Guide Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War

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  1. Historiography of the Cold War
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Things worked out. Indeed, the results were breathtaking. In fact, George Shultz said that Reagan did not have a strategy to spend the Soviets into the ground. Shultz reiterated the points that he and Matlock had outlined in realism, strength, negotiation. James Baker pretty much agreed with Weinberger, stressing that the president was a pragmatic compromiser. Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, acknowledged that he personally had never believed that the Cold War would end.

Nor did he think that the United States could bankrupt the Kremlin.

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But, Adelman concluded, it is what Reagan accomplished that counts. So, what did Reagan actually do, and what precisely mattered? A few years ago, Paul Wolfowitz contributed an essay to a volume on post-Cold War strategy that began with an anecdote about a young Russian who visited Dick Cheney in , when he was secretary of defense. The man explained how Reagan had won the Cold War, saying that the Russians thought they were invincible until Reagan plowed ahead with the stealth bomber B-2 and with SDI.

At that point, according to the young man, the Russians knew they could not compete unless they changed.

Historiography of the Cold War

Critics of this viewpoint, and I am one of them, need to be honest: Many similar quotations from Soviet officials and military people attest to this perspective. I do not believe that the anti-Communist, anti-Soviet rhetoric and the increase in the armaments and military power of the United States played a serious role in our decision-making.

I think perhaps they played no role whatsoever. Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States who returned to the Kremlin in to lead the international department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, agreed totally with Chernyaev. Everything was driven by departmental and careerist concerns. Many of the most renowned historians of Soviet leaders and Kremlin decision-making similarly disagree that SDI and the U. While not discounting its salience, Service stresses that Gorbachev eventually decided to ignore the Strategic Defense Initiative. He would not build a Soviet Star Wars.

He averted another massive weapons competition. What then did Reagan do that made a real difference? Shultz says it was the combination of strength, realism, and negotiation. Adelman says it was the unique combination of seeking arms cuts, building strength, championing SDI, and delegitimizing the Soviet Union. Although U. Recall that the U.

Although the new literature persuasively shows that Reagan and his advisers deserve credit for their shift to democracy promotion and support for human rights, one should not forget that when Reagan left office, it was Gorbachev who drew wildly enthusiastic crowds wherever he went abroad — not Reagan, who was tarnished from the Iran-Contra affair. The Soviet system lost its legitimacy not because of the U. Even before Gorbachev took office his comrades grasped that their system was faltering and required a radical overhaul. Gorbachev infused conviction, energy, and chaos into efforts to remake and revive socialism.

Uncertain empire : American history and the idea of the Cold War - Brown University Library Search

He knew the system was stagnating. Indeed, this was evident around the world, as China embarked on a new trajectory and as country after country moved away from command systems and statist controls. Reagan deserves credit for understanding these trends and extolling them.

In his recent book, Hal Brands brilliantly assesses the ability of Reagan administration officials to capitalize on globalization, technological change, the communications transformation, and the electronics revolution. Shultz emphasizes negotiation. To say that Reagan wanted to negotiate is far too facile. He fiercely wanted to talk to Soviet leaders from his first days in office.

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He was scripted to say:. I bring with me a message of peace. We know this is a time of difficulty; we would like it to be a time of opportunity. We know that some of the things we do and say sound threatening and hostile to you.

The same is true for us. The two governments needed to transcend that distrust. It is the path of negotiation. To say that Reagan wanted to negotiate trivializes his approach.

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  • You are starting your term as general secretary. Ronald Reagan is starting his second term as president. President Reagan is ready to work with you. He was ready. He thought the Soviet Union was an economic basket case. They are part of the puzzle, important parts. Yet they were present at other times during the Cold War, and it had neither ended nor been won. What was different now? It was his sensibility, empathy, conviction, skill, charm, and self-confidence. Learning that the Soviets were insecure and genuinely frightened, he tried to insert this understanding in his handwritten letters to Chernenko before the Soviet leader died.

    This empathy subsequently infused his meetings with Gorbachev. Although Reagan wanted armaments to cast shadows and bolster his negotiating posture, he also grasped Soviet perceptions of SDI. The deliberations of the National Security Council after do not reveal officials designing a strategy to win the Cold War, break up the Soviet Union, or eradicate communism.

    Instead, they reveal officials who were struggling to shape a negotiating strategy that would effectuate arms reductions. They reveal a president pushing hard for real arms cuts. They reveal a president who feared nuclear war, believed in SDI, and wanted to share it. They reveal a president who desired to abolish nuclear weapons.

    President, that would be the most massive technical transfer the Western world has ever known. We have to do something now. Reagan was not very good at getting his advisers to do things they bickered over or did not want to do. But Reagan was good, indeed superb, at dealing with people. He worked hard at it, prepared for his talks, grasped the rhythm of negotiations, and understood the value of stubborn patience. Reagan engaged Gorbachev in a way no American leader had previously engaged a Soviet leader in the history of the Cold War.

    Of course, he was dealing with a special, new type of Soviet leader. It took intuition and courage. Nor is it clear that his Democratic foes would have seized the opportunity as he did. Even had they tried, it is not likely that they could have orchestrated the same type of political support for engagement with the Soviet leader.

    And his Soviet interlocutors knew it. Reagan had the trust of the American people, Gorbachev believed. If the president struck a deal, it would stick. Reagan provided the incentive for Gorbachev to forge ahead. Gorbachev needed a partner to tamp down the arms race and end the Cold War so that he could revive socialism inside the Soviet Union. Gorbachev wanted to cut military expenditures, accelerate the economy, and improve Soviet living conditions. By reconfiguring Soviet foreign policy, championing conventional as well as strategic reductions in arms, and retrenching from regional conflicts, Gorbachev hoped to find the time and space to integrate the Soviet Union into a new world order and a common European home that would comport with Soviet economic needs and security imperatives.

    Gorbachev sensed that Reagan was seeking not to win the Cold War but to end it. He recognized that Reagan wanted arms cuts, believed in nuclear abolition, and sincerely championed human rights and religious freedom.

    But Gorbachev did not think that these matters endangered Soviet power and security. He felt that Reagan behaved as a very moral person. Gorbachev was right. He and his advisers were not discussing ways to win the Cold War or to break up the Soviet Union.

    The Cold War: Crash Course US History #37

    At meetings, they occasionally expressed confidence that they had the Soviets on the run, but far more often they remonstrated about the constraints Congress imposed on defense spending and acknowledged that Soviet economic problems, as bad as they were, were not likely to cause a Soviet collapse or even a rebalancing of military power. Their discussions implied an understanding that, at best, they might reduce tensions; mitigate chances of nuclear conflict; manipulate the Soviets into restructuring their forces; and prompt a contraction of Soviet meddling in Central America, southern Africa, and parts of Asia.

    Nonetheless, Reagan not only encouraged his advisers to integrate strategic defense and the elimination of ballistic missiles into their overall planning, he also hectored them to move forward to prepare a strategic arms-reduction treaty that he could sign.

    He still distrusted the Soviets and wanted to negotiate from strength.

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    And he still prodded Gorbachev to advance human rights and religious freedom. But during his last years in office Reagan and his closest advisers rarely discussed victory in the Cold War. Although these conditions that have come to define victory in the Cold War were not expected when he left office, Reagan nonetheless took tremendous pride in what he had accomplished. He sought peace through strength and strove to avoid a nuclear confrontation.