Ronald Reagan and the Cold War: Don't Credit Reagan for Defeating Communism

By Zunes, Stephen | National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Ronald Reagan and the Cold War: Don't Credit Reagan for Defeating Communism


Zunes, Stephen, National Catholic Reporter


Perhaps the most dangerous myth regarding the legacy of the late President Ronald Reagan is that he was somehow responsible for the end of the Cold War.

Soviet-style Communism was doomed in part because it fell victim to the pro-democracy movement that was also then sweeping Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia during this same period. No credit can be given to the Reagan administration, which was a strong supporter of many of these right-wing dictatorial regimes such as the Marcos regime in the Philippines.

The Soviet Union and its communist allies in Eastern Europe collapsed primarily because their governments and economies rested upon an inherently unworkable system that would have fallen apart anyway.

A centralized command economy can have its advantages at a certain phase of industrialization, when large "smokestack industries"--making everything from machine tools to tanks--dominate manufacturing.

Such a system could, for a time, make the Soviets a formidable military power, but was totally incapable of satisfying consumer demand. Thus, the old joke that the Soviets were working on an atomic bomb that could fit inside a suitcase: They had perfected the bomb, but they were still working on the suitcase.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's famous line in the late 1950s that "we will bury you" was not a threat of war, but a reflection that--over the past few decades up to that time--the Soviet economy was growing faster than its Western capitalist counterparts and was projected to surpass that of the West within a couple of decades.

However, as the new wave of industrialization based upon information technologies took off, the economy of the Soviet Union stagnated. Totalitarian systems cannot survive without being able to control access to information. Cracks in the system were becoming apparent as early as the 1970s. The only nominally communist governments that still exist are China and Vietnam, the economies of which have largely gone capitalist, and Cuba, which has decentralized and democratized sectors of its economy.

In a December 2003 interview, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said the fall of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the arms race. "When it became clear to us that the one-party model was mistaken, we rejected that model," he said. "A new generation of more educated people started to be active. Then society required freedom, society demanded freedom."

It was not Reagan's military buildup or bellicose threats against the Soviets and their allies that brought down the system. …

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