Even tyrannical regimes like the old Soviet Union require some degree of popular support and I think President Reagan’s biggest contribution to winning the Cold War was in undermining that support. I was a student in the Soviet Union for two years in the middle of Reagan’s presidency, and it wasn’t so much the specifics of his speeches or the economic challenge of Star Wars that spelled the end of the USSR — instead, it was the general sense among people there that the U.S., as embodied by Reagan’s unapologetic words and actions, wasn’t going to roll over for the Soviet Union, that they really weren’t going to bury us after all. It’s like bin Laden’s strong horse/weak horse observation — the ordinary people of the Soviet Union saw in Reagan that we were the strong horse and that their rulers were the weak horse. They still feared the Soviet regime to a degree, but they lost their respect for it, and then it was just a matter of time.
My favorite Reagan memory: It was November 1984 in Soviet Armenia and I was elated to hear on the English-language broadcast of Voice of America (which wasn’t jammed) how Reagan creamed Mondale. The next morning, the dormitory chief delivered my Massachusetts absentee ballot in a plastic bag, the envelope shredded. I figured, “screw you,”and cast my vote anyway, checking in the box next to Reagan’s name, and circling and underlining his name, just to make sure the censors got the message when they opened it on the way out (I assume it never made it home, though I never checked). It was an insignificant gesture, but it was my way of echoing the President’s basic message: “We’re going to win and you’re going to lose.” That was Reagan’s greatest gift to his country and the world. R.I.P.