Friday, January 22, 2010

Cold War Stories

In addition to being a Supreme Court nut, I am very much a history buff, specifically Cold War history. I'm one day hoping to create a one-man show around my love of telling Cold War stories, but I have other things on my plate.

Why do I love Cold War stories?

Well, the Cold War is an interesting case that makes something I believe about life very clear. In the Cold War, you have events that are driven, largely, because of the Force of History. Each event calls back to the event right before it, each seems like a natural response to the thing that just happened, and yet by the time you're ten events down history has taken baffling turns. Yet things seem to drive towards inevitable events and conclusions.

As a for instance, a lot of ink has been spilled about why the Soviet Union collapsed, and one of the stories -- the one economists tend to favor -- is that the centrally planned economy was inefficient and created a perverse incentive structure which, in aggregate, corroded the economy from Day One, until eventually it was untenable. (the Reagan-killed-the-USSR theory is really an extension of that theory).

On the other hand, the "inevitable force of history" is kind of boring and abstract. And there's a lot of case to be made that Cold War history can be seen through the lens of a few individuals who appear, in choice moments, to make singular decisions that ripple out through history. After all, the Soviet economy was struggling for years and years before the collapse, but the Soviet Union didn't really collapse until Mikhail Gorbachev decided that he was not going to use military force in Eastern Europe, even if Eastern European countries turned away from communism -- that his democratic reforms were more important than territorial integrity. As a point of comparison, Khrushchev was faced with the same decision at the end of the Khrushchev Thaw, when his resolve to end the bloodshed Stalin had unleashed was challenged by an uprising in Hungary. Khrushchev decided differently, and the USSR persisted.

So on the one hand, you have a view of history that is individuals making heroic decisions -- which is, by the way, the theatrical view of history -- or the view of history where large economies of scale overpower the individual and force their hands. These views are not, in fact, incompatible. In fact, the latter emerges from the former.

(That word is very complicated, and rather than explain it, which I would do a pretty poor job of it, I'll leave it to the masters at Radiolab to do that for me. Honestly, LTTWT)

At any rate, I love those moments when a single person managed to change the direction of the Cold War, whether by accident by pure moxie.

Case 1: Matthias Rust, a young West German Teenager who learns how to fly, flies into Moscow, lands outside the Kremlin, goes to prison for a long time, and gives Gorbachev pretext to fire old-guard Communists from the military chain of command.

Case 2: (my favorite) Guenter Schabowski, a party bureaucrat whose single press conference gaffe brought down the Berlin Wall and, in its own way, set a date for the dissolution of the Soviet Union as it had been known for three full decades.