Some Cold War Truths

On Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev transferred the Soviet nuclear codes to Boris Yeltsin, called President George H.W. Bush to wish him a happy Christmas, and picked up a pen, intending to sign the document that would dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, created by Lenin 74 years before.

The pen wouldn’t work. Gorbachev had to borrow a replacement from a CNN crew covering the story.

The Cold War was officially over, which was a very good thing. Yet as we prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—the symbolic centerpiece of the Revolution of 1989, which made the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 virtually inevitable—there seems to be a remarkable lack of interest in a struggle that dominated world politics for 43 years, threatening nuclear ruin to North America, Europe and the USSR, devastating Korea and Southeast Asia, and embroiling the Third World in proxy wars from which many developing countries have never really recovered. Something that large and consequential, you would think, would merit considerable and ongoing attention. Yet, to take but one example, modern history classes in Polish schools today stop at 1939 (or, in some cases 1945). Things are not much better in the United States, I fear.

Americans are traditionally good winners who don’t hold grudges. There was no gloating over the collapse of the USSR. There were no equivalents of the Nuremberg Trials, or the Allied military tribunals in post-war Japan, to bring the murderers of the KGB to book. There wasn’t even a VC Day—Victory Over Communism Day—to parallel VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. Perhaps many Americans thought it would have been unsporting to declare victory. We quickly put the Cold War behind us.

Worse than today’s lack of interest, however, are those interpretations of the Cold War that suggest it was all a terrible misunderstanding, or that Stalin was “provoked” into hostility toward the West, or that the West could have come to terms with the Soviet Union long before 1989. With an eye toward the 20th anniversary of the wall coming down, let me propose a few truths about the Cold War and its ending, with special reference to the Catholic Church and its roles under, and against, communism:

Moral equivalence is moral idiocy. The United States and its western allies during the Cold War were imperfect democracies that sometimes did wicked things. Throughout the Cold War (and long before), the Soviet Union was a pluperfect tyranny that did terrible things as a matter of course, murdering millions of innocent people in cold blood. Any suggestion that the U.S. and the USSR were “two scorpions in a bottle” (as one Carter administration nominee famously put it) reflects a fundamental moral obtuseness about the situation.

The Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI did not ease the situation of the Catholic Church behind the iron curtain. Pope Paul’s openness to dialogue with communist regimes can claim one genuine (if unintended) accomplishment: it created openings that a Polish pope (who viewed his predecessor’s Ostpolitik with considerable skepticism) could exploit (often against the counsel of Vatican diplomats). On the ground, the Ostpolitik of Paul VI was a disaster in Hungary (where most bishops from the mid-1960s on collaborated with the regime), in Czechoslovakia (where the underground Church felt betrayed), and even in Rome, where Soviet bloc intelligence agencies used the new diplomatic contacts necessitated by the Ostpolitik to penetrate the Vatican in a quite striking way.

Moral power was the key to success. Communism might have collapsed of its own economic incompetence, but why did it collapse in 1989 rather than 1999 or 2009 or 2019? And why did it collapse without violence (Romania excepted)? Our premier Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, has the answer: the moral revolution launched by John Paul II during his first pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979 was the key to all the rest.

There were winners and losers in this epic contest. Be grateful that we won. Be grateful for all those who sacrificed blood and treasure for the victory.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • This is why I felt so deeply disappointed and even betrayed when our beloved John Paul II failed to win the Nobel Peace Prize the year before he died. If ever there was an obvious winner, it was him. I guess being the fulcrum of the machine that almost bloodlessly brought down the most dictatorial, violent, and evil regime in history wasn’t enough for those who objected to John Paul’s teaching on the role of women in society. Or maybe it was abortion, or contraception, or even the Incarnation itself. Whatever the reason, the Nobel Prize is now an empty token, and if I may take a cheap sideswipe, giving it to Al Gore for making a movie just proves the point.

  • stjohnsfeast

    Excellent article. Anyone who remembers these events with a clear eye can only conclude that our late, great Pope John Paul II (along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) was the main actor in bringing down the iron curtain.

    I’d like to add one more “inconvenient truth” from the Cold War era (a real one, not an Al Gore one) that is not admitted by many, but should be: In spite of his bombast, history has proven that Joseph McCarthy was right. While we may question his methods, McCarthy told the truth about communist infiltration into our government, as proven by declassified KGB records. In retrospect, we can consider ourselves lucky to have prevented a Communist takeover. Thank God for preserving our country and way of life, and thank God for John Paul the Great, the right man at the time the world needed him.

  • SeanReynoldsNZ

    Can I add Yasser Arafat to the list of people who make the Nobel Peace Prize a cheap token? It’s kind of like the US dollar: Handing it out to worthless causes has made it a cheap and debased currency that is useless.

  • goral

    The reason that there is no interest in our Cold War victory is that it really didn’t cost the average citizen anything.
    Sure there are the exceptions such as servicemen who might have been personally touched on their tour of duty.

    There were those whom it cost everything. It is of those Mr. Weigel speaks when he says:
    “Be grateful for all those who sacrificed blood and treasure for the victory.”

    Quotes taken from – The Book of Martyrs in the History of Christianity by Franklin J. Balasundaram (ed.)

    “For the Church to be alive in Poland several priests had to lose their lives. Among them the most prominent was Father Jerzy Popieluszko. He died as a martyr for the cause of human dignity and freedom.”

    “Popieluszko’s sermons express his stand against revenge and use of violence and a desire to pray not only for those who are oppressed but also for those who oppress people. As a staunch supporter of solidarity he referred to it as the ‘patriotic struggle to reinstate human dignity’.”

    “He believed that witnessing to the truth leads to freedom and constantly encouraged his hearers to witness to truth over against the lies. It is by witnessing to the truth that one overcomes fear which is the root cause for enslavement. In one of his sermons he says, “If truth becomes for us a value, worthy of suffering and risk, then we shall overcome.”

    This Oct. 19th , the 25th anniversary of his brutal murder will be remembered.

  • plowshare

    The fall of the Berlin Wall was the symbolic climax of the Revolution of 1989 (which is the way historians ought to remember those earth-shaking events) but the opening “shot” of the revolution, as far back as I can trace it, was the dismantling of the barbed wire and other parts of the Hungarian Iron Curtain, by the Hungarian border authorities. That created a situation where the East Germans, who could freely travel to Hungary, could then freely travel to Austria and points west–including, of course, West Germany.

    There was widespread talk of how East Germany was “hemorrhaging,” with the flower of its young adults leaving in droves, and how the authorities then decided that they had to relax their grip on East Germany.

    For many months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mainstream press pooh-poohed the idea of German reunification. Their correspondents, who hobnobbed with the East German “intellectuals”, had little idea of where the common people of East Germany stood. But they found out soon enough.

    This is modern history, and it is a shame how few people know it.