By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
APRIL 2020—The following is the second of a two-part series celebrating President Reagan’s central role in winning the Cold War, describing his means and methods in pursuit of that goal, and refuting a recent essay that argues otherwise. Among other things, that essay made the eyerolling case that: Gorbachev was opposed to increasing military spending; Reagan’s hardline rollback policy did not force Gorbachev to liberalize and did not contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union; SDI had no significant effect on Soviet strategic decision-making; Gorbachev opposed building a Soviet answer to SDI; and defense buildups (like the one Reagan undertook) don’t affect the behavior of authoritarian regimes (like the Soviet Union). The previous issue addressed the first two of these assertions. This issue addresses the other three.
>SDI had no significant effect on Soviet strategic decision-making.
None other than former Soviet Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh credits Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) with accelerating the decline of the USSR. A pair of Reagan-Gorbachev summits showed Moscow how serious Reagan was about building SDI to shield America.
The Geneva summit, held in 1985, was the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit. During the meeting, Reagan said three things that had a profound impact on Gorbachev and on the Cold War.
First, he declared, “We don’t mistrust each other because we are armed; we are armed because we mistrust each other.”
Next, he explained the causes of America’s mistrust of the Soviet Union, detailing for Gorbachev the full litany of Soviet acts of aggression since 1917. “No previous president had seen fit to say this directly to the Soviets ever,” historian Derek Leebaert recalls.
Finally, he put Gorbachev on notice: “You can’t win this arms race.” It wasn’t a boast or a threat—just a matter of economic might and political will. In Reagan, America had a leader eager to bring both to bear.
Although that summit ended with little progress, the two men agreed to meet about a year later in Reykjavik, where Gorbachev proposed sweeping cutbacks in missiles and warheads, cuts to conventional forces, even the denuclearization of Europe—all in exchange for just one concession: SDI. Soviet foreign ministry aide Sergei Tarasenko recounts that Gorbachev’s mission at Reykjavik was “to kill SDI.”
But Reagan wouldn’t budge, and the summit ended with no progress. A BBC headline expresses what most observers thought at the time: “Reykjavik Summit Ends in Failure.” But the summit was anything but a failure for those who wanted the Cold War to end in a manner favorable to the West. As Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Carter’s national security advisor) explained a few years later, Reykjavik is where the Cold War was won.
Less than five months after Reykjavik, Reagan and Gorbachev met again. And this time Gorbachev agreed to the INF Treaty, with no linkage to SDI. “The Soviets blinked,” Reagan wrote in his journal after inking the INF deal. The Cold War was melting away—and so was the Soviet Empire.
>Gorbachev rejected proposals to build a Soviet response to SDI.
In fact, before and during Gorbachev’s time in power, the Soviets were developing—and deployed—anti-ballistic missile systems.
Martin and Annelise Anderson detail this in their book “Reagan’s Secret War.” They describe the sophisticated ABM system that protected Moscow during Gorbachev’s tenure; note that the Soviets tasked 10,000 scientists to ABM research in the 1980s; quote a 1985 speech by Reagan that revealed the Soviets were “doing advanced research on their own version of SDI”; and cite a declassified letter from Reagan to Gorbachev, which called the Soviet leader to task for deploying a weapons system capable of striking missiles flying through space—even as Gorbachev disingenuously derided SDI as a “space-strike weapon.”
>The notion that military buildups and tough talk can force authoritarian regimes to adjust their behavior is “ahistorical.”
Well, we know the converse certainly holds. Consider, for example, the West’s military drawdowns after World War I and how that gave rise to aggression by the Axis. Similarly, America’s post-Vietnam drawdown opened the door to Soviet expansion.
As for the impact of military buildups and tough talk, TR’s blunt warnings to Imperial Germany during the Venezuela Crisis—backed by a massive show of force in the Caribbean—clearly forced the Kaiser to adjust his behavior. Likewise, Ike’s warnings that he was prepared to use atomic bombs against China—backed by his reputation and his massive nuclear buildup—ended the Korean War and shielded Taiwan from invasion.
The correlation between Reagan’s buildup and Gorbachev’s foreign-policy transformation is equally strong.
The decade of détente, which preceded Reagan’s election, had undermined America’s strength and international standing. So, Reagan pushed through a massive increase in defense spending—$1.6 trillion over six years. Gorbachev knew Reagan was right about the arms race he had inherited. He knew he could not keep pace with Reagan’s rebuild and the technological advances it delivered. And Reagan knew that Gorbachev’s empire was financially and morally bankrupt. The growth rate of the centralized Soviet economy had plummeted from the 5-percent annual clip of the 1960s to just one percent. And the USSR was diverting 30 percent of GDP to its military (while the U.S. was spending around 6 percent of GDP on defense). Gorbachev recalls, “We were increasingly behind the West…I was ashamed for my country—perhaps the country with the richest resources on earth, and we couldn’t provide toothpaste for our people.”
It was the Reagan’s buildup that pushed the Soviet Union into such a dire dead end—and forced Gorbachev to sue for peace.
Interestingly, Gorbachev himself admits that the peaceful end of the Cold War depended on Reagan as much as it depended on him. “I deem Ronald Reagan a great president…a statesman who, despite all disagreements that existed between our countries at the time, displayed foresight and determination to meet our proposals halfway and change our relations for the better.”
Even more interesting is that Reagan predicted—in 1963—how the Cold War would end: “In an all-out arms race, our system is stronger, and eventually the enemy gives up the race as a hopeless cause. Then, a noble nation, believing in peace, extends the hand of friendship and says there is room in the world for both of us.”
It was Reagan who extended that open hand of friendship and offered a soft landing to the broke and broken Soviet regime—but only after he played hard ball to win the Cold War.
Photo: Ronald Reagan Wikimedia Commons