Reagan, the Soviets, and the End of the Cold War

Many conservatives regard Ronald Wilson Reagan as a hero for bringing about the end of the Cold War. Many liberals believe that the U.S.S.R. would have fallen without any aggressive action by the United States, and that Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s admission of this was the reason why the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Communism as it was practiced by the Soviets was untenable. They could not endlessly support both their military prowess and their impoverished people, and at some point the collapse would be inevitable. Many think that by recognizing this, Gorbachev, and his policies of glasnost and perestroika, brought about the end of the Soviet Union.

So what was Reagan’s role, then, if it was Gorbachev who initiated the reforms inside his own country and brought about the window needed to bring down the Soviet Union?

Reagan became president of the United States on January 20, 1981. Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party on March 11, 1985. For over four years, Reagan battled not Gorbachev, but Konstantin Chernenko, Yuri Andropov, and Leonid Brezhnev.

Upon entering office, Reagan decided that the best way to end the Soviet Union was to build up an “arms race” to the point where the Soviets could not carry on without starving their own people. This was a new approach, as beforehand emphasis had been on controlling the buildup of nuclear weaponry with a series of Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties. This policy, however, could not guarantee that the American and Soviet governments would limit their weaponry, and provided room for one side to take advantage of the other. Reagan changed U.S. policy to a buildup which would hopefully bankrupt the U.S.S.R.

The likes of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko perceived Reagan’s build up as a threat, and in response, they built up their arms. This was exactly the plan: before long, the Soviets would be compromising the well being of their people merely to keep up with the United States.

Reagan’s other idea, the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed “Star Wars” by critics), would ideally protect the United States from a nuclear strike if the Soviets sent one. The Soviets regarded this, too, as a threat – the U.S. could stop a Soviet strike and then send a devastating one over to the U.S.S.R. in response to the initial strike.

The Soviets were at their breaking point when Gorbachev took over, and began looking to negotiate with Reagan, as well as initiate reforms within his country. Reagan decided that now was the time to negotiate.

So if the Soviet Union would have ended anyway because the system did not work, and because eventually a Soviet leader would realize this, why does Reagan deserve any praise?

The answer: Reagan accelerated the end of the Cold War. He recognized that the Soviet leaders in the first term of his presidency would not easily allow the United States an upper hand in military arms, even if it meant abandoning the people of the U.S.S.R. Had Reagan continued the policies of the presidents before him, it would have taken much longer for the Soviets to reach that point where they could not maintain their military and their people. In that case, who knows how much longer the Soviet Union would have lasted? Who knows how many more people the Soviet regime would eliminate? Who knows how much longer the people of both the United States and the Soviet Union would have lived in uncertainty?

Reagan most definitely deserves praise for accelerating the demise of the Soviet Union. It is absurd to disregard his role in the end of the Cold War when looking back at, and analyzing, his presidency.

Additional Reading:

Wallace, Chris. Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage. New York: Rugged Land, 2004.

Chapter 11, “The Zero Option: Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union,” pp. 206-232 is about this topic.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Reagan, the Soviets, and the End of the Cold War”

  1. First off, I want to debunk your statement about how the Soviet people were “starving.” They were not starving. Conditions were not great in the U.S.S.R., but in no way did it become a humanitarian crisis. In fact, the Russian Federation was worse off during the late 1990s.That said, I agree with much of what you stated in this entry. As you know, I will be turning 20 in August and it is tough for me to believe that not only has 20 years felt like a day, but that I came into a world that I hardly knew about. I was always a Cold War aficianado, and especially at my age, the more I learned about it, the more I came to despise it and thank our lucky stars that the Cold War ended. My hope is that it never returns.Given that, I have some “beef,” of course. Firstly, Ronald Reagan is on the same list that Barry Bonds and Tim Welke is currently on inside my mind. In other words, “I don’t like him.” Ronald Reagan represents everything bad about America, he represented everything America should not be. Anybody who says the current American legacy is the legacy of Bush is incorrect; this is Reagan’s legacy, a legacy that has not yet ended.What is most intriguing about the Cold War is that for both its history as well as after, it has been shrouded in constant secrecy. There is less we know about the Cold War than we know about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That said, I lean towards the idea that Reagan’s supposed victory in the Cold War was a matter of circumstance, not technique. Most will contest my statements, but I simply state that we as Americans are as uninformed as people get. Look closer and we find stories that fit almost nowhere in our superficially glorious history.One thing that stands out like a sore thumb and supports my thesis is Reagan’s 1983 to the British House of Commons, his now-famous “evil empire” speech. For a man, whom as you have stated, who decided to take a passive approach to bringing down the Soviet Union, it seems incredibly dangerous and irresponsible for Reagan to have made such a provocative and strong statement. In fact, it would’ve been dangerous and irresponsible for any president to do so under any circumstance. If Mr. Reagan was so determined to bring down the U.S.S.R. passively, why such a statement?American activities during this period of time do not suggest the U.S. was taking a policy of passive confrontation. In 1979, NATO approved the delivery of a staggerring 500 MGM Pershing II MRBMs, adding to the already-considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons in West Germany. These were not delivered until the fall of 1981, and were not protested by Reagan. This action was highly significant in that the Pershing IIs presented “super-first-strike” capability, meaning that they could reach the Soviet Union under six minutes, not enough time for Moscow to respond. Therefore, at the time, the only preventive measures against the Pershing IIs was a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Combined with the inception of the Strategic Defense Initiative (which would THEORETICALLY allow the U.S. to launch a nuclear strike and survive it, thouroughly nixing the MAD strategy), it is safe to say that the deployment of these 500 missiles only gave Moscow yet another reason to annihilate the West should the situation present itself. This sparked paranoia in the Soviet Union over the intentions of the Reagan administration and thus began Operation: RYAN, a massive espionage/intelligence venture undertaken by Moscow in order to uncover the true nature of the U.S.’s actions.All this lead to the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. From November 3 – 11, 1983, NATO conducted a gargantuan exercise code-named ABLE ARCHER 83. This war game covered the entire continent of Europe, involved every military unit on the NATO roster (excluding U.S. forces that were stateside), and simulated military operations in Europe from the strategic, operational, and tactical level. Most disturbingly, it simulated a theater-wide nuclear release, and most certainly incorporated the Single-Integrated Operational Plan. Its painstaking realism (which included a new secret communications format, radio silences, participation by heads of state, and a simulated countdown from DEFCON 5 to 1) led Moscow to believe that either this was a real attack or that it was a cover for an actual attack. As a result, the Warsaw Pact on full alert and prepped all of its forces (including nuclear weapons), expecting an attack, which never came. Fortunately, the exercise ended soon enough and the End of the World was averted. For now. But these frightening chain of events had culminated in a situation where not only was war highly probable, but it was percieved that the war was actually happening!The mentality of U.S. government officials as well as Reagan himself are questionable as well. C.I.A. official Fritz W. Ermath stated in a May, 1984 report titled “Implications of Recent Soviet Military-Political Activities” in which he stated “We believe strongly that Soviet actions are not inspired by, and Soviet leaders do not perceive, a genuine danger of imminent conflict with the United States.”For real? If the Warsaw Pact did not percieve a genuine danger from NATO, then why did they respond to ABLE ARCHER the way they did? Rober M. Gates, Deputy Director for Intelligence at the time of ABLE ARCHER, further stated that Soviet fears and attitudes at the time were not unfounded, that the events of 1983 had truly and legitimately driven Moscow to consider the situation extremely dangerous, something U.S. intelligence had failed to grasp. But perhaps Ronald Reagan himself takes home the Gold Medal of Ignorance. Upon learning of the Soviet reaction, President Reagan is quoted as saying “I don’t see how they could believe that – but it’s something to think about.”I will not comment any more on that statement except to state that Mr. Reagan’s own words proves the incredible danger he posed to the U.S. and the world, as well as his irresponsibility. For him to assume the events of 1983 and his own words would not spark any sort of defensive Soviet reaction shows either a liar or a man with no grasp of the situation at hand.Either way, Reagan did very little to actually resolve the Cold War peacefully. Fortunately, history ended up working in his favor and good for Reagan, he was able to write history with him as the hero, a literal “god” that many Americans look up to. But I believe there comes a point where history does speak for itself and shows Reagan was no hero and that he nearly caused a cataclysmic situation. It is unfortunate most Americans do not realize this and continue to herald Reagan as that “hero.” If we do not discover the truth and keep holding onto these false idols, we are only asking for whatever we’ve got coming.

  2. One, I never said the Russian people were starving. For brevity’s sake, I will just ask you to read that sentence again.Two, I did not say that Reagan took a “passive approach.” Quite the contrary, I said, or tried to say, that he was more aggressive than any president before him.Three, there were tons of close calls during the Cold War, and not all occurred from 1981-1989. That was the nature of the situation, and probably the only reason neither side cracked was fear of the capabilities of nuclear weapons.That is what Reagan took advantage of. Because he built up arms, out of fear the Russians felt the need to do so as well, which diverted money from other things.Then, out of circumstance, as you might say, Gorbachev came to power looking to negotiate. Eventually someone was going to take power there and realize that the U.S.S.R. could not keep up. Reagan accelerated the arrival of this point.Four, if you quoted Reagan exactly in your third to last paragraph, I can’t find it. A Google search reading “I don’t see how they can believe that”+reagan+”something to think about” turned up zero hits.Fifth, the book I offered might be a good read, although you will probably find something with which to take issue. It’s just one chapter, so it won’t be extremely specific, but it is one place from which I took my reasoning.Now I understand we both have our biases – mine is at the bottom of every page, and yours is in your third paragraph. We can’t convince each other of much of anything, so I’m going to cut it short here.

  3. I stand corrected on the “starving” statement, although it is still a stretch to even bring that up.“Two, I did not say that Reagan took a “passive approach.” Quite the contrary, I said, or tried to say, that he was more aggressive than any president before him.”No misunderstanding there. What my point was that Reagan claimed to have no intention of ever fighting the Warsaw Pact. Its just that his actions tell a different story.“Three, there were tons of close calls during the Cold War, and not all occurred from 1981-1989. That was the nature of the situation, and probably the only reason neither side cracked was fear of the capabilities of nuclear weapons.”I know of pretty much every close call. However, if you do the research on ABLE ARCHER 83, you’ll find that its distinguishing detail was that unlike other incidents, this was no accident or malfunction. This was an actual, planned exercise being carried out, not some guy who screwed up and sent the wrong message. There was significant risk in ABLE ARCHER, a risk that convinced Reagan’s National Security Advisor at the time to not participate in the exercise.As for my biases, there came a point where I actually liked Reagan, or at least that I wanted to like him. Him being the iconic American character, I was always fascinated by why he was so loved and heralded. A toddler in his second term, I never got to know what it was he brought to the table. But as my mom would say, there is always an unfavorable truth behind the hype.

  4. Reagan is only recently coming to prominence as one of the the nation’s very greatest presidents.That prominence has exposed (perhaps ‘created’ is the more appropriate verb) partisan renditions and presentations of history.For proof of this look no further than delusional pundits who, to counter balance real and objective historians, place Reagan among the most lowly ranked presidents in U.S. History. Or worse yet, they make statements like he “… represents all that is wrong with America.”Alas, such assessments cannot be taken seriously and must instead be received for what they are: politically driven partisan revisionist history.

  5. Well, considering the person who said that “Reagan represents everything bad about America” is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, there must be something else to it. What this is, however, I am not quite sure.

  6. In response to Bretware;Nathan said it best. I am neither Republican nor Democrat and I hold an incredible grudge against both parties. In fact, I hold strong dislike for American politics in general. Not convinced? My favorite political commentators are Neal Boortz, Tucker Carlson, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Joe Scarborough, three of those five being major right-wing voices.As for “revisionist history,” look it up yourself. Nothing I stated was conjecture, I made an analysis and drew my conclusions based on what was done and what was said, not what I thought happened or what I thought somebody said. As I said, there comes a point in time where the facts speak for themselves, no matter how well Reagan or Clinton was able to paint a pretty picture.Reagan does not live up to the hype and it is a tragedy people don’t look behind that hype.“Well, considering the person who said that “Reagan represents everything bad about America” is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, there must be something else to it. What this is, however, I am not quite sure.”Well, my conviction is just that. Reagan represents the vision of an America that most Americans honestly rather wouldn’t have. Especially me. People’s love for Reagan and their regard that he was one of the best presidents ever comes from what he represented, but if you asked people if what he represented was what people actually wanted, I’m not sure the answer would be yes. It certainly isn’t the America we see today.

  7. In Response to Edward Chang:Two points.1. Wikipedia defines revisionist history as: <>Historical revisionism is often a legitimate effort in which historians seek to broaden the awareness of certain historical events by re-examining conventional wisdom. However, political historical revisionism takes on a partisan tone.<>I’ll concede you hate both parties, however, that does not mean your assessment of Reagan lacks parrtisan tone. You accentuate only the negative, similar to those our current president decribes citing their <>“…. defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure.”<>2. You state (yet again): <>“Reagan represents the vision of an America that most Americans honestly rather wouldn’t have.”<>Couldn’t disagree with you more. If your statement had any merit to it Reagan’s popularity would be diminishing instead of flourishing. In recent separate polls of ordinary citizens conducted by Washington College, Gallup, and ABC News Reagan was voted 2nd, 1st, and 4th, respectively, among all 42 U.S. Presidents.With all due respect, that sure doesn’t sound to me like a leader who represents a vision of America that is incongruent with public opinion. Check it out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_rankings_of_U.S._Presidents

  8. Bretware, you stated:“I’ll concede you hate both parties, however, that does not mean your assessment of Reagan lacks parrtisan tone. You accentuate only the negative, similar to those our current president decribes citing their ‘…. defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure.'”Fortunately, my regard for your opinion is out of respect and the need for me to explore opposing viewpoints, but nothing beyond that. I really do not mind one way or the other if you believe my assessment of Ronald Reagan is partisan in nature. Yes, I do not like Reagan, and I am under no obligation to like him. I truly believe he was and never was for the best of America. These are my personal convictions and that does not change regardless of how the majority of America sees Reagan.Thus, I’m not sure exactly what you were trying to get at. Did I have to like Reagan? Do I have to be “fair and balanced” about everything? If the latter, then it only confirms the reality that the idea of “fair and balanced” is the most overhyped and stupified concept in recent history. Exploring a subject objectively is useless because somebody will not find it objective and allege bias, even though the blatant intention was to criticize Reagan (which was my intention, therefore your complaints have zero bearing). Thus, there is no objective exploration into any subject matter. Unless somebody comes across the information or the discovery by chance, on random, planning to dig for dinosaur bones requires subjectivity (something to look for, in other words).“Couldn’t disagree with you more. If your statement had any merit to it Reagan’s popularity would be diminishing instead of flourishing. In recent separate polls of ordinary citizens conducted by Washington College, Gallup, and ABC News Reagan was voted 2nd, 1st, and 4th, respectively, among all 42 U.S. Presidents.With all due respect, that sure doesn’t sound to me like a leader who represents a vision of America that is incongruent with public opinion.”You didn’t read my post clearly. Not once did I say that Reagan had diminishing popularity. In fact, I stated Reagan was a literal idol amongst most Americans.Surprised at the apparent contradiction? You shouldn’t be, because there is no contradiction; I also stated in an earlier post (which, if you read, you would’ve clearly recieved) that Americans are quite uninformed. I’ve already stated the popularity of Reagan had more to do with the sort of image he portrayed, the “Great Communicator” that was his hallmark, as opposed to any real substance (unless you consider the rise of conservatism, which is major substance and confirms America as a right-wing dominated country). But otherwise, I cannot consider what Reagan did in the early 1980s during the Cold War a good use of his presidency. Same as Reagan’s counter-part, Kennedy. Kennedy was loved more for what he represented and how he presented himself, not for anything he truly did or accomplished (he wasn’t alive long enough to accomplish much). Can you spell overrated?

  9. edward chang, Since you’re convinced I misread or failed to read your original post, I went back and read it a second time. Here’s my synopsis:You say Reagan represents everything bad about America, but cite precious little to illustrate that contention. By the way, “I don’t like him” is not analysis. From what I can tell you’ve been able to form this opinion based on the following about Reagan:-Americans are vastly uninformed about the cold war/ Reagan yet by your own admission it’s a topic shrouded in secrecy.-he made a speech where he put our potential enemy on notice. BTW, this speech is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest.-he didn’t send back a shipment of missiles ordered before he took office.-his espionage in Nov. ’83 nearly led us into war (though how near of a miss this was is <>highly<> questionable)-he confirmed, through his comments, that the Russians shouldn’t have feared an unprovoked attack from the U.S.Your dislike of Reagan seems to stem from the fact not that, but how, he was able to avoid a major war. It’s a very trivial position, in my opinion. If you’re going to dislike the man or contend he represent all that is wrong with America, then cite what he represents. To most Americans he represents: hope, progress, hard work, patriotism, strength, courage, resilience, efficiency, boldness, charity, freedom, liberty, and prosperity. I could cite dozens of Reagan accomplishments that illustrate these virtues but for the sake of brevity, will not.You don’t have to like Reagan. But to have a contrarian view simply for its own sake and to nitpick comments and historical events that may not have worked out (but alas did) is quite peculiar.

  10. bretware,Here’s something you should know about me. I hate fads. I hate popular culture. I normally disagree (with a good cause) the consensus of the majority of the population on issues. Why? Because If I learned anything growing up, it was to be skeptical. Learn to appreciate the truthfulness of an arts, science, sport, what have you.Why is that significant? Well, knowing that is important in order to understand why statements like “BTW, this speech is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest” have little bearing on how I see the issue. Its a matter of personal opinion and most people simply share the same opinion in regards to this. The “Evil Empire” speech is probably one of the century’s most important, but its hardly one of the greatest in my book. I do consider his 1987 address to the U.N. one of the best speeches, however, but for reasons I will not discuss here.First off, let me clarify that my intention was to examine Reagan’s behavior in regards to the events of the height of the Cold War. What he represented and why I don’t like him is not the purpose of this post, therefore I have no reason to waste time citing what he represents, because that’s not my intention.You pretty much hit the nail on the head with your summary. Good work. But I will contest one of your points:-his espionage in Nov. ’83 nearly led us into war (though how near of a miss this was is highly questionable)Firstly, it was not HIS. It was Moscow. I made that rather blatantly clear. Second, “how near of a miss?” That is not questionable at all. Do the research and you will find that Moscow put Warsaw Pact forces, including NUCLEAR FORCES on full alert. This was not a matter of pondering, either, this was true genuine fear of attack driving Moscow. Any time the U.S.S.R. readies all of its force in preparation for a full-scale preemptive attack on NATO, that’s something to worry about.BTW, its not nitpicking. These are major historical events, all of which could have ended human civilization. This is not something to take lightly and calling the perps out on this is not a matter of nitpicking. Especially considering nobody has learned the lesson. You still see countries like China trying to become nuclear powers, Russia throws nukes around like they’re luxury items, our government likes to tell the world once in a while they can annihilate the world and survive, Africans who know nothing about nuclear weapons want it anyway.That is, unless somebody doesn’t want to be legitimately criticized for it.

  11. “Full alert” sounds like it is a command to prepare for an attack from the otherside. Although perhaps it can also mean to be alert for a command to attack from your side.So, as a question, how exactly is “full alert” defined?

  12. Well, I looked up ABLE ARCHER 83 on Wikipedia. I found there Ed’s quote from Reagan regarding “something to think about.”However, it seemed to me, as I continued to read, that it’s hard to put too much blame on Reagan for the incident. At the very least, he seemed acutely aware of the risk involved.The following part of the article is worth a read and serves as a counterbalance to your viewpoint.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Able_archer#American_reaction

  13. Nathan,Its not much of a counterbalance. I already quoted the DDI who pointed out the U.S.S.R. truly believed the U.S. was planning to attack them. Also, Reagan states in his memoirs:“Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this should’t have surprised me, but it did… During my first years in Washington, I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike… Well, if that was the case, I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us.”Sounds like he’s admitting he screwed up in his thinking. Even if he felt the U.S.S.R. had nothing to fear, he still should’ve not been openly challenging them.Well of course Reagan was at the very least aware of the risk involved. He’s misguided, but I don’t consider him crazy. However, at the very least is not much to brag about. Not to mention only after the fact does he finally realize he had underestimated the Soviet attitude. After the fact is far too late. Reagan and America dodged the biggest bullet of all and I hope even in his grave he thanks his lucky stars. Like you said, there have been too many close calls, but this one was no accident. The risk was there and they took an unnecessary leap of faith.If you were referring more to his “revulsion” at the concept of nuclear war, again, why did he do everything possible to escalate tensions? If you hate pornography, why watch it? Thus, as much as I’d like to respect him for his supposed revulsion, I can’t take it seriously. Actions do speak louder than words.The full alert issue is no issue at all. When forces are on full alert, that means every single inch of the military is ready for combat. Nobody is at home or off-duty, every last soldier, sailor, Marine, and airman is on duty and ready to handle the threat.I’m not sure why I haven’t closed my case yet, though. Reagan is no longer in office and I should be happy about it. As long as none of his dreams are fulfilled, every day’s a holiday for me.

  14. I thought that comment moderation would allow me edit comments. Oh well.I don’t exactly know what you mean by Reagan’s “dreams.”

Comments are closed.