How Reagan Won the Cold War
Posted by Tony Listi on March 6, 2008
June 06, 2004, 4:19 p.m.
How Reagan won the cold war.
Ten years ago Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and said, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Not long afterward, the wall came tumbling down and the most formidable empire in world history collapsed so fast that, in Vaclav Havel’s words, “we had no time even to be astonished.”
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the most ambitious political and social experiment of the modern era ended in failure, and the supreme political drama of the twentieth century — the conflict between the free West and the totalitarian East — came to an end. What will probably prove to be the most important historical event of our lifetimes has already occurred.
Given these remarkable developments, it is natural to wonder what caused the destruction of Soviet Communism. Yet, oddly, this is a subject that no one seems to want to discuss. The reluctance is especially acute among intellectuals. Consider what happened on June 4, 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the students and faculty at Stanford University. The Cold War was over, he said, and people clapped with evident relief. Then Gorbachev added, “And let us not wrangle over who won it.” At this point the crowd leapt to its feet and applauded thunderously.
Gorbachev’s desire to avoid this topic was understandable. But why were the apparent winners of the Cold War equally resolved not to celebrate their victory or analyze how it came about? Perhaps the reason is simply this: virtually everyone was wrong about the Soviet Union. The doves or appeasers were totally and spectacularly wrong on every point. For example, when Reagan in 1983 called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Anthony Lewis of the New York Times was so indignant that he searched his repertoire for the appropriate adjective: “simplistic,” “sectarian,” “dangerous,” “outrageous.” Finally Lewis settled on “primitive — the only word for it.”
In the mid 1980s, Strobe Talbott, then a journalist at Time and later an official in the Clinton State Department, wrote: “Reagan is counting on American technological and economic predominance to prevail in the end,” whereas, if the Soviet economy was in a crisis of any kind, “it is a permanent, institutionalized crisis with which the USSR has learned to live.”
Historian Barbara Tuchman argued that instead of employing a policy of confrontation, the West should ingratiate itself with the Soviet Union by pursuing “the stuffed-goose option — that is, providing them with all the grain and consumer goods they need.” If Reagan had taken this advice when it was offered in 1982, the Soviet empire would probably be around today.
The hawks or anti-Communists had a much better understanding of totalitarianism, and they understood the necessity of an arms build-up to deter Soviet aggression. But they too believed that Soviet Communism was a permanent and virtually indestructible adversary. This Spenglerian gloom is conveyed by Whittaker Chambers’s famous remark to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948 that in abandoning Communism he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side.”
The hawks were also mistaken about what steps were needed to bring about the final dismantling of the Soviet empire. During Reagan’s second term, when he supported Gorbachev’s reform efforts and pursued arms-reduction agreements with him, many conservatives denounced his apparent change of heart. “Ignorant and pathetic” was the way Charles Krauthammer viewed Reagan’s behavior. William F. Buckley Jr. urged Reagan to reconsider his positive assessment of the Gorbachev regime: “To greet it as if it were no longer evil is on the order of changing our entire position toward Adolf Hitler.” George Will mourned that “Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”
No one likes to have his expertise called into question, but the doves are especially averse to admitting that they were wrong and Reagan was right. Consequently this group has in the last few years made a determined effort to rewrite history. There is no mystery about the end of the Soviet Union, the revisionists say: it suffered from chronic economic problems and collapsed of its own weight. “The Soviet system has gone into meltdown because of inadequacies and defects at its core,” Strobe Talbott writes, “not because of anything the outside world has done or not done.”
In Talbott’s view, “the Soviet threat is not what it used to be. The real point, however, is that it never was. The doves in the great debate of the past forty years were right all along.” Meanwhile, the “extreme militarization” pursued by Reagan and the hard-liners in the Pentagon, George Kennan insists, “consistently strengthened comparable hard-liners in the Soviet Union.” Far from accelerating the end of the Cold War, it may have actually postponed it.
This analysis is impressive, if only for its audacity. The Soviet Union did indeed suffer from debilitating economic problems. But why would this by itself bring about the end of the political regime? Historically it is common for nations to experience poor economic performance, but never have food shortages or technological backwardness been sufficient causes for the destruction of a large empire. The Roman empire survived internal corrosion for centuries before it was destroyed by the invasion of the barbarian hordes. The Ottoman empire persisted as the “sick man of Europe” for generations and ended only with catastrophic defeat in World War I.
Nor can the economic argument explain why the empire collapsed at the particular time that it did. The revisionists say in effect: It happened, therefore it was inevitable. But if Soviet collapse was so certain, why wasn’t it foreseen by the revisionists, who were unanimous in proclaiming — in the words of a 1983 column by Anthony Lewis — that the Soviet regime “is not going to disappear”?
It is no less problematic to assert that Gorbachev was the architect of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was undoubtedly a reformer and a new kind of Soviet leader. But Gorbachev did not wish to lead the party, and the regime, over the precipice. Consequently, when the Soviet Union collapsed, no one was more surprised than Gorbachev. He was incredulous when he was swept out of power, and he is still openly indignant and bewildered about the fact that he got less than 1 per cent of the vote in the Russian election in 1996.
The man who got things right from the start was, at first glance, an unlikely statesman. When he became the leader of the free world he had no experience in foreign policy. Some people thought he was a dangerous warmonger; others considered him a nice fellow, but a bit of a bungler. Nevertheless, this California lightweight turned out to have as deep an understanding of Communism as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This rank amateur developed a complex, often counter-intuitive strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union which hardly anyone on his staff fully endorsed or even understood. Through a combination of vision, tenacity, patience, and improvisational skill, he produced what Henry Kissinger terms “the most stunning diplomatic feat of the modern era.” Or as Margaret Thatcher put it, “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.”
Reagan had a much more skeptical view of the power of Soviet Communism than either the hawks or the doves. In 1981 he told an audience at the University of Notre Dame, “The West won’t contain Communism. It will transcend Communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” The next year, speaking to the British Parliament, Reagan predicted that if the Western alliance remained strong it would produce a “march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ashheap of history.”
These prophetic assertions — dismissed as wishful rhetoric at the time — raise the question: How did Reagan know that Soviet Communism faced impending collapse when the most perceptive minds of his time had no inkling of what was to come? To answer this question, the best approach is to begin with Reagan’s jokes. Over the years he had developed an extensive collection of stories which he attributed to the Soviet people themselves. One of these involves a man who goes up to a store clerk in Moscow and asks for a kilogram of beef, half a kilogram of butter, and a quarter kilogram of coffee. “We’re all out,” the clerk says, and the man leaves. Another man, observing this incident, says to the clerk, “That old man must be crazy.” The clerk replies, “Yeah, but what a memory!”
Another favorite anecdote concerns a man who goes to the Soviet bureau of transportation to order an automobile. He is informed that he will have to put down his money now, but there is a ten-year wait. So he fills out all the various forms, has them processed through the various agencies, and finally gets to the last agency. He pays them his money and they say, “Come back in ten years and get your car.” He asks, “Morning or afternoon?” The man in the agency says, “We’re talking about ten years from now. What difference does it make?” He replies, “The plumber is coming in the morning.”
Reagan could go on in this vein for hours. What is striking, however, is that Reagan’s jokes are not about the evil of Communism but about its incompetence. Reagan agreed with the hawks that the Soviet experiment which sought to create a “new man” was immoral. At the same time, he saw that it was also basically stupid. Reagan did not need a PhD in economics to recognize that any economy based upon centralized planners’ dictating how much factories should produce, how much people should consume, and how social rewards should be distributed was doomed to disastrous failure. For Reagan the Soviet Union was a “sick bear,” and the question was not whether it would collapse, but when.
Yet while the Soviet Union had a faltering economy, it had a highly advanced military. No one doubted that Soviet missiles, if fired at American targets, would cause enormous destruction. But Reagan also knew that the evil empire was spending at least 20 per cent of its gross national product on defense. (The actual proportion turned out to be even higher.) Thus Reagan formulated the notion that the West could use the superior economic resources of a free society to outspend Moscow in the arms race, placing intolerable strains on the Soviet regime.
Reagan outlined his “sick bear” theory as early as May 1982 in a commencement address at his alma mater, Eureka College. He said, “The Soviet empire is faltering because rigid centralized control has destroyed incentives for innovation, efficiency, and individual achievement. But in the midst of social and economic problems, the Soviet dictatorship has forged the largest armed force in the world. It has done so by pre-empting the human needs of its people and, in the end, this course will undermine the foundations of the Soviet system.”
Sick bears, however, can be very dangerous — they tend to lash out. Moreover, since in fact we are discussing not animals but people, there is the question of pride. The leaders of an internally weak empire are not likely to acquiesce in an erosion of their power. They typically turn to their primary source of strength: the military.
Appeasement, Reagan was convinced, would only increase the bear’s appetite and invite further aggression. Thus he agreed with the anti-Communist strategy of dealing firmly with the Soviets. But he was more confident than most hawks that Americans were up to the challenge. “We must realize,” he said in his first inaugural address, “that no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” What was most visionary about Reagan’s view was that it rejected the assumption of Soviet immutability. At a time when no one else could, Reagan dared to imagine a world in which the Communist regime in the Soviet Union did not exist.
It was one thing to envision this happy state, and quite another to bring it about. The Soviet bear was in a blustery and ravenous mood when Reagan entered the White House. Between 1974 and 1980, it had, through outright invasion or the triumph of its surrogates, brought ten countries into the Communist orbit: South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. Moreover, it had built the most formidable nuclear arsenal in the world, with thousands of multiple-warhead missiles aimed at the United States. The Warsaw Pact had overwhelming superiority over NATO in its conventional forces. Finally, Moscow had recently deployed a new generation of intermediate-range missiles, the giant SS20s, targeted on European cities.
Reagan did not merely react to these alarming events; he developed a broad counteroffensive strategy. He initiated a $1.5trillion military buildup, the largest in American peacetime history, which was aimed at drawing the Soviets into an arms race he was convinced they could not win. He was also determined to lead the Western alliance in deploying 108 Pershing II and 464 Tomahawk cruise missiles in Europe to counter the SS-20s. At the same time, he did not eschew arms-control negotiations. Indeed he suggested that for the first time ever the two superpowers should drastically reduce their nuclear stockpiles. If the Soviets would withdraw their SS-20s, he said, the U.S. would not proceed with the Pershing and cruise deployments. This was called the “zero option.”
Then there was the Reagan Doctrine, which involved military and material support for indigenous movements struggling to overthrow Soviet-sponsored tyrannies. The Administration supported such guerrillas in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, and Nicaragua. In addition, it worked with the Vatican and the international wing of the AFL-CIO to keep the Polish trade union Solidarity going, despite a ruthless crackdown by General Jaruzelski’s regime. In 1983, U.S. troops invaded and liberated Grenada, ousting the Marxist government and sponsoring free elections. Finally, in March 1983, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a new program to research and eventually deploy missile defenses which offered the promise, in Reagan’s words, of “making nuclear weapons obsolete.”
At every stage, Reagan’s counteroffensive strategy was denounced by the doves, who exploited public fears that Reagan’s military buildup was leading the world closer to nuclear war. Reagan’s zero option was dismissed by Strobe Talbott as “highly unrealistic” and as having been offered “more to score propaganda points than to win concessions from the Soviets.” With the exception of support for the Afghan mujahedin, every effort to aid anti-Communist rebels was resisted by doves in Congress and the media. SDI was denounced as, in the New York Times‘s words, “a projection of fantasy into policy.”
The Soviet Union was equally hostile to the Reagan counteroffensive, but its view of Reagan’s objectives was far more perceptive than that of the doves. Izvestiya protested, “They want to impose on us an even more ruinous arms race.” General Secretary Yuri Andropov alleged that Reagan’s SDI program was “a bid to disarm the Soviet Union.” The seasoned diplomat Andrei Gromyko charged that “behind all this lies the clear calculation that the USSR will exhaust its material resources and therefore will be forced to surrender.”
These reactions are important because they establish the context for Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power in early 1985. Gorbachev was indeed a new breed of Soviet general secretary, but few have asked why he was appointed by the Old Guard. The main reason was that the Politburo had come to recognize the failure of past Soviet strategies.
Reagan, in other words, seems to have been largely responsible for inducing a loss of nerve that caused Moscow to seek a new approach. Gorbachev’s assignment was not merely to find a new way to deal with the country’s economic problems but also to figure out how to cope with the empire’s reversals abroad. For this reason, Ilya Zaslavsky, who served in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies, said later that the true originator of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) was not Mikhail Gorbachev but Ronald Reagan.
Gorbachev inspired wild enthusiasm on the political Left and in the Western media. Mary McGrory of the Washington Post was convinced he had a “blueprint for saving the planet.” Gail Sheehy was dazzled by his “luminous presence.” In 1990 Time proclaimed him its “Man of the Decade” and compared him to Franklin Roosevelt. Just as Roosevelt had to transform capitalism in order to save it, so Gorbachev was credited with reinventing socialism in order to save it.
The reason for these embarrassing “Gorbasms” was that Gorbachev was precisely the kind of leader that Western intellectuals admire: a top-down reformer who portrayed himself as a progressive; a technocrat who gave three-hour speeches on how the agriculture program was coming along. Most of all, the new Soviet leader was attempting to achieve the great twentieth-century hope of the Western intelligentsia: Communism with a human face! A socialism that works!
Yet as Gorbachev discovered, and as the rest of us now know, it cannot be done. The vices that Gorbachev sought to eradicate from the system turned out to be the essential features of the system. If Reagan was the Great Communicator, then Gorbachev turned out to be, as Zbigniew Brzezinski puts it, the Grand Miscalculator. To the degree he had a Western counterpart, it was not FDR but Jimmy Carter. The hard-liners in the Kremlin who warned Gorbachev that his reforms would cause the entire system to blow up turned out to be right. Indeed, hawks in the West were also vindicated: Communism was immutable and irreversible, in the sense that the system could only be reformed by destroying it.
Gorbachev, like Jimmy Carter, had one redeeming quality: he was a decent and relatively open-minded fellow. Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who came from the post-Stalin generation, the first to admit openly that the promises of Lenin were not being fulfilled.
Reagan, like Margaret Thatcher, was quick to recognize that Gorbachev was different. What changed his mind about Gorbachev was the little things. He discovered that Gorbachev was intensely curious about the West and showed a particular interest in anything Reagan could tell him about Hollywood. Also Gorbachev had a sense of humor and could laugh at himself. Moreover, he was troubled by Reagan’s earlier reference to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” To Reagan, it was significant that the concept of presiding over an evil regime bothered Gorbachev. In addition, Reagan was struck by the fact that Gorbachev routinely referred to God and Christ in his public statements and interviews. When asked how his reforms were likely to turn out, Gorbachev would say, “Only Jesus Christ knows the answer to that.” This could be dismissed as merely a rhetorical device, but Reagan didn’t think so.
As they sat across the table in Geneva in 1985, however, Reagan saw that Gorbachev was a tough negotiator, and he responded in a manner that may be described as “cordial toughness.” While State Department communiques warned of U.S. concerns about the “destabilizing” influence of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, Reagan confronted Gorbachev directly. “What you are doing in Afghanistan is burning villages and killing children,” he said. “It’s genocide, Mike, and you are the one who has to stop it.” At this point, according to aide Kenneth Adelman, who was present, Gorbachev looked at Reagan with a stunned expression; Adelman gathered that no one had ever talked to him this way before.
Reagan also threatened Gorbachev. “We won’t stand by and let you maintain weapon superiority over us,” he told him. “We can agree to reduce arms, or we can continue the arms race, which I think you know you can’t win.” The extent to which Gorbachev took Reagan’s remarks to heart became obvious at the October 1986 summit in Reykjavik. There Gorbachev astounded the arms-control establishment in the West by accepting Reagan’s zero option. Gorbachev embraced the very terms that Strobe Talbott and other doves had earlier dismissed as absurdly unrealistic.
Yet Gorbachev had one condition: the U.S. must agree not to deploy missile defenses. Reagan refused. The press immediately went on the attack. “Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Talks Collapse as Deadlock on SDI Wipes Out Other Gains,” read the banner headline in the Washington Post. “Sunk by Star Wars,” Time’s cover declared.
To Reagan, however, SDI was more than a bargaining chip; it was a moral issue. In a televised statement from Reykjavik he said, “There was no way I could tell our people that their government would not protect them against nuclear destruction.” Polls showed that most Americans supported him.
Reykjavik, Margaret Thatcher says, was the turning point in the Cold War. Finally Gorbachev realized that he had a choice: continue a no-win arms race, which would utterly cripple the Soviet economy, or give up the struggle for global hegemony, establish peaceful relations with the West, and work to enable the Soviet economy to become prosperous like the Western economies. After Reykjavik, Gorbachev seems to have resolved on this latter course.
In December 1987, he abandoned his “non-negotiable” demand that Reagan give up SDI and visited Washington, D.C., to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. For the first time ever the two superpowers agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. Moscow even agreed to on-site verification, a condition that it had resisted in the past.
The hawks, however, were suspicious from the outset. Gorbachev is a masterly chess player, they said; he might sacrifice a pawn, but only to gain an overall advantage. “Reagan is walking into a trap,” Tom Bethell warned in The American Spectator as early as 1985. “The only way he can get success in negotiation is by doing what the Soviets want.” Republican senators like Steven Symms and Jesse Helms planned “killer amendments” to sink the INF Treaty. Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus even charged Reagan with “fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”
Yet, as at least some hawks like Bethell now admit, these criticisms missed the larger current of events. Gorbachev wasn’t sacrificing a pawn, he was giving up his bishops and his queen. The INF treaty was in fact the first stage of Gorbachev’s surrender in the Cold War.
Reagan knew that the Cold War was over when Gorbachev came to Washington. Gorbachev was a media celebrity in the United States, and the crowds cheered when he jumped out of his limousine and shook hands with people on the street. Out of the limelight, Reagan had dinner with a group of conservative friends, including Ben Wattenberg, Georgie Anne Geyer, and R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. As Wattenberg recounted the incident to me, the group complained that Gorbachev was getting all the media credit for reaching an agreement essentially on Reagan’s terms. Reagan smiled. Wattenberg asked, “Have we won the Cold War?” Reagan hedged. Wattenberg persisted. “Well, have we?” Reagan finally said yes. Then his dinner companions understood: he wanted Gorbachev to have his day in the sun. Asked by the press if he felt overshadowed by Gorbachev, Reagan replied, “I don’t resent his popularity. Good Lord, I co-starred with Errol Flynn once.”
TO appreciate Reagan’s diplomatic acumen, it is important to recall that he was pursuing his own distinctive course, rejecting the recommendations of both the hawks and the doves. Reagan knew that the movement for reform was fragile, and that hard-liners in the Kremlin were looking for U.S. actions that they could use to undermine Gorbachev’s initiatives. Reagan recognized the importance of permitting Gorbachev a zone of comfort in which to pursue his program of reform.
At the same time, when doves in the State Department implored Reagan to “reward” Gorbachev with economic concessions and trade benefits for announcing that Soviet troops would pull out of Afghanistan, Reagan recognized that this ran the risk of restoring the health of the sick bear. Reagan’s goal was — as Gorbachev himself once joked — to lead the Soviet Union to the edge of the abyss and then induce it to take “one step forward.”
Thus Reagan simultaneously supported Gorbachev’s reform efforts and applied constant pressure on him to move faster and further. This was the significance of Reagan’s trip to the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, in which he demanded that Gorbachev prove that he was serious about openness by pulling down the Berlin Wall. The State Department kept taking that line out of Reagan’s speech, and Reagan kept putting it back in. And in May 1988 Reagan stood beneath a giant white bust of Lenin at Moscow State University and gave the most ringing defense of a free society ever offered in the Soviet Union. On that trip he visited the ancient Danilov Monastery and preached about the importance of religious freedom and a spiritual revival. At the U.S. ambassador’s residence, he assured a group of dissidents and “refuseniks” that the day of freedom was at hand. All of these measures were calculated to force Gorbachev’s hand.
First Gorbachev agreed to deep unilateral cuts in Soviet armed forces in Europe. Starting in May 1988, Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan, the first time the Soviets had voluntarily withdrawn from a puppet regime. Before long, Soviet and satellite troops were pulling out of Angola, Ethiopia, and Cambodia. The race toward freedom began in Eastern Europe, and the Berlin Wall was indeed torn down.
During this period of ferment, Gorbachev’s great achievement, for which he will be credited by history, was to abstain from the use of force — the response of his predecessors to popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. By now not only were Gorbachev and his team permiting the empire to disintegrate, as Reagan had foreseen and intended, but they even adopted Reagan’s way of talking. In October 1989 Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov announced that the Soviet Union would not intervene in the internal affairs of Eastern Bloc nations. “The Brezhnev Doctrine is dead,” Gerasimov said. Reporters asked him what would take its place, and he replied, “You know the Frank Sinatra song `My Way’? Hungary and Poland are doing it their way. We now have the Sinatra Doctrine.” The Gipper could not have said it better himself.
Finally the revolution made its way into the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, who had completely lost control of events, found himself ousted from power. The Soviet Union voted to abolish itself. Serious problems of adjustment to new conditions would remain, but emancipated people know that such problems are infinitely preferable to living under slavery.
Even some who were previously skeptical of Reagan were forced to admit that his policies had been thoroughly vindicated. Reagan’s old nemesis Henry Kissinger observed that while it was Bush who presided over the final disintegration of the Soviet empire, “it was Ronald Reagan’s Presidency which marked the turning point.” Cardinal Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state, remarked publicly that the Reagan military buildup, which he had opposed at the time, had led to the collapse of Communism.
These conclusions are widely accepted in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. When Czech president Vaclav Havel visited Washington, D.C., in May 1997 I asked him whether Reagan’s defense strategy and his diplomacy were vital factors in ending the Cold War. Of course, Havel said, adding that “both Reagan and Gorbachev deserve credit” because while Soviet Communism might have imploded eventually, without them “it would have taken a lot longer.”
Havel’s point is incontestable. Yet Reagan won and Gorbachev lost. If Gorbachev was the trigger, it was Reagan who pulled it. For the third time in this century, the United States has fought and prevailed in a world war. In the Cold War, Reagan turned out to be our Churchill: it was his vision and leadership that led us to victory.