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Actually, It Was the Inept Empire

June 08, 2004|Andras Szanto

In the current orgy of commemoration, Ronald Reagan's steely resolve in the face of the communist threat is taken as an article of faith. The Great Communicator, we're reminded, put the world on notice that he was serious about bringing down the "Evil Empire." And that he wasn't afraid to spend big to win.

But the burnished vision of Reagan as St. George, single-handedly slaying the fire-breathing dragon of totalitarianism, is an exaggeration. In fact, communism's epic meltdown was more of a suicide than a capitulation.

I was there. As a 19-year-old conscript in the army of the Hungarian Socialist People's Republic, I saw firsthand, in early 1983, that the days of superpower equilibrium were numbered.

My reconnaissance unit was housed in one of the Eastern Bloc's westernmost barracks -- you could almost see Austria from our windows. Older officers recalled that they had been the first to cross into Czechoslovakia during the 1968 revolt. In 1981, our soldiers had been put on trucks to wait for a signal to head to Poland, where martial law had been imposed after Wojciech Jaruzelski's crackdown on the Solidarity movement.

Our superiors didn't like to dwell on such things, but it was clear that "the brotherhood of socialist nations" was more or less a sham. We didn't see the end coming, but we were starting to connect the dots: Budapest, 1956; Prague, 1968; Warsaw, 1981 -- the numerology of dissent added up to a vague presentiment that, sooner or later, the center would not hold.

In any event, in January 1983, I was on a train bound for a major Warsaw Pact military exercise in western Hungary. The logic of the "war game" was starkly simple. Since Austria was politically neutral, NATO and Warsaw Pact forces would, in the event of World War III, invade that country from two sides. We would end up fighting Italian troops somewhere southwest of Vienna.

What I observed in those frostbitten days was logistical disarray and utter ineptitude.

We were dropped off in a valley somewhere; old trucks dressed up as enemy targets awaited our attack. But the ammunition supplies were late in reaching the artillery units behind us. Hours later, when the cannons unloaded their ordnance, they hit everything but their intended targets. One shot took out a nearby canteen.

Then helicopters came swooping down, launching missiles. Amid the chaos, I saw a tank filled with soldiers go up in flames. Central command issued an order to switch from live ammo to dummies.

Soon we were headed in our armed amphibian vehicles into "enemy territory." We couldn't fire out from them, even if we had been allowed to use live bullets -- the gun holes were sealed shut. Not much later, we ran out of gas. This, then, was the formidable adversary that threatened the free world.

But it wasn't just that the military prowess of the Warsaw Pact was less than stellar. In other realms of life, too, change was in the air. From the hardscrabble shipyards of Gdansk to the clandestine soirees of Vaclav Havel's Prague, the stirrings of democracy and individualism were everywhere in evidence.

After my year in the army, I attended Budapest's Karl Marx University, and I remember photocopies of Milton Friedman's paeans to unfettered free markets being shared by the students. When Reagan started his second term, private enterprise was already mushrooming, at least in Hungary, forming a vast black and gray pseudo-economy. The United States had already won the culture war. Some people in my crowd shared a passion not only for Coke and Pepsi but also for such decadent indulgences as poppy tea (a crude form of heroin) and hashish. Kids swapped bootlegged tapes of the latest Western albums. Adults lined up to see movies by the likes of Woody Allen. The Young Artists Club of Budapest in 1984 was a hotbed of social and sexual transgression. Religion too was thriving alongside the bubbling subcultures. Tourists lucky enough to travel to the West would return home with that ultimate trophy -- a pair of Levi's or Wrangler jeans.

All this was unfolding with little awareness of the Gipper. For East Europeans, Reagan was a somewhat whimsical figure, better known for his Hollywood roots than for his shrewd handling of the Kremlin. The spotlight was on the Politburo chiefs who followed Leonid Brezhnev, above all Mikhail S. Gorbachev -- it was he, the unlikely reformer, who, in our eyes, got things moving in Russia.

No great man deserves credit for the fall of communism. Ronald Reagan played his cards well, but in Eastern Europe, as elsewhere, history was one step ahead of the politicians.

*

Andras Szanto is director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.

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