In his 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton crowed that "for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, there are no Russian missiles pointed at American children." As if the fiends in the Kremlin targeted their ICBMs at the under-18 set next, well hear that " they aimed their gravity bombs at our elderly, infirm, and pregnant.
With this histrionic rhetoric, Clinton apparently sought to claim some credit for ending the Cold War. In the 1992 campaign, President Bush had claimed such credit because he had presided over the Cold War's denouement. In reality, Bush's role was like that of a back-up quarterback sent in to run out the clock when the game is already securely in hand. But if Bush's claim was an exaggeration, Clinton's was absurd. He was not yet even on the team when that Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His newest book, The imperative other American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism, will be published by the AEI Press in April. victory was recorded.
In truth, only two American residents can claim major credit for winning the Cold War. The first was Harry Truman, who articulated the "Truman doctrine" that launched the policy of containment and presided over the Marshall Plan and the founding of NATO. The second was Ronald Reagan, who ascended to office when America's self-confidence was at its nadir and the " correlation of forces" was more favorable to our Soviet adversary than at any other time. two when he left office eight years later, America was ascendant and the Soviet empire -- indeed, the Soviet Union itself -- was tottering on the precipice over which it soon tumbled.
Did Reagan win the Cold War? Were his policies responsible? Many of his domestic opponents denied it. At the extreme were doves such as the former SALT negotiator Raymond Garthoff and now-deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott who argued, each in his own way, that the Soviets had wanted peace all along but that it had taken America a very long time to figure this out. As Garthoff put it (and the illustrious George Kennan said much the same), Reagan had delayed, not hastened, the Cold War's finish by his belligerent refusal to recognize or reciprocate Soviet peace overtures. This argument, however, never could explain why Soviet peace-lovingness had not found its fulfillment before the hawkish Reagan became president -- say, when America was led by the pacific Jimmy Carter, who embraced Leonid Brezhnev and kissed him, as it were, on all cheeks.
Curiously, the Garthoff-Talbott-Kennan argument also downplays the role of Mikhail Gorbachev, since each of them contends that even under Brezhnev, peace-seeking Soviet diplomacy was thwarted by American militancy. These writers make strange bedfellows with some on the right who argued throughout the Gorbachev era and since that the last Soviet leader never intended fundamental change in the Soviet system but only presided over a break-up driven entirely by impersonal economic forces. This argument, however, never explained why an economic downturn should have impelled Soviet rulers to undertake risky reforms. Their own standard of living was insulated; their hold on power was unthreatened; and their ponderous military machine retained its unsurpassed lethality (far larger than the American even if a step behind technologically).
A more moderate, and more common, liberal account of the Cold War's end accords credit to Gorbachev (Timds "Man of the Decade") but little to Reagan, as if he merely had the dumb luck to be in the right place at the right time to receive the Soviet surrender -- much as Forrest Gump might have been. This version is better than some of the others, but still unconvincing. The credit it accords Gorbachev is indeed due him. He surely did not intend the break-up of the Soviet Union and presumably would have followed a different course had he foreseen it. Still, he styled himself a "revolutionary" and steered a course of radical reform -- liberalizing at home and jettisoning empire abroad -- that was charted primarily by his own inner compass. Nonetheless, to give all credit to Gorbachev and little to Reagan leaves at least two big questions unanswered.
The first is, Where did Gorbachev come from? His elevation in 1985 to the post of general secretary was far from automatic. Although the Politburo would not have selected him had its members foreseen the lengths to which he would go, he was seen as the candidate most likely to bring change. The oft- quoted declaration by Andrei Gromyko, who nominated Gorbachev, that despite the latter's nice smile he possessed "iron teeth" seems clearly to have been intended to assuage worries about Gorbachev's liberalism.
The second question is why Gorbachev chose the path he did, rather than some alternative means of getting the Soviet Union moving again. Why not, for example, sterner repression at home and moie dynamic adventures abroad? Indeed the anti-alcohol campaign and heightened military expenditure of Gorbachev's early tenure may have pointed in such a direction."
These two questions compel us to recognize that Gorbachev"s revolution, and before that the Politburo's choice of Gorbachev, must be interpreted in terms of their external as well as domestic context. And the signature on that external context was Ronald Reagan's. Had the Soviet economy reached the point of stagnation when America and the West were still beset by the self- doubt and tendency toward appeasement that marked the years before Reagan's presidency, perhaps the Kremlin would have sought salvation through new conquests or extortion. It was Reagan who led America in rediscovering its pride, who rebuilt our military machine, curtailed the transfer of military technology, and challenged the Soviets ideologically by his rhetoric and militarily by his sponsorship of anti-Communist guerrillas in the Third World.
Now, Jay Winik, a former official of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and aide to Rep. Les Aspin and Sen. Chuck Robb, weighs into this debate with On the Brink: The Dramatic Saga of How the Reagan Administration Changed the Course of History and Won the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, 672 pages, $ 30). While, as the title makes clear, Winik's view is similar to my own, this book does not do much to prove our case. Such proof -- about the causes of the Soviet Union's suicidal behavior-necessarily must be found on the Soviet side, whereas Winik's book is focused on the American side. It provides a vigorous recounting of some of the key battles within the Reagan administration over Cold War policies, stressing the pivotal role of neoconservatives in what Winik calls Reagan's "new counter- establishment."
Indeed the book is organized around the activities of four of the Reagan administration's most prominent neocons: Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, and Elliott Abrams. We see Perle waging bureaucratic war with the State Department's Richard Burt and arms negotiator Paul Nitze to defend his ultimately triumphant "zero option" for intermediate range nuclear weapons. We see Kirkpatrick battling Bush and Baker over policy toward Israel and Abrams wrestling with opaque CIA representatives and "the devious Ollie North to guide U.S. relations with the Nicaraguan contras.
Thus, Winik points at an argument within the argument about credit for Cold War victory. If Reagan won the Cold War, how much of the credit is owed to the distinctly neoconservative camp within his administration?
All four of Winik's main protagonists were, like Ronald Reagan, former liberal Democrats; indeed, some of them remained nominal Democrats when they entered Reagan's administration. (All four had been involved in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, as Winik had been, and as had I.) The neocons brought at least two distinctive contributions. One was their taste for combat. In contrast to establishmentarian Republicans like Bush and Baker, they did not want merely to manage relations with the Soviet Union; they, like Reagan, wanted to fight and win the Cold War. The other was their penchant for philosophy. In contrast to some traditional conservatives who placed overwhelming stress on the legitimacy of self-interest, the neocons stressed the nexus between America's interests and the well-being of others or the upholding of general principles.
Thus, Abrams led the fight to reverse Al Haig's and Ernest Lefever's early efforts to have the Reagan administration eschew interest in human rights abroad. Thus, Perle and Kampelman made] themselves champions of Soviet dissidents. Thus, Kirkpatrick broke form with traditional diplomacy in her forceful espousal of democracy and the principles of the U.N. charter. All of this immeasurably strengthened America's hand.
It would be wrong, however, to say that these contributions belonged exclusively to neocons. Presidential speechwriter Tony Dolan, who crafted the president's most telling ideological sallies against the "evil empire," had a taste for philosophy but was no neocon. Neither was Bill Casey, who undoubtedly aimed to win the Cold War. (Casey gets surprisingly short shrift in Winik's account, including the puzzling assertion that on Central America " Bill Casey... was not in the direct policy loop.")
Winik's book has its flaws. It contains thousands of words too many, most of them adjectives and metaphors. ("For the American people," he says in one passage, "... it was a remarkably intimate relationship, as though Reagan resided not simply in their hearts but in their homes ... Reagan was also a colossus, the man boldly rebuilding America's spirit and restoring its dominance in the world. He was fresh and buoyant, forceful and persuasive, and always inspiring... able to forge and rally not just his administration, but the entire nation, literally lifting it by force of his own dominating presence and the sheer strength of his vision.") It reconstructs by conjecture events or conversations which the author cannot possibly know about or convey verbatim. (When the fatal Soviet missile struck Korean Air Lines flight 007 in the dead of night, "most of the 269 passengers were wide awake," he tells us.) He oversimplifies. (McGovern's : "young reformers cheered... for Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and the Vietcong," he asserts.) He sometimes fumbles the facts. (Ben Gilman is not a Democrat, and Carter did not meet soon after his election with representatives of CDM.)
Still, On the Brink adds grist to the mill of debate about those most intriguing questions of contemporary history: Why did the Soviet Union collapse, and whom should we thank? The one thing we know for sure is that, the State of the Union message notwithstanding, it is not Bill Clinton.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the Amerian Tenterprise Institue.