The Gipper Won the Cold War?

John T Kuehn's picture

Should the Gipper get all the Credit, or some of the Credit, or little of the…?

John T. Kuehn

Note:  Yes this is an H-WAR blog post, not an H-DIPLO blog post.

Recently, at one of my other favorite web locations,  Ryan Evans’ War on the Rocks, I came across this title and this quotation in the blurb for a podcast:


“As Inboden [one of the podcasters] points out, many of Reagan’s signature victories, including his pivotal role in defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, seem inevitable in retrospect, but at the time, they were often seen as anything but inevitable. Reagan’s unwavering faith in his vision for the country was often at odds with expert assessments. Inboden and Gavin discuss the faith, fortunes, and failures that marked Reagan’s presidency.”

First, the question—these how questions presume, do they not?  In this case not “why,” not “to what extent,”  but rather the tired (white) great man approach of “how.”  Okay, chill out Mr. Kuehn, right?

Wrong.  The Cold War ended, and it ended in the United States’ and the West’s favor, a macro-historical validation of the strength of market-capitalist driven political economy over that of top-down authoritarian command economies (TDACE).  Did people play a role? Sure they did, some on one side even joined the U.S. Navy because they thought in terms of democracy losing to communism (not market-capitalism losing to TDACE), and didn’t want to be accused of shirking should they ever have children.  George Kennan and Sam Huntington wrote about these things in the 1940s and 1950s and described the forces in play that many thought would eventually lead to the triumph of the West.  After Vietnam, sure, it did not seem so sure.  Post-war malaise in one of the many hot wars of the Cold War.  But that malaise seems to have obscured the larger tides of history from the Great White Knight riding in from California to deliver the world.  So, what were the other factors? Were any of more import than President Reagan's unwavering committment?  Was the US already rearming?  How would Reagan not being elected have affected that? And of course, political economy is important, but how important?

Bang!  Let the dialog/conversation begin.


[1] Podcast William Inboden and Francis J. Gavin, How The Gipper Won,” at War on the Rocks, November 26, 2022.

Interesting to me. No mention of Gorbachev. Remember him?

If memory serves me correctly, he was the one who started the process that ultimately led to the dissolution of the USSR - without any bloodshed. Would Reagan's Cold War "victory" been possible with, say, Andropov still in power, or Breshnev?

I SERIOUSLY doubt that.

My personal opinion - the true victors of the Cold War were all of us.

I think Reagan deserves some of the credit, certainly. I'd highlight his willingness (going against his own ideas) to believe that Gorbachev was serious in his reform efforts and work with the Soviet leader.

Like so many things, of course, there are *lots* of people who helped cause the end of the Cold War, from Gorbachev, to the national populations of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

Reagan was not the Gipper; he only pretended to be this Notre Dame football star from History.

Mike is right that we should remember Gorbachev, a reformer who rose to the exalted post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and proceeded to introduce "new political thinking," and the concept of "reasonable sufficiency" with regard to the armed forces.

One minor point -- my understanding, back in the 80s when I was focused on the USSR, was that Gorbachev was quite likely a protege of Andropov. He might not have risen so high without the support of an "eminence grise."

And I'd further like to remind everyone that the US military buildup of the 1980s was started by the Gipper's predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

It does seem like the podcasters are in that common, ethnocentric trap of seeing the United States as the actor and everyone else as sort of cardboard figures whose role on the world stage is to be acted upon. I still remember two historians where I did my post-Navy retirement doctoral work in the 1990s. The Americanist economic historian argued that Reagan's increased defense spending brought the USSR to its knees. The Russianist, whose work is on the Stalin era, contended that its own internal contradictions brought down the Soviet Union. Each of their arguments had merit, and the multiplicity of causes approach always seems best.

The Russianist did not lay out the contradictions to which he alluded. He was presenting to a world history class taught by the Americanist, so it would have been beyond the scope. It was certainly a wonderful example of conflicting interpretations that we teaching assistants could use in our discussion sections.

It seems to me that those internal contradictions in the Soviet Union, existed independently of the increased defense budgets of the Reagan presidency. Whether they would have led to dissolution is a disputable counterfactual that likely cannot be resolved, but I think that we should not discard the possibility that dissolution would have happened anyway. On a different time line, with different stresses provided the stimulus, but possible nonetheless.

Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika destroyed the USSR. They were the policies of a true Leninist believer. Free examination of the past and present doomed the system. Once the people understood the system was all a lie it was finished. A true accounting of history (facts not fantasy) killed the USSR.
Ronald Reagan can be likened to a man in a storm raining gold who had the presence of mind to turn his umbrella upside down.
As for the aftermath, that is another story.

Reagan did inherit the arms build up and things like the double-track decision but his administration should receive credit for expanding the former and keeping NATO leadership unified to enact the latter. The "unwavering commitment" John refers to shows up in what Dobrynin called an "uncompromising ideological offensive" and helped cast the Cold War in terms favorable to the US in a way few other politicians could have managed.

Where I think he deserves the most credit though is for his imagination and negotiating style. Reagan never wanted the US to be at a military disadvantage to the USSR, which through much of the Cold War and his first term meant nukes were essential. His recognition that the military's of the West were at point technologically to negate Soviet conventional advantage was key for the breakthroughs in arms control beginning with Reykjavik and carrying through the INF and the end of his turn. Reagan bucked a lot of his party to do this. His administration was also good about gaining concessions from the Soviets and quietly pocketing them much to Gorbachev's frustration. A key part though was Reagan rarely spiked the football after winning which did allow Gorbachev space to maneuver domestically.

None of this is to say that Reagan "won" the Cold War. Gorbachev was obviously central as were the people of Eastern Europe. To me that it ended mostly bloodlessly in Europe is incredible and the result of a lot of things coming together in an unlikely fashion. I do think it would have been different without Reagan, a Bush administration would have been slower and more risk adverse in capitalizing on opportunities for example. A Democrat would have had a more difficult time getting arms control treaties through a Republican controlled Senate and would have faced more criticism for having such a publicly positive relationship with a Soviet leader.

Bruce's points carry weight. Reagan's financial impacts on the American economy, concerned with defense in Europe, preceded considerably his time in office. As early as the late 1960s, none other than Democratic Party Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mike Mansfield[Montana], already had raised issues with continued US military deployment in Europe. [1]

Even then, his calls were directed at reductions to US defense burdens due to their impact on the American economy; not exactly the grounds of arguendo made by a now disgraced Republican, to reduce US defense in Europe by calling for larger contributions from Europe in its own defense. The outcomes were, however, much the same in consequences, by reduction of the US footprint on troop levels and defense forces stationed in Europe. For Democrats to make such a call was considerable change from the postwar history of American involvement in Europe, during threats of the Soviets in Cold War history.

ftnts: 1----Congressional Record, at the end of the 60s decade, contain Sen. Mansfield's Senate records and speeches on the need for reductions in US troop deployments in Europe.
Most regrettably, at present time, my copies of these daily CRs are not handy for citations of specifics; being stored and non-accessible for now. His declarations are due to economic burdens on the US economy then.

It is good that Gorbachev and the Soviets got mentioned, but there were other players who need recognition for forcing Gorby's hand. That is: Poland (Solidarity, Lech Wałęsa) and East Germany (DDR, Die Vende and the Autumn Revolution), and the other satellite states. To account for Poland and Solidarity, we have to include Pope John Paul II and the Vatican's "Divisions" that united the Poles most effectively. The dismay of the DDR regime's stalwarts in summer 1990 as their faith in communism crumbled was palpable as they searched for a new faith, religious or otherwise.