Tear down that wall," has been the one sentence legacy of Ronald Reagan's presidential administration (Boyd). Ask any conservative political pundit and you are likely to hear that Reagan's defense strategy and, in particular, his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was the direct cause of the Berlin Wall coming down, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the eventual end of the Cold War. Yet, in reality, how instrumental was Reagan and his policy in these occurrences or was the actual cause due to other factors?
Reagan, unlike his predecessors, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon, adopted a much sterner posture relative to relations with the Soviet Union. Reagan entered office initially on the coat strings of President Carter's problems with the Iran hostages and Reagan campaigned on the strength of his strong militaristic positions. When Reagan entered office the Cold War was forty years old. The Soviet Union and the United States has spent four decades trying to outspend and surpass the other in building up its respective weapons warehouse. The build-up was expensive for both countries and it was just a matter of time before one or both decided that this pattern had to be broken.
Interestingly, it now appears that the Soviet Union had decided long before Reagan had come into office that they were no longer committed to trying to outspend and out build the United States when it came to military items. Based on information Central Intelligence Agency estimates there had been no corresponding build up or spending by the Soviet Union in an effort to keep pace with the United States since the beginning of 1980. None of the spending by the Carter administration or Reagan's SDI spending had any impact on the Soviet Union's spending levels (Noren). There may have been shifting of spending by the Soviets as a defensive measure in response to the SDI but there was no indication that the Soviets allocated any new funds.
Reagan SDI proponents argue that the introduction of this program served to bankrupt the fragile Soviet economy but a review of the Soviet defense spending in last days of the Cold War do not reveal any measureable decline in the monies allocated by the Soviet government for defense. CIA estimates indicate that such spending remained constant throughout the period of the 1980s and that there is no marked decrease in Soviet military spending until 1989 and even this reduction was proportionally much less than overall government spending.
The Cold War was always more taxing on the Soviet government than it was on the United States. The United States economy had been developed over a period of many years while the Soviet economy was trying desperately to catch up to that of the United States. The Soviet Union did not come into existence until after the First World War and it suffered greatly from the effects of the Second World War (Collins). Meanwhile, the United States economy actually benefited from the effects of the Second World War as it helped pull the nation out of the throes of the Great Depression. The Soviets knew as early as 1970 that they could not financially afford to keep pace with the United States. Certain members of the Supreme Soviet warned General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that the Soviet economy could not survive dedicating such a large portion of its resources to military spending. Brezhnev, whose political support was heavily dependent on the military and the industries serving the military, ignored the soothsayers and continued the military build-up.
So if Reagan's defense posture and initiation of the SDI did not cause the Soviet economic break down what was the cause and what effect did the SDI have? In light of the fact that economy of the Soviet Union was not the only economy suffering from the effects of their military budget other causes must be examined. At the time of the Soviet Union's collapse Israel, Taiwan, and North and South Korea were all heavily burdened by their defense budgets and yet several of them were actually thriving economically at the time that the Soviet Union finally collapsed. A far more plausible explanation is that the Soviet economy was doomed from nearly the beginning due to the basic flaws in the philosophies upon which it was built. Beginning in the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin introduced the concept of the "command economy" which did not reward either individual or collective effort. Under this system the decision makers in the Soviet economic system were immune from any complaints by the consumers. Production decisions were made in a vacuum and market concerns were virtually ignored. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the "command economy" method had been in operation within the Soviet Union for over fifty years without success and it was doomed to failure. It was just a question of when (Gregory).
Reagan proponents also argue that the Soviet's withdrawal from Afghanistan was precipitated by Reagan's military build-up and introduction of the SDI but again this overstates the case. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was initiated by the fact that the Soviet government recognized that they were enmeshed in an unwinnable ware and was expending dollars that were better directed toward rescuing a domestic economy that was near collapse. It must be noted, however, that the United States did play a significant role in the Soviet's war in Afghanistan. Reagan was determined to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union's Vietnam and some would argue that he did exactly that. Reagan assisted the forces fighting the Soviets, the mujahideen (the holy warriors) with portable surface-to-air missiles that helped the mujahideen inflict heavy losses on the Soviet forces. Estimates of United States support to the mujahideen have been estimated at $1 billion per year. Ironically, Obama Bin Laden, who later master minded the World Trade Center bombing was an active member of the mujahideen and received significant financial support from the United States.
Soviet leader Gorbachev ascended to the office of General Secretary determined to initiate wide spread domestic reforms and to change the tenor of Soviet foreign policy. Gorbachev came to office during a difficult time for the Soviet government which had suffered through three regime changes in less than three years and with the recognition that the Soviet government was in need of radical change. He believed that political and economic reforms were possible only with better relations with the United States and that betterment of relations would permit a shift of money and resources away from the military and toward a suffering domestic economy. Within a few weeks of taking over the reins of General Secretary Gorbachev signaled his willingness to enter into discussions with the United States regarding limiting arms control. On his own initiative he announced a freeze on the deployment of Soviet intermediate range missiles directed toward Western Europe. This was done before Reagan ever announced the plans for the SDI or the corresponding military build up.
For whatever reason Gorbachev was convinced that the Soviet Union no longer had to fear a potential attack by the United States. He made this perfectly clear to his military advisers and he openly opposed any plans that included expenditures based on a possible war with West. Because Gorbachev did not fear the United States he could not be intimidated by any actions taken by Reagan including the SDI. Gorbachev had already decided upon entering office that the military posturing that had gone on between the Soviet Union and the United States since the end of the Second World War was counter-productive and had to end, therefore, Reagan's actions in announcing the SDI and his military build-up were unnecessary and wasteful.
If Reagan's actions did anything they made it more difficult for the moderate policies of Gorbachev to work. Gorbachev was personally convinced that the Soviet Union had nothing to fear from the United States but that did not mean that there were other members in the Soviet government who felt otherwise. Reagan's SDI program and military build-up which resulted in the largest peacetime military budget in history caused some members of the Soviet government to question Reagan's intentions and caused Gorbachev to become embroiled in a contentious Politburo meeting where his policies came under considerable opposition. Reagan further complicated matters by backing away from any language hinting at the continuation of the policy of detente advocated by previous administrations. Instead, Reagan stressed the importance of the United States establishing itself as the world's super power and expressing his distrust of the Soviet system and Marxist ideology. In a speech before the British Parliament in 1982, Reagan stated: "the march of freedom and democracy…will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history (Reagan)." Gorbachev was trying desperately to end the Cold War while Reagan's policies were serving to acerbate the situation.
Ronald Reagan entered office feeling that the United States needed to strengthen its military presence throughout the world and send a message that the United States was…