In the mythos of conservative Americana President Ronald Wilson Reagan is seen as an iconic figure that single handedly ended the Cold War. He has become the United States’ Siegfried who slew the Dragon named the Soviet Union with one slice of his sword Nothung which here would be a military buildup not the sword per se. (Writer’s note: This blog article was inspired by an article in the New York Times reporting on interviews President Gerald R. Ford gave assessing other Presidents and his belief that President Reagan received too much credit for ending the Cold War. President Ford signed the Helsinki Accords.)
Gosh we just love to make our leaders mythic. Now don’t get me wrong- I admire and revere George Washington but I do not think that he has become a deity. But go the Capitol Dome and view “The Apotheosis of Washington” in the dome’s eye. This fresco by Brumidi depicted George Washington rising to the heavens in glory, flanked by female figures representing Liberty and Victory/Fame. A rainbow arches at his feet, and thirteen maidens symbolizing the original states flank the three central figures. (The word “apotheosis” in the title means literally the raising of a person to the rank of a god). Roman emperors were regularly elevated to the “god” status. Are we the new Rome? I won’t talk about our current President’s hubris and its kinship to the fall of Rome here- I’ll leave that to another time.
But I get back to Ronald Reagan’s myth. He is our modern equivalent and if the conservatives had their way he would be up there with George munching on manna with the angels.
But let’s be real- Reagan was in the right place at the right time. The foundations for the demise of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union were put in place before Reagan. As part of the emerging East-West détente, in November 1972 talks opened in Helsinki to prepare for a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Between 3 July 1973 and 1 August 1975, representatives of thirty-five states, including the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, the Vatican, and all of the European states except
Albania, discussed the future of Europe. The Helsinki Accords, however, legitimized human rights in the most repressive parts of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Dissidents, like the founders of “Charter 77” in Czechoslovakia, used the language of the Helsinki Accords to justify their criticisms of communist governments. Many of the dissidents inspired by the Helsinki Accords led the anticommunist revolutions of 1989. In addition, many of the “new thinkers” in the Soviet Union who attained power after 1985—including Mikhail Gorbachev—explained that they hoped to build a more humane European civilization, as outlined in the Helsinki Accords. Seeking stability, Soviet leaders signed the Final Act in 1975; in so doing they unleashed domestic forces they could not control.
In ”Reagan and Gorbachev,” Jack F. Matlock Jr. says that Mikhail Gorbachev deserves “at least” double billing for the demise of the Cold War. And he should know since he was a veteran foreign service officer and respected expert on the Soviet Union, he reached the pinnacle of his career under Reagan, serving first as the White House’s senior coordinator of policy toward the Soviet Union, then as ambassador to Moscow.
Reagan himself went even farther. Asked at a press conference in Moscow in 1988, his last year in office, about the role he played in the great drama of the late 20th century, he described himself essentially as a supporting actor. ”Mr. Gorbachev,” he said, ”deserves most of the credit, as the leader of this country.” Of course most conservatives just chalk up this remark to Mr. Regan being gracious while he was winking to the world and knowing that he was the one to whom we all genuflect and give thanks.
Reagan was not a geopolitical visionary who jettisoned the supposedly accommodationist policies of containment and detente, but an arch-pragmatist and operational optimist who adjusted his own attitudes and conduct in order to encourage a new kind of Kremlin leader.
Getting back into the business of diplomacy with the principal adversary of the United States appealed to Reagan, just as it had to six previous occupants of the Oval Office. Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had tried to make the most of Nikita S. Khrushchev’s slogan of ”peaceful coexistence”; Lyndon B. Johnson jump-started arms control talks with Aleksei N. Kosygin; Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter signed strategic-arms limitation agreements with Leonid I. Brezhnev. But those Soviet leaders were committed, above all, to preserving the status quo. Sooner or later, each caused a setback or a showdown with the United States through some act of barbarity or recklessness: the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 (don’t forget folks- this is event that led to Reagan shoring up the Taliban in the 1980’s), and the destruction of a South Korean airliner that had wandered off course in 1983.
Breakthroughs in United States-Soviet relations were inherently subject to breakdowns. Gorbachev altered that dynamic. He was determined to take the Soviet Union in a radically different direction—away from the Big Lie (through his policy of glasnost), away from a command economy (through perestroika) and away from zero-sum competition with the West.
Reagan came quickly to recognize that Gorbachev’s goals, far from being traditional, were downright revolutionary. He also saw that the transformation Gorbachev had in mind for his country would, if it came about, serve American interests. As a result, without much fuss and without many of his supporters noticing, Reagan underwent a transformation of his own. The fire-breathing cold warrior set about trying, through intense, sustained personal engagement, to convince Gorbachev that the United States would not make him sorry for the course he had chosen.
Of course now the myth is that Reagan was the protagonist here not Gorbachev. But look at the facts. It was the Helsinki Accords that lead to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and Gorbachev’s revolutionary policies for the Soviet Union that were most responsible for the end of the Cold War. Mr. Reagan just supported some of Gorbachev’s goals with a smile and in reality the house of cards that had been jiggled by the Helsinki Accords came tumbling down. Reagan was at the right place at the right time. He should be credited for supporting Mr. Gorbachev’s efforts- but that is a damn site short of being solely responsible for ending the Cold War.
On the operatic stage of world diplomatic history Mr. Reagan is not Siegfried of Der Ring des Nibelungen, he is instead a principle supernumerary watching Valhalla burn to destruction.