How SDI Pushed the USSR into the Abyss

When I was a graduate student during the Carter Administration, pessimism was rampant among those of us who closely followed world affairs. While the U.S. military was being “hollowed out” with budget cuts, the Soviet Union was building up the Red Army massed along the border with Western Europe. Its navy was expanding with the most heavily armed surface ships and the largest submarine fleet in the world. And most threatening was its development of a first-strike nuclear missile force. We know from documents released since the end of the Cold War that the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact was planning to overrun Europe. The offensive included the use of nuclear weapons to immediately knock the United States out of the war. Though many tried to denounce this notion of winning a nuclear war as “romanticism,” what mattered is what leaders in the Kremlin thought, not what some pundit in Paris or New York opined.

Among my circle of friends, 1985 was the year we expected World War III to start. Fortunately, we were wrong and Ken Adelman’s Reagan at Reykjavik does a good job of reminding us why.

The popular memory of the how the U.S. won the Cold War is that the Soviet Union collapsed because of internal contradictions which could not be fixed by the perestroika (restructuring) campaign of Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party. The Soviet economy was only one-third the size of the U.S. and lagged in technology; but was putting 30-40 percent of its GDP towards its military.

President Ronald Reagan doubled U.S. defense spending; which America’s larger, more vibrant capitalist economy could easily afford. As new aircraft were introduced (at the peak of the buildup in 1986, 387 military aircraft were purchased), ground force capabilities improved in NATO and the Navy envisioned a 600-ship fleet (compared to less than 300 today), the Soviets saw their plans for victory fade. In the 1970s then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was warned by economists that the Russian economy would stagnate if the military continued to drain the nation’s resources. He ignored their warnings, seeing the doldrums of the Carter years as the chance to gain superiority.

Gorbachev, however, was unable to increase military spending further to meet the Reagan challenge. Adelman quotes the Soviet leader as saying in the run up to the Reykjavik summit, “If they impose a second round of arms race upon us, we will lose.” He tried to initiate reforms to increase output and efficiency, but the communist system could not adapt; it collapsed and took the political system with it.

It might thus seem odd for Adelman to make disarmament talks the center of his argument for how Reagan won the Cold War. Yet, Reagan had long argued against the deterrence strategy of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). Reagan’s central priority was to end the Cold War and overthrow communism; “We win, they lose.” But he did not want to see America destroyed in the process. As a society, the United States was superior in every way to the USSR, but nuclear weapons were the great equalizer that gave Moscow the ability to devastate America. That threat needed to be removed, or at least reduced. He changed the mission of negotiations from arms “limitation” to arms “reduction.” Liberal critics did not understand this, seeing only his military buildup which included the MX ICBM, intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) deployed in Europe and an array of cruise missiles. No new arms agreement was signed until 1987 (the INF Treaty), but talks were in progress throughout Reagan’s first term. As Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Adelman was in the middle of these negotiations.

Reagan proposed the “zero option” to remove all Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) from Europe, but the Soviets rejected this. A left-wing “nuclear freeze” movement gave Moscow hope that Reagan’s buildup would be stopped without any Soviet concessions. As Adelman points out, there had been no protests when the Soviets first deployed IRBMs. It wasn’t until the Reykjavik summit that a breakthrough took place, with Gorbachev accepting in principle the “zero option” and a 50 percent cut in offensive strategic weapons. However, the summit did not produce a final agreement because Reagan would not abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) meant to protect against a nuclear attack and put an end to MAD. The Left denounced the “failure” of the summit and blamed Reagan’s hawkish stance, but Adelman hails the summit for convincing Gorbachev that Reagan was serious. In 2001, Gorbachev told a London audience that Reagan was “a man of real insight, sound political judgment and courage.”

SDI was a complement to nuclear force reduction in Reagan’s plan to prevent a final confrontation with communism from triggering mass murder. Adelman argues, however, that it was more than that, “SDI became the straw that broke the Communist camel’s back.” It “hit the USSR in its solar plexus” writes Adelman, “The Soviets lacked the technological infrastructure to compete in such a sophisticated realm. And, as Gorbachev admitted to the Politburo, the country was maxed out on defense spending.” Reykjavik convinced Gorbachev that Reagan would never give up SDI, and that “SDI pushed Gorbachev to become more determined, even frantic, to reform his system.” In short, the specter of SDI pushed the USSR into the abyss. The Reagan arms race drove events; not to war but to victory.

Adelman notes that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had initially opposed SDI because she thought it would destabilize deterrence. In the end, however, she admitted her error, writing in The Downing Street Years that “it was to prove central to the West’s victory in the Cold War.”

Reagan, of course, was not interested in stability or maintaining the status quo. In his private talks with Gorbachev at Reykjavik, the U.S. President lectured the Communist leader on the merits of capitalism. Liberals were appalled when Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire” to delegitimize the Soviet regime as a prelude to seeing it overthrown. Even his Secretary of State George Schultz opposed Reagan’s famous 1987 call for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin. Yet, Reagan stayed the course and won the day. He literally saved America, Western Civilization and most of the world from possible destruction. The existential threat posed by the USSR was far greater than the Axis threat Franklin Roosevelt fought World War II to defeat. The Soviet empire disintegrated, with the commissars losing lands from the Ukraine to Central Asia, which the Tsars had held for centuries. And all without another great war. It was truly a demonstration of “peace through strength.” After reading Adelman’s book, it is hard not to conclude that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the 20th century.

William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.