Back to the 1980s

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded me and many others of the Cold War, the period of world-wide Soviet-American confrontation that we all hoped was over for good. The differences between then and now are significant and shouldn’t be overlooked, but there are important similarities as well.

So I’ve been rereading some material from the 1980s, and thought I’d share a couple of things.

One is the novel The Third World War by John Hackett, written in 1978 but set in 1985 and intended as a cautionary tale to encourage greater defence preparedness in the west. In it, the Soviet Union, threatened by unrest within its empire and adverse developments elsewhere, launches a conventional invasion of western Europe. It conquers much of West Germany, but fails to reach its objectives before NATO can be reinforced and halt the advance.

Hackett comments:

The Soviet war-fighting philosophy … was in the circumstances of the 1980s exactly right. It enjoined the initiation of total and violent offensive action, swiftly followed through to the early attainment of a valuable objective. The position of military advantage thus secured would then be exploited by political means. Speed was everything. The corollary was that failure to secure the objective in good time must result in a thorough-going reappraisal, in which to continue to press towards the same end might very well be the least sensible course.

Hardliners in the Kremlin then decide to try to force the west to negotiate with the demonstration use of a nuclear missile. The English city of Birmingham is destroyed, and NATO in retaliation obliterates Minsk. That prompts imperial collapse, and Ukrainian separatists seize control of the Soviet government and sue for peace.

Technical and political change since then has rendered much of this irrelevant, but one can’t help wondering whether Soviet attitudes have been carried forward to today’s Russian government, and how much of that Cold War approach might be evident in the advance on Kyiv – and how accurate Hackett’s view of its implications might be.

The second piece is shorter and less heavy: it’s “Blaming America First”, a piece by Michael Kinsley (writing as “TRB”) in the New Republic in July 1985, later collected in his 1987 book Curse of the Giant Muffins. The magazine is paywalled, but William Proxmire kindly read it into the record of the US Senate at the time, so you can read it here.

Kinsley skewers American conservatives for their distrust of democracy: for their readiness to assume that the west’s liberal and democratic institutions are weaknesses rather than strengths, and their consequent thinly-disguised envy of authoritarian leaders. On the contrary, he insists, freedom provides important advantages. As he puts it:

[F]reedom and Western culture are priceless assets in the espionage, propaganda, and terror wars. While conservative intellectuals of the West fret about a few left-wing highbrows who aren’t sufficiently critical of the Soviet Union; Communist bloc leaders must live with the knowledge that millions of their subjects go to bed dreaming of America. Unlike us, the Soviets have to worry that every diplomat they send abroad may decide to defect at any time.

Since then, dictator-envy on the right has advanced by leaps and bounds; only now are some starting to question their previous admiration for Vladimir Putin. But Kinsley’s moral is as relevant as ever: leaders who govern with the consent of their people might find it harder to launch foreign adventures, but if they have to fight they can marshal a much greater degree of national unity behind them. As Ukraine’s government is now demonstrating.

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