Below you will find the second in a series of articles from Clio of Clio’s Board Games. The article is Part 2 in a planned series that looks at the fall of Communism through the lens of GMT’s 1989. You can find Part 1 of this series here. Hope you enjoy the article! -Rachel
The basic argument of the confrontation theory is that Western pressure as manifested in the arms buildup of the Reagan administration in the early 1980s effected the end of the Cold War. According to this argument, the Soviet Union could not bear the arms race anymore and therefore left the United States as the only remaining global superpower and the countries of Eastern Europe to their own designs. In this form, the argument has multiple flaws. First, it ignores the more than atypical event of a major power just peacefully resigning from its mighty position instead of having to be forced out of it by war (like, for example, the Athenian Empire of the 5th century BCE) or at least clinging to its possessions and privileges (like the British Empire). Second, the argument also neglects the fact that Communism did not collapse during the years of tension in the early 1980s, but rather in the period of détente later in the decade, marginalizing how Reagan (in his second term) and Bush took up Gorbachev’s offers of negotiations and arms reduction. Despite these shortcomings in the argument, it is common in popular histories of the end of the Cold War – usually with the aim of lionizing Reagan, or, rather, a version of him that reduces him to a tough Cold Warrior only. 1989 does not employ this explanation at all – after all, it deals with events years before when the game sets in.
That does not mean that 1989 eschews bold moves by Western governments altogether: “Kohl Proposes Reunification” can give the Democrats a much-wanted VP boost (and cause additional trouble for the Communist player, should she draw the card). West German chancellor Helmut Kohl surprised his allies with the proposal (at least the French and the British were rather lukewarm towards the idea of having a reunited Germany in the heart of Europe) and infuriated Gorbachev who felt sidelined in the creation of the new European order. Kohl, however, secured American support for his idea and got the deal done in the short window of opportunity when the Soviet Union was both weak and cooperative enough to go along with it.
In any case, there is a more sophisticated version of the Western pressure argument than the Soviet Union faltering after America flexed her muscles. It has more to do with Reagan’s economic policy than with his military buildup. The tight monetary constraints Reagan put in place replaced the 1970s flood of capital on the markets with a drought. This was a major problem for the entire global economy, but it hit the nations dependent on foreign capital in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe especially hard. As an unintentional consequence, it helped topple authoritarian regimes who had bought their populations’ allegiance with a stable economy and access to consumer goods. What made this so devastating to the economies of the Communist states was, however, the lethal combination with events outside of American control: The prices of oil and gas plummeted after the second oil shock of 1979 – and oil and gas were the Soviet Union’s only relevant exports. With revenue from these sources shrinking, the Soviet Union could not subsidize her East European satellites anymore. The desolate state of the Eastern economies is a pervasive theme in 1989’s card deck as well – think, for example, of the havoc “Foreign Currency Tax Burden” can wreak on the Communist player, especially if the Democrat can couple it with a scoring card.
We’ve seen before that Communism collapsed in a time of thawing East-West tensions. This thaw had not originally been a Western idea: Gorbachev had immediately started pitching one negotiation and arms reduction offer after the other when he took power in 1985, which were initially dismissed as Soviet ploys by Western leaders. However, Gorbachev and Reagan were able to find trust in each other despite the rocky start to their relationship. They even made breakthroughs in the always sensitive topic of arms control with the INF and the START treaties – for the first time, the superpowers reduced their nuclear arsenals (instead of just limiting further growth).
President George H.W. Bush, freshly inaugurated in 1989, continued this policy of détente, but added his own calm personality to it. During the tumultuous events of his first year in office, he showed remarkable restraint, not willing to endanger the larger strategic goal of freedom for Eastern Europe with a boastful show of victory – in his words, he was not willing to “dance on the [Berlin] Wall [for] three points in the polls”. Bush feared that the Soviet Union might intervene in the revolutions if it felt humiliated or its vital interests threatened. While this was disappointing to the dissidents in Eastern Europe who had hoped that the United States would forcefully commit to their cause in word as well as in deed, Bush’s policy of prudence ultimately succeeded – Gorbachev kept letting the Eastern Europeans go their own way, and no major crisis between the superpowers arose. On the contrary, Bush and Gorbachev retained cordial relations and jointly declared the Cold War to be over at the Malta Summit in December 1989.
1989 gives Bush some credit for his successes (as shown by the cards above), but “Prudence”, which Bush personifies, is a stand-in for the slowing down of events by excessive caution. A headline of this card – essentially the 1989 counterpart to Twilight Struggle’s much feared “Red Scare/Purge” – can be devastating. The sword of prudence however, cuts both ways – the Communist player can be struck by it just as well as the Democrat.
1989 – A Triumph of the West?
We’ve seen that Western governments feature on some of the cards – both for arguments of confrontation and cooperation, although the latter is more frequent since it fits better with the state of superpower relations in the year 1989. However, there are far fewer events dealing with that than with the dissident movements of Eastern Europe (see the first post of this series for those). In the mechanisms, Western governments don’t play any role at all. Ted Torgerson and Jason Matthews, the designers of 1989, have taken a deliberate stance not to present the revolutions as a story of Western triumph, but rather of the resilience and determination of the peoples of Eastern Europe. What, however, of the Communist governments of Eastern Europe? We’ll look at them in the next post.
A bestselling version of the popular version of the confrontation argument is Schweizer, Peter: Victory. The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York City, NY 1994. The more fiscally sophisticated version is succinctly put forward by Arrighi, Giovanni: The world economy and the Cold War, 1970—1990, in: Leffler, Melvyn P./Westad, Odd Arne: The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume 3. Endings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 23—44.
You’ll find a good overview of events at the end of the Cold War (that supports the narrative of cooperation as the force behind its end) as well as their connection to our times in Dockrill, Saki Ruth: The End of the Cold War Era. The Transformation of the Global Security Order, Hodder, London 2005.
1. There is a striking difference between this approach of substance over show and the diametrically opposed policy the Eisenhower administration employed during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It is no coincidence that Eisenhower felt the need to have something to show in the presidential election only two weeks after the revolution began whereas Bush had the luxury of more than three years until he needed to face re-election.