Reagan won the Cold War all by himself? It’s a myth
By Daniel Sneider
San Jose Mercury News
Sunday, June 13, 2004
As a reporter in Moscow, I had the privilege of witnessing one of
the great events of the past century — the end of Soviet communism
and the collapse of the Soviet empire.
What I saw and heard bears almost no resemblance to the pernicious
myth repeated in recent days that Ronald Reagan single-handedly won
the Cold War.
The myth distorts history. It insults the Polish dockworkers,
Lithuanian nationalists and Russian democrats who risked their lives
for freedom. If any single person can be credited for such a momentous
event, it would be Mikhail Gorbachev.
Even worse, the myth perpetuates a dangerous idea, now at play in
the deserts of Iraq, that the United States can, by its own will,
transform other societies.
To his credit, Ronald Reagan didn’t create this myth — his supporters
did. They claim the decision to pursue the “star wars” program,
along with a massive defense buildup, drove the Soviet Union to
economic collapse. And they insist that Reagan’s calls for freedom
inspired the uprising against Communist rule.
There is a kernel of truth to this. The United States had to make
clear to the Soviet leadership that it could not advance its aims by
military means or ever hope to win an arms race. And it needed to not
lose sight of the fact that the Cold War was also a struggle of ideas.
Those principles did not belong exclusively, however, to Reagan. They
are the core of the doctrine of containment crafted at the dawn
of the Cold War by diplomat George Kennan. As long as the West
remained unified and strong, Kennan predicted, the Soviet system
would eventually collapse from its own inherent limitations.
That “long twilight struggle” succeeded. The Soviet Union I
encountered at the end of the 1980s was exhausted. Soviet workers were
soaked in vodka by midday. Dimly lit grocery stores were lined with
bottles of pickled tomatoes nobody would buy. In Soviet offices, a desk
covered with large clunky rotary dial phones was a sign of power. To me
it was evidence of a country left behind by the microchip revolution.
Though it commanded tremendous resources, the Soviet military wasn’t
much more impressive. On the bases of elite Soviet Marines and advanced
jet fighter wings, the men paid more attention to cultivating potato
fields they depended on for food. Even some Russians described their
own country as “Bangladesh with nuclear weapons.”
The crisis of legitimacy was kept in check only by the fading fear
of the police state. Russians read official propaganda in reverse —
whatever the authorities said was white, they knew had to be black.
Cynicism was the dominant ideology of the Communist Party. No one
mentioned Marx or talked of socialism. A failed coup in 1991 was
carried out by drunken apparatchiks desperate to hang on to power,
pale remnants of the ruthless Bolsheviks who created this system.
Nationalism was and remains the most powerful motivating
belief. Russians still felt pride in their nation and hoped freedom
would bring them prosperity as part of Europe. From Poland to Armenia,
entire populations revolted against Russian imperial rule. The depth of
disaffection was a shock not only to Gorbachev but also to the American
leadership, which never saw the breakup of the Soviet Union coming.
The Soviet system was already in crisis by the 1960s. The exposé of
Stalin’s crimes had dug deep into belief. The growth symbolized by
massive projects, many of them built with slave labor, had reached
its limit. An attempt at limited economic reform failed.
The Soviet Union probably lived longer than it properly should have
for two reasons — the Vietnam War, which discredited and fatigued
the United States; and the OPEC oil cartel, which allowed the Soviets
to paper over their problems with booming revenue from oil and gas
exports (which continues to this day).
Gorbachev sought reform not to keep up with America but to save the
system. But each step to open up the Soviet Union only exposed its
weakness, most of all to its own people. Ultimately his reforms only
hastened the end.
To the extent that Ronald Reagan recognized the potential of these
changes and encouraged them, he helped speed the end of the Cold
War. But it is time to dump the self-congratulatory rhetoric into
the dustbin of history where communism now resides.
DANIEL SNEIDER is foreign affairs columnist for the Mercury News. His
column appears on Sunday and Thursday. You can contact him at