By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
MARCH 2020— “Let’s stop revising history: Reagan didn’t win the Cold War.” So declares former State Department official Marik von Rennenkampff in a recent essay published by The Hill. Among the assertions von Rennenkampff makes to argue his case are:
>“Gorbachev was unalterably opposed to increasing military spending; he fought a relentless campaign by the Soviet military-industrial complex to spend exorbitant sums in response to Reagan’s buildup.”
>There is “no evidence that Reagan’s ‘rollback’ policy—which sought to aggressively challenge communist movements throughout the world, from Central America to Afghanistan and Africa—had an iota of influence on the liberalizing reforms that catalyzed the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
>“SDI had no significant effect on Soviet strategic decision-making.”
>”Gorbachev rejected every single proposal to build a Soviet response to Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ program.”
>There is “a deeply ideological and ahistorical narrative that—short of war—massive defense buildups, bellicosity and tough talk bring authoritarian regimes to their knees.”
Talk about “revising history.” One wonders how something so out of step with reality could find its way into print. To get back on the path to reality, let’s take a deeper look at each assertion.
>Gorbachev opposed increasing military spending.
There’s always been a mythology surrounding Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that he was a man of peace and that his commitment to peace is what ended the Cold War. In fact, when Gorbachev took the reins of the Soviet Empire, he did not seek peace or plan a counterrevolution against Lenin’s monstrous regime.
As Derek Leebaert details in “The Fifty Year Wound,” before Gorbachev unveiled his glasnost program of government openness and perestroika economic reforms, he tried uskorenie—or “acceleration.” It included increased military spending, escalation in Afghanistan and intimidation of restive neighbors. In 1985-86, for instance, Gorbachev outlined a 45-percent increase in military spending over five years. Gorbachev’s first year in power saw the Soviet nuclear arsenal grow by 1,577 warheads—even as America’s contracted. And Leebaert reminds us that under Gorbachev the USSR’s germ-warfare program reached its “high point of developing an arsenal of deadly pathogens.”
Moreover, this man of peace continued Moscow’s war of aggression in Afghanistan until 1989. If it’s fair for President Nixon’s critics to blame him for continuing Vietnam for four years—as they so often do—then it’s fair to blame Gorbachev for prolonging Afghanistan’s agony. He had the power to end the war, but he didn’t for four blood-soaked years.
To be sure, Gorbachev was different than his predecessors in style, openness to change and recognition of the trends of history. He deserves credit for that. But Gorbachev had to be persuaded to choose the path to peace, and President Reagan did the persuading. All Gorbachev did was make a virtue of necessity.
>Reagan’s policies had no influence on reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Reagan’s foreign policy pledged American support to anti-communist movements around the globe. This was embodied in his 1983 National Security Decision Directive 75, which stated that a central priority of the U.S. would be “to contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism.” Toward that end, Reagan unleashed a withering barrage against the Soviet system—huge investments in defense and new weapons systems, intelligence initiatives, technology advances, military aid, covert operations—that fractured the very foundations of Moscow’s empire.
Taking his cues from Reagan, CIA Director William Casey told his deputies to “go out and kill me 10,000 Russians until they give up.” Working with the mujahedin, the CIA did that and then some in Afghanistan. The Soviets would lose 20,000 dead and 50,000 additional casualties. CIA agents even helped mujahedin fighters carry out attacks in the Soviet republic of Tajikistan. As Leebaert notes, America had not done anything like this since the beginning of the Cold War.
Similarly, Reagan’s insistence on reversing Soviet expansionism and supporting “Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures” exacted a heavy price on Moscow. But don’t take my word for it. Consider what former Soviet officials say about Reagan. Peter Schweizer’s book “Victory” quotes a number of them. According to one KGB general, “American policy in the 1980s was a catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union.” A high-ranking Communist Party official calls Reagan’s hard line “a major factor in the demise of the Soviet system.”
Unwilling to be “confused by the facts,” revisionists like von Rennenkampff generally respond to this view of Reagan in one of two ways: 1) The Soviet Union, they argue, was on the verge of collapsing with or without Reagan; and/or 2) Gorbachev would have made adjustments on his own because of the dire economic situation facing his country.
Well, if the collapse of the USSR was inevitable and imminent, if the Soviet Union just needed a push, why didn’t Reagan’s predecessors push? Nixon pursued détente, accepting the permanence of the Cold War and believing that, in Henry Kissinger’s words, the United States and Soviet Union would forever “remain superpowers impinging globally on each other.” President Carter’s secretary of state concluded that opposing Soviet expansion in the Third World “would be futile.”
A Washington Post article published after a Carter-Brezhnev summit captures the sad symbolism of Washington’s interactions with Moscow in the decade before Reagan’s arrival. “Carter,” the Post reported, “seems to have developed a protectiveness, almost a fondness, for the older man, especially after he saved Brezhnev from falling on Sunday morning.”
Reagan was not about to save the Soviet state from falling. Unlike those who saw the Cold War as a permanent condition to be managed, Reagan challenged the American people to view it as a struggle that could and must be won. He said so bluntly—“Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: we win; they lose”—and eloquently—“The West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism.”
The notion that Gorbachev would have adjusted on his own because of a weakening Soviet economy overlooks the reality that it was Reagan who exploited and accelerated that weakness. “Our goal is to prevent the next round of the arms race,” Gorbachev told the Politburo in 1985. “If we do not accomplish it, the threat to us will only grow. We will be pulled into another round of the arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose…the pressure on our economy will be unbelievable.”
And that’s exactly what came to pass—because of Reagan. We will continue to explore and defend Reagan’s record in the next issue of the Dowd Report.