An excerpt from The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan by James Mann
The following excerpt was reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the end of the Cold War by James Mann. Copyright James Mann 2009. The impact of Reagan’s second-term policies — his summit meetings with Gorbachev, his arms control treaty, his ...
The following excerpt was reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the end of the Cold War by James Mann. Copyright James Mann 2009.
The impact of Reagan’s second-term policies — his summit meetings with Gorbachev, his arms control treaty, his declaration that there was no more evil empire — could be felt both inside the United States and in the Soviet Union.
At home, Reagan gradually brought the American public towards an awareness that the Soviet Union was changing and the Cold War subsiding. He overcame the resistance of the political right, effectively marginalizing it. In the fall of 1987, not only the leading conservative columnists but all the Republican presidential candidates except for Vice President George H.W. Bush attacked Reagan for his non-confrontational approach to Gorbachev. In the Senate, Republican conservatives like Dan Quayle determinedly challenged Reagan’s arms control treaty. But in the end, the opposition melted away; Reagan’s treaty won more than ninety votes. After all, Reagan had been the political leader and, indeed, the symbol of American conservatism for two decades. In this end-of-Cold-War drama, he succeeded in defusing opposition at home where other American leaders might well have failed. Gorbachev and his aides recognized Reagan’s political significance. “His big plus was his authority inside the country,” said Anatoly Adamishin, the Soviet deputy foreign minister. “Other leaders, like [Vice President George H.W.] Bush, had to cater to political forces. But Ronald Reagan could overcome the resistance of the hawks.”
In the Soviet Union, the impact of Reagan’s second-term policies was less direct, but arguably even more significant. Reagan’s policies gave Gorbachev enough time, latitude and prestige to proceed with his reforms, to the point where they could no longer be undone. Gorbachev was hardly radical in his domestic policies; he was opening up the Soviet system, but always with the goal of maintaining the leadership of the Communist Party. Yet Gorbachev’s foreign policy was, in fact, a break with the past. During this period, he progressively reduced the role of the Soviet military — bringing troops home, forswearing the use of force, allowing the Soviet Union’s Eastern European allies to go their own way. These foreign and domestic policies were interconnected: his glowing reviews overseas helped Gorbachev to fend off domestic opposition for several critical years. Reagan and Shultz grasped Gorbachev’s importance and these underlying dynamics in a way that Reagan’s critics in Washington did not. They helped give the Soviet leader the breathing room he required. They also offered Gorbachev the underlying economic rationalization he needed for his changing approach to the world –that the Soviet Union had to accommodate to the inevitable trends of globalization.
The triumphal interpretation of Reagan says that he “won” the Cold War through the confrontational policies of his first term — above all, by increasing spending for the military in a big way and by launching the Strategic Defense Initiative. But no matter how one judges the impact of the American defense buildup, it did not bring the Cold War to an end. By itself, it could at best have led to a prolonged stalemate during which the Soviet leadership, while unable to match American military spending, clung to power. There was nothing in Reagan’s first-term policies that could induce Mikhail Gorbachev to abandon the Brezhnev doctrine’s assertion of the Soviet Union’s right to intervene with force in Eastern Europe. The “Star Wars” program did not persuade Gorbachev to sit passively by in 1989 while the Berlin Wall was torn down.
It was Reagan’s second-term policies, his decision to do business with Gorbachev, that set the course for the end of the Cold War. If Reagan had not been responsive, then events might have taken a different course during the crucial period from 1985 to 1989. Gorbachev’s critics at home could have succeeded in resisting change by warning that American policy remained a continuing danger and that Gorbachev was failing to obtain any alteration of the Soviet Union’s relationship with the United States.
Gorbachev himself might have tried to freeze the degree of change in the Soviet political system. Or alternatively, traditionalists in the Soviet leadership might have attempted to overthrow Gorbachev — as indeed, they tried to do in the abortive coup d’etat of August 1991. Instead, Gorbachev proceeded to open up the Soviet system, and by the time the old guard in the Soviet leadership finally mobilized against him, it was too late. The changes of the previous six years turned out to be irreversible.
Gorbachev occasionally joked that through his actions, he was depriving the United States of an enemy. The reverse was also true: Reagan, through his policies, deprived the Soviet Union of the intensely adversarial relationship with the United States that had, over the decades, repeatedly served as Moscow’s justification for preserving its enormous military and security apparatus. In order to proceed at home, Gorbachev had to show that he was moving towards a different role in the world. As Gorbachev later acknowledged, he needed American and international recognition of his foreign policy to shore up his position in Moscow and overcome resistance within the Soviet leadership. By treating Gorbachev as fundamentally different from his predecessors, Reagan’s policies gave the Soviet leader what he required.
In the end, the Cold War sputtered out without any large-scale violent upheavals or explosions. It was not inevitable that the climax should have been so anticlimactic. Unquestionably, Gorbachev played the leading role in bringing the four-decade-old conflict to a close. Yet Reagan, overcoming considerable opposition of his own at home, played a crucial role by buttressing Gorbachev’s political position. It was in this sense that Ronald Reagan helped ensure the Cold War ended in the tranquil fashion that it did. Reagan didn’t win the Cold War; Gorbachev abandoned it. By recognizing Gorbachev’s significance, when many others in the United States did not, Reagan helped create the climate in which the Cold War could end.
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