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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Reexamining the lessons of victory in the Cold War

WASHINGTON -- In the echo chamber of 24-hour TV, the claim that Ronald Reagan's defense buildup won the Cold War flows effortlessly off the tongues of anchormen, as assuredly as if Mikhail Gorbachev had surrendered to Reagan on the pitching deck of the battleship Missouri.

The claim is not far-fetched. It is, in fact, the standard interpretation of conservatives, a piece of history that underpins the ideology of many in the current administration. It's also the credible opinion of many historians, but only when considered alongside other factors such as a crumbling Soviet economy, demographic changes that would have made Russians a minority in their own empire, and the yearnings and protests of many Eastern European satellite states.

Would the Soviet Union have collapsed if Reagan hadn't initiated vast new weapons systems and pressured European allies to place more nuclear warheads in close range to Russia? It's unknowable, obviously, and has already provoked thousands of academic debates.

But it's at least arguable to suggest that yes, the Soviet Union would have collapsed without Reagan: Even without having to counter the US buildup of the '80s, the Soviet economy was too feeble to meet the demands of the public, the police state, and the Red Army.

''They spent themselves into a mess, but the truth is they were spending too much on the military before" Reagan, said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Soviet scholar. ''Reagan can take a lot of credit for this, but it's not right to say that we won the Cold War. They lost it. The communist system imploded."

No one would begrudge the excessive claims of a few obituary writers and some TV anchors, weary from hours on the air. They were honoring a major figure who had earned a special place in the affections of tens of millions of Americans. But this particular claim will carry political significance long after Lincoln's caisson is put back in mothballs to await the next state funeral.

When President Bush paid tribute to Reagan on the night of his death, he alluded to the US victory in the Cold War, declaring that Reagan exuded ''the confidence that comes with conviction," and therefore now ''leaves behind . . . a world he helped save."

To neoconservatives in the Bush administration, Reagan's fortitude in promoting weapons that critics considered too costly and too provocative forced the Soviet Union to fold its cards, like a poker player confronted by a rival who puts a mountain of chips on the table and then calls the hand.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration mobilized itself along trenches dug for the Cold War, with the president declaring that terrorism is an ideology as insidious as communism.

There were, and are, serious differences between superpower brinksmanship and the fight against terror. Terrorism doesn't have an army, let alone a state, and is fueled by resentments that can't easily be summed up in an ideology. Nonetheless, the planning for Bush's war on terrorism drew heavily on the perceived lessons of the Cold War.

In the late '70s, Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives distrusted CIA estimates of Soviet strength and participated in a government ''Team B" exercise replacing the CIA's assumptions with more hawkish ones of their own. When the Iron Curtain crumbled, it turned out the CIA was more on target than Team B, but the hawks quickly forgot that fact: Their depictions of Soviet strength had helped create a political climate for Reagan's defense buildup, and the buildup, they felt, won the Cold War.

In 2002, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives set up a Pentagon office to provide more aggressive intelligence about the capabilities of Iraq. That agency, fed with the tales of Iraqi defectors, helped mislead the world about Saddam Hussein's arsenal. Perhaps those mistakes, too, may one day be considered good service in the higher cause of promoting peace through strength.

Certainly Bush would like nothing more than to be twinned in the public mind with Reagan, two uncompromising Westerners who saw clear truths while others were fogged by doubt. Crediting Reagan with the defeat of the Soviet Union justifies a deeper comparison between the two ''war presidents."

The public imagination, once unleashed, can make its own comparisons. In the classic Western tradition, Reagan would be the aging cowboy often played by the older John Wayne; Bush would be the young whippersnapper played by, say, Troy Donahue. Over time the older man would soften the younger, make him less impulsive and more respectful of the enemy. And perhaps Reagan's image will have the same effect on Bush's.

Image-making was a huge part of Reagan's success, and the old magic, hastily repackaged, may yet win a second term for George W. Bush.

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