How the media will get the Cold War wrong in covering Mikhail Gorbachev’s death

In hindsight, President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union, were the two most unexpected people of the 1980s. Gorbachev’s passing Tuesday at age 91 represents the last link to that momentous closing chapter of the Cold War, whose peaceful end was nothing short of miraculous.

Expect in the coming hours and days for the media and “leading” academics to lionize Gorbachev for single-handedly ending the Cold War. Ronald who? Never heard of him. (Reuters: “Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War, dies aged 91” [emphasis mine]. That didn’t take long.)

To be sure, Gorbachev did have genuine liberalizing sentiments, but he couldn’t really shake the shackles of the illiberal ideology of Communism, let alone its bureaucratic inertia. Hence his “perestroika” (or “restructuring”) was incoherent, as he made clear in a comment to the Politburo right after his ascension in 1985: “What we need is more dynamism, more social justice, more democracy — in a word, more socialism.”

No, what you need, George Shultz told him in a highly impertinent meeting in the Kremlin in 1988, is property rights, open markets and protection of civil liberties — especially free speech. After a very long pause, Gorbachev joked that maybe he needed Shultz to be his economic minister.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the former Soviet Union
Gorbachev and former President Ronald Reagan during an informal meeting in San Francisco on Jun. 4, 1990.
Getty Images/Laski Diffusion
Soviet Prem. Mikhail Gorbachev with Reagan
Gorbachev, Reagan and the former Reagan administration raise wine glasses in toast across a luncheon table.
Getty Images/Time & Life Pictures

At least it can be said that his main contribution to the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union was his decision that the USSR would no longer shoot people in large numbers to stay in power, especially in the Captive Nations of Eastern Europe. In 1988, he openly repudiated the Brezhnev doctrine, which held that socialism would be defended everywhere by force if necessary. At that point it was only a matter of time before it all came down.

He really did want to end the arms race (partly because he knew the Soviet Union was losing it) and make a deal with Reagan. Reagan was initially skeptical, writing in his diary in June 1985, “I’ve been told that he is ‘a different type than past Soviet leaders.’ I’m too cynical to believe that.” But Reagan changed his mind and came to like him after their sustained contact in an unprecedented five face-to-face meetings.

And Gorbachev came to like Reagan more than the American press corps did. The media positively slobbered over Gorbachev. In 1990 Time magazine selected Gorbachev — not Reagan — as its “Man of the Decade.” Strobe Talbott’s 5,000-word valentine to Gorbachev mentioned Reagan only once — and then only to dismiss as “smug” the central features of Reagan’s Soviet strategy.

Mikhail Gorbachev
“What we need is more dynamism, more social justice, more democracy — in a word, more socialism.” said Gorbachev in 1985.
Ron Sachs – CNP /MediaPunch
The signing of a common declaration at the end of the two-day summit
The signing of a common declaration at the end of the two-day summit with political leaders from the Soviet Union and United States.
Getty Images/AFP FILES/AFP

Then Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; no mention of Reagan. Time essayist Lance Morrow wrote that “Gorbachev is the Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud of communism all wrapped in one.” Gorbachev himself had a better grasp, however; when a reporter asked him whether he was moving to the right, he quipped, “Actually, I’m going round in circles.”

He also had a better grasp of Reagan’s role, telling the History Channel in 2002, “I am not sure what happened would have happened had he [Reagan] not been there.” More significant perhaps than Gorbachev’s words was the most remarkable scene at the observances of Reagan’s passing in June 2004, when Gorbachev, the one-time enemy, paid his respects at Reagan’s casket as it lay in state at the Capitol and then sat next to Margaret Thatcher — the person who had told Reagan of Gorbachev: “We can do business with this man” — at the memorial service the next day.

Gorbachev wrote in The New York Times the week of Reagan’s funeral: “I don’t know whether we would have been able to agree and to insist on the implementation of our agreements with a different person at the helm of American government. . . . [Reagan] was not dogmatic; he was looking for negotiations and cooperation.”

Reagan and Gorbachev
Reagan had his reservations on Gorbachev but learned to admire his leadership.
Reuters/Dennis Paquin

I’m sure if Reagan were still with us he’d express genuine sadness at Gorbachev’s passing, as well as fulsome respect for Gorbachev’s crucial role in the peaceful ending of the Cold War. I doubt our media will get the balance right.

Steven F. Hayward is the author of the two-volume chronicle “The Age of Reagan” (CrownForum).

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