Looking back it seems so predictable, even preordained. The society that prized openness and produced consumer goods along with surpassing military power prevailed; the society that was a closed tyranny whose subjects suffered privations while its leaders enjoyed privilege collapsed.
But it wasn’t preordained, and it wasn’t widely predicted. In “The End of the Cold War,’’ a massive new study of the last days of the Soviet empire, British historian Robert Service examines newly released Politburo minutes, recently available unpublished diaries, and minutely detailed negotiation records. His research leads him to the conclusion that the signature struggle of the second half of the 20th century ended mostly because of the leadership of two men, one a peacemaker battling the image of a warmonger and the other a reformer battling a stubborn, deeply entrenched bureaucracy.
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had far less common cause than Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin but as much of an incentive to overcome their differences. In both cases the world hung in the balance, but unlike their World War II predecessors, they had to battle skeptics at home who questioned their loyalty as well as their judgment. The two became indispensable partners in what we only now are beginning to understand was one of the great success stories of personal diplomacy.
“Of the two,’’ Service writes, “Gorbachev had the tougher task, since he was all too obviously giving up to the Americans more than he appeared to gain; and whereas Reagan inherited a stable political and economic order, Gorbachev was frantically trying to overturn decades of communist thought and practice.’’
In Service’s telling, Reagan was a hard conservative with a soft spot for peace; he debunks the liberal shorthand of the president as willing if not eager for superpower confrontation as well as the notion that he preferred escalation to arms reduction. From his hospital bed after the 1981 assassination attempt, he wrote to Leonid Brezhnev an emotional letter urging peace that was so remarkable it was passed around the Kremlin. He favored containment, to be sure, especially after the Soviet crackdown in Poland. But he also advocated engagement.
The Gorbachev that Service portrays is both careerist and realist. Raised in a peasant family and steeped in Leninist theory, he nonetheless understood the economic failings of Soviet communism, especially in agriculture. Outwardly charming and inwardly intellectual, he differed from his three aged predecessors in being young, healthy, and open. Service argues that Gorbachev’s sponsorship of Eduard Shevardnadze as his foreign minister was the underrated but vitally important element in the rapprochement between the two superpowers. Together, he says of the two, “[t]hey resolved to turn the USSR upside down.’’
The threat of planetary destruction by nuclear weapons once was widely known, but now it has been relegated to a dim memory. In this volume readers will recoil anew in horror at the scenario of rapid escalation, millions killed in an instant, inadequate medical responses, continents stripped of life-sustaining resources, and surviving military leaders preoccupied with questions such as whether their armed forces could advance through irradiated territory.
An abiding thread in Service’s book is the hardline approaches embraced by government officials on both sides. The Berlin Wall wasn’t the only barrier that needed to be torn down for the Cold War to end. Both sides retained, even cultivated, antagonisms and trigger points. One of the major barriers: Reagan’s insistence on the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as “Star Wars.’’
The relationship between these two men was dangerous and difficult. At one point Gorbachev told Reagan: “You’re not the prosecutor and I’m not the accused. You’re not the teacher, I’m not the pupil. And it’s the same the other way round too. Otherwise we’ll get nowhere.’’
Gradually the two sides grew to respect, perhaps even at times to like, each other. Once Reagan mused that perhaps he should have stayed in Hollywood. Shevardnadze replied: “But then there would be no treaty on intermediate- and short-range rockets.’’ The intermediate-range pact was passed in the US Senate, 93-5, and, of course, unanimously in the Supreme Soviet. “The unimaginable,’’ Service writes, “had suddenly happened.’’
By the time Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush met Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989, the freeze of the Cold War had all but vanished. By February 1990, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was addressing the Foreign Relations Committee of the Supreme Soviet and spoke of the Cold War in the past tense. Eastern European nations were breaking free of the Soviet yoke and “popular front’’ organizations were springing up throughout Soviet republics outside Russia.
To Václav Havel, Gorbachev declared: “We have said goodbye to the model that led our countries and people into a dead end.’’ What had ended, too, was a brutal empire and a paradigm that had shaped global politics. “The impossible had turned into the probable and finally into the real,’’ Service concludes. ‘’The world of 1945, held in aspic by the chemistry of struggle between two superpowers, dissolved before everyone’s eyes.’’
By Robert Service
Public Affairs, 643 pp., illustrated, $35David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.