Ronald Reagan And The Fall Of The
Soviet Union: Plot Or Serendipity
SUBJECT AREA - Foreign Policy
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in
its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
The fall of the Soviet Union was an amazing event for most Americans. For so many
years, we had seen the USSR as a threat and, in many ways, had come to accept it as a permanent
menace. For those of us who grew up with fallout shelters and civil defense drills, and whose
entire adult lives have been defined within the parameters of the cold war, the rapid disintegration
of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s was akin to winning the lottery -- staggering, elating and
totally unexpected. We celebrated the disintegration of our old foe and heralded a great victory
for the West and President Ronald Reagan in particular. Our champion anti-Communist had
accomplished what seven U.S. Presidents before could or would not -- he had stopped and then
reversed the tide of Communism.
The question that remains is: how much of what happened to the USSR was going to
happen anyway, and how much resulted from the efforts of President Reagan and his
administration? Was it just coincidence that the closing years of the Soviet empire mirrored those
of the most anti-Communist President in U.S. history? The purpose of this paper is to inquire as
to the specificity of President Reagan's plan to bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union and
to discover if his policies constituted a new form of containment. This Study is germane to a
complete understanding of the United State's part in the decline and fall of the Soviet Union and
to the larger issues surrounding the appropriate application of national power to "contain" another
nation's growth. I have chosen recent works by former U.S. government and administration
officials, and journalists for my research. These sources represent the continuum of opinion that
places President Reagan, on one end, as the mastermind behind the demise of the USSR and, on
the other, as an ill-informed, passive by-stander. I have chosen these particular works in order to
highlight current disagreements on President Reagan's rightful place and to offer a synthesis of
these views. Additionally, I have supplemented these sources with interviews from John
Lenczowski, Peter Rodman and Angelo Codevilla -- all mid-level insiders during the Reagan
years. Their perspectives, generally unbridled by concerns about attribution, assisted greatly in
penetrating much of the myth about President Reagan and his administration.
My line of inquiry will begin with an overview of U.S. containment policies (1947-- 1981)
highlighting differences in President Reagan's approach to containing the Soviet Union. I will
then offer case Studies of the top five external events leading to the disintegration of the Soviet
Union: the insurgencies in Angola, Afghanistan and Central America; the Solidarity movement in
Poland; and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to see if they reveal a coordinated anti-USSR
effort. I will then address the effects of these activities inside the Soviet Union and finish with my
In December 1988, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the Secretary General of the
Communist Party of the USSR surprised the world when he appeared before the United Nations
and promised to cut Soviet forces in Eastern Europe by half a million troops and ten thousand
tanks over the next two years. The people of Eastern Europe must have pinched themselves to
make sure they were awake and that it was all really happening. The USSR did not have the will
to stay the course in Afghanistan and was now withdrawing support for the likes of Honecker,
Ceausescu, and Jaruzelski. By 1990, the Soviet economy had nose-dived and the Soviet
leadership was increasingly unable to control the new political forces within the country. The
attempted coup by Soviet hard-liners in 1990 was a last gasp attempt to hold on to the old system
but, in the end, it only served to accelerate the disintegration of the USSR. As the authority of
the USSR waned so did Mikhail Gorbachev's. Boris Yeltsin emerged from the political maelstrom
that followed to become the first popularly elected President of Russia. By the end of 1991, the
Soviet Union was no more and the era of U.S. and Soviet relations had, quite literally, ended.1
When President Reagan was elected in 1981, the strategy of de'tente described the
relationship that existed between the United States and the USSR . President Nixon and
Secretary of State Henry Kissenger had advanced this strategy in the 1970s and it had remained
fundamentally unchanged by both the Johnson and Carter administrations until 1979. While
Webster defines de'tente as a relaxation or reduction, as of tension between nations, President
Reagan believed the leadership of the USSR was interpreting de'tente as "freedom to pursue
whatever policies of subversion, aggression and expansionisn they wanted anywhere in the
world."2 President Reagan believed the United States had lost its hard-earned edge over the
USSR and that President Carter's administration was foolish to believe the USSR had any other
goal but their historically stated one of destroying democracy and replacing it with Communism.
President Reagan saw the Soviet leaders as moral and mortal enemies and believed that, by
surrendering the initiative to the USSR, Carter had sent a dangerous message that America was
prepared to accept, as inevitable, the advance of Soviet expansionism.3
1 Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of
the Cold War (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1994), 3
2 President Ronald Reagan, An American life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990),
3 John Lenczowski, interview with the author. 1995
From President Reagan's point of view, the world in January 1981 was one fully engaged
by the Brezhnev Doctrine.4 The Soviet leadership, undeterred by the previous administration was
aggressively pursuing their goal of world domination. President Reagan saw USSR sponsored
"wars of national liberation" in El Salvador, Angola, Ethiopia, and Cambodia. The Soviet Union
was on a roll -- they had taken Indochina by proxy, sent military advisers to interfere in Ethiopia,
and helped engineer events in South Yemen. The USSR was involved in Mozambique and
Angola, and was advancing in Granada, Central America and, of course, Afghanistan. In Western
Europe, the Soviet leaders were beginning to make political inroads by virtue of the power of the
peace movement and challenging NATO's deployment of theater nuclear forces. President
Reagan saw a revolt against Communist rule being stamped out in Afghanistan and the stirrings of
democracy being extinguished in Poland. In his mind, the tide of Soviet excursions had to be
stopped and then setback.
President Reagan had a strong faith in the viability of the American economy and our
technological superiority. He believed that once the American economy revived we could
out-spend and out-produce the Soviets indefinitely.5 Early in his Presidency, President Reagan
saw cracks in the armor of the Soviet Union -- particularly in their economy. In his own words:
"You had to wonder how long the Soviets could keep their empire intact. If they didn't make
some changes, it seemed clear to me that in time Communism would collapse under its own
weight, and I wondered how we as a nation could use these cracks in the Soviet system to
4 After Czech reformers were ousted by Soviet tanks in 1968, Brezhnev issued a public
justification for the action which became known as the"Brezhnev Doctrine." It stated that a threat
to the political system in any socialist country was a "threat to the security of the socialist
commonwealth as a whole." The implication was once a socialist country, always a socialist
5 Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) 236.
accelerate the process of collapse."6 President Reagan believed that the oppressive system
supporting the USSR "could not survive against the inherent drive of all men and women to be
free."7 In a speech at Notre Dame University in 1981, President Reagan asserted that "the West
will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism," and dismissed the whole
Communist experiment as a "sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even
now being written"8 President Reagan personally believed that the Soviet Union was illegitimate
and non-reformable and that it had to be met from a position of strength.
In The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War,
Raymond Garthoff, former Deputy Director of the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs at the U.S.
Department of State, described President Reagan as the champion of the "essentialist" approach
to containing Communism. This approach assumed that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state
driven by a militant ideology and therefore intrinsically expansionist. Determined confrontation
was the only thing such a power understood. Garthoffs second "mechanical" approach conceded
that the Soviet Union was expansionist but that it was also a pragmatic power that could be
"managed" by the astute application of rewards and penalties. President Reagan seems to have
skirted both these approaches. While there is no question President Reagan intended to
strengthen America's position vis-a-vis the USSR, it is unclear whether or not his efforts
represented more than mere rhetoric. Was there a specific plan to that end or was his Presidency,
as some have suggested, simply another well-orchestrated act. Were President Reagan's actions
6 President Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990)
7 Ibid. 237.
8 Richard Pipes, Misinterpreting the Cold War: The Hardliners Had It Right. (Review
Essay, Foreign Affairs, New York, NY: Council On Foreign Relations Inc. January/February
fundamentally different or simply a revitalized, more aggressive version of the containment
policies he inherited?9
In his first meeting with Prime Minister Thatcher in 1984, G.S.Gorbachev asked her what
she thought the Americans were really up to. Wasn't the Reagan administration bent on
humiliating and finally destroying the Soviet Union? Thatcher replied that President Reagan was
more reasonable than his public rhetoric would indicate.10 Indeed there are those who suggest
that President Reagan was all facade and although he sounded tough it was all an act to improve
U.S. leverage with the Soviet Union. Others believe that President Reagan understood that the
USSR was a moral and mortal threat to the United States and that he orchestrated a specific plan
designed to play to their weaknesses and bring them down.11 Still others believe that the Soviet
Union fell of its own weight, brought down by Gorbachev's bungling of the totalitarian
mechanisms that maintained the Soviet system -- the loss of the socialist ideological base, an
increasingly dissatisfied population and a late attempt to reform an unreformable political
9 President Reagan relates in his autobiography that early in his first term he received
briefings that convienced him that the Soviet Union's economy was a "basket case." In his words:
"The Soviet economy was being held together by baling wire. In Poland and other Eastern-bloc
countries, the economies were also a mess, and there were rumblings of nationalist fevor within
the captive Soviet empire. If they didn't make some changes, it seemed clear to me that in time
that Communism would collaspe of its own weight, and I wondered how we as a nation could use
these cracks in the Soviet system to accelerate the process of collaspe."
10 Micheal R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels (New York: Little,
Brown and Company, 1993) 30.
11 Raymond Garthoff in The Great Transition and Peter Schweizer in Victory represent
opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue. Schweizer believes that the fall of the Soviet Union
was the direct result of a specific President Reagan plan while Garthoff sees more complex
interactions at work which dilute much of what has been attributed to the Reagan administration.
12 In his book The Age of Exteremes: A History of the World 1914 to 1991, Eric
Hobsbawm argues that what brought about the collaspe of the Soviet Union was a raising tide of
expectations that an authoritarian elite could not satisfy: "Beginning in the 1960's; the (USSR and
the nations of Eastern Europe began to open up their command economies to trade with the
III. CONTAINING COMMUNISM 1947 -- 1981
If we are to discover the levels of detail of President Reagan's plan to unhinge the Soviet
Union, we must try to understand if that plan was fundamentally different from those that
preceded it. If President Reagan did indeed see the Soviet Union as diametrically opposed to the
United States and if he had a strategic plan to bring them down, then everything he did must be
measured by its contribution to that vision and plan.
In 1946, the United States found itself faced with an emerging and aggressively
expansionist Soviet Union who was fully prepared to take part in shaping the post-war world.
Neither Presidents Roosevelt nor Truman could avoid the Faustian bargain brought about by their
strategies to allow the Soviet Union to bear the brunt of the fighting to defeat Germany.13
Although both Truman and Roosevelt recognized the danger of allowing the Russian armies to
occupy large parts of Eastern Europe at the end of the war, geo-political realities prevented either
from doing much about it. The United States could not defeat Germany then Japan, keep
causalities below those of W.W.I and have enough forces left over to limit USSR advances in
Eastern Europe and the Far East. As a result, the Red Army ended W.W.II in a dominant
position throughout Eastern Europe and parts of the Far East. In the aftermath of victory, the
United States found itself at odds with an increasingly uncooperative Soviet Union and at a loss as
to what to do about it. Leonid Brezhnev summed up the Soviet attitude when he told Czech
leaders in 1968: "Your country lies on territory where the Soviet soldier trod in the Second
western world. Inevitably, their citizens began to compare their cramped apartments and dreary
cultural life with the wonderous freedoms available in the west. Meanwhile, under cynical
autocrats like Leonid Brezhnev, even card-carring communists shed their hopes for a classless
society. In the 1980's; when economic crisis battered the ramparts of the Soviet empire, its
ideological empire was bare."
13 In Strategies of Containment, John Lewis Gaddis relates that for every American soldier
who died fighting against Germany in WWII, 53 Russian soldiers died.
World War. We bought that territory at enormous sacifices and we shall never leave it. In the
name of the dead in World War II who laid down their lives for your freedom as well, we are
therefore fully justified in sending soldiers into your country. It is immaterial whether anyone is
actually threatening us or not: it is a matter of principle, independent of external circumstances.
And that is how it will be, from the Second World War to eternity."14
In December 1946, George Kennan, a Foreign Service Officer station in Moscow,
produced his appraisal of the situation in the Soviet Union. The famous "Long Telegram" he sent
back to the States stood American foreign policy makers on their collective ears and became the
basis for the series of policies aimed at meeting Soviet expansionism. These policies and the
actions they produced would come to known as "containment". According to Kennan, the Soviet
Union saw itself as an ideological entity being assailed from all sides by a hostile outside world.15
Soviet ideology and world view were incompatible with those of the West and that this situation
was not susceptible to change in the near future. Further, the Soviet system of internal repression
required an external threat and since Hitler's Germany no longer produced it, the West and in
particular, the United States served as the new threat. According to Kennan, the suspicions of the
Soviet leadership ran so deep that not even total capitulation by the United States would suffice to
ease their fears -- the USSR would manage to smell a rat no matter what we did. Kennan went
on to describe Soviet foreign policy as "the product of internal influences not susceptibte to
persuasion, manipulation or even comprehension from the outside."16 Kennan made American
14 Richard L. Pipes, Misinterpreting the Cold War: The Hard-liners Had It Right. Review
Essay, Foreign Affairs (New York, NY: Council On Foreign Relations Inc, January/February
15 John L. Gaddis, Strategies of Containment. (New York: Oxford University Press Inc,
foreign policy makers understand that they were in for a long term struggle with the Soviet Union
-- one requiring more than simple patience and firmness.
The Soviets believed they were beyond judgment because they were on the side of history.
At the first meeting of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform)17 in September 1947,
Andrei Zhdanov, a politburo member, said of the post-war world: "The world is now divided into
two camps, the imperialist and anti-democratic and the anti-imperialist and democratic and the
principal driving force of the imperialist camp is the United States emboldened by their
newfound power and temporary atomic monopoly."18 Early proposals to "rollback" the Russians
from their European and Far East holdings vanished with the explosion of the first USSR atomic
bomb in August 1949 and the Communist victory in China in October of the same year. The
United States found itself with less and less leverage over the Soviet Union due to the rapid build
up of their nuclear arsenal.
The history of American containment policies represents a continual process of balancing
the burden of long term containment on the U.S. economy with the threat of an aggressive Soviet
Union. Gaddis describes five distinct approaches to this balancing act in the post-war world era:
1. Kennan's original strategy of containment, implemented by the Truman administration
1947 to 1949.
2. The National Security Council Action 68 (NSC-68) brought about by the Korean
conflict and implemented 1950 to 1953.
3. The Eisenhower-Dulles "New Look", 1953-1961.
4. The Kennedy-Johnson "flexible response", 1961 to 1969.
5. The policy of de'tente initiated by Nixon-Kissenger and continued by Ford and Carter
until the invasion of Afghanistan late in 1979.
17 Stalin used the Communist Information Bureau to coordinate the policies of the world's
18 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
Sons, 1994) 48.
The Korean War, more than anything, helped to solidify the United States1 global role in
the 1950s as the containing force on Communism. Although NSC-68 recognized the danger
posed by Soviet expansionism, it did little to counter it. Not until the North Korean invasion in
June 1950 did the United States begin the level of military build up necessary to make it a player
on the world scene. NSC 73/4, that followed in August 1950, warned the invasion of South
Korea should not be taken as an isolated event and it represented part of a larger plan. Indeed, it
seems the North Koreans made the same mistake the Japanese had in 1941-- they had provoked
the United States into action. Kim il-sung and Stalin's throw of the dice in June 1950 was a great
blunder and a monumental overreaching that provoked a response -- America's definitive
undertaking of a global role. It was a role which Stalin could not have intended or welcomed.19
This aside, there were always swings of policy resulting from U.S.economic pressures that
worked to the benefit of Moscow. As American forces began to be cut back after the Korean
war, the Republican administration promoted a "new look" in defense policy that trimmed the
budget and promised "more bang for the buck" -- there was actually little option for the United
States other than to bluff with nuclear weapons where we could not or were not willing to engage
with conventional forces.20
The United States' move toward de'tente in the late 60s recognized that the world had
become a much more complex place since the early days when the Soviet Union could be
contained by the simple act of geographic encirclement.21 The capabilities of the USSR now
19 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
Sons, 1994) 51.
20 Ibid., 59.
21 Some have called this period De'tente I in order to highlight, as De'tente II, that phase of
President Reagan's second term in which he adopted a less comfrontational stance with the
allowed them to reach beyond simple geographic bounds and there was little support in the United
States for direct confrontation and certainly none for another peripheral engagement like Vietnam.
Peter Rodman, a long time Kissenger aide, asserts that Nixon and Kissenger would have loved to
do in 1969 what President Reagan was able to do in 1981. In the 1970's and 80's, U.S. policy
makers were forced to deal with a decrepit gerontocracy while, in 1985, President Reagan had
Gorbachev who was willing to re-assess everything and who believed that the Soviet system had
to be reformed. Additionally, the economic basis of foreign policy had reversed from 1975 to
1985. President Reagan in 1985 represented, in many ways, America's recovery from the
humiliations of the past decade while. At the same time, the Soviets had gone through a long
succession of crisis brought about by a procession of pathetic, aged, failing leaders. Rodman
argues that Nixon's de'tente was the only approach that "post-Vietnam paranoid" America was
going to stand for and given that constraint and the lack of bi-partisan support, Nixon did quite
well keeping the Soviet Union in check. It was, by necessity, a "more diabolical, crafty and
difficult policy to implement.
The Carter administration's muddled and inconsistent version of de'tente and its failure in
1979 suggest the limits of containment as practiced had been reached. In his first term and really
until the arrival of Gorbachev, President Reagan's policy of containment (the sixth) was based on
the realization that past U.S. policies to contain Communist expansionism had become obsolete
and the Soviets weren't going to play fair with de'tente. President Reagan sensed the historical
moment was right for a direct approach and that there was wide support for a more aggressive
policy. The failure of de'tente to curb Soviet adventurism in the 70s had frightened our allies,
produced a ground-swell of bi-partisan support for firmer measures and contributed greatly to
22 Peter W. Rodman, Interview with the author. 1995
President Reagan's election in 1981. Secretary of State George Schultz described President
Reagan's new approach to containment in a statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
in 1983: "The policy of de'tente represented an attempt to induce Soviet restraint. De'tente was
based on expectations that the anticipated benefits from expanding economic relations and arms
control agreements would restrain Soviet behavior. Unfortunately, experience has proved
otherwise." As a result, the new (Reagan) policy was "based on the expectation that faced with
demonstration of the West's renewed determination to strengthen its defenses; enhance its
political and economic cohesion, and oppose adventurism, the Soviet Union will see restraint as
its most attractive or only option."23
Although realism and diplomacy from a position of strength were the buzz words of the
sixth containment policy introduced by President Reagan, the essence of the policy was its vision
of a Strategic offense. The defensive connotation of the term "containment" aptly describes the
average American's impression of U.S. policies toward the Soviet Union after W.W.II.
Americans saw themselves as reacting to world events rather than initiating challenges to the
world order.24 It is this impression of being on the defensive for so long and losing ground that
spurred the turn-about in the Carter administration in the late 70's and which President Reagan
saw and capitalized on in his effort to garner support for his initiatives against the USSR.
President Reagan saw the weakness of the Soviet Union as an opportunity and understood that
nothing would galvanize the American public more than acting beyond containment and striking
the USSR directly.
23 Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of
the Cold War (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1994)107
24 John L. Gaddis, Strategies of Comtainment. (New York: Oxford University Press Inc,
It is perhaps ironic that President Reagan's second term, which saw so many setbacks for
the USSR, was the scene of a shift in U.S. policy that some have labeled De'tente II. President
Reagan had at last found what he had been looking for -- a Soviet leader with whom he could
communicate. The administration moved toward a reduction of tensions between the two
superpowers and a recognition that arms control would be the focal point of relations between the
two countries -- both classic characteristics of de'tente. This is the phase of U.S. foreign policy
that gives the most problems to those trying to build an airtight case that everything President
Reagan did was meant to undermine the Soviets. If that was so, why was he being so friendly
with the enemy? John Lenczowski, an Eastern European expert in the Reagan administration, has
suggested President Reagan's move toward something like a De'tente II was victory for the Soviet
leadership whose primary goal to "get Reagan to stop telling the truth about the Soviet Union"
and that the USSR gave President Reagan "a man he could like, someone who looked harmless
and western."25 In 1985, shortly after Gorbachev came to power, President Reagan said of him
"Mr. Gorbachev may or may not be a new type of Soviet leader, time will only tell and it might
not be for a decade. I want to keep the heat on the Soviets. I don't want to let up on anything
we're doing."26 President Reagan realized the conduct of foreign policy was never a neat, surgical
procedure. It was instead an untidy business ruled by uncertainty, forced compromise and that
Clauswitzian friction and fog that makes even the simplest things difficult. Although President
Reagan may have been attracted to the bright promises of negotiation with the Soviet Union, it is
clear he was above all a realist and a pragmatist who understood the value of both diplomacy and
25 John Lenczowski, Interview with author. 1995.
26 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) 236.
a strategic offensive. The following insurgent case studies, highlight the use of U.S. national
power in a strategic offensive designed to limit USSR expansionism.
The evidence suggests that Cuba's move into Angola in 1975 was largely Castro's idea.
He meant to rekindle the revolutionary spirit of Che Cuevera and bolster his own image as a
leader with global reach.27 The Soviet Union went along because they realized correctly that the
United States was in no mood, so soon after Vietnam, to involve itself in another peripheral
conflict. Although Angola was on the strategic periphery, the Soviets saw an easy one -- a cheapie
and they were tempted. Peter Rodman describes Brezhnev and his colleagues as having "no
category of thought for the concept of self-restraint; of not seizing an opportunity, of not filling a
vacuum."28 The decision to embark on an intervention-by-proxie for a strategically insignificant
gain would come back to haunt the Soviet leadership. Georgii Arbatov, then a Brezhnev loyalist,
described the Soviet Leadership as a group "unable to resist further temptation to become
involved in the complex internal affairs of other countries." and that after Angola they were
emboldened to go "boldly down the path of intervention and expansion that we had beaten so
assuredly. It led us through Ethiopia, Yemen, a series of African countries and eventually, into
Afghanistan."29 Angola was significant because it marked the first conflict in which President
Reagan was able to turn the tables on the Soviets and make a small war work against them.
The United States withdrew its covert program from Angola in 1975 because of the
clamor raised over working with the South African government -- even if it was against Soviet
27 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
28 Ibid., 169.
29 Georgii Arbatov, The System: An Insiders Life in Soviet Politics (New York, NY:
Times Books/Random House, 1992) 246
expansionism and due to the general lack of American will in the post-Vietnam period. In 1976,
after the Congress passed the Clark Amendment prohibiting U.S. military assistance to the
pro-western fighters in Angola, a massive influx of Soviet military equipment and Cuban troops
propelled the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) into power. Despite
billions of dollars of Soviet military equipment and almost 40,000 Cuban troops, Jonas Savimbi's
resistance movement, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) held
out. Their continued success after the withdraw of U.S. support and the MPLAs inability to
consolidate power produced a sinkhole for Soviet assets in Africa and signaled a change in
fortune for Soviet adventurism.
When President Reagan came to power in 1981 he reinstated a vigorous diplomacy in the
region. In a shrewd diplomatic move, the U.S. seized an opening to propose a resolution of the
civil war that linked U.S. support for implementation of a UN Resolution on neighboring Namibia
with the withdraw of Cuban forces from Angola. United Nations resolution 435 called for the
transfer of power from South Africa to the people of Namibia through free elections sponsored by
the UN. This linkage worked two ways for the United States in that it got the South Africans out
of Namibia and at the same time prevented a Soviet - Cuban proxie government (the MPLA) from
consolidating power in Angola.
Not surprisingly, there was great resistance to any plan that linked Cuban withdrawal from
Angola to South African withdrawal from Namibia. With the SADF operating inside Angola, the
MPLA was not about to give up Cuban support. Likewise, South Africa was not going to
withdraw from Namibia as long as the Cuban-supported MPLA continued to provide sanctuaries
for the Southwest Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO). The fighting went on. The difference
this time was that it was the Soviet Union's coffers that were being drained by a protracted
conflict and not the ours. Not surprisingly, President Reagan, through Chester Crocker, clung
stubbornly to his negotiating position -- historically something we have not done well. It was a
very Soviet-like tactic which recognized, for a change, time was on our side. It was not until
President Reagan's reelection in November, 1984 that the MPLA finally accepted the linkage of
the two issues. Negotiations to finally get the Cubans out of Angola dragged on for another four
years but the issue had been settled with the acceptance of linkage in 1984 and the 1985 repeal of
the Clark Amendment prohibiting aid to UNITA.
The repeal of the Clark Amendment is still another indicator how well things were falling
into place for President Reagan after his re-election. The administration had not actively sought
the repeal of the Clark Amendment -- it had been handed to them by a Congress that had been
transformed by the 1984 presidential election. The conservatives were energized and the
moderates were feeling the pressure of not being on the bandwagon.30 In 1986, in response to
the U.S. decision to resume support for UNITA, the MPLA broke off negotiations and resumed
the offensive against Savimbi's forces. In August 1987, the South African Defense Force (SADF)
intervened to prevent UNITA's defeat by an Angolan force with massive Soviet-Cuban military
backing. Soon the SADF was involved in direct combat with Cuban regulars. The fighting led to
a series of escalation's culminating in battles at Mavinga, Cuito Cuanavale and Calueque during
1987-88. The end result of these battles was stalemate. Although the Cubans had forced the
SADF out of Angola, they had reached their culminating point and could do no more against the
strong South African defenses in Namibia. Behind the scenes through all this fighting between the
30 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
Sons, 1994) 364.
Cubans and the South Africans was Chester Crocker -- quietly bidding his time with patient
diplomacy. Finally, in 1988, the parties wearied of the conflict and agreed to a U.S. brokered
settlement. The last Cuban soldiers left Angola in May, 1991 and another misbegotten
Soviet-brokered adventure from the l970s ended.31
The Soviet Union's involvement in Afghanistan dates from the 1950's when it was seen as
a counter (along with India) to Pakistan's alignment with the United States. In that year, the
Soviets embarked on a generous program of military and economic aid designed to nourish
fledgling pro-Soviet factions among the Afghan tribal society. These efforts bore fruit with the
establishment of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1977. In 1978, the
PDPA staged a coup, killed Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud and announced the establishment
of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union wasted no time in pledging its full
support for the new government. Despite Soviet backing, however, the PDPA was never able to
consolidate its rule among the diverse Muslim tribal factions that made up that fractured country.
Rural uprisings in 1978 over heavy-handed policies destabilized the new government and a Soviet
plot to place their man in power failed in 1979. The Soviets were confronted with a dilemma --
whether to intervene to save a collapsing Soviet-backed regime or to accept all the implications
such a collapse would entail for their interests not only in the region but elsewhere in the world as
well.32 While with hindsight it seems easy to see why the Soviets should have chosen the latter
option, one must recall that, in 1979, they were on a roll and the Brezhnev Doctrine prohibited
31 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
Sons, 1994) 399.
32 Amin Saikal and William Maley,The Soviet Withdrawl From Afghanistan. (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1989) 4-5
escape from the Soviet empire. As C.V. Wedgwood, a British historian, once said: "History is
written backward but lived forward. Those who know only the end of the story can never know
what it was like at the time."33
In December 1979, the Soviet Union exercised the first use of Red Army troops outside
the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since the end of WW II when it invaded Afghanistan and
re-installed the PDPA. The initial assault was an awesome display of Soviet military might which
saw airborne and special forces inserted into Kabul airport to link up with armored and
mechanized units and seize control of the country. After this initial success, the operation bogged
down and never recovered its initial momentum. The initial invasion force of 85,000 men which
was later increased to 120,000 was fought to a standstill by loosely organize resistance forces of
Afghan guerrillas aided by arms from the United States, China and Islamic countries.
The invasion marked a turning point for the Carter administration and their version of
detente. Indeed it symbolized the high-water mark of America's policy of peaceful co-existance.
Contrary to the popular common view of Carter as somewhat indecisive, he reacted vigorously to
the Soviet Union's invasion in a number overt ways but also by signing a secret lethal finding to
assist the Mujabedin in harassing Red Army occupation forces. This action was the seed that
would grow to cause the USSR so much trouble later when President Reagan and CIA Director
William Casey came on the scene. In addition to the covert finding, the invasion initiated other
unpleasant consequences for the Soviet Union. Although only "next door", the war caused the
USSR to overextend itself militarily, politically and psychologically. It united the Western and
33 Don Oberdorfer, The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and
the Soviet Union 1983-1990. (New York: Posidon Press, 1991)14.
Muslim worlds against the Soviet Union, solidified U.S. relations with China and eventually was a
factor in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981.
President Reagan saw the war in Afghanistan as one part of the overall U.S. strategy to
undermine the Soviet Union by supporting insurgent wars that would drain the Soviets both
militarily and economicaIly.34 The Reagan Doctrine as it applied to Afghanistan didn't really get
off the ground until 1985 when the President signed NSDD-166. The finding contained language
that radically altered the intended endstate in Afghanistan from simple harassment operations to
outright defeat of the Soviet occupation forces.35 In 1985, after his re-election, President Reagan
won consistent bi-partisan support for the Afghan resistance package which translated into
massive increases in aid to the Mujahedin including the decision to send Stinger missiles and other
non-SOVMAT material. The introduction of the Stinger anti-aircraft missile into the region and
its integration with other less sophisticated anti-air systems had an immediate and devastating
effect on Soviet forces who had come to count on freedom of the skies over Afghanistan. The
already thinly stretched occupation troops were now without vital air combat service support or
close air support. The Kremlin was in a dilemma, it had to either increase troop levels in
Afghanistan or concede that without air power, it couldn't remain effective against the
Mujahedin. Gorbachev realized that he could not afford to increase ground forces to compensate
for the loss of mobility and firepower brought by the Stingers. The escalation of U.S. military aid
to the Mujahedin in 1985, especially the Stinger missiles, broke the stalemate of the war in favor
of the Afghan resistance and turned the war into a real "bleeding wound" for the Soviet Union.
34 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) xviii.
35 Ibid., 214.
While President Reagan rode the crest of the bi-partisan wave in the U.S., Gorbachev
was trying to end the war on the best terms he could get. In 1985, he authorized an escalation of
the conflict in a final attempt to win a military victory. He ordered his Generals to "be done with
it in two years or he would have other options."36 In addition to increasing the pressure on his
military, Gorbachev pursued a wide variety of non-military methods including diplomacy and even
threats designed to dilute support for the Afghan rebel forces. In December, 1986 the Soviet
leadership summoned top members of the Afghan Politburo to Moscow to announce that Soviet
troops would be withdrawn from Aghanistan not later than the end of 1988.37 In September,
1987, while in Washington for INF talks, Soviet Foreign mister Shevardnadze approached
George Schultz to announce that the Soviet Army would be out of Afghanistan, probably by the
end of the President Reagan administration.38 Despite their outward willingness to withdraw from
Afghanistan, the Soviet leadership continued to stymie negotiations over the point of the length of
the withdrawal phase. The military was concerned that the withdrawal would look like a cut and
run operation if it was executed to quickly -- the final scenes of the U.S. withdrawal from
Vietnam were probably on there minds. Additionally, they were concerned about what would
happen to the Soviet backed government in Kabul after the withdraw. The Soviets realized that
the puppet government of Mohammed Najibullah would not survive long against the rebel forces
presently held in check by the Red Army and they attempted to link their withdrawal to a
reduction in support for the Mujahedin. On July 22, 1987, Gorbachev told the Indonesian
newspaper Merdeka that he favored a short time-frame for withdrawal of Soviet forces from
36 Don Oberdorfer, The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and
the Soviet Union 1983-1990. (New York: Posidon Press, 1991) 237-239.
37 Ibid., 240.
38 Ibid., 234-235.
Afghanistan but that "interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan must be stopped and its
non-resumption guaranteed."39 The Geneva Accords on Afghanistan of 14 April 1988, concluded
under the auspices of the United Nations between the USSR backed communist regime of the
PDPA and the government of Pakistan was jointly guaranteed by the Soviet Union and United
States and provided the overall framework for the withdrawal. Despite the delaying tactics, the
die had been cast and the USSR realized that after 13,000 causalities and 10 years of effort, they
were really bargaining for peanuts. In addition to having lost the war and their faith in the
Leninist ideology, they were dealing with a growing public anti-war sentiment at home. It was
time to leave. At 11:55 on the morning of February 15, 1989, General Boris Gromov walked
across the steel bridge at the Soviet border point at Termez and closed the door on their
misbegotten adventure. President Reagan had been out of office for only twenty-six days.
VI. CENTRAL AMERICA
Central America has always been the place where American anti-colonial sentiments have
clashed with our perceived right to have our way in our own backyard. Liberal Presidents like
Roosevelt and Kennedy attempted to mitigate circumstances in Central America through aid
programs (the Good Neighbor Policy, the Alliance for Progress) and by working to empower the
Latin governments. These policies of U.S. aid and social reform, although well intentioned, have
seldom been equal to the task of establishing stable governments with viable economies.
Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, on the other hand, took a more direct, unapologetic
approach and acted sharply in Guatemala 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Chile
1970-73.40 Nixon's Presidency, under Kissenger's influence, was the first to see Central America
39 Don Oberdofer, The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and
the Soviet Union 1983-1990. (New York: Posidon Press, 1991) 242-243.
40 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
in purely geo-political terms (vice business interests) and to articulate the growing concern among
conservatives over pro-Soviet radicalism in the region. The Nicaraguan revolution which ousted
Anastasio Somoza and propelled the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) into power in
1979 was seen by many conservatives as not only another Carter administration blunder but also
as USSR expansionism in the western hemisphere. Nicaragua seemed to be going the way Cuba
and Eastern Europe had with initial promises of democratic reform under an anti-facist,
broad-based coalition government giving way to a calculated program designed to suppress the
opposition and consolidate power. When Nicaraguan defense minister Humbero Ortega
announced in 1980 that free elections would be postponed until 1985, it was clear that the U.S.'s
worst fears were confirmed -- Post-Somoza Nicaragua became a pro-Soviet socialist state.
Cuban and Nicaraguan relations quickly developed as did a substantial military buildup of the
Nicaraguan armed forces. In March 1980, the FSLN and the communist party of the USSR
established formal ties. For the Soviet leadership, the opportunity to establish another foothold in
the western hemisphere was an unexpected windfall and they took full advantage of it. For the
United States, a spreading communist revolution in Central America had strategic implications
that threatened our ability to contain Soviet expansionism at a reasonable cost. We could not
afford a credible threat so close to home. In mid-1980, Nicaragua began providing military
assistance for the communist guerrillas attempting to overthrow the government of El Salvador --
this newly minted, pro-Soviet regime seemed bent on destabilizing the region. Thus, when the
Reagan administration came to power in January 1981, it inherited both a crisis and an
opportunity in Central America.
Sons, 1994) 226.
President Reagan saw the situation in Central America in the worst possible light. In his
memoirs, he writes that he believed the Soviets and Castro had targeted all of Central America for
a communist takeover and that Nicaragua and El Salvador were "only a down payment" and that
"Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica were next, and then would come Mexico."41 The
situation in Central America was clear for President Reagan and it frustrated him to have to
defend his actions in countering what he saw as an undeniable threat to the United States. For
him, the USSR was investing substantial sums of its national treasure to gain another foothold in
our backyard -- it should be easy to stop them and to set them back. Actions against Soviet
sponsored activities in Central America were in the same class as those in Africa and Afghanistan.
The idea was to stop the spread of socialist governments by supporting insurgencies in those
countries. If the Soviet Union was engaged in many places, President Reagan reasoned, then they
were vulnerable in many places.
Despite the strong talk in his auto-biography and much of the myth of that era, the truth is
that the Reagan administration remained relatively weak on Central America well into the second
term. Although he increased military aid to El Salvador to $25 million, added two dozen military
trainers and formally terminated U.S. aid to Nicaragua, President Reagan found he had
surprisingly little support for further measures. Americans had still not overcome their Vietnam
syndrome and were not prepared to support anything resembling the first step on a slippery slope
into a jungle war. In addition to overt economic assistance to the pro-western states in the
region, President Reagan ordered the CIA to develop a plan for covert operations. William Casey
came up with a scheme to use anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans to harass military targets inside
Nicaragua and other Latin Americans to interdict the flow of Soviet made arms from Cuba to El
41 Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 990) 300.
Salvador. In late November 1981, President Reagan signed NSDD- 17 which authorized overt
measures and soon after the intelligence "lethal finding" for the covert operation. This was the
pilot program for what President Reagan would come to call the Contra Freedom Fighters.
During his first term, President Reagan's policies in Central America were a source of
almost constant turmoil. After the successful invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the election of
Durarte in El Salvador in May 1984, President Reagan began to garner both public and bi-partisan
support for his initiatives. In spite of these positive developments, the Boland amendments
ensured that for two years (October 1984-86) the Contras received no appropriated aid.
President Reagan directed the Contras be held together "body and soul" and used the NSC to do
just that. The Iran-Contra scandal was a by-product of their successful efforts and reflects the
depth of Reagan's commitment to enforcing his doctrine in the region and keeping the pressure on
the Soviet Union. Grenada broke the Vietnam taboo and Duarte's election was, in part, a
justification of the regional strategy.
By the summer of 1984, the U.S. sponsored Contra army had grown to over seven
thousand and was making strikes deep inside Nicaragua. The final blow for the Sandinistas was
President Reagan's reelection in 1985. The Nicaraguan Army had, by this time, grown to sixty
two thousand and was being trained by over three thousand Cuban, USSR and East-bloc advisers.
USSR aid to Nicaragua between 1885-87 was 1.1 billion dollars and included tanks, artillery and
advanced helicopter gunships. Soviet military deliveries to Nicaragua grew to 18,000 metric tons
per year and cost them $500 million a year. Against this background, and growing publicity about
Sandinista repression inside Nicaragua, President Reagan found support for his initiatives in the
region. On June 25, 1986, the House of Representatives passed a $100 million dollar Contra
Although the 1986 aid package was the high water mark for the Reagan administration,
the effects of almost a decade of U.S. resistance to Soviet influence in the region were beginning
to show. Unlike the communist governments of Eastern Europe after W.W.II, the Sandinistas
were unable to consolidate power in the region. The Reagan polices in Central America were key
to keeping the opposition alive long enough for diplomacy to force the Sandinistas to hold fair
elections -- which they lost in 1990. President Reagan checked the Soviet Union in Central
America and as a result it was unable to project the kind of political and military power that
would have sustained the Sandinistas and spread the revolution. Once again, significant
investments by the USSR in the Third World had not paid off. Moreover, the failure of the Soviet
Union to gain and maintain a foothold outside Cuba discredited communist ideology in the region
and signaled the final episode of the era of influence that began in 1959 in Cuba and win end with
the death of Fidel Castro. Lets now turn from our own backyard to that of the Soviet Union.
The case study that follows describes U.S. success in a region many times more sensitive to the
USSR than Central America.
Few other events captured President Reagan's imagination like the challenge Lech
Walesa's fledgling Solidarity trade union was giving the Polish Communist Party and the Soviet
Union in 1981. To him it represented "a heroic and spontaneous ground swell on the behalf of
freedom...and the first break in the totalitarian dike of Communism"43 Poland was a critical
42 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
Sons, 1994) 417.
43 Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) 301.
ideological battleground for both the United States and the Soviet Union. It was important for
the United Sates because it represented an effort albeit covert at an offensive move against
Communism. For once, we were taking the fight to the Soviet Union's side of the field. It was a
strike at Communism in the heart of the Soviet Empire. It was critical for the Soviet Union
because it represented a clear challenge to the totalitarian mechanisms supporting the system. In a
memo written for the President in 1981, Richard Pipes asserted that, next to the Soviet Union
itself, Poland was the single most important state in the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet leadership
saw Solidarity as an "infection" to be cleansed from the socialist body. Solidarity's greatest threat
was that it facilitated a bonding of dissidents against the government and represented the
nightmare scenario for a totalitarian system -- the failure to gain and maintain fatal resignation
among the people and the failure to maintain the atomization of the population.44 Yurii
Andropov, then head of the KGB, put it simply when he said: "the one thing we cannot have is
an organized opposition." Solidarity, like the Czechoslovak Charter 77 and the Soviet Helsinki
Monitoring Group, highlighted chinks in the seemingly fail-safe internal security armor of
Communist states -- a bonding of workers and intellectuals into dissident groups who could
circumvent the system. The fear these movements produced in the Soviet leadership is one factor
that stimulated reform.45
USSR internal security procedures for handling dissent reflected the necessity to isolate
crisis' and suppress information so the general population could not become part of the
movement. The instant flow of truthful information was the threat. If the people did not know
44 John Lenczowski, Interview with the author. 1995
45 Richard Pipes, Misinterpreting the Cold War: The Hardliners Had It Right. (Review
Essay, Foreign Affairs, New York, NY: Council On Foreign Relations Inc. January/February
about the strike in Gdansk, for example, they could not support it and it could be suppressed.
Oppressed people must be denied information until it is too late for that information to be useful.
During the strikes, Solidarity understood this fact and managed to get information out to Radio
Free Europe in Munich where it could be re-broadcast back into Poland. Upgrading these
broadcasts was one President Reagan initiative.
John Lenczowski claims that President Reagan's greatest contribution to the fall of the
Soviet empire was that he "told the truth about the Soviets" and that it was his battle of ideas, his
attempt to reach the common people with "truthful information" about the outside world that
undermined the totalitarian hold of the Soviet security apparatus. In a speech in England in 1982,
President Reagan introduced the battle of ideas when he spoke of the power of the idea of
democracy. Walter Raymond Jr., a CIA propaganda specialist on the NSC, grabbed hold of the
concept and presented it to CIA Director William Casey, who pushed the idea with NSA William
Clark. The result was NSDD-77 which created a Special Planning Group (SPG) to coordinate all
"Public Diplomacy."46 Walter Raymond chaired the SPG's coordinating group on international
broadcasting and modernized the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and created the
anti-Cuban Radio Marti. The effect of these broadcasts in this particular circumstance and over
the life of the program in helping to win the "battle of ideas" cannot be overstated. When asked
what he thought of the effectiveness of the broadcasts to his cause, Lech Walesa said "without the
sun would there be life on earth?"47
Part of the difficulty for the Soviets in Poland was that there was a part of Polish culture
that had escaped subversion by the system and the institutionalization methods of totalitarianism
46 John Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council. (New
York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1991) 465.
47 John Lenczowski, Interview with the author. 1995
-- that, of course, was the Catholic Church. The Soviet Union was unlucky enough to see the rise
a Polish Pope who took special interest in the freedoms denied his homeland. It is perhaps the
efforts of the Polish Pope more than any other actor that sustained the flame in Poland. In
March, 1980 the Pope spoke out against the dangers of a branch of radical Catholic thinking that
tied Christianity with Marxism-Leninism and positioned the Vatican firmly against the
procommunist priests in Latin America.48 The Soviet press responded by calling the Pope's views
an "infection" and accusing him of attempting to "unite Catholics all over the planet into a single
anti-Communist force."49 Inside Poland, an ailing Cardinal Wyszynski was acting as the only
moderating force. On the one hand he was threatening the government with unrest if they
cracked down too hard on Solidarity while, one the other hand, he was urging the movement's
radicals to show some restraint. The Church, like the U.S., was hoping to facilitate reform in
Poland without inciting Soviet intervention.
The search for Poland's place in the President Reagan strategic plan to bring down the
Soviet Union starts as a covert financial, intelligence and logistical support operation mounted by
the U.S. in order to ensure the survival of an opposition movement (Solidarity) in the heart of the
Soviet empire.50 Although the United States didn't have a clear end in sight, it seemed a good
thing to support a free trade union operating illegally in the center of the Soviet empire.
Solidarity, backed by the Catholic Church could be a powerful catalysis for change in the region.
Already in 1981, there were stirrings reminiscent of the early Solidarity movement in Baltics. In
48 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) 36.
49 From Voproy Nauchrovd Ateizma, cited in Peter Schweizer's, Victory: The Reagan
Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York:
The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) 37.
50 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) xviii.
September 1981, Union leader Andrzej Gwiazda forwarded a resolution at the Gdansk convention
that read: "We support those of you who have decided to enter the difficult road of struggle for
free and independent unions."
Although he wanted to do much more to help Solidarity, President Reagan was
constrained by the memory of the 1956 Hungarian upraising and didn't want to push things so far
that the Soviet Army would again by called to restore the status quo. Clearly a more
sophisticated approach was required. Additionally, while President Reagan wanted to help the
Poles, he was careful not to indirectly aid the government and prolong what he called the survival
of Communism. In addition to stimulating reform inside Poland, the Reagan administration
exploited the worsening Polish economy. Poland was heavily in debt and struggling to provide
the basics for its populace. In 1981, Poland borrowed between $11.0 and $12.0 billion and
required substantial amounts of hard currency to manage this debt. Without Western credits, they
were going to default. The Soviet Union was also feeling the pressure of Poland's poor economic
situation, between 1980 and 1981 it had sent $4.5 billion in aid to Warsaw.31 At the urging of Bill
Casey and Donald Reagan U.S. banks were taking a hard stance which required economic and
political change in Poland as a precondition for future loans. General Jaruzelski and the Soviet
leadership felt the pressure.
On December 12, 1981 the Polish military, under guidance from the USSR, invaded its
own country, arrested 5000 activists and instituted martial law. President Reagan was at first livid
and then horrified that Solidarity might be lost and with it the seeds of dissent in the region. The
hard-liners on his staff urged strong action above and beyond the traditional sanctions and
51 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) 59.
President Reagan was ready to deliver. Solidarity, as Richard Pipes argued, had to be funded so
that the first "anti-Communist organization above ground in the Soviet bloc survived the harsh
political winter"52 Casey and the CIA were given the go ahead for a covert support program and
were soon funneling funds, communications equipment and intelligence into the activists and
receiving information on the internal situation in return.53 In addition to the clandestine support
for Solidarity, the administration bypassed the beleaguered Polish economy to put direct pressure
on the USSR. On December 29, President Reagan announced an embargo on American gas and
oil equipment and technology bound for the Soviet Union. The plan affected sixty U.S.
companies, seriously disrupted the Siberian pipeline project and shut down a joint Soviet and
Japanese venture to develop the oil and gas fields on Sakhlin Island. The loss of the gas pipeline
and the Sakhahn Island project cost the Soviet Union several billion dollars a year in income they
desperately needed to upgrade their technology, stabilize their economy and shore up their
empire. Additionally, U.S. efforts to reduce the credit worthiness of all the Eastern bloc countries
placed additional pressure on the Soviet Union to pick up the slack. Support to offset U.S.
sanctions against Poland alone cost the Soviet Union $1 to $2 billion dollars per year.
In March 1982, President Reagan signed NSDD-32 which declared the United States
would seek to neutralize Soviet control over Eastern Europe and authorized the use of covert
action and other means to support anti-Soviet organizations in the region.54 The finding was
significant in that it essentially threw out the W.W.II Yalta agreement and declared the U.S. was
no longer resigned to the status quo of USSR domination in Eastern Europe. Specifically, the
52 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) 69.
53 Ibid., 75.
finding provided for covert support for anti-Communist underground movements not limited to
Poland, increased psychological operations including beefed up Voice of America and Radio Free
Europe programs and the use of diplomacy and trade in an effort to "wean away" regimes' from
VIII. THE STRATEGIC DEFENSE INITIATIVE
In his memoirs, President Ronald Reagan takes credit for conceptualizing a purely
defensive system that would allow the world to break out of the cycle of Mutually Assured
Destruction (MAD). He claims the idea of a purely defensive anti-missile system came to him
while he was reflecting on the sobering responsibilities he had assumed as the new commander in
chief -- particularly how little time he would have to decide whether or not to order American's
nuclear forces into action. He wanted to render nuclear weapons impotent.56 President Reagan
believed nuclear weapons and the policy of MAD in which each side checks the other with the
threat of annihilation were immoral. He seized on the idea of finding a way out of the nuclear
dilemma and putting the nuclear genie back into the bottle. Whatever other motives he might
have had, President Reagan really believed that SDI could work. Don Oberdorfer, a longtime
watcher of the Soviet Union for the Washington Post, characterizes President Reagan as a
President who was "acting out of long-standing convictions" and while he found SDI useful in
making the Soviets easier to talk to, he was not a "Machiavellian or even a Kizengerian figure
seeking to manipulate the international environment through his pronouncements."57
55 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) 77.
56 Peter Rodman, Interview with author. 1995.
57 Don Oberdorfer, The Turn: How the Cold War Came to An End: The United States and
the Soviet Union 1983-1990. (New York: Posidon Press, 1991) 23.
In a nationally televised speech on March 23, 1983, President Reagan revealed his vision
of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the American people. The resumption of the B-1
program, the continued deployment of the MX missile and the development of the SLBM Trident
II during this same period, all served to convince the USSR, if SDI worked, they were in danger
of not only losing nuclear parity, but also becoming vulnerable to a U.S. first-strike capability.58
Although he claims it was never a bargaining chip, President Reagan credits the Strategic Defense
Initiative (SDI) as being the single most important reason (along with the build-up of the military)
of America's success negotiating with the Soviet Union.59 Additionally, President Reagan saw
SDI as an opportunity to break out of traditional mutual deterrence -- a chance to go back to the
glory days of American supremacy to a world in which we wouldn't have to accommodate or
reciprocate. The idea of regaining strategic leverage over the Soviet Union that had been lost so
quickly after W.W.II was irresistible to President Reagan. Aggressive foreign policies and
programs (like SDI) reflected his belief in American exceptionalism -- that we had a moral
obligation to be the "shining city on the hill" and the "last hope of man on earth."60 The Soviets
were only slowly coming to understand that Reagan, although Republican, was not another Nixon
and that he represented a different constituency with an aggressively nostalgic agenda.
Strategic defense had always been something that the Soviet Leadership believed in and
feared. The Soviet Union was unlike United States in that they didn't suffer from the inner
58 John Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council. (New
York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1991) 486.
59 John Prados points out in Keepers of the Keys that Bud Macfarlane, the NSA at that time
pushed for SDI because he recognized its importance as an arms control negotiating chip.
Unfortunately, like Kissenger's cruise missiles, once the Pentagon got serious about the program,
it became nonnegotiable.
60 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
Sons, 1994) 234.
political struggles about whether a program was de-stabilizing or not. For them a strategic
defense was always seen as a good thing. Therefore, despite the controversy in the United States
over the viability and advisability of SDI, the Soviets took our attempt at a strategic defense very
seriously. They feared we would be able to do something they were unable to do and that we
would make some sort of break through. The revolution in super-computer technology as it
applied in particular to battlefield management Systems was something the Soviets realized they
had left themselves out of and this only reinforced their fears. By 1987, the U.S. led the Soviet
Union by 8 to 9 years in microprocessors; 8 to 12 years in computer-operated machine tools; 8 to
10 years in minicomputers; 8 to l2 years in mainframe computers; 10 to 12 years in
supercomputers; 7 to 11 years in software and 7 to 10 years in flexible manufacturing systems.61
Soviet leadership saw that, in theory at least, SDI was possible and the U.S. might do it.
If it could be done, it would nullify the one element of their military power in which they had an
advantage -- their ballistic missile nuclear forces. SDI went to the heart of their military doctrine
and economic insecurities. In many ways SDI forced the Soviet leadership to realize they had a
real Systemic problem -- to compete they had to get their economy into the modern age and to do
that they needed some peredyshka (breathing space). SDI highlighted more than anything else the
technical shortfalls of the Soviet System and caused its leadership to come to grips with the facts
of life. The fear, dissatisfaction and disillusionment that the arms race in general and SDI in
particular produced in the Soviet leadership played to the reformist themes represented by
61 CIA/DIA, Gorbachev's Modernization Program: A Status Report, (A paper submitted to
the Subcommittee on National Security Economics of the Joint Economic Committee, March
Gorbachev and placed a great strain on their economy.62 Gorbachev's attempt to reform the
unreformable led to the unraveling of the Union.
IX. INSIDE THE USSR
In the mid-70's, it was said Brezhnev was not what he seemed and neither was Soviet
policy. On the surface both Brezhnev and the Soviet Union looked impressive, but the truth was
the Soviets were struggling with a decrepit gerontocracy and an out of control military and
industrial complex supported by an increasingly frail economy. At the same time they were
announcing they had achieved nuclear parity with the United States, then KGB Chief Andropov
was proposing they must achieve parity with the combined might of the U.S., the rest of NATO
and China. This quest posed an impossible economic burden. A Soviet Union that seemed
capable of anything, was in fact rapidly bankrupting itself with its defense expenditures. There
was no control over defense expenditures and little coordination between the political and the
military and industrial complex. As a result, the system as it existed was going to collapse.
In 1984, shortly before Gorbachev came to office, Richard Pipes depicted the Soviet
Union as a country in the throes of a "revolutionary situation" whose leaders had no alternative,
short of war, but to carry out drastic internal reforms.63 Gorbachev inherited a system in
shambles -- Breznhev's death had been followed closely by those of Chernenko and Andropov had
left the Soviet Union without a coherent foreign policy. Africa, Afghanistan and Central America
had turned into quagmires and there was a free trade organization alive and well in Poland -- the
heart of the Soviet empire. NATO was sighting cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe
62 In his book Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the
Collaspe of the Soviet Union, Peter Schweizer claims that SDI was part of a widespread
technological disinformation campaign designed to disrupt the Soviet economy.
63 Richard Pipes, Can the Soviet union Reform? (Foreign Affairs, New York, NY: Council
On Foreign Relations Inc. Fall 1984) 47-61.
and there was a chance that SDI just might work. When Gorbachev came to power, he was
already convinced things would have to change. Gorbachev, an ardent communist, didn't want to
dismantle the System, just reform it. The problem was he didn't know how to do it. He thought it
was like a good engine that had been left in the yard too long -- although it was rusty, it just
needed a little oil and then you could push the starter and off it would go again down the track.
Reagan wrote that when Gorbachev came to power in 1985 he would have "continued on the
same path as his predecessors if Communism had been working" and that he (Gorbachev)
believed "wholeheartedly in the Communist system of government" but it had been managed
poorly and he intended to change that management.64 Reagan went on to describe Gorbachev as a
leader who "had the intelligence to admit Communism was not working, the courage to battle for
change, and, ultimately, the wisdom to introduce the beginnings of democracy, individual
freedom, and free enterprise."65 Whether Gorbachev's initiatives to reform the Soviet system
were wise or not, he clearly failed to appreciate the dangers of attempting to reform a totalitarian
state with an entrenched and uncooperative industrial and military complex. A totalitarian state is
kept together by fear and the perception of an external threat -- Gorbachev's policies undermined
both. Charles Wolf et al. in a study of The Costs and Benefits of the Soviet Empire 1981-1983
noted that expansion of the Soviet empire performed a valuable function for the leadership by
"contributing to the sense of urgency and crisis that promotes the system's internal cohesion and
control" Additionally, efforts to reform the country predictably exacerbated the already
64 Indeed, during Gorbachev's first two years in power the Soviets actually escalated the
conflict in Afghanistan and it wasn't until December, 1988 that he was able to announce troop
reductions in Eastern Europe -- very late in the game indeed.
65 Ronald Reagan, An American Life. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) 707.
considerable stringency's of Soviet life. In January, 1989, the Politburo approved an economic
austerity package reducing state investment and linking salaries to production.66
The grand strategy of the Reagan administration with regard to the Soviet Union
represented a new aggressive containinent based on President Reagan's personal appreciation of
the USSR's vulnerabilities. The success of that strategy was a direct result of President Reagan's
will to "stay the course". President Reagan added to the costs of Soviet foreign policies in the
third world and in their arms build-up at the very moment of greatest Soviet vulnerability. He
attacked vulnerabilities in the Eastern bloc, the Third World and inside the Soviet Union in order
to destroy the USSR's center of gravity -- its economy. His policies compelled reforms in the
Soviet Union that once launched, unraveled the system.
There exists a lasting perception that while he might have personally recognized the
Soviets as moral and mortal threats, Reagan did not have a strategic plan with a clear endstate for
bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union and that an "entrepreneurial policy System" within the
administration made it difficult if not impossible to execute a coordinated effort against the
Soviets.67 Many point to the inconsistencies of negotiating with the "evil empire" as evidence
that, in many ways, Reagan's policies were as ad hoc as any that had gone before. There is
evidence to suggest these perceptions are at least partially incorrect.
In his book Victory, Peter Schweizer recounts the events of an NSPG meeting that took
place on 30 January, 1981 citing as his sources interviews with Casper Weinberger and other
66 Micheal R.Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels. (New York, NY: Little,
Brown and Company, 1993.) 33
67 John Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council. (New
York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1991) 489.
"unnamed U.S. officials present at the meeting." Schweizer reports it was at this meeting that the
idea of a covert strategic offensive against the Soviet Union was first discussed. Present were
President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, Secretary of
State Alexander Haig, DCI William Casey, and National Security Adviser Richard Allen.
Schweizer claims, among other things, the need to take a stand on Poland was discussed. Haig
asserted the best way to deal with the Soviets was through a "hardheaded de'tente" administered
from a "position of strength" -- essentially a rehashed containment policy. William Casey and
Richard Allen, traditional hard-liners, argued for a more proactive approach. Casey reasoned the
relative strength of the United States and the Soviet Union was not what mattered because that
could only deter and not alter the threat. The idea was to raise American strength in relative
terms while reducing Soviet power in absolute terms. In Casey's words: "for the past 30 years,
we've been playing this game on our side of the field. You don't win games that way. If they are
secure at home, it won't matter what we do. Their behavior will only change on the tangent."
Reagan's reaction to all this was: "I think Al's ideas are the most liked to get results in the public
arena -- getting help from our allies and so forth. But Bill's option makes the most sense to me
strategicallly."68 The idea of early strategic thinking is supported by Richard Pipes, then Soviet
and East European affairs specialist on the NSC. Pipes asserts Reagan "displayed great
discernment and the instinctive judgment of a true statesman..." Early on in the first term foreign
policy was "set by the President and not his staff and it was vigorously implemented over the
objections of several more dovish secretaries. It rested on a keen grasp of the vulnerabilities of
the Soviet regime."69 John Lenczowski, then on the European Bureau at the State Department,
68 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened
the Collaspe of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) 7.
69 Richard Pipes, Misinterpreting the Cold War: The Hardliners Had It Right. (Review
relates that in so far as there was a strategic vision it was discussed at a meeting that took place
very early in the administration and Reagan's strategic vision arose from his "understanding of the
fundamental moral conflict that underlay the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United
States."70 The evidence suggests several things. The first is while Reagan was thinking
strategically about attacking Soviet weaknesses, rolling them back and fundamentally altering
their System; he didn't sort out his foreign policy machine, form the NSPG or instigate a
coordinated strategy until almost a year into his administration. General Robert Schweitzer, head
of Richard Allen's defense policy staff on the NSC summed up the first year when he said".. in
the forty year history of the NSC there was always a defined pulse for the NSC until we came
to that first year of the Reagan administration and the clearly defined purpose did not exist."
because the government was "being run by a troika"71 The second point is from the beginning
there were divisions within the administration on foreign policy matters and a lack of discipline
within the policy making mechanism. There were what John Prados describes as 'foreign policy
entrepreneurs" who sought to force their own particular agenda regardless if the implications for
a coherent U.S. strategy. The third point is Reagan saw the battle with the Soviet Union as a
unilateral affair to be conducted by the United States through covert action. Diplomacy,
accommodation, arms control and the negotiating track were all fine as long as their ultimate
effect was to undermine the absolute strength of the Soviet Union. Reagan's strategic vision
which sought to "take the game to their side of the field" was a fundamental change from what
Essay, Foreign Affairs, New York, NY: Council On Foreign Relations Inc. January/February
70 John Lenczowski, Interview with the author. 1995.
71 John Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council. (New
York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1991) 457.
had gone before and therefore represented a policy beyond containment and de'tente -- a sixth
policy in Gaddian terms.
In President Reagan's first term, for many reasons, the administration's aspirations failed to
reach the level of global pollcy. In the second term, things began to come together and President
Reagan began to get bi-partisan support in the Congress. The Clark Amendment was repealed,
Contra aid was approved, there were for escalation's in the amounts spent supporting the
Mujahedin in Afghamstan to include approval for Stinger missiles and there was even some money
for Cambodia. It became a global policy called the Reagan Doctrine and it's success was a
function of all the things that came together in 1985. After his reelection, President Reagan was
able to articulate and popularize efforts against the Soviet Union. That articulation of a strategic
vision represented a threat and a challenge to opponents of his policies who were in danger of
being labeled anti-anti-Communist. President Reagan's success at splitting off the opposition,
especially the centrist democrats, helped secure the bi-partisan majority he enjoyed really until
Ollie North's Iran-Contra caper poisoned it.
It is ironic the Reagan Doctrine with all its hard-line and rollback philosophies was a
feature of the second term -- a term that saw U.S. foreign policy dominated by George Schultz
and the departure of hard-liners like Kirkpatrick and Weinberger. George Schultz pushed a
diplomatic tack which the hard-liners saw as inconsistent. President Reagan went along with him
and the result was much negotiation in the second term -- the diplomatic track in Afghanistan, the
Geneva Agreement in 1988, Crocker's Angola diplomacy, the efforts in Nicaragua and talks with
the Soviets on the regional issues. Although many administration hard-liners opposed negotiating
with the Soviets, Reagan believed that while they were an "evil force in the world and
untrustworthy" that "we should still talk to them."72
Between 1988 and 1992, one of Gorbachev's primary activities was extracting the Soviet
Union from its self-made military quagmires in the Third World. Toward the end of the second
term, the efforts devoted to negotiations by the Reagan administration began paying off in rapid
succession. In April, 1988 the Soviets committed to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan by the
following February. In December, 1988 the accord requiring the withdrawal of all Cuban forces
from Angola was signed in New York. Later diplomacy brought about a Vietnamese troop
withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989, a free election in Nicaragua in 1990, and political settlements
in both El Salvador and Cambodia in 1992 and 1993.73 Reagan understood that while covert
operations may push an adversary toward reform, negotiation -- however distasteful -- was the
primary means through which it was realized.
There were three main legs in the U.S. plan to maintain pressure on the Soviet Union.
The first was through our support of the freedom fighters in Afghanistan. By 1985 the war was
costing the Soviets an estimated $3 to $4 billion dollars per year mainly because of the arms and
equipment we were providing the Mujahedin. The second leg was our efforts to support the
Solidarity movement in Poland. U.S. sanctions against Poland were costing the Soviet Union
another $1 to $2 billion dollars per year. The third, and perhaps most devastating leg was SDI.
In 1985, the Soviets were convinced that we could field a strategic defense and made large scale
resource shifts to the military industrial sector in an attempt to remain competitive in that arena.
72 Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) 606.
73 Peter W. Rodman, More Precious Than Peace. (New York, NY: Charles Schribner's
Sons, 1994) 324.
U.S. policies played an important role in compelling reforms in the Soviet Union and the
reforms once launched, unraveled the system. Thus fear, dissatisfaction and disillusionment
played to the reformist themes represented by Gorbachev. The problem with Gorbachev was he
didn't realize the limits of modernizing and reforming a huge, totalitarian, Communist System and
without repression the whole thing was going to fall apart. Western intelligence may be forgiven
for not predicting the fall of the Soviet Union -- analysts must assume leaders, especially
totalitarian leaders are acting in their own self-interest. Gorbachev, they reasoned, may loosen
the grip, he may reform a bit but he must realize that he can't reform and modernize the whole
system simultaneously. At some point, he will re-establish control just as all the leaders before
him. Since even at this late stage it was possible for Gorbachev to re-establish control, it is to his
moral credit that when he realized that he had gone too far and that he was going to lose
everything, he didn't resort to the brutality of the past -- he just let it happen. While President
Reagan's administration cannot take complete credit for this collapse, Gorbachev was re-assessing
the Soviet system in large, prompted by those external pressures contributed by the "sixth policy."
President Reagan added to the costs of Soviet foreign policies in the third world and their
arms build-up at the very moment of greatest Soviet vulnerability. The Reagan Doctrine as a
policy involving all the aspects of the program to unseat the Soviet Union, was something that
evolved out of an initial ideological stance put forward by President Reagan early in his
administration but that could only come to fruition in the second term. Although there was much
confusion in the first term at the lower levels, at the operational and strategic levels there was a
common thread -- a combination of the man and the moment, an aspiration and many forces came
together. Reagan helped pull these forces together. That is what made it a historical
development -- a leader and his vision coincided with a historical moment.
Arbatov, Georgii The System: An Insiders Life in Soviet Politics. New York, NY: Times
Books"Random House, 1992.
Allen, Richard V. Democracy and Communism: Theory and Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1967.
Ibid., National Security: Political, Military and Economic Strategies in the Decade Ahead
New York, 1963.
Beschloss, Micheal R.and Talbott, Strobe At the Highest Levels. New York, NY: Little, Brown
and Company, 1993.
Casey, William The Secret War Against Hitler. Washington DC: Regnery, 1988.
CIA/DIA Gorbachev's Modernization Program: A Status Report, A paper submitted to the
Subcommittee on National Security Economics of the Joint Economic Committee, March, 1987.
Codevilla, Angelo. War: Ends and Means. New York, NY: Basic Books Inc. 1989.
Fought, Stephen O. SDI, A Policy Analysis. Newport RI 1987
Garthoff, Raymond L. Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet relations from Nixon to
Reagan. Washington D.C. 1985
Ibid., Deterence and the Revolutuion in Soviet Military Affairs. Washington, D.C. 1990
Gutman, Roy Banana Diplomacy: The Making of American Policy in Nicaragua 1981-1987.
New York 1988
Grossman, Karl Nicaragua : Americas New Vietnam? Sag Harbor 1984
Hobsbawm, Eric The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York, NY:
Pantheon Press, 1994
Klinghoffer, Arthur, J. The Angolan War : A Study in Soviet Policy in the Third Word Boulder
Lenczowski, John. Soviet Perceptions of US. Foreign Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Muravchik, Josuha The Senate and National Security : A New Mood. Beverly Hills, Ca 1980.
National Council of Churches Namibia: The Crisis in the United States Policy Toward
Southern Africa. Washington 1983.
Oberdorfer, Don The Turn: How the Cold War Came to An End: The United States and the
Soviet Union 1983-1990. New York: Posidon Press, 1991.
Pipes, Richard Detente II: Report of the Task Force on the Dangers of Detente II Washington
Ibid., The Formation of the Soviet Union; Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923.
Ibid., US - Soviet relations in the Era of De'tente. Boulder CO 1981.
Ibid., Misinterpreting the Cold War: The Hardliners Had It Right. Review Essay, Foreign
Affairs, New York, NY: Council On Foreign Relations Inc. January/February 1995
Prados, John Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council. New York
Ibid., Presidents Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since W.W.III. New York
Ibid., The Soviet Estimate: US Intelligence Analysis and Russian Military Strength. New York
Reagan, Ronald National Security Strategy of the United States. Washington DC 1988.
Rodman,Peter W. More Precious Than Peace. New York, NY: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1994
Saikal, Amin and Maley, William The Soviet Withdrawal From Afghanistan. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Schweizer, Peter Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the
Collapse of the Soviet Union. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press 1994.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|