Book review: ‘The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991’ – tough talk and ‘the Big Four’

Robert Service provides a compelling account of the Soviet-US ‘state of neither war nor peace’, the key players and the Cold War's legacy.

A Soviet Union propaganda poster from the Space Race era, when it battled the US for supremacy in spaceflight. Universal History Archive / Getty images
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When reading Robert Service's big, brilliant new book The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991, it's important to remember what anyone who lived through the Cold War could not forget: despite being the strangest war ever fought, it was very, very real.

The strangeness existed on every level. It was a global war that was never declared, whose two combatants never put armies in the field against each other, and who conducted strained but normal diplomatic and economic relations throughout most of its duration.

It was a war motivated as much by a clash of ideologies as by a competition of economies, with each side straining surreally for decades to delegitimise the world view of the other, like a protracted dystopian exaggeration of Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz’s characterisation of war as a continuation of policy by other means.

It was born in 1946 out of a Soviet leader’s distrust of former allies, and it ended half a century later when a Soviet leader decided to trust former enemies.

It was, as Service writes, a “state of neither war nor peace,” during which “when forecasting the inevitable demise of the rival superpower, [each side] predicted that all manner of evil would vanish from the earth on that joyous day”.

This ideological conflict fuelled proxy clashes, one of the darkest being the clash between Soviet-backed and United States-backed forces in Korea in 1950, and one of the most terrifying happening in 1962 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began installing ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba, a mere 90 miles from US soil.

The tense two-week standoff that resulted underscored the main oddity of the Cold War: it was restrained through all the decades of its duration by a fear not of conventional battlefield losses and conquest but, for the first time in history, a fear of the complete destruction of the human species.

The rulers of both the Soviet Union and the US understood what some of their more ardent generals appeared not to: there could be no winners in a thermonuclear war.

Service quickly sketches in the rough patches in this weird war over the decades, from Khrushchev’s bombastic “We will bury you” rhetoric to the gradual thawing into a fragile détente, to its shattering in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but, in this book, he is most concerned with the long conflict’s complicated and largely unforeseen endgame.

To tell this story, Service makes the kind of decision that comes naturally to seasoned historians: he decides to focus his narrative on a quartet he calls “the big four”. This is not just US president Ronald Reagan and USSR general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the necessary stars of the show, but their chief aides in this area of geopolitics: Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz and Gorbachev’s foreign affairs minister Eduard Shevardnadze. The interplay of these personalities – two kings and two knights on a sprawling international chessboard – lies at the heart of Service’s book.

As Service’s account unfolds, it becomes clearer and clearer that random chance assembled exactly the right quartet at exactly the right time.

Shultz, who took over as secretary of state from the volatile Alexander Haig in 1982, “could be gruff and blunt” as Service relates it, “but his manner disguised the reality of a thoughtful intellectual who had taught economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School and had expertise both in business and in government”.

Shultz looked with a stern and disapproving eye on illicit Soviet activity in places such as Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Libya, and of course Cuba, but he was an even-handed assessor of political realities and something of a battered optimist.

His Soviet counterpart, Shevardnadze, succeeded his ailing and stolidly unimaginative predecessor Andrei Gromyko in 1985 when Gorbachev made him the new foreign affairs minister over the heads of far more experienced diplomats and party officials. People found him charming, Service writes, especially since they could not help but remember his predecessor, “stony-faced Gromyko, who rationed his smiles and chilled every diplomatic conversation”.

Against all odds or expectations, Shultz and Shevardnadze found themselves united in wanting to stretch a hand across the negotiating table.

Service paints an even more engrossing double portrait of the two men in charge, and curiously, as the chapters flow on, Gorbachev and Reagan start to seem very much alike. Both needed to appease governmental hardliners who worried about “going soft” on the traditional enemy; both had a dream of ending the threat of nuclear war by drastically reducing the nuclear stockpiles of their respective countries (as Service writes, “[Gorbachev] and Reagan genuinely aimed to reduce the danger of thermonuclear war, and together their achievement was magnificent”). And, as Service makes clear without stressing the point, both men had an enigmatic core to their personalities.

About Gorbachev, we are told: “While he was charming and friendly, he kept a barrier between himself and most others, and people who worked with him tended to feel they did not really know him.”

And about Reagan: “He kept a psychological distance from other people; he always seemed to hold something back in his dealings with them.”

Although both men were warned not to trust each other (British prime minister Margaret Thatcher struck the common tone when she told Reagan that Gorbachev was “the same brand of Soviet Communist that we have known in the past”), both were driven – Gorbachev in part by the increasingly desperate state of the Soviet economy, and Reagan in part by his wish to exploit that desperate state – to meet at a handful of pivotal summit meetings that form the climax of Service’s story.

Decades of virulent hostility were resolved in large part by tough, dogged negotiators working until late, late at night.

These negotiators worked through catastrophe, such as the bitterly disappointing Reykjavik summit of 1986, where talks came to a halt because Reagan refused to agree to confine his controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, dubbed “Star Wars” by the press) to the laboratory and Gorbachev couldn’t take back to his government the idea of the orbiting US weapons platforms that SDI would include.

Negotiators also worked feverishly to bring about successes, such as the Moscow summit of 1988, where, Service adds, “The joshing between Reagan and Gorbachev kept them both amused”.

By the time Gorbachev’s reforming initiatives (as he told the Politburo: “We live on a single planet. We cannot keep the peace without America”) and guarded western encouragement had brought about the opening of the East German border in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a “fifth man” had entered the story: US president George H W Bush, described by Service as “better qualified for the highest office than anyone in living memory”. It was the Bush White House that watched the final dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end to the Cold War.

Service would be remiss if he didn’t conclude his terrific account with a mention of the ominous revanchism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It’s a Cold War another generation may have to face, and if so, that generation could learn quite a bit from this smart and compelling book.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly and a regular contributor to The Review.