Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War
The once widely held view that Ronald Reagan stumbled his way through the end of the Cold War by sheer good luck has been shattered by two recent books—one by a conservative scholar, and the other by a liberal intellectual historian. Together, these two books, building on the work of previous scholars since the collapse of the Soviet empire, catapult Reagan to the forefront of presidential greatness.
Paul Kengor’s The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, contends that Reagan’s goal of defeating communism and winning the Cold War can be traced to his early struggles against communists in Hollywood as head of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s. In this fight against an attempted communist takeover of the union, Reagan was, in the words of fellow actor Sterling Hayden, a “one man battalion.”
Reagan continued to speak out against communism and the Soviet Union after he became a spokesperson for General Electric and a television personality, and when he entered the national political arena during the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964. Kengor shows that from that time forward, Reagan consistently advocated winning the Cold War rather than settling for the “containment” of communism. For example, in 1950 Reagan joined the “Crusade for Freedom,” a group that called for the roll back of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. He later gave speeches at anti-communist meetings and produced anti-communist television documentaries. In May of 1967, during a debate with Robert Kennedy, Reagan, anticipating what he would dramatically do as president twenty years later, called on Soviet leaders to bring down the Berlin Wall.
The Nixon-Ford-Kissinger approach to détente with the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, caused Reagan to challenge Ford for the Republican nomination for president in 1976. Although Reagan narrowly lost, he and his followers controlled the GOP’s foreign policy platform which all but abandoned the notion of détente.
When he won four years later, therefore, Ronald Reagan brought to the White House strong opposition to détente and a determination to strengthen America’s armed forces. But did he also have as a goal victory in the Cold War? And did he implement a concrete strategy for winning the Cold War? Or, as his detractors say, did Reagan just happen to be president when the Soviet empire collapsed due to internal problems unrelated to any of Reagan’s policies?
Peter Schweizer, based at the Hoover Institution, was the first scholar to significantly make the case that Ronald Reagan deliberately set out to win the Cold War. In two books—Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1994) and Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism (2002)—Schweizer used interviews with some of Reagan’s national security and foreign policy staffers, national security directives, Reagan’s speeches and private correspondence, and documents from several foreign countries, to argue that Reagan intentionally abandoned détente, moved beyond a passive containment policy, and pursued a strategy of victory.
Schweizer noted that at the heart of Reagan’s strategy was a sophisticated effort to exploit Soviet vulnerabilities, especially its economic vulnerabilities, which included: (1) covert financial and intelligence support to the Solidarity union in Poland and other opposition groups within the Soviet empire; (2) financial and military support to the Afghan resistance; (3) cooperative efforts with Saudi Arabia to drive down the price of oil, and limiting Soviet natural gas exports to the West, thereby reducing Soviet hard currency earnings; (4) a campaign to limit Soviet access to Western high technology; (5) a technological disinformation effort to help disrupt the Soviet economy; (6) a massive U.S. defense buildup, including the SDI program, to put more pressure on Soviet economic resources; and (7) financial, military and logistical support for anti-communist forces in several Third World countries. “Reagan,” concluded Schweizer, “did have a well-developed plan seeking the demise of the Soviet Union.”
Paul Kengor, a professor at Grove City College and the author of two books on the impact of religious belief on the presidencies of Reagan and George W. Bush, wholeheartedly agrees with Schweizer. In The Crusader, Kengor builds on Schweizer’s foundation to bolster the case for Reagan as the architect of the West’s victory in the Cold War. According to Kengor, Reagan told staffers during the 1980 presidential campaign that his strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union was simple: “We win and they lose.” In press interviews that same year, Reagan opined that the Soviets could not keep up with us in an all-out arms race, and that it was time for the United States to play that card in the Cold War struggle.
Kengor reveals that at the initial meeting of the new president’s National Security Planning Group in January 1981, Reagan agreed with CIA Director William Casey’s proposal that the United States confront the Soviet Union by exploiting the economic and political vulnerabilities of the communist empire. A secret Pentagon defense guidance issued shortly thereafter called for “reversing” Soviet expansion and encouraging long-term changes within the USSR.
On May 17, 1981, Reagan gave the first public hint of the new strategy in a speech at Notre Dame University. The West, he said, won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. “It will dismiss it,” he explained, “as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” A year later, in his Westminster address in England, Reagan spoke of a long-term “policy” that would leave communism “on the ash heap of history.” Reagan noted that the Soviet Union was “in crisis,” and “in deep economic difficulty,” explaining that its political structure “no longer corresponds to its economic base.”
Beginning in 1982, notes Kengor, Reagan and his national security team compiled Soviet vulnerability assessments and planned long-term economic warfare against the USSR. This included the super-secret “Farewell Dossier,” which searched for the Soviet “Achilles heel,” and devised a scheme to provide Soviet agents with defective technologies to sabotage Moscow’s efforts to pilfer U.S. high technology research and products.
Reagan in 1982 and 1983 also approved a series of National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs) that launched economic warfare campaigns against Moscow, instituted political warfare programs designed to loosen the Kremlin’s control of its satellite empire, and made it U.S. policy to bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Viewed against this background, the massive U.S. military build-up, the promotion of SDI, the forcible liberation of Grenada from communist rule, assistance to anti-communist resistance forces within the Soviet empire and in the Third World, restrictions on high-technology transfers, and military assistance to the Afghan rebels, were all part of Reagan’s successful crusade against Soviet communism. Ronald Reagan, concludes Kengor, “was not content to contain Soviet Communism. He wanted to kill it. He not only said so but committed himself and his administration to that very deliberate goal—a goal that stemmed from Reagan himself, not his advisers, long before 1981.”
If Kengor’s Reagan is the great crusader against communism, John Patrick Diggins’ Reagan is one of history’s great “liberators,” and one of the three or four greatest American presidents. Diggins’ new book, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, provides insights into Reagan’s character and surprising judgments about Reagan’s approach to the Cold War. Diggins admires Reagan and his role in ending the Cold War as much as Kengor does, but offers a very different explanation for how he did so.
Diggins calls Reagan our most “Emersonian” president, emphasizing Reagan’s optimism, self-reliance, individualism, and political romanticism. Like Kengor, Diggins locates the roots of Reagan’s anti-communism in the late 1940s struggle for control of the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood. Reagan, Diggins explains, was also deeply influenced by the writings of F.A. Hayek and Whittaker Chambers. His anti-communism was further reinforced by the 1960s radical counter-culture which he opposed as California’s governor.
Diggins contends that Reagan helped end the Cold War by exercising prudent diplomacy and skillful statesmanship rather than by crusading against communism and exploiting Soviet vulnerabilities. “It is erroneous to argue,” writes Diggins, “…that Reagan concluded that the time had come ‘not merely to contain Communism but to defeat it.’” Instead, Reagan ignored the advice of his more hawkish staffers and shifted from his early policy of emphasizing deterrence to a policy of dialogue because he feared that continued confrontation would eventually spark a nuclear war. “Reagan broke free of the rigidities of cold war thinking,” explains Diggins, “to begin negotiating with [Soviet leader] Gorbachev…” Thus, for Diggins, it was not Reagan’s confrontational policies that caused the collapse of the Soviet empire, as Schweizer and Kengor claim, but rather his “enlightened statesmanship.”
Reagan, according to Diggins, was not a conservative, but “the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo.” He was not the “amiable dunce” of his detractors’ imagination, but had “an intelligent, sensitive mind with passionate convictions.” Reagan, Diggins explains, defied history and took control of events, and as a result, “[t]he cold war ended in an act of faith and trust, not fear and trembling.”
Was Reagan the crusader of Kengor’s book or the conciliator of Diggins’ book? The answer, I believe, is that he was both. Reagan the crusader launched a political, military, psychological, and economic offensive designed to undermine Soviet power. Reagan’s speeches, his national security directives, and his policies sought to roll-back the Soviet empire. Reagan the conciliator engaged in summitry and arms control negotiations with a reform-oriented Mikhail Gorbachev to peacefully manage the Cold War. Reagan’s relationship with Gorbachev then enabled President George H.W. Bush to peacefully liberate the peoples of eastern and central Europe from Soviet control.
The West’s peaceful Cold War victory demonstrated that Reagan succeeded at being both a crusader and a conciliator, and the lifting of the “iron curtain” in eastern and central Europe fully justifies Diggins’ claim that Reagan is one of the three great liberating presidents (Lincoln and FDR are the others) in our history.
The last word on this, however, goes not to Kengor or Diggins, but to the most influential Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis. In his recently revised and updated Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (2005), Gaddis carefully concludes:
Reagan, Gaddis explained, ended the Cold War by “changing rather than containing” the Soviet Union. “In doing so,” writes Gaddis, “he resolved a contradiction that had bedeviled strategists of containment from the earliest days of the Cold War” (p. 376). That singular accomplishment surely warrants Reagan’s placement among the greatest of U.S. presidents.
Francis P. Sempa is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is the author ofGeopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and has published articles in Strategic Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, American Diplomacy, The National Interest, National Review, Human Rights Review, and The Washington Times.