Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. And as soon as it did, a myth began to arise: that it was Ronald Reagan’s uncompromising anti-communism that brought the Soviet Union to its knees. The myth’s consequences have been immense: Again and again, post-Cold War hawks have invoked Reagan to oppose negotiations with America’s enemies, and to justify the threat—if not the actual use—of force. There’s just one problem: The myth is almost entirely false. Two decades later, it’s high time ordinary Americans learn what most serious historians already know: that Reagan didn’t end the Cold War because he was a hawk. He ended it because he turned into a dove.
• More Daily Beast takes on the Berlin Wall anniversaryTo be sure, Reagan began his presidency as a hawk: He jacked up defense spending, created "Star Wars," and called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” That’s the Reagan conservatives know and love today. What they conveniently forget is that Reagan began to ditch that hard line in early 1984—more than a year before Mikhail Gorbachev took power. In a dramatic January 1984 speech, Reagan abandoned his previous hostility to negotiations, declaring that “the fact that neither of us likes the other’s system is no reason not to talk.” And not only did he call for reducing nuclear weapons, he announced that “my dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth.” From that moment until the end of his presidency, as Beth Fischer and other historians have documented, Reagan talked less about the Soviet threat than about the threat of nuclear war, and he never called the USSR an evil empire again.
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Why the shift? Firstly, because Reagan’s advisers feared that if he stuck to his hard line, Americans would not reelect him. By 1984, the American public had turned sharply against Reagan’s military buildup, largely because after three years of no negotiations and lots of bellicose rhetoric, they were terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. The second reason for the shift was that Reagan was terrified of nuclear war, too. A movie-obsessive who often had trouble distinguishing reality from celluloid, he was deeply disturbed by the 1983 made-for-TV film The Day After, which depicted Lawrence, Kansas, in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. And late that year, when a U.S. military exercise called Able Archer briefly convinced the Soviets that America was planning a nuclear strike, he realized that things were getting out of hand. Thirdly, Reagan believed that because of his military buildup, the U.S. could finally negotiate from a position of strength.
When Gorbachev took power in early 1985, Reagan immediately launched serious disarmament talks... At the time, almost every prominent conservative commentator and politician said Reagan was being duped.
At first, Reagan’s overtures didn’t get very far because his Soviet counterparts, Yuri Andropov and then Konstantin Chernenko, each had one foot in the grave. (“I keep trying to negotiate with the Soviet leaders, and they keep dying on me,” Reagan quipped). But when Gorbachev took power in early 1985, Reagan immediately launched serious disarmament talks, even though Gorbachev had not even announced his domestic economic reforms, let alone set Eastern Europe free. At the time, almost every prominent conservative commentator and politician—from George Will to Norman Podhoretz to William F. Buckley to Dick Cheney to Dan Quayle—said Reagan was being duped. Charles Krauthammer called Gorbachev “Khrushchev with a tailor.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page declared that “Historians may someday explain what turned Mr. Reagan into a utopian disarmer.” When he signed the INF disarmament deal with Gorbachev in 1987—two years before the Berlin Wall came down—the Washington Times compared Reagan to Neville Chamberlain. Today, conservatives pretend that Reagan was always a hawk. But at the time, they knew all too well that he had morphed into a dove. And Reagan knew it, too. At his first summit with Gorbachev, he whispered to his Soviet counterpart, “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”
There’s a grain of truth to the right-wing notion that Reagan’s early military buildup scared the Soviet Union into submission: Some (though not all) in the Kremlin hierarchy did genuinely fear that the USSR, because of its technological backwardness, could not compete with Star Wars. But the larger reality is that even without Reagan’s initial buildup, a Soviet leader would have eventually tried to curb the arms race. By the 1980s, military spending constituted an eye-popping 40 percent of the USSR’s budget, Moscow was importing vast quantities of grain, and the Russian people were growing restive. Sooner or later, a reformer like Gorbachev would have emerged. What really mattered was that when Gorbachev did emerge, he was able to convince the Politburo that the USSR could dramatically reduce military spending—and let Eastern Europe go free—without fearing American attack. (The USSR, it’s worth remembering, had been attacked through Eastern Europe in both World War I and World II.) And Gorbachev could do that because Reagan’s dovish rhetoric and his embrace of arms control made America seem far less menacing. As Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin noted, “If Reagan had struck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986…Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who doesn’t want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense.”
Had Reagan refused to negotiate seriously with America’s enemies between 1984 and 1988, we would not be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Cold War’s end today. Luckily for the world, he ignored Dick Cheney and made peace. Let’s hope Barack Obama does, too.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.