America’s senior military academy — attended by officers destined for the highest levels of our armed services — is the National War College in Washington. I was a student there in 1989, one of 40 civilians who attended seminars and studied alongside their military counterparts. It was a highlight of my civilian career.
America’s greatest adversary then was the Soviet Union, and we spent much of that year studying Soviet policies and capabilities and read intelligence reports on their intentions. We also attended lectures by experts who explained developments behind the Iron Curtain.
Memories have grown dim of just how obscure things were in the huge territory Moscow ruled, and just how closed Soviet society was. News reports were unreliable — often dishonest — and government statistics were even worse. Defectors showed up in the west occasionally, but always in danger of being assassinated or kidnapped by Soviet intelligence personnel and returned to Russia.
One of the most riveting lectures during that year was from a leading sovietologist, who had for decades followed developments inside that nation. He was confident, he told us, that for economic and political reasons the USSR could not continue on its current path. The government was spending far more than it received in revenue, government resources were diverted to unproductive projects and to covering up embarrassing policy failures, and the average citizen was incredibly cynical about what it heard from the government because of previous dishonesty. (Sound familiar)?
Our lecturer concluded boldly: the Soviet government would fall apart in our lifetime. Many of us were shocked as Kremlin rule seemed so strong politically, so well entrenched across the nation’s far reaches, and so firmly in control of the military.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned less than three years later, dissolved the Soviet Union, and gave power to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had broken up into its individual republics. People who studied the Soviet Union were stunned by the rapid dissolution of the second most powerful country in the world. In a matter of months the union had disintegrated, just as our lecturer predicted, and left in its place a dozen independent republics.
I tell this story because of the parallels I see between the corruption, crony capitalism, dishonesty, and political favoritism of the USSR in 1990 and what happens in Washington D.C. today. I fear the same forces that fractured the Kremlin’s hold on power are at work in the three branches of our government, our universities, and our press. U.S. statistics are defined so they have lost meaning and our debt is so high people just pretend it away, but we are told the state of our union is strong.
An important part of the Soviet government’s failure was the corruption of the ruling class, called the nomenklatura. This favored class included senior members of government, businessmen, athletes, artists, intellectuals — society’s elite. Their privilege far exceeded their wealth and status, just as with our own nomenklatura, in our political parties, our universities, the mass media, the arts, and in Silicon Valley. Its members go to the best schools, cycle in and out of government depending on political winds, and escape prosecution for crimes that would send us away for years. Money alone doesn’t define them; access does. They eagerly impose regulations on us they themselves ignore, and they lie glibly. The candidacies of Trump and Sanders are a reaction to our own protected class.
Will we follow the example of the USSR, breaking into 8 or 15 or 50 small countries, each with its own government and economy? We are certainly headed that direction.
Fred LaSor retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 1997 and lives in Minden.