The man who got things right from the start was, at first glance, an unlikely statesman. He became the leader of the Free World with no experience in foreign policy. Some people thought he was a dangerous warmonger; others considered him a nice fellow but a bit of a bungler. Nevertheless, this California lightweight turned out to have as deep an understanding of communism as Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This rank amateur developed a complex, often counterintuitive strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union, which hardly anyone on his staff fully endorsed or even understood. Through a combination of vision, tenacity, patience and improvisational skill, he produced what Henry Kissinger termed 'the most stunning diplomatic feat of the modern era.' Or as Margaret Thatcher put it, 'Reagan won the cold war without firing a shot.'
Reagan had a much more sophisticated understanding of communism than either the hawks or the doves. In 1981 he told an audience at the University of Notre Dame: 'The West won't contain communism. It will transcend communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.' The next year, speaking to the British House of Commons, Reagan predicted that if the Western alliance remained strong it would produce a 'march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.'
These prophetic assertions — dismissed as wishful rhetoric at the time — raise the question: How did Reagan know that Soviet communism faced impending collapse when the most perceptive minds of his time had no inkling of what was to come? To answer this question, the best approach is to begin with Reagan's jokes, which contain a profound analysis of the working of socialism. Over the years Reagan had developed an extensive collection of stories that he attributed to the Soviet people themselves.
One of Reagan's favorite stories concerned a man who goes to the Soviet bureau of transportation to order an automobile. He is informed that he will have to put down his money now, but there is a 10-year wait. The man fills out all the various forms, has them processed through the various agencies, and finally he gets to the last agency. He pays them his money and they say, 'Come back in 10 years and get your car.' He asks, 'Morning or afternoon?' The man in the agency says, 'We're talking about 10 years from now. What difference does it make?' He replies, 'The plumber is coming in the morning.'
Reagan could go on in this vein for hours. What is striking, however, is that his jokes were not about the evil of communism so much as they were about its incompetence. Reagan agreed with the hawks that the Soviet experiment, which sought to transform human nature and create a 'new man,' was immoral. At the same time, he saw that it was also basically foolish. Reagan did not need a Ph.D. in economics to recognize that any economy based upon centralized planners dictating how much factories should produce, how much people should consume and how social rewards should be distributed was doomed to disastrous failure. For Reagan the Soviet Union was a'sick bear,' and the question was not whether it would collapse, but when.
Sick bears, however, can be very dangerous. They tend to lash out. What resources they cannot find at home, they seek elsewhere. Moreover, since we are not discussing animals but people, there is also the question of pride. The leaders of an internally weak empire are not likely to acquiesce to an erosion of their power. They typically turn to their primary source of strength: the military.
Appeasement, Reagan was convinced, would only increase the bear's appetite and invite further aggression. Thus he agreed with the anti-Communist strategy for dealing firmly with the Soviets. But he was more confident than most hawks in his belief that Americans were up to the challenge. 'We must realize,' he said in his first inaugural address, 'that…no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.' What was most visionary about Reagan's view was that it rejected the assumption of Soviet immutability. At a time when no one else could, Reagan dared to imagine a world in which the Communist regime in the Soviet Union did not exist.
It is one thing to envision this happy state, and quite another to bring it about. The Soviet bear was in a ravenous mood when Reagan entered the White House. In the 1970s the Soviets had made rapid advances in Asia, Africa and South America, culminating with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Moreover, the Soviet Union had built the most formidable nuclear arsenal in the world. The Warsaw Pact also had overwhelming superiority over NATO in its conventional forces. Finally, Moscow had recently deployed a new generation of intermediate-range missiles, the giant SS-20s, targeted at European cities.
Reagan did not merely react to these alarming events; he developed a broad counteroffensive strategy. He initiated a $1.5 trillion military buildup, the largest in American peacetime history, which was aimed at drawing the Soviets into an arms race he was convinced they could not win. He was also determined to lead the Western alliance in deploying 108 Pershing II and 464 Tomahawk cruise missiles in Europe to counter the SS-20s. At the same time, Reagan did not eschew arms control negotiations. Indeed, he suggested that for the first time the two superpowers drastically reduce their nuclear stockpiles. If the Soviets would withdraw their SS-20s, the United States would not proceed with the Pershing and Tomahawk deployments. This was called the 'zero option.'
Then there was the Reagan Doctrine, which involved military and material support for indigenous resistance movements struggling to overthrow Soviet-sponsored tyrannies. The administration supported such guerrillas in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola and Nicaragua. In addition, it worked with the Vatican and the international wing of the AFL-CIO to keep alive the Polish trade union Solidarity, despite a ruthless crackdown by General Wojciech Jaruzelski's regime. In 1983, U.S. troops invaded Grenada, ousting the Marxist government and holding free elections. Finally, in March 1983 Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a new program to research and eventually deploy missile defenses that offered the promise, in Reagan's words, of 'making nuclear weapons obsolete.'
At every stage Reagan's counteroffensive strategy was denounced by the doves. The 'nuclear freeze' movement became a potent political force in the early 1980s by exploiting public fears that Reagan's military buildup was leading the world closer to nuclear war. Reagan's zero option was dismissed by Strobe Talbott, who said it was 'highly unrealistic' and offered 'more to score propaganda points…than to win concessions from the Soviets.' With the exception of support for the Afghan mujahedin, a cause that enjoyed bipartisan support, every other effort to aid anti-Communist rebels fighting to liberate their countries from Marxist, Soviet-backed regimes was resisted by doves in Congress and the media. SDI was denounced, in the words of The New York Times, as 'a projection of fantasy into policy.'
The Soviet Union was equally hostile to the Reagan counteroffensive, but its understanding of Reagan's objectives was far more perceptive than that of the doves. Commenting on the Reagan arms buildup, the Soviet journal Izvestiya protested, 'They want to impose on us an even more ruinous arms race.' General Secretary Yuri Andropov alleged that Reagan's missile defense program was 'a bid to disarm the Soviet Union.' The seasoned diplomat Andrei Gromyko charged that 'behind all this lies the clear calculation that the USSR will exhaust its material resources…and therefore will be forced to surrender.' These reactions are important because they establish the context for Mikhail Gorbachev's ascent to power in early 1985. Gorbachev was indeed a new breed of Soviet general secretary, utterly unlike any of his predecessors, but few have asked why he was appointed by the Old Guard. The main reason is that the Politburo had come to recognize the failure of past Soviet strategies.
Beam me up Scottie, no intelligent life down here.