By Ty Cobb* —
Marxist-Leninist doctrine predicted that capitalism would collapse on the “ash heap of history” as global communism triumphed as an economic system. Instead, 20 years ago last Sunday it was the vanguard of the international communist movement, the Soviet Union, which disintegrated.
The two individuals who played the most prominent roles in bringing about the end of the USSR were President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The policies formulated and implemented by both had very different objectives in mind, but the end result was the same.
Beyond Détente: Promoting Fundamental Change in the Soviet System
Early in the Reagan administration a fierce fight had erupted regarding the wisdom of engaging the Soviet Union. Many conservatives were convinced that détente had shown that any attempt at negotiations or engaging Moscow was doomed to failure. They also tended to believe that the USSR was on the ascendancy, particularly in the global arena, witness the success of Moscow’s backing for “National Liberation Movements” in Africa, Southwest Asia, and Central America. They leaned toward the sense that the regime, albeit aging, was firmly in control in Moscow and that any real change seemed impossible.
I was asked in 1981 by the National Security Council, through the then Military Assistant, ADM John Poindexter, to prepare a series of point papers on the state of the USSR and what US policy initiatives might be considered. I had just completed a 2-year IREX fellowship, which brought me to the USSR off and on the past two years.
My view was: The Soviet leadership was aging, the economy was in difficult straights (my dissertation was on the Soviet economy/energy dilemma), and the U.S. could pressure the USSR to achieve political and military change. Not sure how much impact the memos had, but they fed into the cauldron of competing opinions erupting within the Administration.
President Reagan was opposed to détente, but open to negotiating with the Soviets. This would come, in his mind, only after he had reversed the American military decline, resuscitated the economy, and restored confidence within the U.S. body politic. By 1983 he felt that we should reconsider our stance of not engaging the Soviets, based on what he perceived to be further Soviet decline and U.S. restoration of power and confidence. Yes, the 1984 elections and Nancy’s prodding had a role in his thinking, but he was also buffeted in the other direction continually by the naysayers.
Reagan’s policies were laid out in 1983 in NSDD–75, titled “U.S. Relations with the USSR.” The document directed two core objectives: first, “to contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism,” and second, “to promote the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system.”
The directive also laid out specific goals: In Eastern Europe, loosening Moscow’s hold on the region; with respect to Afghanistan, it was to “keep maximum pressure on Moscow . . . and ensure that the Soviets’ political and military costs remained high” while the occupation continued.
NSDD-75 was a very ambitious strategic guide, one that overtly would attempt to “change” the Communist system by ending the Party’s monopoly on power and bringing about the weakening of the Soviet economy. The directive called for a more ambitious media penetration (RFE, Radio Liberty) into the USSR and its vassal states, assistance to groups in the Soviet empire who would topple the Communist regimes, and use of our technological and economic leverage (e.g., to stop the Soviet gas pipeline to Europe).
Reagan and Gorbachev: One wanted to reform the Soviet system; the other to fundamentally change it
For Reagan the immediate goal was to insure that the Soviets bore the burden for actions they were taking to support anti-Western political movements and for pouring a considerable portion of their national wealth into the defense-industrial sector. For Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985 after years of desultory “leadership” behind aging and infirm General Secretaries–Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko–the objective was to reform a stagnating economic system through restructuring (“perestroika”) and greater openness (“glasnost”).
We did not fully appreciate at that time that Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, was fully aware of the depths that the Soviet economy had fallen. It also appears that Gorbachev was deeply concerned about the President’s SDI program (“Star Wars”), believing that what was at stake was more than just a space defense program. He believed that if the United States once and for all combined its technological superiority with its economic potential, America would make an enormous “skachok” (leap) ahead. The General Secretary knew that he needed to redirect resources away from the defense sector to rejuvenate the stagnating Soviet economic system, but first he must stop the U.S. potential to jump ahead—which he feared our pursuing SDI would do.
To do that he had to put a brake on Reagan’s military build-up. He also realized that deep and fundamental reforms of the corrupt, centrally managed political system needed to be undertaken. While he recognized that this would cause some disruption, he failed to anticipate that the changes he was implementing would soon spiral out of control.
Reagan was not content to allow events to proceed in the USSR on Gorbachev’s timetable. The United States took several measures to impose a burden on Moscow if it chose to continue its aggressive support of national liberation movements, its domination over East Europe, and its extensive funding of the military. Reagan directed that the U.S. support resistance movements against the Soviets in Central America and Africa, provide advanced missiles (e.g., Stingers) to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and support revolutionary movements in East Europe.
Specifically, working closely with Pope John Paul II (not well known even today!), the U.S. provided intelligence and economic support for the Solidarity movement in Poland that led to the first crack in the Soviet Empire. Reagan also secured support from Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, which provided key assistance to Solidarity.
America also persuaded its friends to assist in these efforts, including encouraging Saudi Arabia to “turn on the oil spigot” and flood the world with cheap petroleum in 1986. This act severely undermined the Soviets’ primary means to secure hard currency, depleted its foreign exchange reserves, made it difficult for the Soviets to import badly needed grain, and deeply impacted the thinking of the Soviet leadership.
By 1986 the war in Afghanistan led to increased public discontent, the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster seemed to personify the regime’s ossification and inability to handle crises, and the economy declined in the face of bad harvests and low global oil prices. Glasnost had led to the appearance of more popular media outlets, which then proceeded to highlight corruption in the highest echelons, rampant alcoholism, what the Stalinist regime had really done to the populace, and other formerly taboo topics.
The Empire Crubles: 1989-91
James Mann argues persuasively that Ronald Reagan defied the advice of his more hard line advisers and skillfully led the negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the fall of the Soviet Union (“The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan”). I would agree. In fact, the President was constantly told by his chief intelligence experts, principally then Deputy Director of the CIA, Bob Gates, most Pentagon officials, and many State Department experts, that the General Secretary was not seeking fundamental change of the Soviet system and that at any rate it remained strong and impervious to outside leverage. Reagan disagreed and on many occasions overruled his advisors and directed that we engage the Soviet leadership in negotiations while continuing to exert pressure on the USSR’s economy. I believe that history has shown Reagan to be right in the course he chose.
By 1989 Moscow was faced with increasing challenges. Afghanistan was clearly a failure, and the regime agreed to withdraw Soviet forces that year. Confronted with large street demonstrations in East Europe against the puppet regimes, Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze refused repeated pleas from their Warsaw pact allies to intervene militarily—as they had done in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a result the Berlin Wall tumbled down, Germany was reunited, and Solidarity assumed power in Poland and Vaclev Havel’s “Velvet revolution” succeeded in Prague. And in 1991, following a failed coup attempt, the USSR itself dissolved.
In the end, the combination of greater political and social freedoms instituted by Gorbachev and the proactive policies implemented under Reagan to impose severe economic and political burdens on Moscow together led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day, 1991.
*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.