Solzhenitsyn, Reagan, and the Death of Détente

In a tribute I wrote earlier, posted at National Review, I noted that it is impossible to capture in one column what Solzhenitsyn meant, experienced, and how he went about translating it to the West. Professors like me know such frustration well, as we struggle to fully convey the impact of such a man to a classroom of students born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In my earlier piece, I talked about The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's shocking firsthand account of the Soviet forced-labor-camp system, where he himself had been held captive, and where tens of millions of innocents perished. In a disturbing way, that book may have made Solzhenitsyn the most significant of all Russian writers, quite a prize when one considers the caliber of the company.

That book had an incalculable impact, hitting with a force in the 1970s that no Soviet SS-20 missile could have delivered, and making Solzhenitsyn a pariah in the Evil Empire. One of the most important effects of the book was that it allowed Solzhenitsyn the moral credibility to become one of the leading spokesmen against the political-moral shipwreck that was détente. In turn, this offered crucial support to the likes of Ronald Reagan, who, before he was president, spent the latter 1970s attacking détente and arguing that the United States should, instead, go on the offensive, seeking not to accommodate the Soviets and their expansionary interests but to undermine the USSR and its entire communist empire, from Prague to Budapest to Moscow.

As Ronald Reagan made that argument in the period of 1974-76 in particular, when he was challenging Gerald Ford and the elite Rockefeller-Republican establishment that had pursued détente under Ford, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger, he needed credibility, some weight to back his assertions. The leadership of his own party disagreed with him, the press and academics disagreed, and, of course, the liberals disagreed. Just then, along came Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago.

Free from the chains of the Soviet concentration camps (Lenin's and Trotsky's phrase for the gulag), Solzhenitsyn sounded the alarm. He informed Americans of the political leprosy that was Soviet communism -- the very system that their leaders were telling them should be tolerated, accepted, and welcomed into their homes.

He was saying precisely what Reagan was saying: a détente deal with Moscow would permanently enslave all of Eastern Europe, forcing those good people to continue to live under the jackboot of communist totalitarianism. To cut a deal with the slave masters of Eastern Europeans would be to sell down the river Poles, Hungarians, East Germans, Romanians, Czechs, Bulgarians, and Albanians. That was a bad deal for a good nation founded on human freedom. America should never submit to such an arrangement. Détente had to be rejected.

Alas, just as the left and moderate Republicans were all but lining up to join Pravda in denouncing Reagan as a caveman and cowboy (Yuri Zhukov, "Resurrection of a [Political] Dinosaur," Pravda, April 11, 1975), along came Solzhenitsyn to back the very ideas that Reagan was advancing. In the summer of 1975, Solzhenitsyn said the following to an AFL-CIO audience in Washington, DC:

I have tried to convey to your countrymen the constrained breathing of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe in these weeks when an amicable agreement of diplomatic shovels will inter in a common grave bodies that are still breathing. I have tried to explain to Americans that 1973, the tender dawn of détente, was precisely the year when the starvation rations in Soviet prisons and concentration camps were reduced even further. And in recent months, when more and more Western speechmakers have pointed to the beneficial consequences of détente, the Soviet Union has adopted a novel and important improvement in its system of punishment: to retain their glorious supremacy in the invention of forced-labor camps, Soviet prison specialists have now established a new form of solitary confinement -- forced labor in solitary cells. That means cold, hunger, lack of fresh air, insufficient light, and impossible work norms; the failure to fulfill these norms is punished by confinement under even more brutal conditions.

In a harbinger to Reagan's later controversial phrase, and a throw back to what had been written by the likes of Whittaker Chambers and the ex-communists in the book, The God That Failed, Solzhenitsyn told the AFL-CIO that the USSR was "the concentration of world evil."

The Soviets, naturally, hated this. The light of truth had been cast upon them, sending them quivering into the darkness. They were really irate when Reagan, in his challenge to Gerald Ford for the 1976 nomination, directly invoked Solzhenitsyn when he sought to add a plank titled "morality in foreign policy" to the Republican Party platform. That plank declared:

We recognize and commend that great beacon of human courage and morality, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for his compelling message that we must face the world with no illusions about the nature of tyranny. Ours will be a foreign policy that keeps this ever in mind....  Agreements that are negotiated, such as the one signed in Helsinki, must not take from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day gaining it...

Honestly, openly, and with conviction, we must go forward as a united people to forge a lasting peace in the world based upon our deep belief in the rights of man, the rule of law and guidance by the hand of God.

This plank was widely and correctly reported as a repudiation of Ford-Kissinger foreign policy and the full thrust of U.S.-Soviet negotiations.

Solzhenitsyn's former jailers disrespectfully disagreed with him and Reagan, and were livid that the two were on the same page. The Soviet government-controlled media pounced all over them in a full-court press. The odious propagandist Valentin Zorin -- one of the many Soviet political gangsters, who, in a travesty of justice, never went to jail for a destructive lifetime of lies -- screeched that these men were seeking to "poison the atmosphere" and "sow doubts about" and even "wreck" détente. Zorin said it was "complete irresponsibility" to suggest that only the USSR profited from détente, at America's expense.

In the end, however, détente failed. If one had to pick a date of death, it probably would have been Christmas week 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, prompting Jimmy Carter, a Democrat disciple of détente, to mutter:

"My opinion of the Russians has changed most dramatically in the last week.... [T]his action of the Soviets has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets' ultimate goals are than anything they've done in the previous time I've been in office."

When even Jimmy Carter figures out totalitarianism, you know that the totalitarians are in trouble. This was détente's death knell.

But it was not yet the death knell for the USSR. That had to await Carter's exit from the presidency and Reagan's entrance. Beginning in 1981, Ronald Reagan would go on the offensive, pursuing nothing short of the dissolution of the USSR. All along, he could count on Solzhenitsyn as a friendly voice of support. In fact, both Solzhenitsyn and Reagan came to admire one another, with Solzhenitsyn telling Reagan after the assassination attempt:

"I rejoice that the United States at last has a president such as you and I unceasingly thank God that you were not killed by that villainous bullet."

Reagan, in turn, thanked God for Solzhenitsyn. The great dissident did far more than simply write a great book or two. Solzehnitsyn played a significant role in the American effort to place a stake in the heart of militant, atheistic Soviet communism.

And for that and much more, Alexander Solzhenitsyn can now rest in peace, receiving some long overdue rewards, eternally free from the Siberian hell run by his tormentors.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand , and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.