Reagan's 100th anniversary: His Cold War record.

Policy made plain.
Feb. 16 2001 3:00 AM

Reagan's Record II

Did he win the Cold War?

This Sunday commemorates the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, America's (post-Kennedy) Presidential Sweetheart. Though forever embedded in our historical fabric as a swashbuckling Cold War hero, Reagan's contributions may have been only mediocre, to say the least. Read more about the actor-turned-president's overrated political effect in the Cold War in Michael Kinsley's 2001 article, below. 

"I've become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence," said President Reagan in his "Star Wars" address of 1983, in which he first proposed to build a defense against nuclear missiles. Its purpose, he said, would be "introducing greater stability" in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. "We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage."

Reagan's hagiographers, currently frolicking in celebration of his 90th birthday, now say he was lying about all this. They don't put it that way, of course. But that is the necessary implication of their claim that Reagan's tough rhetoric, his costly defense buildup, and his Strategic Defense Initiative in particular were all part of a successful strategy to defeat communism and win the Cold War.

If Reagan was lying in order to hide an actual intention to destroy the Soviet Union, whom was he trying to fool? Not the enemy, since the whole theory is that Reagan scared the Soviets into giving up. If he was lying, it must have been in order to deceive the American citizenry about the most important issue facing any democracy. Not nice.

But more likely he was telling the truth. In favor of this theory is the fact that in all his denunciations of communism and the Soviet Union, before and during his presidency, the emphasis was on the enemy's enormous and allegedly growing military strength and the need to counter it for our own survival—not the hope, let alone the intention, of toppling it.


The famous exception is his "Evil Empire" speech of 1982, in which he predicted that communism will end up "on the ash heap of history." Reagan's critics wrongly denounced that speech for stating the obvious about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys of the Cold War. But even on this occasion he described the collapse of communism as "a plan and a hope for the long term." He (correctly) gave most credit to communism's own economic and political failures. And the "concrete actions" he advocated to hasten the day (although "we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change") were entirely unmilitary—basically the creation of what became the National Endowment for Democracy.

In the economic sphere (discussed in last week's column), the Reagan hagiographers give him credit for things he intended that never happened, such as smaller government. On the world stage, they credit him for things he never intended that did happen.

Well, so what? Even if Reagan didn't intend his military buildup to achieve victory, that was the happy result—wasn't it? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly the half-centurylong bipartisan policy of containment played a role. The effect of variations one way or another is debatable. The notion that Jimmy Carter left us weak and vulnerable is certainly exaggerated. Once you give up the idea that Reagan planned it all, the notion that his buildup (for which we're still paying) made the crucial difference becomes less than obvious.

Some former Soviet apparatchiks have testified that Reagan's policies were devastating. This is oddly persuasive to people who wouldn't have believed a word these guys said when they were following the party line of their previous masters. But it's amazing how credible you can become when you tell me what I want to hear.

Suppose events had played out closer to the way Reagan actually predicted. Suppose that, two decades later, communism's internal collapse was continuing on a long fuse, but meanwhile its military strength had continued to grow. And suppose we had responded with continued Reagan-style increases in defense spending. What would the Reagan hagiographers be saying then? Would they be saying, "Well, he did a lot of great things, but his defense policy doesn't seem to have worked"? No, they would be saying exactly what they're saying now: that history had proved him right.

Winning an argument you refuse to lose is a Pyrrhic victory. If no outcome short of outright defeat or nuclear annihilation would be accepted as evidence that Reagan's policy was a failure, no particular outcome is evidence that it was a success.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.