Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Gorby, Not The Gipper, Took Lead Role In Ending Cold War

by Lawrence Martin

to more on Reagan's shameful legacy

Fiction has its place -- especially at the time of one's passing. And so, the American airwaves glisten these days with tales about how it was Ronald Reagan who engineered the defeat of communism and the end of the Cold War.

It was his arms buildup, Republican admirers say, and his menacing rhetoric that brought the Soviets to their knees and changed the world forever. He was a pleasant man, the 40th president, which makes this fairy tale easier to swallow than some of history's other canards. Truth be known, however, the Iron Curtain's collapse was hardly Ronald Reagan's doing.

It was Mikhail Gorbachev, who with a sweeping democratic revolution at home and one peace initiative after another abroad, backed the Gipper into a corner, leaving him little choice -- actors don't like to be upstaged -- but to concede there was a whole new world opening up over there.

As a journalist based first in Washington, then in Moscow, I was fortunate to witness the intriguing drama from both ends.

In R.R., the Soviet leader knew he was dealing with an archetype Cold Warrior. To bring him around to "new thinking" would require a rather wondrous set of works. And so the Gorbachev charm offensive began. The first offering, in 1985, was the Kremlin's unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests. "Propaganda!" the White House declared.

Then Gorbachev announced a grandiose plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons by 2000. Just another hoax, the Reagan men cried. More Commie flim-flam.

Then came another concession -- Kremlin permission for on-site arms inspections on Soviet land -- and then the Reykjavik summit. In Iceland, Gorbachev put his far-reaching arms-reduction package on the table and Reagan, to global condemnation, walked away, offering nothing in return.

Glasnost and perestroika became the new vernacular. For those in the White House like Richard Perle, the prince of darkness who still thought it was all a sham, Gorby now began a withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. He released the dissident icon Andrei Sakharov and hundreds of other political prisoners. He made big strides on freedom of the press, immigration and religion. He told East European leaders that the massive Soviet military machine would no longer prop up their creaking dictatorships. He began the process of something unheard of in Soviet history -- democratic elections.

By now, the U.S. administration was reeling. Polls were beginning to show that, of all things unimaginable, a Soviet leader was the greatest force for world peace. An embarrassed Reagan finally responded in kind. Nearing the end of his presidency, he came to Moscow and he signed a major arms-control agreement and warmly embraced Gorbachev. A journalist asked the president if he still thought it was the evil empire. "No," he replied, "I was talking about another time, another era."

The recasting of the story now suggests that President Reagan's defense-spending hikes -- as if there hadn't been American military buildups before -- somehow intimidated the Kremlin into its vast reform campaign. Or that America's economic strength -- as if the Soviets hadn't always been witheringly weak by comparison -- made the Soviet leader do it.

In fact, Gorbachev could have well perpetuated the old totalitarian system. He still had the giant Soviet armies, the daunting nuclear might and the chilling KGB apparatus at his disposal.

But he had decided that the continuing clash of East-West ideologies was senseless, that his sick and obsolescent society was desperate for democratic air. His historic campaign that followed wasn't about Ronald Reagan. It would have happened with or without this president. Rather, it was about him, Mikhail Gorbachev: his will, his inner strength, his human spirit. As for the Gipper, he was bold and wise enough, to shed his long-held preconceptions and become the Russian's admirable companion in the process.

In the collapse of communism he deserves credit not as an instigator, but an abettor. Best Supporting Actor.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor June 11, 2004 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.