Former president Ronald Reagan left as his greatest legacy to the world a role in helping accelerate the end of the Cold War. The global competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, which consumed both nations for 46 years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and led to building of the most destructive weapons ever known, reached a peak during Reagan's White House days and then expired only a few years after he left office.
The reasons for this extraordinary turn of events are larger than Reagan and span events far beyond his presidency. The roots can be found in the stagnation of the Soviet system in the late 1970s and early 1980s and perhaps most importantly in the ascension of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who opened the floodgates of change.
Yet the denouement might not have happened but for outside pressures, and this is where Reagan's legacy lies.
The United States, in the years before and during the Reagan presidency, underwent a revolution in high technology that the Soviets could not match. The Soviet system was under pressure from Reagan's defense buildup and deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe, the CIA-backed mujaheddin fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan and Reagan's proposed missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan also challenged Soviet regional power in several conflicts from Nicaragua to Angola and lent support to the Polish dissident movement.
These final battles of the Cold War shaped Reagan's foreign policy, including his determination to support rebels fighting Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas, a Marxist group, in the 1980s. In Reagan's second term, it was disclosed that he had bypassed congressional restrictions on aiding the rebels, known as the contras, in part by diverting $3.8 million from the secret sale of 2,000 antitank missiles to Iran.
What came to be known as the Iran-contra scandal touched off a furor. Reagan, frustrated at the inability to free American hostages in Lebanon, had traded the missiles for the release of three of them, breaking his own earlier vows not to make deals with terrorists or states that aided them.
Early in his presidency, when he called the Soviet Union the "focus of evil in the modern world," Reagan's actions generated suspicion and paranoia among the aging leaders in Moscow. As the U.S. military buildup accelerated, the superpowers came closer to a confrontation than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Former CIA director Robert M. Gates has recalled that 1983 was the most dangerous year of the last half of the Cold War, marked by the Soviet shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and a NATO exercise that Soviet leaders misinterpreted as a possible preparation for war. It was also the year that Reagan announced his dream of a defensive shield against ballistic missiles.
Reagan's ardent anti-Communist rhetoric was extremely controversial in its time, but events have shown he was prescient and probing about the depth of Soviet internal weaknesses. In an address to the British Parliament on June 8, 1982, Reagan declared that the Soviet Union was in the midst of a "great revolutionary crisis" and expressed hope that Marxism-Leninism would wind up "on the ash heap of history."
Reagan noted the depth of Soviet economic stagnation. "The dimensions of this failure are astounding," he said. "A country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people. . . . Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year the Soviet system pours its best resources into the making of instruments of destruction."
The Westminster speech, one of the most important of Reagan's presidency, was denounced by the Soviet authorities. But what Reagan had described was no secret to some Communist Party officials. One of them was Gorbachev, then a high-ranking party official, who recalled in his memoir that he was familiar with the "disastrous picture" of Soviet agriculture -- millions of acres wasted, villages abandoned, soils ruined by pollution.
Those around Gorbachev were also well aware of the growing military gap with the United States. Anatoly Chernyaev, a party official who later became Gorbachev's senior foreign policy adviser, wrote in his diary of a June 1984 Central Committee briefing in which committee members were shown documentaries about the U.S. buildup. "It was amazing," he recalled, "missiles honing in on their targets from hundreds of thousands of kilometers away; aircraft carriers, submarines that could do anything; winged missiles that, like in a cartoon, could be guided through a canyon and hit a target 10 meters in diameter from 2,500 kilometers away. An incredible breakthrough of modern technology. And, of course, unthinkably expensive."
Gorbachev's swift ascension on March 11, 1985, was a critical moment on the road to the end of the Cold War. Accounts of the Politburo deliberations suggest that the chief reasons Gorbachev was chosen were a desire for generational change and the press of Soviet internal problems. But the choice was also made at a time when some Politburo members were worried about the country's stagnation, especially in comparison to the West. A CIA analysis concluded that the Soviets did not have a single scientific supercomputer, that their technology lagged the United States by 10 years and that the best Soviet scientific computers were slower than their Western counterparts by a factor of 20.
As Gorbachev's ally Eduard Shevardnadze said, "Everything had gone rotten."
The Soviet Union was still, however, a nuclear-armed superpower, and it was in nuclear weapons that Reagan and Gorbachev then took important steps toward ending the Cold War.
Reagan began trying to reach out to Moscow in 1984, and events accelerated when Gorbachev took office. In 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev met at Reykjavik, Iceland, for a summit at which they discussed eliminating all nuclear weapons. The goal eluded them as Reagan refused to slow research on the ballistic missile defense system. But the summit paved the way for the 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear force missiles, the first to actually eliminate a class of nuclear weapons, and a later treaty that limited strategic arms.
In his first term, Reagan took part in a secret exercise that may have influenced his later pursuit of arms reductions with Gorbachev. The exercise, said former aide Thomas C. Reed, simulated a nuclear attack and how the president would make decisions. Reagan watched a screen in the White House situation room showing red dots where Soviet missiles would strike. The first one annihilated Washington.
"Before the president could sip his coffee, the map was a sea of red," Reed recalled. "In less than an hour, President Reagan had seen the United States of America disappear."
"I have no doubt," Reed wrote, "that on that Monday in March, Ronald Reagan came to understand exactly what a Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S. would be like. It was a sobering experience, and it undoubtedly stiffened his resolve to do something about a shield against such an attack."
Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War ended in 1991. The Soviet collapse was the result of many things, including shocks such as the Chernobyl disaster, rebellion in the Baltic republics and the rising expectations of consumers in a socialist system that could not produce a decent pair of jeans.
But one of the major shocks was Reagan.