Let’s stop revising history: Reagan didn’t win the Cold War
Well, they’ve done it again. And again. Whether blinded by ideological bias or suffering from a dearth of facts, conservative commentators still attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union to Ronald Reagan’s confrontational approach to the “evil empire.” But the historical record points to an entirely different reality: Reagan’s deeply personal diplomatic engagement with a moderate, reform-minded Soviet leader fostered the liberalizing changes that ushered in the collapse of the USSR.
Yes, Reagan entered office embracing a bombastic, confrontational approach to the Soviet Union. He also went on a massive defense spending spree which – in the wake of enormous tax cuts for the wealthy – led to staggering increases in federal debt. But then things changed dramatically. Following a series of summit meetings with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan softened his stance toward the Soviet Union.
Indeed, most Americans are unaware that Reagan recanted his description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” dismissing his confrontational rhetoric as a relic of “another time, another era.”
In a remarkable scene that some arch-conservatives seem to have forgotten, Reagan warmly embraced Gorbachev as the two world leaders casually chatted with cheering Soviet citizens while strolling through Moscow’s Red Square.
Far too many contemporary conservatives also conveniently forget that Reagan took enormous flak from his own hard-right flank in response to his diplomatic overtures to Gorbachev. According to George Will, Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West.” William F. Buckley blasted Reagan, claiming that his shift from confrontation to diplomacy amounted to “changing our entire position toward Adolf Hitler.” How spectacularly wrong they were.
Indeed, many conservative commentators would prefer to sweep these historical nuances under the rug. These realities also directly contradict a deeply ideological (and ahistorical) narrative that – short of war – massive defense buildups, bellicosity and tough talk bring authoritarian regimes to their knees.
With access to thousands of pages of Soviet records, oral histories and memoirs, we now know that the confrontational approach that defined Reagan’s first few years in office had very little, if any, impact on Soviet strategic decisionmaking. In fact, the antagonism of Reagan’s early presidency likely prolonged the Cold War by elevating hardline, anti-American voices over those of moderate reformers like Gorbachev.
Reagan’s true Cold War legacy is rooted in his deeply personal diplomatic engagement with Gorbachev. Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev and praise for his reforms gave the Soviet leader the latitude to enact the political and social changes – perestroika, glasnost, demokratizatsiya – that ultimately caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Indeed, Reagan foreshadowed all of this in early 1984, writing in his diary: “If we opened [the Soviet Union] up a bit, their leading citizens would get braver about proposing changes in their system.”
Another common refrain among conservatives is that Reagan simply “outspent” the Soviets. But Soviet defense spending remained flat throughout the 1980s. More significantly, Gorbachev was unalterably opposed to increasing military spending; he fought a relentless campaign by the Soviet military-industrial complex to spend exorbitant sums in response to Reagan’s buildup.
In particular, revisionist historians point to Reagan’s enormous investments in the Strategic Defense Initiative (derisively known as “Star Wars”) as playing a significant role in the Soviet collapse. But Russian (and American) scientists knew early on that SDI, which sought to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles with lasers, was a pipe dream. Far more consequentially, the Soviets knew that they could easily defeat Reagan’s “Star Wars” fantasy by launching hundreds of decoys and saturating the skies with more nuclear warheads than the system could handle.
Despite costing taxpayers billions of dollars, SDI had no significant effect on Soviet strategic decisionmaking. Gorbachev rejected every single proposal to build a Soviet response to Reagan’s “Star Wars” program.
Importantly, Reagan’s stubborn insistence on maintaining his technological boondoggle prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from eliminating all of their nuclear weapons. Yes, all of them. As missed opportunities go, that is a whopper.
Some revisionist commentators also argue that Reagan’s tough talk and enormously wasteful military spending spree scared the Soviets into elevating a radical reformer – Gorbachev – to lead the USSR. But this runs contrary to the facts. Gorbachev’s radical agenda of change was largely unknown to the Politburo when he was selected to lead the Soviet Union. With a series of geriatric Soviet heads of state dying in quick succession, Gorbachev was picked largely because of his youth.
There is also no evidence that Reagan’s “rollback” policy – which sought to aggressively challenge communist movements throughout the world, from Central America to Afghanistan and Africa – had an iota of influence on the liberalizing reforms that catalyzed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With a reformist government currently in power in Iran, President Trump would be wise to take heed of history. In addition to openly supporting Iranian demonstrators, the moderate government in Tehran has enacted Gorbachevian economic and social reforms that sapped Iran’s most corrupt, anti-American voices of power and influence.
While his confrontational approach to Iran has significantly undermined Iran’s reformers, it is not too late for Trump to seize his Reaganesque moment of diplomatic engagement. With Iran’s anti-American supreme leader significantly weakened, a speedy return to the landmark Iran nuclear agreement – supported by key voices in the U.S. and Israeli security establishments – and an embrace of Iran’s moderate government can undermine Iranian hardliners and foster truly transformational reforms in the Islamic Republic.
Indeed, Trump would be wise to learn from Reagan who, in the middle of a Cold War summit, whispered to Gorbachev, “I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.
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