In 1956 Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian Uprising. At the same time the British and French tried and failed to capture the Suez Canal and to topple the Egyptian leader, Colonel Nasser. Thirty-three years later, the Soviet Union watched as one East European Communist government after another was swept from power by movements far more radical than anything conceived in Hungary in 1956. At the same time, US Forces moved out of the Panama Canal Zone, captured the Panamanian head of state and carried him off into captivity.

The events at the end of 1989 seemed to emphasise the power of the United States and the impotence of the Soviet Union. But the contrast should not be pushed too far. Admittedly the US has recovered, at least in part, from the low of the early Seventies, the era of Vietnam, race riots and Watergate; the era when the students were demonstrating in the streets, not against Communism, but against a democratically-elected government. The US recovery is only partial, however. In some ways its position in 1989 was closer to that of the colonial powers, Britain and France, in 1956 than to its own position at that time. Just as the colonial powers needed to compensate for defeat in Palestine and Indochina, so by 1989 the US needed a military victory to compensate for its failures in Vietnam and its humiliation in Lebanon and Iran. The need was revealed by the way in which the American media emphasised the importance of the ‘victory’ against Panama’s puny forces. Time Magazine even quoted approvingly one American general who said this had been ‘the best-conceived military operation since World War Two’.

The British and the French failed in 1956, partly because of national and international opposition. More important, however, was the weakness of the British economy and Washington’s determination to undermine the pound if the invasion went ahead. In 1989 Washington’s indifference to UN protests against its actions showed how the value put on such pressure had declined in the intervening period. Moreover none of America’s allies had the will or desire to thwart its ambitions in Panama. On the other hand, America’s economic position has changed dramatically. It was now British companies which were buying up their US equivalents to the tune of over 120 billion dollars. Even more important, the dollar was largely dependent on support from Japan. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Tokyo now had the power to do to Washington what the US Administration did to Eden’s government three decades previously.

The US position in 1989 may not have been as strong as its actions made it appear, but the difficulties faced by the Soviet Union could hardly be exaggerated. Most commentators were astonished by the speed of the collapse of its Eastern European empire. Within a matter of months, almost every government in Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea was overthrown. It was the most dramatic example in European history of ‘infectious revolution’ since 1848. Faced with nationalist uprisings, the Turks, the British and the other imperial powers had used force to retain control of their colonies. So had the Soviets in 1956 and 1968; and their system of indirect rule depended upon the assumption that, in the last resort, they would do so again. Why then did the Kremlin decide not to intervene? Some Soviet officials seem to have been genuinely taken aback when the Eastern Europeans showed their real feelings about Communism. Yet the Soviets had previously acted as if their empire, like others before it, would collapse like a row of dominoes if they did not maintain it by force. As soon as one resistance movement achieves some success, others take heart. Because of Algeria’s large white population the French hoped to retain their colony there after Tunisia and Morocco had won their independence: the ferocious Algerian war of independence was the result. The British fondly imagined that they would still be running Africa decades after India achieved its independence. Mau Mau changed all that. But the Soviets had not faced a similar struggle except in the peripheral area of Afghanistan and it is not clear whether the Eastern Europeans took heart from that defeat.

Perhaps appropriately in a Marxist state, economics seem to have been more important than political or military issues in changing Soviet policy. We know that the Soviet leaders were depressed by the growing backwardness of their economy. The factories, which Khrushchev boasted would soon overtake their American equivalents, had long since been surpassed by the industries of Taiwan and South Korea as far as production of consumer goods was concerned. Western technical and economic assistance was vital if this relative deterioration was not to continue.

Mr Brezhnev had responded to Washington’s military challenge by the greatest Soviet military build-up since the Thirties, giving the Soviets equality with the West in nuclear force, a world-wide navy and the largest land force in the world. We now know that the Soviets themselves were unaware of exactly how much this was costing them and that they were frightened by the size and dynamism of the technological response from Ronald Reagan’s America, particularly the Strategic Defence Initiative. The logical deduction, which most Western commentators have made, is that Mr Gorbachev convinced his civilian and military colleagues that they would have to change course. The Afghan experience appears to have persuaded the Soviet high command that smaller, more mobile armed forces were far more effective than vast numbers of half-trained conscripts. It was the Spetsnaz and the helicopter pilots who came nearest to defeating the mujahedin. Above all, relations with the West had to be dramatically improved because the Soviet economy would not withstand an indefinite arms-race. Any use of force to repress the Eastern Europeans would put paid to hopes of a renewed period of détente.

Although Soviet conservatives would dismiss the argument with contempt, Mr Gorbachev can also defend on strategic grounds the changes which he has allowed in Eastern Europe. No doubt Stalin imposed Communist governments on the states in the region to protect the Soviet homeland. The Eastern Europeans were always reluctant allies, however, and their reliability would have been unpredictable in wartime. If Soviet troops are withdrawn, the Soviet Army will have shorter but more secure lines of communication. The successor governments in the former satellite countries will also be ferociously nationalistic and determined to defend their independence against all invaders. A reunited Germany will be a danger to them – but not immediately. The most important single diplomatic act over the next months will be to ensure that, when or if Germany is reunited, its forces are limited in such a way as to reassure the Eastern Europeans without offending German susceptibilities as disarmament measures did when they were imposed after 1918.

In the meantime it is impossible to predict where the current revolution will end. If Mr Gorbachev concedes independence to Lithuania, will he have to allow Moldavia to join Romania and how will he solve the bloody disputes between the various Trans-Caucasian nationalities? Above all, what will the Ukrainians demand and how will the Great Russians react to the erosion of their empire? As previous empires collapsed, terrible violence and even civil war swept each metropolis or the lands close to it – Turkey during the First World War and British-controlled Ireland in the Twenties. Between 1958 and 1962 the French government was threatened by a series of military coups as well as by the FLN and OAS terrorists. Recent fighting in the Trans-Caucasus suggests that the Soviet Union is undergoing the same dreadful experience and we have no idea what would happen if civil war spread from the outlying regions across a state equipped with tactical nuclear weapons. We all have an interest in the peaceful resolution of the Soviet Union’s problems.

Spain continued to decay gradually after the independence of its empire. Kemal Ataturk managed to halt Turkey’s decline once it had shed its Balkan and Middle Eastern dependencies. But Ataturk had acquired immense prestige from his military successes in the First World War and his defeat of the Greek threat to the Turkish homeland. Similarly, General de Gaulle managed to rally the French after their defeats in Indochina and Africa. However, de Gaulle’s prestige rested on his defiance of the Nazis in the Second World War and the skill with which he managed to extricate France from the Algerian imbroglio. Gorbachev has rescued the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, but his relative standing is nothing like as high as de Gaulle’s. And his problems are much greater. France and even Turkey were more homogeneous than the Soviet Union yet the threat to Turkey’s integrity led to appalling violence against the Armenians and Greeks. It was Ataturk’s willingness to use massive force, as well as his own personal standing, that held the country together.

Russia is in a different position from Turkey, France and the other great empires because its strength has roller-coasted so violently over the decades. The only continental power able to defeat Napoleon, within fifty years it was utterly humiliated by the British and French in the Crimea and within another fifty by Japan in Manchuria. It was the first great power to be defeated in the First World War and it was despised and ostracised for much of the inter-war period. Only after its titanic efforts in the struggle against Hitler did it come to be seen as a superpower alongside the USA. Today its very survival is at stake, as it was both in the civil war between the Whites and the Bolsheviks and during Hitler’s invasion.

What does all this signify for the West? The past two months have seen by far the greatest change in Europe since the death of Hitler and the division of the continent in 1945. Unless it is reversed, it will obviously mean the end of the Cold War. That confrontation had its positive side. Like Metternich’s system before 1848, Soviet control over Eastern Europe provided an unprecedented period of stability. The level of violence and instability will now be much greater. Empires freeze history. Once they disappear, the local balance of forces reasserts itself. The French took over Indochina in the 1880s and prevented Vietnam dominating Laos and Cambodia. In the 1970s the Vietnamese urge to dominate re-emerged. Similarly, the British limited the antagonism between Hindus and Moslems in India until they began to take the possibility of granting independence seriously. In Eastern Europe the Hungarians and Romanians, Bulgarians and Turks, Czechs and Poles will very largely have to find their own modus vivendi. Passions are running high and we have already seen the government in Bulgaria under threat from anti-Moslem movements which want it to discriminate against the Moslem minority. The more economic help the West gives to the region, the more Eastern European states are bound to the European Community by economic ties, the more we can reward those states which settle their frontier and minority disputes peacefully. Similarly, the more we are prepared to accept the entry of the Eastern Europeans into pan-European bodies such as the Council of Europe, the more we can demonstrate that such membership is conditional on the upholding of human rights. If we were able to suspend Greece’s membership between 1969 and 1974, we will be able to bring similar pressure to bear on Eastern European members should they fail to abide by democratic standards.

We can use our influence and economic power constructively in these ways, but with the ending of the confrontation between East and West, we need to look again at some of the other forms of power we have been employing. During the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War Western governments copied some of the methods used by their enemies, including assassination and destabilisation. Britain and America worked together to overthrow the nationalist government in Iran in 1953 and restore the Shah. Peter Wright has alleged that the British Government tried to kill Colonel Nasser. The USA engineered the overthrow of the Guatemalan Government in 1954, made frequent attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and worked to prevent the installation of the Allende Government in Chile. When the West was faced with the apparently relentless expansion of Communist control over Eastern Europe, China and Tibet, and when the Communists used similar methods themselves, many people defended such covert actions. We need to remind ourselves, however, that we have not always behaved in this way. It is difficult to imagine William Gladstone or Abraham Lincoln ordering the murder of foreign leaders or the overthrow of freely-elected governments. The Duke of Wellington even refused to allow the guns to fire at Napoleon during the Battle of Waterloo. Bismarck holidayed in Austria just days before the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian war in 1866 and Lord Salisbury visited France in the middle of the Fashoda crisis in 1898. In fact, because of its corrosive impact on international relations, assassination had gradually died out as part of state policy after the ending of the religious wars in the mid-17th century. Eschewing such action ourselves obviously does not mean that others will follow suit, but the ending of the Cold War gives us an opportunity to reassess our behaviour.

Certain types of covert action also bring the Western intelligence services into disrepute. Those former CIA agents who turned against the Agency – Philip Agee, John Stockwell – did so because they were outraged by its behaviour in the Third World. Agee subsequently tried to weaken the Agency in every way he could – but particularly by naming those who worked for it. Yet the gathering of intelligence is still very important, not least if the problem of terrorism is to be kept under control. Moreover intelligence agencies will need the strength to change their methods so that they can deal with contemporary problems. The spy satellites and radio monitoring which were the most important aspects of intelligence-gathering in the last decades of the Cold War are much less relevant in the struggle to reduce the number of airline hijackings and political assassinations by extremist groups. The weakness of Western intelligence is reflected in our inability to respond to the seizure of hostages in the Lebanon.

The Panamanian invasion suggests that Western thinking has not yet changed. Apart from the Cold War itself and the limitations on the use of military force imposed by nuclear deterrence and world opinion, one reason for the rise of covert action was the assumption that Third World governments could easily, and justifiably, be made and unmade. Few doubt that the Noriega Government was, to say the least, unpleasant or that most of the Panamanian people wanted to be rid of it. But however good the reasons, the precedent of invading a small country and carrying off its head of state for trial is certainly disturbing. The claims of some US officials that they could ignore Latin American objections, precisely because the Cold War had ended, were especially worrying. No wonder so many Latin American governments subsequently refused to accept a visit by the US Vice-President.

The invasion of Panama at least fitted into the historical pattern of US behaviour in the area: but the outcome of the current revolution in the Communist world is no more predictable than the outcome of the French Revolution in 1789 or of the Russian Revolution in 1917. At worst, we may see a massive civil war in the USSR, the use, or threatened use, of tactical nuclear weapons and the re-emergence of a dictatorial government. In Eastern Europe we may see open conflict over frontiers and minorities, and the establishment of petty tyrannies similar to those which ruled most of the area between the two world wars. At best, we might see the development of reasonably stable systems which are sufficiently flexible to allow for the expression of minority sentiments. Our economic power may play some part in determining the course of events. We can also set a good example. But our influence is very limited and the speed of change is such that decisions often need to be made more quickly than the loose Western alliance is able to make them.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences