According to Oxford don Robert Service’s exhaustive study of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decapitation of world communism, the architect of these events, Ronald Reagan, came to the presidency in 1981 with three objectives in mind: to restore the confidence of the American nation after the debacle of the Vietnam War; to re-establish the political, moral and military pre-eminence of the United States throughout the world; and to make a third world war impossible through the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
Reagan proposed to abandon the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that had deterred nuclear apocalypse since the Eisenhower presidency, while reconsidering the seminal U.S. Cold War policy of containment. His goal: “to reverse the expansion of Soviet influence around the world” by breaking the deeply—and as it turned out, fatally—troubled Soviet economy. The new administration, in the words of Mr. Service, would “increase the American military budget and put the USSR’s finances under the strain of an arms race.”
THE END OF THE COLD WAR
By Robert Service PublicAffairs, 643 pages, $35
These were not modest goals, and few of Reagan’s detractors at home or abroad, including elements of his own party, believed that the lightly regarded new president was capable of conceiving them, let alone achieving them. Toward the beginning of “The End of the Cold War,” Mr. Service summarizes the thinking in the Kremlin: “Reagan seemed like an ignorant old fool whose simplistic militarism” might well bring about the holocaust he feared.
Reagan, who himself “had an aversion to being thought . . . intellectual,” had assumed when he sought the presidency that the U.S. had a defensive capability in case of nuclear attack. He had, however, “learned to his horror that America could not prevent a nuclear ‘first strike.’ The Americans could only retaliate.”
“As President,” Reagan later wrote, “I carried no wallet, no money, no driver’s license, no keys in my pocket—only secret codes that were capable of bringing about the annihilation of much of the world as we know it.”His Soviet counterpart did the same, and the survival of civilization depended on the restraint of those two men in a moment of crisis. If one of them failed the test, Reagan “foresaw total global darkness [and] felt in his bones that he had to try todosomething—something drastic—to make such a conflict impossible.”
But what, exactly? Physicist Edward Teller, Reagan noted in his diary, was “pushing the exciting idea that nuclear weapons can be used in connection with lasers . . . to intercept and destroy enemy missiles far above the earth.” In a speech on March 23, 1983, Reagan announced the development of Teller’s idea as the Strategic Defense Initiative, a defensive shield theoretically impenetrable to nuclear missiles that the United States would share with other countries, including the U.S.S.R. Nicknamed “Star Wars” by the media, the idea was derided by skeptics at home and abroad on grounds that no system that required flawless control of several hundred objects in outer space could be, as it needed to be, 100% effective. As a member of the Politburo noted, a shield that was 99% effective against a full-scale first strike would result in the death of some 20 million Americans.
The technology may have been so complex as to be unattainable, but politically the idea was simplicity itself. It touched a nerve in the Soviet leadership, which perceived it as a disguised offensive strategy: Make America invulnerable and the Americans could obliterate the Soviet Union at will. Soviet scientists were already contemplating a visionary system code-named “Dead Hand,” designed, like the fictional “Doomsday Machine” in the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” to automatically launch that country’s missiles in the event of a nuclear bomb exploding anywhere on Soviet territory.
In November 1983, in response to the earlier deployment in Warsaw Pact countries of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles targeted on Western Europe, the United States deployed, in Germany and elsewhere, intermediate-range Pershing II missiles capable of hitting Moscow. President Yuri Andropovand other Soviet leaders feared that the U.S. was planning to replace its intercontinental missiles with Pershings and cruise missiles that could strike targets within the U.S.S.R. quicker and from shorter range. “The slightest untoward accident,” Mr. Service writes, “could have induced Andropov to strike before the Americans struck.” The two sides were sparring in the dark: “Moscow and Washington were barely communicating with each other in 1983.” The danger subsided. Mutual paranoia did not.
Andropov and his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, the last of the geriatric Soviet leaders, died within a year of each other. In 1985 the Politburo named 55-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, an agricultural specialist who had outgrown his specialty and risen rapidly, as the new general secretary of the Communist Party. He was determined to save the Soviet Union from its sclerosis by overseeing a top-to-bottom transformation of the manner in which the nation was managed and by opening to the world a totalitarian state that, throughout its existence, had been administered as a vast maximum-security prison.
In foreign affairs, as Mr. Service documents and as future events were to demonstrate, Mr. Gorbachev was at least as fixated as his predecessors had been on SDI and the hidden purposes of the implacably anti-communist president of the United States. The two men were true opposites. Reagan, despite his folksy on-camera persona, kept himself to himself. His “psychological distance” from others baffled even his closest advisers. Gorbachev, conversely, was the quintessential extrovert—an intellectual dynamo, brash, voluble, confrontational, impatient.
He was also on the point of desperation regarding the state of the Soviet economy. The world price of oil, Moscow’s principal export, was in free fall. The U.S.S.R.’s export revenue was not sufficient to support its crippling defense budget and pay for massive imports of food, while also subsidizing the even more troubled planned economies of restive client states in Eastern Europe. And it could never provide even a token proportion of the consumer goods that the Soviet people knew were routinely available in the West.
Mr. Gorbachev engaged Reagan, who smiled and kept him at arm’s length. The leitmotif of their negotiations at the wintry 1985 summit in Geneva, and of the entire superpower relationship, was the looming possibility of a functioning Star Wars program. Negotiating teams eventually achieved reductions in the numbers of nuclear missiles, including in due course the elimination of intermediate-range missiles. But the negotiations were haunted by SDI and came to an end at the 1986 Reykjavik summit, where the topics under discussion were the elimination of all ballistic missiles as well as all other nuclear weapons. Reagan famously walked out on a one-on-one negotiating session when Mr. Gorbachev attempted to make what turned out to be one last demand that the United States abandon SDI.
The denouement is well known and well told in pointillist detail in this slow-moving, admirably even-handed account, which offers a compendium of the expired secrets of the White House and Kremlin. In January 1989, George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan as president. By then the price of oil had plummeted to around $10 a barrel, and the Soviet Union was essentially bankrupt. Mr. Gorbachev canvassed the world for a life-preserving loan of $15 billion annually. As a last resort, he called Mr. Bush and pleaded for help. Mr. Bush replied that “he had to assure Congress that any potential debtor was creditworthy—and he could not say this about the USSR.” On Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall was demolished by German demonstrators.
At home, Mr. Gorbachev’s support dwindled. “Communist party organizations were in chaos,” Mr. Service writes. “The ministries were incapable of imposing central power and the armed forces were demoralized. Even the KGB’s personnel no longer knew what they were supposed to be doing.” On June 17, 1991, KGB chairman Kryuchkov told the Supreme Soviet that “the USSR could cease to exist inside two or three months. He later claimed that one could hear a fly crossing the room.”
During the abortive two-day coup that August, Mr.Gorbachev found himself placed under house arrest. On Aug. 24, Mr. Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of its communist party, and on Dec. 25 he resigned as president of the USSR. The end came on December 31: “America had prevailed,” Mr. Service writes, “the Soviet Union was no more.” In 1993, the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative Agency was dissolved.
Notwithstanding the impressive weight of Mr. Service’s evidence, some readers may feel that the key interpretive question—whether Ronald Reagan’s simple idea overcame Mikhail Gorbachev’s complex master design, or was the straw that broke the chimera’s back, or whether the U.S.S.R. destroyed itself from within—remains unanswered. At a minimum, the outcome marginalized the fear of a nuclear first strike by another superpower but was soon supplanted by the unsettling thought that a nuclear device might fall into the hands of the ultimate suicide bomber.
One man, one bomb, simplicity itself.
—Mr. McCarry’s new novel, “The Mulberry Bush,” has just been published.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.