Cartoon featured in "Is the Cold War Over?" booklet
Cartoon featured in "Is the Cold War Over?" booklet

Morgenthau Lectures (1981–2006): Is the Cold War Over?

Nov 29, 1989

Pulitzer prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger analyzes the failure of the Soviet experiment, something no historian had predicted. "The internal contradictions of communism proved far more destructive than those internal contradictions that Marx predicted would infallibly overthrow capitalism."

Schlesinger delivered these remarks on November 29, 1989, just three weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, and before the Cold War was officially declared at an end. Minor changes were made to update the text, which was published in 1990.

November 1989 was a time of great euphoria, but Schlesinger wisely—and very presciently—warns Americans against self-congratulation and complacency. "The end of the cold war does not mean, however, plain sailing for the rest of our lives. When history turns a corner, new perplexities emerge; they always do. No greater piece of nonsense was perpetrated in the decade of nonsense than the 'end of history' thesis that enjoyed a fleeting vogue in the dog days of last August. In an age when nationalism is the most potent of emotions, when religious fanaticism is rising around the world, and when anguishing problems confront even the most civilized societies, one can be sure that history has a couple of more weeks to run."


Communism, by the confession of the communist states themselves, is today finished, kaput, a burnt-out case. Democracy has won the political argument. The market has won the economic arguments. Can anyone doubt that the cold war, as we have known it for the last 40 years, is over?

What brought about these inconceivable changes? The fundamental cause is the drastic and indisputable failureeconomic, political, and moralof communism as a system of government. Seventy years after the glorious Bolshevik Revolution, communism still could not feed or house its people, could not supply them with the most elemental consumer goods, could not hold the loyalty of its intellectuals and artists; it could not even provide soap for its miners. The Soviet Union had become a shambles of stagnation, corruption, cynicism, and despair. The internal contradictions of communism proved far more destructive than those internal contradictions that Marx predicted would infallibly overthrow capitalism.

With our amiable inclination to attribute all benign changes in the world to ourselves, we like to claim credit for these unforeseen developments. No doubt President Carter's human rights campaign kindled new hope behind the Iron Curtain. No doubt President Reagan's rearmament effort intensified pressure on the decrepit Soviet economy. But, had President Carter never mentioned human rights, had President Reagan never thrown $2 trillion at the Pentagon, Soviet communism would still be perishing from self-inflicted wounds.

The system was at dead end. The downward slide of the economy left the Soviet leadership the choice between slow decay and swift reform. In another unforeseen development, Mikhail Gorbachev materialized mysteriously out of the stagnant Soviet despotism, perceived the problem, unfurled the banners of perestroika and glasnost, and launched the drive for modernization. In so doing, he released and legitimized the energies that are (thus far) peacefully transforming Eastern Europe.

One is bound, especially after the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, to wonder whether the changes are irreversible. For the downward economic slide continues. The transition from a command to a market economy is difficult and painful. Living standards will fall before they begin to rise. In time the free market will increase production, but it is also capable of increasing inflation, corruption, inequality, and insecurity. One must not underestimate the appeal to weary and harassed people of economic security, even security on the levels of drabness that prevail in communist states. Choice can be threatening to people who have known nothing in their lives but command. The reformers may find themselves ahead of the masses.


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