The Fall of Soviet Communism in Central and Eastern Europe
(I)f you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate tear down this wall.
-US President Ronald Reagan,
Speaking at the Berlin Wall, June 12, 1987
East vs. West - NATO - The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact -
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher
In the early years of the 20th Century, the Soviet Union rose from a backwards nation on the fringes of European civilization, and became the largest empire in history within half a century. Established to protect a global communist crusade, both its mission and its rapid growth were unprecedented in world history. Competing against the courage and vision of those who dared to seek greater freedom and security, this empire would last less than a century before being erased from the world stage in an unusual chain of events.
East vs. West: A Continent Divided
The Cold War began as the Second World War ended and left post-war Europe divided between Western democracies and Soviet Army-occupied nations of Eastern Europe. In the middle lay Germany, divided and occupied by the four post-war Allied powers, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union (LaFeber 75).
Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, seeking to consolidate communist rule in Eastern Europe, demanded the Western allies withdraw from their occupation zones in the German capital of Berlin, deep inside Soviet-occupied East Germany. Hoping to starve the Allies out, Stalin ordered a blockade of West Berlin on June 28, 1948. US President Truman ordered a massive airlift of food and supplies to West Berlin. Trumans airlift paid off, and the blockade ended by the summer of 1949 (LaFeber 79).
Unable to agree on terms for the reunification of Germany, Western and Soviet leaders began planning to transform their occupation zones into two Germanys, one aligned with the democratic West, and the other integrated into the communist East (LaFeber 75). In August 1949, West Germany held elections for its parliament. Conrad Adenauer, who advocated the reunification of Germany as a Western democracy, became West Germanys first Chancellor (LaFeber 85).
NATO: The Alliance of the West
The Western alliance began in the early years of the 20th Century. Britain, France, and the United States were key members of the alliance that had won both World Wars. At the end of the Second World War, they found themselves again the dominant powers of Western Europe. On April 4, 1949, the Western Allies signed the North American Treaty Organization treaty, a collective defense agreement (NATO).
While NATO protected Western Europe, it did not protect its member nations abroad. The British Empire lost most of its overseas colonies, including India and Rhodesia. The French lost their colonies of Algeria and Indochina, in the wake of costly and unpopular wars (LaFeber 161). Many of the Western allies, led by the US, fought the Chinese and North Korean communists to a costly stalemate in Korea in the 1950s (LaFeber 113). In 1973, a decade-long war in Vietnam ended with the withdrawal of US forces (LaFeber 271). Six years later, the US was helpless as Iranian militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, holding the staff hostage for over a year (Smith 18).
As the 1970s came to a close, major changes in leadership would soon revive the strength and prestige of the Western alliance and pose new challenges to the communist rulers in the East.
The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact: The Empire of the East
During the Second World War, much of Central and Eastern Europe was first conquered by Nazi Germany, and then by counter-attacking Soviet forces, which installed communist regimes loyal to Moscow. On May 1, 1955, the Warsaw Pact treaty bound the Eastern communist dictatorships into a single political and military force, loyal to the Soviet Union (Halsall).
During the 1950s and 60s, the Warsaw Pact faced widespread unrest. Strikes in East Germany were brutally crushed by the Red Army in 1953, as were strikes in Poland in October 1956 (LaFeber 149). The same month, a mass uprising in Hungary led to Hungarys withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union invaded, killing 25,000 Hungarians, and forced Hungary back into line (Zickel). In 1961, seeking to stop a flood of East Germans escaping into West Berlin, the East German government began construction of the Berlin Wall. Soon, concrete and barbed wire barriers ringed West Berlin and cut off escape for East Germans (Buffett). In the spring of 1965, Warsaw Pact forces brutally crushed an uprising in Czechoslovakia (Lohbeck 271).
The end of the Czech uprising led to over a decade of peace within the Warsaw Pact. However, the 1980s brought new challenges from the West and new problems at home that would pose new problems for Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: Partnership in the West
Thatcher and Reagans first met in 1975, when Reagan had just retired from serving two terms as Governor of California, and Thatcher was the newly elected Leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament. Believers in free-market democracy and the need to challenge socialism at home and communism abroad, the two became close friends (Smith 1).
Frustrated by economic stagnation and out-of-control labor unions, British voters swept Thatchers Conservative Party into power on May 3, 1979 (Smith 11). Reagan hailed Thatchers election on his weekly radio program:
If anyone can remind England of the greatness it knew during those dangerous days of World War Two when alone and unafraid her people fought the Battle of Britain, it will be the Prime Minister the English press has already nicknamed Maggie (Smith 19).
In her first official visit to the United States, Thatcher declared her support for the US in the Iranian hostage crisis. Thatcher told President Carter and the American press, you would expect nothing less and you would get nothing less than our full support (Smith 18).
Frustrated with President Carters poor handling of a dismal economy at home and foreign policy crises abroad, US voters ousted Carter in November 1980, electing Reagan the next Presidenct of the United States (Smith 23).
Reagan and Thatcher moved swiftly to revitalize their economies. Thatcher began to privatize a number of nationalized companies, including British Telecom and Rolls Royce, while Reagan enacted sweeping economic deregulation. They responded swiftly to stop crippling labor strikes. Both also enacted broad income tax reductions. By the end of their first terms, the economies of both nations were thriving (Smith 181).
During the Argentinean invasion of the British Falkland Islands, Reagan was credited for providing a considerable amount of covert assistance to the British in their efforts to retake the islands (Smith 97). This would be remembered when Thatcher defied popular British opinion to support the United States by allowing air strikes against Libya to be launched from bases on British soil (Smith 196).
NATOs Challenge: Defending Western Europe
For years, Western military leaders voiced concerns with the state of Western defenses. In October 1950, Can Western Europe be Defended?, written by retired German General Heinz Guerdian, one of the pioneers of German blitzkrieg tank warfare, raised serious questions about NATOs ability to resist an invasion. A year later, Guerdian wrote This cannot be the Right Way, in which he predicted the Western allies would exhaust themselves fighting conflicts in the Far East, at the expense of their obligations to European security (Macksey 208).
Another call to strengthen NATO came in 1978 from British General Sir John Hackett, retired Commander in Chief of the British Army of the Rhine. In his best-selling book, The Third World War, Hackett warned the West of the dangers it faced:
Those who argue for the reduction of defence expenditure in the countries of the West not only seem to live in a land of total make-believe, but refuse to give the Marxist-Leninists any credit either for meaning what they say or for knowing what they are doing. (Hackett 359)
NATO nations began to experiment with new concepts in operations and equipment. The first significant innovation was REFORGER (REturn of FORces to GERmany), in which United States-based personnel were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to meet up with stockpiled equipment in Western Europe (Sanders). REFORGER became a key part of NATOs defense-in-depth plans, in which NATO forces would fight a delaying action based upon maneuver and tactical retreats while US and British reinforcements were rushed in to reverse any setbacks (Stoltenberg).
As the US war in Vietnam ended, the reorganization and reinforcement of NATO forces in Europe began. The chain of command for US forces in Europe was simplified and elements of the US 2nd Armored and 4th Infantry Divisions were transferred to Europe. At the same time, NATO command operations were centralized, and the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force was created (Sanders).
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978 awakened President Carter to the need to rebuild the US military. Carter withdrew the SALT II nuclear arms reduction treaty from the US Senate, stopped US grain sales to the Soviet Union, reinstated draft registration, and called for an increase in US military spending (LaFeber 298).
President Reagan continued the increase in US military spending. This included many new weapons systems, including the B-1 bomber, an in-the-field multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), the Patriot air defense system, the M1A1 Abrams tank, the M2 and M3 series of infantry and cavalry fighting vehicles, the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, the AH-64A Apache scout helicopter. Even new and improved field rations were introduced (Sanders). These new weapons systems enhanced NATO advantages in mobility, quality of weapons systems, and skilled personnel (Stoltenberg).
After years of decline, NATO nations had begun to revitalize their defenses. This new direction would pose new challenges to communist forces and protect the West as a beacon of hope and freedom for the peoples of the Warsaw Pact nations.
The East Falls Behind NATO
Keeping up with the Western military buildup posed a tremendous problem for the Warsaw Pact nations, who long relied on numerical advantages in manpower and equipment to overcome NATOs advantages in mobility and quality of its forces and weapons systems. NATOs drive to expand and modernize their forces threatened to neutralize the communist alliances long-held numerical advantages (Zickel).
The Warsaw Pacts 1984 Shield exercises in Czechoslovakia included first-ever training in responding to a NATO counterattack. Another major change in Eastern military doctrine was the recognition of the need to overcome NATOs defense in depth strategy. A joint statement released in 1987 by Soviet Chief of General Staff, Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeev, and the Soviet Minister of Defense, Marshal Dmitri T. Iazov, acknowledged Soviet military doctrine was being revised to meet the challenges of the "new thinking" in Western military policy (Zickel).
Early planning for the United States Strategic Defense Initiative system of space-based anti-missile defenses and the development of the US Patriot battlefield missile defense system threatened the most dangerous component of communist arsenals: tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Soviet/Warsaw Pact battle plans often included the use of nuclear weapons, with a list of targets to include:
· Nuclear installations and equipment;
The inability of Warsaw Pact nations to finance an arms race with the West reduced prospects for battlefield victory over the NATO democracies. Those who hoped to extinguish the flame of the Western democracies by force of arms were running out of options.
The First Tests: The Falklands, Grenada, and Libya
The first tests of the renewed military capabilities of the West came in three locations far from the center of the East-West conflict: The Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, Grenada in the Caribbean, and Libya in the Mediterranean.
In the spring of 1982, the Argentine military government seized the British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. Working with the United States, the islands were back in British hands within weeks (Smith 94).
In October 1983, a US-led invasion ousted the Cuban-backed government of Grenada in the wake of a bloody coup on the Caribbean island. The coup forces, including hundreds of Cuban troops, were swiftly rounded up and order restored to the island. Captured evidence pointed to significant support of the coup leaders by the Cuban government as part of a plan to use Grenada as a base of Cuban-supported covert operations in the Caribbean region (Cole 56).
In the mid-1980s, the United States faced mounting evidence of Libyan involvement in attacks upon US civilians and military personnel in Europe. On April 14th, 1986, F-111 aircraft launched from bases in Great Britain bombed targets in Libya, fully backed the Thatchers government in London (Smith 195).
All of these situations involved swift and decisive military actions by NATO nations, including the unprecedented removal of a Soviet-backed Marxist government by US forces, without provoking any kind of Soviet or Warsaw Pact response. While these interventions were small, the West had, for the first time in decades, proven itself willing and able to take the military initiative in a swift and decisive manner.
The Afghan Quagmire
As in Vietnam, the Western media used television to bring the shocking images of the Afghan war home to global audiences. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather was smuggled into Afghanistan to cover the conflict (Lohbeck xi). Correspondents brought shocking proof of Soviet atrocities, including aerial napalm bombings of civilian populations and toys rigged to explode when played with by Afghan children. This footage first aired on US evening news programs alongside coverage of the first summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev (Lohbeck 159).
The Soviet forces were ill prepared to fight in Afghanistan. Poor sanitation, harsh mountain climates, drug abuse, and alcoholism took a heavy toll. Nearly 470,000 of the 620,000 Soviet Army soldiers sent to Afghanistan were hospitalized, yet only eleven percent of those hospitalized suffered combat wounds. (Grau and Jorgenson).
The Afghan war sparked a first-ever anti-war movement in the Soviet Union, leading to the arrests of dissidents, including Nobel Prize-winning Andrei Sakharov, as well as the deaths of college student protestors. A State Department report speculated that the widespread unpopularity of the Afghan war had shown a:
(D)omestic crisis within the Soviet system It may be that the thermodynamic law of entropy has finally and fully caught up with the Soviet system, which now seems to expend more energy simply on maintaining its equilibrium than on improving itself (LaFeber 298).
During the Christmas season of 1987, a failed Soviet effort to relieve the besieged city of Khost was covered extensively by Western media. Declared a battle the Soviets must win, the fighting to reopen the road for Khost was the beginning of the end of the Afghan war (Lohbeck 227). The next year, in return for an end to US aid for the Afghan rebels, the Soviets agreed to leave Afghanistan (Lohbeck 229).
On a snowy day on February 15, 1989, Soviet General Boris Gromov marched across the bridge over the Oxus River, out of Afghanistan and into the Soviet Union. The last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan, Gromov did not look back (Lohbeck 270).
A Pope and an Electrician: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland
Upon becoming Pope, John Paul informed Polish officials he was no longer a Polish cardinal, and was no longer subject to their censorship. In his first Sunday prayer service from Rome, he attacked the Polish government, and soon thereafter ordered that Polish-language Mass be broadcast into Poland every Sunday (Kwitny 308).
In 1976, a Polish electrician, Lech Walesa, challenged the leadership of the government-sponsored labor union of his shipyard. Though management swiftly fired him, he soon became a leading figure of a growing movement of laborers and political dissidents known as Solidarity, who were challenging the corrupt Polish communist dictatorship (Kwitny 282). In August 1980, Walesa led the Solidarity strike at the Gdansk shipyards, becoming the leader of the Solidarity movement (Nobel).
Solidarity soon gained worldwide attention and support. The American AFL-CIO labor union, led by George Meany, who had battled socialists inside the American labor movement, began supporting Solidarity with American union dollars, aided by the Roman Catholic Church (Kwitny 378). On a visit to Rome in January 1981, Pope John Paul in met with Walesa privately (Kwitny 379).
Moscow was determined to see Walesa and Solidarity shut down before it upset communist control of Poland. Threatened with a Soviet invasion, Polish Defense Minister Jaruzelski seized control of Poland, and declared martial law on December 13, 1981. Thousands were arrested, Solidarity was banned, and several Solidarity leaders and Catholic clergy were murdered. Walesa was placed under house arrest, and most of the rest of Solidaritys leadership were either imprisoned, or forced to go underground in order to escape arrest (Pryce-Jones 198).
On May 13, 1981, Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul in St. Peters Square in Rome. John Paul survived the shooting and Agca was sentenced to life. While Agca implicated members of the Bulgarian secret police in the assassination plot, connections between the communist Bulgarian government and the Soviet Union in the plot remain unconfirmed (Kwitny 463).
In October 1982, Walesa was released and returned to his job at the Gdansk shipyards. Martial law in Poland was lifted in the spring of 1983. In October 1983, Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In awarding Walesa the Nobel Prize, the nominating committee wrote:
The electrician from Gdansk, the carpenter's son from the Vistula valley has managed to lift the banner of freedom and humanity so high that the whole world can once again see it. His actions have become a chapter in the history of international labour, and the future will recognise his name among those who contributed to humanity's legacy of freedom. (Nobel)
Two Poles from simple backgrounds, Pope John Paul and Lech Walesa, had accomplished what many others had failed to do. They defied communism, and lived to become international heroes whose courageous acts inspired even greater resistance to communism.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Glasnost, and Perestroika
Mikhail Gorbachev, who succeeded Chernenko, was the first Soviet leader from the post-Soviet Revolution generation (Pryce-Jones 4). He was confronted with deep-rooted and widespread problems across the Soviet Union. Corruption in the Soviet system was rampant, and even considered normal in many places (Pryce-Jones 53). Crime, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as environmental pollution had gotten so bad that the statistics regarding them were no longer published (Pryce-Jones 58).
Food shortages and foreign debt for a failed industrial modernization drive in the 1970s left the Soviets deep in debt and dependent on Western aid (LaFeber 304). While the Soviet Union led the United States in production of such commodities as steel, coal, and oil, and was even the worlds largest oil producer, twenty-five percent of its Gross Domestic Product went to support its military (LaFeber 315).
As part of a younger generation of communist officials, Gorbachev was as educated in Western culture as in Soviet communism, and found it easy to reach out to Western leaders in an effort to defuse Western fears of the Soviet Union (LaFeber 319). Gorbachev built a working relationship with Thatcher, who he found a reliable bridge in dealing with the United States (Smith 267).
Eager to bail out the collapsing Soviet economy, which had reduced the per capita income to a mere tenth of the US per capita income of $19,780 by 1990, Gorbachev invited Western businesses into the Soviet Union. Soon, McDonalds and Pepsi were selling food in Moscow, General Motors was investing in the Soviet automotive industry, and Chevron was seeking oil in Siberia. However, these reforms failed, and industrial output fell 25 percent from 1986 and 1991 (Pryce-Jones 101).
Challenges from the West continued to confront Gorbachev. A number of Soviet dissidents, including the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, painted a dark picture of life in the Soviet Union for Western audiences, and inspired continued agitation by Soviet reform leaders (Pryce-Jones 39). Reagan continued to challenge Gorbachevs commitment to reforms, continuing his support for resistance groups in communist nations, including the Afghans and Solidarity (Lohbeck 16). On June 12, 1987, Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall, calling for Gorbachev to show his commitment to reform by challenging him to open this gate tear down this wall (Buffett).
Eager to present a more democratic face to the West, Gorbachev allowed elections in the Soviet Republics. These would backfire, as non-communist parties won major victories in the 1990 elections, placing anti-Gorbachev reformers in charge of several Soviet Republics (LaFeber 319).
The Fall of the Warsaw Pact
In May of 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Gorbachev told Kohl the Soviets would not block democratic reforms in Warsaw Pact nations, ending the long-standing Brezhnev Doctrine, which barred any communist nation from rejecting communism (Buffett).
Democratic forces in the Warsaw Pact wasted little time in testing Gorbachev. In Poland, Solidarity rose from the underground and demanded power in the Polish government. When Gorbachev refused to intervene, Polish communist officials backed down, holding elections that swept Solidarity into power (LaFeber 335).
Following Polands lead, Hungary set elections for 1990, and opened its borders to thousands of East Germans seeking to flee to the West in September 1989. Abandoned by Moscow, the East German government gave in and opened the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, which was demolished by mobs from East and West Berlin (LaFeber 335).
Weeks of protests in Prague by hundreds of thousands forced the fall of the Czech communist regime in November 1989, followed by Bulgaria the same month and by Romania in December, where long-time dictator Nicolae Ceausecu and his wife were executed (LaFeber 335). The fall of the Warsaw Pact had taken less than six months.
The Collapse of the Soviet Union
As the 1990s began, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was gone, the Soviet economy was collapsing, and reformers were beginning to gain power inside the Soviet Union (Pryce-Jones 101). Boris Yeltsin, a reform leader purged by Gorbachev from the Moscow Communist Party leadership in 1987, was elected President of the Russian Republic in 1990 (LaFeber 319).
In April 1991, Gorbachev convened a meeting of the Presidents of the Republics of the Soviet Union to draft a new Constitution. Gorbachev hoped this would help reduce the pressures from reformers. Instead, Presidents of several Republics stayed home and some of those who showed demanded independence (Pryce-Jones 405).
Rumors began to surface of old-guard military leaders plotting to restore the Communist hard line, frustrated what they perceived as growing threats to the Soviet Union, including the pending ratification of the new Constitution (Pryce-Jones 407). In the early hours of August 19th, Red Army tanks rolled into Moscow and the Soviet people were informed Gorbachev was ill and had abdicated (Pryce-Jones 409).
Awakened to reports of the coup, Boris Yeltsin donned a bulletproof vest and rushed to the Russian White House. Live worldwide television soon carried images of Yeltsin standing on top of a tank among crowds of protestors, denouncing the coup and rallying the Russian people to his cause. His bold gamble worked, as the coup leaders folded and fled Moscow less than 48 hours later. Freed from his brief exile, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, suspended the Communist Partys Central Committee, and allowed Yeltsin to begin organizing his own government (Pryce-Jones 430).
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared their independence after Soviet forces withdrew following the failed coup. On December 1st, Yeltsin met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and Belarussian President Stanislas Shushkevich, where they signed a joint declaration of independence (Pryce-Jones 432).
On Christmas Day of 1991, faced with Yeltsins refusal to pay the bills of the Soviet government, Gorbachev went on Russian television and resigned, dissolving the Soviet Union. Several hours later, Soviet flags over the Kremlin were replaced with Russian tri-color national flags and Russian officials moved into the Kremlin (LaFeber 346). With this simple act, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Who Ended Soviet Communism?
Gorbachevs refusal to continue the heavy-handed brutality of his predecessors allowed the peaceful dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union to take place. However, his balancing act between reform and hard-line Communist forces within the Soviet Union helped create a power vacuum which unleashed forces that destroyed the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union from within. Ultimately, Gorbachevs failure to lead and inability to act decisively brought about his own downfall.
Much of the credit for the downfall of Soviet communism must go to many in communist-dominated nations, from Berlin to Afghanistan, whose courage to resist communism was expressed in many ways, both violent and non-violent. Unable to resist both forces from within and Western opposition from the outside, the Soviet empire was gradually stretched and tested at many points until it suddenly imploded.
The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union ended Soviet communism, allowed democracy a new start in Central and Eastern Europe, and ended the threat of World War Three, which may well have led to a global nuclear holocaust. While the future of post-communist Europe remains uncertain, the collapse of Soviet communism has given many in Europe new hope for a better future.
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