James Hershberg: Reagan Should Not be Given Credit for Defeating the Soviet Union--It's More Complicated than that

Roundup: Talking About History

James Hershberg, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, in the Wash Post (June 27, 2004):

... Ronald Reagan's policies surely contributed to the dissolution of the Kremlin's empire, culminating in the 1989 anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union two years later. But for the media and Reagan's hagiographers to give the 40th president all the credit is like saying a late-inning relief pitcher had"won" a baseball game without mentioning the starting pitcher, the closer or the teammates who scored the runs that gave the team its lead.

Historians abhor the idea of attributing a vast, complex phenomenon to a single cause. No one person brought down the Soviet Union, but if I had to choose the one who mattered most, that person would not be Reagan, most of whose policies fit comfortably in the Cold War tradition of containment followed dutifully by presidents from Truman to Carter.

Rather, the historical wild card was Mikhail Gorbachev, who followed a well-worn path up the ladder of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- and then turned out to be a radical reformer. Influenced by Nikita Khrushchev's short-lived"thaw" in the 1950s, Gorbachev grasped long before Reagan's election that the stultifying Soviet system required renovation. Gorbachev also committed the heresy of abandoning the aim of world revolution and the class struggle in international affairs in favor of amorphous, but much nicer,"universal human values." Above all, he refused to use the massive armed forces at his disposal to retain his party's grip on captive nations in Eastern Europe, restive nationalist republics or Russia itself -- something his predecessors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko might have readily done had they not conked out first.

But Gorbachev cannot claim all the credit, either. The factors that doomed the Soviet Union were largely innate, not external. In his seminal 1947"X" article in Foreign Affairs, George F. Kennan argued"that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced." In early 1950, despite anxiety over the first Soviet atomic explosion, the communist victory in China and the rise of McCarthyism, Harvard University President James B. Conant predicted that by 1980 the Soviets'"absurdities and static system would cause them to grind to a stop." He wasn't far off.

Reagan essentially followed a bipartisan legacy of containment. Sure, he offered arms to anti-communist insurgencies in the Third World and fervently articulated his beliefs in freedom and democracy, but so had other presidents. In the crunch, Reagan was (understandably) no more willing to risk World War III by directly challenging Kremlin repression in Central Europe than his predecessors had been. For all the claims of clandestine aid to the banned Solidarity movement in Poland, Reagan's reaction -- rhetoric, sympathy and half-hearted sanctions -- to the Warsaw regime's imposition of martial law in December 1981 was no less tepid than Eisenhower's to Soviets' violent suppression of revolts in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), Kennedy's to the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961), or Johnson's to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968).

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" -- Reagan's iconic 1987 challenge in Berlin -- made a nice sound bite. But however stirring his words, Europeans living under communist rule knew from bitter experience that neither the American cavalry nor American presidential rhetoric was going to liberate them....

Reagan admirers assert that the 1980s U.S. military buildup bankrupted the Kremlin."By building our defenses -- rather than unleashing aggression -- Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union," former Republican senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole declared in the New York Times. Politburo minutes indicate a genuine (albeit unfounded) concern about the"Star Wars" missile defense program, and sharper Soviet leaders grasped the growing disparity between the military and technological sophistication of the West, especially the United States, and that of the U.S.S.R. This intensified Gorbachev's desire to ease Cold War enmity, gain greater access to Western goods and know-how, and reallocate resources from the military to the civilian economy.

But Gorbachev also saw the absurdity of a nuclear arms race that, by the mid-1980s, had led the superpowers to hoard more than 70,000 warheads. He understood that he could make appealing offers to jump-start talks -- allowing on-site inspections or trading away intermediate range missiles -- without sacrificing the Soviet nuclear deterrent.

Thus the 1980s arms race did not cause the Kremlin's collapse. The Soviet economy was rotting from within for many other reasons. The Kremlin's warped priorities -- maintaining a cumbersome military machine while its economy and living standards lagged behind the West's -- helped implode the Soviet empire. But those priorities had been set for decades. The turning point was not Reagan's rise but Stalin's chutzpah after World War II. With his country devastated, the vozhd (boss) opted to seek nuclear weapons ("on a Russian scale") and coequal superpower status. From then on, the military consumed the"best and brightest" of Soviet science and distorted the economy.

The focus on the military also shortchanges the role that soft power played in the Soviet realm's demise. The trillions of dollars the West spent on weapons and containment ultimately proved less significant than aspects of Western life that had nothing to do with government policies -- music, movies, fashion (blue jeans!), consumer goods,"Coca-Colonization," and the prospect of a freer, tastier and more affluent life....

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Arnold Shcherban - 7/14/2004

Only one correction, or more like addition.

The Soviet sharp focus on military was to a great extent caused not by its attributive agressiveness and the world expansion original design, but the constant threat Soviet Russia felt coming from the West.
The feeling is not at all unreasonable and ungrounded,
considering that over its first 20 years of history
the Soviet Russia had been the target of two devastating agressions coming through its western borders and later
have been surrounded by American military bases on the West and on the East, i.e. being put in obvious military-strategic disadvantage accompanied by essential trade boycott/economic sanctions by the major manufacturing countries throughout the good part of its existence, primarily based on politico-ideological, not economical grounds.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/14/2004