5 Myths About Ronald Reagan





Mr. Greenberg is the author of NIXON'S SHADOW: THE HISTORY OF AN IMAGE (2003). He teaches history and political science at Yale University

During crises and other shared public experiences, the news media often stop worrying about their mission to tell the truth. Instead, they take on the role of national rabbi or shaman, fostering a collective sense of good feeling by recounting stories and myths we wish to hear. Since Ronald Reagan's death, the media have chosen mostly to do just that, sugar-coating his life and career rather than grappling with his difficult legacy. Herewith, then, some myths about Reagan now being bruited about and why they don't do justice to the man's complexity.

Myth No. 1: Reagan, the"Great Communicator," owed his success mainly to his facility with television and public relations. From his first forays into politics, observers hailed Reagan for his undeniable skill in front of the camera. His acting talent, though never much admired when he was actually an actor, allowed him to master the televised speech and the nightly news clip. A myth thus took hold that Reagan embodied the triumph of style over substance, image over reality.

The myth was suited to the period when television became central to politics. It flattered aides such as Michael Deaver and David Gergen, who received credit for masterminding his generally favorable coverage. Above all, it comforted Reagan's liberal opponents, who could reassure themselves that the public didn't really support his conservative policies and had simply been duped by Hollywood showmanship.

Reagan, however, promised—and largely delivered—substantive policies that a majority of the electorate (at least come election time) desired. He may not have fulfilled his pledge to radically shrink the overall size of government, as Tim Noah has noted, but he reasserted American military prowess, led a backlash against liberal permissiveness, and pruned social services that many middle-class voters had no wish to keep supporting. Even many people ill-served by Reaganomics supported him, not because they were fooled by clever image-making but because he both articulated their conservative values and enacted policies that moved the country rightward.

Myth No. 2: Reagan was a uniter, not a divider. Reagan's tenure is being depicted as a brief moment of national unity before the advent of today's strident partisanship. In fact, apart from Richard Nixon, it's hard to think of a more divisive president of the twentieth century. As I've noted, Reagan was, during his first two years, one of the least-liked presidents of the postwar age. The festering economic doldrums, the worsening Cold War tensions, and doubts about his temperament conspired to make him less popular than Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and even Carter were at comparable points in their terms. Nor was Reagan's second term free of strife. Starting in 1986, the Iran-contra scandal revived widespread criticism of his leadership—including calls for his impeachment—and his poll ratings went into free fall.

To be sure, from 1984 to 1986, a surging economy, a revival of patriotism, and Reagan's skillful appeals to disillusioned Democrats enhanced his image and ensured his landslide re-election. Even then, however, the intense dislike that Reagan engendered rivaled the most feverish Clinton-hating or Bush-hating of later years. If his critics bear some blame for wallowing in the demonology, it was Reagan himself who polarized the country through his actions: aligning himself with the Christian Right; playing to racist sentiments by launching his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, Miss.; nominating Robert Bork to the Supreme Court; appointing as attorney general the ethically challenged Edwin Meese; and so on. Indeed, by stoking feelings of resentment on both left and right, Reagan did probably more than anyone to sow the social discord that so deeply divides our fifty-fifty nation.

Myth No. 3: Reagan was an incorrigible optimist. Or, as we've been hearing, his sunny disposition made him impossible to dislike. This is more a half-truth than a whole lie. Certainly, Reagan charmed political antagonists like Tip O'Neill. His morning-in-America campaign tapped into a public sense of hope. And he could deploy humor brilliantly. But Reagan also possessed an ugly mean streak. It was evident back when, as California governor, he warned student protesters,"If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get it over with." Anyone who has watched the replays of Reagan saying,"I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green," or"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," can see the manifest ferocity that was as crucial to Reagan's persona as his self-effacing grin.

Reagan also mobilized his constituents with fear and resentment alongside his optimism. He fueled anxieties about a Soviet threat that he exaggerated, ginned up bitterness toward welfare queens whose stories he concocted, and played to scorn for liberals whom he called soft on crime. Most important, many of his signature presidential actions, such as firing the air-traffic controllers in 1981, won admiration precisely because of their"meanness"—or, if you prefer, their"toughness." Reagan would never have succeeded without this strain of mercilessness to balance his genial side.

Myth No. 4: Reagan restored faith in government and the presidency. This claim is as bizarre as it is common in the recent Reagan encomiums—bizarre because people still don't trust government (even after Sept. 11, which did boost public confidence in the state somewhat). Polls show that levels of trust did edge upward between 1980 and 1984—probably a result of the economic rebound—before falling again by 1988. But Reagan never restored confidence to the levels of the 1950s and 1960s, nor did he reverse the general decline, which in fact resumed after the uptick of his first term. Long after his departure from office, journalists and political scientists have continued to study the problems of depressed voter turnout and rampant political apathy. That candidates of both parties now routinely run against Washington further shows that it is an enduring cynicism toward government and politicians, not a renewed faith in them, that has been central to Reagan's legacy.

Myth No. 5: Reagan's get-tough policy with the Soviet Union brought about the end of the Cold War. Historians will be debating this one for some time, but the conventional wisdom—that Reagan, by building up the military and spouting feisty Cold War speeches, cowed the Soviet Union into submission—compresses all of Reagan's eight years into one brief moment. Reagan does deserve credit for bringing U.S.-Soviet hostilities to a close, but not for the simplistic reasons usually cited.

Though few Americans realized it, by the mid-1970s the Soviet system was collapsing. Its aggressive acts of that era, like its invasion of Afghanistan, turned out not to be harbingers of a renewed Red menace but the last gasps of a tottering power. Yet Reagan's coterie of hawkish advisers foresaw only an unending struggle. Accordingly, in his first term, they cheered Reagan's provocative rhetoric and counseled hard-line policies—notably his abandonment of high-level summits and arms-control talks—that escalated tensions. But in Reagan's second term, Secretary of State George Shultz gained the upper hand in the administration (especially after the housecleaning that followed the Iran-contra scandal). Reagan's more hawkish advisers had disdained his dreamy rhetoric about peace and abolishing nuclear weapons, but Shultz took it seriously. And both Shultz and Reagan broke from the hawks to embrace Mikhail Gorbachev as a historic reformer. The speed with which they moved from the 1985 Geneva summit to the 1987 INF treaty vouched for the wisdom of Reagan's turnabout. Thus the irony: Summitry, not missile defense or bellicose speech-making, marked Reagan's real contribution to ending the Cold War.

These overlooked elements of Reagan's governance—the substantial conservatism of his policies, which thrilled some Americans while enraging others; the personal toughness and cynicism that complemented his warmth and optimism; his dramatic, if belated, about-face on dealing with the Soviet Union—share a unifying thread: a quiet pragmatism. The practical streak that lay beneath Reagan's ideological vigor is seldom noted in either his admirers' panegyrics or his detractors' philippics. For all the fantasies he confused with reality, for all the Hollywood dreams he inhabited even while governing, Reagan was capable of hard-headed realism. It's a pity so few commentators about his legacy can muster the same.


This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.


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Raymond Cunningham - 2/4/2011

If you still believe in the myth of President Reagan's ending the Cold War I suggest that you look at the career of Karol Wojtyła. True, the end of the Cold War goes back to Budapest in 1956 and Khruschev but the contributions the papacy, Hungarian Democratic Forum, Lech Walesa and Solidarity, Charter 77 and the generation of 1968 in the USSR had far more to do with the end than Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan view is a typical American one clung to by conservatives.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Some good points are made in the above posts. There is no doubt that Reagan was a formidable historical figure and that his role in furthering the decline of the Soviet Empire is worthy of in-depth scrutiny. I did not intend to imply that it could be dismissed with a simple counter-factual. My point, rather, was that "Reagan ended the cold war" is certainly not a gospel truth either. And yet, 90% of the media coverage last week essentially assumed it to be so.

If HNN were really about subjecting current events and interpretations to the light of historical insight, instead of just pretending to be about that, the massive media myth that Reagan singlehandedly brought down the USSR regime would be front and center of discussions on this website, not buried in odd comments and in one lone article of a couple of dozen (http://hnn.us/articles/5569.html).

I am not a specialist in either the history of the Reagan administration or of the Soviet Union. But, as an interested non-specialist who was living in America and in Europe during the 1980s and reading the informed literature and commentary of the time, I find it hard to see how Reagan’s basic policies of containment, military strength, and willingness to negotiate differed in any really substantial way from those of every other American president from Truman on. Although I am certainly not a Marxist either, it seems to me that the main cause of death of the USSR was its internal contradictions, particularly its dysfunctional economy, not the rhetoric, posturings, and minor policy tinkerings of an American actor who could not, it seems, keep his war movies separate from his own actual past in World War II or appreciate the distinction between land and sea based missiles.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Perhaps, as Mr. Greenberg suggests in his article above, "historians will be debating...for some time" whether..."Reagan does deserve credit for bringing U.S.-Soviet hostilities to a close".

Maybe historians will also debate whether George Washington chopped down the cherry tree or whether UFOs abducted Elvis Presley.

Where, I wonder, is the actual historical evidence that, as W. Hearn puts it: "Reagan's initial policies forced a change in Soviet behavior" ? Is there any evidence that the Soviet bloc's dire balance of payments difficulties in the late 1980s would have been substantially different had, for example, Walter Mondale and Leonid Brezhnev been in power then ?

It is also interesting that George Bush I still seems to get blamed for the U.S. recession that happened during his term, while receiving no credit for the collapse of the Soviet empire which also occurred on his watch.

I've asked before, and hereby rephrase: do posters to this website understand the difference between correlation and causation ?


Arnold Shcherban - 6/18/2004

Just want to add that lived in the former USSR for many years, and can attest that Mr. Wittner's account of the
pertaining events is quite accurate.
Shouldn't it go without saying that any serious analysis
of the Russian(or any other) history should be based mostly on the respective commentaries and reminicences of the Russian makers of that history, not American interpretation of it?
It reminds me a following short story.
Geothe once occasionally mentioned in his memoirs that being young he was in love with Gretchen. One of the literary critics, however, corrected him, saying Goethe was mistaken in that case: actually he was in love with Lizhen.


Arnold Shcherban - 6/18/2004

Walter,

Read the following:

Did Reagan's Military Build-Up Really Lead to Victory in the Cold War?
By Lawrence S. Wittner
Mr. Wittner teaches history at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

In an op-ed published in the New York Times on January 5, Professor Kiron Skinner, co-editor of Reagan: A Life in Letters, repeats the familiar refrain of Republican triumphalists that Ronald Reagan's aggressive rhetoric and military policies improved Soviet-American relations and led to the end of the Cold War.
This fairy tale may warm the hearts of true believers in the efficacy of military buildups and wars, but it has little resemblance to reality.
In fact, Soviet-American relations went into a deep freeze until early 1985. Horrified by the Reagan administration's nuclear buildup and loose talk of nuclear war, the Soviet government ratcheted up its own military might. The new Soviet party leader, Yuri Andropov, concluded that "peace cannot be obtained from the imperialists by begging for it. It can be upheld only by relying on the invincible might of the Soviet armed forces." Responding to U.S. missile deployment in Western Europe in December 1983, the Kremlin broke off arms control negotiations, resumed the SS-20 nuclear missile deployment that it had previously halted, placed SS-23 nuclear missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia , and moved Soviet nuclear submarines closer to the coasts of the United States . In late 1984, the Kremlin incorporated a 45 percent increase in military spending into its next five-year plan.
Reagan's "evil empire" speech of March 1983 was widely noted in the Soviet Union , recalled Vladimir Slipchenko, then a member of the Soviet General Staff. "The military, the armed forces . . . used this," he added, "as a reason to begin a very intense preparation inside the military for a state of war." Furthermore, "we started to run huge strategic exercises. . . . These were the first military exercises in which we really tested our mobilization. We didn't just exercise the ground forces but also the strategic arms." Therefore, "for the military, the period when we were called the evil empire was actually very good and useful, because we achieved a very high military readiness. . . . We also rehearsed the situation when a non-nuclear war might turn into a nuclear war."
Soviet leaders, terrified that the Reagan administration was preparing a nuclear first strike against their country, nearly launched a nuclear war. In November 1983, during NATO's Able Archer military exercises, the jittery Soviet government became convinced that, under cover of the exercises, a U.S. nuclear attack upon the Soviet Union was underway. Consequently, Soviet nuclear forces were alerted, command staffs reviewed their strike missions, and nuclear weapons were readied for action. "The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss," recalled Oleg Gordievsky, a U.S. intelligence agent within the KGB. "But during Able Archer 83 it had . . . come frighteningly close."
Thus, as Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States, recalled: "The impact of Reagan's hard-line policy . . . was exactly the opposite of the one intended by Washington . It strengthened those in the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the security apparatus who had been pressing for a mirror-image of Reagan's own policy."
In the period up to early 1985, it was Reagan who began a policy reversal. Reagan entered the White House as a fanatic foe of the Soviet Union and as a staunch opponent of every nuclear arms control and disarmament agreement negotiated by his Democratic and Republican predecessors. Not surprisingly, he and his entourage initially called for a massive nuclear buildup and talked glibly of waging nuclear war. But, battered by antinuclear protests, frustrated by Congress, badgered by uneasy allies, and confronted by an obdurate Soviet leadership, Reagan softened his hard line. His administration opened arms control negotiations, championed a "zero option" for Euromissiles, compromised on strategic nuclear weapons, and observed the limits of the unratified SALT II treaty (which, previously, Reagan had condemned as "appeasement"). Starting in April 1982, Reagan began declaring publicly that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." He added: "To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: `I'm with you!'"
As these last remarks indicate, Reagan was seriously rattled by popular agitation against the nuclear arms race. In October 1983, in the context of the massive protests against Euromissile deployment, he told his startled secretary of state: "If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons." On January 16, 1984, he followed up on this idea. Over the objections of other administration officials, he delivered a remarkable public address, calling for peace with the Soviet Union and a nuclear-free world.
In short, in the period leading up to March 1985, Reagan and Soviet officials confronted each other eyeball-to-eyeball, and it was Reagan who repeatedly blinked.
Only in March 1985, with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev, did Reagan find a Soviet leader ready to implement a program of peace and disarmament. Gorbachev, of course, differed from his immediate predecessors in that he came from the ranks of Soviet reformers, who favored peace and democratization. What is not as well known is that Gorbachev's ideas were profoundly influenced by the world nuclear disarmament movement. As he declared: "The new thinking took into account and absorbed the conclusions and demands of . . . the public and the scientific community, of the movements of physicians, scientists, and ecologists, and of various antiwar organizations." Thus, Gorbachev and his circle were ready to reject the traditional "peace through strength" basis of Soviet (and American) foreign policy. In subsequent years, he and Reagan pushed past the obstacles erected by the hawks in both their countries to halt the nuclear arms race and end the Cold War.
If the contrasting version of these events--the triumphalist version trumpeted by Professor Skinner--is to hold water, surely there should be some evidence for it in Soviet sources. After all, the foundation of the triumphalist case is the idea that the Soviet Union surrendered when confronted with U.S. military "strength." But despite the numerous Soviet documents that have been declassified, the many statements that have been made by former Soviet officials, and the memoirs that have been written by former Soviet leaders, no evidence for the triumphalist contention has emerged.
Furthermore, former Soviet officials have repeatedly rejected it. Asked if a U.S. government hard line had forced the Soviet government to become more conciliatory, Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev's top foreign policy advisors, replied: "It played no role. None. I can tell you with the fullest responsibility." Arbatov, also a key Gorbachev foreign policy advisor, called the idea that a U.S. military buildup helped alter Soviet policy "absolute nonsense." Soviet changes, he said, "not only ripened inside the country but originated within it." Dobrynin did give the U.S. government some credit, but not for the efficacy of its military strength. "If Reagan "had not abandoned his hostile stance toward the Soviet Union ," recalled the Soviet diplomat, "Gorbachev would not have been able to launch his reforms and his `new thinking,'" but "would have been forced to continue the conservative foreign and domestic policies of his predecessors." When Gorbachev was asked about the triumphalist claim, made during the 1992 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, he replied simply: "I suppose these are necessary things in a campaign. But if this idea is serious, then it is a very big delusion."
Should we believe in illusions? For decades, U.S. government officials, historians, and the pundits told us that the Kennedy administration's military mobilization during the Cuban missile crisis led to its peaceful resolution. Then, suddenly, key U.S. officials revealed that the crisis had been overcome thanks to U.S. concessions. Now the hawks are again busy, pumping us up with triumphalist fantasies about the end of the Cold War. Should we not feel some skepticism about this process, particularly when--as in the case of Professor Skinner--it is openly employed to justify current U.S. foreign policy?


W H - 6/16/2004

Thanks, Adam. It's been a good discussion. Thanks for actually making arguments, unlike a certain other dude on this thread.


W H - 6/16/2004

Thanks, Adam. It's been a good discussion. Thanks for actually making arguments, unlike a certain other dude on this thread.


Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/16/2004

A good post. Allow me to respond to some of your points:

1) "I also believe that North Korea and Communist Cuba are on their way to oblivion. But of course, they are still around. Why?"

In the case of N. Korea, they are still ruled by a Stalinist character who will keep the country a threat until he dies, or until the country revolts. I am confident that had Stalin been around in the 1980's, the USSR would have continued far long, and probably until his death. The policies that Soviet leaders made in response to the crisis was just as important as the crisis itself in explaining its collapse. As for Cuba, it is small enough that maintaining it is not at all difficult, especially given the merging of ideology and nationalism that has occurred there.

2) "Only in hindsight does the Soviet Union's disintegration appear inevitable."

This is very true, but not because we are looking backward but because we have access to much more information than we had back then. If we knew then what we know now about the state of affairs in the Soviet Unions, I am confident that we would have said the same thing.

3) "the sum of the evidence indicates that Reagan's actions vastly increased the probability that the USSR would collapse when it did. The fact that this was Reagan's intended result should carry great weight."

Very true and a point well taken.

4) "The assertion is not that SDI caused the Soviet Union's collapse. No single factor did. The best way to state my view is that Reagan's policies were a necessary, but not sufficient, cause in the collapse of the Soviet Union in real living history (as opposed to theory about the system's inherent contradictions)."

Thank you for the clarification. I see your point, although I am still not sure I would go so far as to suggest that Reagan was necessary, although I would certainly grant that it certainly aided in the collapse occurring when it did.

5) "As to the comparison with Roosevelt and the New Deal, again I would point to the matter of evidence. Historical evidence simply does not support the popular idea that Roosevelt ended the Great Depression, although the positive psychological impact of his program was real. In Reagan's case, however, the evidence amply supports the contention."

Again, I see your point but I find the two situations to be very similar. There are too many factors to accurately predict whether or not FDR's policies helped end the Depression (although certainly no one argues that it actually ended the Depression or that the Depression ended at all prior to WWII). I find the same to be true of Reagan. In both cases, the proximity of the president to some complex event or process tends to credit the president with creating that event of process. The same is true about the American economy... who really effects whether it is good or bad, if anyone does?


W H - 6/16/2004

I agree with you that "one way or another, the USSR was on its way to oblivion." Reagan believed that too, which is what gave him the confidence to pursue the policies that he did, in the face of numerous naysayers.

I also believe that North Korea and Communist Cuba are on their way to oblivion. But of course, they are still around. Why? Why should the USSR have collapsed when it did? Why was the Communist Party utterly demolished in the USSR and throughout the Eastern Bloc, while it still holds power in China? Only in hindsight does the Soviet Union's disintegration appear inevitable. It is, of course, impossible to prove that the Soviet Union would not have collapsed in the absence of Reagan's policies; however, the sum of the evidence indicates that Reagan's actions vastly increased the probability that the USSR would collapse when it did. The fact that this was Reagan's intended result should carry great weight. One can go on forever raising all sorts of empistemological objections and counterfactual speculations, but by doing so one runs the risk of confirming Henry Ford's notion that history is bunk. History is about the preponderance of evidence, not the absolute absence of doubt.

As to SDI, I probably sowed some confusion by leaving out a sentence or two in which Malia points out that the main impact of SDI was psychological. Whether or not it could have worked was beside the point; the fact that the U.S. could even think about embarking on it pointed out to the Politburo the utter economic and technological superiority of the United States. The assertion is not that SDI caused the Soviet Union's collapse. No single factor did. The best way to state my view is that Reagan's policies were a necessary, but not sufficient, cause in the collapse of the Soviet Union in real living history (as opposed to theory about the system's inherent contradictions).

As to the comparison with Roosevelt and the New Deal, again I would point to the matter of evidence. Historical evidence simply does not support the popular idea that Roosevelt ended the Great Depression, although the positive psychological impact of his program was real. In Reagan's case, however, the evidence amply supports the contention.


Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/16/2004

Mr. Hearne,
I have little difficulty conceding that Reagan's policies affected the Soviet Union, as American policy always had, or that his actions, either during his first or his second term (I am inclined to believe his second, but others dispute this) may have encouraged and perhaps even hastened the collapse. However, even the book excerpt you provided seems to indicate that one way or another, the USSR was on its way to oblivion.

The except points out that "For the Soviets, the first of these was their declining economy, which left them with no possibility of matching the American defense buildup, in particular the technological leap of SDI." This could lead to the conclusion that the SDI made the USSR collapse, but I do not buy that for an instant. We know now that throughout the 1970's and 1980's, the Soviet economy was in shambles, and they were spending everything they could to hide this fact. SDI may have been an added concern, but so was just about everything else the US already had, included an advanced space program that the Soviets could not keep up with and a costly debacle in Afghanistan.

The excerpt also says that "former Soviet military personnel and political analysts generally agree that the Soviet Union's inability to keep up its half of the arms race, in particular with regard to SDI, was a principal factor in triggering perestroika." Once again, SDI is included almost as a footnote. The main point of the except however, as well as other books written on the subject, is that the Soviet economy was on the verge of collapse and their hold on their empire was crumbling under the weight of nationalistic resistance and the inability of the Soviets to squash these movements.

I understand why conservatives want to credit Reagan with ending the Cold War, it is the same reason liberals want to credit Roosevelt with ending the Great Depression: Because, if true, it validates certain fundamental tenants of the ideology. Nevertheless, I have never seen any evidence to suggest that without Reagan, the Soviet Union could have gone on another decade or more, nor have I heard any Soviet official insinuate such a claim.


W H - 6/16/2004

Peter,

I ain't much for fancy book larnin', but yeah, I kinda sorta do understand the difference between correlation and causation. I do understand the danger of falling into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this).

I do wish there were some grand historical laboratory where we could conduct experiments involving alternate universes where Mondale and Brezhnev are indeed the respective leaders of west and east. What we do have is a wealth of historical evidence that the Reagan administration implemented specific policies to squeeze the Soviet Union, including hard currency earnings, while simultaneously upping the ante in the arms race.

Not long after taking office, Reagan (with the strong encouragement of DCI William Casey) began to look for ways to attack Soviet economic vulnerability. The policy, stated most explicitly in National Security Decision Directive 66, involved three principal efforts. The first was to convince the Saudis to keep oil production up, thus keeping the prices down and depriving the Soviets of a major hard currency earner. The second was deny the Soviets full completion of the Siberian pipeline project to western Europe, against strenuous European protests. This pipeline could have nearly doubled Soviet hard currency earnings, then estimated at about $32 billion. The third was to pressure international financiers to tighten up credit to the Soviets.Another related effort was the disruption of the KGB's Line X program, an enormous scientific-industrial espionage/acquisition program that saved the Soviets billions of dollars in research and development. In addition to cracking down on technology transfers through export controls, the Reagan administration deliberately passed along sabotaged software to the Soviets, leading to a huge explosion along the pipeline in 1982 as detailed in Thomas Reed's At the Abyss.

As historian Derek Leebaert (The Fifty-Year Wound) writes, "in 1981, for the first time in the Cold War, a U.S. administration began looking at the Soviet Union from the perspective of cash flow" (p. 520). How much hard currency did Reagan's policies cost the commies? It's hard to say, but some estimates are available. Peter Schweizer states in Reagan's War (p. 284) that preventing full completion of the pipeline cost the Soviets $7-8 billion per year, the drop in oil prices $5-6 billion, and restrictions on technology transfers $1-2 billion, or $13-16 billion in all, or about half of the Soviets' total earnings when Reagan took office.

At the same time, of course, Reagan commenced a massive military buildup, defeated the freezeniks in the Euromissile crisis, launched the Strategic Defense Initiative which left the Soviets badly shaken, raised the costs of Soviets' support for Third World communists through support for anti-communist rebels under the Reagan Doctrine, conducted psychological operations designed to rattle the Politburo, and proudly stated his belief that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" and the West would assuredly triumph.

Did this force a change in Soviet behavior? Consider what historian Martin Malia (no rabid right winger, he) in The Soviet Tragedy (pp. 414-415): "...Reagan in his first term had become a figure of mythic aggressiveness to the Soviets. After the soothing practices of detente, Moscow was confronted with an unprecedented American military buildup that culminated in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) of 1983 and was accompanied by alarming rhetoric about the 'Evil Empire'....it remained for Gorbachev to grapple seriously with the underlying problems of superpower competition. For the Soviets, the first of these was their declining economy, which left them with no possibility of matching the American defense buildup, in particular the technological leap of SDI....SDI posed a technological and economic challenge the Soviets could neither ignore or match. Hence, the only way to defuse the challenge was through negotiation, and so Gorbachev made winding down the Cold War his first priority. Many in the West would undoubtedly dispute this version of the turn toward ending that conflict, but former Soviet military personnel and political analysts generally agree that the Soviet Union's inability to keep up its half of the arms race, in particular with regard to SDI, was a principal factor in triggering perestroika.....As one specialist [John Lewis Gaddis] put it:'A simple and straightforward man, Reagan took the principle of 'negotiation from strength' literally: once one had built strength, one negotiated.'"

Despite the embarrassing adulation of Gorbachev in the western press, "Gorby" never intended for the Soviet Union to commit suicide. A committed Leninist, Gorbachev thought (according to Malia) that he could by "breathing space" for the Soviet Union by backing down in the Cold War, allowing the Party to fix the Soviet economy and then resume the struggle with capitalism. Reagan's policies, of course, denied him that option. At the same time, Reagan was astute enough to recognize that Gorbachev was indeed a different type of Soviet premier, thus paving the way for real arms control progress rather than the phony parchment pushing of the 1970s.

Would a President Carter or Mondale have pursued this? Perhaps, but not likely. The conventional liberal wisdom of the time was ossified in a position of bitter reaction to the type of policies pursued by Reagan. A sampler:

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 1982: "Each superpower has its economic troubles; neither is on the ropes."

Lester Thurow: the Soviet Union was "a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States."

Strobe Talbott, 1983: "...there is little reason to hope that the many handicaps of the Soviet economy will be decisively advantageous to the U.S. in the long run, allowing the U.S. to ‘beat’ the U.S.S.R. in an arms race."

Anthony Lewis, on Reagan's "evil empire" speech: "Primitive: that is the only word for it."

Walter Mondale, 1984: Reagan has "ceded the moral high ground to Moscow."

Mario Cuomo, 1984: "Our [foreign] policy drifts with no real direction, other than hysterical commitment to an arms race that leads nowhere....If we're lucky. If we're not....[it] could lead us to bankruptcy or war."

So that's my case, that's my evidence. It's one thing, Peter, to grasp cute little concepts like the difference between correlation and causation. It's quite another to actually to know the subject matter and understand it.


W H - 6/16/2004

Peter,

I ain't much for fancy book larnin', but yeah, I kinda sorta do understand the difference between correlation and causation. I do understand the danger of falling into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this).

I do wish there were some grand historical laboratory where we could conduct experiments involving alternate universes where Mondale and Brezhnev are indeed the respective leaders of west and east. What we do have is a wealth of historical evidence that the Reagan administration implemented specific policies to squeeze the Soviet Union, including hard currency earnings, while simultaneously upping the ante in the arms race.

Not long after taking office, Reagan (with the strong encouragement of DCI William Casey) began to look for ways to attack Soviet economic vulnerability. The policy, stated most explicitly in National Security Decision Directive 66, involved three principal efforts. The first was to convince the Saudis to keep oil production up, thus keeping the prices down and depriving the Soviets of a major hard currency earner. The second was deny the Soviets full completion of the Siberian pipeline project to western Europe, against strenuous European protests. This pipeline could have nearly doubled Soviet hard currency earnings, then estimated at about $32 billion. The third was to pressure international financiers to tighten up credit to the Soviets.Another related effort was the disruption of the KGB's Line X program, an enormous scientific-industrial espionage/acquisition program that saved the Soviets billions of dollars in research and development. In addition to cracking down on technology transfers through export controls, the Reagan administration deliberately passed along sabotaged software to the Soviets, leading to a huge explosion along the pipeline in 1982 as detailed in Thomas Reed's At the Abyss.

As historian Derek Leebaert (The Fifty-Year Wound) writes, "in 1981, for the first time in the Cold War, a U.S. administration began looking at the Soviet Union from the perspective of cash flow" (p. 520). How much hard currency did Reagan's policies cost the commies? It's hard to say, but some estimates are available. Peter Schweizer states in Reagan's War (p. 284) that preventing full completion of the pipeline cost the Soviets $7-8 billion per year, the drop in oil prices $5-6 billion, and restrictions on technology transfers $1-2 billion, or $13-16 billion in all, or about half of the Soviets' total earnings when Reagan took office.

At the same time, of course, Reagan commenced a massive military buildup, defeated the freezeniks in the Euromissile crisis, launched the Strategic Defense Initiative which left the Soviets badly shaken, raised the costs of Soviets' support for Third World communists through support for anti-communist rebels under the Reagan Doctrine, conducted psychological operations designed to rattle the Politburo, and proudly stated his belief that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" and the West would assuredly triumph.

Did this force a change in Soviet behavior? Consider what historian Martin Malia (no rabid right winger, he) in The Soviet Tragedy (pp. 414-415): "...Reagan in his first term had become a figure of mythic aggressiveness to the Soviets. After the soothing practices of detente, Moscow was confronted with an unprecedented American military buildup that culminated in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) of 1983 and was accompanied by alarming rhetoric about the 'Evil Empire'....it remained for Gorbachev to grapple seriously with the underlying problems of superpower competition. For the Soviets, the first of these was their declining economy, which left them with no possibility of matching the American defense buildup, in particular the technological leap of SDI....SDI posed a technological and economic challenge the Soviets could neither ignore or match. Hence, the only way to defuse the challenge was through negotiation, and so Gorbachev made winding down the Cold War his first priority. Many in the West would undoubtedly dispute this version of the turn toward ending that conflict, but former Soviet military personnel and political analysts generally agree that the Soviet Union's inability to keep up its half of the arms race, in particular with regard to SDI, was a principal factor in triggering perestroika.....As one specialist [John Lewis Gaddis] put it:'A simple and straightforward man, Reagan took the principle of 'negotiation from strength' literally: once one had built strength, one negotiated.'"

Despite the embarrassing adulation of Gorbachev in the western press, "Gorby" never intended for the Soviet Union to commit suicide. A committed Leninist, Gorbachev thought (according to Malia) that he could by "breathing space" for the Soviet Union by backing down in the Cold War, allowing the Party to fix the Soviet economy and then resume the struggle with capitalism. Reagan's policies, of course, denied him that option. At the same time, Reagan was astute enough to recognize that Gorbachev was indeed a different type of Soviet premier, thus paving the way for real arms control progress rather than the phony parchment pushing of the 1970s.

Would a President Carter or Mondale have pursued this? Perhaps, but not likely. The conventional liberal wisdom of the time was ossified in a position of bitter reaction to the type of policies pursued by Reagan. A sampler:

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 1982: "Each superpower has its economic troubles; neither is on the ropes."

Lester Thurow: the Soviet Union was "a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States."

Strobe Talbott, 1983: "...there is little reason to hope that the many handicaps of the Soviet economy will be decisively advantageous to the U.S. in the long run, allowing the U.S. to ‘beat’ the U.S.S.R. in an arms race."

Anthony Lewis, on Reagan's "evil empire" speech: "Primitive: that is the only word for it."

Walter Mondale, 1984: Reagan has "ceded the moral high ground to Moscow."

Mario Cuomo, 1984: "Our [foreign] policy drifts with no real direction, other than hysterical commitment to an arms race that leads nowhere....If we're lucky. If we're not....[it] could lead us to bankruptcy or war."

So that's my case, that's my evidence. It's one thing, Peter, to grasp cute little concepts like the difference between correlation and causation. It's quite another to actually to know the subject matter and understand it.


W H - 6/16/2004

Peter,

I ain't much for fancy book larnin', but yeah, I kinda sorta do understand the difference between correlation and causation. I do understand the danger of falling into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this).

I do wish there were some grand historical laboratory where we could conduct experiments involving alternate universes where Mondale and Brezhnev are indeed the respective leaders of west and east. What we do have is a wealth of historical evidence that the Reagan administration implemented specific policies to squeeze the Soviet Union, including hard currency earnings, while simultaneously upping the ante in the arms race.

Not long after taking office, Reagan (with the strong encouragement of DCI William Casey) began to look for ways to attack Soviet economic vulnerability. The policy, stated most explicitly in National Security Decision Directive 66, involved three principal efforts. The first was to convince the Saudis to keep oil production up, thus keeping the prices down and depriving the Soviets of a major hard currency earner. The second was deny the Soviets full completion of the Siberian pipeline project to western Europe, against strenuous European protests. This pipeline could have nearly doubled Soviet hard currency earnings, then estimated at about $32 billion. The third was to pressure international financiers to tighten up credit to the Soviets.Another related effort was the disruption of the KGB's Line X program, an enormous scientific-industrial espionage/acquisition program that saved the Soviets billions of dollars in research and development. In addition to cracking down on technology transfers through export controls, the Reagan administration deliberately passed along sabotaged software to the Soviets, leading to a huge explosion along the pipeline in 1982 as detailed in Thomas Reed's At the Abyss.

As historian Derek Leebaert (The Fifty-Year Wound) writes, "in 1981, for the first time in the Cold War, a U.S. administration began looking at the Soviet Union from the perspective of cash flow" (p. 520). How much hard currency did Reagan's policies cost the commies? It's hard to say, but some estimates are available. Peter Schweizer states in Reagan's War (p. 284) that preventing full completion of the pipeline cost the Soviets $7-8 billion per year, the drop in oil prices $5-6 billion, and restrictions on technology transfers $1-2 billion, or $13-16 billion in all, or about half of the Soviets' total earnings when Reagan took office.

At the same time, of course, Reagan commenced a massive military buildup, defeated the freezeniks in the Euromissile crisis, launched the Strategic Defense Initiative which left the Soviets badly shaken, raised the costs of Soviets' support for Third World communists through support for anti-communist rebels under the Reagan Doctrine, conducted psychological operations designed to rattle the Politburo, and proudly stated his belief that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" and the West would assuredly triumph.

Did this force a change in Soviet behavior? Consider what historian Martin Malia (no rabid right winger, he) in The Soviet Tragedy (pp. 414-415): "...Reagan in his first term had become a figure of mythic aggressiveness to the Soviets. After the soothing practices of detente, Moscow was confronted with an unprecedented American military buildup that culminated in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) of 1983 and was accompanied by alarming rhetoric about the 'Evil Empire'....it remained for Gorbachev to grapple seriously with the underlying problems of superpower competition. For the Soviets, the first of these was their declining economy, which left them with no possibility of matching the American defense buildup, in particular the technological leap of SDI....SDI posed a technological and economic challenge the Soviets could neither ignore or match. Hence, the only way to defuse the challenge was through negotiation, and so Gorbachev made winding down the Cold War his first priority. Many in the West would undoubtedly dispute this version of the turn toward ending that conflict, but former Soviet military personnel and political analysts generally agree that the Soviet Union's inability to keep up its half of the arms race, in particular with regard to SDI, was a principal factor in triggering perestroika.....As one specialist [John Lewis Gaddis] put it:'A simple and straightforward man, Reagan took the principle of 'negotiation from strength' literally: once one had built strength, one negotiated.'"

Despite the embarrassing adulation of Gorbachev in the western press, "Gorby" never intended for the Soviet Union to commit suicide. A committed Leninist, Gorbachev thought (according to Malia) that he could by "breathing space" for the Soviet Union by backing down in the Cold War, allowing the Party to fix the Soviet economy and then resume the struggle with capitalism. Reagan's policies, of course, denied him that option. At the same time, Reagan was astute enough to recognize that Gorbachev was indeed a different type of Soviet premier, thus paving the way for real arms control progress rather than the phony parchment pushing of the 1970s.

Would a President Carter or Mondale have pursued this? Perhaps, but not likely. The conventional liberal wisdom of the time was ossified in a position of bitter reaction to the type of policies pursued by Reagan. A sampler:

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 1982: "Each superpower has its economic troubles; neither is on the ropes."

Lester Thurow: the Soviet Union was "a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States."

Strobe Talbott, 1983: "...there is little reason to hope that the many handicaps of the Soviet economy will be decisively advantageous to the U.S. in the long run, allowing the U.S. to ‘beat’ the U.S.S.R. in an arms race."

Anthony Lewis, on Reagan's "evil empire" speech: "Primitive: that is the only word for it."

Walter Mondale, 1984: Reagan has "ceded the moral high ground to Moscow."

Mario Cuomo, 1984: "Our [foreign] policy drifts with no real direction, other than hysterical commitment to an arms race that leads nowhere....If we're lucky. If we're not....[it] could lead us to bankruptcy or war."

So that's my case, that's my evidence. It's one thing, Peter, to grasp cute little concepts like the difference between correlation and causation. It's quite another to actually to know the subject matter and understand it.


W H - 6/14/2004

Darn. Hit the wrong button.

Myth No.1: Reagan's acting was "never much admired when he was actually an actor." Reagan was in fact a popular and critically successful actor (see Lou Cannon's recent Governor Reagan, for example). Only when Reagan rose to prominence in politics did liberals began to ridicule Reagan as a "B-movie actor," leaving many people with the impression that Reagan's greatest cinematic achievement was "Bedtime for Bonzo."

Myth No.2: Reagan's optimism is contradicted by his toughness. Reagan had the confidence to say things like "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" precisely BECAUSE he was optimistic; for example, about the West's inevitable triumph over the Soviet Union.

Myth No 3: "Summitry, not missile defense or bellicose speech-making, marked Reagan's real contribution to ending the Cold War." Greenberg is only able to make this assertion by casually glossing over what preceded all that summitry. Why exactly did Gorbachev come to power when he did? How could Reagan so confidently reject Gorbachev's offer to trade the "zero option" for a U.S. disavowal of SDI? Why did the Soviet Union's hard currency earnings plummet not long after Reagan took office? In the early 1980s, all the smart liberals of the time (Strobe Talbott, John Kenneth Galbraith, Anthony Lewis, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) were sure that the Soviet Union was going to be around for quite some time, and that consequently we had better make nice. When Reagan's initial policies forced a change in Soviet behavior, thus creating an opening for real arms control progress and detente, said smart liberals immediately claimed that all this had occurred because Reagan had started listening to them. What they (as well as some of Reagan's hardline allies) missed was that Reagan's militancy was a complement, not a contradiction, of his essentially pacific vision. That sort of chutzpah may have been forgivable 15 years ago, but it's just plain goofy now.

Myth No. 4: Reagan did not restore faith in the presidency. Hard as it is to believe now, some political scientists and pundits back in the late 1970s were claiming that the presidency had become too big and complex for one man to handle. Reagan effectively put the kibosh on all that.


W H - 6/14/2004