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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 Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, that would make all Soviet missiles useless.

Upon considering Reagan’s line of attack, according to the now current legend, the Soviet leaders clapped their hands to their collective foreheads in despair, realized the game was up, and allowed their entire political, economic, ideological, and social system to fall to pieces. They did not merely enter into arms negotiations; they gave up their empire, abandoned their values, surrendered their dreams, threw out their textbooks, and even lost their livelihoods. With his Everyman innocence and Midwestern straight talk, Ronald Reagan had caused the most dramatic collapse since Alice looked at the Red Queen and her court and exclaimed, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards.”

Reagan’s able biographer Lou Cannon writes that the President foresaw all this. In the preface to the new edition of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,1 Cannon says:

Reagan launched a military buildup premised on the belief that the Soviet Union was too economically vulnerable to compete in an accelerated arms race and would come to the bargaining table if pressured by the West. He preached a message of freedom that he believed would energize the people of Eastern Europe and penetrate within the Soviet Union itself. Many members of the political establishment, including some leading Republicans, thought these views were at best naive. They were also alarmed by Reagan’s provocative comments about communism, particularly his resonant description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But times changed. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989; by the end of 1991 most nations behind the former Iron Curtain were masters of their destiny, and the Soviet Union, as Reagan had foreseen, was left on the scrapheap of history.

That is, overall, the defeat of the Soviet Union went according to a far-sighted strategic plan, conceived by Reagan, who could see Soviet weaknesses that escaped his own closest advisers, including his secretary of defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. It is as pretty a story as any that Reagan himself ever told. But it should not survive Frances FitzGerald’s devastating, carefully researched study of the Reagan administration’s confused, chaotic, and contradictory dealings with the Soviet Union and the conservative obsession with Star Wars.

As FitzGerald shows, those who see Reagan’s Star Wars speech on March 23, 1983, as the trumpet blast that brought down the walls of the Soviet Union do not even have the benefit of the logical fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc. There is no hoc. Yes, Reagan made his speech, and, yes, the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed. But Star Wars has never been built; after an expenditure of more than $60 billion, none of its variations has ever passed a realistic operational test.

FitzGerald acknowledges that Star Wars may have had some purpose as a bargaining chip, even if only as a bluff, as former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane conceived it. But by 1987, under the tutelage of newly freed dissident Andrei Sakharov, a designer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Gorbachev called that bluff. As Reagan persisted at a Washington summit in trying to win Soviet approval for Star Wars tests, Gorbachev told him, “I think you’re wasting money. I don’t think it will work. But if that’s what you want to do, go ahead.”

Star Wars then ceased to have any negotiating value. Yet, astonishingly, the Reagan administration was by then so captive of its own rhetoric that it offered to give up real nuclear weapons if it could proceed with Star Wars research. “This was the ultimate irony,” FitzGerald writes. “For the past three and a half years [US arms negotiator Paul] Nitze had been working on a grand compromise in which the US would use the SDI bluff as a bargaining chip to extract major concessions on offensive weapons from the Soviet Union. But now here he was offering the Soviets a concession on offensive weapons for the sake of a non-existent defense.”

FitzGerald also shows that the Soviet Union never tried to match the Reagan defense buildup, the size of which was, in itself, based on a mathematical miscalculation rather than a strategic plan. The Reagan administration was simply determined to outspend the Carter administration on defense, not realizing that President Carter had already built in a substantial increase. Reagan officials then tried to find threats and weapons systems that would justify expenditures that had no relation to any military need. They revived the B-1 bomber and recommissioned two World War II-era battleships. They planned for a six-hundred-ship navy. They bought toilet seats at $600 each, and an Air Force airborne coffee maker for $14,000. Meanwhile, Soviet defense outlays continued to grow modestly, and increased as a percentage of gross domestic product largely because the civilian sector was collapsing.

In fact, Reagan and his conservative allies had inflated the Soviet threat, announced, but did not fully build, a defense program to resist it, and then claimed credit for the defeat of a mighty giant. The claim conflicts with reality. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a Democrat who had served as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tells us that in 1989 the CIA revised its estimates. Soviet per capita income was not equal to Britain’s; it was on a par with Mexico’s (and probably had been all along). Defense spending was surely a strain on the Kremlin, but that was an argument for reducing defense spending through arms control or retrenchment. The US military buildup and Star Wars do not explain the political and moral collapse of an empire that covered one sixth of the earth’s land surface and believed itself to hold “the brighter future for all mankind.”

FitzGerald’s story is kinder to Reagan than one might expect. In the liberal popular imagination, Reagan was simply an airhead, a garrulous ex-Hollywood actor, who seized upon Star Wars because it fulfilled his need for dramatic stories with happy endings. As a young contract actor for Warner Brothers, he had played Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft. In the 1940 movie Murder in the Air, Bancroft has to protect a superweapon called the inertia projector, which stops enemy planes by paralyzing their electrical circuits. Aides also suggested he was influenced by the 1966 movie Torn Curtain, in which Paul Newman says, “We will produce a defensive weapon that will make all nuclear weapons obsolete, and thereby abolish the terror of nuclear warfare.”

Reagan indeed loved stories and occasionally seemed unable to separate fact from fiction. As an example, FitzGerald recounts his famous tale, told to an assembly of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, in which a B-17 pilot, instead of parachuting from his stricken plane, holds hands with a wounded gunner who can’t escape and says, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” In Reagan’s version, the pilot then received a posthumous Medal of Honor. FitzGerald thinks he took the episode from a scene in A Wing and a Prayer, a war film about Navy fliers in the Pacific, and confused it with reality. In fact, Reagan was not quite so oblivious; his B-17 story is an almost verbatim repetition of a brief morale-boosting item in the April 1944 Reader’s Digest. In Reagan’s defense, we should acknowledge that the article, though it named no names, purported to be a true account.

In any case, Star Wars has deeper and somewhat more respectable roots than Reagan’s love of pretty stories. Both the Russians and the Americans were pursuing missile defenses long before Reagan came to power. And in its various guises, missile defense has been supported by such knowledgeable strategic thinkers as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. At the 1967 Glassboro summit, however, President Johnson’s negotiators tried to persuade Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin that such defenses have an inherent weakness. It is cheaper for each side to add offensive missiles than it is for the other to mount a defense against them. Deployment of a missile defense could therefore lead to an economically crippling and destabilizing arms race, as each side deployed more and more missiles to overcome the other’s defenses.

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    Public Affairs, April 2000.

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