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Reagan's Role in Ending the Cold War Is Being Exaggerated

Ronald Wilson Reagan is no longer this side of eternity; his battles are over. Like the Cold War, he is a part of history. How will he be judged for his role as commander-in-chief? What will the narrator of the future say about this man who in popular culture has often been portrayed as a champion of freedom and a foe of totalitarianism?

One scene sentimentalists may wish to let drop on the cutting room floor is the tribute Reagan bestowed upon the Nazi dead at the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany during the summer of 1985. He who called the Soviet Union “an evil empire” was the first American president to lay a wreath on the gravesite of fascist warriors. The dead were none other than Hitler’s SS troops.

According to the official White House spin at the time, the Bitburg visit represented a gesture of reconciliation toward Germans. It was certainly an act defiant of the politically correct. Many American World War II veterans were at the time outraged. Had Reagan’s WW II service been in a combat role as opposed to a studio role making training films, perhaps he would have been more discriminating.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who the following year would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work promoting human rights, begged Reagan not to visit the Bitburg cemetery, stating, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS … The issue here is not politics, but good and evil.” Reagan responded by stating that the German soldiers “were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” During the trip Reagan visited the graveyard and also toured the Bergen-Elsen concentration camp, condemning Nazi ideology in both instances by insisting that it made victims of one and all.

REAGANITES, in proclaiming a sort of triumph of will, credit their man with winning the Cold War and bringing an end to the Soviet Union. He was against totalitarianism; so reading any deep meaning in what happened at Bitburg is dismissed as preposterous. Yet, it can certainly be argued, Reagan’s intolerance for rightwing totalitarianism was languid and apathetic in comparison with his response to the “Red Menace.” He believed in “constructive engagement” with the conservative apartheid regime of South Africa at a time when most of the free world was imposing economic sanctions. The rightwing death squads in Central America were at their peak during the Reagan era, but what concerned him most was the Sandinistas. A blind eye was given to the brutal military dictatorship of Burma ( Myanmar), but the Marxist-based government of the itsy bitsy island of Grenada was responded to with the equivalency of a miniaturized Normandy invasion.

Did Reagan bring the USSR to its knees? This question will be debated among historians for a long time to come. There are many variables to sort through, including the culminated contribution of a cast of characters, from nearly two decades of Democratic presidencies (Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter) to Mikhail Gorbachev and the Russian people themselves. Under Truman many mechanisms for fighting the Cold War were put into place, including the policy of containment (1947), the Central Intelligence Agency (1947), the National Security Council (1947), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949). Inside the Soviet Union there were many, many brave dissidents and writers acting as goads for freedom, including Boris Pasternak, Vassily Grossman, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Andrey Sakharov. The most important question hovering over this discussion should be obvious: Would the Soviet Union have ended when it did if there had not been a reformer like Gorbachev in the top position?

Reagan is remembered for his June 1987 performance in front of the Brandenburg Gate at the Berlin Wall: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The event was nothing more than an imitation of John F. Kennedy, who during the exact same month nearly twenty-five years before, visited the site and offered genuine encouragement to a beleaguered people when he said, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” And there should not be any forgetfulness about Truman and the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949), a defiant act of militarism against the Soviet Union’s attempt to place West Berlin under siege.

IT IS IMPORTANT to recall the many American leaders prior to Reagan who took hard public stances against the Soviet Union and its control of the Eastern Bloc. Studying those events provides context and shows where Reagan got many of his ideas. Later during his administration, he actually softened his tone toward the Kremlin, not unlike Kennedy who after the Cuban Missile Crisis gave an impassioned speech at American University in which he called for greater human understanding between Russians and Americans. Later, President Richard Nixon presided over the era of détente. In certain respects, Reagan’s tenure reflects the whole range of U.S. Cold War history; from beginning with harsh words, to covert operations and direct military intervention (with Grenada serving as a successful Bay of Pigs invasion), to finally disarmament agreements and relaxed relations.

In his book Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? (1998), Robert Strayer suggests many factors for the Russians' surrender of Marxism. The invasion of Afghanistan proved to be a tactical and political mistake, leading to international isolation of the Soviet Union and contributing to pessimism inside the country because people no longer viewed their government as being peace-loving. By the mid-1980s Afghanistan had become, in Gorbachev’s words, a “bleeding wound.” At the same time, Soviets who traveled outside of their country noted how well people on the other side of the Iron Curtain lived. Not only did the economic success on the outside undermine the teachings of Marxist-Leninism, the West (especially Sweden and Austria) served as an alternative model. Moreover, successful economic reforms were taking place in China, predating Gorbachev’s rise to power by about six years and providing a case study of a Communist country undergoing market-style experimentation. As for Reagan’s aggressive stance and high-tech military buildup, some have argued that it actually prolonged the life of the Soviet Union because it strengthened the conservative faction inside the Kremlin while at the same time it undermined Gorbachev.

It seems far too simplistic for Reagan to be given most of the credit for the Soviet Union’s demise, considering the many external and internal factors. Of the external, the United States under Reagan was one of MANY variables. In conclusion, Strayer writes, “Thus, the international environment in which the Soviet Union operated in the 1980s, while not itself decisive in causing the country’s collapse, contributed to three internal processes that fundamentally undermined the Soviet system: the declining legitimacy of the communist regime in the eyes of its own citizens and leaders; the increasingly apparent need for serious reform; and the sharpening divisions within Soviet society as the reform process unfolded.”

AFTER THE END of Soviet rule, for a number of years I lived in Russia. In the former city of Leningrad, I became acquainted with a professor of history. One afternoon, while we were having tea in his apartment, he looked me in the eye and with full force said, “One thing I am very proud of is it was MY country that had the COURAGE to end the Cold War. Someone needed to bring this to a stop before we destroyed the earth. I don’t think this could have ever happened from the other side.” He went on to brag about the numerous demonstrations in Leningrad and Moscow against the Soviet hardliners. This period of history, it became clear to me, was bigger than Reagan.

When Reagan was stooped over on the pavement of T Street in Washington with John W. Hinckley’s bullet embedded in his lung, in Poland Lech Walesa was at that very moment leading Solidarity in a defiant stance against the Warsaw Pact forces that were undergoing military exercises in an intimidating show of force. Reagan had been in office only seventy days, but the direct challenge to Soviet authority was well in progress, being carried out by others outside of the hospital room. Indeed, months before President Carter used the hotline to strongly warn Moscow that the United States would be intolerant of any Soviet military crackdown against the Solidarity movement. Carter’s December 1980 message to the Kremlin was a diplomatic shot over the bow, forcing Leonid Brezhnev to deal with the uprising in a less than direct manner. This challenge from the United States, which was prior to Reagan’s inauguration, gave Solidarity some breathing room to further agitate for freedom.

For many years to come, the same pope whom Reagan fell asleep on will be remembered for having played a great role in undermining the moral authority of Communism. The first non-Italian head of the Catholic Church since 1523, Pope John Paul II was himself a Pole. Beginning in 1978 when he took over as the head of the Vatican, he gave moral support to Solidarity and all people across the Eastern Bloc who wished for greater freedom.

The dust has yet to settle on the dustbin in which the Cold War has been tossed, but even at this point it is more fiction than fact to hail Reagan as bringing down the Iron Curtain. One thing is perfectly clear: Reagan did not help bring freedom to Nelson Mandela.