A frequent contributor, Francis Sempa, describes in a critical way the containment policies of all the administrations from Truman through Carter. He believes that it was only with the Reagan presidency that the United States began to pursue a "we win, they lose" policy and that this policy to a large degree helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Assoc Ed.
Ronald Reagans death has revived debates about why the Cold War ended when it did, and what, if any, credit should go to Reagan for the collapse of the Soviet Empire. U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War is often portrayed as a steady, consistent application of the containment doctrine, which was first explained in George F. Kennans 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." In reality, however, U.S. Cold War policies differed in important respects from president to president.
The early Eisenhower administration gave lip service to a policy of "rolling back" the Soviet Empire. Eisenhowers Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had promoted such a policy prior to assuming office. In a 1950 memo to Senator Robert Taft, Dulles advocated "stimulating guerilla and insurrectional activities" within Eastern Europe, and "stepping up subversive activities within areas of Soviet control." Dulles subsequently wrote an article that appeared in Life magazine in which he publicly argued for a more offensive strategy vis-à-vis the Soviets. After Eisenhower took office, administration spokesmen publicly encouraged the enslaved nations of Eastern and Central Europe to rise up against their Soviet masters. When that actually happened in East Germany in 1953, and in Poland and Hungary in 1956, however, the United States did nothing to aid the resistance forces. In Korea, moreover, Eisenhower, like Truman, settled for containment. "Rollback" was shown to be merely empty rhetoric. Eisenhower, instead, relied on defensive security pacts with nations on the periphery of the Soviet Empire, and the threat of massive nuclear retaliation to hold the Soviets at bay on the Eurasian periphery.
The Johnson administration fought the Vietnam War encumbered by what James Burnham called the "self-imposed strategic prison" of containment. U.S. strategy throughout the conflict was defensiveto prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam, not to liberate the North from communist rule. Containment also dictated Johnsons unwillingness to aid the popular uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968, which consequently was crushed by Soviet troops. The Soviets had learned the lesson of 1956: containment meant that the U.S. would shrink from attempting to exploit vulnerabilities within the Soviet Empire. It was a straight line from containment to the so-called "Brezhnev doctrine" which proclaimed that once a state or territory fell under Soviet control, it would remain under Soviet control.
U.S. Cold War policy during the Nixon-Ford years de-emphasized the ideological component of the U.S.-Soviet conflict and sought to foster cooperation.
President Jimmy Carter pursued détente to its logical extreme. In Carters first major foreign policy address, he proclaimed that the U.S. had abandoned its "inordinate fear of communism." Longtime allies in the Cold War, such as the Shah in Iran and Somoza in Nicaragua, were tossed aside or abandoned because of human rights violations, only to be replaced by more brutal regimes that pursued anti-American foreign policies. Carter signed arms control agreements with the Soviets that were so flawed that even a Senate controlled by his own political party refused to ratify them. Carter revealed the extent of his ignorance about the nature of the Soviet system when he expressed his disappointment and surprise at Soviet behavior after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Under Carter, containment, while still surviving as an overall policy, reached its nadir.
Ronald Reagan shattered the illusions of détente by redefining the nature of the Cold War between the West and Soviet communism, and adopting a strategy that successfully exploited the vulnerabilities of the Soviet system. In the late 1970s, Reagan told Richard Allen, who would become his first National Security Adviser, that his long-term strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union was simple: we win, they lose. During the 1980 campaign, Reagan opined to Lou Cannon of the Washington Post that the Soviets lacked the economic wherewithal to compete in an all-out arms race with the West. After assuming office, Reagan proclaimed in April 1981 that the West "wont contain communism, it will transcend communism." The Soviet system, he said, was a "bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written." The next year, Reagan told the British Parliament that he had a long term plan "which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history." In January 1983, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 75, which stated that U.S. policy was "[t]o contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism , [t]o promote the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system , [to] exploit vulnerabilities within the Soviet empire" in an effort to "loosen Moscows hold" on Eastern Europe.
In June 1987, Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall. Two years later, the Wall came down, then the enslaved nations of the Soviet Empire gradually broke free, and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Reagans predecessors, to be sure, deserve credit for keeping the Soviets at bay for more than thirty years. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also deserves credit for his unwillingness to forcibly crush the rebellion in the satellite nations during 1989-1991. Others who meaningfully contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Empire include Pope John Paul II, the courageous dissident groups within the Empire, and the Western armed forces that stood watch and sometimes fought on the Eurasian periphery and elsewhere during the "long twilight struggle." But when all is said and done, it was Ronald Reagan who seized the moment and instituted the right policies at the right time to bring about the Soviet collapse.