The Forgotten Cold War: 20 Years Later, Myths About U.S. Victory Persist

Twenty years after its end, few recall how it dominated our lives. Leslie H. Gelb on the myths that remain.

As the Soviet flag was lowered from atop the Kremlin 20 years ago this month for the last time, it marked the first time in modern history that major powers ended their struggles without war. After threatening American values and interests at home and abroad for nearly half a century, the Soviet Union and the Cold War simply vanished. The perilous contest died, but a dangerous myth lived and thrived-- that President Ronald Reagan won the day with unmatchable hikes in military spending and by being tough and uncompromising. Today, that myth tugs daily in wrong directions regarding the most momentous U.S. policy decisions in hotspots like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and China.

The myth that military power and true grit conquer all locks every major dispute into a test of wills. It blocks the full deployment of American powers. It does no justice to the sophisticated diplomacy employed by Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush. Above all, it blinds today’s policymakers from seeing clearly what actually won the Cold War and what matters most in 21st-century global affairs—the strength of the U.S. economy.

Without doubt, superior arms and determination were essential in thwarting the Soviet Union. But diplomacy was at least as critical, especially as the Soviet demise neared, when the Cold War could have concluded not with a whimper, but a bang. At that moment and during the critical period that followed, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush used diplomacy not to make unrealistic demands upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but to help him do what he wanted to do—dismantle the Soviet empire to save the Soviet Union itself and reform the Soviet political and economic system. Gorby was on the ropes. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet troops limped out of Afghanistan, and the Soviet economy was in tatters. Almost everything Gorby wanted to do would reduce the threat to America and its allies. The trick was to help him do it, and that’s what Reagan and Bush did. Pure toughness without sensitive diplomacy would have weakened Gorby in the Kremlin and could have led to more Cold War standoffs, or to war. Toughness tendered with diplomatic compromises led to winning without war.

But the driving force underpinning U.S. military power, grit, and diplomacy was the comparative power of the U.S. economy: the Soviet economy was crashing after many decades of communist corruption, gross military spending, and over-planning, while America’s was still sparking.

Aside from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, some CIA analysts, and Reagan himself, few saw what was really happening in the early 1980s. Most startlingly, the Soviets’ chief of the general staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, saw the writing on the wall more clearly than anyone, and saw it long before anyone could claim that Reagan’s military buildup had brought the Soviets to their knees. Here’s what he told me in a mostly off-the-record conversation in March 1983 at a huge conference table in the Soviet Defense Ministry’s conference room ringed by triumphal Soviet divisional flags: “The Cold War is over, and you have won.”

This shocking talk began with my attacking the recent buildup of Soviet missiles in Europe. “Stop the baloney, Leslie,” said the tall, red-haired general famed for his hawkishness. “You know your country has military superiority over my country, and that your superiority is growing.”

“All modern military capability is based on economic innovation, technology, and economic strength,” he continued. “And military technology is based on computers. You are far, far ahead of us with computers.” Now waving his arms, “I will take you around this ministry and you will see that even many offices here don’t have computers. In your country, every little child has a computer from age 5.”

“We are so far behind because our political leadership is afraid of computers. The political leadership in my country sees the free use of computers as fatal to their control of information and their power. So, we are far behind you today, and will be more so tomorrow.”

Ogarkov surely shared his revolutionary views with his fellow Politburo members, who fired him the year following our talk, and then consigned him to a frivolous non-post in Eastern Europe. He died in obscurity in 1994.

Reagan and Ogarkov’s insights notwithstanding, the myth prevailed: Moscow tried and failed to match the Reagan military increases, over-stretched, caved economically, then politically. But here’s the reality as seen by almost all scholars who’ve read the Soviet archives and the CIA experts: far from trying to match Reagan’s massive military buildup, the Soviets held their military expenditures roughly constant throughout the 1980s as a percent of their GDP. As for the claim that Moscow also tried and failed to match Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defense system, that’s also false. They were not starstruck by Star Wars and always felt their huge missile force could overwhelm the Star Wars shield, even in the unlikely event that it worked.

Since those years, America’s foreign policy has paid mostly lip service to the centrality of U.S. economic strength. And it hasn’t pursued politically unpopular diplomacy with bad guys with Reagan-like determination. Reagan, Bush I, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz—the great American diplomats—did not fear to negotiate, to compromise strategically, and to persist. They had the inner confidence that America’s power allowed for compromises, and that even after compromising with bad guys, the United States had the advantages to land on top. Reagan was right about Moscow being “The Evil Empire.” But that didn’t stop him or our other great statesmen from pursuing sensible compromises in America’s interests.

Truman and Eisenhower knew the power of economics. They made enormous economic sacrifices to help Germany and Japan after World War II. There were no guarantees these investments would pay off. And yet, for decades now, these two nations have been among America’s closest and most potent allies. Fidel Castro’s Cuba would have succumbed decades ago had Washington not feared to open up the economic spigots. Fear of being snared by American goodies was the real reason Castro himself didn’t want those spigots opened.

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Castro knew the U.S. game was to use economic ties to overthrow him. Bad guys today in Tehran and Pyongyang are making the same calculus, and they aren’t wrong. To be blunt, don’t expect them to abandon their nuclear weapons or nuclear programs in return for our economic lures. They have to believe they can survive without their nukes. Convincing them will take brilliant diplomacy and compromise. Remember, the alternative is war—and perhaps after 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Americans can now glimpse its prohibitive costs and limitations.

As for China, no sane American military expert would advocate a land war in Asia. The competition and the cooperation will continue mainly along economic lines. For sure, military competition will grow as well. But which country prevails in the burgeoning global tug of war will turn directly on which economy works best.

Now, 20 years since the Cold War’s end, both Russia and the United States remain cursed—Moscow by the distracting memory of a greatness that it can never recover, and Washington by its inability to shake the myth that military power and true grit conquer all. Russia’s good fortune rests on its leaders getting over the lust for new global power and getting on with genuine democracy at home. Moscow still has a long way to go, judging by recent protests in major Russian cities over manipulated parliamentary elections. America’s good future rests in good measure on setting aside its triumphal myths and getting down to the hard business of rejuvenating its diplomacy and its economy.