Gracious in Triumph
by Conrad Black (January 2014)
an excerpt from Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership reprinted from the National Post.
President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev synchronize watches in 1987
In January 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev had recourse to traditional Soviet repressive methods in Georgia and Latvia, but his heart wasn’t in it, and he wasn’t prepared to kill people as Stalin and Khrushchev and even occasionally Brezhnev had done. On March 17, 1991, 76.4% of Soviet voters ostensibly voted to remain in a reformed Soviet Union, although the Baltic republics and Georgia and Armenia voted to secede and Moldova abstained. But on June 12, Boris Yeltsin, who had defected from the Communist Party and sought full democracy, denationalization and decontrol of all industry and agriculture, and the Russian secession from the Soviet Union, was elected head of the Russian Republic with 57% in a free vote. He was now a very serious rival, in terms of legitimacy, to speak for the Russians, to Gorbachev.
There were some final traditional exertions. President George Bush came to Moscow for a summit meeting in July 1991, and he and Gorbachev signed a Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement (START), which had been under negotiation for almost a decade, and pledged a reduction in nuclear weapons of the two powers by about 30%. On August 1, President Bush stopped in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, the second most populous of the Soviet republics, and spoke to the legislature there, suggesting the virtues of renewed federalism. He emphasized that it was not America’s place to intervene in the relations between the different governments in the USSR and that he was not doing so. But he did praise Gorbachev while urging full freedom for Ukraine, and implied that something short of the complete disassembly of the USSR would be desirable. (Former Nixon speechwriter and lexicographer William Safire called this, a bit harshly, “the Chicken Kiev speech.”)
On August 19, while Gorbachev was on holiday in the Crimea, there was an attempted coup d’état led by his vice president (Gennadi Yenayev), prime minister (Valentin Pavlov), defense minister (Dmitri Yazov), and secret police (KGB) chief (Vladimir Kryuchkov). They purported to put Gorbachev under house arrest, and suspended elections, most of the media, and all political activity. It was astonishing that Gorbachev could be betrayed by his senior collaborators (just the sort of event that Stalin liquidated almost all of his closest comrades to prevent almost 60 years before).
The launch of the New Union Treaty, which would grant the republics autonomy with a common president, common foreign and defense policy, and common market, was planned for August 20, but had to be deferred. Boris Yeltsin led the resistance to the coup and bravely appeared in public in front of the Russian Republic government building before large and supportive (of him) crowds.
The coup collapsed on August 21 and Gorbachev returned, but he now had no moral or jurisdictional authority. He was the father of democracy throughout the USSR and was much admired in the world, but had completely lost control of events and owed to Yeltsin whatever position he retained. Events were almost running free, though not, fortunately, in the control of the formidable Soviet nuclear arsenal. Except for Georgia (the homeland of Stalin and Shevardnadze), which had already declared itself independent in 1990, all the republics declared their independence between August and December 1991, ending with Russia on December 21. On Christmas Day, without histrionics or serious recriminations, Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and declared that the office had ceased to exist. On December 26, the Council of the Soviet Union voted recognition of the dissolution and the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and then voted to dissolve itself. Over the Kremlin, the hammer and sickle was lowered and the prerevolutionary flag of Russia was raised.
Unimaginably, and with breathtaking swiftness, the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and international communism passed into history. All of the 10 U.S. presidents from the second Roosevelt to the first Bush, five of each party, deserved credit, though not equally, for what was the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the nation-state.
Without so much as a pistol shot ever being exchanged between the Cold War superpowers, the Soviet Union simply expired, unable to continue in the impossible competition to which Stalin committed it, against the United States. His violation of his Yalta pledge (1945) to the freedom and independence of Eastern Europe, and resumed agitation and subversion against the West throughout the world was, next to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other targets in 1941, and to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s recourse to submarine attacks on American ships in 1917, the greatest world-significant strategic blunder since the Napoleonic Wars. It was the more surprising coming from such a cunning leader as Stalin.
All three terrible mistakes were underestimations of the United States, which grew steadily in strength and importance, other than during the early years of the Great Depression, throughout the 20th century. It was only 208 years since the British conceded 3-million Americans (including 500,000 slaves) their national independence — less than the time between George I and George V, or between the accessions of Louis XIV and Napoleon III. With most of an immense and stupefyingly rich continent open to it, armed with the English language, the Common Law, a democratic tradition, a revolutionary launch, Jefferson’s heroic mythos, and Madison and Hamilton’s Constitution, and brilliantly led when necessary, the United States had completed a rise without the slightest parallel or precedent in the history of the world.
It had operated since World War I on a scale the world had never seen or imagined before, and its economic, military, and scientific might and political and popular cultural influence inundated the whole world, without any recourse to traditional conquest and imperial subjugation. And at the hour of its supreme victory against the USSR, there was not a hint of triumphalism or condescension, officially or among the public, only relief that the Cold War was over and that the threat that had created such paroxysms just 40 years before had gone.
Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and Russia generally, continued to be respected in the United States, and this mighty apotheosis, by a normally somewhat demonstrative, not to say boastful, people, was assimilated with gracious modesty, making it even more monumental because no monuments were erected to it, though they would have been justified. America was at the summit of the world, unchallenged in its mastery, in its time, and in all of preceding history.
Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He was the chairman of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review Online and Huffington Post. He has been one of Canada's best known financiers for 35 years and has returned to that occupation, and has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001.
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