Great transformations had meanwhile taken place elsewhere and they also bore upon events in the Middle East. Yet they did so only because they shaped what the USA and USSR did there. In 1979-80 the American presidential election campaign had deliberately been used to exploit the public’s fears of the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, this reawoke animosity at the official level; the conservative leaders of the Soviet Union showed renewed suspicion of the trend of United States policy. It seemed likely that promising steps towards disarmament might be swept aside - or even worse. In the event, the American administration came to show a new pragmatism in foreign affairs, while, on the Soviet side, internal change was to open the way to greater flexibility.
One landmark was the death in November 1982, of Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s successor and for eighteen years general secretary of the Party. His immediate replacement (the head of the KGB) soon died and a septuagenarian, whose own death followed even more quickly, succeeded him before there came to the office of general secretary in 1985 the youngest member of the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev: he was fifty-four. Virtually the whole of his political experience had been of the post-Stalin era. His impact upon his country’s, and the world’s, history was to be remarkable.
The conjunction of forces that propelled Gorbachev to the succession remains unclear. The KGB, presumably, did not oppose his promotion, and his first acts and speeches were orthodox (although he had already, in the previous year, made an impression on the British prime minister as someone with whom business could be done). He soon articulated a new political tone. The word ‘communism’ was heard less in his speeches and ‘socialism’ was reinterpreted to exclude egalitarianism (though from time to time he reminded his colleagues that he was a communist). For want of a better term, his aim was seen by many foreigners as liberalization, which was an inadequate western attempt to sum up two Russian words he used a great deal: glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). The implications of the new course were to be profound and dramatic, and for the remainder of the decade Gorbachev grappled with them.
What actually happened in due course cannot have been in his mind when he started out. No doubt he saw that without radical change the Soviet economy could not provide the USSR with its former military might, sustain its commitments to its allies, improve (however slowly and modestly) living standards at home and assure continuing self-generated technological advance. Accordingly, Gorbachev seemed to seek to avoid the collapse of communism by opening it to his own vision of Leninism, above all by making it a more pluralist system, and by involving the intelligentsia in the political nation. The possible implication of such a change of course seems to have been concealed even from himself. Essentially it was an admission that the seventy years’ experiment in arriving at modernization through socialism had failed. Neither freedom nor material well-being had been forthcoming. And now the costs were becoming too heavy to bear.
Ronald Reagan was soon drawing dividends on Gorbachev’s assumption of office. That Soviet policy was reflecting a new tone soon became clear in their meetings. Discussion of arms reduction was renewed. Agreements were reached on other issues (and this was made easier in due course by the decision of the Soviet leadership in 1989 to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan). In America’s domestic politics, a huge and still growing budgetary deficit and a flagging economy, which would under most presidents have produced political uproar, were for years virtually lost to sight in the euphoria produced by a seeming transformation of the international scene. The alarm and fear with which the ‘evil empire’ (as Reagan had termed it) of the Soviet Union was regarded by many Americans began to evaporate a little.
Optimism and confidence grew as the USSR showed signs of growing division and difficulty in reforming its affairs, while Americans were promised wonders by their government in the shape of new defensive measures in space. Though thousands of scientists said the project was unrealistic, the Soviet government could not face the costs of competing with that. Americans were heartened, too, in 1986 when American bombers were launched from England on a punitive mission against Libya, whose unbalanced ruler had been supporting anti-American terrorists (significantly, the Soviet Union expressed less concern about this than did many west Europeans). President Reagan was less successful, though, in convincing many of his countrymen that more enthusiastic assertions of American interests in Central America were truly to their advantage. But he remained remarkably popular; only after he had left office did it begin to dawn that the decade had been one in which the gap between rich and poor in the USA had widened even further.
In 1987, the fruits of negotiation on arms control were gathered in an agreement over intermediate-range nuclear missiles. In spite of so many shocks and its erosion by the emergence of new foci of power, the nuclear balance had held long enough for the first stand-downs by the superpowers. They, at least, if not other countries seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, appeared to have recognized that nuclear war, if it came, held out the prospect of virtual extinction for mankind, and were beginning to do something about it. In 1991 there were to be further dramatic developments as the USA and USSR agreed to major reductions in existing weapons stocks.