How Ronald Reagan Won the Cold War

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How Ronald Reagan Won the Cold War

Over the years, conservative America has transformed Ronald Reagan from president to icon to deity. You could see that in this year's first Republican debate, in which everybody on the stage was desperately trying to out-Reagan the others, hardly mentioning the current conservative occupant of the White House, and never, of course, reminding viewers of Reagan's divorce, his, er, rather early first-born child, his quadrupling of the national debt, his silence on AIDS, his debacle in Lebanon or the Iran-Contra affair.

To those omissions have been appended additions, as well, of equal veracity. The greatest of these, of course, is that Reagan defeated the Soviets and ended the Cold War. As we mark today the twentieth anniversary of the Gipper's "tear down this wall" speech, a veritable Hollywood production of misty-eyed adulation is once again surfacing around this myth, on a scale Cecil B. DeMille would admire.

I've noticed in recent years that conservatives no longer seem to do facts much anymore. Particularly the inconvenient kind, which - from Iraq to record deficits to global warming to Katrina - seem to be the sort mostly showing up nowadays.

Such is apparently the case with the Reagan tale. You might think, for instance, that one superpower conceding a monumental half-century long struggle without either side firing a shot at each other would seem improbable. You might think that the costly Soviet blunder in Afghanistan, the USSR's anemic economic system, the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, or even the aborted coup against him might have had something to do with the demise of the Evil Empire.

But, as Reagan himself would have said, "There you go again!" with those pesky facts and that annoying logic.

Meanwhile, it turns out according to documents recently unearthed from a drawer in somebody's desk at the Heritage Foundation, that it was indeed the case that Ronald Reagan not only spent the Soviet Union into defeat and submission, but even into their very demise - just as conservatives claim! We go now to a Soviet cabinet meeting in late 1991, as the fateful decision is being made.

President Mikhail Gorbachev: "Comrades, I've assembled you here today with grave news. As I see it, because of external pressures from the great cold warrior Reagan, we have to throw in the towel."

Entire Cabinet: Gasps. Mumbled expressions of bewilderment and exasperation.

Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov: "I think I speak for all of us here, Mikhail Sergeyevich, when I say that I do not understand how this can be. We are a strong country. We are a superpower!"

Gorbachev: "The problem is that Reagan has massively increased American defense spending. We simply cannot compete."

Prime Minister Vladimir Orlov: "But how does he pay for this absurdly expensive program?"

Gorbachev: "He is borrowing and spending like a drunken sailor."

Orlov: "Well, then Comrade President, whatever is the problem? Should we not hand this sailor another bottle of cheap vodka and stand by watching while he commits fiscal suicide?"

Gorbachev: "You are missing the point. With all this new military hardware, we can no longer compete with the Americans in the Third World."

Yazov: "Do I understand you to say that you want us to throw in the towel because we can no longer necessarily win a proxy war in Botswana?"

Gorbachev: "Don't try to be clever, comrade, it doesn't suit you. The situation is worse than that. We cannot even realistically defend Poland against an American attack."

KGB Director Vladimir Kryuchkov: "Reagan is a cowboy, that is for sure, but our intelligence confirms that he would never risk conflict with us on that scale, nor is there any support in Europe or even America for such a war. The Yanks have left us in place in Eastern Europe for fifty years. They will do so for another five hundred if necessary. May I remind the Comrade President that whatever else one can say about the state of this country, we still possess over twenty thousand strategic nuclear warheads aimed at the United States?"

Gorbachev: "It doesn't matter. You're not seeing the big picture here. We can't keep up with these guys."

Yazov: "So let us match them, then. If we spend less on housing and food and healthcare, we can afford all the expensive hardware Reagan is buying - just like they're doing. Do not forget, Mikhail Sergeyevich, that our people are patriots capable of sustaining the worst deprivations in order to support the motherland. We are Russians! That is what we do! Twenty million of us died in World War Two alone. If every one of us just turned down the heat in winter by two degrees, we could match the capitalists ruble for dollar."

Gorbachev: "Still, comrades, you don't get it. The game is over. We must throw in the towel."

Orlov: "You keep using that phrase. Just what does that mean?"

Gorbachev: "Everything. The entire piroshki."

Kryuchkov: "My goodness, you can't be serious! Are you saying that just because the Americans are spending themselves into penury for weapons they really cannot and dare not use against us, we must not only give up our outposts in the Third World and let our Eastern European empire go, but also retire from the Cold War and cease being a superpower?"

Gorbachev: "No, actually it's worse than that, comrade. We must also cease to exist as a country. Because of Reagan's build-up, we will henceforth be breaking the Soviet Union into fifteen separate countries. And we, my friends, no longer have our jobs, because the country we serve no longer exists."

Entire cabinet: Gasps, sighs, general consternation. "But why?!?!"

Gorbachev: "Because, my short-sighted former comrades, there are important myths to be served for the American right, and that, of course, is and must be our first priority."

Cabinet: "Ohhhhh... well, yes, of course. Now that you put it that way..."

And that's the true story, improbable as it may seem, of how Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. The meeting was adjourned. The Soviet Union was demolished. And the heroic story of Reagan the Savior was preserved. Almost as if it came out of some B-rate Hollywood western...

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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