Michael Tomasky, using the occasion of a new biography of Ronald Reagan, revisits the old Gipper v. Gorby debate of “Who Won the Cold War” and rejects the thesis:


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.

While I enjoy biography, I’m generally not much of a believer in the Great Man view of history.  Yes, Reagan and Walesa and John Paul II and others were hugely important and made vital contributions in shaping history.  But their very ability influence had to do with a confluence of events which provided opportunity.

But that’s a debate that will never be resolved, let alone be significantly advanced by a short blog post.  Tomasky’s more crucial observation, really, is this:

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. [emphasis added]

The United States is a superpower.  A hyperpower, even.  But the belief that most of what happens is a function of who’s sitting in the White House is beyond myopic, it’s counterproductive.   That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to shape the world.  But we should never lose sight of the fact that other countries have interests and values of their own; their policies aren’t simply a reaction to America.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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