Who Won the War?

Who Won the War?

Mini Teaser: In the Cold War, Reagan overreached--and hit the mark.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Smith

Other rather less ambitious but still far-reaching proposals were on the table. But all of them foundered on SDI. Gorbachev had gone to Reykjavik with the overriding ambition of persuading the Americans to bargain it away. Reagan was prepared for almost any other deal except that. The meeting became a dialogue not so much of the deaf, but of the uncomprehending. Reagan could not understand Gorbachev's absolute resistance to a purely defensive system, especially since he was determined that it should be offered to the Soviets if it could be made to work. It was an offer that caused some consternation among his own advisors.

But Reagan was totally sincere and utterly determined. For him, SDI was potentially the answer to his nuclear nightmare, not a means for the Americans to get a step ahead in the nuclear race. One of the surprises in these books is to find just how insistent he was that the Soviets should be allowed to share its benefits. But Gorbachev could not be persuaded at Reykjavik that SDI was a purely defensive system. His persistent use of the phrase "space weapons" was revealing. The fear in Washington was that SDI might turn out to be useless. The fear in Moscow was that it might turn out to be a means of militarizing space and therefore be a decisive technological advance in the Cold War.

So Reykjavik ended in bitter deadlock. Both sides felt that they had come within a whisker of a historic arms settlement, and neither could understand why the other had balked. Gorbachev was uncompromising that SDI research had to be confined to the laboratory for ten years. Reagan feared that such a restriction would make it impossible to discover if SDI would ever really work.

Yet out of Reykjavik, out of a mutual sense of frustration, arms settlements did flow. First and most important, there was the treaty to get rid of all INF, signed in an almost carnival atmosphere during Gorbachev's visit to Washington in December 1987. Other arms agreements came after Reagan was succeeded by President George H. W. Bush, especially on strategic weapons and then on conventional forces in Europe.

It was not, however, these arms treaties, but another process, that brought about the end of the Cold War: that of bonding between the leaders. Mistrust and fear caused the Cold War in the first place. The rediscovery of trust ended it. The interminable arms negotiations played a part. But it was the process that mattered, the tiresome wrestling with specific problems that convinced both sides of the other's sincerity, rather than the particular agreements that emerged. "Psychologically and ideologically", Matlock writes, "the Cold War was over before Ronald Reagan moved out of the White House."

Lettow is concerned not specifically with the end of the Cold War, but with the attempt to get rid of nuclear weapons. The two issues are, however, so closely intertwined that it is almost a distinction without a difference, and they reach similar conclusions. "Reagan", says Lettow, "laid the groundwork for his successor to complete the start Treaty, the first agreement to reduce strategic nuclear weapons." Both he and Matlock either explicitly or implicitly give the main credit for ending the Cold War to Reagan and Gorbachev. As Matlock says, "they could not have done it alone", and he pays particular tribute to Shultz and the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. James Baker, Bush's secretary of state, "also worked effectively with Shevardnadze, but that was under different circumstances. The Cold War had ended in principle, and what remained was intricate 'cleanup' diplomacy." Much the same could be said of Boris Yeltsin.

in both books, there is not exactly a missing dimension so much as an underplayed one. Both pay warm tribute to Margaret Thatcher. Yet neither accords her quite so large a role in ending the Cold War as she deserves. Not all her interventions were successful, but they all had an impact. She had the inestimable advantage of forming strong personal relationships with Gorbachev and Reagan early on. First and perhaps most important of all in this context was her ringing declaration after her initial meeting with Gorbachev that he was a man she could do business with. From anyone else, such a remark would have provoked either raised eyebrows, or else a little derision, in Washington. From her, the remark was regarded with surprise but also respect, something to make people take notice. True to form, she followed up this public comment almost immediately in private conversation with Reagan. "Because I believe the same things as you do", she said to him, as she recalled in an interview with me while still prime minister, "this is a man you can do business with without compromising any of your beliefs."

When Reagan released news of SDI to a startled world in March 1983, both the Soviets and the Europeans were deeply disturbed. Thatcher had misgivings too, but-so she maintained-only about the excessive claims that Reagan made. It was his suggestion that SDI could make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete that upset her. There was no way, she believed, it would be possible to stop all incoming missiles. "Life is not like that."

Even among her close advisors there were doubts as to what her view of SDI really was. The best assumption is probably that her scientific skepticism was at war with her determination that the alliance should not be torn apart over this issue. It was on the second point that her attitude mattered. At the end of 1984, she visited Reagan to seek an agreed basis for the program. That was the purpose of what became known as the Four Points of Camp David, which left the way clear for research and testing while specifying that deployment would be a matter for negotiation. Although this infuriated the Pentagon, it was enough to soothe troubled nerves in the alliance.

Reykjavik presented a much more difficult problem. Thatcher was outraged by what Reagan and Gorbachev so nearly agreed between them. "The only time", in her words, "when I really have felt the ground shake under my feet politically was when for one moment it looked as if they had agreed to surrender all nuclear weapons." In their excitement, the participants almost forgot to let her know what was being contemplated. When she knew the full story of what had happened at Reykjavik, she must truly have given thanks for SDI.

Furious though she was, Thatcher saw her role once again as being to steady the alliance. After consulting other European leaders, who were at least as alarmed as she by what had so nearly occurred at Reykjavik, she flew to another meeting with Reagan at Camp David. Once again, a statement was concocted that did not directly challenge what he had done or tried to do, but gave a different direction to American policy by leaving the doctrine of nuclear deterrence in place. European anxieties were shortly to be overtaken by events, but they were not irrational. They were based on a fear of losing U.S. nuclear protection and being left to face overwhelming Soviet conventional military strength in Europe.

One does not often think of Thatcher as a smooth diplomat, but that was the role she played in both these visits to Camp David. She may not have brought about any dramatic changes in Western policy, but that was not her purpose. She helped to prevent an outburst of alliance angst that would have had powerful sympathizers in the United States and might at least have complicated Reagan's path to ending the Cold War. Panic-stricken allies at what was supposed to be a time of hope and confidence would have struck a discordant note.

Thatcher's stubborn resistance to German reunification later became an obstruction. But right up to the end of the Cold War, her role was constructive. The Russians appreciated her contribution partly because of the warm personal rapport she established with Gorbachev, and partly because they saw that her even stronger relationship with Reagan made it easier for them to deal with him as well. Both aspects were evident at the stopover that Gorbachev made in England on his way to the United States to sign the INF Treaty in December 1987. The stop, made on Gorbachev's initiative, had both a practical and symbolic purpose. He had no aspiration to detach Thatcher from Reagan. Gorbachev knew that was impossible, and it would not have suited his purpose anyway. It was her closeness to Reagan that made her so helpful as an interlocutor. But Gorbachev would have looked to her for any hint as to how he should conduct himself in Washington.

The occasion was also something of a celebration, as Gorbachev made clear in his public remarks before flying on to sign the treaty in Washington. "The agreement on the elimination of two kinds of nuclear weapons was not an easy one. But we have covered this road together, for the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and your allies and partners." It was virtually an open acknowledgement of a triangular relationship.

Essay Types: Book Review