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Leading Man

  • Alan W. Dowd
  • Oct 13, 2006
  • : National Policy, National Security

America won the Cold War in a manner and in a place that were both unexpected. Victory came not with mighty armies sweeping across a European battlefield or fiery missiles streaking off to faraway targets, but rather with the force of words and will. Ronald Reagan provided both at a place called Reykjavik twenty years ago this week. Given that it ended the longest, costliest war in American history, it is a moment worthy of remembrance.

 

Reagan set the table a year earlier in Geneva, where he made his intentions clear to a young Soviet apparatchik named Mikhail Gorbachev. He began by bluntly putting Gorbachev on notice. "You can't win this arms race," he explained matter-of-factly. "There is no way you can win it." It wasn't a boast or a threat—just a matter of economic might and political will. After a decade of doubt, America suddenly had both. Reagan went on to detail for Gorbachev the full litany of Soviet aggression and brutality since 1917. "No previous president had seen fit to say this directly to the Soviets ever," as Derek Leebaert recalls in The Fifty Year Wound.

 

The summit ended with little progress. Gorbachev labeled Reagan "a caveman, a dinosaur." For his part, Reagan called Gorbachev "a die-hard communist." "Never, perhaps in the postwar decades," Gorbachev would later recall, "was the situation in the world as explosive and hence, more difficult and unfavorable, as in the first half of the 1980s."

 

Explosive and difficult are understatements. The Cold War spawned tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and countless other wars, each made bloodier by superpower intervention with arms and cash. From 1945 to 1990, these spin-off wars claimed as many as 30 million lives, as Patrick Brogan has written.

 

Moreover, the decade of détente, which preceded Reagan's election, had undermined America's global standing. Reagan's shock-rehabilitation program, though essential, initially heightened East-West tensions. Reagan used the bully pulpit of the presidency not only to reinforce America's place and purpose in the world, but to recast the Cold War in terms reminiscent of its earliest chapters. In 1983, for instance, he warned Americans not "to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil."

 

The words sent shockwaves around the world. But as the old saying goes, the truth hurts. What else could be said of the monstrosity Lenin spawned? We can measure its evil in many ways, but perhaps the easiest way is its utter contempt for human life: One historian estimates the Soviet regime's murder toll at a staggering 62 million. And Lenin's victims died on nearly every continent. The trail of blood stretches across eight decades and spans four generations.

 

In short, Reagan was not overstating when he called the USSR "evil." Neither was he willing to coexist with the evil. Reagan matched his rhetoric with action. He doubled defense spending during his eight years as president and unleashed a withering volley of technology, military aid and covert operations that fractured the very foundations of Moscow's empire.

 

Taking his cues from Reagan, CIA Director William Casey launched covert operations throughout Eastern Europe and, of course, in Afghanistan. He told his deputies to "go out and kill me 10,000 Russians until they give up." Working with the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the CIA did that and then some. Under Reagan, the CIA even helped Afghan fighters carry out attacks inside the Soviet Union. As Leebaert notes, Washington had never done anything like this since the beginning of the Cold War.

 

All of this served as prologue to the Reykjavik Summit.

 

At Reykjavik, Reagan was ready to reduce the US nuclear arsenal by 50 percent, in exchange for reciprocal reductions on the Soviet side. For his part, Gorbachev proposed a joint elimination of all offensive nuclear missiles. He even offered huge reductions in Soviet conventional forces in Eastern Europe. But Gorbachev's central goal during the summit was to convince Reagan to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

 

Reagan wouldn't be cajoled, blustered or charmed. Instead of dropping SDI, he proposed that the system be developed and if demonstrated to be a success, that Moscow and Washington share all anti-missile technology in order to prevent an accident that could trigger Armageddon.

 

Despite all the promises on the table—sweeping cutbacks in missiles and warheads, the eventual denuclearization of Europe, even eliminating all nuclear weapons within a decade—Reagan was insistent on keeping SDI, and Gorbachev was insistent on killing it. As Gorbachev put it during the summit, "I am increasingly convinced of something I knew previously only second-hand. The President of the United States does not like to retreat."

 

Disappointed, Reagan rose from his chair and declared, "The meeting is over."

 

The headline of the BBC's "On This Day" feature expresses what most observers thought at the time—and still think today: "Reykjavik Summit Ends in Failure." But the summit was anything but a failure for those who wanted the Cold War to end in a manner favorable to the West. History was made at that place. Leebaert reminds us that Jimmy Carter's own national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, argues that Reykjavik is where the Cold War was won.

 

Reagan knew that Gorbachev's empire was out of money. The growth rate of the centralized Soviet economy had plummeted from the 5-percent annual clip of the 1960s to just one percent. And the USSR was diverting 30 percent of GDP to its military. Gorbachev recalls, "We were increasingly behind the West...And I was ashamed for my country—perhaps the country with the richest resources on earth, and we couldn't provide toothpaste for our people."

 

Less than five months after Reykjavik, Reagan and Gorbachev met again. And this time Gorbachev agreed to the INF Treaty, with no linkage to SDI. It was the first treaty that actually eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. Other treaties followed.

 

Leebaert reports that Reagan, the man dismissed by the Left and its allies in the press as doddering, forgetful and feeble, knew exactly what he had accomplished—and had accomplished exactly what he set out to do: "The Soviets blinked," as Reagan would write in his journal after inking the INF deal. The Cold War was melting away—and so was the Soviet Empire.

 

The revisionists and critics usually 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, offering the false impression, as Leebaert observes, "that the Cold War was fading." Ford effectively validated Soviet control over Eastern Europe at Helsinki. Carter's secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, concluded that opposing Soviet expansion in places like Africa "would be futile."

 

Carter himself ignored the consequences of détente until it was almost too late. A Washington Post article published after a Carter-Brezhnev summit captures the strange and sad symbolism of Washington's interactions with Moscow in those gray days of self-doubt and malaise. "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.

 

Perhaps more important, consider what former Soviet officials say about Reagan's role. Peter Schweizer quotes a number of them in his book Victory:

 

  • According to one KGB general, "American policy in the 1980s was a catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union."
  • One high-ranking party official calls Reagan's hard line "a major factor in the demise of the Soviet system."
  • Former Soviet Foreign Minister Aleksandr Besmertnykh credits SDI with accelerating the decline of the USSR.

 

Gorbachev himself admits today that the peaceful end of the Cold War depended on Reagan as much as it depended on him. "I do not know how other statesmen would have acted at that moment, because the situation was too difficult," Gorbachev has said. "Reagan, whom many considered extremely rightist, dared to make these steps, and this is his most important deed."

 

As to the mythology surrounding Gorbachev, he did not enter office ready to make peace or trigger a counterrevolution against Lenin's brutal state. In fact, as Leebaert recalls, before Gorbachev unveiled his glasnost program of openness with the West, he tried uskorenie—or "acceleration." It included increased military spending, escalation in Afghanistan and intimidation of restive neighbors. In 1985-86, Gorbachev outlined a 45-percent increase in defense spending over five years. And Leebaert's scholarship reminds us that it was under Gorbachev that the USSR's germ-warfare labs reached their "high point of developing an arsenal of deadly pathogens."

 

Gorbachev had to be persuaded to choose the path to peace, and Reagan did the persuading. Gorbachev made a virtue of necessity only after he realized Reagan wasn't about to be taken off task. At Reykjavik, the Soviet Union's last leader realized he had in Reagan a counterpart that wasn't enchanted by the same old empty promises. When Gorbachev came to grips with this reality a few months later, Reagan had the good sense and grace to turn the hard line into a soft landing.

 

The war on terror is different than the Cold War. However, in this ideological-military-political struggle, as in the one that ended at Reykjavik, the US is still fighting what America's early cold warriors called an enemy "animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, that seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world." With such an enemy, as Reagan understood, the solution is neither compromise nor coexistence, but victory.

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