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How We Ended the Cold War | The Nation

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How We Ended the Cold War

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The Reagan Doctrine supplied guerrillas in Angola, Nicaragua and Afghanistan to battle supposedly Marxist regimes. There is little doubt that the Afghan fighters, lavishly supplied by the CIA, helped to convince the Soviets to leave Afghanistan, and the CIA-backed contras destabilized Nicaragua enough to tip an election against the Sandinistas. The UNITA insurgents in Angola, helped enormously by Reagan, continue to wreak havoc in that country. These interventions were hardly decisive in the undoing of Soviet Communism, however. Neither Angola nor Nicaragua was consequential to the Soviets. Afghanistan was important, but the bulk of US aid to the mujahedeen came in the late eighties, most prominently after March 1986, a year after Gorbachev came to power with the intention of withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

About the Author

John Tirman
John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. His latest book, The Deaths of Others:...

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The claim that Reagan's military buildup unhinged Soviet Communism, and that the coup de grâce of the rearmament was Reagan's cherished Star Wars program, is also exaggerated. While Soviet leaders did view the buildup and the belligerent statements of Reagan, Alexander Haig, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Caspar Weinberger with alarm--and were particularly concerned about a possible invasion of Cuba--Soviet military planning did not change appreciably in the early eighties. As a number of scholars have concluded after combing the Soviet archives opened in the nineties, there was no panicky response to the Reagan rearmament that led to Soviet economic or political depletion.

Soviet leaders were suspicious of Reagan's motives for upgrading America's longstanding program to research ballistic missile defenses under the Strategic Defense Initiative, but they did relatively little in their military preparations (aside from howling about it). They rightly saw an SDI deployment as improbable, but if such a system did come to fruition, they would respond not by trying to match it but by investing in more ballistic missiles or cheap technologies to defeat it.

As a result, when Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, the Soviets were maintaining the cold war status quo. It was Reagan who was moving toward a more moderate stance by mid-decade: He put some far-reaching arms-reduction schemes on the negotiating table in 1983 and made a major conciliatory speech in January 1984.

The claim that the Reagan rearmament and rhetoric made Moscow bow, therefore, is weak and unproven. Were the Soviets alarmed by loose talk of nuclear warfighting? Of course. Did they seek to restrain SDI? Naturally. They were interested in the relative stability of nuclear parity that was achieved in the seventies with the SALT process and the ABM Treaty. But their actions were quite moderate in response to Reagan's brinkmanship. Until Gorbachev gained full authority in the Kremlin, continuity reigned.

The centrist explanation for the cold war--that the steadfast, long-term, bipartisan support for containment, both military and diplomatic, finally paid off--omits the disarray among many Democrats, and indeed among a large segment of the arms-control community. Centrists took a "we don't and can't know" attitude toward Soviet intentions under Gorbachev, never quite believing that the Soviet leader's proposals were anything more than the counterpart of Reagan's own extraordinary public relations. By 1986 many despaired of achieving any arms control and were deeply suspicious of (and essentially opposed to) the deep-cuts proposals coming from the two leaders and the peace movement in Europe and the United States. They argued that nuclear deterrence was not only moral but virtually sacrosanct. Increasingly, the centrists spoke of modest military procurement reform and investing in measures to avoid accidental nuclear war as the primary alternatives to Reagan's policies, and thereby fashioned themselves "owls" rather than hawks or doves. Many persuaded themselves that Nicaragua and Southern Africa really were important venues of superpower competition and that some of the Reagan Doctrine should be supported. Their rhetoric never failed to be cloaked in terms of US security interests, above all else. In other words, smooth the rough edges of Reaganism, but advance the basic tenets of the cold war. The centrists' claims of playing a leading role in the demise of the superpower competition rest on virtually the same dubious grounds as the right wing's.

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