Ronald Reagan Didn’t Win the Cold War - The Intrepid

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ronald Reagan Didn’t Win the Cold War

As American myths go, there is none greater than that of President Ronald Reagan. Americans treasure Reagan’s image and hold his two terms as President in the highest regard. Republicans worship him as a god, and even the Democrats speak fondly of him. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” argued President-Elect Barack Obama in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal. “…he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

During his Presidency, Reagan made Americans feel good about their country and themselves. As a result, Americans, when polled, consistently place Reagan among the greatest Presidents in U.S. history. American historians do not share this view, and frequently rank Reagan as a mediocre or below average President.

Historians are highly critical of Reagan’s legacy. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished his image as a proponent of liberty and democracy and many historians feel that his program of deregulation weakened capitalism in America. Moreover, historians, unlike the average American, do not believe that Reagan single handedly ended the Cold War.

The best examples of the power of the Reagan were visible in 2004, after his death. The media coverage Reagan received was tremendously positive. Commentators, political pundits, and average Americans from across the political spectrum all credited Reagan with ending the Cold War.

The “Reagan Victory” theory goes like this. Reagan and his advisors understood the economic frailty of the Soviet Union, and thus sought to bankrupt the Soviet Union through extensive military spending. The Soviet Union was unable to keep pace with America’s spending and its weakened economy brought its political system to its knees.

This theory has several flaws. First, Reagan and his advisors never believed they could destroy the Soviet political system. In fact, they believed that the Soviet Union would be a permanent fixture of U.S. foreign policy. There was never any plan to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Reagan felt threatened by the Soviet military, as he believed it was stronger than America’s. “The truth of the matter is that the Soviet Union does have a definite margin of superiority,” argued Reagan in 1982, “enough so that there is risk and there is what I have called… ‘a window of vulnerability.’”

Second, the Soviet Union only adjusted its military spending during the Reagan years by 0.4% and this spending increase was planned ahead of time as a response to the military spending of the Carter Administration. If you want to argue that America outspent the Soviet Union, Carter's your man, not Reagan.

Finally, the “Reagan Victory” theory ignores the changes in his policies towards the Soviet Union. Reagan was only a hard-line anti-communist for the first few years of his presidency. The famous “Evil Empire” speech was from 1983. The rest of his Presidency was spent trying to reconcile with the Soviets.

Of all the 20th century Presidents, Reagan had the most summits with the Soviet Leadership. It was during these summits, particularly those on nuclear proliferation, that Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were able to form a relationship built on trust. Gorbachev believed Reagan when he said that he wanted to reduce nuclear arsenals and he believed that he could pursue Glasnost (political reforms) and Perestroika (economic reforms) in the Soviet Union with Reagan’s support. These reforms are what brought an end to the Cold War and eventually communism in the Soviet Union.

This was perhaps Reagan’s greatest legacy. Although Gorbachev was the principle player, Reagan’s conciliatory actions helped pave the way towards rapprochement. “Mikhail Gorbachev took the ball and ran with it,” argues Beth Fischer in Toeing the Hardline, “but it was Ronald Reagan who had put the ball in play.”


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