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Reagan Didn't End the Cold War

June 7, 2004

The Myth of the Gipper

Reagan Didn't End the Cold War


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

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

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 (at)


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