term statesman, in its positive sense, can be applied to only a
few current and former heads of state. One of them is Mikhail Gorbachev.
former Soviet president spoke out forcefully in London last week
at the kickoff of a new campaign called Come Clean. Launched by
Greenpeace, Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other
non-governmental organizations, the campaign is designed to rid
the world of weapons of mass destruction. "If they exist, sooner
or later there will be disastrous consequences," he said. "It
is not enough to safeguard them. They must be abolished."
forthright repudiation of such weapons is not an afterthought for
the man who once ruled the world’s largest nation. Quite the contrary.
He began speaking out against nuclear dangers even before he assumed
the top leadership post in the Soviet Union and initiated the transformation
of his country into a relatively peaceful, democratic society. Addressing
the British parliament in December 1984, Gorbachev declared that
"the nuclear age inevitably dictates new political thinking.
Preventing nuclear war is the most burning issue for all people
becoming Soviet party secretary in March 1985, Gorbachev stepped
up his attack upon nuclear weapons. Speaking to the French parliament
that October, he declared that, as there could be "no victors
in a nuclear war," the time had come "to stop the nuclear
arms race." Faced with the "self-destruction of the human
race," people had to "burn the black book of nuclear alchemy"
and make the 21st century a time "of life without fear of universal
death." In January 1986, Gorbachev unveiled a three-stage plan
to eliminate all nuclear weapons around the world by the year 2000.
these elements of such thinking were put into place, Eduard Shevardnadze,
the new Soviet foreign minister, exulted. Henceforth, he wrote,
Soviet security would be "gained not by the highest possible
level of strategic parity, but the lowest possible level,"
with "nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction … removed
from the equation." The world was well on its way to the INF
treaty, the START I treaty, and the end of the Cold War.
conservatives, of course, have dished up a very different version
of events. In it, Gorbachev and other courageous Soviet reformers
are simply airbrushed out of the picture. Instead, the Reagan administration’s
military buildup is said to have overawed Soviet bureaucrats and
"won" the Cold War.
this triumphalist interpretation has nothing behind it but the self-interest
of U.S. officials. None of the Soviet leaders of the time have given
it any credit whatsoever. Gorbachev himself shrugged off the idea
of Soviet capitulation to U.S. power as American political campaign
rhetoric, but added: "If this idea is serious, then it is a
very big delusion."
did move Gorbachev to take his antinuclear stand was the critical
perspective on nuclear weapons advanced by the mass nuclear disarmament
campaign of the era. Meeting frequently with leaders of this campaign,
he adopted their ideas, their rhetoric and their proposals.
new thinking," he said, "absorbed the conclusions and
demands of … the public and … of the movements of physicians,
scientists and ecologists, and of various antiwar organizations."
President Reagan also deserves credit for fostering nuclear disarmament
and the end of the Cold War, it is not for his dangerous and expensive
weapons systems. As Colin Powell observed, what Reagan contributed
was "the vision and flexibility, lacking in many knee-jerk
Cold Warriors, to recognize that Gorbachev was a new man in a new
age offering new opportunities for peace."
sincerity in seeking nuclear disarmament is further exemplified
by his activities since leaving public office in 1991. Time and
again, he has spoken out against the dangers of nuclear weapons.
In January 1998, he joined an array of other former national leaders
who signed an appeal for nuclear abolition.
is sad to see how far the U.S. government has strayed from that
vision. Although the Bush administration talks about the danger
of WMDs, they are only the WMDs of other nations. It has no plan
for comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, it has withdrawn
from the ABM treaty, rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
and is currently promoting legislation to build new nuclear weapons.
this nation badly needs is a farsighted statesman like Mikhail Gorbachev.
S. Wittner [send him mail]
is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.
His latest book is Toward
Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement,
1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press). This article
originally appeared in the Albany
(NY) Times-Union. Reprinted with permission of the author.