Ronald Reagan’s biggest crimes were the bloody military actions to suppress social and political change in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Afghanistan, but I’d like to deal here with the media’s gushing about Reagan’s supposed role in ending the cold war. In actuality, he prolonged it. Here is something I wrote for my book Killing Hope.
It has become conventional wisdom that it was the relentlessly tough anti-communist policies of the Reagan Administration, with its heated-up arms race, that led to the collapse and reformation of the Soviet Union and its satellites. American history books may have already begun to chisel this thesis into marble. The Tories in Great Britain say that Margaret Thatcher and her unflinching policies contributed to the miracle as well. The East Germans were believers too.
When Ronald Reagan visited East Berlin, the people there cheered him and thanked him "for his role in liberating the East". Even many leftist analysts, particularly those of a conspiracy bent, are believers. But this view is not universally held; nor should it be. Long the leading Soviet expert on the United States, Georgi Arbatov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, wrote his memoirs in 1992. A Los Angeles Times book review by Robert Scheer summed up a portion of it:
Arbatov understood all too well the failings of Soviet totalitarianism in comparison to the economy and politics of the West. It is clear from this candid and nuanced memoir that the movement for change had been developing steadily inside the highest corridors of power ever since the death of Stalin. Arbatov not only provides considerable evidence for the controversial notion that this change would have come about without foreign pressure, he insists that the U.S. military buildup during the Reagan years actually impeded this development.
George F. Kennan agrees. The former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, and father of the theory of "containment" of the same country, asserts that "the suggestion that any United States administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish." He contends that the extreme militarization of American policy strengthened hard-liners in the Soviet Union. "Thus the general effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union."
Though the arms-race spending undoubtedly damaged the fabric of the Soviet civilian economy and society even more than it did in the United States, this had been going on for 40 years by the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power without the slightest hint of impending doom. Gorbachev’s close adviser, Aleksandr Yakovlev, when asked whether the Reagan administration’s higher military spending, combined with its "Evil Empire" rhetoric, forced the Soviet Union into a more conciliatory position, responded:
It played no role. None. I can tell you that with the fullest responsibility. Gorbachev and I were ready for changes in our policy regardless of whether the American president was Reagan, or Kennedy, or someone even more liberal. It was clear that our military spending was enormous and we had to reduce it.
Understandably, some Russians might be reluctant to admit that they were forced to make revolutionary changes by their arch enemy, to admit that they lost the Cold War. However, on this question we don’t have to rely on the opinion of any individual, Russian or American. We merely have to look at the historical facts. From the late 1940s to around the mid-1960s, it was an American policy objective to instigate the downfall of the Soviet government as well as several Eastern European regimes. Many hundreds of Russian exiles were organized, trained and equipped by the CIA, then sneaked back into their homeland to set up espionage rings, to stir up armed political struggle, and to carry out acts of assassination and sabotage, such as derailing trains, wrecking bridges, damaging arms factories and power plants, and so on.
The Soviet government, which captured many of these men, was of course fully aware of who was behind all this. Compared to this policy, that of the Reagan administration could be categorized as one of virtual capitulation.
Yet what were the fruits of this ultra-tough anti-communist policy? Repeated serious confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union in Berlin, Cuba and elsewhere, the Soviet interventions into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, creation of the Warsaw Pact (in direct reaction to NATO), no glasnost, no perestroika, only pervasive suspicion, cynicism and hostility on both sides.
It turned out that the Russians were human after all — they responded to toughness with toughness. And the corollary: there was for many years a close correlation between the amicability of US-Soviet relations and the number of Jews allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Softness produced softness. If there’s anyone to attribute the changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to, both the beneficial ones and those questionable, it is of course Mikhail Gorbachev and the activists he inspired.
It should be remembered that Reagan was in office for over four years before Gorbachev came to power, and Thatcher for six years, but in that period of time nothing of any significance in the way of Soviet reform took place despite Reagan’s and Thatcher’s unremitting malice toward the communist state.
WILLIAM BLUM is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Rogue State: a guide to the World’s Only Super Power. and West-Bloc Dissident: a Cold War Political Memoir. He can be reached at: BBlum6@aol.com