William Rusher Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Conservative Movement: Conversation with William A. Rusher, former publisher of the National Review; 4/25/90 by Harry Kreisler

Page 8 of 10

Reagan, Gorbachev, and the End of the Cold War

Let's talk a little about foreign policy and Reagan's contribution there. You made the argument that he won the Cold War ...

That's a little simplistic, I don't want to make a sweeping statement like that. I think that one of his great contributions -- let's put it this way: I don't think the Soviet Union would have been quite so ready to pack it in if Michael Dukakis or Jimmy Carter had been presiding over the decade of the eighties.

So, it wasn't really inevitable. We had to have the buildup to achieve the results ....

Oh, "inevitable"! I happen to think the Cold War, at various points, was a very near thing.

In the sense that the outcome could have gone either way?

Absolutely, absolutely. In recent years (by which I mean the last six to eight years), the Soviet Union has, economically, gone into a tailspin, which was probably inevitable, but, in any case, has happened now. I think that facing Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl has not done their morale any good.

So, from your perspective, the Cold War is over?

I think so. I don't want to be a Pollyanna, and I'm certainly not about to dash out and spend some peace dividend I'm not sure is there. But, I am not one of these conspiratorial conservatives who think it's all a plot to get our technology, no.

When do you think that we had the proof, the evidence? Reagan seemed to see the evidence in his last year in office. Do you think he was prescient in that sense?

He did. He had better information. He said to me in about 1985 or '86, when I was in the Oval Office preparing to interview him, we were sitting as you and I are, they were fiddling around with the cameras and the lights, and one thing and another. We were waiting to get going and we were talking, speaking of the Soviet Union, and he said, "Their economy is a basket case." Now, he turned out to be right on target there. He had an awful lot of information that the rest of us didn't have, I suppose, but he at least had the ability to know important information when it passed under his nose. And he singled out that.

What was the convincing event for you?

I think the Berlin Wall. That was the great obvious thing, the symbol. It was not when the collapse actually happened. A friend of mine told me about a book he once read by an American colonel, an air force colonel, on the psychology of individual dogfights in battle. And the point at which one of the two fighters wins is not necessarily when you think it is. It's when the other becomes convinced that he's going to lose. At that point, the air goes out of him. And at some point further back, Gorbachev and company reached that conclusion. We don't know when. It may have been when they found out that Japan was about to exceed them in gross national product.

That's right. Some people have said, "When they discovered they couldn't make a Hyundai." Is this conclusion [that the Cold War is over] universal within the Conservative movement?

Not quite. There are a few holdouts, although they're getting quieter and fewer.

And what is the basis of their position, do you feel?

Suspicion. They just don't trust communists. And if some communist grips his side and says, "Help, I am slain," they are very careful about dashing up to help.

East European émigrés, you mentioned earlier, were important to helping the Conservatives focus on anti-communism as a problem. So that, in fact, this would help us understand better [your] acceptance in some ways. Eastern Europe was a key element in alerting us to the threat -- what happened in Eastern Europe in the late forties. The fate of Eastern Europe was critical.

I think the Cold War began when Harry Truman decided he couldn't take what Stalin was doing with Eastern Europe, in Poland in particular.

Right. What should our policy be now to the Soviet Union? Do we want it to break apart? Do we want to push it completely against the wall? Or do we have any kind of interest the other way now?

I suppose that if we had our druthers, the perfect thing would be for Gorbachev and those around him to decide that what they wanted was a democratic society, with a market economy, and to make a few little adjustments and bring around the Soviet Union to that situation. Unfortunately, I don't think that can be done. I wish devoutly it could be. But, I'm afraid that a society as profoundly dirigiste* as the Soviet one, with all the psychological pressures of seventy years against anybody who makes anything of himself or shows the slightest ambition or makes a profit, which is an evil word to them, I'm afraid that that makes it impossible. I'm afraid that we're going to have to see something very much like a total collapse, an almost razing to the ground, followed by the slow buildup of a new society. So, it isn't a question of what I want Gorbachev to do, or to succeed. I don't think he has much of a chance.

What should our position be toward the various nationality groups that seek autonomy? We're obviously confronting the crisis in Lithuania as we speak.

In general, we favor self-determination of peoples. And that cuts against the Soviet state, as it currently exists. I don't think the Soviet state's very long for this world. Somebody said that all of the component republics, including the Russian Republic, want to secede from that. And I think they will, gradually, over a period of time.

Do you think that we should, in any way, support gradualism on the part of these movements?

We are supporting gradualism.

Well, do you think that's a good idea?

That's got to be a judgment call in each case. I think that in Lithuania, Gorbachev feels that he has to make some kind of a demonstration there in favor of gradualism or the whole ball game will be over before he can get back to the Kremlin. And probably, I would be rather sympathetic to letting him insist upon gradualism, although it is perfectly true that, morally speaking, there's no case to be made for gradualism.

What is your view of his leadership? Are you impressed by what he's achieved and the way he's gone about doing it?

I am impressed, but I'm also puzzled. One has to ask why is he doing it? Is he the designated hitter of a group? Is he a sole operator who's doing this on his own? If he is, what is he doing, does he have a plan, or is he, as we now, historians, tend to think Franklin Roosevelt was, rather an improviser who just sort of would endorse anything that came along and looked like it might work? Undoubtedly, what history thinks about Gorbachev is largely going to be a function of how he turns out, either well or badly, a fool or a genius. And most of his accomplishments, whether he likes it or not, are negative. He has been an enormous destructive force on the Soviet Union. He has disassembled it brick by brick. And he's done it from the inside looking out. Somebody has said, and while there's trouble with the analogy, it's not altogether unlike some Pope suddenly losing his faith and going around and telling everybody that there's nothing to all this, you know.

So, do you think our support -- and that is undefined -- but is it important for his survival?

I don't think we really have that much to do with his survival, as a political proposition. He seems to me pretty much a survivor, but it's quite possible that there are forces in the society that can bring him down. I don't think just the announcement of an American loan, or something like that, is going to save his bacon.

Next page: The Future of Conservatism

*Note: dirigiste: [French] In favor of state control in economics

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