How Reagan won the Cold War.

Military analysis.
June 9 2004 7:29 PM

Ron and Mikhail's Excellent Adventure

How Reagan won the Cold War.

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So, did Ronald Reagan bring on the end of the Cold War? Well, yes. Recently declassified documents leave no doubt about the matter. But how did he accomplish it? Through hostile rhetoric and a massive arms buildup, which the Soviets knew they couldn't match, as Reagan's conservative champions contend? Or through a second-term conversion to detente and disarmament, as some liberal historians, including Slate's David Greenberg, argue?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate. He was the Boston Globe's military reporter from 1982-91 and its Moscow bureau chief from 1992-95.

This is an uncomfortable position for an opinion columnist (and occasional Cold War historian) to take, but it turns out that both views have their merits; neither position by itself gets at the truth. Reagan the well-known superhawk and Reagan the lesser-known nuclear abolitionist are both responsible for the end of that era—along with his vital collaborator Mikhail Gorbachev.

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The Gorbachev factor—too often overlooked in this week of Reagan-hagiography—was crucial. If Yuri Andropov's kidneys hadn't given out, or if Konstantin Chernenko had lived a few years longer, Reagan's bluster and passion would have come to naught; the Cold War would probably have raged on for years; indeed, Reagan's rhetoric and actions might have aggravated tensions.

Still, at some point, some Kremlin leader would have had to mount a major reassessment of the situation. The Soviet system was dysfunctional; its empire was collapsing; the cupboard was bare. And Reagan's surging military budgets, without question, brought this internal crisis to a head.

Here was Gorbachev speaking at a session of the Politburo in October 1986, days before he traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland to offer Reagan a groundbreaking disarmament plan, including a 50 percent reduction in nuclear arsenals. If he didn't propose these cuts, Gorbachev told his colleagues:

[W]e will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities. … If the new round [of an arms race] begins, the pressures on our economy will be unbelievable.

This was not a sudden development. Three years later, in a November 1989 phone conversation with Egon Krenz, the general secretary of the East German Communist Party, Gorbachev recalled when he first became a member of the Politburo and some of its members wanted to look at the state budget: "But Andropov said, 'Do not get in there, it is not your business.' Now we know why he said so. It was not a budget, but hell knows what." The precise effect of Reagan's "Star Wars" speech—his high-profile and insanely impractical plan to build an antimissile "shield"—is hard to gauge. On the one hand, documents reveal that Gorbachev asked Yevgeny Velikhov, his chief science adviser, to evaluate whether Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, as it was formally called, would pose a threat. Velikhov replied that the project was fanciful and that the Soviets could build countermeasures—or deploy additional offensive missiles to saturate the Star Wars system—much more cheaply than the United States could construct additional defenses. However, at the same time, perhaps succumbing to pressure from his own military-industrial complex, Velikhov advised that it might be a good idea to build more missiles, just in case.

This analysis may have calmed Gorbachev a bit, but not entirely. At a Politburo meeting in March 1986, Gorbachev said, "Maybe we should just stop being afraid of the SDI! Of course, we cannot be indifferent to this dangerous program. But [the Americans] are betting precisely on the fact that the USSR is afraid of the SDI. … That is why they are putting pressure on us—to exhaust us."

If somebody says, "Maybe we should stop being afraid of the bogeyman," it usually means he is afraid of the bogeyman. It's pretty clear that in the spring of 1986 Gorbachev and all those around with him were at least a little afraid of the SDI bogeyman.

The next month, April '86, brought the Chernobyl disaster, which, among other things, made Gorbachev realize that information had to circulate more openly (the beginnings of glasnost) and made him think that the ultimate enemy may be nukes themselves.

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