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(END of the COLD WAR and the SOVIET UNION – continued)

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Gorbachev and Reagan

The President of the United States since 1981 was Ronald Reagan. He had been calling the Soviet Union an evil empire. He was afraid of nuclear war and was committed to developing a perfect defense system called Star Wars. Reagan's critics complained it would seem to the Russians to give the US a first strike capability – eliminating the possibility of retaliation.

President Reagan's ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, writes that Reagan wanted to end the arms race and wanted to convince the Soviet leaders that it was in their interest to come to an accommodation with the West. Matlock writes:

Reagan set out to construct a framework for negotiation that would stress accommodation rather than confrontation.   NOTE: Matlock, Superpower Illusions, p. 31 – a book endorsed by Reagan's Secretary of State, George P. Shultz.

Photo of William F. Buckley jr.

William F. Buckley Jr. (above) and some other conservatives were disturbed by Reagan's friendliness with Gorbachev. The columnist George Will complained that "Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy."

Khrushchev and Brezhnev had believed that Soviet military prowess was necessary to restrain the capitalist powers from attacking the Soviet Union and its satellites, and they believed that foreign policy should be a part of the class struggle. Gorbachev was on a different tack. A part of Gorbachev's plan to improve the economy was to reduce military spending. He believed that the Soviet military was absorbing too much wealth and scarce resources, and he believed that one way to reduce military spending was to make an arms agreement with the United States. Gorbachev saw US leaders as rational, as not interested in destroying the Soviet Union through war and as wanting to avoid a nuclear holocaust. Gorbachev believed that the capitalist powers were not in need of restraint provided by the Soviet Union. He remained a Marxist but rejected applying the class struggle to foreign policy.

There were many who had favored belligerence and threats against the Soviet Union in order to diminish Communism. But the opposite was happening. It was a friendly US, represented by Reagan, that was diminishing Soviet Communism.

Matlock writes that,

Reagan knew very well that cordiality alone was not enough. He had to convince Gorbachev, among other things, that the United States was not trying to break up the Soviet Union or to use arms reduction in order to create a military advantage. (p. 48)

Some were to describe Reagan as having forced Gorbachev to adopt his new policy toward the Cold War because of the Soviet Union's inability to keep up with US advances in military spending. But this is not quite what happened. The Soviet Union's military wanted to keep up with the US, but Gorbachev argued with them. Reagan's Star Wars idea and his hostile attitude toward the "evil empire" made Gorbachev's arguments more difficult, but Gorbachev remained convinced that reductions in military spending were necessary to improve the Soviet economy, and Gorbachev let military spending decline with the decline of the Soviet economy in general.

Back in April 1985 – his first month in office – Gorbachev had announced his first unilateral initiative: a temporary freeze on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Gorbachev met Reagan at Geneva a few months later, in November, and they met again in October 1986 at Reykjavik in Iceland, and yet again in May 1988 at a summit meeting in Moscow. Gorbachev and Reagan became friends, Gorbachev recognizing that Reagan sincerely wanted to avoid a nuclear holocaust and that he was a man of decency and sincerity – a former actor who was not faking it. And Reagan saw Gorbachev as something other than an evil Communist robot. Gorbachev convinced Reagan that he was sincere in wanting to end the arms race and in collaborating with the West in restructuring relations.

Reagan and his advisor concerning Soviet affairs, Jack Matlock, ambassador to the Soviet Union, were pursuing a strategy of achieving change by offering the Soviet Union what they could see was in their interest. They were not trying to bully the Soviet Union – which, according to Matlock, would have been counterproductive.

Reagan became the leading "dove" in his administration while he was being attacked by conservatives outside his administration. Howard Phillips called Reagan "a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda" and "an apologist for Gorbachev." William F. Buckley complained that, "To greet it [the Soviet Union] as if it were no longer evil is on the order of changing our entire position toward Adolf Hitler."

There proved to be a benefit from Gorbachev having judged President Reagan as someone he could trust and as wanting peace. Gorbachev stunned Reagan's advisors by agreeing to disarmament proposals that these advisors had put forth merely as a bargaining ploy. Meanwhile, Gorbachev's attitudes were making him popular in Western Europe and the United States, where people were calling him "Gorbie." And soon Gorbachev would win the Nobel prize for peace.

According to Matlock, Reagan writes,

Let there be no talk of winners and losers. Even if we think we won, to say so would set us back. (p.41)

President Reagan would visit the Soviet Union in May 1988. He was received warmly by ordinary citizens and enthusiastically by students responding to his speech at Moscow University. In Moscow he would be asked by journalists whether he still thought the Soviet Union was an evil empire. "No," he replied, "that was another time, another era." (p. 46)

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Copyright © 2000-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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