International School History - Cold War - John Lewis Gaddis on Reagan and Gorbachev


ON MARCH 30, 1981, six weeks before the attempt on the pope's life, another would-be assassin shot and almost killed Reagan. The Soviet Union had nothing to do with this attack: it was the effort, rather, of a demented young man, John W. Hinckley, to impress his own movie star idol, the actress Jodie Foster. The improbable motive behind this near-fatal act suggests the importance and vulnerability of individuals in history, for had Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush, succeeded him at that point, the Reagan presidency would have been a historical footnote and there probably would not have been an American challenge to the Cold War status quo. Bush, like most foreign policy experts of his generation, saw that conflict as a permanent feature of the international landscape. Reagan, like Walesa, Thatcher, Deng, and John Paul II, definitely did not.

He shared their belief in the power of words, in the potency of ideas, and in the uses of drama to shatter the constraints of conventional wisdom. He saw that the Cold War itself had become a convention: that too many minds in too many places had resigned themselves to its perpetuation. He sought to break the stalemate—which was, he believed, largely psychological—by exploiting Soviet weaknesses and asserting western strengths. His preferred weapon was public oratory.

The first example came at Notre Dame University on May 17,1981, only a month and a half after Reagan's brush with death. The pope himself had been shot five days earlier, so this could have been an occasion for somber reflections on the precariousness of human existence. Instead, in the spirit of John Paul Us ‘be not afraid’ a remarkably recovered president assured his audience "[t]hat the years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization." And then he made a bold prediction, all the more striking for the casualness with which he delivered it:

The West won't contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won't bother to ... denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.

This was a wholly new tone after years of high-level pronouncements about the need to learn to live with the U.S.S.R. as a competitive super-power. Now Reagan was focusing on the transitory character of Soviet power, and on the certainty with which the West could look forward to its demise. The president developed this theme in an even more dramatic setting on June 8,1982. The occasion was a speech to the British Parliament, delivered at Westminster with Prime Minister Thatcher in attendance. Reagan began by talking about Poland, a country which had "contributed mightily to [European] civilization" and was continuing to do so "by being magnificently unreconciled to oppression." He then echoed Churchill's 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech by reminding his audience:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Varna on the Black Sea, the regimes planted by totalitarianism have had more than 30 years to establish their legitimacy. But none—not one regime—has yet been able to risk free elections. Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.

Karl Marx, Reagan acknowledged, had been right: "We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis,. . . where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order." That crisis was happening, though, not in the capitalist West, but in the Soviet Union, a country "that runs against the tides of history by denying human freedom and human dignity," while "unable to feed its own people." Moscow's nuclear capabilities could not shield it from these facts: "Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders." It followed then, Reagan concluded—pointedly paraphrasing Leon Trotsky—that "the march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history."

The speech could not have been better calculated to feed the anxieties the Soviet leadership already felt. Martial law had clamped a lid on reform in Poland, but that only fueled resentment there and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Afghanistan had become a bloody stalemate. Oil prices had plummeted, leaving the Soviet economy in shambles. And the men who ran the U.S.S.R. seemed literally to exemplify its condition: Brezhnev finally succumbed to his many ailments in November, 1982, but Andropov, who succeeded him, was already suffering from the kidney disease that would take his life a year and a half later. The contrast with the vigorous Reagan, five years younger than Brezhnev but three years older than Andropov, was too conspicuous to miss.

Then Reagan deployed religion.

"There is sin and evil in the world," he reminded the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8,1983, in words the pope might have used, "and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might." As long as communists "preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world."


I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. ... I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and labeling] both sides equally at fault, [of ignoring] the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.

Reagan chose the phrase, he later admitted, "with malice aforethought. ... I think it worked." The "evil empire" speech completed a rhetorical offensive designed to expose what Reagan saw as the central error of detente: the idea that the Soviet Union had earned geopolitical, ideological, economic, and moral legitimacy as an equal to the United States and the other western democracies in the post-World War II international system.

The onslaught, however, was not limited to words. Reagan accelerated Carter's increase in American military spending: by 1985 the Pentagon’s budget was almost twice what it had been in 1980. He did nothing to revive the SALT II treaty, proposing instead START— Strategic Arms Reduction Talks—which both his domestic critics and the Russians derided as an effort to kill the whole arms control process. The reaction was similar when Reagan suggested not deploying Pershing II and cruise missiles if the Soviet Union would dismantle all of its SS-20s. After Moscow contemptuously rejected this "zero-option," the installation of the new NATO missiles went ahead, despite a widespread nuclear freeze movement in the United States and vociferous anti-nuclear protests in western Europe.

But Reagan's most significant deed came on March 23,1983, when he surprised the Kremlin, most American arms control experts, and many of his own advisers by repudiating the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. He had never thought that it made much sense: it was like two Old West gunslingers "standing in a saloon aiming their guns to each other's head—permanently." He had been shocked to learn that there were no defenses against incoming missiles and that in the curious logic of deterrence this was supposed to be a good thing. And so he asked, in a nationally televised speech: "What if. . . we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?" It was an "emperor's new clothes" question, which no one else in a position of responsibility in Washington over the past two decades had dared to ask.

The reason was that stability in Soviet-American relations had come to be prized above all else. To attempt to build defenses against offensive weapons, the argument ran, could upset the delicate equilibrium upon which deterrence was supposed to depend. That made sense if one thought in static terms—if one assumed that the nuclear balance defined the Cold War and would continue to do so indefinitely. Reagan, however, thought in evolutionary terms. He saw that the Soviet Union had lost its ideological appeal, that it was losing "whatever economic strength it once had, and that its survival as a superpower could no longer be taken for granted. That made stability, in his view, an outmoded, even immoral, priority. If the U.S.S.R. was crumbling, what could justify continuing to hold East Europeans hostage to the Brezhnev Doctrine—or, for that matter, continuing to hold Americans hostage to the equally odious concept of Mutual Assured Destruction? Why not hasten the disintegration?

That is what the Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to do. It challenged the argument that vulnerability could provide security. It called into question the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a centerpiece of SALT I. It exploited the Soviet Union's backwardness in com¬puter technology, a field in which the Russians knew that they could not keep up. And it undercut the peace movement by framing the en¬tire project in terms of lowering the risk of nuclear war: the ultimate purpose of SDI, Reagan insisted, was not to freeze nuclear weapons, but rather to render them "impotent and obsolete."

This last theme reflected something else about Reagan that almost everybody at the time missed: he was the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been president of the United States. He made no secret of this, but the possibility that a right-wing Republican anti-communist pro-military chief executive could also be an anti-nuclear activist defied so many stereotypes that hardly anyone noticed Reagan's repeated promises, as he had put it in the "evil empire" speech, "to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world's nuclear arsenals and one day, with God's help, their total elimination."

Reagan was deeply committed to SDI: it was not a bargaining chip to give up in future negotiations. That did not preclude, though, using it as a bluff: the United States was years, even decades, away from developing a missile defense capability, but Reagan's speech persuaded the increasingly frightened Soviet leaders that this was about to happen. They were convinced, Dobrynin recalled, "that the great technological potential of the United States had scored again and treated Reagan's statement as a real threat." Having exhausted their country by catching up in offensive missiles, they suddenly faced a new round of competition demanding skills they had no hope of mastering. And the Americans seemed not even to have broken into a sweat.

The reaction, in the Kremlin, approached panic. Andropov had concluded, while still head of the K.G.B., that the new administration in Washington might be planning a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. "Reagan is unpredictable," he warned. "You should expect anything from him." There followed a two-year intelligence alert, with agents throughout the world ordered to look for evidence that such preparations were under way.  The tension became so great that when a South Korean airliner accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace over Sakhalin on September 1, 1983, the military authorities in Moscow assumed the worst and ordered it shot down, killing 269 civilians, 63 of them Americans. Unwilling to admit the mistake, Andropov maintained that the incident had been a "sophisticated provocation organized by the U.S. special services."

Then something even scarier happened that attracted no public notice. The United States and its NATO allies had for years carried out fall military exercises, but the ones that took place in November— designated "Able Archer 83"—involved "a higher level of leadership participation than was usual. The Soviet intelligence agencies kept a close watch on these maneuvers, and their reports caused Andropov and his top aides to conclude—briefly—that a nuclear attack was imminent. It was probably the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis, and yet no one in Washington knew of it until a well-placed spy in the K.G.B.'s London headquarters alerted British intelligence, which passed the information along to the Americans.

That definitely got Reagan's attention. Long worried about the danger of a nuclear war, the president had already initiated a series of quiet contacts with Soviet officials—mostly unreciprocated—aimed at defusing tensions. The Able Archer crisis convinced him that he had pushed the Russians far enough, that it was time for another speech. It came at the beginning of Orwell's fateful year, on January 16,1984, but Big Brother was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in lines only he could have composed, Reagan suggested placing the Soviet-American relationship in the capably reassuring hands of Jim and Sally and Ivan and Anya. One White House staffer, puzzled by the hand-written addendum to the prepared text, exclaimed a bit too loudly: "Who wrote this shit?"

Once again, the old actor's timing was excellent. Andropov died the following month, to be succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, an enfeebled geriatric so zombie-like as to be beyond assessing intelligence reports, alarming or not. Having failed to prevent the NATO missile deployments, Foreign Minister Gromyko soon grudgingly agreed to resume arms control negotiations. Meanwhile Reagan was running for re-election as both a hawk and a dove: in November he trounced his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale. And when Chernenko died in March, 1985, at the age of seventy-four, it seemed an all-too-literal validation of Reagan's predictions about "last pages" and historical "ash-heaps." Seventy-four himself at the time, the president had another line ready: "How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians, if they keep dying on me?"


"WE CAN'T go on living like this," Mikhail Gorbachev recalls saying to his wife, Raisa, on the night before the Politburo appointed him, at the age of fifty-four, to succeed Chernenko as general secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S-R. That much was obvious not just to Gorbachev but even to the surviving elders who selected him: the Kremlin could not continue to be run as a home for the aged. Not since Stalin had so young a man reached the top of the Soviet hierarchy. Not since Lenin had there been a university-educated Soviet leader. And never had there been one so open about his country's shortcomings, or so candid in acknowledging the failures of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Gorbachev had been trained as a lawyer, not an actor, but he understood the uses of personality at least as well as Reagan did. Vice President Bush, who represented the United States at Chernenko's funeral, reported back that Gorbachev "has a disarming smile, warm eyes, and an engaging way of making an unpleasant point and then bouncing back to establish real communication with his interlocutors." Secretary of State George Shultz, who was also there, described him as "totally different from any Soviet leader I've ever met." Reagan himself, on meeting Gorbachev at the November, 1985, Geneva summit, found "warmth in his face and style, not the coldness bordering on hatred I'd seen in most other senior Soviet leaders I'd met until then."

For the first time since the Cold War began the U.S.S.R. had a ruler who did not seem sinister, boorish, unresponsive, senile—or dangerous. Gorbachev was "intelligent, well-educated, dynamic, honest, with ideas and imagination," one of his closest advisers, Anatoly Chernyaev, noted in his private diary. "Myths and taboos (including ideological ones) are nothing for him. He could flatten any of them." When a Soviet citizen congratulated him early in 1987 for having replaced a regime of "stone-faced sphinxes," Gorbachev proudly published the letter.

What would replace the myths, taboos, and sphinxes, however, was less clear. Gorbachev knew that the Soviet Union could not continue on its existing path, but unlike John Paul II, Deng, Thatcher, Reagan, and Walesa, he did not know what the new path should be. He was at once vigorous, decisive, and adrift: he poured enormous energy into shattering the status quo without specifying how to reassemble the pieces. As a consequence, he allowed circumstances—and often the firmer views of more far-sighted contemporaries—to determine his own priorities. He resembled, in this sense, the eponymous hero of Woody Allen's movie Zelig, who managed to be present at all the great events of his time, but only by taking on the character, even the appearance, of the stronger personalities who surrounded him.

Gorbachev's malleability was most evident in his dealings with Reagan, who had long insisted that he could get through to a Soviet leader if he could ever meet one face-to-face. That had not been possible with Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko, which made Reagan all the keener to try with Gorbachev. The new Kremlin boss came to Geneva bristling with distrust: the president, he claimed, was seeking "to use the arms race ... to weaken the Soviet Union. . . . But we can match any challenge, though you might not think so." Reagan responded that "we would prefer to sit down and get rid of nuclear weapons, and with them, the threat of war." SDI would make that possible: the United States would even share the technology with the Soviet Union. Reagan was being emotional, Gorbachev protested: SDI was only "one man's dream." Reagan countered by asking why "it was so horrifying to seek to develop a defense against this awful threat." The summit broke up inconclusively.

Two months later, though, Gorbachev proposed publicly that the United States and the Soviet Union commit themselves to ridding the world of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Cynics saw this as an effort to test Reagan's sincerity, but Chernyaev detected a deeper motive. Gorbachev, he concluded, had "really decided to end the arms race no matter what. He is taking this 'risk' because, as he understands, it's no risk at all—because nobody would attack us even if we disarmed completely." Just two years earlier Andropov had thought Reagan capable of launching a surprise attack. Now Gorbachev felt confident that the United States would never do this. Reagan's position had not changed: he had always asked Soviet leaders to "trust me." After meeting Reagan, Gorbachev began to do so.

A nuclear disaster did, nevertheless, occur—not because of war but as the result of an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. This event also changed Gorbachev. It revealed "the sicknesses of our system .. . the concealing or hushing up of accidents and other bad news, irresponsibility and carelessness, slipshod work, wholesale drunkenness." For decades, he admonished the Politburo, "scientists, specialists, and ministers have been telling us that everything was safe. . . . [Y]ou think that we will look on you as gods. But now we have ended up with a fiasco." Henceforth there would have to be glasnost' (publicity) and perestroika (restructuring) within the Soviet Union itself. "Chernobyl," Gorbachev acknowledged, "made me and my colleagues rethink a great many things."

The next Reagan-Gorbachev summit, held the following October in Reykjavik, Iceland, showed how far the rethinking had gone. Gorbachev dismissed earlier Soviet objections and accepted Reagan's "zero option," which would eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. He went on to propose a 50 percent cut in Soviet and American strategic weapons, in return for which the United States would agree to honor the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for the next decade while confining SDI to laboratory testing. Not to be outdone, Reagan suggested phasing out all intercontinental ballistic missiles within that period and reiterated his offer to share SDI. Gorbachev was skeptical, leading Reagan to wonder how anyone could object to "defenses against non-existent weapons." The president then proposed a return to Reykjavik in 1996:

He and Gorbachev would come to Iceland, and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them. Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world. . . . The President. . . would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say "Hello, Mikhail." And Gorbachev would say, "Ron, is it you?" And then they would destroy the last missile.

It was one of Reagan's finest performances, but Gorbachev for the moment remained unmoved: the United States would have to give up the right to deploy SDI. That was unacceptable to Reagan, who angrily ended the summit.

Both men quickly recognized, though, the significance of what had happened: to the astonishment of their aides and allies, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union had found that they shared an interest, if not in SDI technology, then at least in the principle of nuclear abolition. The logic was Reagan's, but Gorbachev had come to accept it. Reykjavik, he told a press conference, had not been a failure: "[I]t is a breakthrough, which allowed us for the first time to look over the horizon."

The two men never agreed formally to abolish nuclear weapons, nor did missile defense come anywhere close to feasibility during their years in office. But at their third summit in Washington in December, 1987, they did sign a treaty providing for the dismantling of all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. "Dovorey no provorey," Reagan insisted at the signing ceremony, exhausting his knowledge of the Russian language: "Trust but verity." "You repeat that at every meeting," Gorbachev laughed. "I like it," Reagan admitted. Soon Soviet and American observers were witnessing the actual destruction of the SS-20, Pershing II, and cruise missiles that had revived Cold War tensions only a few years before—and pocketing the pieces as souvenirs. If by no means "impotent," certain categories of nuclear weapons had surely become "obsolete." It was Reagan, more than anyone else, who made that happen.

Gorbachev's impressionability also showed up in economics. He had been aware, from his travels outside the Soviet Union before assuming the leadership, that "people there . . . were better off than in our country." It seemed that "our aged leaders were not especially worried about our undeniably lower living standards, our unsatisfactory way of life, and our falling behind in the field of advanced technologies." But he had no clear sense of what to do about this. So Secretary of State Shultz, a former economics professor at Stanford, took it upon himself to educate the new Soviet leader.

Shultz began by lecturing Gorbachev, as early as 1985, on the impossibility of a closed society being a prosperous society: "People must be free to express themselves, move around, emigrate and travel if they want to. ... Otherwise they can't take advantage of the opportunities available. The Soviet economy will have to be radically changed to adapt to the new era." "You should take over the planning office here in Moscow," Gorbachev joked, "because you have more ideas than they have." In a way, this is what Shultz did. Over the next several years, he used his trips to that city to run tutorials for Gorbachev and his advisers, even bringing pie charts to the Kremlin to illustrate his argument that as long as it retained a command economy, the Soviet Union would fall further and further behind the rest of the developed world.

Gorbachev was surprisingly receptive. He echoed some of Shultz's thinking in his 1987 book, Perestroika: "How can the economy advance," he asked, "if it creates preferential conditions for backward enterprises and penalizes the foremost ones?" When Reagan visited the Soviet Union in May, 1988, Gorbachev arranged for him to lecture at Moscow State University on the virtues of market capitalism. From beneath a huge bust of Lenin, the president evoked computer chips, rock stars, movies, and the "irresistible power of unarmed truth." The students gave him a standing ovation.93 Soon Gorbachev was repeating what he had learned to Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush: "Whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with a united, integrated, European economy. . . . Whether we want it or not, Japan is one more center of world politics. . . . China ... is [another] huge reality. . . . All these, I repeat, are huge events typical of a regrouping of forces in the "world."

Most of this, however, was rhetoric: Gorbachev was never willing to leap directly to a market economy in the way that Deng Xiaoping had done. He reminded the Politburo late in 1988 that Franklin D. Roosevelt had saved American capitalism by "borrowing] socialist ideas of planning, state regulation, [and] . . . the principle of more social fairness."The implication was that Gorbachev could save socialism by borrowing from capitalism, but just how remained uncertain. "[R]epeated incantations about 'socialist values' and 'purified ideas of October,'" Chernyaev observed several months later, "provoke an ironic response in knowing listeners. . . . [T]hey sense that there's nothing behind them." After the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev acknowledged his failure. "The Achilles heel of socialism "was the inability to link the socialist goal with the provision of incentives for efficient labor and the encouragement of initiative on the part of individuals. It became clear in practice that a market provides such incentives best of all."

There was, however, one lesson Reagan and his advisers tried to teach Gorbachev that he did not need to learn: it had to do with the difficulty of sustaining an unpopular, overextended, and antiquated empire. The United States had, since Carter's final year in office, provided covert and sometimes overt support to forces resisting Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere. By 1985 there was talk in Washington of a "Reagan Doctrine": a campaign to turn the forces of nationalism against the Soviet Union by making the case that, with the Brezhnev Doctrine, it had become the last great imperialist power. Gorbachev's emergence raised the possibility of convincing a Kremlin leader himself that the "evil empire" was a lost cause, and over the next several years Reagan tried  to do this. His methods included quiet persuasion, continued assistance to anti-Soviet resistance movements, and as always dramatic speeches: the most sensational one came at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, when—against the advice of the State Department—the president demanded: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

For once, a Reagan performance fell flat: the reaction in Moscow was unexpectedly restrained. Despite this challenge to the most visible symbol of Soviet authority in Europe, planning went ahead for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Washington summit later that year. The reason, it is now clear, is that the Brezhnev Doctrine had died when the Politburo decided, six years earlier, against invading Poland. From that moment on Kremlin leaders depended upon threats to use force to maintain their control over Eastern Europe—but they knew that they could not actually use force. Gorbachev was aware of this, and had even tried to signal his Warsaw Pact allies, in 1985, that they were on their own: "I had the feeling that they were not taking it altogether seriously." So he began making the point openly.

One could always "suppress, compel, bribe, break or blast," he "wrote in his book Perestroika, "but only for a certain period. From the point of view of long-term, big-time politics, no one will be able to subordinate others.. . . Let everyone make his own choice, and let us all respect that choice." Decisions soon followed to begin withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan and to reduce support for Marxist regimes elsewhere in the "third world." Eastern Europe, though, was another matter: the prevailing view in Washington as well as in European capitals on both sides of the Cold War divide was that the U.S.S.R. would never voluntarily relinquish its sphere of influence there. "Any Soviet yielding of the area," one western analyst commented in 1987, "not only would undermine the ideological claims of Communism . . . and degrade the Soviet Union's credentials as a confident global power, but also would gravely jeopardize a basic internal Soviet consensus and erode the domestic security of the system itself."

For Gorbachev, though, any attempt to maintain control over unwilling peoples through the use of force would degrade the Soviet system by overstretching its resources, discrediting its ideology, and resisting the irresistible forces of democratization that, for both moral and practical reasons, were sweeping the world. And so he borrowed a trick from Reagan by making a dramatic speech of his own: he announced to the United Nations General Assembly, on December 7, 1988, that the Soviet Union would unilaterally cut its ground force commitment to the Warsaw Pact by half a million men. "It is obvious," he argued, "that force and the threat of force cannot be and should not be an instrument of foreign policy. . . . Freedom of choice is ... a universal principle, and it should know no exceptions."

The speech "left a huge impression," Gorbachev boasted to the Politburo upon his return to Moscow, and "created an entirely different background for perceptions of our policies and the Soviet Union as a whole." He was right about that. It suddenly became apparent, just as Reagan was leaving office, that the Reagan Doctrine had been pushing against an open door. But Gorbachev had also made it clear, to the peoples and the governments of Eastern Europe, that the door was now open.




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