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Brezhnev and Economic Decline

There were those in the US who thought it was the nature of Communists holding power to be forever hostile to capitalism, to want to expand communism until it obliterated capitalism and forever oppress those holding a different view of the world. What was called the Prague Spring came to Czechoslovakia in early 1968 that presented a least a little move toward liberalization its Communist the government – for some not much of a surprise, following as it did the changes that came in Moscow following Stalin's death and that was being applied against Mao's policies in China,

The Prague Spring is described as beginning in January 1960 with the election of Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. In neighboring Poland in March, students at Warsaw university were looking for change and protested against policies of the Communist regime. The government arrests ten students and sentences them to prison on charges of hooliganism and insulting the police. In Poland, three government officials are fired and Jewish Zionists and some other Jews are accused of having organized the disturbances. Communist East Germany's leading ideologist, Kurt Hager, denounces Czechoslovakia's Communist Party reformers. Mar 31 In Poland the government closes eight departments at Warsaw University, expels 34 students and suspends 11. On April 1, Alexander Dubček affirmed his determination to make Communism in Czechoslovakia to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and more democracy. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel.

The Prague Spring is said to have inspired music and literature such as the work of Václav Havel, Karel Husa, Karel Kryl, and Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Moscow was uneasy about what was happening in Czechoslovakia. I was visiting there in Prague, in May. Czechs were demonstrating with signs addressed to Moscow, signs that read "Eto nasha dyelo", it's our business, meaning let us have our reforms and don't send your tanks, as you did to Hungary in 1956. I was welcomed by the demonstrators, who were cheerful but complaining about the press in the United States describing them as hostile to "socialism." I was told that they favored their own brand of socialism.

I moved on to Poland and then to the Soviet Union in June. In late August, Warsaw Pact forces led by the Soviet Union, with tanks and aircraft, entered Czechoslovakia. Dubcek urges people not to resist. Dubcek and other reformers were transported to Moscow on a Soviet military transport aircraft. There comrade Brezhnev scolded Dubcek. Dubcek was allowed to return to his position as the First Secretary of Czechoslovakia's Communists Party. But soon he was replaced by Gustáv Husák, who reversed almost all of Dubček's reforms.

In late 1968, to justify what it had done regarding Czechoslovakia and in Hungary, the Soviet Union announced what it called the Brezhnev Doctrine:

When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.

Brezhnev wanted both to maintain the Soviet Union's standing in Europe and to maintain good relations with the West. In May 1972, three months after his trip to China and during his re-election campaign, President Nixon flew to Moscow to meet with Brezhnev. Nixon was interested in attention to his foreign policy achievements while facing unrest at home regarding the War in Vietnam. Nixon believed that both countries stood to gain if trade could be increased and the danger of nuclear warfare reduced.

Nixon and Brezhnev signed seven agreements covering the prevention of accidental military clashes; arms control, as recommended by the recent Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT); cooperative research in a variety of areas, including space exploration; and expanded commerce. The salt treaty was approved by Congress later that summer, as was a three-year agreement on the sale of grain to the Soviets.

Brezhnev wanted to maintain good relations with the United States. He kissed President Carter on the cheek. Then in December 1979 he sent troops into Afghanistan to support a friendly regime there against guerrilla insurgents.

In June 1973, Brezhnev visited the United States for Summit II. This meeting added few new agreements but did symbolize the two countries' continuing commitment to peace. Summit III, in June 1974, was the least productive; by then, the SALT talks had ground to a halt, several commercial agreements had been blocked in Congress because of Soviet treatment of Jews. Nixon's successors, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter (1977-81) supported more arms limitation talks. In June 1979 President Carter and Brezhnev signed the SALT-II treaty, limiting nuclear weapons. SALT II was the first nuclear arms treaty which assumed real reductions in strategic forces to 2,250 of all categories of delivery vehicles on both sides. Their joint communique issued at the end of three days of talks showed no agreement about regional disputes in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and included only vague statements about the need to reduce troop levels in Europe, and it expressed their resolve to proceed with other arms control negotiations. And the talks ended with Brezhnev kissing Carter on the cheek.

In December, six months after the signing, the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan. In light of these developments, the US Senate failed to ratify the Salt II Treaty. Back in March, President Taraki of Afghanistan, facing unrest had requested Soviet troops but he had been told by Brezhnev that Soviet forces "would only play into the hands of our enemies – both yours and ours." Brezhnev had advised Taraki to go slow with social reforms and to seek broad support for his regime. and had promised Taraki military equipment. In July. Carter had signed a directive for secret aid to the opponents of Afghanistan's government. His National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had told Carter that this aid would induce a Soviet military intervention, a disaster for the Soviet Union, its Vietnam War. Brezhnev sending troops into Afghanistan was done in hope of heading off the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists along the Soviet Union's s southern border.

In the US the Soviet Invasion was viewed as aggression. American politicians quickly concluded that the move was an attempt by the Soviet Union to gain control over the Persian Gulf and consequently, a large portion of the world's oil supply. Carter called for increases in defense spending. He imposed an embargo on the export of grain to the Soviet Union, and he banned the sale of technology to the country. In a symbolic move, the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Carter administration also began providing economic and military support for anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union's economy, meanwhile, was facing problems. It had performed better with the kind of heavy industrial production that had developed under Stalin from 1971 to 1975, the Soviet Union's GDP decliend to an average of 3.7 percent. And after 1975 the GNP fell to a growth of between 2.6 and 2.7. In these years production around the world was growing rapidly, rising to an average annual rate for the world of 6.2 percent in 1973. In capitalist countries, this was the age of the production of consumer items such as automobiles, electronic devices, pharmaceuticals, civilian aircraft – a production that was more knowledge intensive, more plastic and less cement. The Soviet Union was keeping up with the United States in the production of steel, pig iron, cement and oil, but the future lay in electronics and specialty chemicals.

Large enterprises in the Soviet Union were partly welfare institutions and not as concerned with productivity and the costs of production as they might otherwise have been. And the Soviet Union's command economy was not suited for the rapid changes in technology. The Soviet Union had no independently wealthy individuals looking to bankroll a new business with a new idea. In the Soviet Union it was the central government that was doing the investing, not only in the military but also in social programs, including spending money to keep bread available and at a low price. Money to modernize manufacturing was often lacking. In the Soviet Union, the managers at various production plants were protected from international competition. They had no competition from within the Soviet Union. Their thinking was not geared to consumer choice, and without a free market they had little notion of what was in demand and what was not. Bureaucrats were deciding what was to be manufactured, and they were not keeping up with the changing needs, which resulted in poor economic coordination, sometimes seen in the form of metal goods rusting away at railway sidings.

Under Brezhnev, most farming remained collectivized, with four percent of the Soviet Union's arable land being farmed on the side as privately owned plots – with this four percent producing around twenty-five percent of the Soviet Union's agricultural output. Before World War I, Russia had been one of the greatest food exporters in the world, but now it had become one of the world's greatest importers of food. After decades of collective farming, agricultural workers in the Soviet Union had developed poor work habits. And with distribution and transportation a problem, some harvests rotted on their way to market, and sometimes as much as forty or fifty percent of a crop might rot in the fields.

What grew during the Brezhnev years were bureaucracy and the size of the Communist Party – with many Party members working in bureaucracies. And growing too were the number of vacation residences, pensions, perks and privileges for Party members. In the eyes of the common Soviet citizen, corruption was growing alongside economic stagnation.

CONTINUE READING: Reagan: "Staying the Course"

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.