The Sweet Smell of Liberty

IN Malta, Mr. Gorbachev twitted President Bush for his well-known cautiousness about change in the communist world. And even as the two leaders smiled and declared their non-summit summit a success, Gorbachev warned this was no time to ``exaggerate'' the progress made.

Our heads tell us that caution and realism are good qualities with which to face these times of stirring and unpredictable change.

For example, even as Gorbachev and Bush are leading their countries to a new kind of bonhommie, Central Intelligence Agency chief William Webster warns that the Soviets have intensified their intelligence-gathering activities against the United States, particularly in a bid to snare high-technology secrets.

The Soviets declare their desire for democracy in Central America. But Cuba and Nicaragua are awash with Soviet weaponry, whether newly arrived or not, and it is finding its way to hard-line communist guerrillas in El Salvador seeking to overthrow a democratically elected government.

If Central America is a regional problem that worries the US, Afghanistan is one that deeply agitates the Soviet Union. The Soviets have stockpiled huge amounts of weaponry there and are funneling in more to buttress an arbitrarily installed puppet regime favorable to Moscow.

Gorbachev came to Malta with his credibility high, and his popularity mounting in Western Europe and the US. But that popularity is not duplicated in his own country. At how many more summits can his presence be guaranteed? He is presiding over the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Communism has lost four countries (Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia) in months. Meantime his own nation is riven with ethnic revolt and its economy is crumbling.

All these are problems enough to hamper progress in Soviet-American relations. Caution and realism, our heads tell us, are good watch-words.

And yet...

Our hearts tell us that peace is on the lips of mankind and the sweet smell of liberty is in the air.

Yes, there are awesome economic problems confronting the democratically emergent countries of Eastern Europe. Yes, there are entrenched communist bureaucracies to make the transition precarious. Yes, countries like Czechoslovakia have tried to break loose before, and been brought to heel.

But this time there is a communist leader in Moscow who confined his Soviet troops to their barracks as East Germans demonstrated for freedom. This time there is a man in Moscow who now concedes that unleashing Soviet tanks against Czechoslovakia in 1968 was wrong.

Aside from Mr. Gorbachev's character there are other, powerful forces in play.

One is his desperate need to revitalize his country's way of life. Some guns must go if he is to provide a little margarine, let alone butter, for his people. Peace is the key to prosperity.

Another significant factor is the steadfastness and strength of the West since World War II. That war may have been brought about, or at least encouraged, by the appeasement policy of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain, his weak policies in disarray after the Nazis launched their invasion machine, was succeeded by Winston Churchill, who never forgot the need for strength, and preached it to his Western allies at war's end.

Finally, there is the courage of those millions in Eastern Europe who endured communist suppression for so long, but who now have said ``enough.'' Perhaps their longing for freedom can again be repressed, but it is difficult to believe it. The chanting thousands in Leipzig, the dancers atop the Berlin wall, the million Czechs in Wenceslas Square roaring their welcome home to Alexander Dubcek - all this looks like an irreversible tide, not an aberration in the flow of history.

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