America at the pinnacle

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

By the year 2000, the Soviet Union had collapsed of its own weight. The Soviet Union was gone, and its successor states were broke and demoralized. Communist rule had collapsed in the European satellite countries of Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. (Communist Yugoslavia had gone its own way decades ago. Communist Albania followed the Chinese rather than the Russian model.) China was ruled by its own communist party, but China, unlike Russia, was historically a relatively stable presence rather than an expansionist state. That left only Cuba, which was no conceivable military threat in its geographical, economic, diplomatic and social isolation. The historical communist challenge to pluralistic capitalist societies had been growing through the 20th century, as we shall see. Now it was gone, and America stood alone.

America had outlasted the Soviet bloc, and had become, in all but name, the center of a global empire, alone at the pinnacle of power. But that long cold war had exacted a price, and perhaps the economic price paid was the least of it. (Military expenditures were considered to be a form of insurance against a return of the Great Depression of 1929-1940.) Forty years of military, diplomatic, economic, social, and cultural contention had changed American society. How could it not? In 1963, president John F. Kennedy had said that the nation did not seek a pax Americana, in which its will was supreme and its word was law. This was true at the time, but by the year 2000, was it still? It certainly was not true while the Soviet Union posed its deadly challenge.

Every so often, before we can examine a given situation in hindsight, we will have to jump backwards to put it into context. We’ll put these little sketches into italics, like this:

The Second World War ended in 1945 with Japan and all the European powers exhausted. Only the United States and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union, emerged from the war stronger than they had been before it began. Mutual suspicion soon turned to active hostility. The Soviet Union made military and economic satellites of the countries its troops had overrun in defeating Germany. The United States helped the other European powers to recover economically and established NATO as a mutual defense alliance. An arms race followed. Guided missiles carrying nuclear payloads soon put the whole world in danger. In retrospect, the danger peaked in 1962, but no one knew it at the time. The military, diplomatic, and economic rivalry continued, sometimes colder, sometimes warmer, until the sudden collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet Premier, following three old men whose policies could be summed up as “more of the same.” But his reformist policies of glasnost (“voice-ness,” or free speech) and perestroika (economic restructuring), failed. The economic problems worsened, political control was slipping away from the party, and no one had a clue as to what to do. In 1991, some party chiefs attempted to unseat Gorbachev in a coup. Instead, the regime collapsed. The end of the Soviet state brought the end of the cold war and the threat of Soviet troops overrunning Europe or Soviet missiles destroying American cities.

If America had not quite won the cold war, at any rate the Soviets had lost it. The bipolar world that had followed World War II was gone.

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