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With the White House's decision this week to grant aid to the Soviet Union, it may surprise some that we have extended it before at critical junctures. In the Soviet famine of 1921-22 and the 1942-45 alliance against Hitler, the United States sent a total of $11 billion in support to the Soviet Union. After the war, the U.S. offered but Stalin rejected Marshall Plan aid to the Soviet Union. In comparison, the current hand-wringing over the extension of $1.5 billion in credits to the Soviet Union is shortsighted.

Until recently, there were four good reasons for rejecting aid to the Soviet Union: the Soviet Union was totalitarian, it was expansionist, it had a centrally planned economy and it was such a closed society that we couldn't tell if aid would accelerate reform or merely allow Soviet leaders to put off hard choices. Since 1985, however, the Gorbachev revolution has removed each of these objections.First, the Soviet Union moved dramatically toward democracy with its first real elections since 1917, the creation of a working parliament and the transfer of power from the Communist Party to the state and from the center to the republics. This has led to a domestic order more worthy of our support, helping transform an expansionist state into a country no longer ideologically driven toward global hegemony.

Soviet economic reforms, while halting, have undercut another barrier to aid. The Soviets in 1947 rejected Marshall Plan aid because they feared the implicit requirement of integration with Western economies. Now, the Soviet Union actively seeks such integration. Moreover, if the Soviets put market reforms in place, Western aid will not disappear into the black hole of centralized socialism.

A final objection was that we know too little about internal Soviet politics to discern whether aid would help reformers or hard-liners. Glasnost erased this obstacle. The reformers are obvious: Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin, reform economists like Grigory Yavlinsky and Stanislav Shatalin, former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the Democratic Russia movement, the intelligentsia, the breakaway republics.

These developments removed the obstacles to aid at the very time Soviet needs were greatest. The Soviet Union faces three intertwined crises: a nationalities crisis, an economic crisis and a political crisis over how to deal with the first two. The political compromise in late April between Gorbachev and the leaders of nine republics, including Yeltsin, has given the Soviet Union three to six months of relative stability in which to form a new constitution, create new federative arrangements for the republics and establish the prerequisites of a market economy.

Western aid can create a breathing space not for a return to communism but for the irreversible establishment of a market democracy. The West also should consider a program of multilateral, conditional aid to the Soviet Union on the scale of the Marshall Plan.

Unlike the Marshall Plan, current aid would come not just from the U.S., but from Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Italy and others, with the U.S. contribution at $3 billion to $10 billion per year. In addition, any new aid program must be conditioned on continuing: market reforms; democratization; peaceful resolution of nationalities' problems; and Soviet cooperation on security and arms control.

Those skeptical of putting resources in the hands of a recent adversary should recall the analogous conditions in Europe and Asia after World War II and the dramatic success for all concerned. The alternative would have involved the incalculable political, economic, and security costs of idly watching a nuclear-armed empire crumble into chaos.