The botched coup in the Soviet Union should have been an occasion for somber reflections. For a few days it appeared that U.S. foreign policy, built almost entirely around the person of Mikhail Gorbachev, might be in ruins. The failure of the plot, while it has temporarily restored Mr. Gorbachev’s fortunes, could not disguise the pitiable condition into which a great empire had fallen. Here it was, the great state apparatus which, a decade ago, had made the world tremble, now reduced to impotence in the face of a blustering demagogue with a drinking problem. It was more like a minor episode in the history of Montenegro than a major chapter in an imperial chronicle. The American press, which never gets anything right, could only stir up paranoia over who had his hand on the big button.

The lighter side of the coup was provided by President Bush, who kept on insisting that Mr. Gorbachev’s overthrow was “unconstitutional.” All these years, Republicans had been insisting that the Soviet government was a despotism or, more recently, an evil empire. Mr. Bush himself had even signed up as an advocate of democratic globalism, a crusade based on the Wilsonian premise that the only legitimate regimes are those that have been democratically elected. We must have been dozing when Gorbachev won an election, because it is our recollection that he gained his power the old-fashioned way: he seized it. Like Stalin and Brezhnev and Andropov, Gorbachev owed his position not to the will of the people but to the decision of a few hard-eyed men who pulled the strings. Some of those men, not so hard-eyed as their predecessors, had evidently decided that what the Politburo gives, the Politburo can also take away.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the plotters. The restoration of a hard-line regime would put an end to plans for a Western bail-out of the Soviet economy. During the period when the coup’s success seemed likely, Il Sabato interviewed Gianfranco Miglio, the hard-boiled political scientist at the Catholic University of Milan. Professor Miglio was frank enough to say what many of us were thinking: “Why should we tear our clothes? The West would have had to furnish Gorbachev with unlimited assistance. A blood-letting with disastrous economic results.”

Even American optimists realize that the same President who taught us lip-reading is now saying that we won’t, repeat won’t provide direct financial assistance, but to save his old friend Mr. Gorbachev and his new friend Mr. Yeltsin, George Bush will find it impossible not to be generous with other people’s money. If only those bunglers had succeeded!

Actually, the Washington politicians of the jointly ruling party in power, should have appreciated the position in which their Communist counterparts had found themselves. All that talk of reform was fine, so long as it promised greater efficiency and Western trade credits, but this business of autonomy for the republics was too much. Under the proposed unity agreement, the republics would have reassumed a large measure of control over their own taxes. But with the collapse of the coup (if that is the proper name for what looks more to be an attempt to blackmail Gorbachev), the rate of imperial disintegration was hastened.

Revolutions, even if they are stage-managed in the beginning, take on a life of their own. The French Revolution began as a coup by the upper classes who wanted to wrest power away from the king and torpedo his reforms. They quickly lost control. What defines a revolution (even a peaceful one) is not the aims of the architects but a hidden agenda that only reveals itself in the unfolding of events. When Gorbachev was only talking about reform and openness, the ethnic minorities of the U.S.S.R. went on a rampage, and when an attempt was made to curb Gorbachev’s democratic reforms, the really important response has been the declarations of independence issued by republic after republic. As of late August, Yeltsin was already getting nervous. Wait until the autonomous regions of his own federation begin to get restive. Yeltsin the democrat will be replaced by Yeltsin the nationalist, just as Stalin the Communist turned into the defender of Holy Mother Russia.

Americans, meanwhile, rejoiced at the discomfiture of the hard-liners, without stopping to wonder why we can’t have the same deal over here. Autonomy and local government are nothing less than justice in Estonia, but what about South Dakota or Alabama? We call them states, after all, and the federal “Republic” agreed to by our ancestors accorded all the states something like sovereignty within their borders. If even the evil empire is willing to concede some measure of local autonomy to its constituent republics, why can’t the good empire do the same? Ah, but there is a vital difference between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. Over there, some of the citizens at least want their freedom, and they want it so badly that they are willing to stand up to tanks. We, on the other hand, prefer the cozy comforts of servitude, and confine our rebellion to letters to the editor or the endless stream of little reports issued by think tanks.

Perhaps the obvious parallelism between their “captive republics” and ours explains the reluctance of George Bush and so many “conservatives” to recognize the independence of the Baltic states. Political liberty has a way of spreading. Today Vilnius, tomorrow—Raleigh?