I wanted to post this picture 12 days ago, on the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu's fall. Saving newspaper and magazine articles is a lifelong habit--and I do have a filing system in place. On my third foray through my folders, I found the clipping right where it should have been. This is my favorite picture from that period, capturing the exuberance, the rush of excitement and hope of a subjugated populace as their yoke was suddenly, amazingly being lifted.
Those were exciting times for all of us. And now, 20 years later, I suppose it is time to engage in some retrospection and take stock of subsequent developments. That brings me to this recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Meyer, who witnessed the Romanian Revolution firsthand (and who, I might add, is the author of The Year that Changed the World.)
Meyer begins his account with the hasty funeral of Jacob Stetincu:
A light snow came down in Bucharest, covering the mounds next to freshly dug graves, open and gaping in long straight rows. "Here are the fallen," intoned a solemn priest as four men placed a wooden coffin before him on a wobbly trestle. Jacob Stetincu, shot by a sniper, lay wrapped in a thin cotton sheet, wearing a worn blue beret, snowflakes catching in his grayed mustache. After a hurried sacrament, the men nailed his coffin shut, carried him to the nearest grave -- his widow struggling to keep up -- and shoveled in the heavy earth. The priest, working in shifts with a dozen of his brethren, was already shaking holy water on the next victim of Nicolae Ceausescu's brutal reign.
Meyer contends that while the fall of the Eastern Bloc Communist regimes was indeed a victory for "our" side, he suggests that we have learned the wrong lessons from the event, or as he quotes Niebuhr, the "mis-memory" of history.
Yet it was a dangerous triumph, chiefly because we claimed it for our own and scarcely bothered to fully understand how this great change came to pass. We told ourselves stick-figure parables of defiance and good-versus-evil triumph, summed up in Ronald Reagan's clarion call: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
From the vantage point of 20 years, we should be wiser. The reality is that "our" victory in the Cold War was not what we thought it was, nor did it happen the way we think it did. Most painfully, the myths we spun about it have hurt the world and ourselves.
Meyer identifies four areas where he contends we have misread the real history of the fall of European Communism. I particularly agree with his third point:
A third myth is the most dangerous: the idea of the United States as emancipator, a liberator of repressed peoples. This crusading brand of American triumphalism has become gospel over the past two decades in certain foreign policy circles, especially among neoconservatives. For them, the revolutions of 1989 became the foundation of a post-Cold War worldview. All totalitarian regimes are hollow at the core, they suggest, and will crumble with a shove from the outside. If the inspiration for this was the Berlin Wall, coming down as Reagan "ordered," the operational model was the mass protests in Romania leading to the violent overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.
"Once the wicked witch was dead," as Francis Fukuyama put it, "the Munchkins would rise up and start singing joyously about their liberation." It is a straight line from this fantasy of 1989 to the misadventure in Iraq, and beyond.
This admonition is especially timely in light of those who ill-advisedly advocate an aggressive involvement with the Iranian dissent movement, for example.
The United States contributed uniquely to the end of the Cold War, from the reconstruction of Europe and containment to capitalist economics. But others "won" it, on their own (and our) behalf. Among them were the likes of Jacob Stetincu, all but forgotten in his grave.
Drunk on pride and power, we Americans have tried to rewrite history. Having got it so wrong, it's time to figure out how, and why, and move on.
(A h/t to Milton for the Meyer link.)