Comminism Revisited

RICHARD REEVES

August 04, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

BERLIN — Berlin.--On Friday nights, Kurfurstendamm, which was the main shopping street of West Berlin, has the shabby and menacing look of Times Square. There is something degrading about just walking past the promenade punctuated by shell games set up on boxes, prostitutes, beggars and junkies in the doorways of the closed shops, unwashed young men in leather and spiky hair.

All of that seems normal, even boring, to an American, certainly to a New Yorker. But the gaping country cousins coming to see Berlin, wide-eyed and probably frightened by such assertive decadence, are different from any I've seen on Broadway. They could be from another planet: East Germans, men with their plastic suitcases, young girls wearing bermuda shorts and nylons, their mothers in wool coats from the 1940s on a hot July night -- their weekend best, I guess.

They blink in the light, like released prisoners. And, more than three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, that is what they still are, the hostages of the Cold War, prisoners of communism for more than 40 years. It is painful just to look at what the Russians did to these people -- and to themselves.

A trip through Eastern Europe is still a visit to a circle of hell, a tour made worse by the faded charm of cities such as Prague and Budapest and the decayed beauty of Potsdam. Broken buildings and broken people. Young people with more normal haircuts give the places some energy, but they are still only splashes of the bright against the gray and the grime.

To see the works of communism, then or now, is to wonder how it survived for so long. There are few Americans, I think, who saw Moscow in the bad old days who did not know within an hour that these people, the Russians, were not going to beat us at anything, much less take over the world.

One of the tragedies of the Cold War -- a principal reason it lasted so long -- was that the Americans leading the fight vastly overrated the enemy because they had never seen his homeland. For me, there were a series of shocks over the years during conversations in Washington when I realized I was talking to people who had never seen the thing they were so afraid of.

That was especially true during the Reagan years. Those people had no idea how evil the evil empire really was -- and how pathetic. The president, Richard Perle of the Defense Department and William Gates of the CIA ranted and plotted against a colossus that existed only in their overheated imaginations.

Not that it began with them. If other Americans and our allies had not been so foolish, communism would have collapsed 20 years earlier than it did -- perhaps in the late 1960s or early 1970s -- and we would not have drained away our national treasury fighting shadows in the dark.

The beginning of the endgame might have come in 1956 when the Hungarians revolted against Russian occupation, only to be isolated when Great Britain, France and Israel jointly invaded Egypt at the same time to try to keep control of the Suez Canal. It might have come in 1968 when the Czechs revolted against the Red Army, but by then we were busily destroying our own political credibility in Vietnam.

The dark side of final victory was that it took so long and so diminished life on both sides. John F. Kennedy, whose trumpeting of a phony Russian superiority (the ''missile gap'') helped prop up the Soviet Union for years, was told by two very different old men that all the United States had to do to win the Cold War was stand firm. Both his father, the dread Joseph P. Kennedy, and French President Charles de Gaulle told him the same thing: Communism was fundamentally unworkable and would fall of its own weight.

De Gaulle never used the word ''Soviet.'' Communist ideology is a fraud, the Frenchman told the American in 1961, knowing of course how desperately serious Americans were about such things. Nationalism, he said, is the problem.

''Russia'' is real, de Gaulle said. Russia fought only after Napoleon invaded, after Hitler invaded. Russia would never be foolish enough to take on the world. Russia is frightened. Russia is bluffing. ''Tenir bon,'' he repeated. ''Tenir le coup.'' Hold on, be firm, be strong. Wait them out. ''This is the most useful service you can render the whole world.''

Kennedy had his own ideas, American ideas that we could somehow control events in lands far away. Hubris. It is an American conceit that we can fundamentally change lands such as Vietnam or Iraq or Yugoslavia, peopled by nationalists of various sorts who were there centuries before we noticed and will be there centuries after we have forgotten.

The ''new world order'' proclaimed by President George Bush only a couple of years ago is dead now -- really it was just the old American idea recycled, Woodrow Wilson revisited. Wilson, Kennedy, Reagan and Bush -- and Clinton: We have no true foreign policy because, as we were unable to see communism for what it was, we are unwilling to look at the world as it really is. We are still unwilling to take the pledge to change what we can, accept what we can't change, and pray for the wisdom to know the difference this time around.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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