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.
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.