How Ronald Reagan Won the Cold War

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When he took office in January 1981, President Ronald Reagan looked around the world and was greatly troubled by what he saw. For more than three decades, the United States and its allies had striven to contain communism through a series of diplomatic, economic, and sometimes military initiatives that had cost hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. And yet communism still controlled the Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea and had spread to sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua.

Whatever its early success, it was clear that the policy of containment no longer worked. The president determined that the time had come to defeat communism based on a simple premise: “We win and they lose.” In his first presidential press conference, Reagan stunned official Washington by denouncing the Soviet leadership as still dedicated to “world revolution and a one-world Socialist-Communist state.” As he wrote in his official autobiography, “I decided we had to send as powerful a message as we could to the Russians that we weren’t going to stand by anymore while they armed and financed terrorists and subverted democratic governments.”

Based on intelligence reports and his lifelong study, Reagan concluded that Soviet communism was cracking and ready to crumble. He first went public with his prognosis of the Soviets’ systemic weakness at his alma mater, Eureka College, in May 1982. He declared that the Soviet empire was “faltering because rigid centralized control has destroyed incentives for innovation, efficiency, and individual achievement.”

One month later, in a prophetic address to the British Parliament at Westminster, Reagan said that the Soviet Union was gripped by a “great revolutionary crisis” and that a “global campaign for freedom” would ultimately prevail. He boldly predicted that “the march of freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

He directed his top national security team to develop a plan to end the Cold War by winning it. The result was a series of top-secret national security decision directives that:

–Committed the U.S. to “neutralizing” Soviet control over Eastern Europe and authorized the use of covert action and other means to support anti-Soviet groups in the region.

–Adopted a policy of attacking a “strategic triad” of critical resources—financial credits, high technology, and natural gas—essential to Soviet economic survival. The directive was tantamount, explained author-economist Roger Robinson, to “a secret declaration of economic war on the Soviet Union.”

–Determined the U.S. would no longer coexist with the Soviet system but would seek to change it fundamentally. The language, drafted by Harvard historian Richard Pipes, was unequivocal–America intended to “roll back” Soviet influence at every opportunity.

Taking its lead from these directives, the administration pursued a multifaceted foreign policy offensive that included covert support of the Solidarity movement in Poland, an increase in pro-freedom public diplomacy (through instruments like the National Endowment for Democracy), a global campaign to reduce Soviet access to Western high technology, and a drive to hurt the Soviet economy by driving down the price of oil and limiting natural gas exports to the West.

A key element of Reagan’s victory strategy was the support of anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia. The “Reagan Doctrine” (a name coined by syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer) was the most cost-effective of all the Cold War doctrines, costing the United States less than a billion dollars a year while forcing the cash-strapped Soviets to spend some $8 billion annually to deflect its impact. It was also one of the most politically successful doctrines in Cold War history, resulting in a Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, the election of a democratic government in Nicaragua, and the removal of 40,000 Cuban troops from Angola and the holding of UN-monitored elections there.

And then there was SDI—the Strategic Defense Initiative—dismissed as “Star Wars” by U.S. skeptics but which put the Soviet military in a state of fear and shock. A decade later, a top Soviet strategist revealed what he had told the Politburo at the time: “Not only could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible countermeasures.”

By the time Reagan left office in January 1989, the Reagan Doctrine had achieved its goal: Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet system, publicly acknowledged the failures of Marxism-Leninism and the futility of Russian imperialism. In Margaret Thatcher’s words, Ronald Reagan had ended the Cold War without firing a shot. 

Lee Edwards, a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, are co-authors of A Brief History of the Cold War.


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