How Did the Cold War End?

Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)
A new book by historian Robert Service examines the Cold War end-game.

Once upon a time, one could determine someone’s political position from his view of how the Cold War ended. A person was on the right if he attributed its ending to President Ronald Reagan’s shifting American foreign policy away from détente to the idea that the Cold War could actually be won. The person was a liberal, of the anti-Communist variety, if he argued that the Soviet implosion in 1989–90 was traceable to the containment policies crafted by an earlier anti-Communist liberal, President Harry S. Truman, in 1947 (another shift, this time toward confrontation and away from Franklin Roosevelt’s “soft” approach to Stalin); the continuation of these policies by both Democratic and Republican presidents led to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.

There was a flip side to this, however. The non-liberal Left claimed either that (a) its collapse was due to the visionary premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who was willing to risk his country’s demise in the interests of peace (equally attractive to this spectrum of thought was Gorbachev’s stated goal of rescuing Communism by democratizing it); or that (b) the American Left’s counterparts in the Soviet Union — the purer Communists — hastened its demise.

During the War on Terror, and particularly the U.S. effort in Iraq, some Democrats even dared to praise Reagan. A case in point was 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who, to bash the “trigger-happy” President George W. Bush, noted that Reagan won the Cold War “without firing a shot.”

Few have looked beyond the political necessities of the moment and discerned the necessary interplay between Reagan and Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. Historian Robert Service is one of the few.

Drawing on material at the Hudson Institute, minutes of the summits, and interviews with George Shultz, Service has produced a work, The End of the Cold War, that will not endear him to the Left. He counters the Gorbachev-as-visionary thesis to show the premier as less an iconoclast and more a realist. For by 1985, when Gorbachev became the head of the Soviet Communist Party, it was apparent not just to him but also to the usually hard-line Politburo and Presidium that the Soviet economy was collapsing. Aware that there was no way the Soviet Union could compete with Reagan’s free-market-powered accelerated arms race, let alone feed its people at the same time (Service notes that a Soviet grocery store he visited didn’t even have milk), the Politburo allowed Gorbachev to attempt to correct these problems through joint U.S.–Soviet missile reduction.

Enter Ronald Reagan.

Service’s Reagan runs counter to the depiction of him by the academic Left. Rather than characterize him as an “out-to-lunch hard-liner,” Service regards him as the kind of visionary the Left saw in Gorbachev. Using the costly arms race to destroy the Soviet Union by pitting free-market capitalism against the Communist economic system was an idea Reagan had formulated as early as the 1950s. When he predicted in his first term that the Soviet economy was on the verge of collapse, he was truly a lone voice. Liberal partisans such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. disagreed, asserting that on a recent trip to the Soviet Union he saw a “bustling economy.”

When Reagan predicted in his first term that the Soviet economy was on the verge of collapse, he was truly a lone voice.

Not only was Reagan a prophet, but Service lauds him as a “brilliant negotiator.” Echoing Reagan himself, Service traces this effectiveness back to when Reagan fought against Communist control of a Hollywood union in the mid-1940s. One of Reagan’s dreams ever since then was that he would someday get the chance, as president, to tell a Soviet premier that America “would not let you win.”

At the first summit, Reagan got his chance, but his negotiations went beyond mere emotional satisfaction. Fearing nuclear war much more than his staff did, he went Gorbachev’s missile reductions one further, arguing that both countries should ban all nuclear weapons. This horrified his staff, who sought to steer him away from such idealistic policies. But Reagan had meanwhile checkmated Gorbachev by refusing to budge on SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative), a proposed shield against nuclear attacks. Reagan’s aides doubted that it could be built but allowed Reagan to use it as a negotiating tool because it scared the Soviets (Gorbachev simply did not have the funds to create his own SDI). Even more effective was Reagan’s refusal to confine summits to foreign-policy matters, to the irritation of Gorbachev. He tied the success of the summits, along with any U.S. economic aid, to Gorbachev’s introducing civil liberties in the Soviet Union.

Through such pressure, the collapse was hastened because of Soviet citizens’ appetites not just for individual liberties but also for U.S. consumer goods.

Service is a fearless historian — the old-fashioned kind, who was willing to follow the evidence no matter which side it benefited — which makes his book is a must-read. 

— Ron Capshaw writes from Midlothian, Va.


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