Reagan and the Cold War

Patrick J. Garrity

December 1, 2002

President Ronald Reagan, in his famous June 1982 speech to the British Parliament, described the outlines of “a plan and a hope for the long term—the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

Five years later, Reagan delivered an address at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, near the infamous Wall. A new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had recently been making noises about a fundamental change in the communist system. “The Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom,” Reagan observed. “We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness.” Still, the West was right to ask whether this marked the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state or merely token gestures, intended to raise false hopes and to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it. But, Reagan noted, “there is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

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!

Communism (at least the Soviet variety) has indeed been since left on the ash-heap of history. The wall was torn down. How did this happen; and who should get the credit?

Peter Schweizer, a Fellow at the Hoover Institution, has no doubt of the answer. The title of his latest book tells all: Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph over Communism (New York: Doubleday). Schweizer argues that Reagan had comprehensive vision for dealing with the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. Reagan’s approach was remarkably consistent for four decades.

Reagan’s views about and opposition to communism were long-standing and personal, going back to his experience with Soviet efforts to infiltrate Hollywood in the 1940s. Reagan hated the tyranny and oppression of Marxism-Leninism but he also had a positive and optimistic view of humanity that he believed was best exemplified by the American regime.

What struck Reagan about Communism was its weakness. Communists ruled by fear and intimidation. He believed that policies of peaceful coexistence Ð or of passively containing the Soviet Union Ð would be disastrous. The Communists would over time use the Western fear of war, especially nuclear war, to undermine the confidence of free peoples. They practiced “salami slice” tactics of intimidation and bluff to gain marginal advantages that would eventually accumulate to a victory in the Cold War or allow the Communists to win a final showdown. Reagan sought to turn the tables on Moscow and its allies by advocating an all-out fight against the growing encroachment of Communism in this nation and throughout the world.

By all-out fight, Reagan did not mean military action, although if that was required of the United States in particular circumstances—e.g., Korea, Vietnam—the United States should have fought to win. The key front in the Cold War, in Reagan’s assessment, was actually the Soviet economy. Marxism was a materialist philosophy, and its chief claim to practical allegiance around the world was its supposed ability to produce economic plenty (and thereby, social justice). In fact, Reagan believed that democracy and capitalism had decisive, natural advantages over totalitarian systems and centrally-planned economies. Reagan sought to confront the Soviet Union simultaneously with various forms of economic pressure: nearly-open ended American military spending; threats to the security of the Soviet empire (especially in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan) through direct and indirect American support to resistance movements; losses of foreign currency that the Soviets had expected from sales of oil and natural gas; and a cutoff of Western aid and technology.

Reagan argued that the Cold War would end only when there was a fundamental change in the Soviet system, and not just in Soviet policies. The strategy of economic warfare was designed to force such a change, by bringing to the fore a new generation of Soviet leaders who would finally recognize the bankruptcy of communist ideology and move toward a true political rapprochement with the West. The United States, in turn, would promote democracy throughout the world as a magnet and an example to all the peoples oppressed by dictatorships of whatever stripe.

Of course, Schweizer does not offer the only explanation for the end of the Cold War. The Left (broadly defined) has a different hero: Mikhail Gorbachev.

According to the Left, Reagan was an accidental, indeed, an unworthy beneficiary of Gorbachev’s reforms. Indeed, Reagan’s threats and military pressure only retarded the Soviet leader’s plans and made the peaceful transformation of the Soviet Union impossible. Gorbachev, if he had met with a more enlightened American leader than Reagan, might have succeeded in approximating the Left’s great aim: democratic socialism with a human face. Instead, Gorbachev was removed from power; the Soviet Union disintegrated into a hodgepodge of unstable states armed in some cases with nuclear weapons and ruled by fascist oligarchs. Left unchecked by countervailing Soviet power, the United States has since gone off on unilateralist crusades. By the lights of the Left, Reagan didn’t win the Cold War; we all lost it.

For those who believe that “democratic socialism with a human face” is oxymoronic at several levels, the Left’s assertion that we all lost the Cold War is hardly worthy of comment. But Reagan undeniably and deliberately did run the risk of war in order to place pressure on Moscow. Historians still debate just how close we came, especially during the European nuclear missile crisis in the early 1980s. In any event, we should be thankful that the Soviets chose to fold their hand rather than fight. As Reagan correctly estimated, they lacked the stomach for war. But we may not be as fortunate with other tyrants and terrorists in the future.

The American foreign policy establishment has a different explanation for the end of the Cold War: Containment of the Soviet Union finally worked. Containment was the bipartisan U.S. national security policy initially adopted in the late 1940s and pursued (according to the establishment) resolutely by successive presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat. The United States won the Cold War because it outlasted the Soviet Union through a battle of attrition, not because of any brilliant strategic maneuvers. Reagan played an important role in this process, but he was merely standing on the shoulders of giants beginning with Truman, Marshall, and Acheson.

This conclusion is self-serving and self-congratulatory. It presumes the “right to rule” by foreign policy elites who know all the answers. But it has an essential element of truth. America did stay the course. American foreign policy throughout the Cold War was hardly as passive and defensive as often portrayed (and as Reagan sometimes seemed to believe). NSC-68, the national security policy document adopted during the later stages of the Truman administration, had a strong offensive thrust. Even the much-maligned Carter administration made its contribution, as key officials in the Department of Defense conceived of an “offset strategy” that would match American technological strengths against Soviet weaknesses and drive up the cost of defense for the Kremlin. Ronald Reagan inherited this strategy but, unlike Carter, he proved willing to pay for it.

The American foreign policy establishment resisted many of Reagan’s initiatives as too risky, and its representatives fought vigorously to take the edge off many of his policies or redirect them altogether. Reagan himself subscribed to the adage of coaches everywhere, that it is amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit. He accepted the fierce interagency and Congressional disputes that arose in consequence, as part of the price of implementing his policies in a democracy. He never lost sight of the prize, however.

Conservatives generally accept Schweizer’s explanation for the end of the Cold War. They are happy to take credit for Reagan’s success and apply his name to policies they wish to pursue in the future. Yet there are some important differences between Reagan’s approach and that of many of his conservative contemporaries. Reagan was naturally optimistic about the strength of democracy and the weakness of communism. He believed the West could and would win the Cold War. Many (not all) conservatives were pessimistic. They doubted the will of the democracies, overestimated Soviet staying-power and toughness, and saw themselves as fighting a rear-guard action designed to stave off defeat as long as possible. Some conservatives questioned Reagan’s judgment when he saw the possibilities of doing business with Gorbachev; they argued that any negotiation with the Kremlin Ð any accommodation to the fears of allies Ð was politically demoralizing.

In the end, Reagan was proven correct on the big questions against critics from the left, center and right. He was never one to sweat the small stuff. And as Schweizer concludes, “Reagan’s hope that we be guided not by fear but by courage and moral clarity is as apt today as it was during the Cold War.”

Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.