The Triumph of Improvisation

The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War

James Graham Wilson
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Triumph of Improvisation
    Book Description:

    In The Triumph of Improvisation, James Graham Wilson takes a long view of the end of the Cold War, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 to Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. Drawing on deep archival research and recently declassified papers, Wilson argues that adaptation, improvisation, and engagement by individuals in positions of power ended the specter of a nuclear holocaust. Amid ambivalence and uncertainty, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, George H. W. Bush, and a host of other actors engaged with adversaries and adapted to a rapidly changing international environment and information age in which global capitalism recovered as command economies failed.

    Eschewing the notion of a coherent grand strategy to end the Cold War, Wilson paints a vivid portrait of how leaders made choices; some made poor choices while others reacted prudently, imaginatively, and courageously to events they did not foresee. A book about the burdens of responsibility, the obstacles of domestic politics, and the human qualities of leadership, The Triumph of Improvisation concludes with a chapter describing how George H. W. Bush oversaw the construction of a new configuration of power after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one that resolved the fundamental components of the Cold War on Washington's terms.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7022-6
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Brief Note on Sources
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction: Individuals and Power
    (pp. 1-8)

    At three hours past midnight on November 9, 1979, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski woke up, answered his phone, and learned that World War III had begun. Two hundred and twenty Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles were hurtling toward the United States, his military assistant informed him. Call back to confirm, Brzezinski responded. The phone rang again, and the news had gotten worse: twenty-two hundred inbound missiles. Just before dialing the White House to alert the president, he received a third call. NORAD was no longer detecting any missiles; it was a false alarm. On that night—and throughout the...

  7. Chapter 1 Reagan Reaches January 1981–June 1982
    (pp. 9-36)

    “I know of no Soviet leader since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state,” Ronald Reagan declared at his first press conference as the fortieth president of the United States. Soviet leaders, he went on to say, “have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie,...

  8. Chapter 2 Stagnation and Choices January 1979–November 1983
    (pp. 37-62)

    The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 evoked international outrage and frustration. It conjured up memories of World War II and followed a decade of psychological blows to the West—humiliation in Vietnam, the rise of OPEC, the proliferation of domestic and international terrorist networks, Islamic revolution in Iran, and the hostage crisis that ensued. Hardliners in Reagan’s cabinet, who considered Nixon and Ford to have been amoral and Carter a wimp, presumed these events to be interconnected. They were not.

    The men within the Kremlin subscribed faithfully to the ideals of communism. They lent support to thugs and...

  9. Chapter 3 Shultz Engages July 1982–January 1985
    (pp. 63-86)

    The new secretary of state, George Shultz, was an economist by training. He understood that the stagnation of the late 1970s and early 1980s had affected both sides of the Cold War, yet he retained tremendous confidence that the United States and its capitalist allies were about to recover. What was happening in Beijing, moreover, could happen in Moscow. Shultz wanted to talk to Soviet leaders about how market-based reforms could improve their economy, and he believed that an improved Soviet economy would curtail their aggressive foreign policies and strengthen the cause of peace. In other words, Shultz believed that...

  10. Chapter 4 Gorbachev Adapts November 1984–October 1986
    (pp. 87-115)

    On November 17, 1984, Ronald Reagan received a letter from General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko congratulating the president on his reelection and calling for a new round of arms negotiations on “both the issue of non-militarization of space and the questions of strategic nuclear arms and medium-range nuclear systems.” Negotiations should go even further: “We are prepared to seek most radical solutions which would allow movement toward a complete ban and, eventually, liquidation of nuclear arms.”¹ Neither Reagan nor his top advisers were inclined to believe this last part. The Soviets had stormed out of negotiations fourteen months earlier—now they...

  11. Chapter 5 Recovery and Statecraft October 1986–December 1988
    (pp. 116-142)

    Mikhail Gorbachev returned from Iceland determined as ever to adapt his ideology to tackle the challenges of his era. He outlined his ideas in a book,Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World,that was published in the fall of 1987.¹ Perestroika—restructuring—aimed to retool communism in order to harness technological advancements in communications and industry and to preserve the superpower status of the Soviet Union, even as the country was undergoing wrenching changes at home. Gorbachev sensed that the capitalist economies were improving at a faster pace than communist economies. Perestroika was meant to give the...

  12. Chapter 6 Gorbachev’s New World Order December 1988–December 1989
    (pp. 143-169)

    “The history of the past centuries and millennia has been a history of almost ubiquitous wars, and sometimes desperate battles, leading to mutual destruction,” Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on December 7, 1988. “They occurred in the clash of social and political interests and national hostility, be it from ideological or religious incompatibility.” Gorbachev then spoke of a brighter future linked to “the emergence of a mutually connected and integral world.” This future required new thinking, “a consensus of all mankind,” and “a new world order.” Over the next two years, he pledged,...

  13. Chapter 7 Bush’s New World Order November 1989–January 1991
    (pp. 170-196)

    “Time and again in this century,” President George H. W. Bush declared on February 28, 1990, “the political map of the world was transformed. And in each instance, a new world order came about through the advent of a new tyrant or the outbreak of a bloody global war, or its end. Now the world has undergone another upheaval, but this time, there’s no war.” The Berlin Wall had fallen; so had the dictators of Eastern Europe. “Victor Hugo said that no army can match the might of an idea whose time has come. In the Revolutions of ’89, an...

  14. Conclusion: Individuals and Strategy
    (pp. 197-204)

    What marked the period from approximately 1978 to 1991 was the sustained attempt on the part of powerful officials to revitalize capitalism and on the part of brilliant entrepreneurs to improve productivity and reshape consumer habits. Paul Volcker’s interest rate hikes caused tremendous pain in the short term. They hindered Jimmy Carter’s prospects for reelection and produced setbacks for Reagan in the first two years of his presidency, but the rate hikes ultimately tamed inflation. The stimulus of Reagan’s tax cuts and ramped-up government spending, combined with deregulation, selective liberalization of trade, low inflation, technological advancements, higher productivity, and the...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 205-252)
  16. Index
    (pp. 253-264)