Ronald Reagan was one of twentieth-century America's most enthusiastic Cold Warriors. In his Hollywood days, he even served as a secret FBI informant, testifying against Communists in the film industry while serving as head of the Screen Actors Guild and supporting the blacklist against subversives in Hollywood. In his political career, Reagan always toed a hard line against the Soviet Union, which—apparently influenced by the popular Star Wars films—he famously denounced as an "Evil Empire."
Many of Reagan's greatest admirers today celebrate his strong anti-Soviet stance, arguing that Reagan's firmness in waging the Cold War led directly to the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Reagan's aggressive policy toward the Soviets, they say, ended up winning the Cold War for the United States. Reagan's detractors, by contrast, argue that he was recklessly and unnecessarily militant, and that only the good fortune of sane leadership in Moscow saved us all from nuclear apocalypse.
Both groups are mostly wrong.
In fact, Reagan's diplomatic legacy was more complicated than either his admirers or critics are likely to admit. Reagan did lead the United States to victory in the Cold War. But his greatest successes came during his second term, when he abandoned his earlier steadfastness to take a much more flexible stance in his relations with reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan found victory when he found the courage to compromise. By acting as Gorbachev's partner as much as his enemy, Reagan helped the Soviet leader to dismantle the erstwhile "Evil Empire" peacefully, from within.
Such a happy outcome scarcely seemed possible in the early years of the Reagan presidency. When Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was still ruled by Leonid Brezhnev, a ruthless Stalinist hardliner who was determined to hold together the Soviet empire by force, if necessary. Reagan matched Brezhnev's indisposition to compromise. Elaborating on the memorable sloganeering of the "Evil Empire" speech, Reagan publicly declared the Soviet Union to be the unique "focus of evil in the modern world," an inherently menacing power that could never be trusted in international affairs.11
Reagan called for a massive buildup in the American armed forces to deter any potential Soviet attack and allow the United States to prevail in battle if the Cold War should ever turn hot. As both superpowers built up their arsenals of nuclear weaponry as fast as they could, Cold War tensions skyrocketed to levels not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. For the first time in a generation, full-fledged nuclear war seemed an imminent possibility. In 1983, millions of Americans tuned in to a TV movie called The Day After, which depicted, in vivid detail, the devastating aftermath of a nuclear World War III. The plot seemed uncomfortably plausible.
But the nuclear doomsday never arrived. Brezhnev died in 1982, leading to a succession of weak and short-lived Soviet leaders that ended with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Gorbachev was a different kind of Communist dictator. The new Soviet leader saw that the USSR was disintegrating from within, and sought to revive Soviet Communism by reforming it. He announced new policies of glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring"), which promised to end the worst abuses of the Soviet police state by granting its citizens greater political and economic freedoms. At the same time, Gorbachev sought to ratchet down Cold War hostilities by negotiating an end to the arms race with the Americans.
Given Reagan's decades-old belief that all Communists were manipulative liars who should never be trusted, it would not have been surprising at all if Reagan had rebuffed Gorbachev's peaceful overtures as nothing more than a cynical gambit. But to Reagan's everlasting credit, he chose to set aside his own anticommunist convictions and meet with Gorbachev. The rest, as they say, is history.
Between 1986 and 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev held a series of summit meetings, surprising many observers by forging not only a strong working partnership but even a close personal friendship. The two leaders reached a series of agreements on arms control. At one point, incredibly, Reagan agreed in principle to a Gorbachev proposal that the two superpowers should destroy all the nuclear weapons in the world. (The details proved unworkable and the proposal never came to fruition—in part because the chief advisers to both Reagan and Gorbachev were appalled by the idea. But the mere fact that Ronald Reagan came to embrace even the concept of total nuclear disarmament must go down as one of the great shocks of modern American political history.)
In 1988, Gorbachev invited Reagan to visit him at home in Moscow, where—amazingly—throngs of Soviet citizens greeted the American president as a great hero. At Gorbachev's request, Reagan even gave a lecture on the merits of capitalism and democracy to students at the prestigious Moscow State University. The president, standing before a giant bust of Communist revolutionary V.I. Lenin, gave a speech extolling the virtues of the free market economy—and was lustily cheered by the Soviet students.
By working with Mikhail Gorbachev rather than against him, Ronald Reagan helped to strengthen the growing spirit of reform within the Soviet Union. In the end, that reform movement developed a momentum all its own, pushing far beyond even Gorbachev's objectives, leading to the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid dismantling of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991. Ronald Reagan's role in that great victory should never be denied—but it has often been misunderstood.