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Presidential Leadership in the Cold War

Long before becoming president, Ronald Reagan claimed the prevailing policies of containment and détente would not bring a satisfactory end to the Cold War. The objective of containment was to stop the Soviet Union from forcibly spreading communism beyond the territories it already ruled or dominated. But the United States would not attempt to push the Soviets out of their established spheres of control in certain regions of the world.

In the 1970s, Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter pursued détente, the reduction of Cold War tensions and achievement of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union.

President Reagan strongly disliked détente. In a 1981 news conference, he said, "So far détente's been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims. Their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one world communist or socialist state." According to President Reagan, the Soviets considered détente a sign of American weakness and vulnerability. Instead of détente, the president wanted peace through strength by building America's economic and military power. He said, "Our strategy is defensive; our aim is to protect the peace by ensuring that no adversaries ever conclude they could best us in a war of their own choosing."

From a secure position of military and economic power, President Reagan intended not merely to contain Soviet communism, but to reverse its gains and subdue it. He suspected the Soviet Union was not as strong as it appeared to be. And he predicted its collapse if challenged competitively by America. The president believed the Soviet Union's government-controlled economy could not compete successfully against America's free-market system. So, he started a rapid, large increase in the quantity and quality of America's military technology and weapons and dared the Soviets to match it. The president expected that the Soviet Union's command economy would run out of money and fail by trying to keep up with America's free enterprise system in an "arms race." As America's military buildup proceeded, President Reagan put forward another policy to complement it. From a formidable foundation of military and economic power, the United States would promote freedom and democracy throughout the world. President Reagan predicted that given a choice, people everywhere, even within the Soviet Union, would reject totalitarian government.

reagan and gorbachev

What was President Reagan's strategy for winning the Cold War?

This policy, later named the "Reagan Doctrine," was expressed in the president's June 8, 1982, speech in London to the British Parliament. Here are a few examples from that speech:

"History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches–political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy, all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom...

[I]t is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens.

What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term–the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history, as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people...

Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used, for the ultimate determinant in the struggle that's now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated."

President Reagan's Cold War policies were designed to spread freedom and democracy around the world and block the advancement of Soviet communism. The Soviet Union's attempt to keep pace with America's military and technological advances was a significant factor in the decline of its state-run economy and helped to weaken its global strength. In particular, President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative intimidated the Soviet leaders and influenced them to negotiate with him to reduce nuclear weapons.

berlin wall

How did the Cold War finally end?

Image created by Sue Ream. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The United States supported anti-Soviet uprisings by peoples in various places around the world. For example, President Reagan provided material and moral support to the Solidarity movement in Poland. This support brought down the Soviet-backed regime after President Reagan left office and helped to inspire other anti-Soviet rebellions.

The final outcome was the collapse of communism throughout Eastern and Central Europe, which brought freedom, democracy, and the end of Soviet control of this region. With American help, the people of Afghanistan forced Soviet military forces from their country in 1988. One year later, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall–a symbol of Soviet tyranny in East Germany for nearly three decades–was torn down by the German people. This led to the peaceful reunification of Germany in 1990 and the end of communism in Eastern and Central Europe.

In December of 1991, two years after President Reagan left office, the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union was dissolved. President Reagan's prediction of the collapse of Soviet communism had come true. America and its allies had prevailed in the Cold War. President Reagan's policies of preserving peace through strength and promoting the advancement of democracy around the world significantly contributed to this victory.




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