21 January 2020

Miracle or Necessity: Managing the Soviet Collapse – Ronald Reagan’s Conviction

"What President Reagan was doing, what John Paul II was doing, what Margaret Thatcher was doing – all three were appealing to the power of spirit in the hearts of men and women. Be not afraid; you are not alone; your resistance is not futile. That was their central message. You are not alone. We are with you."

A Joint Conference of the Danube Institute and the Institute of Strategic Studies / National University of Public Service, marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was held in Budapest on 7–8 November 2019. The following three talks have been issued from this Conference. In the November 2019 issue of Hungarian Review we published two talks addressed to the same Conference by Gyula Kodolányi and Edwin J. Feulner.


Clark S. Judge in conversation with Zsuzsanna Breier

 

Ronald Reagan’s Conviction

 

Zsuzsanna Breier: Europeans did not think that the Soviet system could collapse. Did American policymakers expect that the system would fall? That it would break down? That the division in Europe and the world between Communism and freedom would come to an end?

Clark S. Judge: It depended on with whom you talked. There were people in Washington who thought that the Soviet Union would go on forever. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did. The State Department did, by and large. Certainly the Foreign Service and journalists did, if they weren’t conservatives.

But Ronald Reagan? That was another matter.

After he was no longer governor of California but well before he became president, Mr Reagan’s then National Security Advisor, Richard Allen, was questioning him in preparation for the upcoming 1980 campaign. Mr Allen said: “Do you have any conceptual thoughts about the dealing with the Soviet Union?” Mr Reagan replied: “Yes, I do”, adding, “They (meaning journalists and the foreign policy community) may say this is a little simple – but we win, they (the Soviets) lose.”

About that time Allen and Reagan visited Berlin. As Allen told the story, they were standing at Checkpoint Charlie, which was the American-controlled crossing point from East Berlin to West Berlin. The two of them stood silently side by side, looking at the wall and the heavily guarded gate. After a minute or two, Allen turned to say something to Reagan. Years later he told me that Reagan had on his face a barely contained fury. His face told his thoughts: “This is a wrong, a moral wrong, a human wrong. It must not stand.” Even if we had not heard that story, every one of us who worked for the President knew that was the view of Ronald Reagan.

It was a conviction that the President retained throughout his years in Washington. In the last year of Mr Reagan’s presidency, I talked with somebody who had just come from a private meeting in the Oval Office. This man said that in the course of their talk he remarked to the President that the CIA believed that the Soviet Union would go on forever. “I don’t think so”, Mr Reagan responded. “Communism is against human nature.”

That view was not restricted to the President. It may not have penetrated the permanent parts of Washington. Great truths seldom do. But it was very much shared within the ranks of the people who went to Washington as members of Mr Reagan’s administration. There had been a long developing school of American thought about the character of the Soviet regime, its strengths and weaknesses, a view most prominently articulated in magazines like William F. Buckley’s National Review and Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary.

There had been debates over how formidable the Soviet Union and its empire were and whether they could be brought down, and there was a developing consensus in those quarters that yes, they could. They were fundamentally weak.

There was an effort driven from these quarters to commission a Team B assessment of the Soviet Union. Team A was the team that the foreign policy establishment had put together for long range planning. It routinely took a materialistic view of the Soviet Union based largely on official Soviet statistics and concluded that Soviet Communism was working well.

A famous left-leaning Harvard economist named John Kenneth Galbraith said: “The Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” The Soviet record demonstrated that there is a way to run an economy rationally, he believed.

But Team B came back with a very different view. They said that there was real weakness in the Soviet system, that there were problems there, and that they just had reached the end of their ability to cover those problems up.

Recall that early on in office, the President cut off funding for the first Soviet gas pipeline going west. We are now facing a debate over North Stream 2, which shouldn’t be built, but that’s another matter for another conference. Favourable terms were on the table to finance the building of Nord Stream 2’s precursor. Mr Reagan took those terms off the table. He made it clear that during his tenure the Soviet economy would receive no implicit subsidies.

That decision was part of a general strategy: building on the weaknesses he perceived, his team perceived, all of us perceived, in the Soviet Union. So take away the subsidies. Force them to deal with economic reality. Along the same lines, put in a strategic defence initiative.

Remember, after the Cuban missile crisis the Soviet Union’s military apparatchiks vowed that America would never again outgun them. They spent the next 20 years building a first strike capacity. They wanted a way to blackmail the US. Their deployment of a midrange nuclear delivery capacity in western Russia was part of that project.

They wanted to be able to strip away the confidence with which European allies viewed the nuclear deterrent in Europe. The SS20s could be launched against Europe from within the Soviet Union but could not reach the United States. So if the Soviets launched them against Europe, the United States would face a dilemma. The missiles posed no threat to American territory. Was the US prepared to trigger an attack on itself that launching homeland-based missiles against Russia would ensure? By raising doubts among European allies about the reliability of America’s nuclear resolve, the Soviets sought to weaken the NATO alliances.

The Reagan administration’s answer was for the US to deploy Europe-based intermediate range missiles of its own. Pershing missiles were to be based in Germany. Their range allowed them to deliver a payload into the Western areas of the Soviet Union, where the SS20s were based, but no further. In other words, the Pershings would maintain the credibility of the American nuclear deterrent – all part of the broad chess game that the administration was playing economically and strategically.

Understanding that, consider now the anti-ballistic-missile system (which Soviet propagandists derisively dubbed “Star Wars”, after the movie franchise) that in April 1983 Mr Reagan announced the US would develop. What was the system’s purpose?

Put simply, it was to eliminate Soviet confidence in their first strike capacity. The Soviets had made that massive investment in a first strike and all of a sudden we were going to make that investment worthless, obsolete. The Soviets could not get any more a strategic advantage from their first strike capacity. They could not blackmail us or blackmail Europe any more. This point is critical to understanding that period. Critics of the President’s Strategic Defence Initiative said some missiles might get through, so the so-called shield would serve no purpose. But a first strike capacity depended on Soviet confidence that with it they could wipe out all of our retaliatory capacity. By creating doubt about whether in fact they could, the first strike capacity no longer existed as a first strike capacity.

At the same time, as all of Poland, Hungary and Central Europe knew first hand at the time, and the Pope, President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher understood from the start of their tenures in office, the struggle was not just about money and missiles – material things. Spirit was a major force in this time. In his wonderful book, The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister, the Danube Institute’s John O’Sullivan wrote about the role of spirit in the fall of Soviet Communism.

What President Reagan was doing, what John Paul II was doing, what Margaret Thatcher was doing – all three were appealing to the power of spirit in the hearts of men and women.

Be not afraid; you are not alone; your resistance is not futile. That was their central message. You are not alone. We are with you.

Every Reagan speechwriter has a story from those eight years, of a dissident, often from Poland, sometimes from Hungary, sometimes from other parts of Central Europe – and of Russia. Natan Sharansky said it to me – “You have no idea”, they said, every one of them said: “We, the dissidents, when we were in prison, when we thought there was no one supporting us, when we were under constant oppression, your words kept us going.”

In the course of his second term, many American conservatives became increasingly unhappy with Mr Reagan. They did not like how the President had subtly shifted his position toward the Soviets from the confrontation of the first term, almost to embracing the Russians as we moved deeper into the second term, particularly after Mr Gorbachev came along. The President agreed with Mrs Thatcher that there was something that could be done with Mr Gorbachev that could not have been done with his predecessors. He also believed that the Soviets were at a breaking point. So our strategy in the second term became to keep up the pressure in the areas where it was pulling the Soviets apart. Keep that pressure going. But the leader-to-leader stance was one of embracing. The administration’s message was: if you want to change, if you want to become a “normal” country, as many in Soviet society were saying back then, we will help you; we will show you a way. In essence we were saying: “You’ll be hearing voices inside the Soviet Union from your generals, some of them, from your apparatchiks, some of them, saying: ‘Don’t trust the Americans. They will be at our throats. We cannot relax. We cannot let the empire go. We cannot do anything like that.’” And we were saying: “Come with us, walk with us, and there will be a safe way for all of us to walk together.”

As I say, a lot of American conservatives didn’t understand what the President was doing. I thought it was obvious, but many didn’t grasp it.

There came a moment in 1988, the last year of the Reagan presidency. I believe it was during the Washington summit. The President attended a dinner party at the house of an important conservative journalist. The guest list consisted mainly of conservative leaders and conservative editors. The conversation became very candid and direct. Some said to the President: “You are being much too embracing of Gorbachev. You are letting him take credit.” By the way, there was a sign on President Reagan’s desk that he put there on his first day in office. That sign read: “There is no limit to how far a man can go or what he can achieve if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”

The conservative journalists were saying to the President, very forcefully, you are letting Gorbachev come here and take bows and get credit, and that is the wrong thing to do. They were really banging on him very hard. And then one of them, a man named Ben Wattenberg, who was an important figure in that time, and a great figure, had a flash of insight. He said: “Mr President, are you telling us, that what’s going on here … are you saying without saying it … are you telling us that the West has won the Cold War?” Reagan was silent. Wattenberg repeated: “Mr President, have we won the Cold War?” Reagan was silent. Wattenberg pressed again: “Mr President, give us an answer.” The President spoke one-word: “Yes.”

So you ask, did anyone in Washington believe the Soviet Union would fall? The people who did not believe it would fall, the people at the intelligence community, the people in the diplomatic community, the mainstream journalists, they will say (even today): “Oh, what a surprise it was.” But the people who were with the President and who understood spirit – that spirit, and not just the material, is at play in the world and understood that ultimately spirit determines material, those people said: “Yes.”

 




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