Letter to the Editor
Excuse a nationalist comment when I state that there is little to be gained from the revisionist imagination of a Thatcherite on the contributions of Ronald Reagan, especially in the realm of foreign policy. (John O'Sullivan, "Reagan in Retrospect," June 9, Volume 3, Issue 23)
O'Sullivan writes: It is "the nub of the matter-Reagan won the Cold War. Everything else is just details." This is conventional wisdom balderdash.
The combination of strategic competition and tactical flexibility did not ensure, in Lady Thatcher's words, that "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot"-any more than did the management of far graver crises in Washington-Moscow relations under the "containment" policies of every president since Harry Truman. There was nothing easy about it. They invoked ideology (without being ideologues) at times, but above all they were realists.
The Soviets succeeded in deceiving observers like O'Sullivan to the point that they feared the 1981 "correlation of forces" favored Moscow. Yes, the latter were duped by Soviet propaganda. It is not just in retrospect that analysts have pointed out that the Soviet Union "behind the façade of expanding power, was a far greater and more vulnerable economic shambles than the West." It most certainly was not a rare view at the time.
O'Sullivan correctly identifies as a major strategic policy of Reagan's the trillion-dollar "massive military build-up" that included "innovations" such as Star Wars--or SDI. Indeed, per Sicherman, the president did not wait for the economy to thrive before he increased defense spending or championed human rights. (No president, by the way, outdid Jimmy Carter in the latter department.)
How conveniently O'Sullivan skips over those huge budget deficits run up in pursuit of an illusive superiority in offensive and defensive weapons-to overcome alleged Soviet military preponderance--that would leap-frog mutual assured destruction deterrence! The previously super-dynamic Soviets were "undermined…day by day" by strategic pressure applied by the Reaganauts, according to the editor of The National Interest.
His dreamy-eyed overview of the Reagan years simply does not hold water. Unyielding? At Reykjavik, it was "a near run thing," when Reagan almost gave away the store by agreeing to a Soviet proposal to eliminate at least fifty percent of nuclear weapons on both sides--at a time when the U.S. was at a serious disadvantage in conventionally-armed divisions in Europe; and the U.S. was superior overall in the resiliency of its strategic nuclear triad.
Suppose that Gorbachev then had acted on the view he later expressed to Reagan at another summit: Have your SDI, if you want to spend your money that way, for it poses no real check against strategic offensive capabilities. What a mess of porridge the Americans would have brought home from Iceland!
Incidentally, it did not take long for the scaremongers of the Committee on the Present Danger, once in power, to lose interest in the heralded significance of the intercontinental missile "throw weight" gap. Early in the first Reagan term, even the vaunted danger of a paralyzing strategic first strike by the enemy's heavy land-based missiles strangely disappeared.
Maybe this was the result of the greater self-confidence the Gipper inspired? Just what overriding challenge, not cooked up by the likes of Cap Weinberger in his annual hyped reports on Soviet military capabilities (go back and read them) was it that the American people had to meet from the Soviets after 1980?
Yes, the installation of U.S. intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe was an important objective not to be given up-until they were swapped away in the INF treaty. Incidentally, however, it was President George H.W. Bush-and not Reagan--who was practical enough to sign, with Gorbachev, the first strategic arms reduction (START) agreement that eventually resulted in dramatic reductions in the stockpiles of both sides.
Let the notions of O'Sullivan rest in peace. Robert Bruce Ware is closer to the truth of history ("Reagan and Russia: Illusion and Reality," June 9, Volume 3, Issue 23) when he writes that "sooner or later, the Soviet Union would have fallen under its own weight." And "the centerpiece of Mr. Reagan's anti-Soviet drama was as illusory as a Hollywood set. Even to the present day, the achievement of his ‘Star Wars' initiative remains as unrealistic for the United States as it ever was for the Soviet Union."
Ronald Reagan does deserve credit for helping bring the superpower rivalry of the Cold War to an end, but not for the reasons spun into the hagiography. As any alert person who visited the Soviet Union in the mid-70's could have seen with their own eyes, the non-military sectors of the Soviet system were in a state of advanced decay.
More to the point, America was always, repeat always, superior to the enemy in the triad of strategic nuclear weapons, despite the extreme claims of both Richard Perle and Paul Nitze. I know, for I had regular access to the most sensitive CIA estimates of relative quantitative and qualitative strength. There was never any real threat of a Soviet first strike that would leave the American heartland defenseless.
Yet, the Reagan Administration's "hair on fire" hawks, such as Secretary of Defense Weinberger, envisaged a protracted fight with a twenty-five foot tall bear. They cheered the President's provocative rhetoric-bringing the two superpowers closer to war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis-and the abandonment of high-level summits and arms control talks during the first term, 1981-85. In Reagan's second term, Secretary of State Shultz gained the upper hand; and cashed in on the dreams of the Republican president about abolishing all nuclear weapons.