REFLECTIONS ON REAL HISTORY
In one of the most famous speeches in the twentieth century, on March 6, 1946 at Presbyterian-related Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill declared, “Beware … time may be short …. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent [of Europe].”
At the time, scarcely six months after the peace treaty signed on the deck of the Missouri had ended World War II, no one wanted to hear that some of the agreements between former allies were tragically flawed, or that Josef Stalin had become a force in Europe more hideous than Hitler. But Albania, then Yugoslavia, and later East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia each found herself imprisoned, as Churchill had warned, behind a wall of iron.
Every voice of opposition was smothered as intellectual, political, and economic life in these countries of the “Second World” fell in line to serve communism controlled by Stalin. As the Iron Curtain descended, victims mounted, soon equaling and then exceeding those of the war just ended. Those who refused to turn their creativity, their devotion, and their will over to the state were tortured, brainwashed, or deported to the Stalags of Siberia. Millions were simply buried, dead or alive, in immense graves carved out of pine forests; while all the rest of the people of Eastern Europe slaved to produce ships, food, coal, trucks, and everything else at prices Stalin set, while subsisting on scraps for themselves. Life behind the Iron Curtain was grim and gray, with the tap root of incentive severed, and the increasingly rare flowers of hope for a better life chopped off.
Still, here and there, defying the intimidation of the secret police, people plotted and planned to risk everything to escape. Several tried to twist through the tangled barbed wire or scaled the concrete walls, some swam, a few tried to fly to freedom. A handful escaped, most did not. Others applied for exit visas and emigration permits, trying to pry tiny gaps through communist red-tape. Some were branded lunatics for their efforts. A few whose names became known in the West were expelled to Israel or America.
From time to time, the conditions of survival became so unbearable that a popular protest, a labor strike, or political demonstration attempted to pressure the Socialist bureaucracies into a measure of decentralization. The response was rapid, tanks firing on unarmed crowds, the public protestors publicly repressed, and in the silence that followed, thick with darkness, a massive round-up of people who had ever dared to think deviant thoughts of freedom, self-determination, and relief.
The Iron Curtain was possibly more awful than even Churchill had imagined.
However, the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe also marked the beginning of a tragic chapter in the history of Western Europe, countries of America, and the rest of the “First World.” As the curtain descended on nations now under Soviet domination, the first world shuddered. The specter of war haunted the halls of Washington, London, Paris and Geneva. And the reality of the threat was demonstrated repeatedly, as Mao Tze Tung completed the Communist seizure of China, as North Korean communists tried to conquer the rest of the peninsula, as Khruschev sat defiantly at the Soviet desk at the United Nations pounding his shoe on the table and announcing, “We will bury you.” America believed John Foster Dulles who predicted that the nations of South East Asia or Central America would fall like dominoes if any one of them toppled to Communism. J. Edgar Hoover began uncovering the Red Threat much closer to home during those days. Spies had wormed their way into every sector of American industry and government.
One result was that both the first and second worlds, both the industrialized nations of the West and the nations behind the Iron Curtain, had to devote incredible percentages of their gross national products to armaments in the name of national defense. Every menace, real, potential, or imaginary, had to be prepared for. More money was spent on armaments in the name of national defense than ever had been spent on the military before, leading to temptations to use the weapons and the technology to make preemptive attacks against targets that were presumed to be on the way to becoming a threat.
As much because of nervousness and the proximity of arms as anything, proxy wars and military strikes blew up in Angola, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Lebanon, the Sudan, the Falkland Islands, Chad, the Persian Gulf, and, of course, in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Instead of the benefits of peace at the end of the Second World War, the world on both sides of the Iron curtain knew the iron grip of four decades of Cold War.
A second result of the Iron Curtain has been what it has done to people. Even human respect has been destroyed. People on both sides of the Iron Curtain grew to forget that beneath all the political rhetoric and behind all the machines of war and defense were PEOPLE. At any moment this monstrous forgetfulness could have turned into nuclear tragedy. It already amounted to a tragedy of international paranoia, fed by a climate that made no allowance for one universal fact. It is one of the ironic triumphs of the Cold War that even in the United States, the country that should be first to trumpet the innate irrepressible nature of the human spirit, even in the USA nearly everyone forgot to count on the power of the idea of freedom, the power of human dignity, and the force of people whose wills are fused.
We were amazed and unprepared when the Communist Party lost an open election in Poland and stepped aside for a Solidarity government. We were mystified when Czechoslovakia refused to send thousands of vacationing East Germans back home at the end of summer in 1989, and when soldiers began snipping the barbed wire fences along the Hungarian frontier. We did not really catch up with the tide of events until the East German government announced that the Berlin Wall would be opened, and then tens of thousands of people started to chip away at the concrete barrier, and $10 chunks of it began showing up for sale as Christmas presents in New York and Chicago.
Then it hit us that the Iron Curtain which Churchill saw descending on Europe in 1946 had disappeared. It was being dismantled even as the Berlin Wall was crumbling and the barbed wire was being cut between Hungary and Austria. The Iron Curtain was removed and no Soviet tanks rolled into Sophia, Bulgaria to keep the Communist Party from being swept aside and no Russian MIGs on Christmas Eve strafed Belgrade to save the life of Ceausescu in Romania.
The Iron Curtain which rumbled down so visibly and terribly across thousands of miles of Europe was never anything more substantial than the willingness of the Soviet Red Army to go to war for their Communist underlings. It took nothing more than the will of Mikhail Gorbachev to divert military spending away from the Cold War into industrial and commercial development of Russia, and then millions of people were free.
The world, as it turns out, was not ready for this to happen.
The sudden end of Communism in East Germany, advocated so effectively by pastors, brought about the collapse of industry and businesses and the grim, but reliable, stability of people’s incomes. It has taken another 30 years to recover.
As the Cold War ended thirty years ago, a preacher in the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, prophetically asked, “What enemy will America imagine next?” That shocking question has resonated across the decades.
America, it seems, cannot do without an enemy to oppose. Nor can America’s European ancestral nations. Against all odds and common values, the world has evolved a new sort of war, a continuation of the Cold War that flourished.
In 1989 we did not imagine how the Cold War would evolve. We did not foresee how the territorial issues between Israel and Palestine would expand into something like an emergence of the Medieval Crusades, but without marching armies focused on recapturing or defending Holy Land. Instead, the motives are revenge, that ravenous and insatiable beast that insinuates itself in human souls. Instead of walled citadels, the targets of the new Cold War are ever shifting and unpredictable. One act of revenge, by a renegade perhaps, leads to a larger one. A downed plane at Lockerbie led to revenge against the nation of Lybia. The attack on America on 9/11 2001 has led to twenty years of unending and expanding battles from Lebanon to Afghanistan costing trillions of dollars, with tangential battles as far-flung and diverse as those in Mindanao, Nigeria, and Xinjiang. The form of the newly evolved Cold War is also new, employing information technology, cyber terrorism, unmanned weapons run by artificial intelligence, ethnic cleansing, and political alliances more surreptitious than at any time since the age of empires that led to World War I.
In 1945 and again in 1990 peace was won, and rejected.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.