One day in 1977 Ronald Reagan asked Richard Allen, who would become his first national security adviser, if Allen would like to hear his theory of the Cold War. “Some people think I’m simplistic,” Reagan said, “but there’s a difference between being simplistic and being simple. My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose. What do you think about that?”
“I was flabbergasted,” Allen now says. “I’d worked for Nixon and Goldwater and many others, and I’d heard a lot about . . . detente and the need to ‘manage the Cold War,’ but never did I hear a leading politician put the goal so starkly.
“‘Governor,’ I asked, ‘do you mean that?’”
“Reagan replied, ‘Of course I mean it. I just said it.’”
Yes, I know. Conservatives may credit the fortieth chief executive with victory in the Cold War—Margaret Thatcher has often said that “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a single shot”—but the view is hardly universal. Well, then. If Ronald Reagan didn’t win the Cold War, how did the conflict end? The alternative explanation holds that the Soviet Union simply collapsed, falling in on itself because of economic stagnation, imperial overreach—that is, an empire that had grown so big the Soviets could no longer afford it—and the rise of a generation that failed to share the communist faith of its parents and grandparents. Ronald Reagan? Don’t be silly. He had nothing to do with it.
Or had he?
The Soviet Union certainly did suffer from economic stagnation. But its economy had been growing feebly since at least the early 1970s. What changed during the 1980s wasn’t so much the economy of the USSR as the economy of the United States, which responded to Reagan’s policies by growing dramatically. By the time he left office, American output had expanded by an amount nearly equal to the entire economy of what was then West Germany. The only way the Soviets could have expanded their economy by that amount would have been by annexing West Germany itself. If the Soviets finally decided they’d had it with the creaking, backward economic contraption that Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev had given them, it was because they’d caught a glimpse of the sleek new beauty that Ronald Reagan had given us.
Imperial overreach? True enough, the Soviets found themselves stuck with an empire they could no longer afford. But you can hardly blame them. By rebuilding our military, Reagan had forced the Soviets to spend more on theirs. By arming the contras in Nicaragua and the mujahideen in Afghanistan, he had compelled the Soviets and their proxies to engage in long, expensive wars of attrition merely to cling to territory they’d already come to think of as their own. By supporting the dissident movement in Eastern Europe—Reagan provided funding and equipment to Solidarity, to name just one example—he had transformed the Warsaw Pact from an asset into a liability.
And by launching the Strategic Defense Initiative, he had confronted the Soviets with the need to make massive new investments in their nuclear arsenal. “[W]e didn’t have to build a complete version of SDI to make their calculations difficult,” Henry Kissinger says. “If the Soviets no longer knew how many missiles would get through, then they might have had to launch hundreds more to have had a chance of success. You can see why SDI had them so rattled.” The Soviet case of imperial overreach came courtesy of Ronald Reagan.
Did a new generation of Russians refuse to place its faith in the communism of their forebears? Evidently. But why? In part, surely, because of the transformation young Russians saw taking place in the United States.
During the 1970s, the United States looked like a nation in decline, just about as Karl Marx would have predicted. “The symptoms of . . . [a] crisis in the American spirit are all around us,” President Carter said in an address from the Oval Office on July 15, 1979. Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan took office. “The crisis we are facing today,” he said in his first inaugural address, “[requires] our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds. . . . And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.” The American people responded with renewed patriotism and self-confidence. “Morning Again in America,” the campaign slogan for Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign, may have been derided in the media, but it captured the mood of the nation that returned him to office by 49 out of 50 states.
Morning again in America? As the children of the Soviet apparat would have noticed, that wasn’t in Marx’s game plan. Reagan made communism look a lot less like the wave of the future and a lot more like other misbegotten nineteenth-century ideologies, such as syndicalism or anarchism, destined for the ash heap of history.
“The great man or woman in history,” Sidney Hook argues in his book The Hero in History, is “someone of whom we can say . . . that if they had not lived when they did, or acted as they did, the history of their countries and of the world . . . would have been profoundly different.” Does Reagan fit the description? He does. No one else would have done what he did. And what he did changed the world. “He was an authentic person and a great person,” Mikhail Gorbachev said in an interview not long ago. “If someone else had been in his place, I don’t know if what happened would have happened.”
There you have Ronald Reagan’s principal adversary all but admitting it. The man we laid to rest at sunset one Friday in June was a hero.