The Economist put it most succinctly. After Ronald Reagan died, the magazine placed a photo of him on its cover with the words: "The man who beat communism." Others said much the same. A radio broadcast I heard began, "He was credited with winning the Cold War." A few minutes later, a political scientist cited victory in the Cold War and "the destruction of the Soviet Union" as two of Reagan's chief legacies. Since then, an endless stream of admirers and commentators has hailed Reagan for triumphing over the "evil empire."

Whoa, wait a minute. It's a bit more complicated than that.

Ronald Reagan's policies surely contributed to the dissolution of the Kremlin's empire, culminating in the 1989 anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union two years later. But for the media and Reagan's hagiographers to give the 40th president all the credit is like saying a late-inning relief pitcher had "won" a baseball game without mentioning the starting pitcher, the closer or the teammates who scored the runs that gave the team its lead.

Historians abhor the idea of attributing a vast, complex phenomenon to a single cause. No one person brought down the Soviet Union, but if I had to choose the one who mattered most, that person would not be Reagan, most of whose policies fit comfortably in the Cold War tradition of containment followed dutifully by presidents from Truman to Carter.

Rather, the historical wild card was Mikhail Gorbachev, who followed a well-worn path up the ladder of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- and then turned out to be a radical reformer. Influenced by Nikita Khrushchev's short-lived "thaw" in the 1950s, Gorbachev grasped long before Reagan's election that the stultifying Soviet system required renovation. Gorbachev also committed the heresy of abandoning the aim of world revolution and the class struggle in international affairs in favor of amorphous, but much nicer, "universal human values." Above all, he refused to use the massive armed forces at his disposal to retain his party's grip on captive nations in Eastern Europe, restive nationalist republics or Russia itself -- something his predecessors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko might have readily done had they not conked out first.

But Gorbachev cannot claim all the credit, either. The factors that doomed the Soviet Union were largely innate, not external. In his seminal 1947 "X" article in Foreign Affairs, George F. Kennan argued "that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced." In early 1950, despite anxiety over the first Soviet atomic explosion, the communist victory in China and the rise of McCarthyism, Harvard University President James B. Conant predicted that by 1980 the Soviets' "absurdities and static system would cause them to grind to a stop." He wasn't far off.

Reagan essentially followed a bipartisan legacy of containment. Sure, he offered arms to anti-communist insurgencies in the Third World and fervently articulated his beliefs in freedom and democracy, but so had other presidents. In the crunch, Reagan was (understandably) no more willing to risk World War III by directly challenging Kremlin repression in Central Europe than his predecessors had been. For all the claims of clandestine aid to the banned Solidarity movement in Poland, Reagan's reaction -- rhetoric, sympathy and half-hearted sanctions -- to the Warsaw regime's imposition of martial law in December 1981 was no less tepid than Eisenhower's to Soviets' violent suppression of revolts in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), Kennedy's to the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961), or Johnson's to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968).

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" -- Reagan's iconic 1987 challenge in Berlin -- made a nice sound bite. But however stirring his words, Europeans living under communist rule knew from bitter experience that neither the American cavalry nor American presidential rhetoric was going to liberate them. Producers of TV memorial specials might juxtapose clips of Reagan shouting at the Wall and Berliners dancing atop it two years later, but to imply a direct causal connection is history-as-fairy-tale -- or at least history-as-gross-oversimplification.

In 1989, East Europeans knew they would have to liberate themselves. They put their own lives on the line to test the uncertain limits of Gorbachev's new "Sinatra Doctrine" (other communist countries could "do it their way") and discover whether it had really replaced the old Brezhnev Doctrine, which justified armed intervention to prevent defections from the "socialist commonwealth." Those who marched in Leipzig that October had no way of knowing that they wouldn't meet the same fate as Chinese protesters crushed just months before in a crackdown many East German leaders considered worthy of emulation.

Did Reagan's challenges elsewhere around the world speed the Soviet collapse? Reagan's support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan hastened the Soviets' eventual defeat there and exacerbated stresses within the U.S.S.R. -- but that project had begun during the Carter administration and enjoyed bipartisan support. And Reagan's backing for the contras fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua not only led to the most serious scandal of his administration, but diverted attention from more profound developments taking place elsewhere in the communist world, such as China.

Reagan admirers assert that the 1980s U.S. military buildup bankrupted the Kremlin. "By building our defenses -- rather than unleashing aggression -- Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union," former Republican senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole declared in the New York Times. Politburo minutes indicate a genuine (albeit unfounded) concern about the "Star Wars" missile defense program, and sharper Soviet leaders grasped the growing disparity between the military and technological sophistication of the West, especially the United States, and that of the U.S.S.R. This intensified Gorbachev's desire to ease Cold War enmity, gain greater access to Western goods and know-how, and reallocate resources from the military to the civilian economy.

But Gorbachev also saw the absurdity of a nuclear arms race that, by the mid-1980s, had led the superpowers to hoard more than 70,000 warheads. He understood that he could make appealing offers to jump-start talks -- allowing on-site inspections or trading away intermediate range missiles -- without sacrificing the Soviet nuclear deterrent.

Thus the 1980s arms race did not cause the Kremlin's collapse. The Soviet economy was rotting from within for many other reasons. The Kremlin's warped priorities -- maintaining a cumbersome military machine while its economy and living standards lagged behind the West's -- helped implode the Soviet empire. But those priorities had been set for decades. The turning point was not Reagan's rise but Stalin's chutzpah after World War II. With his country devastated, the vozhd (boss) opted to seek nuclear weapons ("on a Russian scale") and coequal superpower status. From then on, the military consumed the "best and brightest" of Soviet science and distorted the economy.

The focus on the military also shortchanges the role that soft power played in the Soviet realm's demise. The trillions of dollars the West spent on weapons and containment ultimately proved less significant than aspects of Western life that had nothing to do with government policies -- music, movies, fashion (blue jeans!), consumer goods, "Coca-Colonization," and the prospect of a freer, tastier and more affluent life. Thanks to radio, television, Hollywood, samizdat literature and faxes, ideas and images of the West began to permeate the communist world, exerting a gravitational pull. I'll never forget the reverence with which young Russians examined a Time magazine I had taken on a backpacking trip in the 1980s, or with which Muscovites treated a Big Mac when the first McDonald's opened in Pushkin Square.

An irony worth noting is that much credit for winning the Cold War should go to the people Reagan so disliked as governor of California -- the hippies, the anti-Vietnam War protesters and counter-culture figures who in the 1960s produced the music, ideas and ethos of non-conformism that appealed to the educated youth suffocating in the communist world. Those who had the most access to the West, including the children of elite apparatchiki or professionals, found themselves drawn more to Lennon than Lenin, more to Mick than Marx.

Just ask Pavel Palazchenko, the bald, mustachioed interpreter who stood between Reagan and Gorbachev whenever they met. In the 1960s, he studied at the elite Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, where, he recalls in a wise, little-noticed 1997 memoir, the "stupidity of the official ideology was not even funny." For relief, he and his fellow students "scraped enough [money] together for parties with girls and a lot of drinking (vodka was cheap in those days). And we had the Beatles," he said.

"We knew their songs by heart. . . . To the Beatles, even more than to my teacher of phonetics, I owe my accent. But I and my . . . contemporaries owe them something else too. In the dusky years of the Brezhnev regime [1964-1982] they were not only a source of musical relief. They helped us create a world of our own, a world different from the dull and senseless ideological liturgy that increasingly reminded one of Stalinism. . . . I believe that only some of us in those years drew inspiration from [dissident physicist] Andrei Sakharov, for we had not yet matured enough to understand his vision. But the Beatles were our quiet way of rejecting 'the system' while conforming to most of its demands."

Not all Soviet leaders were oblivious to these subversive influences. In December 1980, the month after Reagan's election, KGB chief Andropov circulated a confidential memorandum to the Central Committee. It wasn't about the president-elect, but about the murder of John Lennon that month. Andropov reported that "in many of Moscow's establishments of higher education," anonymous posters had appeared to organize a demonstration in memory of the ex-Beatle. "The KGB has taken the necessary measures to identify the instigators of this gathering and is in control of the situation," Andropov assured the party elite.

But the KGB was not "in control of the situation." By the late '80s, an underground rock scene flourished in the land of "socialist realism." When the whole edifice tumbled to the ground, former dissidents around the old Warsaw Pact, like Vaclav Havel, hailed (and in some cases erected new statues to) such figures as Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and James Dean.

Reagan gave a push to the tottering statues of Marx and Lenin, but his role was, in all likelihood, peripheral rather than central -- it's simply premature to say with any degree of certitude. In the meantime, the outpouring of hagiographic praise of Reagan for slaying the Soviet dragon says as much about us as about him. The blend of sentimentality, Cold War triumphalism and superficial news coverage reflects the dangerous American habit of neglecting the world's complexity in favor of drawing a self-indulgent, solipsistic caricature of international affairs.

Author's e-mail: jhershb@gwu.edu

James Hershberg is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and former director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project.

History revisited: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan at their first summit meeting in 1985. At right, East Berliners pour through the Berlin Wall as West Berliners cheer in 1989. How central Reagan's actions were to the breakup of the Soviet Union is a matter of scholarly debate.