It is altogether fitting that Ronald Reagan reinvigorated the USSR with hate only to kill it with love.
American public discourse offers us two major explanations for the end of the Cold War. One explanation was, “the Soviet Union didn’t fall, it was pushed.” The opposing explanation holds that a tau neutrino fired from a neutron star on the far side of the Andromeda Galaxy 2.6 million years ago that collided with one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s synapses on June 24, 1959 had more to do with the end of the Cold War than either the United States or President Ronald Reagan.
Some observers (kind according to their own lights) take a more moderate course. They’ll concede that Reagan had something to do with the end of the Cold War. Perhaps mesmerized by the sight of his own reflection looking back at him from Gorby’s shiny bald head, the senile old dinosaur was stunned into a quiescence sufficient to allow Gorby to let peace break out without the hurdle of Reagan’s habitual warmongering. Under other circumstances, Reagan would wake up, eat his Wheaties, break out a map, and plan which bastion of worker’s solidarity he would besiege that day. Gorby’s charm and skill in handling this wild rampaging elephant of imperialist plutocracy was only just enough to overcome even the power of the Breakfast of Champions and end the Cold War.
Others concede that Reagan was more than a patsy skillfully played by a smooth talking Commie. Instead, he was a patsy skillfully played by a smooth talking State Department. In this version, George Schultz and other enlightened diplomats slowly weaned Reagan away from the Precambrian depths of his native Birchery and convinced him that speaking softly was more constructive than his unthinking waving of a big stick. The mandarins of Foggy Bottom supplied the script and Reagan, secretly yearning the direction of Hollywood days of yore, performed his role with all the aplomb a B-movie actor could summon. Reagan was convinced that the diminutive Gorby was Bonzo. It was his job to put the little bald chimp to bed with all the tender care a leading man could devote to an expensive studio prop. If Gorbachev happened to outshine him, it was all in good fun. Reagan understood in the light of the timeless wisdom of W.C. Fields: “Never work with animals or children”.
The heroic story that Reagan arose like a bronzed colossus from the hills above Los Angeles and not only consigned but personally muscled Marxism and Leninism on to the ash heap of history takes various forms. The most popular variant holds that Reagan won in spite of the serial arch-appeasers in State. His dedication to confidently waving around the DoD-forged mace of martial virtue in the face of Useful Idiot naysayers pushed the Soviets over the edge. The evil Commies strove to forge their own mace of martial virtue only to stumble over the inefficiencies of GOSPLAN. Gorby was simply playing for time by appealing over Reagan’s head to the useful idiots and fellow travelers in the West as the coils of Reagan’s grand strategy gradually squeezed the last breaths from the dying Bear. Faced with the unstoppable force of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it wouldn’t have mattered who was leader of the USSR. Their place in the ash heap was prepared and furnished with all the trimmings of dread inevitability.
The end of the Cold War was a product of a dynamic and constantly shifting balance between design, unconscious evolution, and contingency. It was not inevitable that Reagan and Gorbachev would be the leaders of their respective countries at that time and place. It was not inevitable that they would be the leaders of their respective countries at the same time and place. It was not inevitable that they would have a supporting cast of leaders like Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, the dueling Helmuts Schmitt and Kohl, Teng Hsiao-P’ing, and even the lapsed Petainist Francois Mitterrand. It was not inevitable that events would play out as they did.
When the Kremlin bells rang out the old USSR and rang in the new Russia on December 26, 1996, it was sometimes hard to remember how improbable the entire sequence of events from Solidarity’s electoral victory in Poland on June 4, 1989 to that snowy day were to those of us who grew up in the living shadow of the Evil Empire. My oldest nephews, now in their mid-teens, were all born after that day. For them, the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union has far less historical vividness than the Evil Empire of the Star Wars films. The unfolding of events from the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan to the ringing of the bells on Christmas Day 1991 might as well have happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
History doesn’t crawl as much as it jumps. In the face of this uncertainty, any institution crafted with human hands like the United States and the unmourned Soviet Union has to continually cycle from power to control to purpose. Power is the potential for conditions friendly to institutional aspirations. Control is the actual conditions friendly to institutional aspirations. Purpose itself is an institution’s aspirations for how the world should be.
The Cold War dynamic was marked by one glaring disparity in this troika of power, control, and purpose. The United States had vastly more power than the Soviet Union but far less dedication to purpose. The Soviet Union had far greater dedication to purpose but far less power. To end the Cold War on its terms, the United States had to be sufficiently motivated by purpose to bring its superior power to bear on the Soviet Union and acquire some selected degree of control over it. To end the Cold War on its terms, the Soviet Union had to frustrate the purpose of the United States until the historical tendency of the United States to waver in purpose or let its power became dormant or diffuse manifested itself. It was only in a vacuüm brought about by distracted American purpose, diffused American power, and inconsistently applied American control that the Soviet Union could acquire conditions friendly to its aspirations.
For a variety of factors such as an American ideology of restraint, parity in missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads, and mutual assured weariness after the mass industrial wars of 1914-1921 and 1937-1945, the struggle between the USA and the USSR required a prolonged strategy of exhaustion. This unglamorous strategy, first advocated by the German military historian Hans Delbruk and later by Soviet military theorists like A. A. Svechin, was often overshadowed by the glamorous strategy of annihilation. The recurring crises of the Cold War usually followed someone on one side or the other succumbing to illusions of a decisive blow that would end the Cold War in one swift stroke. Such crises include Stalin’s blockade of Berlin in 1948, almost everything that Nikita Khrushchev dreamed up, and Nixon’s opening to China. Such decisive engagements do not a Cold War win. They put the tactical cart of the moment ahead of the strategic horse of the long haul. Yet their siren call appealed equally to West and East alike.
There was a moment where it seemed it was the U.S. that was going to succumb to exhaustion and even annihilation. The nadir of American resolve from Watergate to Afghanistan was the high tide of Soviet control. As the U.S. wavered in its purposes, the Soviet Union decisively stepped out on the world stage. The fundamental correlation of power had not changed: the U.S. was still more powerful than the Soviet Union. However, the correlation of purpose had changed. The purpose of the United States had lost cohesion, leaving its potential power unrealized and its control uncertain and unpredictable. In contrast, Soviet strength of purpose was ascendant and its control was more certain. The vacuüm left by the American crisis of confidence was the prerequisite for an increase in Soviet control.
Unfortunately for them, the Soviet establishment, particularly the bureaucrats within its military-industrial complex, overplayed their hand. The collapse in U.S. resolve may have given the USSR too much leeway. The expansive reach of Soviet power during the late seventies may have put as much strain on its system than the retreat of that same system during the Eighties. At minimum, it laid the groundwork for a potential collapse of Soviet power.
Whether Reagan completely saw this at the time is impossible to say. Reagan, particularly when he stood at the center of events, remains a mystery even to those around him. The man’s own children don’t understand him, though in Patty and Ron-Ron he unfortunately sired two of the world’s most exceptionally clueless useful idiots (though applying that label to Patty and Ron-Ron insults useful idiots everywhere). The unfathomable internal cosmos of an “amiable dunce” with its vast and terrifying silences was more than dumb hippy kids, self-satisfied establishmentarians like Clark Clifford, and the low collective IQ of official Washington could penetrate. Inevitably, the Reagan they found when peering behind the smile was the Reagan they brought with them.
Ronald Reagan was governed by one fixed purpose: the destruction of the USSR along with its godless system of social organization based on the heresy of Marxist-Leninism. While it’s correct that Ronald Reagan’s attention and management of other issues of potential concern to an American president of the time was not always focused or consistent, he always pursued the one central purpose with all the light a mind on the edge of a twilight oblivion could summon. I don’t know if Reagan had a master plan that he fulfilled in every particular from day 1 of his presidency to day 2,922. I do know that his fixity of purpose provided a prism through which the twists of fate could be seen as straight gates to fulfilling the master purpose. This rebound in the strength of purpose and the concentrated power that strength allowed Reagan to bring to bear on the Soviet system is Reagan’s primary historical achievement.
A fixed purpose allows for flexibility in approach and Reagan, unmarred by a contemporary American university education, was certainly flexible in his approach. He was born at a time when veterans of the Civil War still walked the streets of a small-town Midwest. He was raised and educated under the lights of an older American ethos. Through a series of unforeseen confrontations with the local Red Menace local, he went from fashionable Hollywood liberal to marginal conservative. His reading list, drawn from the ranks of the unfashionable, exposed him to ideas that mainstream thinkers were oblivious to. Reading Reagan’s own writings, especially those he wrote as an insurgent candidate during the 1970s, reveal a national politician whose quality of thought was at least on a par with if not superior too those peer competitors who went Ivy League rather than Eureka College.
Reagan supplied the what Americans had lacked since the collapse of the Cold War consensus in the mid-1960s: sustained purpose. He determined to pressure the Soviet system along all fronts. Unlike his dimwitted successors on the Right and his even dimmer opponents on the Left, in converting American power into American control Reagan followed Teng Hsiao-P’ing’s dictum of “black kitty, white kitty, who care what color kitty as long as kitty catches bear?” Reagan was agnostic on whether the jaw-jaw of diplomacy or the bite-bite of force brought about victory in the Cold War as long as it chewed Soviets.
A true strategy of exhaustion, even in tepid variations like George Frost Kennan’s that consisted of strongly remonstrating Soviet diplomats on the other side of the table until they died of boredom, applies cumulative pressure across an institution’s entire front until something gives. Reagan called the Soviets bad names, he continued the Carter military buildup, he encouraged drops in the price of oil, he supported questionable counterrevolutionaries fighting Russians across the globe, he had the Treasury do unspeakable things to Soviet financing, and other things. Was any one thing decisive? No. But the cumulative pressure spooked the Soviets so much that they raked through the Politburo looking for someone who could go one on one with the Gipper.
They settled on Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, a younger man on the make from the rural North Caucasus, the closed thing they had to real American movie star. Like Reagan, Gorbachev had a clear purpose: to solidify the fundamental sources of Soviet power. This meant reducing the footprint of Soviet commitments to a more manageable scale, if not forever than at least until the Soviet system had adapted sufficiently to counter Western advances. From the heart of Soviet intelligence, the only part of the apparat with even a marginally accurate view of Western potential, came the impetus for reform. Yuri Andropov had a particularly sharp-eyed view of Soviet prospects in the late Brezhnev era but he, like Brezhnev before him and Chernenko after him, died before Reagan could try his diplomatic track. It was this KGB-GRU faction that pushed the hardest for Gorby and hardest for his reform agenda.
The strategy Gorbachev elected to follow was trading Soviet commitments he planned on abandoning anyway for Western commitments he couldn’t otherwise shake but he hoped to opportunistically pick off. While the Soviet Union was retrenching and adapting to changing conditions, Gorbachev wanted to hypnotize the West into giving up enough power that the yawning gap between Western and Communist capabilities would remain manageable by the Soviets. Gorbachev wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan as early as 1985 but he wanted to trade it for something. Gorbachev wanted a cut back in arms production to free up internal Russian resources for spending on reconstruction but he wanted to trade it for something. Gorbachev wanted Western funds to bankroll Soviet reconstruction but he wanted to receive it as a peer, not a supplicant.
Gorby played his hand with skill and virtuosity. It was always the weaker hand but Soviet stagecraft obscured this power disparity from most Westerners until the facade suddenly fell away. In the cycle from the potential of power to the application of control to the realization of purpose there is constant adjustment. The spectrum of power ranges from passive influence to annihilating violence. The spectrum of control ranges from passive diversity to annihilating conformity. The spectrum of purpose ranges from the passively limited to annihilating totality. The essence of strategy is reconciling the balance between power, control, and purpose as the three wax and wane relative to each other. Passive power, diffuse control, and unlimited purpose are incompatible bedfellows. Annihilating power, total conformity of control, and limited purpose are equally incompatible. It is this balancing of power, control, and purpose in the present and not the airy grand strategies of the future that’s the true demonstration of strategic competence.
If Reagan spent his first term scaring the Soviet apparat into appointing Gorbachev General Secretary, he spent his second term burying them under unconditional Christian love. Circumstances had changed and when Reagan looked deep into Mikhail Gorbachev’s sharp little eyes, he saw a human soul to redeem from Satanic communism. He continued to apply pressure to Gorbachev to encourage Gorbachev to be Gorbachev. Some of this pressure was quite sharp. It seems likely that this rough wooing got to Gorby as well and he began to see Reagan as his truest buddy.
Towards the end of this period, the image of America was on the ascent, especially in Russia. Americans had shiny new computers and they claimed to have conquered financial risk through deregulation. They had blue jeans and McDonald’s. This was the last great heyday of mass entertainment and Hollywood was at its zenith in projecting the allurements of American lucre abroad. Gorbachev was another in a long tradition of Russian modernizers like Ivan the Dread, Peter the Great, Alexander II, and Piotr Stolypin who sought to selectively borrow from the West without changing the division of power at home. However, he increasingly signaled that he was looking West for enlightenment and the Russian people dutifully executed one of their characteristic swings from xenophobia to xenophilia. The confused Americaphilia helped stampede Gorbachev’s tentative modernization efforts well past where he intended it to go.
By the end of Reagan’s term it was unclear who was on first, Reagan or Gorbachev. Folksy crony capitalist Warren Buffet often tells the story that if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game after five minutes, you’re the patsy. In the aftermath of Reagan’s presidency the tide suddenly turned and Gorby was revealed as the patsy. Russia spent the next decade suffering from what Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. The United States was catapulted suddenly from one of its periodic bouts of declinism to a decade of hubris where it bestrode the world as a hyperpower. Everything American was all the rage all around the world and much of what was in rage was what Ronald Reagan made the world think was American.
The relationship between power, control, and purpose and the potential, application, and realization they promise is unpredictable and ever shifting. The unleashing of American financial leverage through military and asset Keynesianism based on the historically unprecedented mix of deficit borrowing and tax cuts can be justified as a war measure. Future celebrity historian Niall Ferguson in his 1999 classic The Cash Nexus argued correctly that the debt accumulated during the Reagan Administration could be justified as a cheap price to pay for the destruction of your primary geopolitical adversary.
If the pygmies that followed Reagan decided that a temporary war measure made possible by the unique circumstances of the time represented the height of human wisdom, it’s not Reagan’s fault. By the time this expedient was elevated into a timeless principle of American governance, the mind of Ronald Reagan had vanished into the void, taking his mystery with him. Whether the time of the prophets of American decline has finally arrived and its America’s turn to follow Reagan into the void is unclear. Whether America hit Peak Power and Peak Control during the Reagan Era is ambiguous. The lesson we should take away from the decade preceding Ronald Reagan’s Administration and the decade following Ronald Reagan’s Administration is that an apparent crisis of power or control is easy to mistake for what is only a crisis of purpose.