Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
For years, if you opened the closet in the foyer of my Manhattan apartment, you’d encounter a pile of copies of the New York Times from the week in late December 1991 during which the Soviet Union breathed its last. I’ve never been in the habit of hanging on to old newspapers in which my byline didn’t appear, but that week, it seemed to me at the time, was the greatest historical turning point I’d ever experienced.
It was certainly the most astonishing. I remember a point, sometime in the late 1980s, when, during a visit to Washington, I expressed over lunch with American Spectator editor Wladyslaw Pleszczynski what was then an almost universal cynicism about talk of a post-Communist Europe. “No,” said Wlady, who was far more plugged into these developments than most of us, “it’s really happening.”
That was the moment when I started believing it. But you have to forgive my doubts. Throughout the postwar era, nearly everybody had taken the U.S.-Soviet standoff for granted. The division of the world into two parts, free and unfree, felt like a fact of nature. Mutual assured nuclear destruction made any major change in the world order inconceivable.
For virtually everybody, that is, except Ronald Reagan. My biggest professional regret of all time is that, as a snotty young grad student in the early 1980s, I penned a condescending screed about the Gipper that appeared on Newsweek’s “My Turn” page, which was reserved for contributions by amateurs. And boy, was I an amateur. Although I’d voted for Reagan in 1980, I’d since bought into the media clichés about him and, in my silly piece, spat them back out as if they were a product of original thought.
Like every other detractor of Reagan, however, I learned soon enough that I’d been a fool. All the know-it-alls at the State Department had shivered with embarrassment when he’d shouted in his 1987 Berlin speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But the wall did come down. I was there, in 1990, when parts of it were still being chipped away at. All around me, people were snapping up pieces to take home. But I couldn’t bring myself to pick one up. I didn’t feel I’d earned it.
It was an extraordinary historical moment. The Unter den Linden, east of the Brandenburg Gate, still looked as if World War II had ended fifteen minutes earlier. Every building was shabby, sooty, and pocked with bullet holes. The newly reopened East-West subway lines were crowded with East Berliners returning home from West Berlin with newly purchased treasures – TVs, kitchen appliances – that had been unavailable under Communism.
The next time I went to Berlin, in 2004, the entire area around the Brandenburg Gate had been utterly transformed. All signs of war and division were gone. Everything was bright, gleaming, ultramodern. When I checked into my hotel I ran to the TV, turning it on just in time to catch the opening moments of Reagan’s funeral. The timing couldn’t have been more fitting.
In recent weeks I’ve been preoccupied with the 1980s, that pivotal decade leading up to the USSR’s formal dissolution on December 26, 1991. I’ve been reading a lot about Reagan and Thatcher, and the more I read, the more I’m in awe of both of them – their bedrock devotion to core principles, the selfless courage with which they stood up for those principles. and the brilliance with which they ultimately triumphed over totalitarianism.
But how short-lived that triumph was! To be sure, they were both too smart to think that their victory marked, in Francis Fukuyama’s fatuous formulation, the end of history. But they surely assumed that the new world order they established would last longer than it has. “When first you were here,” Reagan said in his prepared remarks welcoming Thatcher to Washington in December 1988, “we referred to a decade fraught with danger. We can hope today that in meeting those dangers we have transformed that decade into a turning point…for our age and for mall time.” In reply, Thatcher praised Reagan for having “made it possible for us to begin the world over again.”
It all sounds terribly quaint now. At the time, China’s GDP was just over a third the size of the U.K.’s and about one-seventeenth the size of America’s. In Moscow, Gorbachev was on the ropes; after the fall of the USSR, Russia would be governed by Boris Yeltsin, a reformer friendly to the West; the still-unimaginable rise of Vladimir Putin was over a decade away. The formation of the EU, as such, was five years off; in the U.S., the Democratic Party, after a period of far-left folly that had culminated in the 1972 presidential nomination of George McGovern, was in the hands of moderates who would propel Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992.
It was another time, too, when it came to Islam. Although Hezbollah had murdered 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut during Reagan’s presidency, no one foresaw anything remotely like 9/11 and its worldwide terrorist aftermath, or the endless, divisive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the rapid, perilous Islamization of the West, or the mass post-9/11 campaign by political, cultural, and media elites to quash the dark truth about Islamic ideology.
On the other hand, even in Reagan and Thatcher’s time universities on both sides of the pond were already on their way to being hotbeds of faculty radicalism. Neither the president nor the prime minister was unaware of the socialist enemy within. Thatcher had begun her career amid the economically disastrous postwar ascendancy of socialism in Britain, and had formed her political philosophy in opposition to it; Reagan, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, had fought the influence of Stalinism in wartime Hollywood, and as governor of California had dealt with violent student radicals in Berkeley. But could either of them have imagined the extent to which socialism would conquer the academy in the ensuing decades and, from there, spread into society at large – turning America’s Democratic Party (to which Reagan himself had belonged until 1962) into a Communist cabal in all but name?
Which is not to suggest that Reagan would’ve been taken aback by the rise of Antifa, Black Lives, Matter, and the new radical chic. After all, he’d lived through the old radical chic of the Sixties and Seventies. In the same way, how surprised could he have been by the wall-to-wall mendacity of the Trump-era media, given that the media had relentlessly demonized Reagan as a right-wing radical? And what would he have made of the fact that many Americans, by the year 2021, would express admiration for socialism, call for the defunding of police, support the razing of statues of Washington and Jefferson, and buckle under to irrational COVID rules? Well, he was the one who famously and repeatedly warned of the fragility of freedom. Behind his sunny morning-in-America demeanor was a sharp-eyed realist who had no illusions about human nature.
Reagan would definitely not have been astonished to learn that in the year 2021 our lives are dominated by computers. He was the one who, in a May 31, 1988, speech at Moscow State University, told students about the “technological or information revolution” that at that very moment was ushering in a remarkable new era. For the Soviet Union to be part of that era, he emphasized, it needed to embrace freedom – including freedom of movement, which would, for example, allow young Russians to backpack around Europe in the summer just like young Americans, and make it possible for “a concert promoter in, say, England” to “call up a Soviet rock group, without going through any government agency, and have them playing in Liverpool the next night.”
“Is this just a dream?” he asked. “Perhaps, but it is a dream that is our responsibility to have come true.” Needless to say, that dream has come true, and remains true even under Putin – although such contacts are less likely to be made by phone than by e-mail. Thanks to the Internet, indeed, countless people around the world engage daily in “cultural exchanges” of sorts that even that prescient president might not have foreseen. For example, a horny Liverpudlian can go online at any time of the day or night, contact any one of a huge assortment of cam girls in the former Soviet Union, and quickly arrange a mutually beneficial transaction of a sort that nobody of Reagan’s generation ever dreamed of.
Not that any of this puts a dent in the nobility of Reagan’s vision. “Your generation,” he said at the end of his Moscow State University speech, “is living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet history….We do not know what the conclusion will be of this journey, but we’re hopeful that the promise of reform will be fulfilled. In this Moscow spring, this May 1988, we may be allowed that hope: that freedom, like the fresh green sapling planted over Tolstoy’s grave, will blossom forth at last in the rich fertile soil of your people and culture. We may be allowed to hope that the marvelous sound of a new openness will keep rising through, ringing through, leading to a new world of reconciliation, friendship, and peace.”
And so it happened. The Iron Curtain fell; the Berlin Wall came down. And on the day after Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. Not a few astonished observers found themselves quoting Wordsworth’s famous lines about the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” But just as the French Revolution turned sour, Russia, instead of becoming a Jefferson democracy, became a dictatorship; meanwhile, China turned into a more powerful Communist rival to the U.S. than the Soviet Union had ever been. But despite the dashed hopes, and new threats to replace the old ones, the fall of the Soviet Union was a shining moment – a clear-cut victory for good over evil. It’s foolish to expect such victories to endure. History moves on. The moral struggle continues.
Yes, the downside of the Soviet Union’s fall is that it made it easier for mischievous professors to persuade young people that Communism is cool. And the downside of the “information revolution” is that, while providing a platform for voices of freedom frozen out of the legacy media, it also facilitates the dissemination of toxic ideas. It was Reagan himself, dead for seventeen years now, who summed up what would turn out to be the lesson of the last three decades. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” he said. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”