The Evil Empire ended twenty years ago today with the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, which killed and injured hundreds and left a legacy of waste in Ukraine and Belarus. Yes, it reminded the world of the need for extraordinary care in the use of nuclear power, a theme highly relevant in today's energy and international security framework.
But, the real significance of Chernobyl was that for the first time in the history of the USSR the leadership was forced to admit publicly to such a disaster. There had of course been massive losses of life in purges, wars and internal nuclear disasters before Chernobyl. But this time, CNN covered the story that first came from Swedish scientists who reported an enormous spike in atomic particulate. UPI reported, erroneously, hundreds of thousands of deaths. NPR and BBC picked up the story and, in the face of the typical Soviet news black out, reported lower estimated casualties, but continued to instill panic.
The newly installed General Secretary of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, was forced to go on television a few days after Chernobyl to explain that an explosion had occurred, but that the situation was far less dire than many media outlets had suggested. In short, the existence of global media cracked the Communist grip on shaping of the news. This was really the end of the USSR.
I worked for Armand Hammer in those days and remember exactly where I was when we received a call about Chernobyl. The US government offered aid, but the Russians declined. We offered to send in some medical experts and equipment; the Soviets said yes. They trusted Dr. Hammer, because he always talked to the Soviets, in good times and bad. We went to Moscow, Kiev and the environs of Chernobyl in early May, 1986. Gorbachev told Hammer he was livid at the Western press coverage, incredulous that we could not control our media.
In time, Gorbachev and his colleagues understood that information cannot be contained, or not forever, but the time for keeping the Communists in power had passed.
Why should we care today? In the fervor to use the disaster of September 11, 2001 to impose an ideology on the globe through blunt force, the Bush Administration is all too slowly learning the lesson that destroyed the USSR. You can manipulate information for a while, but in today's Internet world, the truth shall out. Bush tries to scare us into believing that if we do not continue to use force in Iraq, Iran or wherever he next chooses, the U.S. will topple. The truth is quite the opposite. As we learn of the motivations, the shoddy planning and the nauseating corruption in Iraq, we see that Bush's global ambitions have weakened America, perhaps inexorably.
Let's hope that twenty years on, when Chernobyl is as far away in time as the launching of Sputnik is now, that historians are not writing that the United States ended on 20 March, 2003, the day the secretive George Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq.