It is now ten years since the Berlin wall crumbled, but the question of how and why the cold war was concluded still lingers.
As the apparent winner, the West has tended to regard its triumph as a vindication of cold war policies or, more modestly, as a case of Soviet “exhaustion.” Neither of those views is satisfying because each discounts the role played by the peace and antinuclear movements. Evidence is mounting that their influence on events was more important than most historical accounts admit–perhaps even decisive. Recounting this influence is imperative for two reasons. The dominant view of the right and center is that military intimidation was the root of victory, a dangerous axiom then and just as foolish today and tomorrow. Second, the history demonstrates the ability of popular movements to effect change, a lesson that sharply diverges from the habits of historians and news media alike, which generally give far more attention to the actions of elites.
The three main interpretations of the cold war’s demise reflect, not surprisingly, the right, center and left of US politics. Since the tearing down of the Berlin wall, the right wing has claimed a resounding victory for Reagan’s military buildup and tough talk. Their argument pivots on the intimidating qualities of the US arsenal (especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars”); NATO’s deployment of Euromissiles as a rejoinder to the Soviet Union’s installation of SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at Europe; the Reagan Doctrine of battling leftist regimes in Southern Africa, Central America and Afghanistan; and the grandiloquent campaign for personal freedom. The rapid expansion of US military spending, it is argued, also threatened Moscow with bankruptcy. Given the dismal prospects of trying to keep up with the American technological juggernaut and protect its puppet regimes, the Politburo sued for peace by electing Mikhail Gorbachev. Some Reaganites even assert that this was their intention all along: to crush the Soviet Union and win the cold war.
Centrists, typically visible as the Democratic Party leadership, view things differently. They argued that the forty-year effort to check and reverse Soviet influence was a bipartisan endeavor. The core of America’s strategy–the policy of containment–was forged in the late forties by Truman advisers George Kennan, Paul Nitze and others, and carried out with persevering fidelity. Truman, Kennedy and Johnson played indispensable roles in standing up to the USSR, a Democratic Congress authorized the policy and the money, and even the much-maligned Jimmy Carter ordered up the neutron bomb, the MX missile, Euromissiles and anticommunist actions in the Third World. The European alliance, which included many democratic socialist governments over the years, was vital to the outcome as well. Diplomacy played a major role, as did foreign aid, trade, the communications revolution and other factors. Gorbachev came to be regarded as a kind of improvising reformer who saw the USSR as dysfunctional, but whose perestroika was unworkable and whose glasnost careened out of control. Reagan just happened to be there at the end.
Both views contain some truth, but neither is wholly accurate. There is a third view, that of the left, which sees the cold war as a logical and reprehensible outgrowth of a US political system seemingly dependent on military spending for prosperity, constantly in need of an enemy, determined to maintain class and race privileges for the few, and willing to put the whole world at risk for its perfervid anticommunism. This perspective, which often (though not often enough) imputed similar qualities to the Soviet Union, was the cornerstone of the New Left, which so effectively challenged US policy in Southeast Asia in the sixties and early seventies. By the early eighties, this perspective was invigorated by a mass movement that was a hybrid of many gradations of political sentiments. Its engine was exceptionally broad-based citizen activism, and naturally enough, the demise of the cold war is seen mainly as a result of the loud and persistent public demand for peace stirred by such activism. That included the efforts to stop and reverse the arms race, counteract the power of the military-industrial complex, condemn the US government’s comfort with apartheid and overturn the US imperialism conspicuous in Central America and the Caribbean.
Some of the right’s claims can be quickly discarded. The call for liberty behind the “Iron Curtain” was hardly unique to Reagan; it had been a standard rhetorical device for forty years. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which established a human rights framework for all of Europe, had been denounced by the right wing. Jimmy Carter, the first President to make human rights a core goal of US foreign policy, was condemned by conservatives for placing human rights above other national interests. The Reagan Administration not only tolerated or even embraced regimes that were among the worst violators of human rights–South Africa, Turkey, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile and so on–it created and funded movements that committed numerous atrocities in the name of fighting communism.
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.
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.
The Peace Movement’s Role
The case for the peace movement’s crucial role in ending the cold war rests on two phenomena. The first is the way peace activism created a public demand for an end to the nuclear madness. The second was how a parallel expectation was devised within the new Soviet elite surrounding Gorbachev.
The public demand came in several parts, not so much as a conscious strategy but as an improvisation that sometimes led and as often responded to events. It began with a calculated effort to stigmatize nuclear weapons, to clarify and amplify the vaguely held notion that these were fundamentally unusable weapons. This was quickly achieved by Physicians for Social Responsibility in particular, whose Paul Revere-like flurry altered the national discourse about nuclear deterrence between 1980 and 1982. Within those two years, the conventional thinking about nukes went from a shadowy concern about the Russians being “ahead” to abhorrence at the thought of the weapons ever being used. Even Reagan, in this most hyperbolic phase of his belligerency, was forced to state that the weapons could not be used and that–his Administration’s doctrine notwithstanding–no winners were possible in a nuclear war. The physicians and scientists did the technical work and raised the alarm, and the growing antinuclear movement (especially in Europe, which saw itself as the helpless victim of both superpowers) provided the mass angst that made the warnings politically potent.
The rise of the nuclear freeze campaign in the early eighties was both an outcome of this growing stigma and a spur that galvanized further public outrage. Thousands of freeze chapters sprang up overnight all over the country; the movement’s scale was apparent in the June 12, 1982, demonstration in Central Park, the largest ever, when 750,000 people gathered to protest the arms race. News media coverage of the movement and its proposals was almost a daily occurrence. It was a citizens’ crusade that in part questioned the very legitimacy of elite decision-making, and this constituted a threatening political movement. It also stimulated a clamor about the moral validity of deterrence, something the centrist arms-control community was never prepared to do; it drew the voluble support of many clerics, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and innumerable Sunday sermons from Protestant pulpits. This was quite a serious challenge and one that resonated with the American people. Thirty-six nuclear freeze referendums were passed in November 1982. A large demonstration in Central Park on a sunny summer day and articles in policy journals were one thing, and possibly negligible; thirty-six victories in thirty-nine referendums–including eight of nine states–was something Washington took to heart.
That this public reproach was transformative can be clearly seen in opinion surveys. In 1981, as Reagan entered office, only about a third of Americans favored the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. But by 1983 the number had leaped to four out of every five. Even the deployment of the Euromissiles was viewed suspiciously, with nearly two-thirds favoring a delay to negotiate with the USSR. Support for a nuclear-weapons freeze was steady and high, reaching a peak of 86 percent. This sentiment was verified by the low support for a “get tough” attitude toward Moscow, which dropped from 77 percent in 1980 to just 44 percent in May 1982.
At first, the White House mobilized every means possible to defeat the freeze referendums, but it gradually abandoned its bellicose rhetoric and moved steadily toward serious negotiations with the Soviet Union. “Ronald Reagan came into office on a Republican platform explicitly pledging the new government to achieve ‘technological and military superiority’ over the Soviet Union,” explains David Cortright, a leader of SANE and SANE-Freeze in the eighties. “Popular culture became increasingly antinuclear as the freeze movement swept the country. Faced with this unreceptive political climate, the Reagan Administration largely abandoned its harsh rhetoric and quietly dropped the concept of superiority.” Cortright provides one of the few meticulously documented histories of how the Reagan Administration responded to the freeze and its allies in his 1993 book, Peace Works, and it is apparent from his interviews with top Reagan aides that such bold measures as the START proposals and the “zero option” for eliminating nuclear missiles from Europe were stirred significantly by the growing antinuclear activism in the United States and Europe.
Even at the time, it was apparent that Reagan’s peace offensive was aimed as much at freeze inventor Randy Forsberg as at Leonid Brezhnev. “Our main concern,” a top Administration official told the New York Times on May 2, 1982, “is to go on the record quickly with a simple and comprehensible plan to show the Reagan team is for peace, thus taking some of the steam out of the nuclear freeze movements in Europe and the United States.” Mary Kaldor, a leading historian and activist in England, noted wryly that the “zero option” idea itself was stolen by Reagan aides from the protesters they routinely decried as dupes of Moscow. “I remember having a drink with a senior Reagan Administration official the night the zero option was announced,” she recalled. “‘We got the idea from your banners,’ he said, chuckling.” Michael Deaver, Reagan’s image maestro, also said the zero option “was our response to the antinuke people.”
The Reagan White House rarely responded directly to the peace movement; more often, it dealt with a Congress that was increasingly aroused by the peace movement. By the autumn of 1981, the number of initiatives flowing from Congress on nuclear policy mounted quickly to include, over the next few years, unilateral restraint on antisatellite weapons and SDI testing, curbs on nuclear-weapons tests, reductions in Pentagon spending, complex formulas for stabilizing the nuclear deterrent and negotiating cuts with the Soviet Union, and resolutions on the freeze idea itself. It was an astonishingly bold assortment of legislation. While little of it was actually enacted (the Senate was Republican until 1987), and the Democratic leadership was wary, the amount and variety of arms-control bills were unprecedented. Congress was not only acting to restrain the President, as it did in the seventies, but actually initiated arms-control policies with far-reaching consequences–as with the space-weapons bans.
It is apparent that the outcry represented by the freeze campaign and its public-interest allies emboldened the Hill’s liberal wing to look more skeptically at the “winnable nuclear war” ideas and technologies being promoted by the Reagan Administration. As Brookings Institution scholar Barry Blechman puts it, the antinuclear movement “radically altered the political calculus of arms control. Politicians who preferred to forget in 1980 that they ever said a positive word about arms control could not work hard enough two years later to make clear their commitment and support.” The Congress “did not originate the freeze movement–far from it,” Blechman continues. “It served instead as a conduit, responding to popular concerns about nuclear weapons.” The freeze and the professional organizations helped establish a permanent capacity for arms-control initiatives in Congress that lasted well beyond the apogee of activism in the early to mid-eighties.
The House and Senate particularly responded to the technical expertise of scientists on issues of nuclear doctrine, SDI, antisatellite weapons and related matters, a persuasive power that reshaped political culture far beyond Capitol Hill. It has been suggested that SDI itself was a response to the freeze, a peculiar reflection of Reagan’s own doubts about the morality of mutually assured destruction. Whatever SDI’s origin, the scientists’ disapproval–especially the technical critiques that revealed it to be an extremely improbable prospect–was one of the decade’s most decisive episodes. First came the broad critique by the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose team included Nobel laureates and weapons scientists like Hans Bethe, Richard Garwin and Henry Kendall, then similar appraisals from several other institutes. The news media were receptive to the scientists’ broadsides, and as a result, the public never wholly bought in to Reagan’s dream. Large numbers (e.g., 48 percent in October 1984) believed it would escalate the arms race, and occasionally, even large majorities deemed it too expensive to deploy–ideas that came directly from the professional opposition.
By early 1985, when Gorbachev rose in the Kremlin, several panels of leading American scientists had stoutly declaimed Star Wars as an unworkable–and dangerous–addition to the nuclear rivalry, one that the Soviets could easily counter but would nonetheless view (rightly) as mounting a potential first-strike threat against them. At that pivotal moment, virtually no one in policy-responsible circles believed that SDI as articulated by Reagan was a plausible concept.
By the time Gorbachev and Reagan started their slow dance in the summit meetings, the contours of American attitudes were rather firmly set. The public, at first alarmed by the possibility of nuclear war, then upset by the “externalities” of the cold war–the costs, the hazards of the weapons complex, the moral corruption of the Central America imbroglio–sustained their distaste well beyond the salad days of the freeze campaign. The public and elites of all kinds wanted better relations with the Soviets and were pressing to cut nuclear weapons, SDI and conventional forces in Europe. This was manifestly a different agenda from what Reagan had set out to achieve. It was vastly more wide-ranging than what the Democratic leadership had articulated in 1980-81. It was, indeed, more assertive and visionary than what the arms-control establishment (as opposed to disarmament groups) proposed through most of the eighties. As my colleague Matt Fellowes notes in a study of public opinion: “In 1986, 80 percent were in favor of an underground nuclear test ban, 82 percent were against weapons in space, and 84 percent were in favor of reducing Soviet and US warheads by 50 percent.” Despite Reagan’s popularity, “the public remained highly supportive of arms-control negotiations, and became increasingly opposed to further defense spending increases. This point became more clear by the mid-’80s, when the public clearly had begun to withdraw support for further nuclear development and militarization, while maintaining high levels of support for continued arms-control negotiations. This trend developed despite increasingly confrontational rhetoric from the White House and near-record lows in American feelings about the Soviets.”
A highly symbolic reckoning in the decade came at the Reykjavik summit in late 1986. This is where Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to total nuclear disarmament, causing consternation among the foreign policy elite and the conservative parties running much of Western Europe, which had spent so much political capital (and actual pounds, marks and francs) on the alleged need for nuclear deterrence. The American President and the Soviet Communist boss nearly did what only the most brazen peaceniks had been proposing–get rid of the nukes. The fact that these two implacable foes could come within a hairbreadth of eliminating their nuclear arsenals was a testament to their own sense of responsibility for the survival of civilization, forged in the specter of nuclear winter, the horrifying consequences of the Chernobyl accident and the escalating, worldwide demand for action to reduce the nuclear danger.
Reykjavik also led to the next moment emblematic of the demise of the cold war–the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. Reagan had been crippled by the Iran/contra scandal, which threatened for a time to bring down his presidency. He responded by moving closer to Gorbachev. The INF agreement was the first major consequence of Reagan’s transformation, signed just a year after the Iran/contra scandal became public. The “zero option,” cursed by conservatives and many arms controllers alike because it supposedly “decoupled” US and European nuclear security, became the first arms-reduction treaty of the eighties. It was opposed by Senate majority leader Robert Byrd and Representative Les Aspin, both key Democrats, and numerous others in Washington’s higher circles, including Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and Brent Scowcroft. But the overwhelming public approval of the treaty–more than 80 percent–collapsed the opposition. The INF agreement, ratified by the Senate in 1988, was the first payoff for the sustained and clamorous public demand for an end to nuclear madness. Later that year, the odd couple of Gorbachev and Reagan sketched what would eventually become the two Strategic Arms Reduction treaties, which dramatically cut into strategic nuclear arsenals, again earning the enthusiastic approval of the American public.
How the movement to prevent intervention in Central America affected the end of the cold war is harder to gauge. What the long struggle over US policy did do was to depreciate the hyperbolic claims of the Reaganites about Communism. Most Americans never believed the notion that the Sandinistas represented a national security threat to the United States. Coupled with obvious, false piety toward the contras and the junta in El Salvador, including tolerance of their outrageous human rights conduct, the policy significantly devalued the moral validity of anticommunism. The Reagan assault in Central America, often illegal and almost always immoral, hollowed out the residual American distrust of all things Communist and made it easier for peace activists to argue successfully for a deep and abiding détente.
The peace movement in the West had succeeded brilliantly at “changing the conversation” about the morality of nuclear weapons, the nature of East-West relations and the ill effects of the cold war. As described by a leading scholar of social movements, Thomas Rochon, “the peace movement was the agent behind the transformation of the INF issue from being a policy decided primarily on military grounds by a few political leaders and technical experts to being a massively debated issue invested with political meaning.” That transformation describes the American disarmament crusade as well, one that captured and held hostage the discourse on nuclear weapons for nearly a decade.
The Echo Effect
Perhaps the more remarkable part of the story, however, is how the public demand for change in the West was echoed in Moscow, with tangible results then replayed on the world stage. The steady parade to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by ordinary citizen diplomats, lawyers, doctors, scientists and a variety of dissident politicians created an entirely different–and largely unanticipated–dynamic for détente. At one level, all this contact merely turned up the volume of popular clamor in Western capitals by broadcasting the peace agenda from different venues. Someone like Dr. Bernard Lown of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War could say precisely the same thing in Moscow that he said in Boston, but with a Russian physician at his side, after a meeting with a Soviet leader, his message carried more weight. This simple, self-induced echoing was the most plentiful East-West activity among nonprofit groups, practiced by a veritable deluge of sister-city envoys, caravans of students, delegations of this union or that recreation club, ad infinitum. These forays had one salient virtue: They raised the temperature on politicians in Europe and the United States, a constant reminder that a popular will was escalating. When the local Rotary Club president visits Moscow, sees an apparent desire for better relations and returns to telephone the local newspaper editor and member of Congress, that is retail democracy at its most vigorous; repeated thousands of times–as it was–it sends an unmistakable message.
This seemingly spontaneous outbreak of citizen diplomacy also touched Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany. The political dynamics were different, of course. Even before Reagan was elected, the labor union Solidarity had already begun its astonishing and formidable challenge in Poland, a revolt not just of the unions but of civil society and clerics, which served as a touchstone for the remainder of the decade. Political dissent was rife in the other “captive” nations and was championed more and more by dissidents in the West. From an early stage of the antinuclear protests, efforts were mounted to connect to the human rights activists in the Warsaw Pact countries, and another unlikely alliance was forged, one that saw the nuclear madness and repression as part of the same loathsome superpower manipulation.
Possibly the most consistently influential echo effect was the one created by “policy entrepreneurs” who engaged the Kremlin over a number of years. The most notable of these was Pugwash, scientists from around the world who met regularly, formed working groups, issued papers and the like from the fifties on. By the eighties, Pugwash-convened task forces had addressed the whole range of arms issues besetting the superpower rivalry–nuclear testing, ballistic missile defense, conventional forces, nuclear doctrine–and provided Soviet scientists with insights on arms control that they may not have found elsewhere. By the early eighties, the Pugwash group was supplemented by several others, notably Frank von Hippel and Jeremy Stone of the Federation of American Scientists, Manhattan Project physicist Victor Weiskopf, Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Bernard Lown, Randy Forsberg of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies and many more.
The policy entrepreneurs went to Moscow typically to create some sense of momentum toward arms control that would resonate in the United States. What was less expected was how hungrily the Soviets would take up their suggestions for arms restraint and the “new thinking” inherent in the American and European peace community. The Soviet policy elite, beginning in the Brezhnev era but flowering, of course, under Gorbachev, adopted several of the most important initiatives of the Western activists. For several years there had been a group of Soviet intellectuals, leaders of influential institutes in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who were pushing internally for reform, a circle that included Yevgeny Primakov, Georgy Arbatov, Yevgeny Velikhov and Georgy Shaknazarov, among others. They were the dynamic core of a struggle for deep-seated political and economic change within the Soviet Union, separate from the appeals from the West. But their receptivity to the new initiatives from the US and European peace community reinforced their own transformative agenda and provided the outsiders with instant access to Kremlin power.
Among the more penetrating influences was the Palme Commission, a high-level group of political leaders convened by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme to formulate alternative security ideas. It argued at length in 1982 for a “common security” framework in which the security of one’s adversary becomes a key consideration in one’s own defense thinking. “The work in the Palme Commission began a very important stage in my life,” top Kremlin adviser Arbatov wrote years later, “and exerted a major influence on my understanding of politics and international relations.” In fact, the entire complex of peace researchers working on new, nonoffensive security concepts–led by Anders Boserup in Denmark, Egon Bahr and Lutz Unterseher in West Germany and Randy Forsberg in the United States–apparently had a profound influence on the Russians that extended beyond conventional forces to nuclear doctrine. The thinking seeped in through many pores in the membrane of Soviet Communism via the scientists’ exchanges, the many intellectual forums sponsored by peace groups and through the influence exerted by particular Soviet officials who later became prominent in Gorbachev’s inner circle.
Moscow’s embrace of common security concepts accounts for the firm attitude that nuclear arsenals should be eliminated or drastically cut. The nuclear-testing moratorium, unilaterally pursued by Moscow in 1986-87, was an early, concrete expression of this view; it was aided magnificently by the NRDC seismic-monitoring project, which created a technical system that could detect a nuclear test, thereby answering one of the primary objections to a nuclear-test ban–that it could not be verified. This technical breakthrough not only bolstered the public relations value of the test ban but actually influenced Gorbachev’s thinking about issues of nuclear stockpile maintenance, verification and the like. In the crucial realm of conventional forces, Boserup, his British associate Robert Neild and others (including Americans Forsberg and von Hippel) directly lobbied Gorbachev to explore the new concepts of nonoffensive defense.
The result of this and many other such intellectual inroads was the 1988 treaty language offered by the Soviets in the negotiations to reduce conventional forces in Europe. It was, in all important respects, a nonoffensive defense design, a radical departure from previous Soviet positions. So, too, were the unilateral reductions in conventional forces in Eastern Europe in late 1988, especially significant since Gorbachev pledged before the United Nations that December not to intervene in the affairs of other Warsaw Pact countries–fateful declarations, given the events of late 1989, when Soviet control over Eastern Europe suddenly dissolved in a tidal wave of popular resistance. Soviet officials also credited Boserup and others with a central role in the US-USSR talks leading to the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in 1990.
Similarly, the scientist-diplomats convinced Gorbachev to abandon the Soviet position of demanding that the United States halt Star Wars before reductions in nuclear missiles could be negotiated. Von Hippel and Jeremy Stone, given their access to Gorbachev, were essential agents of this message, but it was also a view widely held among the most prestigious scientists in the West and readily conveyed to their Soviet counterparts through innumerable visits, forums, books, articles and so forth. By the time the issue was decided, the thundering critique of SDI in America had resonated throughout Moscow. It was an opinion strongly held by Andrei Sakharov, the legendary Soviet physicist who had played an important role in moving Moscow to sign the ABM Treaty in 1972.
Sakharov had informed Soviet officials of the need to separate SDI from arms-reduction talks as early as 1986, and he gave a speech asserting that position to a huge East-West peace forum in Moscow in February 1987, at which Gorbachev was present. Soon afterward, Gorbachev announced the delinking of SDI from arms reductions, and the INF Treaty and START draft soon followed. Gorbachev’s public position on Star Wars reflected the view of many of the American scientists who opposed the program: If you want to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, then eliminate nuclear weapons.
Throughout this astonishing process, the many peace researchers and activists involved made concerted efforts to relay the good news of Moscow’s depth of change to Western capitals. Both Russians and those from the West were involved in this, briefing policy and opinion leaders, introducing new twists to each extraordinary Gorbachev gambit. By 1989, even before the Berlin wall was a target of German chisels, the West had essentially surrendered to Gorbachev’s entreaties.
For all explanations of the end of the cold war, Gorbachev is pivotal. What actually motivated him and how his actions were formulated is crucial. Clearly, the proposals and arguments of the “policy entrepreneurs” were exceptionally influential. This phenomenon is illuminated by Cornell University professor Matthew Evangelista’s 1999 book, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War, a thorough and scholarly exploration that delves into the Soviet archives for answers. He concludes that Gorbachev “seemed to welcome transnational contacts–and not only on technical issues of nuclear arms control. He paved the way for transnational activists to challenge the Soviet military’s competence within their core domain of planning for conventional warfare in Europe. The influences of foreign scientists and peace activists in preparing the intellectual ground for ending the East-West military standoff in central Europe contributed much to the peaceful demise of the Cold War.”
The ingredients contributing to the end of the US-Soviet rivalry are too numerous, too intertwined and too enigmatic to gauge with absolute confidence. The proponents of Reagan’s “victory” have a few valid points, as do the centrists, with their emphasis on containment. A full rendering of the topic would have to account for a large number of disconnected factors as well: the Polish Pontiff, the accident at Chernobyl, the growing prosperity of Western Europe, the penetration of new consumer technologies and even influences like rock and roll.
The rivalry was also a multifaceted affair, one of ideology and culture and political styles. First and foremost, however, it was one of armaments. The US-Soviet confrontation was, by the mid-sixties, a highly formalized conflict, attended by vast bureaucracies of arms-making and arms control, strategists for war-making and strategists for coexistence, with universities and laboratories and institutes and manufacturers all in place to sustain it. Only something extraordinary could break up this powerful, self-perpetuating colossus. Ronald Reagan, with his eccentric blend of utter stupidity and deft political acuity, was very much in the tradition of US cold warriors–the bad cop, the anticommunist crusader, the militaristic Commander in Chief. Even SDI was just a twist on a very old theme. It took something more radical–more disruptive and normative–to crack the ice of the cold war.
That disruption was brandished in the cacophonous demand for an end to the nuclear madness that resonated first throughout Europe and then quickly in the United States. It found a soulmate of sorts in the new Soviet leader, who somehow opened his mind to new ideas for disarmament and cooperation. That the peace movement stood at both ends of this triumph, creating a loud and persistent echo from West to East and back again, is one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.