Cold War to Star Wars

By Schell, Jonathan | The Nation, June 28, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Cold War to Star Wars


Schell, Jonathan, The Nation


Perhaps the most important question--for present policy-makers as well as historians--posed by the presidency of Ronald Reagan is what role he played in ending the cold war. And perhaps the most illuminating recent article on this question is one written by Wesley Clark for Washington Monthly just before Reagan died. A mistaken belief that the Soviet Union was brought down chiefly by US military pressure, Clark believes, has led the group of neoconservatives now in charge of American policy to think military action can now bring democracy to the Middle East. The result is the fiasco under way in Iraq. Clark acknowledges that the Reagan military buildup played a role in the Soviet turnaround under Mikhail Gorbachev. Soviet military backwardness was perhaps the most sharply painful aspect of the Soviet Union's growing technical lag behind the United States, and the Reagan military buildup intensified it. But far more important than the buildup, Clark argues, was the long policy of containment that preceded it. And more important still was the long, slow, scarcely visible but decisive loss of faith in the Soviet empire by the peoples living under its rule. It burst into view with the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Then came the astonishingly creative, nonviolent response from Gorbachev: his call for a "new thinking," which put the interests of peace and survival above imperial or ideological interest; his commitment to installing openness and respect for human rights in Soviet policy; his wholesale perestroika of the Soviet system. In a word, the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred more for political than for military reasons. That is why the end, when it came, could, in a surprise as great as the collapse itself, occur almost entirely without violence.

Reagan had been prescient early in his term in foreseeing the dimensions of the Soviet crisis; yet when it came he was at first blind to it. The Administration's hard line toward the Soviet Union continued right up to the edge of the Reykjavik summit, in October 1986. Just before the meeting, Richard Solomon, director of policy planning at the State Department, informed Reagan in a memorandum, "Dynamic Mr. Gorbachev and his attractive wife may turn out to be no more capable of 'new thinking' than Mr. Khrushchev was of burying Stalin." It was not until the summit itself that, to his great credit, Reagan began to understand that the rise of Gorbachev to the leadership of the Soviet Union heralded fundamental change.

Gorbachev and Reagan turned out to be in agreement on a surprising point that goes unmentioned in the encomiums of today's hawks. Both men believed that the abolition of nuclear weapons was not only necessary for the survival of civilization but also possible.

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