Reagan won the cold war

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Myth: Reagan won the cold war

Few conservative myths are accepted by ordinary Americans with less critical thought than this little nugget. Part of its appeal, like so much else about American conservatism, is that it is so very simple. Only conservatives could convince themselves that such immense political historical phenomena could be explained with such simple ideas. Thinking that simplistic must sacrifice a great deal of fact and comparative perspective. Refuting it means restoring those missing elements.

Struggle between Superpowers

Only two superpowers were left at the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union. The other major powers in the period between the two world wars--Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan--had been reduced to second tier or regional powers. The Second World War resuleted not only in the immediate defeat of the three Axis Powers--Germany, Italy and Japan--but also the exhaustion of the two major colonial powers--Britain an d France. Nuclear weapons and the decolonization of South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa meant that the struggle the two superpowers would be conducted through covert action, by client states and proxy armies, and with competing ideological appeals. The primary battleground for covert action and espionage would be Central Europe. Military forces would be poised for war there but both sides understood the extraordinary risk of waging a war there. Nothing could guarantee that a struggle of conventional wars would not escalate into a nuclear exchange that would destroy civilization across the northern hemisphere. The primary battle ground for proxy states and proxy armies would be the newly independent states of the Third World and the Latin America. Peoples living in the poor countries of the global "south" payed the price in blood for the struggle between the superpowers. The entire planet, including the North American and Eurasian homelands of the two superpowers served as the ideological battleground. In the end the United States "won" the Cold War because the political economic regime consolidated under Joesph Stalin in the Soviet Union had failed to provide its peoples with what they wanted. Communism in the Soviet Union and in its Eastern European client states collapsed from within because efforts to reform it under Mikhail Gorbachaev were unsuccessful, indeed they hastened its end.

The struggle between politicians and ideologically motivated activists in the United States to claim or award credit for having "won the Cold War" is a fundamentally silly endeavor. Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed triggered by Gorbachev's efforts to reform Soviet institutions. Had Gorbachev not attempted reforns Soviet communism and the Soviet Union itself might have lasted for another half century.

Money and Ideas

For all intents and purposes the Cold War was organized in wartime negotiations between the Soviet, American and British leaderships. The single most important decision was to divide or partition Germany, to prevent its reemergence as a superpower in the near term. That decisison would be bemoaed on propagandists on both sides of the "Iron Curtain" but few observers had any illusions about its real purpose and the mutual agreement that made it possible.

Communist ideas had immense appeal across Europe immediately after the Second World War. The suffering of ordinary people under fascist rule had been horrific. In France, Italy and Greece most of the members of anti-fascist Resistance movements had been communists and emerged after liberation as heroes. The solution to that political problem for the United States (and for European conservatives who had collaborated with the fascists and liberals who had kept their heads down) was to achieve proposerity through rapid economic growth. That was made possible because European economies had the wherewithal for rapid reconstruction: capital and skilled work forces. The truman administration's Marshall Plan provided infusions of capital to jumpstart economic reconstruction. European economic integration under organizations that eventually merged to form the European Union helped to sustain that prosperity. Western Europe would have been prosperous in any event but the marshall Plan made it happen sooner rater than later.

Combat

The first fighting of the Cold War took place during the Greek Civil War between greek communist aided by the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and Greek monarchists and former fascists aided by Britain and the United States. In the end the Soviet Union allowed the Greek communists to go down to defeat ebcause Greece had been ceded to Britain as part of the peace at the end of the Second World War.

When a popular anti-communist rebellion erupted in Hungary in 1956, the Eisenhower administration stood back and allowed the Soviet Union and its allies to crush the rebels. The reason is that the United States lacked sufficient conventional miltiary force to dislodge the Soviets. Any combat would quickly have escalated into a nuclear exchange. In any event Hungary had been ceded to the Soviet Union, like the rest of Eastern Europe, as part of the peace at the end of the Second World War.

The Korean Peninsula provided the first Third World battleground for the Cold War. When the communist North Korean regime established by the Soviet Union invaded the territory of the authoritarian rightwing South Korean regime established by the United States, the United States and South Koreans fought the North Koreans and Chinese for three years, with the war ending in a stalemate and 5 decade long ceasefire. The Truman adminsitration's policy of containment effectively contained the North Koreans. The Korean War also and not incidently generated immense economic demand that helped to finally jumpstart rapid econoimic growth in neighboring Japan.

The Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations were all rersponsible for the disastrous War in Vietnam. This time the U.S. led a much smaller coalition. Britain, Canada, and the rest NATO refused to send troops. This time the U.S. failed to fight the Soviet and Chinese clients evewn to a stalemate and ceasefire. During the long war some 2.5 million Vietnamese, Loatians, and Cambodians died. Moral revulsion against the pointless slaughter in the United States and around the planet rattled American social and political institutions. The abuses of the Nixon administration, its covert war at home against the civil rights and anti-war movements, endangered American freedoms.

The Soviet Union would replicate the American failure in Indochina on a smaller scale in Afghanistan. As had the U.S. in Vietnam, the Soviet Union intervened miltiarily in Afghanistan to support a faltering client government. The Reagan administration and the Saudi governmen gasve weapons, training and vast sums to the Islamists who hated the attempt by the Soviet client Afghan regime because it had attempted to end debt slavery through land reform, end child marriage and educate women. The Taliban and al-Qaeda grew out of the seeds planted by the Reagan administraion in the 1980s.

Legacies of the Cold War

Democratic presidential candidates, including John Kerry, planned to make countries like them play by the same rules in global trade, such as taking on China's currency manipulation. In contrast, Bush actually apologized to China when they took our pilots hostage. He has a brother that is making money hand over fist by investing in China.

Most of the corporate media, by the way, is actually forbidden from reporting any stories that are embarrassing to China. Too many of their investments are at stake. Go ahead, call any of the top media corporations and ask them to report something on the colossal union struggles and strikes that are occurring daily in China, for just one example.

Environmentalists behind the Iron Curtain were a major form of resistance. Throughout the world and most of all in Russia, the credit for the end of Communism goes to Mikhail Gorbachaev. His market and civil liberty reforms made a huge impact that was never noticed very much all the way over here.

Solyetzin, (The Gulag Archipelego) the radical-leftist George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1984), communist-sympathizing writer John Scott (Behind the Urals) and other writers and intellectuals exposed the reality and thinking of communism in a way that could not be done by the hysterical and unbelievable propaganda from the right.

General Wes Clark played a direct role: he defeated and opened the way to the overthrow of Milosovich's "socialist" party, which was actually a communist leftover.

Peruvian governments, including liberal democrats, are still fighting against the terrorist Moaists of the "Shining Path" but you'll never hear about that when Bush talks about "terrah". Other than his miserably failed attempt to stop North Korea from building WMD, the only remotely anti-communist action of Bush is to use our taxes to fund fascist drug-lords in Columbia who tend to fight with their commercial rivals, the leftist drug-lords, and tend to massacre peasants who might possibly be leftists, after all, they`re peasants, right?

Tibet and pro-Tibetan activists are resisting China's invasion and settlement of Tibet. Nepal is fighting a war against Maoists.

Even peaceful Sweden played a part. When the USSR was brought down, it was generally expected that the result would be like Scandanavia, especially Sweden - a country that combines an economic higher standard of living and morals (less abortions, teen pregnancy, etc) than the rest of the capitalist world, with a superior socialism to the USSR. Had the Russians had to use the USA, with Reagan's double-digit unemployment, as a model, (let alone known the Great Depression style economic disaster they've suffered under a crony-capitalism disturbingly similar to that of Bush), would they have revolted? Probably not.

Remember that classic contrast at the Berlin Wall? The wealthy, vibrant, optimistic west just a block away from the poor, polluted, backward communists? That West Berlin was prospering under liberals and social-democrats. (That's why there's been so much hatred thrown at Germany and France by the republicans - they same liberalism that opposed the fanatic ideology of the communists is now opposing the fanatical ideology of the Bu'ushists.) If it has been a republican-governed state like Missouri next door to East Berlin, would there have been a contrast? Would people risk their lives to escape to a polluted slum in Texas?

This is all just off the top of my head. There are a million struggles and battles I have thoughtlessly neglected.

So then, what did Reagan do to fight communism? Let's see:

Reagan funded the right-wing Afgan religious fanatics and trained them in bombings and other terrorism. (One of their typical tactics - videotaping a young Russian prisoner as they skin him alive, then sending the videotape to his mother.) He compared Osama Bin Laden's friends to America's founding fathers.

Reagan focused his energy on Beruit - then caved in to terrorism, pulling his troops out. His attacks on communists in Latin America were intended to distract public attention from this.

Reagan trained every fascist terrorist group in Latin America, every nun-raping, genociding, cocaine-smuggling crack-Hitler on the entire continent. Remember those American nuns raped to death by Reagans "freedom fighters"? All morals aside, this was counterproductive.

Reagan and Bush were busily arming Saddam with WMD, then Bush suddenly switched sides, fighting an indecisive half-war to restore the Kuwaiti dictatorship. Those same WMD Reagan-Bush sent them might have caused Gulf War syndrome, which has killed and maimed thousands of our troops and their children. If anyone calls GW1 a decisive success, explain the horrors of Gulf War syndrome to them. With that in mind, it is obvious that GW1 was actually an indecisive, bloody stalemate. (Much of the military bases built in Saudi Arabia were done by Osama Bin Laden's family, who were greatly enriched by it.)

Reagan didn't have as much interest in the unions, environmentalists, reformists and liberal democrats who where bringing communism down from the inside. Reagan was too busy raping nuns to death.

China is getting interest payments on Reagan's debt

The republican theory is that Reagan's welfare cheques to the Military-Industrial Complex corporations (the same ones Eisenhower warned us about) started an "arms race". Funny, seeing that republicans never argued that there was such thing as an "arms race" they said that spending would just give an advantage. When was the last time you heard a republican can say "no, buying weapons systems doesn't give us an advantage, but it causes the rest of the world to also waste its money on weapons."?

It could be argued that the arms race is doing more damage to America than to communism. After all, thanks to the debts Reagan ran up, we are paying interest payments on our debt to, among other places, Red China.

Reagan's main spending was on "Star Wars" which still doesn't work today. Back then, computers had no more power than pocket calculators. Yet the missile defense system still can't hit its targets, even when given advanced warning of the time and location of the attack.

So did arms spending affect the USSR? Ask anyone that has lived under communism, they'll tell you that it's consumer goods that communism finds impossible to make - they're perfectly competent at pumping out weapons systems in colossal numbers, in fact, some of the best military technology ever made were communist:

(The T-32 tank, the Il-2 attack aircraft, the RPG series, the Moaist guerrilla warfare model (still being used in Iraq more than half a century later) and infantry tactics (ask a Korea vet about how startlingly effective Mao's peasants were against our mechanical advantage in Korea - they were not the suicide charges portrayed in movies) the Viet Cong's tunnel system, the "mobile minefield" of Improvised Explosive Devices (another tactic still used in Iraq) the Mig-29 fighter, plus other things that are secret (what has that tiny bullet that managed to penetrate our near-invincible Abrams tank, for example? Must be Russian or Chinese).

So, had the USSR really gone all-out to beat Reagan's arms race, how do we know they wouldn't win? How do we know their missile defense system wouldn't be better than ours? Every time we fought them militarily, it was a long and bloody stalemate, because, despite their economic backwardness in the world of consumer goods, their military-industrial-complex could fight us to a standstill every time.

This is exactly the model that Truman's policy of containment was designed for. If they attack, fight to the inevitable stalemate, if not, simply wait for them to collapse.

If the nuclear war that republican hawks were craving for actually occurred, it probably would have been the same as every other war we fought against the communists - extremely bloody and indecisive.

Would you PLEASE stop complimenting the communists?

Democrats like Truman believed that communism was so unworkable it would eventually self-destruct. Democrats still believe that that's the reason it did. Communism failed because communism is a failure. Reagan and the republicans are completely different. To make Reagan a hero, they have to give him a bigger dragon to slay - so they have to pretend that communism wasn't the rotten house of cards that everybody knows it was.

But why?

Liberals have seen communism as a threat to democracy, the same as fascism, terrorism, and neo-conservatism. Communists want government to take over business, neo-cons want business to take over the government. Both want business and government owned by a small corporate elite. In the end there's no difference.

Reagan-Bush neo-conservatives see communism as just another bogeyman to frighten people into accepting totalitarianism, just like Hitler used communism to frighten people into accepting his rule. Notice how little they talk about communism now that they have terrorist bogeymen to replace it!

Thus, liberals want neo-conservatism, communism, and terrorism destroyed.

Neo-conservatives know they owe their jobs to our enemies. That's why liberals use effective strategies that win wars and bring down dictators, while neo-conservatives focus on welfare for weapons corporations and right-wing dictators while they stumble around with failed defense policy.

Stumble-in-the-dark foreign policy

Just listen to them: "We must arm the Taliban! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must arm Iraq! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must go to Beruit! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must flee Beruit! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must bomb Iraq! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must not assist the enemies of Saddam as they're slaughtered! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must fight drug lords by arming drug lords! Disagree and you're a traitor! Bush must go to Somolia! Disagree and you're a traitor! Clinton must leave Somolia immediately! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must not go to Rwanda! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must blame Clinton for Rwanda! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must not bomb Bin Laden, that distracts from Clinton's sex life! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must be nice to Sudan even though it's harboring Bin Laden, we have oil companies there! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must not fight Milosovich! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must bomb China, Vietnam, the entire third world, no wait, we must export our jobs there! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must never apologize to China, I'm sorry, China! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must send foreign aid to the Taliban! Disagree and you're a traitor! I failed to stop the Taliban from attacking us, it's all YOUR fault! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must invade North Korea! No, we must invade Iraq! The rebels we allowed to be slaughtered will help us! We'll all be dancing in the streets within days! Disagree and you're a traitor! We must invade Syria and Iran, no, never mind! We WILL find WMD, but we never said Iraq had WMD! Disagree and you're a traitor! The UN is evil, evil, evil, hey, why won't the UN to send us cannon fodder for Iraq? Disagree and you're a traitor!"

The republicans' indecisive mess is not a foreign policy, it is simply stumbling around in the dark.

Mikhail Gorbachev ended the war, Reagan prolonged it

The Cold War was not "won" by anyone. The Soviet Union collapsed due to economic weakness brought on by the unviability of its centrally-planned economy. A country with some of the greatest agricultural land in the world (Ukraine has as much grain production capability as the U.S. Midwest, for instance) could not feed itself because there was no incentive for the farm workers to produce. As a result, they bought grain from the West. The system of ideological indoctrination produced good technicians but little innovation. As a result, they bought technology from the West. The main source of finance for these goods, which had to be paid for in hard currency, was oil sales. When the price of oil hit rock bottom in the early eighties, widespread impoverishment resulted.

Mikhail Gorbachev, an agronomist, took office with plans for limited liberalization of the economy (to give people an incentive to produce) and the political system (to loosen the hold of ideological indoctrination and encourage innovation). He began his liberalizations (perestroika and glasnost, respectively) at the very time that the economy was hitting rock bottom. At the same time, he made statements that seemed to indicate that the Brezhnev Doctrine had been officially repudiated, empowering dissenting groups in the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe. The political liberalization permitted criticism of the government in a way that the Soviet system had never known. In the summer and autumn of 1989, one after another, the communist governments of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania fell. Within the Soviet Union itsef, nationalist leaders in the republics (including in Russia proper) provided an outlet and a magnet for the impoverished public newly enlightened as to the abuses of the Soviet era. The cat was out of the bag.

The only thing left was for the nationalist leaders to begin declaring the independence of their republics from the Soviet Union. This started with the Baltics in 1990, and by the summer of 1991, the nationalist movements became strong enough (and the Soviet central government weak enough) for their leaders to begin to openly defy Gorbachev. After the August coup attempt by hard-liners failed, the country basically disintegrated. On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine signed the Belovezh agreement, which declared that "the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, ceases to exist." On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned.

Reagan made it last longer. The IMF funded both nations and their arms races and despite our increases their funding stayed the same and the country was already imploding on fiscal matters and domestic commodity distribution.

They made the iron curtain last; Gorby wanted the wall down already and Reagan wanted it up to last into Bush's run so there could be the same old "Dems are weak vs. commies" line and coattails with it. He made the cold war last longer as a result; MTV, broadcast bleedovers and were making peace inroads along with the Pope's charity/religious work and Soro's early market ventures in the East bloc. Solidarity, and the unions Reagan tried to break at home, had more to do with people uniting in Democratic style than any war threats that only reinforce negative response.

But Reagan wanted a cowboy ending and the only way to do so was to prolong it. Besides it gave him plenty of time to undermine the defecit and our own society via Iran-contra, an excuse to start a war vs. drugs on our soil.

He created a new enemy ending Carter's Camp David Accords, using Afghanistan for the sake of expediency, and funding terror on every continent as a side effect.

George F Kennan, designer of the containment polcy: "Silly and childish" myth

While some people credit Reagan for "winning the Cold War," that simply can't be the case. Credit goes to many Americans. Farsighted leaders like Harry S. Truman, George Marshall - a moderate Republican attacked by McCarthyite Republicans - and others like George F. Kennan designed the successful containment policy. They established the programs and alliances like NATO and the Marshall Plan which carried it out.

Kennan laughed off Republicans' claims Reagan or their party won the Cold War: "The suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic-political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish. No great country has that sort of influence on the internal developments of any other one." See: Kennan, George, "Republicans Won the Cold War?" At A Century's Ending, p.185. Originally published (in a somewhat different version) in the New York Times, October 28, 1992.

Countless American men and women - and our allies - sacrificed in uniform and in support of our national security efforts from 1945 until the Soviet Union collapsed, after Reagan retired. Crediting Reagan or the GOP for "winning the Cold War" is risible and disrespectful to all those who really won the Cold War.

After President Carter achieved historic breakthroughs for peace, Reagan squandered the chance to build on Carter's leadership in the Middle East and increased security in Latin America. Reagan overturned Jimmy Carter's human rights policy, opting for a new approach centered on violence and reaction which Reagan called "anti-terrorism." He named his Vice President George H. W. Bush to head his anti-terror task force.

Calling Reagan's policies "antiterrorism" is a sick joke. He illegally funded terrorists in Central and South America who raped and killed our citizens and their people alike. Reagan backed cruel torturers and thugs whose failed policies alienated their own people, leading to unrest. Reagan blindly assumed the Soviets were causing this strife, despite all evidence to the contrary. Reagan's matched his failures in this hemisphere with fatal mistakes in the Middle East.

It would be difficult to imagine a worse failure than Reagan's lack of leadership that caused the deaths of 241 US Marines in Beirut, Lebanon. Reagan tried to blame this catastrophe on Jimmy Carter, a preposterous lie because Reagan's orders put the marines in harm's way as part of an unformed, pointless policy and undermined Carter's work for peace in the region. This is typical right wing lack of responsibility. It gets even worse.

Reagan's fatal failure is especially unforgivable because he had fair warning: a car bomb attack almost identical to the one which blew up the marine barracks weeks before. Also, reports Reagan ignored indicated that this position was vulnerable. The barracks guards were unarmed under Reagan's policies.

Reagan loudly proclaimed the US forces would remain in Beirut, but quietly slipped them out after he ordered an attack on the tiny island Grenada. To complete the charade, Reagan continued to ship weapons to Iran and other terrorist states which armed and supported the terrorists who killed our marines. Typical Republican foreign policy failure. All this illustrates the right wing approach to international relations and defense. Fail, blame someone else, announce your defiance, but then cut and run. We're seeing this again today as Bush's Iraq policy degenerates into Reaganite failure." -Mike Hersh, American Politics Journal

Conclusion

George F. Kennan, the U.S. diplomat who played a seminal role in the successful containment policy said the following: "The suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic-political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish. No great country has that sort of influence on the internal developments of any other one." See: Kennan, George, "Republicans Won the Cold War?" At A Century's Ending, p.185. Originally published (in a somewhat different version) in the New York Times, October 28, 1992.

Further Reading

  • Frances Fitzgerald. 2000. Way Out There In The Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. Touchstone. ISBN 0743200233. (Contradicts the conservative claim that Star Wars or the Strategic Defense Initiitive caused the collapse of political will among the Soviet elite because the Soviet Union couldn't match United States military spending levels.)
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