The “Post-War,” : 1945-2022 Part IV

The “Post-War,” 1945-2022

Part IV


John M. Lane

“The Triumph of The West” ?- The Cold War Ends

“First and foremost, it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Vladimir Putin, 2005

                                           The last gasp of the Soviet empire was in the 1980s. From the beginning, Marxist-Leninist Communism was a patchwork of incompatible contradictions built on a foundation of bluff, bluster, and lies. The Soviets could never create the kind of society they promised, and millions died. Soviet investment went to building nuclear weapons and beating the Americans in the space race (they lost). By the late 1970s, going into the 80s, inadequate housing, the lack of consumer goods, and food shortages were the norm. Alcoholism was rampant; public health was almost nonexistent; the population declined: death rates exceeded birth rates. Environmental damage was widespread, dwarfing that even of the West. On April 26, 1986, the nuclear power plant at Chornobyl in Ukraine exploded. The immediate death toll was thirty-two. The fallout drifted into Europe, and the population in parts of Ukraine and Belarus had to be evacuated.

                             The three previous leaders of the USSR before Gorbachev had been born before 1917(the year of the revolution): Leonid Brezhnev (died 1981), Yuri Andropov (died 1984), and Konstantin Chernenko (died 1985). The fact that they were in leadership positions was a clear symptom of a decrepit regime. By 1985, the “wheels” were coming off the wagon, and the end would be presided over by Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev introduced concepts like “Perestroika” (restructuring) and “Glasnost” (openness) to stop the decay. By 1988, he cut USSR defense spending and promised to withdraw large numbers of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe. A year later, the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan.

President George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev

                             The efforts were too little, too late. Going into the 1990s, the Soviet economy collapsed. Prices increased, and cash flooded the marketplace. Organized crime proliferated into all aspects of Russian life. In foreign policy, both the USSR and China remained silent in the United Nations as the western allies defeated the Iraqi armed forces in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq in the winter of 1991. In July 1991, the US and USSR signed a START treaty that committed each side to cut their nuclear arsenals by thirty percent. In August 1991, the Soviet republics began declaring their independence from the government in Moscow, as Boris Yeltsin was able to prevent a coup that would have overthrown Gorbachev. On August 29, the Supreme Soviet abolished the Communist Party.                           

                                     Even as the deterioration of the Soviet Union could be seen by anyone who cared to look closely, the West, especially the Americans, continued to portray the Soviets as 10 feet tall “supermen” out to rule the world. The Eastern Empire collapsed beginning with the “fall” of the Berlin Wall in 1989(which caught Western intelligence agencies entirely by surprise). On December 21, 1991, a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed (it would evolve into the current Russian Federation. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991. The Soviet Union ceased to exist. Boris Yeltsin became President of the Russian Federation in June 1992. It was the first actual general election in Russian history. In St. Petersburg (it was no longer Leningrad), former KGB officer Vladimir Putin began a promising new career as a city official. He soon caught the attention of Yeltsin and other officials in Moscow. Russia was humiliated and watched as NATO expanded eastward into what they considered their “sphere of influence. The great Czarist/Soviet empire was gone, as Democracy never took hold in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a news conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow March 4, 2014. Putin said on Tuesday Russia reserved the right to use all options in Ukraine to protect compatriots living in “terror” but that Moscow would use force only as a last resort. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (RUSSIA – Tags: CIVIL UNREST MILITARY POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION WAS PROVIDED SEPARATELY


                                After the cease-fire on the Korean peninsula, The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began efforts to industrialize and modernize China. Aid and technical support arrived from the USSR as five-year plans for development along the Soviet model (1957) were introduced. The “reform” of agriculture began in earnest in 1954 with the first steps toward collectivization. In 1958, the “Great Leap Forward” was started. The idea was to catch up to the West in industrial production. Communal life was “encouraged.” By the end of 1959, over 25,000 communes became home to most of the rural population of China. Small factories were established and staffed by people who used to be farmers. The results could have been predicted: family life was shattered, and even more importantly, between 15 and 20 million people died from starvation. The “Great Leap” was a complete disaster.

                               The government of Tibet, led by the Dalai Lama, was dissolved by the Chinese in 1959. The Dalai Lama fled to India as Beijing tightened its grip on the country. The myth of “monolithic world communism” was a myth. In August 1960, the Soviets withdrew all of their personnel from China.  China and India fought a month-long border war in 1962. The Chinese bitterly chastised the Soviets for having supplied weaponry to India, some of which had been used in the war. (Throughout most Cold War, the Chinese (and the Americans) would support and arm Pakistan, while the Soviets did the same for India.)

                            The next of Mao’s grand ideas took place between 1965 and 1968. The “Cultural Revolution” was designed to increase the revolutionary fervor of the Chinese people. Leaders and officials who were not seen as sufficiently fervent in their dedication to the revolution were identified and punished.  Purges of top leadership occurred; some were publicly humiliated, others were imprisoned and abused, and many “disappeared”; the lucky ones got out of China just in time. Chinese universities were almost destroyed because of the “Red Guards” desire to eliminate “bourgeois influences. The Soviet-Chinese dispute spilled over into open battle in 1969, as Red Army and PLA troops fought each other along the Ussuri River. During a brief meeting, Chou En-Lai and Soviet Premier Kosygin tried to smooth matters over.  Chou En-Lai died in January 1976; Mao died in September. China’s door was now open to change how it interacted with the world. 

                              China’s population went over one billion people in 1982. The one-child-per-family policy went into effect. The policy of communal living was ended.  Throughout the 1980s, tourism increased as well as foreign “investment” in China. They were “encouraged” to enter joint ventures with Chinese companies, which allowed them to build factories in China. In exchange for “cheap labor,” most western companies willingly turned over technological and procedural knowledge to their Chinese counterparts. It was during this time that the powerhouse that became known as “Japan Inc.” dominated the electronics industry and revolutionized auto manufacturing and other “durable (steel) goods manufacturing. (South Korean industry was just beginning its ascendancy).  

Deng Xiaoping at a rally celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. 1977. (Photo by: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

                           There was a gradual loosening of tight controls over freedom of expression during the 1980s in China. Was democracy possible? The answer was no. In April 1989, demonstrations began in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.  On May 4, over 100,000 students gathered for peaceful protests. A replica of the “Goddess of Liberty” appeared in the square by late May. Martial law had declared on May 20, and on the night of June 3-4, 1989, PLA troops and tanks moved into the square to drive the protestors out. The death toll will never be officially known; most experts believe it was in the thousands. The US government criticized the Chinese for their repressive tactics. That was as far as the Americans were prepared to go. In May 1989, President George H.W. Bush extended the “most favored nation” trade status to the Chinese for another year. “Human rights” was no longer a top American priority. This practice continued into the 90s when in 1993, Bill Clinton made the same extension. The Americans tried to fight back against the Chinese. However, it was already too late. Tariffs were placed on Chinese imports to stop the Chinese from making and selling counterfeit goods and stealing intellectual property.  With little effect. 

                       In April 1997, for the first time since 1842, Chinese troops took up positions in Hong Kong. The British turned over control of Hong Kong to the Chinese government on July 1, 1997. As the 21st century dawned, China’s power and influence grew. The return of the “Middle Kingdom” was at hand.   

China’s first domestically built Aircraft Carrier

“The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the 21st century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.” 

Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, June 2005

Works Cited


Andersen, Kurt. Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America- A Recent History. New York: Random House, 2020.

Gellman, Barton, “January 6 Was Practice.” The Atlantic, January/February 2022.

Kaplan, Robert D. “How We Would Fight China.” The Atlantic, June 2005.

Lane, John M. “Freedom Deferred: Frederick Douglass and The End of Reconstruction, 1865-1895”, 2022.

Lane, John M. “Geography, Culture, Technology and Conflict Through the Ages, Part III.” 2021.

Lane, John M. “Geography, Culture, Technology and Conflict Through the Ages, Part IV.” 2021.

McGee, Heather. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. New York: One World, 2021.

Schmidt, Jr. Benno C, “Principle and Prejudice: The Supreme Court and Race in The Progressive Era. Part I: Heyday of Jim Crow” Columbia Law Review Vol. 82, No. 3 (April 1982), pp.444-524. JSTOR 18 September 2009.

Next: Part V: The United States, 1981-2021 “The Forty Greed is Good” Years

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