Commentary: The Cowboy Who Roped In Russia

Reagan repeatedly upped the ante -- and convinced Moscow he meant business

Ronald Reagan really got under the Soviets' skin. When he took on the "Evil Empire" during his first term, his rhetoric made even the Russians' florid propaganda look wimpy. As a reporter in Moscow during the 1980s, I could see the loathing -- and the fear -- that Reagan provoked. After years of détente, the arduous Soviet-American effort to find common ground, along came this new President ordering up space weapons, arming anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, and launching a blistering new phase of the Cold War. The Soviets blustered back, but their sclerotic system wasn't up for another fight. The image that sticks in my mind is one elderly guard at a lonely train station deep in Ukraine. "Why is your President Reagan creating this Star Wars?" he asked plaintively. "Pochemu?" -- Why?

It was always fascinating to watch Ronald Reagan work his wonders on the Soviets, hectoring them as "the focus of evil in the modern world" in his first term, then pushing for arms control and befriending Mikhail Gorbachev in his second. Some argue that Reagan made Gorbachev possible: The renewed resolve in Washington convinced the Politburo that the country needed a reformer to revive the system. But the Soviets didn't need Reagan to show them the spreading rot in their own backyard. In the end, of course, Gorbachev's insistence on genuine reform ended up destroying the system from within -- while Reagan smiled and winked his encouragement from Gorbachev's side.

In the U.S., Reagan's talk of the sinister nature of Communism was often dismissed as the rhetoric of a right-wing ideologue. In Moscow, policymakers believed he meant business. The Communist Party newspapers (of course, back then all of them were party newspapers) whipped themselves into a frenzy with invective about the 40th U.S. President. He was portrayed as a wild "cowboy," a "shameless liar," and "a rabid militarist" who employed the "slogans and methods of Hitler." Cartoons depicted him waving a Stetson as he gleefully sat atop a ballistic missile. He may have called them the Evil Empire, but in the Soviet view, Reagan was evil incarnate.

The Russians watched the budget for the U.S. military increase, culminating in Reagan's grand promise to create the Strategic Defense Initiative -- better known as Star Wars. While many U.S. experts doubted whether such a missile shield was even feasible -- and it never was built -- the Soviets were not among the skeptics. They pulled out the generals to give endless press conferences on the insanity of such an "aggressive" move, and the papers were apoplectic with criticism.

But Reagan repeatedly upped the ante -- and the Soviets realized that the costs of matching him militarily were beyond their means. The Soviet economy was languishing: Military spending ate up 14% of the budget, while growth slowed to 2.2% -- too weak to meet the nation's economic goals. One visit to a Soviet shop would explain it all: There was nothing on the shelves. My family once waited more than an hour in a store to buy the one item for sale: cabbage. We usually steered clear of ordinary shops and headed for hard-currency stores, but the pickings were still slim: sausage that was more fat than meat; jarred, yellowed tomatoes from Bulgaria; and, of course, more cabbage. The bottom line: There were no more resources the Soviet military could eke from the civilian economy to match Reagan's buildup.

Gorbachev got the job of overhauling the engine. In the Soviet context, he considered himself the Great Communicator. He often veered from the official script -- something his predecessors never did -- to make an emphatic point. He broke with protocol by sharing the limelight with his attractive wife, Raisa. He ushered in new policies -- glasnost (or greater openness) and perestroika (restructuring) to help resuscitate Communism. But at every encounter with Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev was hardly a match. Insiders told me how Gorbachev was amazed at how Reagan could appear sleepy during some negotiations but snapped to life when the cameras appeared.

The truly Great Communicator knew that summits with Gorbachev were the one way he could directly telegraph a message to the walled-off Soviet public. After all, even Soviet TV was obliged to cover these events. The partners' first handshake took place outside a 120-year-old Geneva chateau. Reagan arrived first and burst out the door, bounding down the steps without his coat on a cold day, as Gorbachev's limo pulled up. Gorbachev, bundled in a gray overcoat, looking very much like the guest, was greeted by a dapper Reagan, 20 years his senior. To top it off, Reagan put his arm under Gorbachev's, as if he were aiding him up the stairs. All this was captured live on Soviet TV, and it was the first step in reshaping the view of Reagan in the eyes of the Soviet public.

Reagan met Gorbachev four times in 2 1/2 years. The two men never came to terms on Star Wars, though they did conclude a historic treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces. Whether there were substantial pacts or not, Reagan used every encounter to help lift the Iron Curtain.

Man on a Mission

Reagan's 1988 visit to Moscow (though it accomplished "peanuts" in the minds of U.S. officials) presented to the Soviet public a man on a mission, even on his opponent's turf. He gave a moving speech to students at Moscow State University, filling their heads with possibilities. "Your generation is living in one of the most exciting times, hopeful times in Soviet history," Reagan said. "It is a time when the first breath of freedom stirs the air and the heart beats to the accelerated rhythm of hope." He extolled Western freedoms at a monastery, praising "the irresistible power of unarmed truth."

Suddenly, the man reviled in Soviet media was on TV before millions of Soviet viewers, pressing flesh alongside Gorbachev on a stroll through Red Square. (Gorbachev did try to put him in his place once, when he took a boy from his mother's arms and asked him to shake hands with "Grandfather Reagan.")

Reagan did forge a close relationship with Gorbachev as he set the stage for the historic end of an era. After the summit, Reagan had an inkling that the ground was shifting. "Quite possibly, we are entering a new era in history -- a time of lasting change in the Soviet Union," he said in London after leaving Moscow. That perhaps was the only time Reagan could be accused of an understatement on the subject of Communism's future. But give him credit for seeing the big picture better than anyone else. He got it just right.

By Joyce Barnathan

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