a node in four parts
"The United States respects the Soviet Union's status as a superpower, and we have no wish to change its social system"
--Ronald Reagan, Address to the UN, September 24, 1984
"Ronald Reagan undid detente with the Soviet Union in order to kick their ass."
--dannye, Ronald Reagan
Not unlike most US presidents, Ronald Reagan entered the White House with no background in national security or foreign policy. Indeed of the 39 prior presidents, Reagan's qualifications were most open to ridicule. His political career spanned a mere 8 years as Governor of California and he was better known as an actor, rather than politician. Unlike his Cold War predecessors, Reagan showed little interest in mastering the intellectual side of foreign affairs and rather than achieving an acquaintance with communism or US policy from reasoned study, Reagan's knowledge was firmly based in personal experience. As a president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s, he had virulently fought an alleged takeover of Hollywood by communists and his deep suspicions remained throughout his presidential career1.
The fact that the Cold War ended in a practical sense during the Reagan era has led a vocal minority of critics to claim that Reagan himself was the supreme architect of Soviet defeat. The most vocal of these reviewers is Dinesh D'Souza. In his book Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, D'Souza's key claim is that despite the intellectual orthodoxy weighed against him, Reagan was the "true victor of the Cold War"2 due to his superior performance in defence and foreign policy.
This node looks to evaluate D'Souza's key claim that Reagan ended the Cold War; how he "foresaw it, how he planned it, how he brought it about"3. To establish this claim, D'Souza focuses on two main themes of the Reagan era; firstly, Reagan's adherence to ideology; and secondly, the idea that Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union through his focus on defence spending and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Before evaluating D'Souza's claims, there are two important caveats. Firstly, it is worth noting that D'Souza's work hardly meets the standards of a professional historian. Throughout his book, D'Souza does not offer a single document to support his claims but relies on contemporary journalistic sources and hearsay. Whilst he is an insider to the workings of the Reagan presidency and often quotes Reagan's public speeches, the assumption is made that D'Souza "knew what Reagan was doing all along"4. Given Reagan's often inscrutable and downright unpredictable nature, this assumption is open to dispute5.
Secondly, D'Souza makes no differentiation between the actions of the President and those of his advisers, Congress, and bureaucracy. Indeed the orthodox view of the Reagan presidency was that Reagan himself relied heavily, if not solely upon his advisers for foreign policy and national security direction6. The interaction between the President and his government was both complex and conflictual, especially in regards to transforming a presidential doctrine into workable policy. James M. Scott discusses this interaction at length in regards to the Reagan Doctrine7. Rather than see the policy emanating from the President, Scott sees the Reagan Doctrine as an evolving and multifaceted interaction between four "circles of actors": the president and his chief advisers, the foreign policy bureaucracy, Congress, and a group of nongovernmental actors8.
This interpretation of the foreign policy-making process directly contradicts D'Souza's concept that the president, as chief executive, serves as the architect guiding American foreign policy . Scott's "shifting constellation" vision of the presidency maintains that "while the president is central to policy making, he is not always in the center of policy making"9 especially during the final years of the Cold War. Although there is a problem in differentiating between the President and his inner circle, in order to answer D'Souza's claims I will focus on the two central elements that D'Souza separates Reagan from his administration; namely, his focus on moralpolitik and the idea that Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union through his focus on defence spending an the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Did Reagan foresee the end of the Cold War?
Central to the claim that Reagan foresaw an end to the Cold War is the concept that Reagan was guided by a strong and consistent anticommunist ideology, and was prepared to act upon it. Was Reagan an ideologue driven by his morality or a pragmatist? In D'Souza's terms, Ronald Reagan,
...defined the conflict between the West and the Soviet Union as fundamentally a moral conflict. Thus he regarded it as his first duty to state the obvious; despite our flaws the US system is basically good and their system is basically evil10.
In his "evil empire" speech
on March 8, 1983, Reagan affirmed his position by commenting that the Cold War is "a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil" and that the West should acknowledge that the Soviet Union is "the focus of evil in the modern world"11
. Reagan espoused this view from his first presidential press conference, where he stated "that the only morality
(the Soviets) recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain global domination
. Reagan saw the world as polarised between good and evil, and had openly commented on the Soviet Union's lack of morality since his inauguration13
. Whilst there is a clear indication that Reagan publicly stated his role as an anticommunist ideologue
, the question remains as to whether this consistent ideology was followed in his actions. This can in part be answered by examining the Reagan doctrine
The Reagan Doctrine - ideology in action?
The Reagan Doctrine was implemented as an alternative to containment which was regarded as a failure, and as a rebuttal to the Brezhnev doctrine. The Reagan Administration's focus was to reverse the Sovietisation of the Third World, irrespective of whether these regimes were centrally controlled by the Kremlin. The Reagan doctrine prescribed that the root cause of unrest in the Third World was the Soviet Union rather than local factors such as poverty, overpopulation, or political corruption14. In 1981, Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan's first secretary of state, stated that the Soviets had to be convinced "that their time of unresisted adventuring in the Third World was over"15. The commitment to the doctrine continued into his second term. Reagan's "February 1985 State of the Union Address" affirmed that:
We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives...on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua... to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense16
This, in essence, was the Reagan Doctrine: economic and political support for insurgent movements in Third World states where Marxism
was supported, even if this meant supporting totalitarian
regimes and unstable guerrilla
alliances. Reagan's world view was contrary to earlier Cold War
presidential doctrines which "were concerned with prevention, whereas the Reagan approach emphasized cure"17
and at any cost. Yet this emphasis on a cure
was selectively applied, suggesting a less than doctrinaire
approach to foreign policy
. Whilst Reagan viewed communist regimes as morally evil, smaller states were treated as more evil than others.
This realist approach to power led the US into Poland with covert support of the Solidarity labour movement, the flow of aid to UNITA forces in Angola, and between US$500 million and US$2 billion worth of weapons and supplies sent to those claiming to be mujahideen in Afghanistan18. The centrepiece of Reagan's covert and overt interventionism in the Third World was the Central American and Caribbeanregion. In 1983, the US invaded Grenada to "liberate" it from a "brutal gang of leftist thugs"19 much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher, who condemned the military action as an invasion of a sovereign state. The foremost concern of Reagan in the region was however the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. After Reagan authorised spending to support the Contras in disrupting the Nicaraguan economy, Nicaragua sought legal action in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). After the court ruled in favour of the appellant, the US government abrogated the 1946 assurance to accept the court's rulings20.
The opposition between Reagan and Congress prevented the expansion of overt American involvement in Nicaragua, with Congress capping (and then later, ceasing) support to the Contras in a unanimous vote in the Boland amendments. Members of Reagan's National Security Council staff circumvented Congress in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. Whilst many of those central to the affair denied that Reagan had knowledge of the events, in his memoirs Oliver North stated that the "President Reagan knew everything" but added the important qualification that "the president didn't always know what he knew"21. Despite mixed results, Reagan's policies towards communism in the Third World does suggest that he was driven doggedly by his moral agenda, given that he defied Congress and the ICJ in Nicaragua, and America's closest ally, Britain, in the invasion of Granada. To the contrary however, when confronted directly by the Soviet Union or China, the Reagan administration showed a much more conciliatory approach beyond any hardline rhetoric.
Although in his early days in office, Reagan criticised Carter's rapprochement with China, Reagan's administration pursued a conciliatory approach as a result of the realisation that both could gain from closer Sino-American ties. America required China's assistance in supporting the anticommunist insurgents in Afghanistan, and China could benefit from the transfer of technology, increased trade and loans22. Rather than toeing the hardline on Chinese communism, in August 1982, China and the US reached an accord regarding reducing arms sales to Taiwan in exchange for China's compliance. In May 1983, the US reciprocated by modifying its export bans to China in order to hasten the modernising process23. Similarly, the American approach to the Soviet Union was tempered by pragmatism.
Early policy of the Reagan era sought "Soviet restraint and Soviet reciprocity"24 - restraint in the Soviet's perceived Third World adventurism and reciprocal support for US-lead initiatives. This policy sought to highlight the "linkage" between Soviet-US relations and Soviet interventionism. Trade, summit meetings, and arms control thus became contingent entirely on the behaviour of the Kremlin. However, with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START I) of 1982 the administration "effectively decoupled arms talks from Soviet behaviour"25. Although this was perhaps a minor concession given that East-West trade and summits were still officially linked to behavior, it does forward the argument that Reagan was willing to negotiate despite ideological differences. Reagan's second term as president is exemplary of the willingness of the administration to negotiate. As Beth Fischer notes,
No longer did the US seek Soviet restraint and reciprocity. Instead Washington sought a rapprochement. "We must establish a better working relationship," Reagan declared, "one marked by greater cooperation and understanding"26
Reagan actively sought superpower dialogue] and arms reduction with the Soviet Union, culminating in the Geneva Summit in November 1985. It is this second term in power where Reagan swayed the furthest from D'Souza's concept that he took a tough stance in both rhetoric and action. Reagan's ideological stance towards the Third World, the Soviet Union, and China indicate that Reagan's adherence to a strong and consistent anticommunist ideology depended entirely on the pressures of the world system. He was a pragmatic and conciliatory when directly confronted with a powerful opponent, but unremitting when it came to smaller states.
It is worth noting that the rigid categories of ideologue and pragmatist are ideal types, and rarely will any politician fit neatly into either category27. This was true of Reagan who held ideological beliefs but was pragmatic enough to apply those beliefs selectively28. In Charles Hantz's content analysis of Reagan's belief system, he suggests that Reagan's
...anti-communist ideology was ephemeral toward the Soviet Union and almost non-existent toward China. It was unmistakeable toward Nicaragua and the communist Third World. One would not expect this from a true ideologue possessing a rigid and comprehensive (but not selective) belief system.29
Reagan's belief system contained a subset of ideological beliefs and a complimentary belief in pragmatism. When the issue demanded pragmatism, Reagan revealed that he was indeed "more politician than ideologue"30
. In order to qualify Reagan as either driven by realpolitik
, one theory should have been a consistent and dominant factor in his decision making. They were not. This complete lack of consistency suggests that D'Souza's evaluation of Reagan being impel
led to act upon his simple evangelical faith
in anticommunism is a fallacy. Reagan did not foresee the end of the Cold War in the way that D'Souza describes.
Bankrupting the Evil Empire - a plan to end the Cold War?
D'Souza second major claim is that Reagan planned to use American defence spending as a means to bankrupt the Soviet Union, and end the Cold War. D'Souza comments that Reagan,
...formulated the notion that the West could use superior economic resources to outcompete Moscow in the arms race. Sovietologist Richard Pipes...told me that Reagan "understood the fundamental vulnerabilities of the system". Senior officials like George Shultz and Casper Weinberger confirmed to me that Reagan had a conscious strategy to impose intolerable strains on the Soviet regime, perhaps bankrupting it forever.31
In addition, Reagan deserted his campaign promise of shrinking the federal government, because of the importance of destroying the Soviet Union
spending. D'Souza mentions "Reagan reconciled himself to presiding over a large federal government as the price worth paying for his defense policy"32
. The centrepiece of this defence plan was the Strategic Defence Initiative
. Did this plan bankrupt the Soviet Union?
Defence Spending and the Strategic Defence Initiative
The Reagan era saw a massive increase in defence spending. Between 1980 and 1985, US defence spending increased from US$134 billion to US$253 billion33. In real terms, this represented an increase of 42 percent. Although D'Souza views the objectives of this increase as a way to avoid "nuclear blackmail" and bankrupt the Kremlin, generally the objectives of the increase are stated as "to maintain the strategic balance threatened by Soviet strategic modernization; to make possible a "counterforce" targeting strategy; and to restore American negotiating leverage"34.
Although it is debatable as to whether the Soviet forces were in fact modernising significantly, Reagan embarked upon his science fiction vision of militarising space in the Strategic Defense Initiative anyhow. The question remains as to whether this program hastened the end of the Cold War.
Reagan obsessively pursued the Strategic Defence Initiative, and showed a personal unwillingness to pursue disarmament over SDI. Arguably, Reagan saw the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction as immoral and his chased "Star Wars" as a new hope for a peace not based on nuclear threat. It is worth noting that nobody in the administration at the time saw the SDI program as a plan to disrupt the Soviet economy, and at different times it meant different things to different factions. George Shultz, whilst wary of the proposal due to its unfeasibility considered it a potentially useful bargaining chip for dealing with the Soviets35. Others, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw it variously as "a club to bludgeon the Soviets, a tool to dominate testy allies, or a way to score points against bureaucratic rivals"36. Research scientists and defence contractors supported it for the potential gold mine that it was.
Undeniably the Soviet economy was in decline, but this had nothing to do with Reagan's plan. The Soviet economy had been deteriorating since at least the early 1970s. As Brooks and Wohlforth note, the 1970s saw significant declines in not only key economic indicator], but also in various non-economic and health indexes. Life expectancy declined, and infant mortality, alcoholism, absenteeism, and draft avoidance increased37. As a percentage of GDP, the Kremlin did allocate a massive proportion of resources to military spending, but even at its peak Soviet GDP represented only 57 percent of American GDP, let alone the combined GDP of the West. This estimate is based entirely on CIA figures, and is "widely and intensely criticised - even by the agency itself"38 as overstatement. Defence spending was already placing an immense strain on the Soviet economy, but Reagan's initiatives in no way influenced further spending.
If Reagan's increase in defence spending was to bankrupt the Soviet Union, it would be expected that Soviet spending fluctuate with changes in the US. It did not. In regards to comparative levels of spending, the increases of the Reagan (and Carter) administration had no discernable impact on the levels of spending in the Soviet Union39. The focus on SDI did however influence the direction of Soviet spending - towards countermeasures to out-manoeuvre future developments in missile defence and space-based weaponry. Defence spending in the Soviet Union from Brezhnev through to Gorbachev was generally a "response to internal political imperatives"40 rather than external impositions. The structural rigidities in the Soviet command economy made flexible changes to spending almost impossible. The "Evil Empire" was reaching the point of bankruptcy but it was collapsing under it's own weight, not the weight of the West.
Rather than acting to end the Cold War, Reagan's ongoing obsession with the SDI acted to strengthen the resolve of hardliners in the Politburo to complicate Gorbachev's efforts at conciliation and ending the Cold War. Although Reagan did show a genuine drive towards arms reduction, and later in his presidency, conciliation, it was always tempered by his quest for an impermeable defence system. The quite radical (and almost utopian) disarmament proposals suggested at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 were derailed by the Reagan administration's insistence of loosely interpreting the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) to allow for ballistic missile defence research. Reagan's argument was that the US would share the research with the Soviet Union; an argument that Gorbachev deemed specious given that the US would not share even its oil-drilling or dairy technologies with the ailing regime. Eventually Gorbachev capitulated to the "loose" reading of the ABM treaty, in the face of opposition from Kremlin hardliners.
A further motivation for Reagan's commitment to the SDI was that it acted as a bluff (albeit an expensive one) to force the Kremlin to the negotiating table on American terms - an extension of the realist argument that persuasion must be backed by material power41. Given that there had been a massive disparity in material power for decades preceding the Strategic Defence Initiative, realist doctrine does little to explain why the Cold War collapsed when it did. The Waltzian vision that the Soviet Union must "contain or be contained, conquer or be conquered, destroy or be destroyed"42 did not fructify.
Conclusions: Did Reagan end the Cold War?
D'Souza's assessment of Ronald Reagan's role in the Cold War is deeply flawed. In terms of his argument] that Reagan was guided by ideology, it is clear that Reagan's actions were contradictory. In circumstances where a rigid ideological approach would have undermined US interests, Reagan showed pragmatic beliefs. However when confronting weak communist states, Reagan performed as the ideologue and in these instances, his visceral anticommunism could be vented without the slightest risk to national security. It is clear that Reagan had no consistent ideological forethought to ending the Cold War.
The argument that Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union is similarly fallacious. The Soviet Union was in terminal decline prior to Reagan's inauguration. Reagan's subsequent policies left Soviet defence spending unchanged as the Kremlin responded to internal political imperatives rather than the spending of an external power. Reagan neither hastened nor slowed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Essentially if Reagan did have a plan to end the Cold War, in an economic sense, it had no effect. Reagan did not bring about the end of the Cold War.
Given his ongoing legacy however, Reagan's role in the Cold War should not be entirely ignored. Whilst the Reagan Doctrine pushed Soviet communism into retreat from the Third World, it hardly resulted in a set of stable or even friendly client states for the US. The instabilities that plagued Third World nations before and during the Cold War continue unabated. An opportunity for further study certainly exists for localised theories of the Cold War within Third World nations, rather than meta-theory based on the actions of the West.
Ultimately, over US$60 billion has been spent on Strategic Defense Initiative research during the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations, at the massive expense to the American taxpayer. Military spending continues at the same levels as during the Reagan era, even in the absence of a credible threat from another great power. Since the GOP took control of Congress in 1994, Star Wars has resurfaced variously as a limited scheme to protect the United States against "rogue states" to the more comprehensive National Missile Defense, despite opposition from American allies, Russia, China, and many US citizens. Although Star Wars research has failed to produce a working system, Reagan's legacy will not die43. Even though Reagan did not end the Cold War, his actions have left an indelible mark on global politics, and possibly not for the better.
1 Ronald E Powaski (1998) The Cold War, Oxford: Oxford U Press, p.231
2 Dinesh D'Souza, (1997) Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, New York: Touchstone, p.133
3 D'Souza, p.133
4 Nicholas Lemann, (1998) "Ronald Reagan" The Atlantic Monthly, April 1998 v281 n4, p.103
5 In fact, Reagan became almost entirely unpredictable into the later years of his presidency. A prescient example of this is his surreal behaviour at the summit meeting of December 1987 where Reagan lectured Gorbachev on human rights after presenting him with a set of cufflinks, and regaled him with anecdotes he had read in People magazine. Ostensibly, the aim of the meeting was to discuss the INF treaty. Cf. Way Out of the Blue, pp.429-433; Lou Cannon (1991), President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, New York: Simon and Schuster, p.775
6 Barbara Farnham (2001) "Reagan and the Gorbachev revolution: Perceiving the end of threat" Political Science Quarterly; New York; Summer 2001
7 James M. Scott, (1996) Deciding to Intervene: The Reagan Doctrine and American Foreign Policy, Durham, NC: Duke University Press
8 Scott, p.5
9 Scott, p12
10 D'Souza, p.136
11 quoted in D'Souza, p.136
12 Weekly Compilation of Presidential Papers (1981 Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 231
13 D'Souza, p.134
14 Cf. Powaski, p.234
15 Haig is cited in Scott, p. 18
16 Ronald Reagan "State of the Union Address", February 1985
17 Scott, p. 2.
18 Powaski, p.234
19 David Locke Hall (1990) The Reagan Wars New York: Simon & Schuster, p.181
20 The ICJ determined that its jurisdiction was maintained given the temporal framework of the US objection. However, the US refused to accept the jurisdiction of the court.
21 Oliver North's accounts are also questionable. Oliver North, Under Fire: An American Story, p.14 quoted in Powaski, p.240
22 Powaski, p.241
23 Or more cynically, expand US markets.
24 Beth A. Fisher (1997) "Toeing the Hardline? The Reagan Administration and the Ending of the Cold War", Political Science Quarterly 112:3, p.480
25 Fischer, p.482
26 Fischer, p.487
27 cf Hantz, p.944
28 It is worth noting that there is hearty debate as to when and why Reagan applied his beliefs selectively. As Scott wryly notes the timing and reasoning behind the changes, "depending on the scholar, first occurred either in 1982 with the appointment of George Shultz as secretary of state, or in 1984, after America had restored its strength, or after each superpower summit. Others do not see a shift from anticommunism until 1988. Still others contend that Reagan remained an ideologue and no shift occurred." Scott, p.135
29 Hantz, p.942.
30 Charles A Hantz (1996) "Ideology, pragmatism, and Ronald Reagan's world view: Full of sound and fury, signifying...?" Presidential Studies Quarterly; New York; Fall 1996
31 D'Souza, p.140. It is worth noting that George Shultz and Casper Weinberger were frequently at odds regarding defense policy and especially arms control. Shultz documents this animosity extensively in his memoirs. See George Shultz (1993) Turmoil and Triumph, New York: Scribner
32 D'Souza, p.15
33 Busch, p.454
34 Busch, p.451
35 cf. Shultz, p.24
36 Lemann, p.124
37 Stephen G. Brooks and William C Wohlforth, "Power Globalisation and the End of the Cold War", International Security 25:3 Winter 2000, pp. 16-18
38 Wohlforth, p.21
39 Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, "Reagan and the Russians", The Atlantic Monthly, Feb 1994
40 Lebow and Stein, p.2
41 Tuomas Fosberg, "Power, Interests, and Trusts" Review of International Studies, 25 1999, p.611
42 Kenneth Waltz "Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power" in Keohane, Robert O. (1986) Neorealism and its Critics New York: Columbia U Press, p.362
43 Any current incarnation of the NMD does not work. Given that infinite numbers of countermeasures exist for any single defence system, it is unlikely that the US will ever be protected from external threats through technology alone. This situation is redoubled given that threats are unlikely to be overt missile attacks by nation-states. History has shown that no defense is impermeable from the Great Wall of China to the Maginot Line.