense to elect him president in 1980, and as a result, tens of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe are free.

Roman Joch is director of the Civic Institute, a conservative think tank in Prague, and an adviser to Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas on human rights and foreign policy.



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