Ronald Reagan gave one of his most famous speeches in Berlin in June 1987, the famous one where he invited the Soviet leader of the time to “tear down this wall”. I was in the audience of that speech, about five rows back, and close enough to see the man very clearly. I had voted for Ronald Reagan in both 1980 and 1984 and had been present at his first inaugural in Washington DC. Count me as a true believer. At the time in Berlin we thought it a rather significant speech and he was after all not only addressing Berlin, but the whole world. There were indications that big changes were in the works, but no one could have guessed how momentous those changes would in fact be.
Too often, the legacy of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War is seen from a military-technological perspective, which is the way we have come to view military affairs in general, simply as a endless quest for “enhanced capabilities” in search of a threat. That confusion has particularly taken root since 1992 (the “Defense Planning Guidance” of that year is significant in this regard). This is not what I wish to point out and I hardly see defense spending in general as a positive legacy, although spending on personnel in the 1980s did much to allow us to respond quickly to the changing political environment exploiting to the full the military intelligence collection potential, as we did between 1989-92.
In my view, Reagan’s significant contribution to ending the Cold War was in what he brought to diplomacy. Specifically his ability to negotiate effectively with Soviet Leaders, particularly Mikhail Gorbachev, and convince them that he could deliver on his promises. Ronald Reagan realized that Gorbachev was serious in his reform efforts and quickly discarded any confrontational approach adapting one of cooperation instead.
Things did not start off well however. Gorbachev had not appeared impressed with Reagan at first, but soon Mitterrand and other Western leaders convinced Gorbachev that Reagan was a person he could negotiate with and not the “clown and fool” that Gorbachev had portrayed him as previously. This set up Reykjavik in 1986 which in turn set up the INF treaty. Without this relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev there would have been no treaty and Soviet reformers would have shelved much of their reform program since it would have been impossible to face Gorbachev’s domestic opposition (the Soviet Military industrial complex or “VPK” and the state security apparatus) without having the road open to negotiation with the US.
The significant part that Ronald Reagan played, and possibility only he could have played it so well, was to clear the international front for the Soviet reformers to settle accounts with their more dangerous, that is their domestic opposition, particularly within the Soviet military and VPK. In other words, Ronald Reagan allowed Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Soviet Union from within under the guise of attempting to “reform” it. Notice how Reagan’s military spending prior to the breakthough of 1986 actually allowed for his later diplomatic triumphs, but was largely superfluous in terms of national strategy after that point. Reagan was effective not only because he was sincere and came across as sincere, but perhaps even more so since he corresponded to Soviet stereotypes of what “American imperialism” was, as an obvious member of this group he could assure the Soviets of his intentions in a way a “Liberal” US president never could, that is the Liberal would have come across as a puppet to the actual interests operating in the background. For the Soviets, Reagan on the other hand was obviously no puppet.
Ronald Reagan was also the culmination of perhaps the most successful national strategy in US history, that is the US policy of containment and some dialog with the Soviet Union from 1947-1991. As an authentic conservative president – as opposed to what passes for “conservative” today, that is the radical right and the rejection of a conservative perspective – Reagan was the penultimate in a long line of US presidents who participated in the formulation and implementation of this successful and pragmatic policy.
How fragile the entire Soviet system was, was not obvious to anyone at the time, although Gorbachev’s opposition may have had a far clearer view of the future than Gorbachev and his reformers did. This did not preclude Gorbachev turning to the right after 1990 in an attempt to salvage something from the collapsing wreckage of the Soviet system, but by then it was too late. The Soviet Union and the Soviet military/VPK complex were inseparable and with the end of the latter the future of the former was just a matter of time. Also part of the Soviet dilemma was ideological/doctrinal/strategic thinking in that they could only conceive of their military in certain terms linked with Marxist-Leninist thought, the military as the vanguard of the revolution. A military for strictly defensive purposes was irrational from this perspective.