The Collapse of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan

Several WAISers disagreed with Christopher Jones, who denied Reagan's role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Harry Papasotiriou writes: "The Soviet Union certainly collapsed of its own weight, but Reagan helped speed up the process. The following paragraphs are from a forthcoming book that I am co-authoring.

Reagan’s conviction that the Soviet Union was both a dangerous military power and a collapsing economic system derived not from any deep knowledge of the Soviet Union. Yet he proved to be the proverbial right man in the right place at the right time. By whatever means he arrived at his views regarding the Soviet Union, he drew from them policy directions that were devastatingly effective in undermining the rotten Soviet edifice. Because of the high oil prices of the 1970s the Soviet leadership avoided serious economic reforms, such as those that saved Deng Xiaoping’s China. Instead, it relied on oil revenues as a means of keeping its decrepit economy going. By the early 1980s the Soviet Union was becoming a hollow shell, with an unreformed and increasingly backward industrial base producing outmoded pre-computer armaments. Thus it was highly vulnerable to the pressures that the Reagan administration was planning.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

From the outset, Reagan moved against détente and beyond containment, substituting the objective of encouraging “long-term political and military changes within the Soviet empire that will facilitate a more secure and peaceful world order”, according to an early 1981 Pentagon defense guide. Harvard’s Richard Pipes, who joined the National Security Council, advocated a new aggressive policy by which “the United States takes the long-term strategic offensive. This approach therefore contrasts with the essentially reactive and defensive strategy of containment”. Pipes’s report was endorsed in a 1982 National Security Decision Directive that formulated the policy objective of promoting “the process of change in the Soviet Union towards a more pluralistic political and economic system”. [The quotes from Peter Schweizer, Reagan's War.]

A central instrument for putting pressure on the Soviet Union was Reagan’s massive defense build-up, which raised defense spending from $134 billion in 1980 to $253 billion in 1989. This raised American defense spending to 7 percent of GDP, dramatically increasing the federal deficit. Yet in its efforts to keep up with the American defense build-up, the Soviet Union was compelled in the first half of the 1980s to raise the share of its defense spending from 22 percent to 27 percent of GDP, while it froze the production of civilian goods at 1980 levels.

Reagan’s most controversial defense initiative was SDI, the visionary project to create an anti-missile defense system that would remove the nuclear sword of Damocles from America’s homeland. Experts still disagree about the long-term feasibility of missile defense, some comparing it in substance to the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars. But the SDI’s main effect was to demonstrate U. S. technological superiority over the Soviet Union and its ability to expand the arms race into space. This helped convince the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev to throw in the towel and bid for a de-escalation of the arms race.

Particularly effective, though with unintended long-term side effects, was the Reagan administration’s support for the mujahideen (holy warriors) that were fighting against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Reagan was determined to make Afghanistan the Soviet Vietnam. Therefore in 1986 he decided to provide the mujahideen with portable surface-to-air Stinger missiles, which proved devastatingly effective in increasing Soviet air losses (particularly helicopters). The war in Afghanistan cost the United States about $1 billion per annum in aid to the mujahideen; it cost the Soviet Union eight times as much, helping bankrupt its economy.
Apart from his defense policies, Reagan also weakened the Soviet Union through economic moves. His supporters’ claims that he brought about the fall of the Soviet Union are somewhat weakened by the fact that he ended Carter’s grain embargo, which had produced alarming food shortages in the Soviet Union. On the other hand Reagan was able to reduce the flow of Western technology to the Soviet Union, as well to limit Soviet natural gas exports to Western Europe. One of the most effective ways in which his economic policies weakened the Soviet Union was by helping bring about a drastic fall in the price of oil in the 1980s, thereby denying the Soviet Union large inflows of hard currency".

Here are two more rebuttals of Christopher Jones' assertion that Reagan had nothing to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Miles Seeley writes: "I cannot agree with Mr. Jones that Reagan had nothing to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yes, it collapsed mostly from its own weight, but his unrelenting pressure certainly had an effect, as many former Soviet officials have said. I was no fan of Reagan, but you can't just write him off, either. Mr. Jones somehow seems to overlook the obvious. Ronald Reagan was at the helm when the USSR collapsed. I have not heard people say “He won the Cold War,” nor that “he defeated the Soviet Union.”

Randy Black writes: "On Reagan’s watch, the USSR collapsed, and the huge military build up under Reagan after years of decay under Carter, coupled with the failed attempts to keep up with the USA on those issues, contributed to the collapse of the USSR, A decade ago in Siberia, when my Russian associates asked me about the Cold War from my viewpoint I always told them that the US economy simply had more resiliency than the Soviet economy. I dared not expose my complete thoughts on the matter as a guest in Russia. They didn’t need to be reminded that, while equality was the goal of communism/socialism, in practice, there were still rich guys and poor guys, haves and have nots with no concept or hope for anything better, “unless they were connected.”

Certainly, the Soviet system, in its attempt to equalize the workers, must have also had to eliminate various elements of the human spirit. Take away a man’s hope for a better existence and you take away his reason for being, I think a big contributor to the demise of the USSR was the lack of spirit among the proletariat that an individual could make a difference. As such, Mr. Jones is correct that the communist leaders lost touch with the workers.

But contrary to Mr. Jones’ statement, Reagan had much to do with it. One major thought that Mr. Jones and many others overlook is the thought that the USSR truly began to collapse with Nikita K’s famous “secret speech” which denounced Stalin back in the 50s".


Ronald Hilton -