In 1983, American President Ronald Reagan thought the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” He told about the ways that the Soviet government limited the practice of religion, attacked political competitors, limited personal freedom, used its power to control the nations of Eastern Europe and tried to spread communism around the world.
Reagan described the fight between the East and West as a war between good and evil and said that communism would someday end up in the “ash heap of history.”
Reagan’s complaints about the Soviet Union were all at least partly true. But all nations and governments have used ideas and ways that turn out to be bad, including the United States. Although the citizens of the Soviet Union may have lived in fear, Soviet schools were good and the Soviet Union had the most people able to read in the world. While Americans enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, we also deal with a lot of racism.
Clearly, no nation is perfect, but was there something especially wrong with communism and the Soviet Union? Had President Reagan right about that place and time in history? Was the Soviet Union actually an evil empire?
During the Cold War, Americans and Soviets usually fought using their military. They had few chances to directly argue over their two ways of life. One chance was the Kitchen Debates.
In 1959, the Soviets and Americans had agreed to hold exhibits or shows in each other’s countries as a way to spread understanding. The Soviet presentation in New York opened in June 1959, and the following month then-Vice President Nixon was on hand to open the American show in Moscow. Nixon took Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on a tour of the exhibit. There were many goods from over 450 American companies.
The Kitchen Debate took place in a number of locations at the shows but mostly in the kitchen of a fake house. This was only one of four meetings that happened between Nixon and Khrushchev during the 1959 show.
During the first meeting, in the Kremlin, Khrushchev rejected the new inventions of the United States and said that the Soviets would have all of the same things in a few years. Nixon replied by saying at least the competition was about science, rather than military.
The second visit happened in a television studio at the American show. At the end, Khrushchev said that everything he had said in their debate should be translated into English and broadcast in the United States. Nixon answered, “Certainly it will, and everything I say is to be translated into Russian and broadcast across the Soviet Union. That’s a fair bargain.” He and Khrushchev shook hands.
The meetings between Khrushchev and Nixon are interesting because while they were talking about which country was better, they did not compare nuclear weapons, politics, or control of land. They were using the inventions set up in the exhibit. Nixon argued that the Americans wanted to use new ideas, while Khrushchev argued that the Soviets built things to last for many years.
It is true that the United States was creating a more consumer-driven economy in which new inventions were being replaced often. Just think of the pace at which companies like Apple or Samsung produce phones that make last year’s model old. However, the Soviet model of building for the future often meant boring, grey concrete buildings and science that were considered old-fashioned in the West.
The third visit happened inside the kitchen of the fake home. The kitchen had a dishwasher, refrigerator, and stove and oven. It was to show a $14,000 home that a typical American worker could afford in 1959.
In front of the cameras and to show off how successful capitalism was for the everyday American housewife, Nixon tried to convince Khrushchev that the capitalist, or free market system was not terrible in the way Soviet propaganda said it was. Nixon said that he should “not be afraid of ideas. After all, you don’t know everything.” The Soviet leader replied, “You don’t know anything about communism, except fear of it.”
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Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon at the Kitchen Debate.
In the United States, three major television channels showed the kitchen debate. American reaction was both bad and good, with The New York Times calling it a political show. On the other hand, Time Magazine, also covering the shows, said good things about Nixon.
Because it was casual, Nixon became more popular. He also impressed Mr. Khrushchev.
The trip made Nixon more famous, greatly improving his chances of becoming the Republican presidential candidate the following year. Khrushchev did what he could to bring about Nixon’s defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign.
In the end the Kitchen Debate did not change the opinions of leaders on either side of the Iron Curtain. It did, however, show the big gap between free market and communist ideas. Although leaders in the Soviet Union were not about to become a free market economy or democracy, the same could not be said for the people of Eastern Europe. They were unhappy and there were revolutions in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Soviet premier Josef Stalin had said “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.” When the Soviet Army marched across Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, Stalin’s dream of growing communism became real. When the war ended, the Soviets set up communist governments in the puppet states of the Eastern Bloc. Like the American military, which stayed in West Germany, Great Britain, and Italy, Soviet soldiers stayed on in East Germany and the Warsaw Pact states of the East. Soviets there did not mean that the people of the Eastern Bloc were happy.
The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was a nationwide revolt against the government of Hungary and the laws the Soviet Union made them follow. It was the first major attack on Soviet control since the Red Army drove Nazi Germany from Hungary at the end of World War II.
The revolt began as a student protest, which attracted thousands who marched through central Budapest to the capitol building. When some of the students entered the radio building to try to broadcast the student’s ideas for change, the State Security Police (ÁVH) attacked them. One student was killed and as the news of the shooting quickly spread, violence broke out throughout the capital.
The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government fell. Thousands organized into militias, fighting the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members caught by the militias were put in jail or killed. A new government ended the ÁVH, said it would leave the Warsaw Pact, and promised free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped as the last parts of the communist dictatorship were swept away. Things began to return to normal.
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A Soviet T-54 tank on the streets of Budapest during the crackdown against the Hungarian Uprising.
At first the Soviets said it would start a take its soldiers out of Hungary, but Soviet leaders changed their minds and moved to stop the revolution. On November 4, a large Soviet force entered Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarians fought back for a week before being crushed by the Soviet force. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests continued for months as the Soviet-backed, communist government returned and stopped all public protests. The public could not talk about the revolution in Hungary for more than 30 years.
About ten years after the failed Hungarian Revolution, the government of another member of the Eastern Bloc briefly fought against Soviet rule. The Czechoslovakian government began to open up the economy and political system. This short period was called the Prague Spring, named for the nation’s capital city.
These changes were not well liked by the Soviets, who after trying to discuss them, sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy, or monitor, the country. A non-violent resistance, or protest, happened across the whole country, including painting over and turning street signs to confuse the Soviets. The Czechoslovakians stayed out past curfews and one protestor, Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest for his freedom of speech. While the Soviet military had thought that it would take four days to take control over the country, the resistance held out for eight months.
In the end, however, the hope for real change was crushed by the force of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops. By the end of 1968 the government controlled the economy and there were limits on freedom again. It would be another 20 years before the people of Czechoslovakia enjoyed basic civil rights.
THE POLICE STATE
In the case of the revolutions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union had to use its army to put down rebellion or revolution. Normally, however, in the Soviet Union and the world’s other communist nations, the government used fear and surveillance, or spying, to control the people.
In most dictatorships, both communist and otherwise, the normal police forces are helped by a secret police. In the Soviet Union, the KGB served this role. In East Germany, they were known as the Stasi, in China as the Juntong, and in North Korea as the State Security Department. Regardless of their name, they all work the same way. The people of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea knew they were being watched, that the secret police were listening to their phone calls, reading their mail, and monitoring where they travelled, where they shopped, and who they talked to. In an effort to protect themselves from suspicion, people promised the secret police that they would serve as spies to keep an eye on their neighbors. After the Cold War ended, historians read the Stasi’s files and found that nearly every East German had been so afraid of persecution that they had promised to be snitches for the secret police.
If the secret police thought that someone was planning a protest, spreading information that would hurt the government or trying to leave the country, that person would be arrested, tortured, exiled or killed. People in the communist world were afraid of the “midnight knock of the secret police” and family members and friends just disappeared. Most secret police forces operated a system of secret camps to house these political prisoners. In China, this system was called Laogai which means “reform through labor.” In reality, reform meant punishment. Prisoners who were released served as a warning to their friends and family of the power of the government. The most famous of all labor camps in the communist world, however, were the Gulags of the Soviet Union.
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO
The Gulag was created by Vladimir Lenin immediately after the founding of the Soviet Union and ran forced labor camps. The camps held a wide range of prisoners, from regular criminals to political competitors. Large numbers were convicted without a trial by groups of three government judges called troikas. The entire system reached its peak during Josef Stalin’s rule from the 1930s through the 1950s when more than 100,000 people were put in jail in the Gulag system. The camps stayed in operation until the 1980s.
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Prisoners in the gulag system work to build a canal.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, survived eight years in the Gulag and made the camps famous with his book “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1973. The author compared the camps to an archipelago, a chain of islands, and as a witness, he wrote about the Gulag as a system where people were worked to death. Some historians support this view, though this claim is controversial, given that the most of people who entered the Gulag came out alive. Being alive, however, did not mean a return to normal life. Former prisoners who had been sent away to the Gulag prisons for complaining about the communist leaders, were usually not allowed to move into large cities where their ideas might spread. Being convicted of fighting communism in the Soviet Union meant at best being expelled, and at worst, death.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union took a step back from the edge of war and leaders on both sides decided that the arms race, space race, and always acting like they were about to go to war was not smart. By the early 1970s, the two countries had began a series of steps to lower the risk of war and work together in science and culture. This era was known by the French word détente.
The leaders most involved with détente were President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger. Both of them saw the world and the fight between the United States and Soviet Union in terms of realpolitik, not as a moral struggle between ideas. That is, they thought the fight between East and West was about what each side needed and could get, not about big ideas. Both superpowers had needs – security, ports and raw materials, allies, honor – and the East and West could share the world so long as leaders found ways for both sides to get what they needed.
The most clear example of détente were meetings held between the leaders of the two superpowers and the treaties, or agreements, that came from these meetings. On August 5, 1963, even before the time that has come to be known as détente, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed ending all nuclear tests in the air, underwater or in space. Only tests underground were allowed. Later, the Outer Space Treaty, signed in January 1967, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in July 1968, were two of the first building blocks of détente. These early treaties were signed all over the globe and are important steps in slowing the spread of nuclear weapons.
While Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s did their part to deescalate, or lessen, the Cold War, most of the détente treaties were not until the Nixon Administration came into office in 1969. The United States and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972. This treaty limited each power’s nuclear supplies, which pretty much ended the arms race. In the same year that SALT I was signed, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty were also made. To follow up on their work, the two countries began working on a second treaty to limit nuclear weapons, known as SALT II.
In 1975, the leaders of the major countries in both the East and West met and produced the Helsinki Accords, a set of agreements on economic, political, and human rights issues. The agreements were started by the Soviet Union, and were signed by 35 countries throughout Europe and North America. The accords were a major political win for Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet premier, because the United States promised to respect the borders of the countries of Eastern Europe. However, the accords also said countries must respect human rights, something the communists were not known for, and the West often used the agreement as a reason to criticize the secret police in the Soviet Union and its allies.
Détente went beyond politics and weapons. In July of 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project became the first international space mission when three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts connected their spacecraft and did experiments together. To do this, American and Soviet engineers in NASA and the Soviet space agency had worked together for five years.
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The famous handshake between American astronaut Gibson and Soviet cosmonaut Dezhurov after their two capsules successfully connected.
Business between East and West increased a lot during the era of détente. One of the most important was the large amount of wheat sent from the West to the Soviet Union each year, which helped make up for the failure of Soviet government farms. Even as the United States stood ready with nuclear weapons to defend against Soviet attack, American farmers were feeding the people of their most bitter enemy.
President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger were excited to find ways to manage the Cold War, but in the Soviet Union, détente was often seen differently. Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982 was wanted to use this quiet period to prepare for Soviet Union to grow. In 1979, he ordered an attack on Afghanistan, one of the Soviet Union’s southern neighbors. Like all other foreign attacks into this huge nation of mountains, the Soviet effort failed, but the attack was a big reason President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, chose to end détente.
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Soviet Primer Leonid Brezhnev and President Richard Nixon
THE THIRD WORLD
As the British and French Empires slowly gave in to independence movements after World War II, a new Third World started. This became a major battleground of the Cold War as the United States and the Soviet Union struggled to bring new nations under their influence. Across the Third World, the two superpowers fought in a series of proxy wars.
The United States had a long and often bad relationship with its southern neighbors. The Monroe Doctrine told European nations not get involved in Latin America while the Roosevelt Corollary said that the United States would. America had taken half of the land of Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, taken control of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War, and interfered in, or messed with Cuba, Panama, and the various banana republics of Central America even before the Cold War began.
It was mostly about business. Americans wanted land for coffee, sugar and fruit plantations in Central America and the Caribbean. The Cold War changed the rules of the game. The United States no longer needed to support governments that would be okay with American businesses Now, the most important thing was that Latin American leaders fight communism.
The United States began to support strongmen, who were bad to their people, violated human rights and made themselves rich – Fulgencio Bautista of Cuba and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic were two of the worst. While some Americans did not like this, leaders in Washington who liked the idea of containment and the Domino Theory that it was necessary.
CHILE AND PANAMA
For many years Chile had been a model in South America of good, democratic government. Elected presidents had held office and turned over power peacefully. The army stayed out of politics.
That changed in 1973. The new president, Salvador Allende tried to make changes that were very similar to changes supported by other communist leaders. Cuba’s Fidel Castro visited Chile and supported Allende. But Allende was different in that he did not want a revolution. He believed in working slowly through elections. This may have been enough to convince the United States in normal times, but in the middle of the Cold War, the CIA saw Allende as a dangerous example. If Chile took a peaceful path away from capitalism, other nations might want to do the same.
Augosto Pinochet, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army led a coup and took power from Allende. Although the United States was not directly involved, CIA agents knew what Pinochet was planning. Pinochet correctly assumed that if the CIA did not try to stop him, they were in favor of getting rid of Allende.
Allende shot himself just before being taken prisoner by Pinochet’s soldiers. Pinochet went on to rule Chile as a dictator for the next 17 years. He was very anti-communist, but his secret police murdered over 2,000 people.
In Panama, American support for anti-Communist leaders was more secret. Manuel Noriega, the future dictator of Panama, was being paid by the CIA beginning in 1967. By 1971, he was in the drug trade. However, he was an important tool of the CIA and was well protected, and well paid. In 1985, America gave him $200,000. In return, Noriega allowed the CIA to set up listening stations in his country to spy on communists.
The violent civil wars in Central America that took place in the 1970s and 1980s were because of unfair control of land from way back in history. It is possible that these wars would have happened even without the Cold War. The local problems that led to the wars had nothing to do with communism, but the Cold War made the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua worse because they were like mini version of the Cold War. Like pouring gas on a fire, guns, money, and helpers from the superpowers made the wars much longer and more deadly. The wars were especially hard on the poor who were used by the United States and Soviet Union.
As they tried to stop communism in Latin America, the CIA and the army’s School of the Americas taught Latin American army officers how to torture and kill. The School of the Americas has been criticized for the human rights abuses of its students. On September 20, 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release books that were used at the School of the Americas. These books taught about killing civilians, not letting people have trials, torture, and threatening people. War crimes and human rights violations such as these made people upset, but as America tried to stop the spread of communism, some felt that anything was ok, as long as communists did not win.
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Photos, crosses, and protesters laying outside the entrance to Fort Benning, the home of the School of the Americas, to remember the victims of violence in Central America perpetrated by graduates of the school.
In 1999, according to an investigation by the United Nations, between 1981 and 1983, the Guatemalan government – supported by the United States – destroyed 400 villages and killed 200,000 people. Most of the victims were political activists, students, union members, priests, human rights advocates, and poor people.
America got also got involved in Nicaragua and it was just as bad. Beginning in 1936, the Somoza Family were the leaders of Nicaragua. The United States had paid the Samozas to help with American businesses, but in 1979, the FSLN, a group of revolutionaries took power from the Samoza Family.
The Frente Nacionalista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN), or Sandinistas, liked communism, and many of their leaders had links with the Soviet Union and Cuba. At first President Carter wanted to help the Sandinistas and thought that America would be able to keep them from joining with the Soviet Bloc. However, the Americans did not give the Sandinistas very little money and the Sandinistas stopped helping the United States. Instead, Cuban and East European aid money was used to build a new army of 75,000. They also had Soviet T-55 heavy tanks, heavy artillery and Soviet HIND helicopters, which that made the Sandinista Army more powerful than all of its neighbors put together.
Fighting against this new army were the Contras, groups of Somoza’s old National Guard who had moved to Honduras. There they had been organized, trained and paid by the CIA using money they made by selling cocaine. They attacked the Nicaraguan people to mess with the social reform or improvement plans of the Sandinistas.
President Reagan said that the Sandinistas posed a “communist threat,” mostly because of the support given to the Sandinistas by Cuban president Fidel Castro. Reagan stopped giving money to Nicaragua and started helping the Contras in neighboring Honduras. President Reagan called the Contras “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”
Congress did not think this was a good idea. The Contras violated human rights just like many other groups in Central America. Since the largest base of support for the Sandinistas was with the poor people of the countryside, the Contras destroyed the hospitals, schools and community centers these people needed. Large-scale murder, rape and torture also happened in Contra-controlled places. In 1982, Congress reacted to public anger by telling Reagan he had to stop sending money to the Contras.
President Reagan also gave support to the right-wing government of El Salvador. Reagan and the CIA were afraid of a takeover by the communist-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the Salvadorian Civil War, which had started in 1979. The war left 75,000 people dead, 8,000 missing, and one million homeless. A million Salvadorans, ran away from the war and tried to move to the United States. As was the case in Guatemala, most of the victims were poor people, union members, teachers, students, human rights workers, writers, priests, nuns, and anyone working to help the poor.
Of all the people trying to stop the wars and to protect innocent people, Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador was the most trusted and was the strongest.
In 1977, the same year that Romero became archbishop, his friend Rutilio Grande was killed by government soldiers. Grande was a Jesuit priest who had been working in the countryside and his death changed Romero, who later said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” Romero tried to get the government to investigate, but they would not listen. Romero began speaking out against the war, poverty, how the things were not fair, and how the army was torturing people.
Romero also spoke against the United States for giving money to the army in El Salvador and wrote to President Jimmy Carter in February 1980, telling him that more American money would just make things worse. Carter ignored Romero and money continued to be sent to the Salvadoran government.
On March 23, 1980, Romero gave a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to follow God’s higher order and to stop following the government’s orders to kill or violate of basic human rights. The next evening, Romero was shot in the heart. The archbishop died instantly.
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Monsignor Oscar Romero
Romero’s funeral mass in a San Salvador cathedral was attended by more than 250,000 people from all over the world. At the funeral, Romero was called a “beloved, peacemaking man of God,” and it was said that “his blood will give fruit to brotherhood, love and peace.”
During the ceremony, smoke bombs exploded on the streets near the cathedral and there were rifle shots from the buildings nearby, including the National Palace. Some 30 to 50 people were killed. Some people said government soldiers had fired the shots, but no one is sure.
The wars of Central America were long, terrible and made worse by the Cold War. Today, most people look back with sadness and regret the part that the great powers played in the killing. In El Salvador, Oscar Romero stood up to powerful forces to demand peace and basic human rights in the same way that Gandhi had done many years before. He is still a beloved hero of common people across Latin America and an international symbol how the Cold War hurt people in the Third World.
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Young soldiers in El Salvador in 1990.
THE MIDDLE EAST
The Middle East was a place with many problems for the United States during the Cold War, and it still is today. America is most worried about protecting Israel and being able to get the oil from around the Persian Gulf.
Israel was created in the land of Palestine at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea after World War II as a new country for the Jewish people. The United States officially recognized Israel in 1948. This gave us a strong new friend, but also created many enemies. The United Nations had tried to negotiate borders for the new nation, but the non-Jewish Palestinians who had lived there for hundreds of years did not like the plan. The Jewish settlers went to war and millions of Arabs were forced to move away. Greatly upset that the Americans supported the new Jewish state, Israel’s Arab neighbors found support in the Soviet Union.
When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to connect with the Soviet Bloc, the United States refused to help Nasser build the all-important Aswan Dam on the Nile River. Nasser then nationalizing, or took control of the Suez Canal in 1956. The canal is an important trade link between Europe and Asia for everyone, but it was very important for Britain and France, who joined with Israel to attack Egypt.
In the first real Cold War test of the friendship between Western Europe and the United States, President Dwight Eisenhower asked Britain and France to hold back. When it seemed like they might not, he threatened to stop selling them American treasury bonds, a move which would have ruined their economies. They backed down. In the end, The Suez Crisis led to the creation of a United Nations peacekeeping operation to police the border between Egypt and Israel.
The Soviets might have thought the Suez Crisis was a sign that Americans did not want to get involved in the Middle East, but they were wrong. Because he did not want the countries of the Middle East to be friends with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower made the Eisenhower Doctrine, which promised American support to any government fighting communist forces in the Middle East. Making good on that promise, he sent over 5,000 marines to Lebanon to stop a communist takeover.
Over time, the United States became more and more involved in the Middle East. When the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan, the Americans gave weapons to the Afghan people fighting back. When Iran and Iraq went to war, the Americans helped Iran while the Soviets helped Iraq. In 1983, the radical group Hezbollah set off a bomb at the marine apartments in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American marines. The attack was probably revenge for America’s actions in the region.
However, over time it became clear that America’s main reason to be in the Middle East were Israel and oil, not the containment of communism. After the Cold War ended, the Middle East was the first place the United States went to war and more Americans have died fighting in the Middle East in the past thirty years than every other corner of the world combined.
There is little doubt today that communism as an economic system and dictatorship as a form of government are both evil because they limit freedom. The Soviet Union, as the world’s strongest communist country probably should have gotten Reagan’s nickname the “Evil Empire.” Soviet leaders, their armies, and secret police killed thousands of people as they tried to free people from the rule of capitalists.
Like the famous City Upon a Hill, the United States stood strong throughout the Cold War as a place of freedom and hope in the face of communism. However, to maintain the freedom of the world, especially of the Third World, Americans did terrible things also.
The Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater said once that “moderation in the protection of liberty is no virtue; extremism in the defense of freedom is no vice.” What do you think? If beating communism was a good thing, did it excuse the means, or ways to do it? Was the Soviet Union “evil” in a way that the United States was not?
Perhaps it is also worth looking at the question from the view of the people of the Third World who were the pawns, or tools, and victims in the world game. Was the Soviet Union any more evil or more of an empire than the United States?
Of course, the story of the people who suffered in the great struggles of the Cold War is tragic. How foolish it seems now that the Cold War is over that so many died over competing ideas. However, knowing both the ideas that drove the struggle as well as the people who paid the price for freedom’s final victory helps us understand that good and evil is rarely black and white. As Archbishop Oscar Romero said, “there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
What do you think? Was President Reagan right? Was the Soviet Union an evil empire?
BIG IDEA: While communist nations used fear to manipulate and control their people, the desire to prevent the spread of communism led the United States to side with dictators in the Third World who violated human rights. Beginning in the 1970s, American and Soviet leaders tried to relax tensions.
There were few chances for the United States and Soviet Union to actually meet face to face and debate their ideas. Once chance was the Kitchen Debates between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. Nixon showed off a model American kitchen and all the good things that capitalism allowed people to buy. Khrushchev was impressed, but did not change his mind about the benefits of communism.
Twice, people in Eastern Europe tried to fight to get rid of their communist governments. In 1959, people in Hungary rebelled and in 1968, people in Czechoslovakia rebelled. In both cases, the Soviet Union sent its own troops to put down the rebellions and restore communists to power.
One way communist governments maintained control was through fear. People who disagreed or tried to organize opposition to the government were arrested, thrown in jail, or sometimes they simply disappeared. People knew that the secret police might appear at any moment and had power to kidnap political opponents, so most people tried to avoid criticizing their leaders or doing anything that might put themselves in danger. The result was an obedient and unhappy people.
In the 1970s, American leaders decided that there was little chance of getting rid of communism. The initial worries about communism spreading had ended. Therefore, they decided, they should tried to find ways to get along and coexist peacefully. The United States and Soviet Union signed a series of treaties to ban the testing of nuclear weapons, and to start to reduce their total number of warheads. The two nations even worked together to have their spacecraft dock in orbit and their astronauts shake hands in space. This period of cooling tensions was called Détente, but ended when the Soviets invaded their neighbor Afghanistan.
Both the United States and Soviet Union tried to convince other nations to join their side. This meant that Americans supported anti-communists governments around the world. Sometimes, we supported people who were dictators and terrible leaders, such as in Chile and Panama, simply because they were anti-communist. These conflicts were proxy wars, because they stood in for actual fights between the superpowers.
In Central America, when the poor started a revolution against the wealthy landowners, the Soviet Union supported the poor and the United States ended up supporting the rich people who controlled the government. Because both superpowers were giving money and weapons to their side, the civil wars lasted a long time and thousands of people died who might have lived if the Cold War had not been raging. Similar problems happened in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, the United States gave weapons to the same people who we eventually had to fight after 9/11.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Russian political dissident and author of “The Gulag Archipelago”
Dr. Henry Kissinger: National Security Advisor to President Nixon. He believed in realpolitik and was instrumental in the negotiations with the Soviet Union and China that were part of the détente policy.
Strongman: A leader, often from the military, that rules a country as a dictator. The United States often supported these leaders in Third World nations because they opposed communism.
Salvador Allende: Democratically elected president of Chile who proposed communist-like policies and was deposed in 1973. The CIA is seen as complicit in his overthrow.
Augosto Pinochet: Military general in Chile who led a coup against democratically elected Salvador Allende. He ruled Chile for 17 years and murdered more than 2,000 people. The US supported him because he opposed communism.
Manuel Noriega: Panamanian strongman who was supported by the CIA. He was involved in the drug trade and was eventually removed in a US military invasion and put on trial for drug trafficking.
Sandinistas: Communist revolutionaries in Nicaragua who took control in the 1970s and were opposed by the American-backed Contras.
Contras: Anti-communist guerrilla group who were supported by the CIA and fought against the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. They were known for human rights violations and using drug trafficking as a means of financial support.
FMLN: Communist revolutionary group in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s. They were opposed by the United States.
Oscar Romero: Catholic archbishop in El Salvador who spoke out against violence during his country’s civil war. He was assassinated by right-wing militants.
Gamal Abdel Nasser: Nationalist leader of Egypt who was supported by the Soviet Union and led his country during the Suez Crisis.
Realpolitik: Policies based on practical rather than moral or ideological goals.
Proxy Wars: Wars that were not fought between the United States and Soviet Union. However, the superpowers supported either side and the wars were viewed as a stand-in for real face-to-face conflict.
The Gulag Archipelago: Book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounting his experiences as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union’s gulags.
KGB: The spy organization and secret police of the Soviet Union
Stasi: The secret police of East Germany
Juntong: The secret police of communist China
State Security Department: The secret police of North Korea
Gulag: The prison system in the Soviet Union based on labor camps which housed thousands of political prisoners
Troika: A group of three judges. The troikas in the Soviet Union provided a quick way to convict political prisoners without allowing for fair trials.
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: A Soviet and American project to launch satellites that would link up in orbit. The project culminated in 1975 and represented progress in scientific cooperation.
School of the Americas: School run by the US Army to train Latin American military leaders. Some of the school’s graduates have gone on to commit human rights violations in their home countries or lead drug trafficking organizations.
Israel: Nation in the Middle East created in 1948 largely by Jews who escaped the Holocaust. It is a strong ally of the United States but has a violent history with its Arab neighbors.
Kitchen Debate: A series of debates between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow about the relative merits of communism and capitalism.
Hungarian Uprising: Revolution by Hungarians in 1956 against Soviet domination. The uprising was crushed when forces from the Soviet Union invaded Hungary.
Prague Spring: An uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968 in which the government and citizens attempted to reform the economy and political system. The uprising was ended when the Soviet Union sent in its military to restore communists to power.
Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviets failed, partially due to support the United States gave to Afghan freedom fighters.
Assassination of Oscar Romero: 1980 assassination of Oscar Romero while he was celebrating mass. He had recently urged militants to stop committing human rights violations.
Suez Crisis: 1956 conflict between Egypt and the combined forces of Israel, France and the United Kingdom after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. President Eisenhower refused to support France and the UK.
POLICIES & TREATIES
Partial Test Ban Treaty: 1963 treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water and in space.
Outer Space Treaty: 1967 treaty stating that space would only be used for peaceful purposes.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: A treaty signed in 1968 by all but four countries in the world. Nations promise not to acquire nuclear weapons (if they don’t already possess them) and in exchange they may use nuclear technology for civilian purposes.
SALT I & SALT II: Treaties signed between the United States and Soviet Union in 1972 and 1979 agreeing to reduce the number of nuclear warheads in their arsenals.
Biological Weapons Convention: Treaty signed by almost every nation in the world agreeing to eliminate all biological weapons.
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: 1972 treaty between the United States and Soviet Union agreeing to limit the development of missiles that could intercept incoming ICBMs.
Helsinki Accords: 1975 agreement between the major nations of the Free and Communist Worlds. It guaranteed respect for boundaries, thus cementing the communist takeover of Eastern Europe, but also committed nations to respect human rights.
Détente: A policy of engaging the Soviet Union in negotiations used by Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter in the 1970s. It assumed that the end of the Cold War was not imminent so negotiation rather than confrontation was the best policy.