Perhaps the most important question–for present policy-makers as well as historians–posed by the presidency of Ronald Reagan is what role he played in ending the cold war. And perhaps the most illuminating recent article on this question is one written by Wesley Clark for Washington Monthly just before Reagan died. A mistaken belief that the Soviet Union was brought down chiefly by US military pressure, Clark believes, has led the group of neoconservatives now in charge of American policy to think military action can now bring democracy to the Middle East. The result is the fiasco under way in Iraq. Clark acknowledges that the Reagan military buildup played a role in the Soviet turnaround under Mikhail Gorbachev. Soviet military backwardness was perhaps the most sharply painful aspect of the Soviet Union’s growing technical lag behind the United States, and the Reagan military buildup intensified it. But far more important than the buildup, Clark argues, was the long policy of containment that preceded it. And more important still was the long, slow, scarcely visible but decisive loss of faith in the Soviet empire by the peoples living under its rule. It burst into view with the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Then came the astonishingly creative, nonviolent response from Gorbachev: his call for a “new thinking,” which put the interests of peace and survival above imperial or ideological interest; his commitment to installing openness and respect for human rights in Soviet policy; his wholesale perestroika of the Soviet system. In a word, the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred more for political than for military reasons. That is why the end, when it came, could, in a surprise as great as the collapse itself, occur almost entirely without violence.

Reagan had been prescient early in his term in foreseeing the dimensions of the Soviet crisis; yet when it came he was at first blind to it. The Administration’s hard line toward the Soviet Union continued right up to the edge of the Reykjavik summit, in October 1986. Just before the meeting, Richard Solomon, director of policy planning at the State Department, informed Reagan in a memorandum, “Dynamic Mr. Gorbachev and his attractive wife may turn out to be no more capable of ‘new thinking’ than Mr. Khrushchev was of burying Stalin.” It was not until the summit itself that, to his great credit, Reagan began to understand that the rise of Gorbachev to the leadership of the Soviet Union heralded fundamental change.

Gorbachev and Reagan turned out to be in agreement on a surprising point that goes unmentioned in the encomiums of today’s hawks. Both men believed that the abolition of nuclear weapons was not only necessary for the survival of civilization but also possible. At Reykjavik, to the horror of many of their advisers, they set about exploring whether they could make their dream a reality. Reagan observed to an eager Gorbachev that if they started the process of reducing their nuclear forces to zero, and would “stand shoulder to shoulder in telling other nations that they must eliminate their own nuclear weapons, it would be hard to think of a country that would not do so.” Gorbachev agreed. The two were aware that the opportunity, if not seized, would pass: Other crises would arise, new leaders would come to power.

What got in the way was Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”)–his plan to protect the United States and even the world from nuclear attack by intercepting incoming rockets. The layers of paradox in this failure are dense. It was SDI that had helped Reagan become an abolitionist in the first place. Nations could give up nuclear arms, he believed, because they would be protected from nuclear rogues and cheaters by the defenses. Yet it was also SDI that prevented Reagan from achieving an abolition agreement. Gorbachev, fearing that the Soviet Union could never match America’s defensive achievements, would not surrender his existing parity in offensive nuclear arms. Yet SDI was a delusion. Twenty years and some $80 billion later, nothing remotely resembling it is even on the drawing board. Reagan was as mistaken in placing his faith in it as Gorbachev was in fearing it. Either man could have safely given way. Both should have.

But on this occasion of mourning, let us not speak ill of the dead. Instead, let’s remember the nuclear-abolitionist, peace-minded Reagan forgotten by his hawkish hagiographers. At one moment in Reykjavik, as Michael Mazo records in a Yale University master’s thesis, Reagan and Gorbachev imagined that they would meet once again in Iceland, in ten years, and each would bring his country’s last nuclear-armed missile with him. The vision prompted a flight of fancy by President Reagan, according to the official record: “Then they would have a tremendous party for the whole world. Gorbachev interjected that he thought the two sides were close to reaching a common formula…. The President continued to describe his vision of their meeting in Iceland ten years from now. He would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say, ‘Hello, Mikhail.’ And Gorbachev would say, ‘Ron, is it you?’ And then they would destroy the last missiles.”