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David Halberstam (1934–2007) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author. He is best known for both his courageous coverage of the Vietnam War for the New York Times, as well as for his twenty-one nonfiction books—which cover a wide array of topics, from the plight of Detroit and the auto industry to the captivating origins of baseball’s fiercest rivalry. Halberstam wrote for numerous publications throughout his career and, according to journalist George Packer, single-handedly set the standard of “the reporter as fearless truth teller.” Halberstam died in 2007.
On February 26, 1989, I was one of two speakers before the governors of the fifty states of the Union. It was a memorable occasion, not merely because of the distinguished audience but also because Henry Kissinger was the other speaker. There he was, well tanned, surrounded by what seemed to be several bodyguards, and looking a little less chubby than he does in his photos. The governors were eager to hear him, for he was to talk about the new, ever more startling events taking place in the Soviet Union. This, then, was not just some abstract speech; this was a speech by one of the most celebrated men of our time on a subject that, in our shrinking world, pressed close to them and their America.
For the first ten minutes or so he really had them. He performed with considerable charm and in the beginning with a great deal of self-deprecating humor. As he started to talk about Gorbachev, their interest was further piqued. They sensed that what was happening in the Soviet Union was the beginning of something historic. If there was any hope for their America, however long-range, it was that there might be a lessening of East-West tensions, which might in turn permit a reevaluation of national priorities, which might eventually result in a redirection of our nation's political, emotional, and economic energies. The phrase "peace dividend," implying those vast billions that might be used for domestic needs, had not yet become part of the political lexicon, but that was when the idea of a major break in the Cold War was but a glimmer.
It was still relatively early in the Gorbachev Revolution, before the Soviet premier had helped pull the plugs on the various puppet regimes of Eastern Europe. However, by then the Soviets had unilaterally pulled their troops back from Afghanistan. It was clear that something that represented a radical departure from Soviet policies and rhetoric of the past was taking place in Moscow. Just two weeks earlier I had sat in a meeting with Barbara Tuchman, the esteemed American historian, and she had said in the most casual way that the events taking place in the Soviet Union were the most important ones in her lifetime.
Kissinger was having none of it. He was condescending about what Gorbachev was doing, and he was even more condescending about those poor Americans who were taking it all so seriously. His theme was simple: Not only should we be wary of Gorbachev, but if there was any great weakness to American policy during the entire postwar era, it was American naiveté, our belief that we could make deals on a personal level with a succession of Soviet leaders. According to him, only the Nixon-Kissinger team had remained immune to this temptation. He made no mention of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. His speech struck me then (and even more so today) as the last speech of the old order.
I sat three seats away, facing the governors, and I watched their reaction. As Kissinger continued to hammer away with his Cold-War rhetoric, they began to lose interest. The governors are today, I think, quite possibly our best public servants. The better and more experienced ones are well ahead of their counterparts in the Congress in sensing where this country is and where it is headed; one of the ironic outcomes of the Reagan Revolution, with its greatly diminished federal aid to the states, is that it forced state governments, however reluctantly, to become better and more accountable. The senators and members of the House of Representatives live in Washington, where the aura (and the pleasures and the perks) of hegemony still linger; by contrast the governors must live more closely with the realities of posthegemony America. If their states lose factories, they are the ones faced with declining tax bases and less money with which to prepare their citizens for new kinds of work. Congressmen are the ones who speak out on the danger of too much Japanese investment in America; governors are the ones who go hat in hand to Tokyo, begging Japanese firms to locate in their states. What are political abstractions on the floor of the House or Senate are realities in state budgets. In the governors' world, politics are closely tied to economics, which has become vastly more important in America in the last ten years.
This, then, was a fascinating scene unfolding in front of me: Kissinger, Nobel laureate, a symbolic figure of the old America, with its marvelous weapons systems, its dominant role among the superpowers, standing in front of these less celebrated public servants, who had to cope with brutal budgets, expanding social needs, deteriorating infrastructures, and public service institutions that often seem overwhelmed by the pressures they faced. America, I thought, meet America.
Even as he finished and left with his entourage, I changed my speech. Generally that year my speeches shared a common theme: the correlation between Japan's (and Korea's) primacy in education and their industrial success (and conversely, the correlation between low test scores and lack of productivity and economic health). Instead, somewhat to my own surprise, I spoke about national security.
I said that most of the people talking about national security in this country were ill equipped to do so because they had lost touch with the country, that national security was no longer an index of weaponry (essentially a missile and tank count), if it ever really was, but a broad array of factors reflecting the general state of national well-being. It included the ability of a country to house its people, to feed them, to educate them, to provide them with opportunities in keeping with their desires and education, and to instill in them trust and optimism that their lives were going to be valued and fruitful. Those in Washington were so fascinated with realpolitik and weaponry that they tended to forget that the just and harmonious society was, in the long run, also the strong society.
Other than in its ability to produce military hardware, the Soviet Union had failed miserably. Its great disease was universal cynicism and pessimism. I did not think I was naive about Gorbachev. I did not think that he was pushed by love of freedom as we in the West define it, but I was sure that he was pushed by love of country. His own shrewd, extremely contemporary conclusion (in contrast with those of the geriatric leadership that had preceded him) was that the system from which they and he had so richly benefited was strangling the country.
He was most assuredly a modern man, I suggested, and therefore, he had to know that in terms of economic efficiency the Soviet Union was no longer merely behind the United States, Western Europe, and Japan but in danger of falling behind such emerging countries as South Korea. Moreover, the gap in technology and science between the Soviet Union and its competitors was steadily widening, and this had profound consequences not merely in economic terms but in military ones as well. The high-water mark of the Soviet Union's power probably came in the early sixties at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when it could manufacture large amounts of traditional, albeit relatively primitive weaponry. This, and the very size of its vast land armies, seemed to substantiate its claim to being a great power. It had been in decline ever since because its economy had not kept up. Or to put it differently, given modern military machinery's dependence upon computers, can a vast country like the Soviet Union, so obsessed by the need for secrecy that it has been afraid of a Xerox machine, let alone widespread use of computers, continue to be a great power? Modern technology demands computers, but computers are not merely instruments of science and warfare; they are instruments of communication as well. Can the Soviets have the former without the latter?
We should, I suggested, take no pleasure from the unveiling of the self-evident weaknesses of the Soviets. They were neither our model nor a model for anyone in the future, although for too long we have justified our weaknesses by comparing ourselves with them. In fact, our competition with them long obscured ever more serious vulnerabilities in our society. For the first time in America we were in danger of falling behind as well. Compared with the Soviets', our system and our economy looked dazzling; compared with others' now just beginning to hit their strides, we were beginning to look tired and worn. If there was any purely economic model for the future, it was the Japanese. They were a fierce and relentless competitor; it was now quite possible that they were setting the standards for other nations in terms of being a well-educated, industrious, disciplined society.
We were, I suggested, already entering the next century, and it was our not very secret secret that the American Century was over as well. "The Cold War is over," says Chalmers Johnson, one of our most talented japanologists; "the Japanese won." Soviet communism, which dominated our thoughts and our politics for more than forty years, was suddenly no longer a menace. After World War II our sudden, almost unnatural affluence had allowed us to proceed with the all-encompassing dynamic of the Cold War and to carry the burden almost alone. At the same time it was finally the grinding nature of the Cold War that began to exhaust us and our economy, which eventually in no small part made us vulnerable to competitors less burdened by the myth of empire. Our economy began to show significant signs of being less productive and less competitive than it had been in the fifties and mid-sixties. The economic assumption of the postwar years that whatever it was commercially, the Americans did it best was no longer true. Even more worrisome, our educational system was seriously malfunctioning. We were producing a generation of young people ill equipped to deal with a complicated and challenging future. The governors, I noted, were in a good position to know if America was going to be a great power in the years 2010 and 2020 because they knew the quality of our average high school graduates far better than did the people in our national security complex.
A day in February 1990 seemed to mark the convergence of these two strands of the postwar era: NATO and Warsaw Pact ministers met in Canada and gave permission for the reunification of Germany. On the same day Drexel Burnham, the financial house that did much to keep the illusion of the American Century alive for an extra decade by substituting for true productivity the deft manipulation of junk bonds, went bankrupt. Mostly, though, the indicators of American malaise do not make the news. On occasion an event like the sale of Rockefeller Center to the Japanese jars Americans, but far more serious signs go largely unnoticed—for example, the decision of a consortium of American high technology companies, called U.S. Memories, to call it quits in mid-January 1990. The consortium was formed to compete with the Japanese in the development of basic memory chips or DRAM. Though Congress had relaxed its antitrust laws to permit such groups to function, that which is natural for the Japanese, the ability at once to share and to compete in the same industry, turned out to be alien to us. We handed over the future of DRAM to Japan. It was a story that barely made the network news. A film clip of a consortium not consorting is not very exciting.
Now I think back to that afternoon with the governors. Like others, I am still stunned by the events from Eastern Europe and Moscow that flooded television screens every day as the Soviet satellites broke free. Events outstrip the projections of even the most knowledgeable experts. One thinks of Emerson's line lightly adapted, "Events are in the saddle, and ride mankind." Never has that seemed more true. Above all else, I think about how Kissinger was wrong in his talk about the great shifts of history: Gorbachev is history, or as the Soviet leader himself said, warning the East Germans to move with the new tide before it was too late, "History punishes those who come late to it."CHAPTER 2
The soviet empire unravels before our eyes, if indeed empire it ever was; Gorbachev gives away what once would have been called chips without receiving in return any chips from us. He does it to lighten his nation's burden. His top financial advisers complain angrily to their American colleagues how heavy the burden of responsibility was for them in Eastern Europe. "Can you believe that we spent—absolutely wasted between twenty and twenty-five billion dollars on Eastern Europe since World War Two, providing them with a military umbrella and selling them oil below market rates?" one such adviser told an American. "You Americans thought we were imprisoning them, and then we looked around one day and found that we got no benefits and that we were the prisoners." Empire, it seems in the modern era, burdens. Why? I suspect it has to do with modern communications, which make oppressed people more aware of their conditions, thereby making it harder to subjugate them. It is increasingly difficult to censor thought in an age of sophisticated electronic media. Modern communications inevitably define modern conscience and speed across national borders. The oppressed can call attention not merely to the inequities that colonial or neocolonial powers inflict but also to the price of such tyranny. That is why in both the French Indochina War and the Algerian War the French generals believed that they had been undermined by the French press, and that is why General William Westmoreland still goes around telling everyone who will listen that he never lost a battle but was undone by the politicians and the press at home. In the Soviet Union, where the press was more successfully controlled, there was a less immediate sense of what the Soviet Empire did to its people and to those of its satellite nations, but it was always there in the form of passive resistance (and, on occasion, open resistance in the East European nations). The final Soviet venture into imperialism, in Afghanistan, culminated not merely in the active resistance of Afghan rebels but in the increasing willingness of the Soviet press to write about it.
It is not just that traditional forms of totalitarianism failed but that they failed in what I would call the Orwellian dimension—that is, with the state using modern technology (particularly television) as an instrument of political and psychological control. It never worked. Throughout Eastern Europe television was the property of the state. Real news might be broadcast by Radio Free Europe, but there was no underground machinery to compete with television. Yet state news was always seen for what it was: party propaganda, devoid of legitimacy. The underground news service, the Grandmother Radio Network, as it was known, was always more powerful.
John Darnton, one of The New York Times reporters who covered the early days of Solidarity, remembered that on the third day of the Solidarity strike the government flew a small plane over the Lenin Shipyard, and showered down thousands of leaflets. The leaflets reproduced the format of the local Party newspaper and announced that the workers had voted to go back to work. It was a moment right out of Orwell: using the media to tell people utter lies about their own decisions. But the reaction of the workers was merely unadulterated rage, and at this crucial moment, Darnton thought, that rage helped them gain strength and confidence.
We live in a wired world, and nothing reflected it better than the events of 1989, from Beijing to Eastern Europe.
The wired world is a recent phenomenon. As recent an event as the Korean War was still an old-fashioned story, distant and largely removed from the force of modern communications. Ed Murrow is properly remembered as the best broadcaster of his generation, but looking back, we see how conventional his much ballyhooed documentary on Korea was. A clip shows him talking to a soldier from Louisville, Kentucky. "When you look at that moon up there do you think of Louisville?" Murrow asks. The soldier seems to assent. "Who's your sweetheart?" Murrow asks next. "Would you like to say hello to her? ..." Even in the early sixties, when I worked overseas, journalism still seemed rather traditional compared with the way it is today. Network news shows were only fifteen minutes long and broadcast in black and white. Satellites were not used to beam back stories instantaneously from distant countries. Television reporters sent back film by plane, much, in Sander Vanocur's phrase, like mailing overnight letters home.
Excerpted from The Next Century by David Halberstam. Copyright © 1991 David Halberstam. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 25, 2010
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