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  • Ronald Reagan Roundtable: Reagan and the End of the Cold War

    Posted by seydlitz89 on February 7th, 2011 (All posts by )

    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.


    19 Responses to “Ronald Reagan Roundtable: Reagan and the End of the Cold War”

    1. zenpundit Says:

      Excellent. I think you are spot on here re: Reagan and his strategy with the Soviets once Gorbachev replaced the series of zombies as Gensec

      I am very much in agreement. Moreover, you are highlighting an aspect of Reagan’s skill set that I Will be focusing on in my first post

    2. deichmans Says:

      Great post — Reagan truly had a gift for negotiations, which made his rebuilding of the milItary have a decisive effect in his diplomacy. Which may have made him a true Clausewitzian at heart, with war (or the threat thereof) simply being an extension of policy by other means.

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Why do the posts on Reagan have to include a slam at present day conservatives ? I’d be interested to see a specific description of the differences as I don’t see any. Too much of this is a reaction to the left’s invective directed at the right. Reagan was nothing if not from the right. If anything, the present day right is more libertarian than he was.

    4. Kirk Parker Says:

      Hey, is there some kind of comment moderation going on here? I posted a comment, it didn’t show up. I try posting it again, and WordPress (or whoever) says, Hey you’ve already said that! But it still doesn’t appear…

    5. zenpundit Says:

      That happened to me as well

    6. Lexington Green Says:

      The spam filter is very aggressive.

      Send an email here:

    7. Kirk Parker Says:

      (OK, I’ll go with plan B and just explain what I was linking to.)

      How fragile the entire Soviet system was, was not obvious to anyone at the time

      “Anyone” is a bit too strong. There’s an interesting footnote in The Strategy of Technology (Possony, Pournelle, and Kane) in chapter 2 (I think, it’s not easy to scan the footnotes and I’m too lazy at the moment.)

      In discussing estimates of Soviet military spending, the authors say in a footnote (to a later edition): we estimated the Soviet military spending as X% of GDP, even though we secretly thought it was significantly higher. The value we published (X-something%) was widely dismissed as an exaggeration, but as it turns out the actual rate of spending was even higher than our too-high-to-publish guess.

      And in the broader sense, The Strategy of Technology was all about spending them into oblivion. So these authors (and I suspect, some other folks too) were onto the secret.

    8. Joseph Fouche Says:

      The Zenpundit Comment Filter is spreading its tentacles of annihilation everywhere. It will consume everything in its path. Today ChicagoBoyz. Tomorrow the Web. Eventually the Universe.

      The line must be drawn here. This far, no further.

    9. Tatyana Says:

      Mark and Kirk: it happened to me several times. More often then not, however, the comment does appear, just within a day or two, rather than in a minute or two…

    10. Dan from Madison Says:

      Joseph Fouche – haha awesome.

    11. seydlitz89 Says:

      Kirk Parker-

      I suppose “anyone” is a bit strong. There were plenty of truckdrivers who traveled the route from Moscow (or even Warsaw) west who had a good inkling of what was going on, and what might come down. Still, considering those working for the US government at the time, the further up the ladder one was, the more powerful the USSR seemed to be . . .

    12. Kirk Parker Says:


      Still, considering those working for the US government at the time, the further up the ladder one was, the more powerful the USSR seemed to be . .

      Yeah, you’re pretty much right about that. Possony, Pournelle, and Kane weren’t exactly Important People (though SoT did have a pretty good run at some of at the military academies IIRC.)

    13. Kirk Parker Says:

      How fragile the entire Soviet system was, was not obvious to anyone at the time,

      Well, except for these guys, and I doubt they were completely alone.

    14. Jonathan Says:

      Hey, is there some kind of comment moderation going on here? I posted a comment, it didn’t show up. I try posting it again, and WordPress (or whoever) says, Hey you’ve already said that! But it still doesn’t appear…

      There’s no comment moderation. For the past couple of months the anti-spam system has been too aggressive. It traps many legitimate comments including some made by regular contributors to this blog. It’s centrally administered and I don’t know how to fix it, and I don’t know of any better alternatives. I try to recover all misclassified comments ASAP but I can’t always attend to the blog during the day, and this is why comments sometimes vanish when commenters post them and then reappear hours later. I apologize for the delays and hope to find a solution to this problem eventually.

    15. Jonathan Says:

      I should add that the spam filter seems to be blocking disproportionately comments containing URLs, even if it’s just one URL.

    16. J. Scott Says:

      While many may not have predicted the imminent demise of the Soviet system, Reagan intuitively knew they could not compete and said so early on.

      As for containment, weren’t the SALT treaties more flash than substantive for the Russians, and in reality favored the USSR? Prior to Reagan, we talked a good line about containment, but Nixon got the ball rolling on the notion of “getting along” and signing agreements—trade and arms.

      Carter tried to enlist the Soviets in his 1980 campaign against Reagan, so he could not have even appeared to be serious from a Soviet perspective. Ford made a fool of himself in his debate with Carter, when he denied under intense questioning from Max Frankel (if memory serves) Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. Nixon, Ford, and Carter seemed to care more about agreements as fodder for their political ambitions than any substantive advancement of containment strategy; Nixon started the popular notion that “agreements = progress” from a foreign policy perspective and that thought-process followed each administration up to Reagan.

      Reagan refused to play business as usual and went beyond containment; he truly believed in “peace through strength.” Reagan wasn’t the culmination, but rather a sharp tack in a more determined direction. His famous, “we win, they lose” wasn’t in the thought process of Nixon/Ford/Carter. Reagan took the both the military and diplomatic game to different realm, and did so with credibility.

      BTW, @MK, I’m with you; today’s “conservatives” are more libertarian than Reagan, but he’d feel right at home with most of them—even Bachmann & Palin:))

    17. Andy Says:


      Why do the posts on Reagan have to include a slam at present day conservatives ? I’d be interested to see a specific description of the differences as I don’t see any. Too much of this is a reaction to the left’s invective directed at the right. Reagan was nothing if not from the right. If anything, the present day right is more libertarian than he was.

      A few things stand out off the top of my head:

      1. Immigration. Reagan and Libertarians were/are generally pro-immigration – modern conservatism isn’t.
      2. Reagan was willing to talk and negotiate with America’s enemies. Modern conservatism rejects negotiations with countries like Iran as a form of appeasement. Reagan’s foreign policy, in practice, was much more realpolitik than it is among conservatives today. As far as foreign policy goes, modern conservative policy is not at all libertarian.
      3. Reagan wasn’t an anti-tax dogmatist. He did, after all, realize that tax increases were sometimes necessary and he signed many measures that increased taxes into law, including those modern conservatives won’t touch with a ten-foot pole – entitlements. What conservative today, for example, could support something like the 1984 Deficit reduction act or accelerating FICA tax increases?
      4. Modern conservatism is much more socially conservative than Reagan was. Reagan talked the social-conservative talk, but in terms of actual policy he was decidedly moderate. This is another marked difference between Libertarianism and modern conservatism.

      In short, while I think there is some continuity from Reagan to modern conservatism, there are many important differences that modern conservative hagiography of Reagan tends to ignore or downplay. Furthermore, I’m quite skeptical of the idea that modern conservatives are more Libertarian simply because Libertarians generally reject the precepts of social conservatism that is a much bigger component of the conservative movement today than it was during Reagan’s time.

    18. onparkstreet Says:

      Good post Seydlitz.

      As to what Michael said above, I think it’s partly because the past is always easier to think about than the present. Human nature.

      How many transformative presidents does any movement or any age have anyway? One every 70 years or something?

      I don’t mind criticizing current day conservatives and conservative politicians. I do it all the time.

      They are on intellectual autopilot with the exception of a few.

      It might be nice to talk about those few, sometimes, instead of snide Twitter remarks and slams on pop culture figures.

      Perhaps our country would be in better shape if people spent less time ridiculing Sarah Palin or Barack Obama and reading the actual bills or something.

      Nah, grown men tweeting how stupid Sarah Palin is much, much more appealing and substantive.

      – Madhu

    19. seydlitz89 Says:


      I think you leave out the most important distinction, what really defines the unavoidable tension between “conservative” and “radical right”. That is the clear division as to what is military power for and the use of organized violence and force. For the conservative, military power is a last resort to be used rarely and only for clear (Clausewitzian) policy objectives which can in fact be achieved with the use of the military instrument. War is essentially defensive and to be entered into only after careful deliberation, unless of course attacked . . . That of course only brings up more questions/distinctions.

      For the Radical Right, war is a creative (and money-making) process by which “democracy” (rather their fragile puppet governments established) is spread throughout the world . . . as their cheerleader president George W. Bush declared on 6 November 2003:

      ” . . . Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace. (Applause.)

      The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle. We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom — the freedom we prize — is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind. (Applause.)

      Working for the spread of freedom can be hard. Yet, America has accomplished hard tasks before. Our nation is strong; we’re strong of heart. And we’re not alone. Freedom is finding allies in every country; freedom finds allies in every culture. And as we meet the terror and violence of the world, we can be certain the author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom.

      With all the tests and all the challenges of our age, this is, above all, the age of liberty. Each of you at this Endowment is fully engaged in the great cause of liberty. And I thank you. May God bless your work. And may God continue to bless America. (Applause.)”