Commentary Magazine

How the Cold War Really Ended

Up until 1990, the great divide of American politics for at least 25 years, and perhaps 45, was between hawks and doves. Whatever the relative weight of international or domestic issues in one electoral race or another, the transcendent issue of the age was the cold war, with its immanent threat of nuclear conflagration. In the view of the hawks, the Soviet Union was an innately hostile power, and the keys to peace were strength, toughness, and deterrence. In the view of the doves, the Soviets were motivated as much by fear as we were, and the key to peace was mutual reassurance.

The remarkable denouement of the cold war vindicated the hawks. First, the cold war began to wind down during the administration of Ronald Reagan, the most hawkish of all U.S. Presidents, and its last remnants were liquidated under Reagan’s heir, George Bush. Second, the hawks’ interpretation of Soviet behavior during the cold war was endorsed by the intellectual and political leaders who emerged from “under the rubble” of the Soviet Union. Third, as the cold war wound down, several local conflicts—in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Namibia, and South Africa—were resolved, thus confounding the doves who had chastised the hawks for overestimating the cold-war dimensions of these conflicts.

History—which does not consist of controlled experiments—rarely yields so clear a resolution to an argument. In a better world, many doves would have come forward, if not in self-criticism, then to acknowledge their error and explore its sources. The economist Robert Heilbroner, a sympathizer with socialism, candidly assessed the implications of the Soviet collapse for his discipline, when he wrote in the New Yorker: “The contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won.” But in the field of foreign policy, precious few such voices have been heard.1

On the contrary, the silence of the doves has been broken most often by defiant self-justification. Strobe Talbott, now Deputy Secretary of State, wrote in the January 1, 1990 issue of Time, for which he then worked, and which in that same issue pronounced Mikhail Gorbachev “man of the decade”: “A new consensus is emerging, that the Soviet threat is not what it used to be. The real point, however, is that it never was. The doves in the Great Debate of the past 40 years were right all along.” But why celebrate Gorbachev if he expressed nothing more than the historic essence of Soviet policy—if he was, so to speak, no different from Stalin and Brezhnev and all the rest?

Talbott explained that the collapse of the Soviet empire “revealed a brittleness in the entire Communist system. . . . That brittleness has been there all along, but it was often mistaken for toughness.” For the scores of millions whose lives had been snuffed out by Communism, however, this news would have provided cold comfort. And it was hard to see why a system that had conquered one-third of the planet and taken such a fearful, indeed unparalleled, toll should be regarded as less menacing if it was impelled by “brittleness” rather than “toughness” or some other underlying dynamic.

In a parallel effort by self-justifying doves, the political scientists Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry wrote in Foreign Policy that it was “Ronald Reagan’s personal anti-nuclearism, rather than his administration’s hard line” that brought about an end to the cold war. Although admirably inventive, this interpretation neglected the fact that Reagan’s “personal anti-nuclearism” did not translate into any concessions either in the building of weapons or in arms control, and that his policies in these areas were roundly excoriated by anti-nuclear activists (and by Soviet spokesmen).

Yet another dove, George F. Kennan, chimed in that claims of vindication by hawks were “intrinsically silly” because the more U.S. policies had followed a hard line, “the greater was the tendency in Moscow to tighten the controls by both party and police, and the greater the braking effect on all liberalizing tendencies in the regime.” This sounded plausible, but the record showed exactly the opposite. Of the four decades of the cold war, the 1970’s, when first Richard Nixon and then Jimmy Carter pursued detente, were the least hard-line. But it was during this very period that the Soviets undertook their greatest arms build-up and their boldest imperial adventures, while imposing at home a significant degree of re-Stalinization. (Looking farther back, Soviet policies of conquest and repression in the late 1940’s followed hot on the era of naive American pro-Sovietism which Kennan himself, then a hawk, tried to dispel in his famous “X” article.)



It has for some time been clear that the doves would have to do a lot better than these early thrusts if they were to mount a coherent retrospective defense of their position. Now they may have found their champion in Raymond L. Garthoff, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former diplomat, State Department official, and SALT negotiator. Garthoff is, in other words, an epitome of the liberal foreign-policy establishment, and, accordingly, his newly published tome, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War,2 comes embellished with gushing jacket blurbs from the likes of McGeorge Bundy, Marshall Shulman, and the Washington Post’s Don Oberdorfer.

Although Garthoff’s purpose is polemical, his method is historical. He depicts the cold-war protagonists as mirror-images of each other: “The fundamental underlying cause of the cold war was the belief in both the Soviet Union and the United States that confrontation was unavoidable, imposed by history.” And again: “Each side tended to assume, and see, the worst motivation by the other, to justify its own actions and deny any justification to the other side, and to discount and disbelieve expressions of concern by the other.”

In the 1980’s, in Garthoff’s account, the behavior of the two sides grew less symmetrical. The Soviets sought peace and comity, but the United States under Ronald Reagan sought only confrontation. As Garthoff puts it, while the “pursuit of arms limitations and reductions [was] given highest attention by the Soviet leaders . . . the active pursuit of regional geopolitical competition [was] given priority by the Reagan administration.”

But it was not only Reagan’s military programs that imperiled the peace, says Garthoff; it was his whole attitude. When Reagan met privately with the Soviet Foreign Minister in 1984, “Gromyko bridled at and rebutted Reagan’s simplistic charge that the Soviet Union sought above all to destroy the capitalist system in the United States and the West.” Reagan’s public pronouncements were even worse, especially when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and the “focus of evil in the modern world.” Garthoff chastises the former President for his “unawareness of the diplomatic impact of openly voicing” such sentiments. He also chides Reagan’s Vice President, George Bush, for launching in 1983 “a tirade against Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe.”

In general, this book seethes with an obsessive hatred of Ronald Reagan reminiscent of the animus toward Franklin Roosevelt once harbored by diehard Republicans. Garthoff’s rage takes in Reagan’s closest aides as well: “Some of his team, in particular Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, were unhappy even at a limited rapprochement and reduction of tensions” on the basis of “Soviet concessions.” He even goes so far as to call Weinberger a liar for declaring that the invasion of Afghanistan demonstrated a “willingness to use military force to invade and coerce other countries.” (In general, Garthoff believes, “The prevailing Western view was wrong . . . in believing that Communist ideology impelled Soviet leaders to expand their power.”)



Given these attitudes, it is no surprise that in every cold-war incident of the 1980’s, Garthoff treats the Soviet side more sympathetically. Indeed, in recounting the Reagan administration’s charges that the Soviet Union supported terrorism, violated arms-control agreements, or spread disinformation (such as the story that American security agencies had deliberately manufactured the AIDS virus), Garthoff waxes indignant not at the Soviet behavior in question but at the American government for making an issue of it and thereby roiling relations.

Similarly, when the Soviet downing of flight KAL 007 or the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl resulted in a war of words, Soviet leaders, according to Garthoff, spoke falsely as a result of inadequate information, but American leaders lied maliciously in order to score propaganda points. (“The facts were not considered important; what was important was the opportunity to savage the Soviet leaders.”) When the Soviets arrested and framed the American journalist Nicholas Daniloff, their action was an understandable response to the arrest of a Soviet UN employee in New York. (Never mind that the latter was engaged in espionage while Daniloff was not.) When the Soviets shot and killed Major Arthur Nicholson, the U.S. military liaison officer in East Germany, this was a “tragic incident” in which the two sides’ claims were equally plausible. (Never mind that if Nicholson was in a restricted area, he could have been arrested rather than shot.) When the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, it was because they genuinely feared that America would not assure the safety of their athletes. And when the Soviets walked out of the strategic-arms talks, it was because Reagan had turned these into a “charade.”

Garthoff’s image of a Soviet Union haplessly seeking peace only to be rebuffed again and again by a confrontational American administration reaches back beyond Gorbachev to Brezhnev and the first days of Reagan’s presidency. As early as January 1981, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, asked plaintively, “Can’t we work out our differences?” When this and similar entreaties fell on deaf ears, Brezhnev was at a loss about how to proceed. Garthoff writes:

The Soviet leaders had no alternative or “fallback” to their advocacy of detente. They kept hoping that American leaders would eventually recognize that there was no viable alternative to peaceful coexistence and no advantage from confrontation. Hence they continued to wait for signs of a belated recognition of this fact of life by the Reagan administration too.

Brezhnev was succeeded by Andropov, who also wanted peace, but he, too, hit a brick wall. Washington’s propagandistic reaction to the tragic downing of KAL 007 proved to be the proverbial straw that impelled a “change from Andropov’s own earlier position on giving a little more time for the American administration to come around to a recognition of realities.” After Andropov came Chernenko, another seeker of peace. He even, Garthoff tells us, issued “guidance on drafting the [1984 party] program [that] made clear that the prediction of the impending collapse of capitalism and triumph of Communism . . . would be deleted.” But again no response from Washington.

How, then, was the cold war brought to an end? Garthoff’s answer, of course, is Gorbachev. But Garthoff sees Gorbachev’s policy much as Strobe Talbott does—not as a reversal of traditional Soviet policy, but as a distillation of its longstanding essence. In Garthoff’s formulation, Gorbachev “recognize [d] that reciprocal political accommodation, rather than military power for deterrence or ‘counterdeterrence,’ was the defining core of the Soviet Union’s relationship with the rest of the world.”

When Gorbachev began to act on this realization, however, Reagan presented an obstacle. His hard-line policies, Garthoff insists, “made Soviet movement toward accommodation more difficult rather than more likely. Reagan’s line gave ammunition to Soviet hard-liners, not those seeking compromises.” Undaunted, “Gorbachev pressed ahead with his unilateral actions and concessionary negotiations not owing to the Reagan hard line and military build-up, but despite it.”

Even though Reagan had by now slightly softened his original position, he still gave Gorbachev a hard time:

He criticized the Soviet Union and called for it to change many practices not only around the world . . . but at home as well. As Gorbachev began to make more and more changes in these practices, . . . Reagan did not reciprocate but asked for more.

As a result,

Progress in relations came only in areas and to the extent that the Soviet side was prepared to accept U.S. positions. The rapprochement that developed from 1985 through 1988 stemmed from the fact that Gorbachev had been prepared to change Soviet positions and accept American ones.

Lest anyone conclude from this that Reagan’s policies worked, Garthoff again assures us that the Soviet leaders only made concessions they wanted to make and “did not simply cave in to meet tough American positions.”

Now it is certainly true that the Kremlin made the lion’s share of concessions. But it is also true that this was the only way the cold war could end—and for a simple reason that doves like Garthoff have spent their careers denying: the cold war was not a two-way street, but rather a function of Soviet policies. America had come out of World War II hoping to maintain its friendly relations with the USSR; but Moscow subjugated Eastern Europe and probed further, provoking a defensive response from the United States. Therefore the cold war was always Moscow’s to call off. The moment the Kremlin called it off, it was over, except for the technical details which took a couple of years to work out.



Because America’s goals in the cold war were defensive, so was its strategy. “Containment” aimed not to defeat the Soviets or match them tit for tat, but to wait them out. This, however, changed in the 1980’s under Reagan, and a new book, by an author whose sympathies lie on the hawkish side of the debate, makes the case that it changed more than most people think.

In Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union,3 Peter Schweizer purports to offer “an account of a secret offensive on economic, geostrategic, and psychological fronts designed to roll back and weaken Soviet power.” This “covert, strategic offensive against the Soviet Union,” Schweizer claims, was launched in the first days of the Reagan administration under the leadership of CIA Director William Casey.

Schweizer quotes Casey as saying at the beginning of the Reagan years, “If we play our cards right [the Soviet economy is] going to implode.” Since the USSR depended on oil exports for hard currency, Casey (according to Schweizer) talked Saudi Arabia into driving down the price of oil, and thereby “a stake was driven silently through the heart of the Soviet economy.”

The Soviet economy was also squeezed by the American rearmament program, tighter restrictions on the export of American technologies, and “a secret disinformation program” which slipped faulty blueprints to Soviet technology acquisitors. In addition, says Schweizer, the CIA propped up Solidarity in Poland and dissidents elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and it aided the Afghan mujahideen not only with weapons but even in staging cross-border raids into the Asian republics of the Soviet Union.

Schweizer’s work is so sloppy, however, that it is impossible to tell how much of this account can be trusted. His book has no index, no table of contents, no chapter titles; this, together with its breathless tone, gives it the feel of an adventure novel. It does have footnotes, but these often contain no information (a typical citation is “U.S. official, interview with the author”). What these notes do make clear is that Schweizer relied almost entirely on interviews, to the exclusion of documentary sources. Yet he shows little appreciation of the pitfalls of this method, such as the temptation of sources to embellish or to offer self-serving accounts, the lack of constraints on interviewees who insist on anonymity, and the distortions that arise from being able to interview some participants but not others.

Thus, several former National Security Council officials come off in Schweizer’s account as having had larger roles in Reagan’s anti-Soviet strategy than other commentators have attributed to them. These also appear to be individuals who gave Schweizer extensive interviews. On the other hand, some officials who are known to have played important roles are omitted.

A case in point is Schweizer’s description of the National Security Planning Group, which he characterizes as “the body of real foreign-policy power” in the Reagan administration, the nerve center of the anti-Soviet campaign. He says it consisted of six members: the President, the Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the National Security Adviser, and the Director of Central Intelligence. But there was a seventh member, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. In omitting her, Schweizer was either the victim of one of Kirkpatrick’s enemies, or of an ill-informed source. Whatever the cause, Kirkpatrick has been airbrushed from the picture.

Schweizer is unconvincing in his suggestion that there was a Reagan master plan to bring down the Soviet Union. But still he is on to an important truth. The Reagan administration was out to make the cold war into more of a two-way street. Reagan, Casey, Kirkpatrick, Weinberger, Richard Perle, and others were tired of playing only defense. They sought ways to strike back, most fundamentally by means of the “Reagan Doctrine” which aimed for the first time to put Communist turf at risk, instead of limiting the contest to areas that Communists had not yet conquered.



Schweizer complains that “current historiography has given Mikhail Gorbachev the lion’s share of the credit for the dawning of the post-cold-war era, . . . giving the vanquished more credit than the victor.” But to counterpose Gorbachev to Reagan in this respect is to draw an unnecessary dichotomy. Both men deserve copious credit for the astonishing conclusion to the cold war. It was Gorbachev, and none other, who canceled the cold war. It was Reagan who generated the pressures that led Gorbachev to do it.

Gorbachev did not intend the ultimate effects he caused, especially not the dissolution of the USSR, but he embarked on a path of drastic reform, and like so many other revolutionaries before him, he became radicalized as he went along. Many post-mortems of the Soviet Union have attributed its death to the illness of its economy. Such an analysis is implicit in Schweizer’s book, which places economic warfare at the center. But the truth is that even though the Soviet Union could not provide a good life for its subjects, it was far from collapsing economically.

By the time Gorbachev took power, economic growth had slowed to a near halt. But so what? The Soviet military still commanded more destructive power, both nuclear and conventional, than any other on earth. Perhaps the USSR would not have been able to keep up a high-tech arms race with America indefinitely (assuming, implausibly, that America itself would keep up such a race), but for the foreseeable future, its power was secure. Within the Soviet Union, consumers might be unhappy and a few brave dissidents might publish samizdat, but the rule of the Communist party faced no challenge whatsoever. Within the party, Gorbachev was firmly in control, even to the point where the party oligarchs, as Charles Fairbanks puts it, drank the Jonestown Kool-Aid he eventually proffered them.

By all indications, Gorbachev could have ruled unchallenged for the rest of his natural life; he and his cohorts could have continued to enjoy all the luxuries to which the Soviet elite was accustomed, however empty the shops; and they would have presided over a state that, at worst, would have remained one of the world’s two superpowers. None of this was in jeopardy when Gorbachev launched the fateful course that brought the whole edifice down.

It is revealing that Gorbachev’s main antagonist, Boris Yeltsin himself, takes precisely this view of the matter. In a recent issue of the New York Review, David Remnick quotes the following remarkable passage from Yeltsin’s first autobiography, Against the Grain:

[Gorbachev] could have gone on just as Brezhnev and Chernenko did before him. I estimate that the country’s natural resources and the people’s patience would have outlasted his lifetime, long enough for him to have lived the well-fed and happy life of the leader of a totalitarian state. He could have draped himself with orders and medals; the people would have hymned him in verse and song, which is always enjoyable. Yet Gorbachev chose to go another way.

Economic determinism will not suffice to explain this choice. We must endeavor to reconstruct what Gorbachev and his colleagues were thinking.

In spite of the fact that the deteriorating state of the Soviet economy was not a threat to the standard of living or the power of the Soviet oligarchs, it obviously bothered them. Not because their subjects had to stand in interminable queues—these people were not famous for their compassion—but because as ambitious men they did not want to preside over a sinking ship, even one sinking slowly, or one ready for mothballs. They wanted to feel themselves to be captains of a successful venture. (Recall how boastful their public discourse always was.) Hence, by exacerbating their economic predicament—by restricting technology transfers, reducing their hard-currency earnings, and pressuring them in the arms race—Reagan contributed to their malaise.

But he did more than that. If it is true that the economic factor worked not by directly constraining Soviet power but by making the elite feel dissatisfied, these feelings required a context. If the United States had continued, as in the late 70’s, to exude pessimism and weakness; if additional countries had continued to fall under Communist rule; if, as the Soviets used to say then, the “correlation of forces” had continued to tilt in their direction, then the slowing of economic growth in the USSR need not have been too discouraging to its rulers.

But Reagan led a revival of American spirit. He restored military strength and diplomatic assertiveness, he spoke eloquently about freedom and democracy, and he challenged Communism rhetorically as no recent President had done, dismissing it as “a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” This supplied the painful context in which Soviet leaders had to read the bad news about their economy.



This was also the context in which Gorbachev was chosen General Secretary in 1985. The Politburo members surely did not know what he was going to do (or they would not have chosen him), but Gorbachev was the candidate of change, or at least dynamism, while his rivals, Grishin and Romanov, were seen as more conservative.

In struggling, with growing desperation, to get his country moving again, Gorbachev opted for the path of reform, and until he grew too radical, most of his Politburo colleagues apparently concurred. But reform was not the only conceivable approach to surmounting their economic difficulties. An alternative would have been to exploit their military might. They could have sought to appropriate new resources by conquest, either direct or through proxies, in places like the Middle East and South Africa. Or they might have aimed to extort a new inflow of credits, technology, investment, and other benefits from the wealthy countries of Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf.

The Soviet economy had long battened on such benefits, won by playing on greed, fear, and illusions. Now that these supplier countries were richer than ever and the Soviet military mightier, perhaps a big increase could have been engineered. Soviet leaders might well have been tempted to try such an approach had the West continued to demonstrate weakness. But Reagan’s vigorous defense and foreign policies made this option unattractive.

Reagan’s challenge to Soviet political legitimacy may also have affected Gorbachev. It remains unclear why Gorbachev unleashed glasnost as well as perestroika—that is, political reform as well as economic. Several analysts have asserted that economic change required political change, but why? After all, things did not work that way in Communist China.

A more compelling explanation is that Gorbachev believed, or came to believe, that the country’s economic woes were only a symptom of a larger problem, that Soviet society was somehow off-track. In his 1987 book, Perestroika, Gorbachev said that even before coming to power he was convinced that “everything pertaining to the economy, culture, democracy, foreign policy—all spheres—had to be reappraised.” And he added: “We know today that we would have been able to avoid many . . . difficulties if the democratic process had developed normally in our country.” When he wrote those words, Gorbachev still thought of himself as a convinced Leninist. But within a few years, he abolished the Communist party’s monopoly of power, thus eradicating Lenin’s main legacy.

As Gorbachev evolved, it is hard to imagine that he was not influenced by Reagan’s panegyrics on freedom and democracy and attacks on tyranny and totalitariansim (much as Raymond Garthoff was offended by them). We know in fact that Soviet leaders much less supple than Gorbachev were extremely sensitive to ideological pronouncements of American leaders. For example, Brezhnev was so incensed at Jimmy Carter’s early gestures regarding human rights in the USSR that Carter soon fell silent on the subject. Reagan was a far more persistent and persuasive advocate, and Gorbachev a far more receptive audience.



Does it matter how the cold war came to end, or who was right and who wrong? The answer is that it matters very much. The cold war was the most important sustained challenge in the history of American foreign policy, and therefore it is our richest source of lessons. We are already paying a heavy price for the failure of the doves to face up to these lessons.

When Jimmy Carter was elected, the doves got their chance, and their policies resulted in utter failure. This led to the triumph in 1980 of Ronald Reagan, whose opposite policies were crowned with success. With the cold war laid to rest, Bill Clinton won election as a “new Democrat,” the meaning of which, in foreign-policy terms, was hazy, although it seemed to suggest “not a dove.” Though Clinton’s top foreign-policy advisers had served in the Carter administration and shared responsibility for its failures, during the campaign they were quick to point out that the world had changed and they hinted that they, too, had changed.

Nevertheless, Clinton’s foreign policies bear so strong a family resemblance to Carter’s that a popular wisecrack now refers to “Jimmy Clinton.” The old doves no longer have the coherent world view that they trumpeted in the early 70’s, but the reflexes that developed from that view still seem to dictate their responses to current issues.

For example, where challenged by Communist regimes or their remnants—as in Serbia, China, and North Korea—Clinton’s foreign policy responds with weakness and appeasement. Confronted by another messianic anti-American movement—Islamic fundamentalism—the Clintonites have set out to discover the “moderates” within it. In Haiti, the Clinton administration shows the same partiality for anti-American leftists that inspired Jeane Kirkpatrick in the late 1970’s to write “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”4 At home, it has saddled the armed forces with a liberal social agenda and harsh budget cuts, and recently the State Department made a display of excoriating dubious international human-rights violations by, of all countries, the United States,5

In short, the doves who guide the Clinton ship of state seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Since the world is less dangerous today than during the cold war, policies such as these arouse little alarm. But before long they are bound to help make the world more dangerous again.


1 More cold-war post-mortems have been written by hawks, some triumphalist, others self-critical for their failure to anticipate the Soviet collapse. Such self-criticism is perhaps easier for those who were right on the main issue. See, for example, Owen Harries in COMMENTARY (“The Cold War & the Intellectuals,” October 1991) and the special issue of the National Interest entitled “The Strange Death of Soviet Communism” (Spring 1993).

2 Brookings Institution, 834 pp., $44.95.

3 Atlantic Monthly Press, 284 pp., $22.00.

4 COMMENTARY, November 1979.

5 See Midge Decter's “The State Department vs. America,” beginning on p. 65 of this issue.—Ed.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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