In the 1970s, the U.S. pursued a foreign policy of “détente,” guided by Henry Kissinger, that had some success, especially with China, but failed to stop the surge of Soviet strategic nuclear power and Soviet advances across the globe. The ultimate purpose of détente was to “manage” relations between the two superpowers and to prevent nuclear war, which it did.
But the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 began a new era in world politics and a new approach to the old geopolitics of containment. Before assuming office, Reagan, who had studied communism all his life, was determined to eradicate communism as a force in the world and to supervise the renewed ambitions of American power and purpose. At one point, he turned to his security advisor, Richard Allen, and said “Dick, my idea of American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union is simple and, some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.” Yet from this elementary slogan, the Reagan Administration engineered such a historic, and still unappreciated, assault on the many vulnerabilities of Soviet society, that it ceased to exist within a decade. This was a geopolitical revolution of historic and unprecedented dimensions.
At the time, the USSR was one of history’s largest and most powerful totalitarian regimes. Led by brutal leaders like Stalin and Brezhnev, it governed eleven time zones, over 300 million people, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, total control of east and central Europe, and footholds throughout the political world from Cuba to Africa and the Middle East.
Yet this all came crashing down within a few years – without direct combat between the superpowers.
Nor was this understood even as it happened. Neither the American nor the Soviet people were aware that history was being made until December 1991 when Premier Gorbachev announced the end of his country. No parades, no military heroes, no “battles,” no casualties, not even public acknowledgement. The United States, overnight, became the “sole remaining superpower.” Few Americans knew how; most still don’t.
But there were earlier signs, especially within the Republican Party, that “rollback,” rather than containment, was needed. The 1952 Republican election platform called for this, and Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 did, as well. But the 1952 pledges went unfulfilled, and Goldwater lost his election.
But Reagan won and began changing U.S. military and diplomatic policy almost immediately. The Soviet Union had ten years to go.
In his first year alone, Reagan authorized a vast array of improvements in America’s military posture: the B-1 bomber, a 600-ship navy, cruise and other new ballistic missiles including the M-X ICBM, Trident submarines, and new areas of R&D funds. Within six years of Reagan taking office, the U.S. had procured 3,000 new combat aircraft, 3,700 strategic missiles, and 10,000 tanks. A ranking member of Moscow’s Institute for the Study of the USA later complained that “You Americans are trying to destroy our economy, to interfere with our trade, to overwhelm and make us inferior in the strategic field.” Exactly!
None of these weapons were ever used in anger directly against the Soviet Bloc.
Major changes in direction in U.S. foreign policy began in 1982 and continued throughout the entire first term, producing a total of 135 NSDDs (National Security Decision Directives) that targeted the Soviet Bloc and brought about its downfall. The critical document in this process was NSDD 75, January 23, 1983, and was announced on March 8 in Toledo in Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech. Shortly thereafter, on March 23, he announced the equally famous Strategic Defense Initiative which, while never implemented, remained a symbolic threat to the Soviet economy. According to Cold War historian Derek Leebaert, SDI would “remain forever scattered between symbol, deception and real power … by and large Moscow was fooled … SDI was an inspired step in the war of attrition, whether or not Moscow tried to match it” (The Fifty Year Wound, 2002).
NSDD 75 drew upon a spectrum of economic, military, financial, and political initiatives. The creative product of National Security Council Soviet specialists Richard Pipes and John Lenczowski, the overall strategy developed a coordinated and comprehensive global assault from all quarters against the vulnerabilities of the Soviet Empire. With an antiquated economy decades behind the U.S. in computers and other technologies, the Soviets had no chance to compete with American resources. The Western allies were (reluctantly) persuaded to deny Soviet access to advanced technology and scientific data. The Soviets were unable to afford needed machine tools, electronics, and computers, and an ingenious campaign was begun to deny them worldwide access to these items. Pressure from Washington ended the highly anticipated Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe. U.S. intelligence capabilities were greatly improved. The strategy was to challenge the Soviet Union’s prevailing culture, via geopolitical and cultural initiatives; employing deceptive technical sales to the USSR; deploying Stinger missiles to Afghanistan; enlisting cooperation from global sources like Saudi Arabia and the Vatican; broadcasting tothe Iron Curtain from Radio Free Europe, USIA, and Radio Liberty; exporting musical tapes and CDs to captive nations; and even promoting rock concerts and the sales of blue jeans.
In summary, the Reagan Administration employed a complete strategic geopolitical, economic, and cultural “invasion” to undermine a regime that had simply exhausted its term on earth. One can scan world history, but will find nothing comparable to this “assault.” What has happened since is another story, in the next essay.