In 1979, the Soviet Union made a mockery of détente by invading Afghanistan. At the same time, the Iran Hostage Crisis humiliated the United States. Intellectuals questioned whether communism was the wave of the future and democracy outdated. However, the Soviets had overextended themselves, which sewed the seeds of their downfall. When Ronald Reagan assumed office, the U.S. began an unprecedented military buildup, which the Soviets felt compelled to match. By 1989, the Soviet empire collapsed and the country itself teetered on the edge of destruction while the United States assumed its role as lone superpower.
The Soviets abandoned Détente in the late 1970s. They reneged on arms agreements, waged proxy wars against the West, and invaded Afghanistan. Soviet agents hope to turn Africa, Asia, and Latin and South America communist through proxy wars, strong-arm tactics, and influence peddling. The Russians openly opposed American allies and interests around the globe, including the Middle East. The Soviet Union was clearly winning the Cold War.
Despite outward appearances, the Soviet system held the key to its destruction. Military expenditures sapped its budget, collectivized agriculture ruined yields and profits, and central economic planning failed dramatically. While high oil prices crippled the West, it funded the Soviets. At the same time, American military cutbacks provided breathing room for the Soviet economy.
Leonid Brezhnev recognized his system’s faults and agreed to enter into a quasi-partnership with the U.S. Richard Nixon hoped the two sides could coexist and opened a dialogue after isolating the Soviets by playing the China card. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had no way to know the Soviet system was fracturing. The U.S. government wed itself to Detente. By the Carter Administration, an increasingly isolationist Congress dramatically cut defense expenditures allowing the U.S. to fall behind in weaponry. At one point, the administration floated the idea of “planned inferiority” premised on the idea that the Soviets would behave if the U.S. were visibly weaker. This created a firestorm of controversy since American policy vis-a-vi the Russians was based on the direct opposite approach. Indeed, the Soviets responded to power and spat on weakness.
The Soviets ignored arms agreements and the spirit of Détente. Ronald Reagan recognized this. He also recognized the fatal flaws in the Soviet system and hoped to exploit them. Although he hoped to negotiate a thaw in the Cold War and possibly win the conflict, Reagan initiated a dramatic arms buildup to modernize the American military and catch up with, and surpass, the Russians. World War II demonstrated American economic power. The president knew from history the Soviet command economy could not compete with U.S. factories.
As a result of Reagan’s arms buildup, the Cold War chilled. The American press attacked Reagan as a warmonger. The Soviets were not sure what to think. Unbeknownst at the time, Reagan’s show of strength with the buildup and the firing of the air traffic controllers led to begrudging respect. The Russians recognized Reagan was no Carter. However, they could not find a leader to deal with the American. Brezhnev died in November 1982. His successor, Yuri Andropov lasted a little over a year and passed in February 1984. Konstantin Cherenkov lasted thirteen months before succumbing to death. Reagan wondered aloud how he was supposed to deal with the Soviets if their leaders kept dying.
In 1985, the Soviets turned to a young Mikhail Gorbachev to take charge. They hoped his youth and vigor would help him survive the rigors of office. Reagan’s policy of confrontation changed when he met a man he could deal with. Gorbachev recognized the weaknesses in the Soviet economy and attempted to liberalize the economy. The arms race, Afghan War, and crashing oil prices decimated the Soviet economy. He needed to relieve pressure and agreed to a summit with Reagan.
The pair met in Geneva to size one another up. Afterward, the leaders agreed to a second summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. At their second meeting, Gorbachev agreed to dismantle the Soviet arsenal in return for the end of Star Wars research. Designers planned to use the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, as a space-based defense against nuclear missiles. The very idea spooked the Soviets. They envisioned an American first strike that they could not respond to leading to their annihilation. While American leftists laughed at the idea, the Soviets believed the system could work. As Gorbachev expected, Reagan refused the offer. The president did not want to surrender his trump card. Gorbachev knew what Reagan’s response would be. It was a setup for propaganda purposes. It worked brilliantly as the American media excoriated Reagan and heaped praise on Gorbachev.
Despite the Reykjavik collapse, the two men established an amazing friendship. In fact, Gorbachev attended Reagan’s 2004 funeral as a friend and not a foreign dignitary. The pair held two additional summits and made real breakthroughs. In 1987, the two countries agreed to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. They also agreed to a framework to reduce nuclear arms.
In between Reykjavik and INF, Reagan visited the Berlin Wall. Speaking before thousands at the Brandenburg Gate, he challenged his friend to “tear down this wall!” The wall served as a symbol of communist oppression and separated East and West Berlin. Many died attempting to cross the wall to escape from east to west. State Department professionals tried desperately to delete the line from Reagan’s speech. Reagan refused to acquiesce and it has become part of his legacy.
Reagan visited Moscow as his second term ended. He addressed dissidents and provided hope of a brighter future in the U.S.S.R. Several years earlier, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” When asked if he still felt this way in 1988, he exclaimed “No. I was talking about another time, another era.”
President Reagan knew change was in the air. The Berlin Wall crumbled in November 1989. East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe broke away from the Soviet Union after 44 years. Their overlords could no longer afford to defend or occupy the territory. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed and ceased to exist.
The Soviets felt the need to counter the American arms buildup. At the same time, the Afghan War drained the nation of further resources. On top of this, America challenged the Soviets proxies globally draining the Russians even more. Add to this the inherent problems with a centralized economy designed to “share the wealth” and collapsing oil prices and the result is a perfect storm.
The Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989. A decade earlier, that same empire seemed on the verge of global victory in the Cold War. It looked like the U.S. might be isolated and some suggested moving to a more leftist sociopolitical and economic model. Instead, the country moved right. The ensuing arms buildup and confrontational paradigm, combined with Gorbachev’s failed reforms, doomed the Soviets.