Freedom’s Team: How Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II won the Cold War.
Monday, June 7, 2004
Ronald Reagan died just one day after President Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Pope John Paul II for his heroic efforts to topple communism. Those two men, together with Margaret Thatcher, deserve much of the credit for the West’s success in the Cold War.
As the nation mourns Ronald Reagan we should also pause to reflect that in the space of 27 months between 1978 and 1981 three such extraordinary leaders–each with the belief that evil must be confronted–should have come to power. Together they changed the world.
Containment had been the cornerstone of U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union since George Kennan articulated it in 1947. Reagan decided to add an active effort to undermine the props supporting the Soviet empire. Former CIA director Robert Gates says that “Reagan, nearly alone, truly believed in 1981 that the Soviet system was vulnerable … right then.” In his famous speech to the British House of Commons in 1982 he stood with Mrs. Thatcher and declared, “It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens… . The march of freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Last year, President Bush openly emulated Reagan’s approach when he also went to Britain last year to issue a challenge that free nations unite to eradicate terrorism.
Few like to recall the feelings of resignation or even despair that many in the West felt in the 1970s as countries from Angola to Nicaragua became Soviet proxies. Mrs. Thatcher says that the West was “slowly but surely losing” the Cold War, and she eagerly embraced Reagan’s strategy to win it by becoming “his principal cheerleader” in NATO.
That strategy rested on six pillars: support internal disruption in Soviet satellites, especially Poland; dry up sources of hard currency; overload the Soviet economy with a technology-based arms race; slow the flow of Western technology to Moscow; raise the cost of the wars it was fighting; and demoralize the Soviets by generating pressure for change.
On June 7, 1982, the day before Reagan gave his “ash heap” speech at Westminster Abbey, he met alone with the pope in the Vatican. Richard Allen, Reagan’s first national security adviser, says the two men “agreed to undertake a clandestine campaign to hasten the dissolution of the communist empire.” Until it was legalized in 1989, Poland’s Solidarity union was kept alive by the U.S. and the Vatican. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who later became president of free Poland, has said that “we owe our freedom to their unstinting efforts.”
A new book by former Air Force secretary Thomas Reed reveals that the Reagan administration allowed a Soviet agent to steal gas-pipeline software that had been secretly designed to go haywire on a catastrophic scale. The ruse led to a June 1982 explosion in the Siberian wilderness that Mr. Reed says was “the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.” It crippled the Soviet’s secret techno-piracy operation because they could longer be sure if what they were buying or stealing was similarly booby-trapped. They had reason to worry: Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disrupted chemical plants and tractor factories.
Reagan’s arms buildup also unhinged the Kremlin. His clarion call for a missile-based defense system against nuclear weapons in 1983 helped convince the Politburo to select Mikhail Gorbachev as a less hard-line Soviet leader in 1985. “Reagan’s SDI was a very successful blackmail,” says Gennady Gerasimov, the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s top spokesman during the 1980s. “The Soviet economy couldn’t endure such competition.” Mr. Gorbachev himself agrees the U.S. exhausted his country economically and acknowledges Reagan’s place in history. “Who knows what would have happened if he wasn’t there?” he told the History Channel in 2002.
It’s certainly safe to say that no other president would have made two famous speeches that drew a sharp moral distinction between the West and communism and lifted countless spirits behind the Iron Curtain. The State Department fought desperately to take out Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” as well as his challenge to Mr. Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall.” But Reagan’s candor undermined Moscow’s legitimacy. “Reagan’s truth-telling–together with the examples of Mrs. Thatcher’s economic success and Pope John Paul’s moral strength–gave millions of people courage to rise up when the opportunity for change came,” says President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic.
After Reagan’s death on Saturday, Sen. Ted Kennedy graciously saluted him as “the president who won the Cold War.” Historians know the reality is more complicated, but they will no doubt remark on the world’s extraordinary good fortune that he, Pope John Paul II and Mrs. Thatcher were able to work as a team for a full eight years.
Joseph Stalin once dismissed the Vatican’s influence by asking, “How many divisions does the pope have?” In the end, that didn’t matter. The pope and two stalwart Western leaders helped topple the entire Soviet empire without moving a single division across a border. As Reagan himself said in his 1989 Farewell Address. “Not bad, not bad at all.”