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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 Reagan and the Collapse of the Soviet Empire

Ronald Reagan’s 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. Kennan’s 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.

Harry Truman
The Truman administration initially combined overt resistance to Soviet encroachments in Europe with covert efforts to undermine Soviet power in Eastern and Central Europe. Diplomatic pressure in Iran, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift, financial assistance to non-communist parties in Western Europe, and the formation of NATO—all of which were designed to contain the spread of Soviet communism—were complemented with psychological, political and guerilla tactics behind the iron curtain. Truman’s key policy document, NSC-68, envisioned an offensive strategy to defeat the Soviet Empire. American strategy, according to NSC-68, sought to "induce a retraction of the Kremlin’s control and influence," and to "foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system." When Soviet-backed North Korean forces invaded South Korea in June 1950, the U.S.-led United Nations forces not only resisted the attack, but sought, with Truman’s initial blessing, to liberate all of Korea from communist control. When communist Chinese forces intervened on a massive scale in October-November 1950, Truman, much to the chagrin of U.N and American commander, General Douglas MacArthur, abandoned the policy of liberating Korea and settled for containment.

The early Eisenhower administration gave lip service to a policy of "rolling back" the Soviet Empire. Eisenhower’s 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.

John Kennedy
John F. Kennedy’s presidency combined inspiring rhetoric about promoting liberty throughout the world ("bear any burden," "pay any price") with a reckless amateurism in the conduct of foreign policy. That amateurism led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the failed summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, the unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, the empty response to the construction of the Berlin Wall, the undermining of Diem in South Vietnam, and the promotion of arms control as a key element in U.S.-Soviet relations. Kennedy and his advisers ("the best and the brightest") moved energetically from crisis to crisis, and time and again, in the words of a recent historian of the Cold War, "energy…outstripped wisdom." Even the one arguably significant Cold War accomplishment of the Kennedy administration, the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, was a "negative" victory in that it merely pushed back a Soviet advance. And Kennedy paid a significant price for that negative victory by publicly promising to refrain from invading Cuba, which served as a Soviet base in the Western Hemisphere for the next twenty-seven years, and by secretly agreeing to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.
Lyndon Johnson

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 defensive—to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam, not to liberate the North from communist rule. Containment also dictated Johnson’s 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.

Richard Nixon
This policy—called "détente"—emphasized arms control, trade agreements, superpower summitry, and an overall "lessening of tension" between the superpowers. Containment, to be sure, was still part of U.S. policy, as evidenced by the nuclear alert ordered by Nixon in response to threats of Soviet intervention during the Arab-Israeli War in 1973, and the courting of China as a de facto strategic ally against the Soviet Union. But détente helped to ideologically disarm the West by fostering illusions about the nature of Soviet communism. Détente’s consequences included U.S. acquiescence to the loss of strategic nuclear superiority, a willingness to overlook Soviet cheating on arms control agreements, the U.S. abandonment of longtime allies in Southeast Asia, and formal recognition—in the Helsinki Accords—of a Soviet sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Nothing better symbolized the loss of American confidence and will during the years of détente than President Ford’s unwillingness to welcome Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the White House for fear of offending Soviet leaders.
Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter pursued détente to its logical extreme. In Carter’s 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 "won’t 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 Moscow’s hold" on Eastern Europe.

Ronald Reagan
Reagan’s offensive strategy included providing aid to anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and elsewhere; supporting dissident groups and movements in Eastern Europe; toppling the Soviet-backed government in Grenada; tightening controls on the transfer of militarily useful technology to Eastern bloc countries; promoting SDI; a massive U.S. military build-up; and efforts to exploit Soviet economic difficulties.

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.

Reagan’s 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.


The author is an Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and the author of the book, Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Publishers 2002).

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