Many admirers of Ronald Reagan credit him and his policies with the fall of Communism. Is that claim justified?
Reagan was largely in the right place at the right time. The USSR was entering its end game when he came into office: slowly but surely going bankrupt. All the factors Dan Holliday pointed out had eroded the structural integrity of the system until it could barely hold its own weight such that it would have taken a spectacular effort by the US to prevent the Soviets from collapsing. Reagan was dealt a great hand that any competent president would have played to a win.
But in hindsight it would be hard to imagine how he could have played that hand better, and the strategy he used was far from a continuance of previous dogma.
Every president before him had played a fairly conservative detente strategy that amounted to a war of attrition. It left us in constant low level contact and drained tremendous resources from both countries. But the US could still commit significant resources to maintaining our standard of living and developing our economy, while the communist regime was spending a much larger percentage on military. It allowed the US to slowly pull away until our capacity was far beyond theirs, but didn’t really threaten to break the USSR.
Reagan - by nature or insight - pursued a much more aggressive policy that sought not to grind but to shatter. He undertook more risky actions that threatened a serious escalation with the Soviet Union - if they could afford it. But by 1980 they were barely able to maintain a stalemate with the US and keep their people under control. They did not have the strength to win an escalation. MAD was now their final line of defense. Meanwhile Reagan pushed hard to pressure communism from all directions: deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, funding anti-communist guerrillas wherever they could be found, launching several military actions of his own, encouraging dissidents behind the curtain, all while actively building bridges to communist nations. And he threatened to do the one thing the Soviets could not survive: neutralize nuclear weapons and the only powerful card they still held. The combined effect was to heap unbearable weight upon the failing structure.
In hindsight Reagan’s insight was unexceptional. Some might say any other president would have recognized the opportunity and taken it for similar glory. But the criticism at the time and lack of experts predicting the collapse shows that Reagan’s wisdom was far from conventional. Some might say he was just a rabid anti-communist cowboy who got lucky that it worked. But the bridges he built with Gorbachev after his elevation showed far more nuance than that. Some might say it all would have collapsed anyway, but saving even 5 years of the cold war was a huge service to the world that few other leaders could have accomplished. No, Reagan doesn’t deserve all the praise heaped on him. He was definitely lucky. But he absolutely built on that luck with insight and creativity that deserves credit, appreciation, and study.