One of the best articles I’ve read about Ronald Reagan in the past couple days is Glenn Garvin’s review of Peter Schweizer’s biography ReaganÂ’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. Garvin tackles head on one of the claims about the triumph over Communism that started floating around liberal circles almost immediately after the USSR fell — what Reagan did or didn’t do was beside the point. Soviet Communism was in its death throes in the 1980s and the USSR would have collapsed regardless of what American foreign policy approach had been adopted.
Which is kind of an amusing flip-flop as Garvin notes. When Reagan was elected, the consensus among his critics was that the USSR was economically and politically strong, and pursuing an arms build-up to bankrupt it was madness that would only lead to war. After he leaves office and the USSR crumbles, the consensus among his critics was that the Soviet collapse was inevitable,
In retrospect, ReaganÂ’s point that the Soviet economy was on life support seems obvious to the point of banality. In fact, thatÂ’s one of the arguments his critics use against him: that the Soviet economy would have imploded anyway, even without ReaganÂ’s defense buildup. But thatÂ’s not the way foreign policy intellectuals saw it in 1982.
“It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable,” declared economist Lester Thurow, adding that the Soviet Union was “a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States.” (I wonder if Thurow had ever flown on a Soviet airliner?) John Kenneth Galbraith went further, insisting that in many respects the Soviet economy was superior to ours: “In contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.”
Arthur Schlesinger, just back from a trip to Moscow in 1982, said Reagan was delusional. “I found more goods in the shops, more food in the markets, more cars on the street — more of almost everything,” he said, adding his contempt for “those in the U.S. who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink.” (By the way, Schlesinger, who has spent his life in praise of JFKÂ’s adventures in Vietnam and Cuba but foamed at the mouth over every other American military action of the Cold War, proves Isaiah Berlin wrong: In addition to foxes and hedgehogs, there are also chameleons.)
Reagan nonetheless persisted. He boosted production of conventional arms and borrowed a play from the Soviet book by backing anti-communist insurgencies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most controversially, he poured billions of dollars into his missile defense program.
Whether SDI will ever work (20 years later, itÂ’s still mostly theoretical) and whether, even if it does work, itÂ’s a wise strategic choice in a world where AmericaÂ’s most implacable enemies are not superpowers with hundreds of ICBMs but terrorists with suitcases, are arguments for another time. But what has largely been overlooked in the debate is that the Soviets had no doubt whatsoever that it would work.
At arms summits, Gorbachev frantically offered increasingly gigantic cuts in strategic missiles — first 50 percent, then all of them — if Reagan would just abandon SDI. Schweizer, mining Soviet archives and memoirs still unpublished in the West, shows that GorbachevÂ’s fears echoed throughout the Politburo. SDI “played a powerful psychological role,” admitted KGB Gen. Nikolai Leonev. “It underlined still more our technological backwardness.” Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko understood exactly what Reagan was up to: “Behind all this lies the clear calculation that the USSR will exhaust its material resources before the USA and therefore be forced to surrender.” Most tellingly of all, the East German-backed terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction began systematically murdering executives of West German companies doing SDI research.
Reagan, unmoved, stiff-armed the Soviets on SDI while winning huge concessions on other weapons. When Gorbachev complained, Reagan needled him with jokes. (Sample: Two Russians are standing in line at the vodka store. Time passed — 30 minutes, an hour, two — and they were no closer to the door. “IÂ’ve had it,” one of the men finally snarled. “IÂ’m going over to the Kremlin to shoot that son of a bitch Gorbachev!” He stormed up the street. Half an hour later, he returned. “What happened?” asked his friend. “Did you shoot Gorbachev?” Replied the other man in disgust: “Hell, no. The line over there is even longer than this one.”)
The arms buildup (and a little-appreciated corollary, ReaganÂ’s jawboning of the Saudis to open their oil spigots and depress the value of Soviet petroleum exports) quickly took its toll. The Soviet economy began shrinking in 1982 and never recovered. By SchweizerÂ’s accounting, the various Reagan initiatives were costing Moscow as much as $45 billion a year, a devastating sum for a nation with only $32 billion a year in hard-currency earnings. Meanwhile, ReaganÂ’s rhetoric (the “evil empire” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speeches in particular) emboldened opposition movements in Eastern Europe. Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union itself disappeared a little later.
The Soviet view of SDI is fascinating. We know from recently declassified CIA documents that the Reagan administration ran a successful intelligence operation whereby the United States allowed the Soviets to steal what they thought were plans for advanced technologies but which in fact contained fatal flaws and caused at least one major disaster (an explosion at an oil pipeline) in the USSR. The Soviet system was so defective it couldn’t even see through bogus technology and the inherent problems that would need to be overcome to create a working SDI system.
The Gipper and the Hedgehog. Glenn Garvin, Rason, November 2003.