Did Reagan Make Gorbachev Possible?

By Wilson, James Graham | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview
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Did Reagan Make Gorbachev Possible?


Wilson, James Graham, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Ronald Reagan's rhetoric and policies toward the Soviet Union in his first administration delayed the reconfiguration of the Soviet outlook toward the Cold War that came to define the Gorbachev era. His words and deeds gave credence to hard-liners within the Kremlin at the expense of voices that would reduce nuclear arsenals and retard the tempo of ideological competition. This process played out in three stages: the cautious optimism with which Soviet leaders and advisors foresaw the prospect of a Reagan presidency in the election year of 1980; the time of frustration from 1981 to 1982; and the period of intense fear from 1983 to 1984.

Recent evidence, drawn from oral history projects, memoir literature, and newly declassified correspondence and minutes of selected Politburo meetings, reveals that Soviet leaders wanted to negotiate with the new American president. This evidence coincides with the release of Reagan's diaries and his correspondence with Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, in which one finds the fiercely anticommunist American president determined from the very start to negotiate with his adversaries in the hope of transcending the Cold War.

On the American side, political allegiances have both shaped and limited our understanding of this crucial period in time. Especially in the post-9/11 era, Republicans are enamored with what they see as the legacy of Reagan's foreign policy (Arquilla 2006). They contend that Reagan's bold and decisive leadership forced the Soviet Union to its knees and compelled it to negotiate. Some go so far as to say that Reagan's rhetoric and policies hastened the Soviet Union's collapse. Reagan's "talk of democracy and good versus-evil," asserts Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense during George W. Bush's first administration, "[was] widely criticized, even ridiculed, as unsophisticated and destabilizing. But it's now widely understood as having contributed importantly to the greatest victory in world history: the collapse of Soviet communism and the liberation of the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe without a war" (Leffler 2005, 410). Democrats, for their part, tend to avoid having to address the end of the Cold War. If pressed, they shift the conversation to perestroika and glasnost and to Gorbachev's unilateral reduction of Soviet troop levels, his withdrawal from Afghanistan, and his willingness to allow for the relatively peaceful disintegration of the Eastern bloc.

U.S. and British scholars have tended to reflect this political divide. Aptly titled works such as Paul Kengor's The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2006), Peter Schweizer's Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph over Communism (2002), and John Lewis Gaddis's recent Cold War: A New History (2005) praise Reagan as a visionary who helped foster the peaceful withering away of communism--just as George Kennan had predicted would one day occur. These interpretations mean to counter earlier works such as Raymond Garthoff's The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (1994), which emphasizes the bureaucratic disarray within the Reagan White House as well as the conflicted impulses on the part of Reagan himself, and Edmund Morris's unconventional "official" biography, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (2000), which reduces Reagan to an intellectual blank slate. Thus far, memoirs of policy makers from this Republican administration have--with the exception of excellent contributions by George Shultz (1993) and Jack Matlock (2004)--offered more in the way of political bromides than genuine insights.

By contrast, the literature that has emerged from the former Soviet Union is less ideologically charged. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and communism has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. Its stewards in the waning days of the Soviet Union therefore have no ideological legatees to protect.

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