Some Cold War truths

On Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev transferred the Soviet nuclear codes to Boris Yeltsin, called President George H.W. Bush to wish him a happy Christmas, and picked up a pen, intending to sign the document that would dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, created by Lenin 74 years before.

The pen wouldn’t work. Gorbachev had to borrow a replacement from a CNN crew covering the story.

The Cold War was officially over, which was a very good thing. Yet as we prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—the symbolic centerpiece of the Revolution of 1989, which made the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 virtually inevitable—there seems to be a remarkable lack of interest in a struggle that dominated world politics for 43 years, threatening nuclear ruin to North America, Europe and the USSR, devastating Korea and Southeast Asia, and embroiling the Third World in proxy wars from which many developing countries have never really recovered. Something that large and consequential, you would think, would merit considerable and ongoing attention. Yet, to take but one example, modern history classes in Polish schools today stop at 1939 (or, in some cases 1945). Things are not much better in the United States, I fear.

Americans are traditionally good winners who don’t hold grudges. There was no gloating over the collapse of the USSR. There were no equivalents of the Nuremberg Trials, or the Allied military tribunals in post-war Japan, to bring the murderers of the KGB to book. There wasn’t even a VC Day—Victory Over Communism Day—to parallel VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. Perhaps many Americans thought it would have been unsporting to declare victory. We quickly put the Cold War behind us.

Worse than today’s lack of interest, however, are those interpretations of the Cold War that suggest it was all a terrible misunderstanding, or that Stalin was “provoked” into hostility toward the West, or that the West could have comes to terms with the Soviet Union long before 1989. With an eye toward the 20th anniversary of the wall coming down, let me propose a few truths about the Cold War and its ending, with special reference to the Catholic Church and its roles under, and against, communism:

Moral equivalence is moral idiocy. The United States and its western allies during the Cold War were imperfect democracies that sometimes did wicked things. Throughout the Cold War (and long before), the Soviet Union was a pluperfect tyranny that did terrible things as a matter of course, murdering millions of innocent people in cold blood. Any suggestion that the U.S. and the USSR were “two scorpions in a bottle” (as one Carter administration nominee famously put it) reflects a fundamental moral obtuseness about the situation.

The Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI did not ease the situation of the Catholic Church behind the iron curtain. Pope Paul’s openness to dialogue with communist regimes can claim one genuine (if unintended) accomplishment: it created openings that a Polish pope (who viewed his predecessor’s Ostpolitik with considerable skepticism) could exploit (often against the counsel of Vatican diplomats). On the ground, the Ostpolitik of Paul VI was a disaster in Hungary (where most bishops from the mid-1960s on collaborated with the regime), in Czechoslovakia (where the underground Church felt betrayed), and even in Rome, where Soviet bloc intelligence agencies used the new diplomatic contacts necessitated by the Ostpolitik to penetrate the Vatican in a quite striking way.

Moral power was the key to success.  Communism might have collapsed of its own economic incompetence, but why did it collapse in 1989 rather than 1999 or 2009 or 2019? And why did it collapse without violence (Romania excepted)? Our premier Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, has the answer: the moral revolution launched by John Paul II during his first pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979 was the key to all the rest.

There were winners and losers in this epic contest. Be grateful that we won. Be grateful for all those who sacrificed blood and treasure for the victory.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.