How Did the Cold War Really End?

Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at the White House, December 1987

In retrospect everything about the cold war’s ending can appear deceptively simple. The Soviet economy could not keep up with that of the United States or, indeed, with the fast-developing market economies in Asia. Thus it was left with no alternative but to undertake fundamental reform. Ronald Reagan’s support for greatly increased American military spending, not least on his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), forced the Soviet Union to admit defeat and to pursue a concessionary foreign policy. Victory went to the side with the greater economic and military strength, and President Reagan, having the stronger cards at his disposal, played them well. In this account Mikhail Gorbachev was enough of a realist to see the direction in which history was moving and to accommodate himself to it.

What are we to make of this? A long-term decline in the Soviet rate of economic growth, together with technological lag, was, indeed, a stimulus to reform, but if the admittedly backward condition of the Soviet economy had been the overwhelming driving force for change, it was rather odd that Gorbachev proceeded to give a far higher priority to radical political reform than to introducing economic reform based on markets. And since the Soviet Union retained the means to destroy the United States, with SDI but a distant and fanciful prospect for preventing this, the Soviet leadership before Gorbachev (as Politburo transcripts from 1983–1984 confirm) saw no reason to alter the country’s defense policy.

Military industry and the space program were the main exceptions to Soviet technological backwardness, and though paying for them was a greater burden than it was for the much larger American economy, it was a price the leadership was willing to pay. Constant warnings of external threat made it relatively easy to mobilize support for military spending, and the nature of the political system was such that grumbling about consumer shortages, a concomitant both of the bloated defense budget and of a nonmarket economy, came nowhere close to provoking mass political unrest. It was not economic crisis that compelled radical reform but radical reform that led in due course to a political crisis.

The notion that the Reagan administration was so successful in turning the military balance of power against the Soviet Union that the Kremlin leaders had no option but to change the system and seek accommodation with the United States is lacking also in historical perspective. It is hard to reconcile with the fact that the East–West imbalance was much more to the advantage of the West in earlier postwar decades than it was by the time Gorbachev entered the Kremlin. Yet those earlier years were a time of Communist expansion. What had changed by the late 1970s and 1980s was a loss of faith in the Communist project on…

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