It would be hard to imagine a more visually engrossing year than 1991. Television screens throbbed with the dramas of war and peace; Operation Desert Storm, the bombing of Baghdad, the ground war, surrendering Iraqis, burning oil wells, and then troops coming home, families reunited, hugs on the tarmac.

But the most dramatic spectacle was the war that ended not with a bang, but a whimper. During the failed Soviet coup last August, we saw tanks in the streets of Moscow, then flags flying as the people resisted.

As I watched, my mind flashed back over my own life. I suddenly realized that much of it had been devoted to fighting a cold war that was now over.

As a marine lieutenant, I trained to fight the “communist hordes” invading South Korea. As a Senate aide, I worked through all-night budget sessions to fund the American rocket program and missile race after the Soviets’ surprise launch of Sputnik. In the White House, I was dazzled by weekly military briefings on megatonnage, throw-weight, and strategic targeting.

I remember one night in the Oval Office in 1971, alone with President Nixon as we discussed how to get a critical antiballistic-missile program through the Senate. Nixon said somberly, “You know, Chuck, I hate spending money on all these missiles. My mother was a Quaker. I want peace. But if we don’t do it, America will fall behind. The balance of power will shift; we will lose to the Soviets. Twenty years from now this world will not be safe to live in.”

Such considerations influenced almost every policy decision. The fate of the world hung on nuclear deterrence.

Or so we thought. Those 20 years have now passed. And without a missile launched, we won.

Ultimate Betrayal

Clearly, deterrence was important. President Reagan upped the ante in the eighties, calling the Soviets’ hand. And, as we always believed it would, the free market eventually whipped the heavy-handed socialist-state system.

But those factors alone could not account for what we witnessed in Moscow. Something more than economics moved those crowds through the streets, something that cold-war politicians in the U.S. had scarcely considered. How could we have missed it?

Christian friends, now officials in Eastern European governments, told me they had alerted U.S. officials back in 1987. They felt spiritual pressures building; they saw disillusionment on the faces of their Soviet oppressors. But the U.S. shrugged off such information.

I’ve encountered this mindset. While in Moscow last year, I was asked to come to the American embassy to calm a crowd of protestors.

At the embassy, I was ushered into a senior officer’s suite. “Who are these people?” I asked.

“Oh, Baptists,” he responded. “No, Pentecostals. I don’t know, religious people of some kind.”

I was stunned at how little our officials knew. He explained that these people wanted preferential treatment to get exit visas.

“They need them,” I said. “They have been persecuted for their faith.”

“Oh?” said the officer, throwing up his hands. “Well, they have to get in line like everybody else.”

I believe we missed the real momentum in the East because the West was distracted by politics. Government officials were so involved in grand diplomatic and military strategies that they were blind to far grander spiritual forces. And our satellites, so sophisticated they can count the bolts on a tank, could not see inside the human heart.

The temptation now is to declare victory and enjoy a peaceful world happily ever after. Maybe Francis Fukuyama, the former State Department official who wrote “The End of History,” is right. Democracy has won. The great world struggles are over.

But succumbing to that illusion is the greatest danger of this watershed moment. Communism failed because it was built on the false premise that man is good and utopia can be achieved. Its tyrants went on to repress the people. And it preached economic determinism, a doctrine that history is shaped not by spiritual, but by economic forces.

If we now conclude that the West won solely because of the superiority of the free market and our expensive weapons, we too will have fallen for the myth of economic determinism—and we will repeat the mistake that I and other policymakers made 20 years ago. That would be the ultimate betrayal of those heroes who risked their lives to bring democratic principles to the East.

Totalitarian Consumerism

The crucial concern today is not that we meet Eastern Europe’s economic needs. There is a desperate need for food—and we should help, though only if we are assured of continuing reforms. The greatest need, however, is not for material bread, but spiritual bread. And satisfying the deepest longings of the human heart is something that government, or for that matter Western culture at large, cannot do.

No, that is the job of the church. Rarely have we had a greater opportunity. I was recently in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; believers there need whatever we can supply them: Christian literature, Bibles, training materials. Christian leaders in those countries recognize what the people need most—to rebuild the church and to give hope to the heart.

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In Czechoslovakia I met Václav Maly, the priest who led thousands through the Prague streets during the uprisings of 1989. When Václav Havel was elected president, he offered Maly any position he wanted. But, as Maly told me, “All I want to do is preach the gospel because that’s what our people need more than anything.”

He’s right. If the West declares victory and believes that economic abundance (the first signs of which are the VCRS, and the many pornographic magazines I saw in the streets of Prague) will meet the needs of the hungering East, we will squander the opportunity of this moment in history.

And if all that is offered to those who risked their lives to resist totalitarianism is self-indulgent, Western materialism—what Václav Havel calls “totalitarian consumerism”—then they will soon discover that they have changed one form of tyranny for another.

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