Did Ronald Reagan Win the Cold War?

The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan by Jim Mann. (purchase)

The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis (purchase)

When Ronald Reagan died in early June 2004 the nation – in the throws of both a Republican Congress and Presidency – erupted with grief. Despite the balmy Washington weather, over 100,000 people paid respects to Reagan’s casket as it sat in the Capitol Building rotunda.  President Bush declared June 11th “a national day of mourning.”  The media devoted around-the-clock coverage to Reagan’s passing, reflecting on his legacy. Weighing on Reagan’s death, The National Review – according to Reagan, “his favorite magazine” – plainly stated: “Success tends to end controversy.  After we won the Cold War, we discovered everyone was an anti-communist .  .  .  Many of the issue that animated his political career . . . are no longer issues because Reagan won.”   The National Review summarized a powerful strain of thought: that Reagan was responsible for the end of the Cold War. Historians rarely go this far, but several recent works have, indeed, given Reagan ample credit for the Soviet Union’s demise.

Two of these books, the newly-released The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War by James Mann and 2006’s The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, focus in on the contingency of the Cold War’s end, emphasizing the importance of actors and ideas – Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in particular – in ending the Cold War.  Both tomes give credit to, as Gaddis writes, “the saboteurs of the status quo” – the handful of leaders audacious enough to envision a world without the Cold War and accompanying nuclear threat. Implicit to these narratives is the recognition that the Cold War did not have to end the way it did; the U.S.-Soviet split could have easily settled into stable stalemate stretching well past 1991.  But the overlapping visions of Reagan and Gorbachev – mutual friendship, shared pragmatism and a touch of collective dreaminess – ensured that it did not.  These visions met resistance, of course, from an array of forces. In particular, American realists threaten to thwart a potential ending by locking the two competing powers into a predictable system of interaction.  Though the books vary widely in who and what, exactly, they emphasize, their general historical framework is very similar.  The historical narratives skip along with the giddiness of victory and the relatively new historical prospect of a completed Cold War narrative.

In both narratives of the 1980’s, Reagan succeeded despite the trenchant opposition of three groups: conservatives, realists, and the foreign policy establishment.   Reagan’s second-term split with hawkish conservatives is among the most overlooked trends of the period.  This rift exposes the irony of conservatives’ post-1991 triumphalism: Reagan succeeded because he deviated from the conservative hardline and assuming a more pragmatic diplomatic outlook with Gorbachev.  At the time, these dalliances upset his avowed supporters; they could not reconcile the “softer” diplomatic tact of his second term with the steely rhetoric of his first term and pre-presidential rhetoric. This reaction made sense; Reagan had always been among the most vocal anti-communists in America. From his work with the Screen Actors’ Guild in the 1950’s to his famous “A Time For Choosing” speech in October 1964 to his hawkish 1976 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan had thrived by stoking anti-communist passions. Reagan’s first term continued this trend more-or-less with the “evil empire” speech in 1983 and the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”).   But to see Reagan openly engage the supreme leader of an “evil” nation starting in 1986 was bewildering and embittering.  Examples of this bitterness abound in Mann’s book.  In 1987, Reagan met with what a political strategist might label his “base”:  Paul Weyrich if the Committee for the Survival of Congress, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum (yes, that Phyllis Schlafly), and Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucasus.   The meeting was chilly and, unlike prior meetings, “there was no applause” for Reagan’s decisions.   Columnist George Will was equally frosty, accusing Reagan of abandoning the anti-Soviet cause. Charles Krauthammer and other commentators began to loudly blame “the moderates” in the White House, like George Schultz, for leading Reagan astray.   But the conservatives were not the biggest obstacles to Reagan’s change.

Without a doubt, the realists and détente were the greatest obstacles to the ending of the Cold War.  Nixon, Kissinger, Scowcroft and associates simply never saw – or wanted to see – an end to the bipolar world order; they suffered from a failure of imagination. Reagan’s focus on what Gaddis calls the “intangibles” differed sharply from realists whose worldview consisted only of military and economic power.   Indeed, to them, geopolitics was no more than a hardscrabble fight, a give-and-take series of maneuvers seesawing endlessly into the future. Their world was, in some respects, static. “Just as the Cold War had frozen the results of World War II in place, so détente sought to freeze the Cold War in place.”   This was intentional; the détente approach of the 1970’s had settled the conflict into a predictable diplomatic system, ensuring short-term stability and a de-escalation of nuclear tensions but no action that hit at the ideological root of the conflict.

But détente began to fray during the Ford and Carter administrations, giving space to Reagan to uproot it. During his 1976 bid for the Republican Presidential nomination, Reagan said that détente was “a one-way street that simply gives the Soviets what they want with nothing in return.”   By the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Gaddis notes, the Soviet Union was a strong as ever.  The Cold War hadn’t receded, just become more structured. Margaret Thatcher noted around that time that, “I had long understood that détente had previously been used by the Soviets to exploit Western weakness and disarray. I knew the beast.”   Despite the strategic troubles of détente, realists refused to see the war in any other light, particularly Nixon and Kissinger.
Reagan’s “intangibles”-focused view of the Cold War and Nixon’s realism created a riff between the two powerful men.  Mann devotes a substantial portion of his book to this tension, a riff symbolic of the split in American strategy.  Both men were products of the Cold War, massively successful because of their aggressive anti-communism: “Of the ten presidential elections in the United States in the Cold War era from the end of World War II to 1984, there had been only two (1948 and 1964) in which neither Nixon and Reagan had figured prominently as either a presidential candidate or as a vice presidential candidate.”   But by the 1980’s, their anti-communism took dramatically different shapes. In 1987, Reagan brought Nixon back to the Oval Office for advice. Nixon warned Reagan that Gorbachev was just like every other Soviet leader before him, from Stalin to Brezhnev and beyond.   Later that year, the day after Reagan demanded that Gorbachev “tear down that wall,” Nixon’s most influential advisor Henry Kissinger spoke to Good Morning America and insisted that glasnost and other Soviet reforms were actually designed to make the Soviet Union stronger.   But, as history demonstrates, Republican realists had grossly misjudged the situation.

Realist leaders simply gave too much attention to power and not people.  The Cold War: A New History, Gaddis cheekily titles a key chapter “Actors,” a literal reference to acting background of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II and a reference to the importance of individuals in international relations.  From an historical point of view, the importance of “great men” seems like common sense, but international relations theory gives little credit to individuals.  A slew of international relations theories have tried to account for the end of the Cold War without factoring in individuals.  A popular paper, for instance, gives credit to the rise of globalization and Soviet economic turmoil.   But Mann and Gaddis both want to look past economic determinism and simple interests-based outlooks. Thus, both authors heap praise on Reagan, Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul IV for their powers of imagination; they each sincerely envisioned a world without the conflict of the Cold War.  Western leaders foresaw the self-defeat of communism, while Gorbachev foresaw the USSR adapting new priorities amidst changing times.  As Mann writes in his conclusion, “Above all, Reagan recognized that the Cold War was not a permanent state of affairs; that it could, one day or another, draw to a close.”

Part of Reagan’s ability to foresee the internal collapse of Soviet communism was thanks to the influence of a close, informal advisor named Suzanne Massie. Massie was the enterprising author of several books on Russian history. Her most unique insight was that Russian religion, traditions, and history were still potent forces amongst the people of the Soviet Union, more powerful than the political and economic system imposed by the CCP.   Russian nationalism, in other words, is stronger than Soviet communism. Her research supported Reagan’s hope that the Soviet Union was much weaker internally than it was given credit for in the West. Reagan and Massie met more than 20 times from 1984 onward. Mann even concludes that she carried covert messages between the White House and the Kremlin.   Overall, Massie’s influence over Reagan demonstrated Reagan’s desire and ability to rebel from the Republican and foreign policy establishment status quos.

Reagan’s most important act of “rebellion” was to embrace Gorbachev as an extraordinary Soviet leader. Reagan – through a combination of contrarian thinking, people skills, and willful ignorance of diplomatic details – sensed that Gorbachev was not like Stalin, Khrushchev, and the Soviet leaders of the past.    This was partly simple “people skills” on the part of Reagan, whose multiple careers were built on charm and social finesse. In the case of Gorbachev, Reagan made an excellent read. Reagan, Gaddis argues, saw the Cold War as theatre: there was a fundamental difference between rhetoric and the reality.   He could talk tough, but then sit down and have a laugh. This meant that, during his second term, there was a bewildering gap between Reagan’s “evil empire”-style rhetoric and his moderate, pragmatic negotiation positions.  Liberals bemoaned Reagan’s “saber-rattling” while conservatives decried his close relationship with Gorbachev.

But Reagan’s relationship to Gorbachev was key, because Gorbachev’s personal outlook and quirks made the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union possible. Reagan chose to work more with the Soviet Union based on his read that Gorbachev wanted to U.S.S.R. to change almost as much as Reagan himself wanted it to change. “We can’t go on living like this,” an anguished Gorbachev privately told his wife in 1986.   As Gaddis points out, however, Gorbachev only knew what he was running from and not  where he wanted to end up.   In a 1988 public address, Gorbachev compared his new injection of liberalism into the Soviet Union to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s introduction of “social justice to American capitalism”: it was not a revolution he sought, but a dilution.   “He was once vigorous, decisive, and adrift: he poured enormous energy into shattering the status quo without specifying how to reassemble the pieces.”   Reagan, on the other hand, had a much better defined-vision: the end of the Soviet empire. Both men did, however, agree on one destination: a nuclear weapons-free world.

Ending the threat of nuclear war became a priority for both Reagan and Gorbachev. Whereas the realists and foreign policy establishment had sought only to lessen the threat of nuclear apocalypse in the form of bilateral agreements like SALT, only those few “visionaries” actually contemplated eliminating them. The elimination of nuclear weapons up to the mid-1980’s had been regarded as a far left pipe dream and certainly not something a proper conservative should buy into. George Will wrote, “Reagan seems to accept the core of the catechism of the anti-nuclear left…the notion that the threat is the existence of nuclear weapons, not the nature of the Soviet regime.”  But Reagan legitimately saw both as threats. The early 1980’s had seen a renewal of nuclear tension. The threat of nuclear strikes began to haunt the American imagination in a way not since the heyday of bomb shelters and school drills. Most famously, ABC aired “The Day After” on November 20, 1983.  Reagan watched the telecast and scribbled in his journal about how much it affected him.    A desire to avoid this fate spurred Reagan to mention the idea at several key conferences. With hindsight, both writers see the Reykjavik meeting in October 1986 as the most crucial conference, particularly Mann.  On the second day of the conference Reagan casually said, for instance, “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.  Gorbachev responded, “We can do that.”   But Reagan refused to budge on his Star Wars project and practical steps were never taken.  At the time, the conference looked like a miserable failure. But, in retrospect, it was turning point. After that, both men knew that they were working toward essentially the same goals.
Mann and Gaddis both do a great service by choosing to grapple seriously with the historical developments of the mid- and late 1980’s. Both books assume this challenge with a dash of exuberance; he seems pleased that he can finally write a full narrative with beginning, middle, and end. It is with historical audacity, then, that Gaddis encapsulated the entire struggle into a single, accessible volume. But the sudden conclusion of US-Soviet hostilities begged the question, how did these events fit into the larger narrative of the Cold War? The end came so swiftly, so suddenly, and so peacefully that it was difficult to fully comprehend. The foundation of world politics just vanished. By examining this era with historical rigor and not current events platitudes, Gaddis and Mann bring the entire Cold War into sharper historical focus. The Cold War’s full continuity and change take shape.  Take, for instance, détente. It has long been understood relative to policies of the 1950’s and 1960’s as an important policy shift.  Now, however, it is can be clearly placed in relation to the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Histories of the Cold War written during the period itself had the distinct disadvantage of not knowing how it ends; this, clearly, however, this is no longer a problem. Before the events of the late 1980’s, historians often preoccupied themselves with the continuity of the Cold War: why did it linger for decades? What defined and fueled its rampage through American history? As the time marches on, however, the more the Cold War becomes about understanding change, about understanding how and why it ended up where it did. A history looks different indeed when the destination finally reveals itself. Clear beginnings and tidy endings are historical novelties; rarely does an historical problem as sprawling, complex, and important as the Cold War come to such a clear and satisfying conclusion.

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