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Did Reagan's Military Build-Up Really Lead to Victory in the Cold War?

In an op-ed published in the New York Times on January 5, Professor Kiron Skinner, co-editor of Reagan: A Life in Letters, repeats the familiar refrain of Republican triumphalists that Ronald Reagan's aggressive rhetoric and military policies improved Soviet-American relations and led to the end of the Cold War.

This fairy tale may warm the hearts of true believers in the efficacy of military buildups and wars, but it has little resemblance to reality.

In fact, Soviet-American relations went into a deep freeze until early 1985. Horrified by the Reagan administration's nuclear buildup and loose talk of nuclear war, the Soviet government ratcheted up its own military might. The new Soviet party leader, Yuri Andropov, concluded that "peace cannot be obtained from the imperialists by begging for it. It can be upheld only by relying on the invincible might of the Soviet armed forces." Responding to U.S. missile deployment in Western Europe in December 1983, the Kremlin broke off arms control negotiations, resumed the SS-20 nuclear missile deployment that it had previously halted, placed SS-23 nuclear missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia , and moved Soviet nuclear submarines closer to the coasts of the United States . In late 1984, the Kremlin incorporated a 45 percent increase in military spending into its next five-year plan.

Reagan's "evil empire" speech of March 1983 was widely noted in the Soviet Union , recalled Vladimir Slipchenko, then a member of the Soviet General Staff. "The military, the armed forces . . . used this," he added, "as a reason to begin a very intense preparation inside the military for a state of war." Furthermore, "we started to run huge strategic exercises. . . . These were the first military exercises in which we really tested our mobilization. We didn't just exercise the ground forces but also the strategic arms." Therefore, "for the military, the period when we were called the evil empire was actually very good and useful, because we achieved a very high military readiness. . . . We also rehearsed the situation when a non-nuclear war might turn into a nuclear war."

Soviet leaders, terrified that the Reagan administration was preparing a nuclear first strike against their country, nearly launched a nuclear war. In November 1983, during NATO's Able Archer military exercises, the jittery Soviet government became convinced that, under cover of the exercises, a U.S. nuclear attack upon the Soviet Union was underway. Consequently, Soviet nuclear forces were alerted, command staffs reviewed their strike missions, and nuclear weapons were readied for action. "The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss," recalled Oleg Gordievsky, a U.S. intelligence agent within the KGB. "But during Able Archer 83 it had . . . come frighteningly close."

Thus, as Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States, recalled: "The impact of Reagan's hard-line policy . . . was exactly the opposite of the one intended by Washington . It strengthened those in the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the security apparatus who had been pressing for a mirror-image of Reagan's own policy."

In the period up to early 1985, it was Reagan who began a policy reversal. Reagan entered the White House as a fanatic foe of the Soviet Union and as a staunch opponent of every nuclear arms control and disarmament agreement negotiated by his Democratic and Republican predecessors. Not surprisingly, he and his entourage initially called for a massive nuclear buildup and talked glibly of waging nuclear war. But, battered by antinuclear protests, frustrated by Congress, badgered by uneasy allies, and confronted by an obdurate Soviet leadership, Reagan softened his hard line. His administration opened arms control negotiations, championed a "zero option" for Euromissiles, compromised on strategic nuclear weapons, and observed the limits of the unratified SALT II treaty (which, previously, Reagan had condemned as "appeasement"). Starting in April 1982, Reagan began declaring publicly that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." He added: "To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: `I'm with you!'"

As these last remarks indicate, Reagan was seriously rattled by popular agitation against the nuclear arms race. In October 1983, in the context of the massive protests against Euromissile deployment, he told his startled secretary of state: "If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons." On January 16, 1984, he followed up on this idea. Over the objections of other administration officials, he delivered a remarkable public address, calling for peace with the Soviet Union and a nuclear-free world.

In short, in the period leading up to March 1985, Reagan and Soviet officials confronted each other eyeball-to-eyeball, and it was Reagan who repeatedly blinked.

Only in March 1985, with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev, did Reagan find a Soviet leader ready to implement a program of peace and disarmament. Gorbachev, of course, differed from his immediate predecessors in that he came from the ranks of Soviet reformers, who favored peace and democratization. What is not as well known is that Gorbachev's ideas were profoundly influenced by the world nuclear disarmament movement. As he declared: "The new thinking took into account and absorbed the conclusions and demands of . . . the public and the scientific community, of the movements of physicians, scientists, and ecologists, and of various antiwar organizations." Thus, Gorbachev and his circle were ready to reject the traditional "peace through strength" basis of Soviet (and American) foreign policy. In subsequent years, he and Reagan pushed past the obstacles erected by the hawks in both their countries to halt the nuclear arms race and end the Cold War.

If the contrasting version of these events--the triumphalist version trumpeted by Professor Skinner--is to hold water, surely there should be some evidence for it in Soviet sources. After all, the foundation of the triumphalist case is the idea that the Soviet Union surrendered when confronted with U.S. military "strength." But despite the numerous Soviet documents that have been declassified, the many statements that have been made by former Soviet officials, and the memoirs that have been written by former Soviet leaders, no evidence for the triumphalist contention has emerged.

Furthermore, former Soviet officials have repeatedly rejected it. Asked if a U.S. government hard line had forced the Soviet government to become more conciliatory, Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev's top foreign policy advisors, replied: "It played no role. None. I can tell you with the fullest responsibility." Arbatov, also a key Gorbachev foreign policy advisor, called the idea that a U.S. military buildup helped alter Soviet policy "absolute nonsense." Soviet changes, he said, "not only ripened inside the country but originated within it." Dobrynin did give the U.S. government some credit, but not for the efficacy of its military strength. "If Reagan "had not abandoned his hostile stance toward the Soviet Union ," recalled the Soviet diplomat, "Gorbachev would not have been able to launch his reforms and his `new thinking,'" but "would have been forced to continue the conservative foreign and domestic policies of his predecessors." When Gorbachev was asked about the triumphalist claim, made during the 1992 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, he replied simply: "I suppose these are necessary things in a campaign. But if this idea is serious, then it is a very big delusion."

Should we believe in illusions? For decades, U.S. government officials, historians, and the pundits told us that the Kennedy administration's military mobilization during the Cuban missile crisis led to its peaceful resolution. Then, suddenly, key U.S. officials revealed that the crisis had been overcome thanks to U.S. concessions. Now the hawks are again busy, pumping us up with triumphalist fantasies about the end of the Cold War. Should we not feel some skepticism about this process, particularly when--as in the case of Professor Skinner--it is openly employed to justify current U.S. foreign policy?

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