The primary impact of the Revolution of 1989 was felt, of course, in east central Europe. But that remarkable series of events also changed our lives, in the West, in ways that seemed, in early 1989, beyond imagining.
Solidarity’s electoral triumph in Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia: these stunning events meant that the defining political contest of our lifetime and our parents’ life- times—the struggle between totalitarianism and democracy-had been won, without a cataclysmic war, by those committed to what John Courtney Murray once called the “method of freedom” in governance, in economic life, and in culture. Less than two years later, in August 1991, that victory was confirmed by the implosion and ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union, the imperial hegemon that had once held central and eastern Europe in thrall.
And as the world entered the last decade of this most sanguinary of centuries, humanity seemed to have been given a second chance.
Depending on how you sort these things out, the Cold War was either the Third World War, or the second phase of the Fifty-Five Years’ War against the totalitarians that began with Hitler’s military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Either way, it was a long, hard, bloody, and expensive struggle, and the good guys won. Yet freedom’s victory in the Cold War went curiously uncelebrated in the United States. No presidential address properly marked the occasion. Indeed, the American people have yet to be told by their president (and two have had the chance to do so) that their sacrifice of blood and treasure was indispensable to the victory of freedom in east central Europe—and the end of an international state of emergency in which America’s survival was directly and daily threatened. Why this victory was not publicly marked is a complicated business.
Five years ago, there was reason to be concerned about the response of the USSR to a proclamation of Western victory in the Cold War. But that should have made for a prudent, temperate, and magnanimous declaration of the simple truth of the matter, rather than for virtual silence.
Then there was the matter of “bad form.” President George Bush had been raised in an environment in which boys were taught to be good sports, and good sportsmanship emphatically did not include bragging about a win; the results should speak for themselves, and the vanquished foe should be offered condolences. But world politics isn’t a game, and to suggest (even tacitly) that it was had several pernicious results: it cheapened the sacrifices made to insure the victory; it reinforced the wrongheaded argument that the Cold War was just another great power struggle; and it sent all the wrong signals to those people who most needed to understand why, how, and indeed that they had lost.
This celebratory reticence was a serious error. Because the American people were not told that they had won, why they had won, and what the new realities of world politics might mean for the world’s lone superpower, the isolationism that traditionally runs just beneath the surface of our public life was revived, and indeed revitalized; it now plays a significant psychological, if not yet political, role in the world of affairs. And because the defeated were not told clearly that they had lost, many of them don’t believe that they did; this has slowed the reform process in several post-communist societies. And, more ominously, it has fueled imperial irredentism in certain Russian hearts and minds.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.