Did Reagan's Military Build-Up Really Lead to Victory in the Cold War?

Fact & Fiction

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?

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Nick Heisin - 5/19/2008

Partially yes.
It was the fact that the ideology of Capitalism was far more attractive than the ideology of communism. For this reason, Pop-Culture, as a part of capitalist ideology, contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

Nick Heisin - 5/19/2008

Mr Wittner contends that Reagan's military build up was not effective in bringing about the end of the Cold War. Mr. Wittner essentially claimed that Reagan blundered from an aggressive stance towards the Soviet Union to a more peaceful because he was "rattled by public agitation." However, Reagan's policy reversal, as noted in Beth Fischer's 'The Reagan Reversal'came about because Reagan was in a comfortable position of power to negotiate with the Soviets regarding arms reduction. Although the Soviet Union did respond to the American build up, the American output far surpassed that of the Soviet Union, which culminated in Reagan's feeling of comfort to negotiate from power.

Stephen Vinson - 6/6/2004

There’s no need to take it seriously.

I always found it funny that with all the Reagen-haters who now speak of the USSR falling as an obvious fait accompli, so few of them bothered to mention this fact while the guy was president.

If they finally want to make the case that some communist empire like the Soviet Union is doomed to failure, welcome to the club.

Stephen Vinson - 6/6/2004

>Reagan, with his simple-minded and belligerent bluster, actually delayed the inevitable end of the east-west standoff. His anti-democratic and murderous escapades in Central America, the Star Wars lunacy, the ridiculous Grenada operation, and other erratic behavior perhaps is evidence of an early onset of the Alzheimer's disease that tragically afflicts him today.<

Cite please.

Lawrence S. Wittner - 1/31/2004

Mr. Heuisler's faith that Reagan's "firmness with the USSR . . . produced victory" is clear enough. But where is his evidence for this statement? I suggest that people interested in evidence should take a look at the brief article of mine that began this thread or, better yet, read my book TOWARD NUCLEAR ABOLITION (Stanford University Press). The latter, particularly, has plenty of evidence -- but not for the triumphalist thesis!

Bill Heuisler - 1/26/2004

Mr. Driscoll,
Your compassion for victims of Alzheimers is generous and your love for JFK and the Germans is marvelous. But good will doesn't quite hide agendas and ardor cannot replace knowledge. West Germans were protected from the USSR by the firmness of Truman and Eisenhower. JFK (and Carter) let the USSR do incalculable damage for decades.
President Reagan subdued the USSR in spite of their folly.
Some history:
1956 - Ike demurred on Hungary. The USSR smashed revolt.
1961 - JFK betrayed the Brigade at Jiron in April.
USSR began the Berlin Wall in ninety days.
Kruschev began putting troops and missiles in Cuba.
1977 - Carter warned of an "inordinate fear of Communism"
1978 - Carter gave away our Panama Canal.
1979 - USSR clients took Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen
and the Red Army invaded Afganistan. Our ally,
the Shah was overthrown by an anti-US ayatollah.
1980 - Castro emptied his jails in the Mariel Boat Lift.

Note a correlation between your "patience & wisdom" and defeat. Had you noticed SDI and Grenada were victories? RR's firmness with the USSR also produced victory.
Bill Heuisler

James Driscoll - 1/26/2004

The Marshall plan and the policies laid down by the Truman administration at the end of World War II led inexorably, if slowly, to the end of the Cold War. I spent two years in Germany in the late fifties as an American soldier, and was not optimistic at the time that the experiment would end in democracy gaining a strong foothold. Not long after, John Kennedy cried out earnestly, but in a terrible accent, the famous: \"Ich bin ein Berliner\", and, indeed, the entire world outside the Wall, and the Soviet Union, was transformed at that moment, into honorary citizenship in (western) Berlin, and the fallacy of the Communist system was starkly revealed. We needed patience and wisdom for almost thirty more years, but the Soviet system was crumbling all the while. We were also incredibly lucky, considering some of the fingers hovering near the buttons of doom during those years, on both sides.
Today, the German people can give the current president inflicted on the American nation a few lessons in democracy, and representative government. Who would have dreamed, in the immediate decades after the War, that would now be possible?
Reagan, with his simple-minded and belligerent bluster, actually delayed the inevitable end of the east-west standoff. His anti-democratic and murderous escapades in Central America, the Star Wars lunacy, the ridiculous Grenada operation, and other erratic behavior perhaps is evidence of an early onset of the Alzheimer\'s disease that tragically afflicts him today. It certainly did not inspire confidence in our Soviet adversaries that someone competent was in charge.
The current occupant of the White House enjoys the advice and counsel of many of the criminals and scoundrels from Reagan\'s and the Bush I regimes. The sooner they are all swept out the better it will be for our country, and the rest of the world.
Reagan, was, in fact, a bit player. He had to be nudged and told, by Iron Lady Thatcher, that \"we can do business with Gorbachev!\". Otherwise, he may not have noticed. We must give him credit where credit is due, however. As Nancy and her astrologer noted, \"his destiny is in the stars\". But not in world history.

Bill Heuisler - 1/25/2004

Professor Chamberlain,
Mr. Greenland is correct; the Soviets had plenty of oil and the shortage/embargo in the early Seventies increased their profits on the world oil market. A case could be made that the 1973 oil crisis held up the tottering Soviet giant a few more years. Castro didn't pay for oil. The USSR gave him millions each year in financial credits and trade support in manufactured goods. Cuba made a poor return with a dwindling sugar crop - hardly worth the shipping. Much of Cuba's oil was imported from Mexico's Campeche Banks using tankers registered to places like Liberia and paid in credits from the USSR.

Forget the Caspian Depression oil. Siberia has some of the largest oil reserves in the world - first exploited in the early Twentieth Century. Price hikes only added to the Soviet economy during the bad times of chronic crop failures and misadventures in the Hindu Kush. Soviet oil exports during the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were cheap, secondary-overland-pipe exchanges through client countries who paid cash or raw materials, almost pure profit bubbling up from West Siberian permafrost into wellheads built by WWI era Americans and Brits and sloshing through pipes built by WWII German POWs. Ironic.
Bill Heuisler

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/25/2004

I took it that Cur was referring to the widespread impact of the increase in oil prices on nations like Cuba, that the USSR supported and who were hurt badly by those price increases.

The Soviets did get some compensation in terms of increased prices for its oil exports, but the Soviet's poor integration into the world economy and the poor access to some of those fields limited this.

I simply don't know how important this was relative to the other problems, but it was most assuredly a strain.

Chris - 1/25/2004

Reagan apologists continue to strut and claim that inspite of the utter economic disaster that was the Reagan presidency that he brought an end to the Cold War. I have to wonder if those same persons would be so quick to give credit if Carter or Mondale were in the Whitehouse at the right time.

It is my belief that Levi Strauss & Company and The Beatles had more to do with the fall of the Soviet Union than any single President can claim. It was the culture of the free world which won the Cold War, not our military might. If it had been a purely military matter then the free world was clearly in the underdog position. We won because we had things the people in the Soviet Union wanted. They weren't going to get them through military strength, but that was all the Soviet government had to offer.

We won because of our pop culture crap, a race we were so far ahead of the Soviets in that it was only a matter of time before they crumbled. What good is a T-80 tank against a desire for blue jeans? What use is an AK-47 against a desire for a sports car? How can you obtain rock music with an ICBM?

The Soviet Union was utterly defenseless when it came to the pop culture war and that is why they collapsed. The military spending was only a way for Western governments to subsidize their friends and kill innocent people.

Josh Greenland - 1/25/2004

"Another factor getting no mention at all here are the gradual effects of the oil shocks beginning in 1973 and continuing into the 1980s. It is in fact this that made the communist government, with its policy of economic support for other communist governments worldwide, eventually fold under the economic strain."

Why would that make a difference? Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point, but the USSR had so much oil that it was supplying itself, and the other Soviet bloc countries, and had enough left to sell to western Europe. Why would the oil "shocks" have hurt rather than helped the USSR?

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/24/2004

I've rarely heard that reason given, but it makes a lot of sense as an important contributing factor. Thanks for adding it.

Paul Citrinn - 1/24/2004

Cutting the Reagan factor to size, and, very rightly so, Mr. Wittner exhibits a bit too much credulity, if he seriously believes that Gorbachev's “new thinking” was “profoundly influenced by the world nuclear disarmament movement.” A multi-volume set of Politburo transcripts, entitled “How the Policy of Perestroika Was Being Made”--soon-to-be-published by the Gorbachev Fund (Moscow, Russia)--could probably provide clues for better understanding of the genesis of the “new thinking.” That said, it is a well-established fact that Soviet leaders since Khrushchev were acutely aware that a nuclear Armageddon was unwinnable for either of the superpowers. Likewise, Kremlin foreign-policy p.r. apparatus did not really need to borrow some basic commonsense ideas about absurdity of nukes from the antinuclear movement—they were too self-evident. Surely, Gorbachev, or more accurately, his speechwriters were happy to refer to Western peacenik ideas lending additional luster to his foreign-policy pitch aimed at Western auditorium. Also, it seems highly likely that Gorbachev’s own thinking on matters of war and peace in the contemporary world was very much in sync with some elements of anti-war discourse in the West; but anyone, even vaguely familiar with Soviet policymaking “at the highest levels,” would more inclined to suggest that major considerations driving Gorbachev’s “new thinking” foreign policy were mostly homegrown.

J. Cur - 1/22/2004

Another factor getting no mention at all here are the gradual effects of the oil shocks beginning in 1973 and continuing into the 1980s. It is in fact this that made the communist government, with its policy of economic support for other communist governments worldwide, eventually fold under the economic strain.

Lawrence Wittner - 1/21/2004

People often think they know a great deal about the motives of others. But do they? Or are they merely spinning out theories of their own or of others? As an historian, I have been trained to look for evidence. And the evidence in this case --in which it is claimed that U.S. military strength triumphed over the Soviet Union -- must deal with Soviet motives.
So where is the evidence about Soviet motives? Certainly, if Soviet leaders were surrendering to American military power, they should have left some record of this in statements (whether in secret documents or in public discourse) during the 1980s or since that time. But such statements do not seem to exist. What DOES exist is a great deal of evidence to the effect that Soviet hardliners (like American hardliners) were ready to fight to the death against their presumed enemies and that Soviet reformers were attuned to peace movement contentions that the Cold War and the arms race were ridiculous and, therefore, should be ended as soon as possible. The memoirs of Soviet officials lead consistently to this conclusion, as do scholarly works like Matthew Evangelista's UNARMED FORCES and my own TOWARD NUCLEAR ABOLITION. People who are interested in going beyond abstract speculation should read them and see.

Richard Gassan - 1/21/2004

Another major factor not mentioned in this piece was the drain of Afghanistan, something I've seen cited in a number of places. Ironically, again, it was the hard-liners that led the country into it and persisted long after any of their goals could be accomplished.
However, it should be noted that the Reagan Administration's continuance of the Carter-originated arming of the Afghan rebels did contribute to their effectiveness.

John Kipper - 1/21/2004

One might also include the fact that the Soviet hierarchy, if not the military, finally finally realized that the USSR could not compete anymore and capitulated rather than commit suicide. This is perhaps the USSR's proudest achievement.

detmi - 1/20/2004

Mr. Chamberlain, your thoughts have been similarly echoed. In David Reynold's book, "One World Divisible", the British historian points to your second point as the critical development in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Points One and Four are also extremely valid. The Soviet system was in relative decay for some time. With hardline Communists in place, rather than Grobachev, that economy and so-called nation could have staggered for some time after 1990. The awareness of Gorbachev to their impenmding weakness, especially economically, and his drive to make sweeping refoorms were simply too much, too soon for the Soviet Union.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/20/2004

Trying to put one's finger on the most important factor in the US victory in the Cold War is almost impossible. I will list a few here that seem likely to me, and if anyone is curious, they can comment:

1. the atrohpying of the Soviet economy.
2. Increased contact between eastern and western Europe via travel and television. West Germany's "Ostpolitik" should get more credit than it usually does.
3. Afghanistan (here the Reaganites have their strongest evidence)
4. The collapse of confidence in the system due to the economy and Afghanistan
5. Somewhat contradictorily, the ability of the Soviet ideology to inspire reformers.
6. Glasnost, which exacerbated the popular collapse in confidence.
7. The failed coup against Gorbachev. It weakened him and the plotters that failed, allowing the powerful decentralizing forces to to take lead.

Any thoughts.

James Jones - 1/20/2004

It matters less what we remember, in a collective sense, than what it is we are told we remember. The current US administration is a case in point. It's much like the scene in the Wizard of Oz in which the wizard, on being discovered behing the curtain by Dorothy's dog Toto, exclaimed "Pay no attention that man behind the curtains!" But, despite the expertise of Rove and Rice, it's the same the whole world over. Sad, but true.

David Salmanson - 1/20/2004

And that is one of the reasons why memory is notoriously unreliable. In "The Death of Luigi Trastuli" oral historian Alessandro Portelli showed how Italian workers remade their memories to create narratives that better fit the circumstances of the time they were telling them. His example used events from an anti-Nato strike that workers transferred to a different, labor issues only strike.

Michael Meo - 1/19/2004

As a college graduate some 20 years ago I participated in the nuclear freeze movement, and I've got to say that, anecdotally, I remember things in great contrast to Mr Wittner's take on them.

I remember President Reagan's response to the nuclear freeze petition as being one of complete defiance. I remember the rhetoric changing not an iota.

I remember Gorbachev's initiatives being met with suspicion, scorn, and allegations of deceptiveness.

But that's just me.