"The notion that the United States forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and vanquished communism is not only a myth but a dangerous canard."
This conclusion that we did not, in fact, force the Soviet Union to its knees was articulated by Jack Matlock. Who is Jack Matlock to say such an obviously un-American thing? Probably some communist. Well, not exactly. Mr. Matlock was President Reagan's ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991. Before that, he was Director of Soviet Affairs at the US State Department (under another Republican president, Richard Nixon).
Look, I am fully aware that to the victor goes the spoils—including getting to write the history books. And trust me, I am glad we "won" and aren't currently living in the United States SSR. Three Cold War narratives, however, are simply wrong. One is that the Cold War was actually a cold war that did not result in actual conflict. This one deserves its own post and will not be discussed here. Suffice to say that those who have relatives and loved ones who died in Angola, Vietnam, Korea, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and a whole host of other places as a direct result of American-Soviet rivalry would vehemently disagree with the notion that the Cold War ended without a shot fired.
Narratives two and three are intertwined. One is that the it was Ronald Reagan with his, "BRING DOWN THIS WALL," rhetoric that singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union. This tough talk scared, the thinking goes, the Soviet leadership into initiating much needed reforms.
The other school of thought says that the Soviets could not keep up with Reagan's increased military spending. It was while trying to keep up with the US militarily that the Soviet Union's economy fell apart. Neither of these is true. The Soviet Union fell from within. Its own leaders initiated reforms — inadvertently brought an end to the Evil Empire — out of self-preservation. This is not to say that Reagan did not play a role in ending the Cold War stalemate. However, his part is far less important than we like to believe. And even more importantly, it was not Reagan's stubborn-'murica-cowboy attitude that helped bring about peace — it was his ability to sit down and talk to his supposed enemy that capped the amount of nuclear warheads in the world and paved the way for more meetings. Mind you, he only did this because of the actions taken by Gorbachev.
Reagan speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate
Probably more than any other other speech, President Reagan's words at the Berlin Wall in 1987 will forever be associated with his presidency. He famously told the Soviet Premier, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" We think of it now as a watershed moment. One that was heard all around the world. Except it wasn't. The speech received very little media coverage. Not only that, but the crowd at the Berlin Wall that day was nothing compared to the crowd gathered to hear President Kennedy's famous "I am a Berliner" (or jelly donut, depending on the translation) speech back in 1963. To quote The Atlantic, "when Reagan declared 'Tear down this Wall,' it's easy for us to forget now, he was the visibly aged leader of a lame duck administration clouded by scandal and corruption, Iran-Contra in particular." Some thought the speech was silly, "I thought it was corny in the extreme,” said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George H. W. Bush, “It was irrelevant, that statement at that time.”
It should also be noted that had Reagan actually listened to the conservative right, there would be no detente with Gorbachev. Sitting down and talking to the enemy?! The atheist, capitalist-hating, enemy?! You can't be serious?! Talk he did, however. He did it, experts and historians believe, for two reasons. One was he really did not like nuclear weapons...in fact, he was deathly afraid of them. Any kind of agreement that would rid the world, however gradually, of these weapons was one Reagan would be happy with. The second is far more practical: by 1983, Americans were getting tired of Cold War rhetoric and demanded détente. 1984 was an election year so....
The Fall of the Berlin Wall via thegaurdian.com
Make no mistake, however compromising Reagan seemed to be, he was still the man that publicly called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and ramped defense spending....A LOT. The thinking went (and many still believe) that increased defense spending would force the Soviets to spend spend spend. This, in turn, would bankrupt them. It did not really work that way. The Soviet's defense spending did not rise to keep up with American military expenditures. Revised estimates by the CIA indicate that Soviet defense expenditures remained more or less constant throughout the 1980s. The Soviet regime was in state of chaos long before Reagan became President. The person who put the regime over the edge, so to speak, was not Ronald Reagan but a man younger and more radical than the Old Gipper: Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev’s rise to power had nothing to do with the Reagan administration’s hard stances toward its communist rival. It was Gorbachev who understood that the Soviet economy and thinking needed drastic and fundamental changes. In fact, Gorbachev's close advisor Alexander Yakovlev had understood (and told Gorbachev) the weaknesses of the the Soviet system long before Reagan came to power. Let us not forget that one of the biggest blows to the Soviet system, one that inspired almost every Eastern Bloc country, was the Solidarity movement in Poland. Lech Wałęsa forced the communist regime to recognize his independent trade-union all by his lonesome. This bold move by ordinary people inspired similar movements in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany.
Lech Wałęsa and his Solidarity Movement via theatlantic.com
More important than anything else, however, was the internal reform that Gorbachev implemented. Archie Brown, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Oxford, calls these reforms radical and far-reaching. He could not be more right. Ironically, it was this drive to reform that undercut the traditional authority of the party leader. This new transparency (glasnost) brought to the forefront long suppressed dissidence. Banned books were allowed. Religious freedom was allowed. Most importantly, political discourse was allowed within the Communist Party. For the first time Communist leaders ran against each other with DIFFERENT platforms. Radically different at times. Importantly for the international Cold War game, Gorbachev decided not to intervene when puppet regimes fell from East Berlin to Bucharest.
The final nail on the Soviet Union coffin again came, not by actions made by Reagan, but by Gorbachev. In December 1991, Gorbachev called for a referendum to allow the various SSRs to choose their fate within the greater USSR. They voted to leave…and with that the Soviet Union, the scourge of the West since the fall of Hitler, was no more.