The other day, according to a New York Times editorial, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were trying to put together a “reform coalition that offers new hope for Soviet politics and policy.” Such a coalition might counter “the threat of a hard-line dictatorship,” the paper added. Arnold Beichman probably read it, too, and I can imagine how he reacted: “Offers new hope for Soviet politics? You mean there was hope in the past?! There’s no such thing as Soviet politics!!!”

The nice thing about Arnold is that, at the age of 78, he has not lost the capacity for indignation. No doubt that’s what keeps him so spry. Beichman is the author of Nine Lies About America and a regular columnist for the Washington Times. He grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, went to Columbia University, and worked as city editor of the New York daily paper PM during World War II. He seems to have been one of the few people of his generation and background who was at no point a socialist sympathizer—not even during the Spanish Civil War.

Now he has written a book about the history of U.S.-Soviet treaty-making over the years—a most useful and readable compendium. As he shows, that history is one of absurdity from beginning to end. Beichman’s thesis is that nothing fundamental has changed in the Soviet Union, and that nothing can change as long as it adheres to Marxist-Leninist dogma. A Leninist state, he writes, is not reformable unless it abandons its police power, political monopoly, economic control, and “sense of world mission,” none of which Soviet rulers have done.

Beichman copiously faults Western intellectuals in general (and the New York Times in particular) for accepting President Gorbachev’s “virtuous profession” at face value. Simultaneously, he points out, German unification was treated as something that we should be very cautious about. He asks: if skepticism about a Western democracy “which has no continuity with its shortlived (twelve-year) Nazi past is regarded as prudential, why isn’t it prudential to be all the more skeptical about Russia, a tottering totalitarian dictatorship with unrepudiated ties to its bloody Stalinist past?”

As they say, future historians will certainly marvel. They will marvel that the United States just went on negotiating treaties with the Soviets, signing them, seeing the Soviets violate them, and then planning the next round of talks. Kenneth Adelman, Reagan’s arms control director, said in 1988: “We never really found anything much to do about Soviet cheating. That’s the sad truth. Those outside government may well wonder why, year after year, we reported a pattern of Soviet violations and did nothing about it. . . . We tried—oh! how we tried—to come up with effective countermeasures, but there didn’t seem to be any.” Congress required us to “stay in arms agreements that the Soviets were violating,” he explained.

When he says that this is “reason disthroned,” Beichman does not exaggerate. There was, of course, an obvious step that the Reagan administration could have taken. It could have broken off negotiations already underway for the next treaty (for there was always a next one). If Reagan had done this, going on TV with an explanation, arms control would have been undermined and Congress would have been impotent. But Reagan didn’t want to do any such thing. He enjoyed the ceremonial encounters with Gorbachev, and by the time he left the White House, having signed a treaty with very unwise provisions (denying ourselves the right to put nonnuclear warheads in ground-launched Cruise missiles, for example), he was no doubt convinced that the charade of signing embossed parchment really did preserve the peace.

Reagan always wanted to perform on the stage of history more than he wanted to write the script. The liberals accused him of being an actor, but they withdrew the charge when they saw he was prepared to read their lines. The calculation in the executive branch seemed to be that the cost (in terms of publicity) of ending negotiations is always higher than the cost (in terms of security) of making one more concession. The media will make you look bad if you suspend the talks! So lawyers blurred the wording and everyone hoped the Soviet violations wouldn’t occur too embarrassingly soon.

Beichman points out that American appeasement has been pretty much confined to our dealings with the Soviet Union. (Notice in contrast our lack of restraint in attacking Iraq, guilty of the U.N.-abhorred crime of border crossing.) I wish Beichman had relaxed a little and waxed philosophical on the question: why were we for so long so consistently deferential to Soviet rulers? In recent decades sheer fear has played a big part, of course. But Franklin Roosevelt displayed the same respectful attitude, so it predates the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

One thought is that American-style liberalism and Soviet communism are cognate ideologies. There are differences, of course. We have accepted the restrictions imposed on office-holders by democracy. (But those are mere rules of succession. Constitutional restraints on state power per se have been mostly removed in the U.S.) The Communists disdained such bourgeois inhibitions. Both systems are Godless, “progressive,” and redistributionist; both unsympathetic (in practice) to property and family; and both have been driven by the destructive egalitarian ideal: in our case inchoately and unofficially, in the Soviets’ forthrightly and officially.

Possibly, then, historians a hundred years from now will regard the Cold War as a contest between two versions of socialism; theirs a forthright and zealous faith, ours wishy-washy and fainthearted (pragmatically allowing the wealth-creation needed for its subsequent redistribution). They burned heretics at the stake, or at least shot them in Lubyanka Prison, or sent them to Siberia. But perversely they held the moral high ground as they did so. We believed what they believed, but far less fervently. James Burnham pointed out in The Suicide of the West that it was our acceptance of their ideals that demoralized and disarmed us.

This metaphorical disarmament was then reified in the foolish treaty-making that rightly disturbs Beichman. It was not that the Soviets outwitted us in negotiation, or that we were too afraid of what the public would think or the media would say if “talks” were broken off. It was that, deep down, American elites believed that the “Communist” version of the ideology we held in common was purer and therefore morally superior to our namby-pamby democracy. This has now changed, however.

Beichman would not agree with the three preceding paragraphs, I fear. He has always insisted on viewing communism as a separate and distinct thing, taxonomically apart from our virtuously democratic government. The Soviets were always more strenuously resisted by George Meany-led labor unions than by our boardroom types, he would point out. But, overlooking my suggestion that we are really dealing with different denominations of the same church, he will regard my further suggestion that there has been some recent change in the struggle as a terrible heresy. “Nothing fundamental has changed in Moscow” is and long has been his battle cry.

It may be, but there has been a change in the West. We no longer take Soviet claims at face value, or entertain any hope that communism will lead us into the Promised Land or create the New Man. The watershed event, I believe, was Mikhail Gorbachev’s ceremonial arrival in Washington, D.C., in December 1987. The INF Treaty was to be signed, but protesters were massed on the Mall, mostly Jewish groups, some from as far away as Alaska. I wrote at the time that this was the beginning of the end for communism.

Beichman’s mistake, I believe, is to think that a faith survives until it is formally repudiated. “For me,” he writes, “the Soviet/Russian future hinges on whether or not the legitimizing ideology of Marxism-Leninism is formally and openly delegitimized by the Soviet Politburo.” He is right to insist that there has been no such repudiation. But the faith is withering away anyway and it will continue to do so. All along it was not so much internal police as external believers who nourished it. It was a Western experiment that was tried out on the Russian people, and the experiment is now over. It remains only for its apparatus to dissolve.

Beichman would reply that Communists still in power relish that power and won’t give it up without a fight. The other day I noticed a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle and again thought of Beichman: “Gorbachev Warns Cold War Could Be Revived.” The world, Gorbachev was quoted as saying, “could once again plunge into the abyss of the Cold War.” Analysts and “Western diplomats in Moscow” were “speculating” that George Bush’s “cool reception to Moscow’s pending request for $1.5 billion in farm credits could be worrying Gorbachev.” Three days later the headline in the New York Times was as follows: “Bush Is Leaning to Food Credits for the Soviets.”

This will have come as no surprise to Beichman. And he is partly right. The Soviets will continue to export money from us by veiled and not-so-veiled threats. But the effects of such food aid will be to ensure that the necessary economic reforms do not take place. And without fundamental reform, the collapse of the Soviet Union will be unstoppable.

Will Communist Party officials not merely threaten but actually precipitate a war rather than lose power? For an answer to this, I telephoned Beichman in his British Columbia eyrie. He had just returned from a fortnight in Washington, D.C., where he met with senior CIA officials, apparently. No, he said, he wasn’t predicting a world war. “Post-book,” he said, referring to a change of mind since he finished the manuscript, “I am predicting civil war in the Soviet Union.”

For over fifty years now, Beichman has fought the good fight against communism, for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. Now, at last, he should feel free to declare victory, come on home and devote his energies to combating the same ideology in its domestic manifestation. Those of us who know him also hope that he may find time to write his memoirs, which could shed new light on the public events that have so preoccupied him.


[The Long Pretense: Soviet Treaty Diplomacy from Lenin to Gorbachev, by Arnold Beichman (New Brunswick: Transaction Books) 303 pp., $32.95]