Modern history, as it is taught in Republican campaign speeches and conservative Op-Ed articles, holds that when Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981 the Soviet Union was a thriving superpower, militarily superior to the United States and able, without much apparent strain, to outdo America in developing and deploying dangerous new weapons. Year after year during the 1980s, the Pentagon issued a slick booklet, “Soviet Military Power,” that recounted breathtaking new feats of Soviet weaponry. Experienced defense intellectuals warned of a “window of vulnerability,” a period during which Russia might calculate that it could start and win a nuclear war. One theory, put forth by Paul Nitze, speculated that Russia had such superiority that it might launch a nuclear attack on the United States, ride out the inevitable US nuclear retaliation by sheltering in its extensive civil defense network, and then fire another nuclear salvo that would leave the United States devastated and unable to respond. Almost as bad, the Kremlin could merely point to this alleged strategic advantage and American leaders, seeing the undeniable calculus, would be forced to accept Soviet diktat.
The Central Intelligence Agency judged in the late 1970s that Soviet per capita income was about that of the United Kingdom or Japan. Internally, communism was portrayed, by us, as an economic success, distributing goods and services that satisfied the needs of a vast, multinational population. Externally, communism was on the march, from Afghanistan to Central America to South Africa.
In Moscow, the Communist Party was firmly entrenched and, according to the neoconservative scholar Jeane Kirkpatrick, incapable of change. Even as late as October 1988, a full three years after Soviet Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev had begun the revolution that eventually cost him his country and his job, the CIA’s top Soviet analyst, Robert Gates, warned in a speech, “The dictatorship of the Communist party remains untouched and untouchable…. A long, competitive struggle with the Soviet Union still lies before us.”
Yet, two months later, Gorbachev came to the United Nations in New York and, to anyone who paid attention, announced the surrender of communism. “We are, of course, far from claiming to be in possession of the ultimate truth,” he said—in one sentence undermining Marxism-Leninism’s claim to be the only scientific worldview, stripping legitimacy from the Party’s claimed right to have the “leading role” in Soviet society, and exposing his own doubt that communism would be the inevitable victor in the global class struggle. In the same speech, he announced unilateral military withdrawals from Eastern Europe. Finally, the light had failed, even for Gorbachev. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and two years after that, the Soviet Union collapsed altogether.
What happened? According to conservative thinkers, Ronald Reagan had looked upon this seemingly all-powerful Soviet structure and was unafraid. He had denounced it as “the evil empire,” called upon Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, and, most important, had envisioned an impermeable American defense, the Strategic Defense …