Assessing Aleksandr

No one is disputing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s moral courage or creative talent, but his foreign-policy pronouncements left much to be desired.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's death has triggered an outpouring of editorials and columns testifying to his greatness as a novelist. A figure out of the nineteenth century, he helped bring down Soviet communism by stripping it of its pretensions to possessing a higher moral authority, while, at the same time, criticizing America for what he saw as its deplorable shortcomings. As Solzhenitsyn saw it, America's and Europe's own moral corruption threatened to render them incapable of defending the West. But how astute were his political judgments after he was exiled from Brezhnev's Soviet Union?

This question is prompted by two pieces that appeared on August 5. The first one was by Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. In it, Goldberg suggests that Solzhenitsyn's refusal to truckle to evil is once more being forgotten, or elided, by liberal elites who wish to depict the cold war as an easy victory, to escape the fact that it takes nerves of steel and a strong military to prevail abroad. According to Goldberg,

The real brutal oversimplification is the treacle we hear from Obama, that victory in the Cold War was some Hallmark-movie lesson in global hand-holding. The reality is that it was a long slog, and throughout, the champions of ‘unity' wanted to capitulate to this evil and the champions of freedom were rewarded with ridicule.

The second item was in the Wall Street Journal, which excerpted a passage, in its "Notable & Quotable" section, from Solzhenitsyn's famous 1978 speech in Harvard Yard. In it, Solzhenitsyn, to the surprise of many, had excoriated the West, and America in particular, for its decadence. He also flayed leading American liberals and realists as amoral and blind to the peril posed by the Soviet Union. Accordingly, Solzhenitsyn denounced George F. Kennan in the following terms: "Very well-known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: We cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world." He went on to denounce the United States for failing to seek victory in Vietnam: "If a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?"

During the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn waged war against détente with the Soviet Union. For him there was no middle ground. The cold war was about good versus evil, a climactic struggle to the finish. Solzhenitsyn poured scorn on even the slightest hint of compromise or attempt at negotiations with the Kremlin. To him the term "détente" was a dirty word.  His foes were realists such as Henry Kissinger-who, in Solzhenitsyn's words, supposedly pursued a policy of "appeasement and capitulation"-and Kennan. For example, writing in his book, The Mortal Danger: How Misconceptions About Russia Imperil America, Solzhenitsyn stated,

By means of his essays, public statements, and words of advice, all of which are supposedly rooted in a profound understanding of Soviet life, George Kennan has for years had a major detrimental influence upon the shape and direction of American foreign policy. He is one of the more persistent architects of the myth of the ‘moderates' in the Politburo, despite the fact that no such moderates have ever revealed themselves by so much as a hint.

But what nonsense! In retrospect, Solzhenitsyn got it wrong and the two "Ks"-Kissinger and Kennan-had it right. The certitude with which Solzhenistyn delivered his lapidary verdicts cannot disguise the fact that he was wholly off base. There were moderates in the Politburo. Vietnam wasn't a central conflict in the cold war, but a costly sideshow. The West did not lose the cold war. It won. Internal flaccidity did not bring down the West. It brought down the Soviet Union. Without Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's promotion of détente with the Soviet Union and arms-control treaties, which Reagan built on in the late 1980s, the cold war would not have ended peacefully-a momentous accomplishment that was unthinkable to a number of neoconservatives who convinced themselves that Reagan was-what else?-an appeaser, or, in Norman Podhoretz's words, engaging in "appeasement by any other name."

Why is this musty history important?