How did Reagan defeat the Soviets?

Now there’s a loaded question. :smiley: I know there are many people, including on this board, who believe that Ronald Reagan caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

My question is: how? My Foreign Policy of Major Powers prof has a tremendous degree of expertise in Russian history and foreign affairs, and he calls “shenanigans” on this one. One theory about how Reagan caused the downfall of the Soviet Union is that he forced them to essentially bankrupt themselves on defense spending in order to keep up with American defense spending increases - but according to my class notes, that simply is not the case. Brezhnev was the last Soviet leader to have a really big conventional and nuclear arms buildup - but this peaked around '72 and began declining thereafter. According to my prof, there was never an attempt to match or excel American defense spending in the 1980s.

Does anyone have data that contradict this?
Or anything - hard, well-documented scholarly works - that indicate the Soviet collapse was caused by anything other than the failing centralized economy, endemic corruption, a series of old and infirm leaders, and the crisis of legitimacy sparked by perestroika, glasnost, and limited elections? Can anyone actually document a “death blow” or series of blows dealt by the US?

I don’t know, defense spending? I know it accounted for around 50% of Soviet economic output. The American arms increase of the 80’s along with continued economic stagnation caused the collapse.

The OP said that accelerated defense spending wasn’t the cause, since there was no acceleration to match Reagan’s buildup.

I’m really curious, too. If that’s true, then it really takes a lot of the lustre off Reagan, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t just defense spending. It was a number of things -

[li]Moral Approbation - Reagan ended decades of ‘appeasement’ with the Soviet Union, stepped up to the plate, and called them an evil empire. He gave moral support to dissident movements in the client states. The Soviets responded by eventually electing a leader who promised reforms - Gorbachev. But Gorbachev was a died-in-the-wool communist, who only wanted to reform things far enough to make them more efficient and take some of the pressure off the state. But once Reagan had a ‘modern’ leader to work with, he leaned on him. He went to the Berlin wall and yelled, “Mr. Gorbachev - Tear down this wall!”. The pressure was unrelenting, but Reagan and Gorbachev also got along very well, and between them achieved the first meaningful reductions in nuclear arms in Europe.[/li][li]Enhanced containment - Reagan stopped Soviet adventurism in the world. When a communist coup occured in Grenada, Reagan sent in the Marines to end it. He funded the contras. He made it clear that the Soviet Union could not win the expansion race.[/li][li]Change in strategic doctrine - The Soviets had one clear advantage over the west - raw manpower and output of military machines. The Soviet Union could compete with sheer volumes of tanks, guns, soldiers, etc. Reagan did an end-run around that with SDI - he moved the military competition into a high-tech arena that the Soviets had no hope of matching. The Soviet Union was terrified of SDI.[/li][/ul]

Reagan is just one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rise of the information economy put the Soviets at an even greater disadvantage. Margaret Thatcher played a part. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were of course the main actors. But Reagan was clearly an important force. If the U.S. had re-elected Carter, he would have continued policies of appeasement that might have allowed the Soviet Union to survive for another decade or more. And even if the Soviet Union had collapsed eventually, we’d have a lot more messes to clean up. Grenada, for instance, would be another despotic basket case like Cuba is. And we’d probably still see a Marxist government in Nicaragua, and perhaps El Salvador and some other South American countries.

You honestly believe all that, Sam? And you’re trumpeting the funding of the Contras as one of the good things that Reagan did? You don’t, I suppose, remember the source of that funding? Or the manner in which the Contras went about their work, blowing up medical clinics and such? They used terror tactics with much greater abandon than the FSLN ever had.

Personally, I think it’s just bloody obvious that internal pressures played a far, far greater role in the Soviet Union’s collapse. Lech Walesa’s pinky finger had a greater impact than Ronald Reagan.

This one always leaves me scratching my head. The use of the word ‘appeasement’ in a foreign policy context naturally implies a comparison with Neville Chamberlains’ appeasement of Germany immediately prior to World War II. The US didn’t spend decades appeasing the Soviet Union before Reagan, the policy of all presidents during the Cold War doesn’t show much evidence of appeasement in any form. In the decades before Reagan, the US fought directly in two major wars to contain the spread of communism, funded anti-communist forces, staged coups in various nations, confronted the USSR over the Berlin Wall, missiles in Cuba, etc, etc. Even Jimmy Carter’s human rights agenda confronted the Soviets. I don’t see how any president followed a policy of appeasement, much less decades of it.

*Originally posted by Sam Stone *
**It wasn’t just defense spending. It was a number of things -

[li]Moral Approbation - Reagan ended decades of ‘appeasement’ with the Soviet Union, stepped up to the plate, and called them an evil empire. He gave moral support to dissident movements in the client states. The Soviets responded by eventually electing a leader who promised reforms - Gorbachev. But Gorbachev was a died-in-the-wool communist, who only wanted to reform things far enough to make them more efficient and take some of the pressure off the state. But once Reagan had a ‘modern’ leader to work with, he leaned on him. He went to the Berlin wall and yelled, “Mr. Gorbachev - Tear down this wall!”. The pressure was unrelenting, but Reagan and Gorbachev also got along very well, and between them achieved the first meaningful reductions in nuclear arms in Europe.[/li][li]Enhanced containment - Reagan stopped Soviet adventurism in the world. When a communist coup occured in Grenada, Reagan sent in the Marines to end it. He funded the contras. He made it clear that the Soviet Union could not win the expansion race. **[/li][/QUOTE]

[Note: I cannot spell Russian names accurately to save my life. I don’t even try for consistency, really - I figure that if I try a few different spellings, I’m bound to get it right eventually. You’ve been warned. :slight_smile: )

A few nitpicks: Gorbachev was never “elected” - in fact, this contributed to the crisis of legitimacy which really hurt him later. Gorbachev allowed member republics of the Soviet Union to elect their own presidents, and a certain number (most, I believe) of seats in the new Congress of People’s Deputies were elected, and by the end of the Soviet Union the president of Russia (Yeltsin) was popularly elected. Gorbachev, however, never ran - the closest he got was when the Congress rubber-stamped him, and this was years after he took power.

Further, I would question whether the decision to put the Gorb-man in power was due in large measure to Reagan’s rhertoric. Folks, the leaders preceding Gorb were old, old men - when Breznev had taken over in the 60’s, one of the things he’d promised was to get rid of the fears regarding job security that Krushchev’s efforts to revitalize the Party had brought. Under Khruschev, people (very important people included) worried a lot about their jobs - this is probably one of the things (not the only one - cough cuban missile crisis cough) that led to Khruschev being ousted.

So Breznev came into power and said, in essence, “Don’t worry about your jobs, you can keep them until you retire or die.” And this doctrine extended all the way from the bottom to the top of the Soviet system - one of the things that led to the stagnation of the 1970s.

I’m sorry, I’m straying from my point - which is that the top leadership, too, got to stay in power until they died. Brez got old and died in office, Andropov was an old man when he took over and his kidneys failed within months. When he died after just a couple years in office, Chernenko took over - he lasted a year. Gorb took over after Chernenko bought the (collective) farm, in large part because he’d made a deal with Chernenko to support him if he’d get the support of Chernenko’s supporters after he died. (Oh, what a tangled web.)

So that’s the proximate cause of Gorb’s rise to power - but of course, there were loads of other reasons. For one thing, Gorbachev was a relatively young man - in his fifties. He wasn’t crippled by alcoholism and pills, as Breznev had been! His kidneys worked, both of them! To get an idea of how much this alone would have made him popular, consider this joke my prof told his class:

“Comrade! There’s good news and bad news. The good news is, Breznev is dead!”

“Yay! - what’s the bad news?”

“No one’s told him yet.”

Another reason for Gorb’s rise to power is simply that he knew the right people at the right time. High-ranking soviet officials brought up their underlings with them as their own fortunes rose - the Gorbster had been close to Andropov, part of his “nomenklatura” - sort of a political clique. He was also popular because of an earlier post he’d held, as leader of the Communist Party in Stavropole. This was near Kislovosk, a popular vacation spot for senior Party officials - and who made sure these vacations were always perfectly organized,e verything taken care of? Everyone’s favorite partymeister, Mikhail Gorbachev. This is really what brought him a large deal of prominance, and eventual promotion to the politburo - everyone knew and liked this guy.

It sounds weird, I know, but that’s the way things worked in the Soviet Union, according to my prof - if you knew the right people, and they liked you for whatever reason, up you went.

My point is that Reagan really had nothing to do with the Gorb-o-matic getting into power - he was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time, with the right connections. I could go even further into it, and if someone asks me to I will, but I think that’s the most important bits of the gist.

As for Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” - glasnost and perestroika produced very real, verifiable pressures for the Soviet Union to allow the reunification of Germany and the independence of any states that wanted it. Glasnost, for the first time, allowed a degree of criticism of the party that really undermined the doctrine that was taught in all schools in the Soviet union - that the Party knew best, that it understood the historical dialectic and was making the best decisions for the people. This wasn’t just for the benefit of gullible foreigners - the Soviet people really, truly believed this stuff. That was the source of the one-party system’s legitimacy. If you asked a Soviet citizen why he allowed the Party to rule him, most would say “why, because they know best!” But glasnost -“openness”, greater freedom of speech and press - exposed the errors and corruption in the party, showing that maybe the party didn’t know best. And then perestrioka - “restructuring” - was even worse, because it showed that decisions the party had made in the past, such as the collectivization of farms, were wrong and needed to be corrected.

Millions of people died under Stalin while he forced the collectivization of the farms. Admitting the party had been wrong here wasn’t just a forgivable policy mistake - it struck at the core of a Soviet citizen’s sense of history and what it meant to be a citizen of the Soviet Union. If the Party was not perfect, if it maybe didn’t know best or have some sort of special insight - then by what right did it rule?

That was the crisis of legitimacy that I mentioned earlier - and the source of it was largely domestic, NOT the result of Reagan’s speeches. Gorb tried to give the Soviet government legitimacy by allowing elections - but by refusing to stand for election himself, he made himself the least legitimate political figure in the Soviet Union.

One question, and then I’ll end this ridiculously long post - did containment of communism really matter for the domestic political stability of the Soviet Union?

Hopefully, this post makes some sort of sense. If not, I apologize.

Hmm. On preview, I see Gorsnak and Dissonance have already beaten me to some of these points. Screw it - I wrote this beast, and now you’re going to read it. :smiley:

Posted by Sam Stone:

Cite? A lot of American scientists never believed SDI could work at all. What made the Soviets so utterly convinced?

I think the fall of Grenada did it. Thank you Reagan.

I’m sorry, OldBuddy, but I must be really clueless tonight. This is a joke, right?


Sam Stone has it right. The Soviets knew that they could not compete. If America could think it, America could do it.

America being America… not Reagan. So it all just happened during Reagan’s watch. Reagan was pretty “strong” in his atitude toward the URSS… but Gorbachov should be given way more credit… as well as the whole Cold War itself. The URSS exausted itself…

JFK should get more credit than Reaganites for example. Imagine if Bush and Rumsfeld were in power during the Missile Crisis ? It would have been a Hot War very fast.

Here is a cite of Soviet fear. I am not sure that *"a lot of Amercian scientitists thought SDI would never work’. *

They thought that there was no way to make a total sheild, plus the trillions of dollars spent and likely Sino-Soviet counter-measures would urther impact effectiveness. Plus there was an idea that this would further inflame the arms race, that it was a violation of the ABM treaty & that even a partial sheild over the U.S. might make using nukes less “unthinkable”.

I doubt, after the initial poltical storm subsided, you would find +25% american aero-space engineers say flatly a partial SDI system “won’t work”. They’d have said (& many today would say) it is too costly, politically stupid, will not be as effective as it advertised …(In his memior Reagan says he never saw SW as an impenitrable sheild – but he had to clarify becuase that was how it was being sold/talked about until that time)

I forgot the sarcasm tag. I was joking about Grenada. Sam mentioned Grenada in this thread and wasnt even joking.

SDI is a joke now and was even more of a joke back then. SDI is never going to protect the US from a full scale nuclear attack. It might catch one or two from a third world country like N Korea but never a full scale attack (who might have to resort to delivery via cargo container). Its not even its stated purpose.

Militarily the US was no threat to USSR. The USSR was probably not able to successfully attack NATO but NATO had no chance in hell of successfully mounting an attack on the USSR. NATO had for a long time relied on its nuclear arsenal to thwart such an attack. Meager increases in the US defense budget did nothing to change that and wouldnt have for decades.

I think the transition happened almost exclusively within the Kremlin walls. I also fail to see any presidence. China did not start its transition to Capitalism and limited Democracy on behest of some arms race with the US. Neither did the rest of the Soviet block. Or former Yugoslavia which didnt even take part in the arms race. Yugoslavias transisiton happened with the death of Tito. Why didnt Cuba change its way’s? Are they are more formidable adversary than the former USSR?

Reagans rantings were a joke all over the world at the time. He would at times quote movies as if they were true probably due to his mental sickness (Altzeimer). He needed cue cards to handle simple discussions with world leaders who were less than impressed.

Well, according to Gorbachev, the Cold War ended despite Reagan’s buildup, not because of it. Cite. Of course, Gorbachev’s account may not be objective, but his perspective is interesting.

I would give SDI some credit thou… that the US was even thinking of something so outrageous and had the technical means of “attempting” it was pretty intimidating. It wasnt a major part of the URSS collapse thou…

SDI being unfeasible is another problem… the soviets didnt know that.

I’ve never gotten crediting Reagan to begin with. What, the Soviets were an unstoppable economic locomotive BEFORE Ronnie showed up? They were seconds away from wiping out the free world?

The Soviet Union was held together with duct tape from day one. To no small extent they only survived as long as they did because of ruthless leaders like Stalin that made the nation stick to it at the expense of millions of lives. And of course the threat of fascism and the propaganda about a new Reich in America got people to put up with it. As soon as the Soviet leaders mellowed and information started flowing, the whole thing collapsed in on itself. Gorbachev had more to do with it than Reagan by letting the door open wide enough for his citizens to get a peek at the outside world.

Whether or not the United States appeased the Soviet Union in the years prior to Reagan may be a matter of debate, but the fact that people were accusing the United States of appeasement is now a matter of historical record.

For example, on the day that John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, a man was filmed wielding a large black umbrella on a fine Texas day.

The umbrella, it was determined, was a subtle form of protest on the part of one guy, who was trying to remind Kennedy of of the appeasement policies of Neville Chaimberlain toward Adolf Hitler.

I recently finished a book entitled Charlie Wilson’s War which does an excellent job answering this question.

It makes the very strong case that inasmuch as the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to a single man, that man would not be Ronald Reagan, but a womanizing, alcoholic, Democrat Congressman from Texas by the name of Charlie Wilson.

Pretty much single-handedly, Wilson committed hundreds of millions of dollars and vast resources to supporting the Afghani rebels against the USSR, and realy for no other good reason than that he admired them and loathed Commies.

It was this political and economic failure that broke the back of the Soviet Union.

It’s a good read.

I always found it hilarious that the anti-SDI folks always thought that they were so sophisticated in understanding that it would ‘never work’, but that it sold well to the bumpkins in the sticks.

In reality, it was the anti-SDI folks that never really understood what it was about, the mathematics behind it, and why it frightened the Soviets so much.

So let me give you the condensed version:

Mutally Assured Destruction (MAD), depended on each country being able to wipe out the other in a retaliatory strike. Therefore, it was critical that both sides retain the ability to defend against missiles that would destroy their own missiles.

This is why there were so damned many missiles. Early on, the main defense against having your entire retaliatory force wiped out was to have a bazillion of them. MIRV warheads and sheer numbers caused a stalemate in this area. Then the race shifted to accuracy and hardening of silos. The Soviets would increase their accuracy to a radius of X feet, so the Americans would design their silos to survive 50% of impacts within that radius (in other words, if the missiles fell inside that radius at a random position, half the time they would be far enough away that the missile silo would survive).

Eventually, the accuracy got good enough that missiles could no longer be protected this way. So the next phase was to hide the missiles. This was the U.S. MX missile ‘Racetrack’ plan, in which the missiles would be continually moved around on mobile launchers by train, such that the Soviets could never be assured of hitting them all, because they didn’t know where they were. This was eventually scrapped as unworkable.

The race also moved under the ocean, with ballistic missile subs maintaining a deterrant, and hunter-killer subs acting to deter those.

The Soviets were pretty good at playing this game. Their rocket technology was excellent. Nuclear missiles were cheap enough that they could match the U.S. number for number.

SDI changed the entire game. Area defense of missiles meant the Soviets could never be guaranteed to get the retaliatory force. They could never hope to build enough missiles to wipe out the U.S. force at once and prevent a retaliatory strike. And SDI didn’t have to be 100% effective. Didn’t even have to be 10% effective, at first.

Here’s how it works - let’s say the U.S. has 10,000 missiles, and a missile defense that can protect any missile from a strike 50% of the time. If the Soviets launch 10,000 missiles, on average they’d leave 5,000 missiles intact, which is plenty to destroy the country. So how about 50,000 missiles? Nope. If they launch 5 missiles at each silo, and each one has a 50% chance of getting through, they’ll only get 97% of the missiles, leaving 300 for a retaliatory strike. And if SDI efficiency can get to say, 80%, then even 50,000 missiles would still leave 33% of the U.S. retaliatory force instact. Even 100,000 missiles in an attack would only get 90% of the force.

That’s the way the math works. Once the U.S. had a missile defense in place, it would be flatly impossible for the Soviet Union to ever attack the U.S. without being destroyed itself, even if the missile defense was flawed. Even if it was very flawed.

SDI was essentially an end-run around the entire Soviet missile strategy. It terrified them for that reason, because it threatened to make their entire strategic military plan obsolete. Every time Reagan met with Gorbachev (for example, at Rejkavik), the Soviets demanded that SDI be put on the table. Reagan always refused, but used it as a lever to force other concessions.