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Gorbachev: No One Won the Cold War, We All Lost

Robert G. Kaiser, recounting an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev following Reagan's funeral; in the Wash Post (June 11, 2004):

... Gorbachev brusquely dismissed the suggestion that Reagan had intimidated either him or the Soviet Union, or forced them to make concessions. Was it accurate to say that Reagan won the Cold War? "That's not serious," Gorbachev said, using the same words several times. "I think we all lost the Cold War, particularly the Soviet Union. We each lost $10 trillion," he said, referring to the money Russians and Americans spent on an arms race that lasted more than four decades. "We only won when the Cold War ended."

By Gorbachev's account, it was his early successes on the world stage that convinced the Americans that they had to deal with him and to match his fervor for arms control and other agreements that could reduce East-West tensions. "We had an intelligence report from Washington in 1987," he said, "reporting on a meeting of the National Security Council." Senior U.S. officials had concluded that Gorbachev's "growing credibility and prestige did not serve the interests of the United States" and had to be countered. A desire in Washington not to let him make too good an impression on the world did more to promote subsequent Soviet-American agreements than any American intimidation, he said. "They wanted to look good in terms of making peace and achieving arms control," he said of the Reagan administration.

The changes he wrought in the Soviet Union, from ending much of the official censorship to sweeping political and economic reforms, were undertaken not because of any foreign pressure or concern, Gorbachev said, but because Russia was dying under the weight of the Stalinist system. "The country was being stifled by the lack of freedom," he said. "We were increasingly behind the West, which . . . was achieving a new technological era, a new kind of productivity. . . . And I was ashamed for my country -- perhaps the country with the richest resources on Earth, and we couldn't provide toothpaste for our people."...

Did Reagan's success in his first term, and the huge build-up of military power that he persuaded Congress to finance, affect the decision of the Soviet Politburo to choose a young and vigorous new leader in 1985 -- someone who could, in effect, stand up to Reagan? "No, I think there was really no connection," he replied, chuckling. He said he was chosen for purely internal reasons that had nothing to do with the United States.

"All that talk that somehow Reagan's arms race forced Gorbachev to look for some arms reductions, etc., that's not serious. The Soviet Union could have withstood any arms race. The Soviet Union could have actually decided not to build more weapons, because the weapons we had were more than enough."

The big change was in Washington, Gorbachev said. "When he [Reagan] was elected to a second term, he, and especially the people close to him, began to think about how he would complete his second term -- by producing more and more nuclear weapons . . . and conducting 'special operations' around the world, etc. etc."

The Soviet leadership, Gorbachev said, evidently referring to himself, concluded that instead, Reagan would "want to go down in history as a peacemaker" and would work with Moscow to do so. "A particularly positive influence on him -- more than anyone else -- was Nancy Reagan," Gorbachev said. "She deserves a lot of credit for that."

Once Reagan decided to try to make peace, he found an eager partner in Moscow, Gorbachev said. "The new Soviet leadership wanted to transform the country, to modernize the country, and we needed stability, we needed cooperation with other countries. . . . And we both knew what kind of weapons we each had. There were mountains of nuclear weapons. A war could start not because of a political decision, but just because of some technical failure. . . .

"A lot of forces on both sides had an interest in prolonging the arms race," Gorbachev added, including military-industrial lobbies on both sides. His predecessors in Moscow had concluded that continuing the race was the only way they could achieve security for the Soviet Union.

But by his new calculation in 1985, the situation was ripe for change. He and his comrades concluded that it was really inconceivable that anyone in the White House actually wanted to blow up the Soviet Union, just as they ruled out the possibility of ever deliberately trying to destroy the United States. So it would make more sense "to find ways to cooperate."...