American policy in the 1980s was a catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin(1)
In 1980, the Soviet Union threatened the survival of the United States, her allies, and the very principle of self-government. In 1990, the Berlin Wall was gone, the Warsaw Pact had disintegrated in all but name, and the Soviet Union was only months away from ceasing to exist as a nation. The United States won what was, for all practical purposes, the "third world war." Far from being accidental or, conversely, inevitable, this foreign policy triumph arguably resulted from a coherent strategic vision forged and implemented by American policy makers against much opposition and great odds; a triumph of the West, and a triumph for the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan.
From the Communist victory in Vietnam until the invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet empire absorbed ten countries: an average of one every six months. By mid-1979, commentators across party lines were calling this sequence of events "America in Retreat."(2) This burst of Soviet expansion, fed by America's failure in Vietnam, was undergirded by an enormous and offensive-oriented military buildup. By 1979, Soviet military spending was estimated at 12-14 percent of their GNP; up 70 percent more in dollar terms than U.S. defense spending.(3) By the beginning of the 1980s, "Soviet leaders stated with growing confidence that the correlation of forces had shifted in their favor."(4)
In response, American defense spending stopped its downward slide in 1978. Public opinion began favoring a firmer line toward the Soviets, a trend that accelerated through 1979 and 1980.(5) In November 1979, the Iranian hostage crisis began, which proved a catalyst for the reassertion of American strength. And in December, the Soviets drove the final nail into the coffin of "detente" when they took Kabul. Jimmy Carter responded with further defense spending increases, the removal of SALT II from Senate consideration, the grain embargo, the Olympic boycott, and the "Carter Doctrine." The post-Afghanistan Carter, however, would only be a transitional figure, serving as a bridge between the accommodationist pre-Afghanistan Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The Restoration of Containment and Deterrence
The first task facing Reagan was to prevent further erosion of America's position in the world, and to restore the vigor of the policy of containment and the military strength needed to deter further Soviet expansionism. A month before taking office, Reagan was warned by Alexandre de Marenches, France's intelligence director, that in the absence of significant American stiffening even France and other close allies might begin to waver between East and West.(6) Vital as this task was, it remained defensive and reactive in character. This defensive track consisted of three major components: the military buildup, the re-establishment of containment, and the solidification of America's alliances.
Reagan expanded on Carter's defense spending proposal, and U.S. defense spending increased from $134 billion in 1980 to $253 billion in 1985 before levelling off This was an increase of 42 percent in real terms. The three most important aspects of this defense buildup were: strategic modernization, conventional force buildup, and improvements in readiness and mobility. The strategic buildup had several objectives: to maintain the strategic balance threatened by Soviet strategic modernization; to make possible a "counterforce" targeting strategy; and to restore American negotiating leverage. Despite the considerable influence of the nuclear freeze movement in 1981-83, the Reagan administration and Congress put most of the strategic modernization program into effect. The, administration increased conventional forces by adding to the number of men and divisions under arms, the number of tactical fighter wings, and the number of ships in the Navy. It also built up special operations forces. Finally, tied to the conventional buildup was the effort to improve readiness and mobility. By 1983, news analysts declared that "Rarely in peacetime have U.S. military forces been better prepared to defend the nation ... few experts doubt that the U.S. armed forces have stepped back from the brink of the disaster they faced not long ago."(7)
The Vietnam War had shattered the policy of containment. Only in the vacuum of American neo-isolationism was the string of Soviet advances from 1975 to 1980 possible. Thus, in the 1980s it was imperative for the United States to re-establish the credibility of containment. Reagan faced the most crucial test in Central America. The Soviets explicitly referred to Central America and the Caribbean as America's "strategic rear"; if America could be challenged near its own borders, it would be severely hampered to respond effectively to a Soviet thrust in Europe or the Middle East. Soviet control of Central. America--and perhaps of Mexico--could tilt the strategic balance so heavily against the United States that its allies would find neutralism increasingly attractive. In short, according to Ashley Tellis, "Soviet goals ... include nothing less than an elaborate encampment designed to effect `hemispheric denial' via a flanking movement" as "part of a broader design of global hegemony."(8)
In 1979, the Leninist Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua. In El Salvador, the new reformist government came under assault by the Sandinista-assisted Communist Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) with several thousand guerrillas in the field. In the face of the FMLN's "final offensive" days before Reagan's inauguration, Jimmy Carter had resumed military aid to the Salvadoran government. Reagan promptly expanded that aid and sent fifty-five military advisers to train the Salvadoran forces. Critics of the policy charged throughout that it would lead to "another Vietnam," and that the Salvadoran government was unworthy of support.
Despite consistent congressional challenges and the objections of a well-organized political movement, the administration succeeded in gaining acceptance of its policy of arming the Salvadoran government while urging it to continue reforms. El Salvador survived, against the expectations of many,(9) and smaller Sandinista-backed insurgencies and terrorist groups were unsuccessful elsewhere in Central America. Central America, whatever its other complexities, was the acid test of containment in the 1980s. Ultimately, Reagan was able to boast that his had been the first administration since World War II that had not given up an inch of territory to the Communists.
Strengthening America's Alliances
To achieve global equilibrium in the 1980s, the Reagan administration--contrary to its earliest pro-Taiwan inclinations--maintained a solid relationship with mainland China by strengthening economic, diplomatic, and military ties. Failure to have secured this cooperation would have seriously complicated the American task of containing Soviet power.
In Europe, NATO stood at the intersection of deterrence and containment. By 1980, many of America's closest European allies doubted America's strength and constancy of purpose. Only a few years before, Jimmy Carter had succumbed to the pressures of the peace movement and cancelled the …