On June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, passed away at his home in Bel Air, California.
One of my earliest memories of Ronald Reagan was when my parents and I watched Reagan’s Presidential motorcade make its way down Monterey Avenue in Palm Desert. Reagan was good friends with Walter Annenberg and often vacationed at Annenberg’s Rancho Mirage estate. While I don’t recall the exact date when I saw Reagan’s motorcade, I assume he was in town to visit with the Annenbergs. Nevertheless, I do recall a large amount of people lining the sidewalk, ready to see the President’s limo pass by. It was an exciting event back then…it wasn’t until living in Washington that I would look upon the Presidential and Vice-Presidential motorcades as frequent annoyances. When the motorcade finally passed us, I remember squealing “Mom, the President waved to me!” Ah, to be a little kid again…
But fast forward to the present day, or at least to the past three years, a majority of which I spent studying Soviet/Russian politics and history at GWU. It was there that I became incredibly frusturated with the conservative camp’s proclivity to credit President Reagan for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and fall of other communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. Statements such as “Reagan won the Cold War” or “Reagan masterfully engineered the downfall of the USSR” and my personal favorite, “Reagan pushed the USSR towards bankruptcy” are constantly trumpeted by conservative politicians, newspaper columnists, and TV pundits who know little about the history of the Soviet Union. If you repeat something long enough, though, then perhaps the American public will begin to accept it as the truth. This is exactly what has happened, and with Reagan’s recent death, the lie has become even louder.
If Reagan did not singlehandedly bring an end to the Soviet Union, then what did? I present a few reasons below…
Economics: By the 1980s, the Soviet economy was showing serious problems in all sectors of its economy, but these problems were most prevalent in agriculture and oil production. The USSR, in fact, was forced to import grain from the U.S. and Canada to feed its population. Most importantly, though, was the USSR’s slow rate of technological modernization in an era that was increasingly dominated by high-tech products from the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan. Soviet industry continued to rely on technology that had been formulated decades ago, and the scarce supply of computers was distributed to only the most trusted Soviet workers (scientists, etc).
Of course, there were serious structural weaknesses that were built into the Soviet economy, chief among those being the command style economy. In such an economy, the ability to output a product in large quantities was more important that actually producing a quality good. There was no room for innovation in such an economy, as factory managers simply followed the orders that were passed down to them from the bureaucrats in GOSPLAN. (“Hmmm…I could try implementing these new production techniques that might speed up the output of the factory goods, but what if it fails? I’ll lose my job, my dacha, and my car. And even if it does work, then GOSPLAN will set even higher quotas for next year. I think I’ll just stick with what I do every year.”) Furthermore, there was no rational relationship between supply and demand – this, too, was determined by Moscow bureaucrats. A majority of Soviet industry was geared towards producing weapons for the military or other heavy industry machinery. None of these products satisfied Soviet consumers who desired the same blue jeans, cars, and kitchen appliances that were commonplace in the Western countries.
As I mentioned above, agriculture was an especially problematic sector of the Soviet economy. In the 1930s, farmers were forcibly collectivized and the “wealthier” peasants (the kulaks, who were among the most efficient farmers in the USSR) were liquidated by the Soviet security services. The peasants that lived on collective farms devoted a majority of their time to tending their own personal gardens instead of the community crops, and a large percentage of crops simply rotted in the fields. The crops that eventually made it to the large cities would sit for months in warehouses, where another large percentage would be lost to spoilage.
Since the USSR could continue to export its vast amounts of oil to other countries for hard currency, it would basically use these earnings to cover up the shortfall produced by its problematic sectors of the economy. The USSR would then use this hard currency to purchase machinery and grain from other countries, and continued to neglect any real attempts to reform agriculture or heavy industry.
It is quite conceivable that the Soviet economy could have continued to perform miserably for decades without any political crisis enveloping the nation. And then along came Gorby…
Glasnost and Perestroika: While serving as an agriculture official, Mikhail Gorbachev experienced firsthand the problems of collective agriculture. When he came to power as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, he unleashed a set of reforms known as glasnost and perestroika.
Perestroika, which means “restructuring” in Russian, was Gorbachev’s campaign to reform the Soviet economy. Gorbachev did not strive to abandon socialism – he simply wanted to reform the most inefficient sectors of the economy and raise the standard of living in the Soviet Union. He pushed through reforms that allowed for private farming and cooperative business ventures. Gorbachev hoped that these cooperatives, which were really the first private businesses in the USSR, would provide goods and services that were in high demand by consumers (but the Soviet state by itself did not have the resources to meet this demand). In the realm of state owned enterprises, Gorbachev enacted measures that transferred decision making power from GOSPLAN bureaucrats to the factory directors themselves. The result, then, was an chaotic hybrid economy that included both capitalist and communist characteristics.
Glasnost, (“openness”) was Gorbachev’s campaign to relax media censorship. The aim of glasnost was to allow for some criticism of the government and more open discussion about past atrocities committed by the Soviet state. Gorbachev intended to use glasnost as a platform to attack the “old guard” Communist Party members that were vehemently opposed to his economic reforms. With their reins loosened, the Soviet media began to report on corruption, waste, bribery, and other problems that plagued Soviet enterprises and public services. The highlighting of such problems called into doubt the Communist Party’s claim that the USSR was a shining example of socialism. Unfortunately for Gorbachev, glasnost soon spiraled out of control. Ethnic groups in the Soviet Republics used the freedoms provided by glasnost to air their grievances with the Soviet government and demand greater freedoms from Moscow. Tensions flared between various ethnic groups in the USSR, and Gorbachev responded by sending Soviet troops to quell the rising tide of violence. Such actions, though, only exacerbated the situation, and groups within the Soviet Union formed popular fronts to demand independence.
Demokratizatsiya: Another goal of Gorbachev’s was to infuse new “progressive” blood into the ranks of the Communist Party. He hoped that by doing so, he could bypass the “old guard” Communists and more easily enact his economic and political reforms. Gorbachev did not intend to create a multiparty electoral system, but much like glasnost and perestroika he was unable to control the forces unleashed by demokratizatsiya. The constitutional provision that assigned a leading role to the Communist Party was eliminated, and political movements/parties across the USSR began to compete with each other for seats in the Supreme Soviets of each republic.
Of course, the above are merely a few (although, in my opinion, the most important) of the reasons for the decline of Soviet power and the eventual breakup of the USSR. The list is endless: Afghanistan, the Helsinki Agreements, the Sinatra Doctrine, the hardliner coup against Gorbachev, the rise of Boris Yeltsin and “take all the sovereignty you can swallow,” Ostpolitik, human rights groups…etc, etc. To expound upon all of these in one blog post would be impossible…there are tons of books that focus on the collapse of the USSR…pick up one of these and you will see that the fall of the Iron Curtain cannot be credited to a man that lived comfortably at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. In fact, to do so would be an insult to those citizens that fought against the communist regimes that denied them their basic freedoms.
Ultimately, Reagan did not win the Cold War…he was a bit player in a long drawn out contest between two great superpowers, one of which collapsed due to its poor economic performance, imperial overstretch, and failed political reforms. That Reagan is given so much credit for ending communism is ridiculous, and only adds to his cult of personality that continues to grow with each passing year.