REAGAN'S WAR: Who Won the Cold War

Monday, November 11, 2002

Did Ronald Reagan win the cold war? It's been a dozen years since its end—time enough to look back on the era with some historical perspective. And one question that historians continue to argue about is the role that Ronald Reagan, the man and his policies, played in bringing the cold war to an end. To what extent did Reagan's cold war strategy build on efforts of previous administrations and to what extent was it new? Did the Soviet Union collapse as a result of external pressure or internal weakness?

Recorded on Monday, November 11, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, did the Gipper win one for us?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War. It's been a dozen years now since the end of the Cold War--time enough to look back on the era with some historical perspective and one question that historians continue to argue about is this: What role did Ronald Reagan, the man and his policies, play in bringing the Cold War to an end? To what extent did the Cold War strategy of Ronald Reagan build on that of previous presidents and to what extent was it a new departure? Did the Soviet Union, a rotten old structure, just fall in of its own accord or did the 40th president of the United States give it a kick?

Joining us, three guests. Barton Bernstein is a professor of history at Stanford University. Michael McFaul, a Russia expert, is a professor of political science, also at Stanford. And Peter Schweizer is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of a new book entitled Reagan's War.

Title: Playing to Win

Peter Robinson: Peter Schweizer, I quote the man to himself, "No American throughout the history of the Cold War up until Reagan had been willing to make rolling back and defeating communism a primary goal. Even anti-communists like Richard Nixon subscribed to the seductive idea that stability was important for long-term peace, but Reagan understood that communism by its nature, was a danger to peace because it relied on fear and external enemies to maintain its legitimacy." Actually there's another little quote here that I'd like to stick on because it's sweet, "The so-called bumpkin won the Cold War." You, I presume, will stand by that?

Peter Schweizer: Yes, absolutely, I will stand by that.

Peter Robinson: Mike?

Michael McFaul: Part right, part wrong.

Peter Robinson: Oh, measured response. Bart?

Barton Bernstein: Two thirds wrong, one third right. Misunderstands Truman, uses the wrong context and emphasizes victory and leaves out complexity.

Peter Robinson: How did Reagan do it? Let me name several elements that Peter suggests were critical to Reagan's victory in the Cold War. Reagan's defense build up, increases defense spending by more than 25%, sharpest increase in defense spending since the Vietnam War, why was that important?

Peter Schweizer: Well, I think it was important because number one, Reagan's goal was to restore American military capability, but number two, there was hidden in the backdrop, the assumption that this would compel Moscow to attempt to compete. So in effect it served to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

Barton Bernstein: There's a Carter buildup in the last year and a half, which Reagan follows upon. So the Reagan buildup is not quite as abrupt. Although having gone back, the 25% may be correct...

Peter Robinson: It is big, though, Barton. It's big.

Barton Bernstein: It's large. Secondly, there's no question that it strained the Soviet Union. The real issue and this is very hard to determine in the book, and yours focuses on Reagan not the Soviet Union, is what the effect was upon the Soviet Union by looking at the economy, proving the argument rather than asserting it and saying that post hoc propter hoc, that is according to this--after this.

Peter Robinson: May I just announce a theme of this show? In history in general, we cannot run control experiments, so correlation is one thing, demonstrating causation is very tough to do, right?

Barton Bernstein: Tough to do and you can't, in a rigorous fashion, prove, but in a less than rigorous but more persuasive fashion you can get greater leverage on.

Peter Robinson: You can argue about what is or isn't persuasive.

Barton Bernstein: Well, you would look at the Soviet economy over time and you would look at it structurally and you do the kinds of things that a Soviet specialist going back could do and you don't make those arguments.

Peter Robinson: Speaking of a miracle--it so happens that we have here, between the two of you, a Soviet specialist. The defense buildup, Mike.

Michael McFaul: Soviet or Russian specialist.

Peter Robinson: He remains current, he's a Russian specialist.

Michael McFaul: I tried to write a book called Russia's Unfinished Revolution talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union and what happened, and had the opportunity to interview several Politburo members who were there in the Eighties during the buildup. And the story is more complex, to echo something Bart said. Most certainly it got their attention, the buildup, but they had lots of different responses that they could have done to it. They could have just kept on living the way they were living. We still don't have Star Wars. We still don't have all these threats. Twenty years down the road they wouldn't have been that worse off. They could have not matched us tit for tat but done other things and overrode it. Instead, Gorbachev chose something else that was in part fed in by not being able to compete, but it was a bigger picture and we're going to get to the ideas of Reagan, not the buildup and I think that was actually much more important and in your book, I think much more compelling as a causal relationship. But about controlled experiments, we have lots of enemies out there that we're outspending by billions of dollars every day. They're not folding to us, Cuba is not folding, Iraq is not folding because of the military buildup--something else has to go on for these regimes to change and something else did go on in the Eighties.

Peter Schweizer: Well, I think what's interesting in that regard, and again we can't absolutely prove a causal relationship, but what I think the critical difference was that in the Soviet case, we did get a reaction. And you know, you made the point about SDI and I think you're absolutely right. We haven't developed a weapon system. It's no threat. But at the time when Reagan announced it, there was a resource shift. There's of course a debate about how big that resource shift was, but there was a resource shift and there was a…

Peter Robinson: In the Soviet Union?

Peter Schweizer: In the Soviet Union in that there was sort of this exaggerated sense that they had of American technological prowess. I would at least make the case that many people in the Soviet military and KGB for example, had greater faith that SDI would work than a lot of people in the United States.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a look at some alternative explanations for the end of the Cold War.

Title: Red, Red Whine

Peter Robinson: Suffering from imperial overreach, stagnate economy, new generation of Russians coming up who do not share the communist faith of their parents and grandparents, the Soviet Union just fell in on itself and Ronald Reagan was fundamentally irrelevant. In fact if you want to name one central actor, it's Mikhail Gorbachev who institutes reforms, Glasnost and Perestroika, when he begins to lose control of these reforms, realizes he cannot resuscitate the Soviet Union, he makes a critical decision, which is to let it all settle down peacefully like a soufflé, like a dying soufflé and that's what happened. Praise Gorbachev, he was right to be given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. Do you like that one Bart?

Barton Bernstein: My answer would be, let's look at the Soviet Union for a year or two before and through the collapse and let's look at closely leadership, expenditures, conceptions of legitimacy, a disadvantaged and alienated…

Peter Robinson: Well, what's your feel for it though?

Barton Bernstein: My feel is, I would say if the argument had been Reagan contributes significantly in ways many analysts in the 1980s, anti-Reagan people have been reluctant to acknowledge, I'd say yes, but he contributes--he adds a number of pieces of straw to a camel whose back is already falling in and I would contend, much as one can loosely extrapolate, the camel would have collapsed in a few years anyway, what Reagan does is he accelerates it.

Peter Robinson: Had there been no Ronald Reagan the whole thing would have caved in soon anyway?

Michael McFaul: No, I disagree because I think just as I said there was an alternative response to SDI back in '83, there was also an alternative response to the crisis that the Soviet Union faced in '85. And Gorbachev chose a strategy of reform that ultimately created the space for it to collapse. I think the Soviet Union could be here today had another set of characters came to power. And that's where Reagan comes in and in a way that I think you put in your book--I think you have some very nice quotes from Reagan. The one where he says we're going to spend them in to history I think is wrong, but the one where he says we're going to roll back communism and we have superior ideas, that part of the story I think gets underplayed because we can measure GDP, it's very difficult to trace ideas. And in my book about the Soviet Union, that's where the ideas that we can be in a different world, those took hold with Gorbachev and with the people of Russia.

Peter Robinson: On to alternative explanation number two.

Title: You Say You Want a (Velvet) Revolution

Peter Robinson: There was a cultural and spiritual revolution that swept across Eastern Europe and I adduce no lesser in authority than Ronald Reagan's successor George H. W. Bush who, speaking at Yale in 2000--oh you're not impressed by that authority?

Barton Bernstein: I think his knowledge of Russian was somewhat lacking.

Peter Robinson: All right, but listen to what he says--speaking at Yale in 2001…

Barton Bernstein: It was written by somebody for him…

Peter Robinson: No, no, no, this is off the cuff actually. He's answering a question about the end of the Cold War--the former president describes a celebration he had attended to mark the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. I'm quoting him now, "Margaret Thatcher got up, she said is everybody clear on one thing, Reagan and I won the Cold War." The Yale audience convulses in laughter. Evidently that's automatically funny at Yale. Bush continues, " and I'm saying to myself, here's a lot of guys that were in prison, here's a lot of guys right here at this table, including Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel and it wasn't as simple as that one person ended the Cold War." In other words, you've got Havel, you got Lech Walesa placing pressure on the Soviets. You've got the Pope who visits Poland in 1979 and 3 million Poles turn out to greet him and that's s a year before Ronald Reagan even declares for the presidency. So what happened in Eastern Europe, Bart?

Barton Bernstein: Well, let me back up because I think Mike is saying something very important, that is, in the Soviet Union, the Gorbachev phenomenon or the Gorbachev implementation does loosen things and it has the unforeseen, but I think now we can understand, quality of propelling a movement toward implosion and demise. It would have been equally plausible for someone else to have been chosen I think in '84 or '85 who with a hard line might well have propelled things. I mean Mike and I would disagree and he, in all fairness is a Russian Soviet specialist and I'm not, I would say that the Soviet Union probably would have imploded within a handful of years under another kind of regime.

Peter Robinson: But there could have been blood spilled?

Barton Bernstein: Well, there could have been blood spilled. I mean what is most notable to me is not the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is one of the most important events of the twentieth century, but it collapsed without blood. No analyst would have foreseen in 1979, A. it collapsing imminently and B. without blood and that Eastern Europe would have gone this way.

Peter Robinson: So Margaret Thatcher was right, "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot?"

Barton Bernstein: Well, Ronald Reagan helped or contributed to the winning of the Cold War without openly firing many shots.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Reagan's ideas, Mike.

Michael McFaul: It's precisely because of this, because those folks you just named, Ronald Reagan was their ally. They were allies in trying to bring down communism and what Ronald Reagan did, which you wrote about Peter, was he said I'm not going to accept the world as it is, I'm going to think about it in a different way. And lots of smart people at places like Stanford and Yale laughed and said ha, ha, ha, you know, but it's never going to happen…

Peter Robinson: The answer is Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel were not doing too well until Ronald Reagan came along.

Michael McFaul: Well, they were inspired by him and a bunch of silly, crazy folks, some of my best friends now in Russia, also listened to those words and said hey, well maybe we can think of a different world. So he was their ally in the battle of ideas, that's the way I would put it, not that he won it or didn't lose it, but that he was the guy that helped to inspire these folks and to inspire the world to think that hey, the world does not have to be the status quo, we can change what's happening in the communist world.

Peter Schweizer: I think that's an important point because if you look at Soviet history, I think it's fair to say that to varying degrees since its founding, the Soviet Union has been in some form of crisis, whether it's economic crisis, political crisis, or legitimacy questions.

Peter Robinson: It's never been a cheerful place, that's for sure.

Peter Schweizer: Yeah, the question becomes why did it happen when it happened? The alternative explanation that it simply fell under its own weight I think doesn't answer the question of why it happened when it did. And my point would be that Reagan by himself did not win the Cold War, but he exacerbated the crisis behind the Iron Curtain in terms of the battle of ideas, in terms of the economy, to the extent that it made collapse something that would happen. That's not something that would have happened during détente when there were certainly enough kind of external pressures on the system that Reagan put on.

Michael McFaul: I want to make it a little more complex though because Ronald Reagan's ideas inspired at two different levels and this is where the individual and the statesman comes in. On the one hand he's expiring the anti-communists in these places, and ultimately in the Soviet Union. I mean it's one of the great stories not told of this collapse that there were literally hundreds of thousands of people protesting Soviet rule in Moscow and nobody has ever really written about that. But he also did something else, which he engaged with Gorbachev personally. This is the fiery anti-communist who comes in and says these guys are the evil empire, he has the vision to say, oh maybe this guy Gorbachev is different and kind of, in a tricky way, helped convince Gorbachev that he could reform the Soviet Union. Now, that was--he couldn't, we know that. But he did things like, you know, you know a famous phrase, "tear down this wall," right? Reagan would go and say that. Well, guess what? A couple of years later, Gorbachev is saying slightly different, "common European home." What Gorbachev didn't understand is you can't come into the house until you tear down communism, but suddenly he was thinking along those kinds of ways.

Peter Robinson: Enemies and friends--let's explore this relationship between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Title: The Lamb in Winter

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, I beg your indulgence because I have to tell a little anecdote. Robinson, speechwriter in the White House, Don Regan Chief of Staff, speech meeting, and says well fellows, the President wants you guys to go easy on Gorbachev. And we revolted. What, the Chief of Staff? No, Ronald Reagan has made his career... And so Don Regan, to his credit, he was an honest broker, just trotted us into the Oval Office. And the President said, well now, I think this fellow Gorbachev is different and I think they may be serious about Afghanistan. In other words, the first person I encountered in Washington who had any inkling that Gorbachev was different, that they were serious about getting out of Afghanistan, was Ronald Reagan himself. And what I want to know is, after roaring like a lion for thirty years, how did he know the precise moment at which to work a little lamb into the act?

Peter Schweizer: I think to understand Reagan you have to understand that he was primarily an optimist. I mean, I think that's what made him so different from other anti-communists from the Fiftiess and Sixties who were all doom and gloom, liberty was going to lose and communism was going to win. In fact Whittaker Chambers felt, when he left communism to join freedom that he was joining the losing side. Reagan was an optimist, he believed liberty would win and he also believed, some would say naively, others would say that it was very insightful, that given the opportunity to talk to the right individual in power in the Soviet Union, that you could win them over in those ideas. Now I don't think he did that with Gorbachev, but I think he did it as Michael mentioned, in a way to in a sense co-opt him…

Peter Robinson: Peter, you make a quite provocative, just how provocative we'll see in a moment when Bart responds, that Reagan in effect called Gorbachev into being. Go ahead, explain…

Peter Schweizer: Well, the point that I would make, and again I think, you know, when you look at history, it's impossible to know exactly how decisions are made, but I think that you have to look at the issue and the question of why did Gorbachev come to power when he did. And I would contend, and certainly some of the Soviet officials that I quote in the book would contend, that a critical factor in that was the international environment, the fact that if this had been the détente of the 1970s where they were not competing against a rigorous United States, that the necessity of reform would not be as dramatic and that with the challenge from the United States, this was an important rallying call at least to those that were interested in systematic reform.

Peter Robinson: And to the gerontocracy of the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan actually looked young and dynamic and they needed a younger--is that roughly? Does that strike you as even plausible?

Michael McFaul: Well, it's part of it in that by the time Gorbachev gets elected unanimously by the way--by the Politburo, and I know the story well because it was told to me several times by different people and he controlled it magnificently, he lost the first time, right? They thought he was going to come to power when Brezhnev died. And instead the old guard had one last gasp, Chernenko...

Peter Robinson: Oh, he was a serious candidate as early as that?

Michael McFaul: Oh yeah. He was already come in. By the time of '85, I was actually living in Moscow at the time, I remember it very vividly, Mikhail Sergeevich becoming the General Secretary, the deal was already in. And it's related to what Peter is saying in that they realized that the old generation had nothing left and that it was incumbent upon these new young guys, Gorbachev, Ryzhkov, later Yeltsin to come in and do something new. They didn't know what the new was, but they knew that their time was over. If it was related--I think, you know, it's interesting to think about had it happened in the Seventies would it have been different right, in the détente. There most certainly was the notion soon after Gorbachev came to power that they needed, what they call a peredishka, a breathing space in the Cold War to create the necessary conditions to do the economic reform. So in that regard, you know, I would agree with you.

Peter Robinson: Bart, you said…

Barton Bernstein: I want to back up because the book and the argument is predicated, and I understand why, on Reagan, Gorbachev, the Eigties. And you have in the book, the assumption that containment is this passive doctrine which leads somehow to détente and Reagan is the first energizer who challenges, but it's a very peculiar and flat history and I think it misses stuff. I think it misses the early Truman of atomic diplomacy in the autumn of 1945. And atomic diplomacy doesn't work. And after it doesn't work, it leads to a retrenchment and a second set of strategies. I think it also misreads containment. I mean George Kennan, if you read containment, there are two aspects to it, one is in the doctrine, the other is hidden in typical George Kennan fashion. In the doctrine is a notion, restrain long enough and the Soviet system will crumble from within. So one can argue that Kennan is actually the high priest of prophesy and he ultimately gets it right. And he does because we now read that paragraph very differently. But the second aspect is containment always had from its beginning a hidden side. The hidden side was liberation by various covert means. One of the architects of dirty tricks, as it's often called, the clandestine operations is less invidiously its term, for the CIA is George Kennan. So, containment with a genial face is restrain…

Peter Robinson: And one of the most aggressive at carrying it out is James Earl Carter Jr. Robert Gates says in his book that Carter was very aggressive in covert…

Michael McFaul: Exactly and promoting human rights in these places.

Peter Robinson: Promoting human rights--you do not wish to deny that the prosecution of the Cold War is a bipartisan effort, that Harry Truman is a hero--in other words…

Peter Schweizer: No. I think, you know, what Bart is saying is true. Certainly containment is not simply totally defensive, but what I would argue is that Reagan changes containment because he challenges the Soviet Union really at every level: in the developing world, in terms of supporting proxies and the Reagan doctrine; in the battle of ideas, you know, certainly there had been condemnations of communism, but Reagan goes on Voice of America and tells dissidents that resistance to totalitarianism is possible; in terms of the defense buildup, the military challenge... So I think across the board, there's an offensive strategy and that I would argue is unique in Cold War history.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, how important was Ronald Reagan's rhetoric?

Title: Talk This Way

Peter Robinson: Ronald Reagan 1982, "The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history." Ronald Reagan 1983, we cannot ignore, "the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire." Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall 1987, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Nobody else talked like that, right?

Michael McFaul: I think what's distinctive about the Reagan era is that it's in contrast to the Nixon era. I think that's what's most important and if you go back in time, I mean these impulses of liberation versus containment I think are throughout the Cold War and it's easy to rewrite the Cold War, it was all containment until Reagan came and then it was rollback. In fact, it's the Nixon era that defines our policy as being the status quo, sufficient power not overwhelming power…

Peter Robinson: Even though Nixon did the opening to China, shook up the strategic balance…

Michael McFaul: He was saying status quo, we're balancing power. Reagan is saying, I don't want to balance the power, I want to change the country internally so that we don't need to do balance of power politics and that's what radical. Carter was kind of in between I would say. But I think our image, because that was a time when--you know, it's Vietnam, we look like we're in retreat, the Soviets look like they're on the rise, and Reagan is such a contrast to that.

Barton Bernstein: Don't go back and look at Nixon as passive in just containment. Remember Chile for example, Kissinger did containment except when liberation was available on the cheap.

Michael McFaul: We armed the Angolans in '75. Reagan did it again, but it was Kissinger's first…

Barton Bernstein: I think you can read détente very differently. I think you can read détente as an effort in geopolitics to stabilize the world, to carve out various areas, to hope for victory in the long-run, not to get over extended in the short-run, to do various things like Angola, Chile, et cetera, and to create and to recognize and thus bestow upon it the greater status of counterweight of China to the Soviet Union. And thus in turn you can read the Eighties and the Soviet buildup as not simply a response to the U.S. but also a response to China, which has been in many ways enhanced in status by American strategy.

Peter Schweizer: Well, getting back to what we were talking about earlier, the battle of ideas, I think what makes Reagan unique, if you look for example at Kennedy's speeches surrounding the Berlin crisis, very hard hitting but there's no American President, besides Reagan at least in my reading, and I can be corrected on this of course, that challenges the legitimacy, the fundamental legitimacy of the communist system. You have, for example, Kennedy condemning actions that the Kremlin has taken, you find Truman challenging the aggressive actions of the Soviet Union. Reagan is the only one who challenges the legitimacy of the system and what's interesting is when you take the evil empire speech and you talk to, for example, Natan Sharansky, who has written about this, he was in the Gulag at the time, and when he heard what Reagan said…

Peter Robinson: Jewish refusenik...

Peter Schweizer: That's right, he was a refusenik in the Soviet Union. He talks about how he and the other dissidents, their heart leapt not because Reagan was condemning the Soviets, because he called it evil, because he was challenging the legitimacy of it, saying however the system reforms, however the system changes, it's wrong and it's immoral and that's how I would argue that Reagan is different than Kennedy or Truman.

Michael McFaul: And I would add one other thing. Other people have called that evil, but you already said it earlier, he also was an optimist and he believed in a better world.

Peter Robinson: I have a last question--Hegel, I'm trying to--I'm preening for you Bart--Hegel had a term…

Barton Bernstein: You're out of my depth already!

Peter Robinson: Hegel had a term--I translate from the German in my mind of course, the world historical figure. That is to say, the human being without whom the history of the world would have been different. Millard Fillmore for example, achieved the presidency but was not a world historical figure. Was Ronald Reagan a world historical figure? Bart?

Barton Bernstein: In the penumbra. Gorbachev, yes. Reagan, possibly. To be argued, we have to know more about the Soviet Union and more about really Reagan himself in the administration.

Peter Robinson: Mike? World historical figure?

Michael McFaul: I think time will tell. Some of the Reaganites that believe in these ideas believe we're going to do to the Middle East what we did in the communist world. And if that turns out to be the case, we'll look back on your book as setting out the set of ideas that transformed the entire world, then I would say absolutely. How this next battle of ideas goes though I think will, in many ways, will tell the legacy of these ideas.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Schweizer: I think Reagan was a world historical figure. I think if you look at the fundamental abroad principles of his administration, these are principles that Reagan started developing in the Fifties and Sixties--the idea of the Reagan Doctrine for example, he read a book in 1971 and thought it was a great idea to apply these principles. So I think that we can see that through the example of Reagan that individuals can change the shape and direction of history.

Peter Robinson: Barton Bernstein, Mike McFaul, Peter Schweizer, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson, for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.