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Post-Cold War Reconsiderations By: John Lewis Gaddis
The Elliott School of International Affairs, GWU | Tuesday, June 15, 2004

It has been 22 years now since Strategies of Containment was first published. I’ve been fortunate that the book has remained in print all this time, and is still widely used. This is somewhat surprising, given how different the world is now from what it was then. After all, when the book appeared, Ronald Reagan had only recently entered the White House, Leonid Brezhnev was still alive – if not well – inside the Kremlin, and it was not at all clear how, when, or even whether the Cold War would end.

Because of this, the book ended indecisively, even pessimistically. My conclusion reiterated the distinction I had made throughout between asymmetrical and symmetrical containment: that certain postwar administrations (Truman’s before 1950, Eisenhower’s, Nixon’s and Ford’s) had sought to compete with the Soviet Union at times, in places, and in manners of their own choosing, even if this meant leaving some arenas uncontested while escalating the conflict in others; while other administrations (Truman’s after 1950, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s) had sought to compete wherever a challenge existed, without leaving any arena uncontested but also without expanding the conflict into others.

I also suggested that those administrations that had favored asymmetrical containment had done so because they perceived American means as limited; and that those that had practiced symmetrical containment had done so because they took the opposite point of view. It followed, then, that Republican administrations, owing to their fiscal conservatism, had tended to opt for asymmetrical containment, while Democratic administrations, under the influence of Keynesian expansionist economics, had preferred symmetrical containment.

By the mid-1970s, though, serious problems had developed with both of these approaches, as demonstrated by defeat in Vietnam and the collapse of détente. The Carter administration, in its ill-conceived effort to learn from these mistakes, failed to align its strategy with either tradition while producing no workable alternative. As a result, the strategy of containment, at the time I completed the book, appeared to have reached a point of crisis, if not a dead end.

What was needed, I wrote, was “some new strategy of containment, neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical in character, drawing upon the strengths of each approach but rejecting their weaknesses.” Precisely how this might be done was left as unclear, however, as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous instruction to his staff on how to choose between a high tariff and a low tariff policy: “just weave them both together.”

The book contained only a cryptic footnote reference to the Reagan administration, which I will read in its entirety: “There were signs, though, in 1980, that the pattern might be changing, what with the victorious Republican candidate for president, Ronald Reagan, previously known as a staunch fiscal conservative, having called for a $30 billion tax cut to stimulate the economy and a simultaneous across-the-board build-up in American military expenditures.” That was as much, when I finished writing in 1981, as I was willing to venture.

A lot has happened since I wrote that footnote, and the wishy-washy conclusion to Strategies of Containment that accompanied it. There’ve been pressures for years to do a new edition that would at least bring the analysis up through the end of the Cold War. When these began to come from students who weren’t even born when the first edition appeared, I finally decided that it was time to do something about this, and so have been working on this over the past couple of months. This evening’s talk is the first public report on what I’ve written.

The principal point of which I wish to persuade you may come as something of a surprise: it is that Ronald Reagan – not his advisers, but Reagan himself – deserves to be ranked alongside Kennan, Nitze, Eisenhower, Dulles, Rostow, Nixon and Kissinger as a serious strategist of containment. Indeed, I will go beyond that to argue that Reagan succeeded, where they all failed, to achieve a workable synthesis of symmetrical and asymmetrical containment – drawing upon the strengths of each approach while avoiding their weaknesses – and that it was that accomplishment, together with the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, that brought the Cold War to an end.

For years intellectuals, journalists, political opponents, and especially academics derided Reagan as a telegenic lightweight, too simple-minded to know what containment had been about, much less to have constructive ideas about how to ensure its success. It certainly is true that Reagan relied more on instincts than on systematic study in shaping his positions. Those instincts, derived from his Midwestern upbringing, his experiences in Hollywood, and an occasional tendency to conflate movies with reality, included an unshakable belief in democracy and capitalism, an abhorrence of communism, an impatience with compromise in what he regarded as a contest between good and evil, and – very significantly – a deep fear that the Cold War might end in a nuclear holocaust, thereby confirming the Biblical prophecy of Armageddon. This was, to say the least, an unorthodox preparation for the presidency. When combined with the fact that Reagan took office as the oldest elected chief executive – he turned 70 shortly after his inauguration – it seemed reasonable to expect an amiable geriatric who would for the most part follow the lead of his own advisers.

That view turned out to be wrong on several counts. First, it overlooked the skill with which Reagan had managed his pre-presidential career: it was no small matter to have shifted the Republican Party to the right while centrist Republican presidents – Nixon and Ford – were occupying the White House. Second, it failed to take into account Reagan’s artful artlessness: his habit of appearing to know less than his critics did, of seeming to be adrift even as he proceeded quietly toward destinations he himself had chosen. Third, and most important, it neglected what Reagan himself had said in several hundred radio scripts and speech drafts prepared between 1975 and 1980: these almost daily commentaries, composed in longhand on legal pads without the assistance of speechwriters, provided a more voluminous record of positions taken on national and international issues than had been available for any other modern presidential aspirant. They put forward no comprehensive strategy for ending the Cold War. That would emerge only gradually, in response to what happened after Reagan entered the White House. These broadcasts and speeches did, however, contain most of the ideas that lay behind that strategy – and they establish that the ideas came mostly from Reagan himself.

Third, and most important, it neglected what Reagan himself had said in several hundred radio scripts and speech drafts prepared between 1975 and 1980: these almost daily commentaries, composed in longhand on legal pads without the assistance of speechwriters, provided a more voluminous record of positions taken on national and international issues than had been available for any other modern presidential aspirant. They put forward no comprehensive strategy for ending the Cold War. That would emerge only gradually, in response to what happened after Reagan entered the White House. These broadcasts and speeches did, however, contain most of the ideas that lay behind that strategy – and they establish that the ideas came mostly from Reagan himself.

The most striking one was optimism: faith in the ability of the United States to compete successfully within the international system. You would have to go back to FDR in 1933 to find a president who entered office with comparable self-confidence in the face of bleak prospects. Like Roosevelt, Reagan believed that the nation was stronger than it realized, that time was on its side, and that these facts could be conveyed, through rhetoric, style, and bearing, to the American people. “[I]t is important every once and a while to remind ourselves of our accomplishments,” he told his radio audience in 1976, “lest we let someone talk us into throwing out the baby with the bathwater. . . [T]he system has never let us down – we’ve let the system down now & then because we’re only human.”

It followed from this that the Soviet Union was weaker than it appeared to be, and that time was not on its side. Reagan had insisted as early as 1975 that communism was “a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature.” This too was an unusual posture for an incoming president. The fundamental premise of containment had always been that the United States was acting defensively against an adversary that was on the offensive, and was likely to continue on that path for the foreseeable future. Now, just at the moment at which the U.S.S.R. had achieved parity and seemed to be pushing for superiority in strategic weaponry, Reagan rejected that premise, raising the prospect of regaining and indefinitely sustaining American preeminence.

He did so by assuming expandable resources on the part of the United States, a view consistent with NSC 68, which Reagan read and discussed on the air shortly after it was declassified in 1975. He concluded, as he later recalled, that “capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism – money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever.” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was denying its people “all kinds of consumer products” in its quest for military supremacy. “We could have an unexpected ally,” he noted in 1977, “if citizen Ivan is becoming discontented enough to start talking back.” After becoming president, Reagan quickly became convinced, on the basis of intelligence reports, that the Soviet economy “was a basket case, partly because of massive spending on armaments. . . . I wondered how we as a nation could use these cracks in the Soviet system to accelerate the process of collapse.”

The Soviet Union was also vulnerable, Reagan insisted, within the realm of ideas. Despite his support for the Committee on the Present Danger, founded in 1976 to warn of the Soviet military buildup, Reagan never accepted its assumption that armaments alone could make the U.S.S.R. a viable competitor for the United States. Moscow’s failure to respect human rights, he maintained, was a serious weakness, even in a military super-power. Although Reagan had opposed the Helsinki Conference, which he regarded – shortsightedly – as having ratified Soviet control over Eastern Europe, by 1979 he was acknowledging that “something [is] going on behind the Iron Curtain that we’ve been ignoring and [that offers] hope for all mankind. . . . [A] little less détente . . . and more encouragement to the dissidents might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”

Mutual Assured Destruction, however, had to go. Unlike all previous presidents dating back to Kennedy, Reagan refused to accept the proposition that a nuclear balance of terror could ever lead to a stable international system: it was, he later recalled, “the craziest thing I ever heard of.” The SALT process, geared as it was toward reinforcing MAD, was flawed because it did nothing to reverse reliance on nuclear weapons or to diminish the risks that their continued existence in such vast numbers entailed. “I have repeatedly stated that I would be willing to negotiate an honest, verifiable reduction in nuclear weapons . . . to the point that neither of us represented a threat to the other,” Reagan wrote in a 1980 speech draft. “I cannot, however, agree to a treaty – specifically the Salt II treaty, which, in effect, legitimizes a nuclear arms buildup.”

The problem with détente, then, was not that it had encouraged negotiations with the U.S.S.R., but rather that it had done so without enlisting American strengths: the idea had been to “seek agreements just for the sake of having an agreement.” But “if we have the will & the determination to build a deterrent capability . . . we can have real peace. . . . [T]he men in the Kremlin could in the face of such determination decide that true arms limitation makes sense.” In Reagan’s view, then, rejecting détente was the way to reduce the danger of nuclear war and move toward a negotiated settlement of Cold War differences.

Such a settlement would require, however, a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet Union itself. That had been the long-term objective of containment since Kennan first articulated that strategy; but as the nuclear danger had grown, the American interest in trying to reform the U.S.S.R. had receded – at least until the Carter administration made the promotion of human rights there one of its chief priorities. Carter, however, had sought to change the Soviet Union while preserving détente, an impossible task in retrospect because one could hardly challenge a state’s internal makeup while simultaneously soliciting its cooperation within the international arena. For Reagan, reforming the Soviet Union required the abandonment of détente. “Our foreign policy should be to show by example the greatness of our system and the strength of American ideals,” he wrote in August 1980. “[W]e would like nothing better than to see the Russian people living in freedom & dignity instead of being trapped in a backwash of history as they are.

Reagan was, then, no lightweight. He came into office with a clear set of ideas, developed for the most part on his own, on how to salvage the strategy of containment by returning to its original objective: that of convincing Soviet leaders, as Kennan had written in 1947, “that the true glory of Russian national effort can find its expression only in peaceful and friendly association with other peoples and not in attempts to subjugate and dominate those peoples.” He would do this, not by acknowledging the current Soviet regime’s legitimacy, but by challenging it; not by seeking parity in the arms race but by regaining superiority; not by compromising on the issue of human rights but by capitalizing on it as a weapon more powerful than anything that existed in the military arsenals of either side. “The Reagan I observed may have been no master of detail,” Soviet ambassador Dobrynin later observed, “but he had a clear sense of what he wanted.”


Like earlier strategies of containment, Reagan’s was not fully formed when he entered the White House. He was determined to distance himself, as several of his predecessors had sought to do, from what he regarded as the discredited policies of a defeated incumbent. He was unusual, however, in that he rejected the legacies of earlier administrations as well, including those of his fellow Republicans Nixon and Ford. The new president also departed from precedent by relying on no principal adviser to help shape and articulate his strategy. Despite the presence of heavyweights like Alexander Haig and George Shultz in the State Department, Caspar Weinberger in the Defense Department, and William Casey in the Central Intelligence Agency, no one in Reagan’s administration wielded the influence that Kennan, Nitze, Dulles, Rostow, Kissinger, and Brzezinski had had within the administrations they served: Shultz would come closest, though only in Reagan’s second term. The very fact that Reagan went through six national security advisers – Richard Allen, William Clark, Robert MacFarlane, John Poindexter, Frank Carlucci, and Colin Powell – suggests the extent to which he was, in the end, his own chief strategist.

Reagan’s objective was straightforward, if daunting: to prepare the way for a new kind of Soviet leader by straining the old Soviet system to the breaking point. Kennan, Nitze, and other early strategists of containment had always held out the possibility that a Soviet leader might someday acknowledge the failures of Marxism-Leninism and the futility of Russian imperialism – the two foundations upon which the Soviet state had been constructed. After three and a half decades, however, neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical containment had produced anything like that result, and by the time Reagan took office early in 1981 the apparent strength and actual behavior of the U.S.S.R. made the prospect seem very distant indeed. It was not at all clear then that the Soviet economy was approaching bankruptcy, that Afghanistan would become Moscow’s Vietnam, that the appearance of a Polish labor union called Solidarity portended the end of communism in Eastern Europe, or that the U.S.S.R. itself would disappear in just over a decade.

The strategy Reagan developed over the next several years did not cause these things to happen. They resulted from structural tensions that had been accumulating within the Soviet Union and its satellites for many years. Even if Carter had been re-elected in 1980, they would at some point have produced a crisis. Whether it would have come as quickly or with such decisive results, though, is another matter; for no administration prior to Reagan’s had deliberately sought to exploit those tensions with a view to destabilizing the Kremlin leadership and accelerating the decline of the regime it ran.

All previous shifts between symmetrical and asymmetrical containment had taken place in response to what presidents and their advisers thought the American system could stand. Thus Truman was moving even before Korea toward a reorientation of strategy on the basis of arguments that the economy could tolerate large increases in the defense budget without setting off inflation. Eisenhower’s rejection of those arguments, together with his concerns about the political costs of limited wars, drove his administration back to asymmetry in the form of the New Look. Kennedy and Johnson embraced an expansionist economic philosophy without which their return to symmetrical response would not have been possible. Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, recoiling from the excesses of Vietnam, reverted to asymmetry again. And one of the reasons Carter continued the substance, though not the appearance, of Kissinger’s strategy was that the inflationary spiral set off by the last application of symmetrical response still persisted, ruling out further experimentation with that approach.

None of these shifts, however, had much to do with what the Soviet system could stand. The first Reagan directive on national security strategy, in contrast, called explicitly in May, 1982, for efforts to force “the USSR to bear the brunt of its economic shortcomings, and to encourage long-term liberalizing and nationalist tendencies within the Soviet Union and allied countries.” Three weeks later, in a speech to the members of the British Parliament, Reagan elaborated on what he had in mind. Karl Marx had been right, he pointed out, in predicting “a great revolutionary crisis . . . where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order.” This was happening, though, not in the capitalist world but in the Soviet Union, a country that “runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens.” The West, therefore, should insist “that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” What was needed was “a plan and a hope for the long term – the march of freedom and democracy that will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”

No American president had ever before spoken like this in public, nor was the administration’s internal position much different. National Security Decision Directive 75, completed in January, 1983, laid out a strategy of “contain[ing] and over time revers[ing] Soviet expansionism by competing effectively on a sustained basis with the Soviet Union in all international arenas.” The contest would range from buildups in nuclear and conventional weaponry through new and openly discussed war-fighting strategies, economic sanctions, the aggressive promotion of human rights, overt and covert support for anti-Soviet resistance movements in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan as well as for opponents of Marxist regimes in Angola, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua, and the vigorous employment of rhetoric as an instrument of psychological warfare, a trend which culminated in the President’s March, 1983, claim that the Soviet Union was “the focus of evil in the modern world.”

All of this came at a time when the domestic strains that had long been building within the U.S.S.R. had converged to produce a stagnant economy, environmental degradation, the beginnings of social unrest, and – remarkably for an advanced industrial society – declining life expectancy, even at the top. The Kremlin leadership, burdened by both ideological and biological senescence, could only respond autistically to these developments, a trend that continued even after Brezhnev’s death in November, 1982, when the Politburo appointed successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, who were themselves approaching their deathbeds. Reagan had, in this sense, picked a good time to push.

Pushing, however, carried risks. Reagan could hardly dismantle détente and exploit Soviet vulnerabilities without reviving fears of nuclear war; and this is indeed what happened during the first two years of his administration, a period that seemed at the time – and still seems – the most dangerous one in Soviet-American relations since the Cuban missile crisis. What hardly anyone realized at the time, though, was that Reagan himself also feared a nuclear apocalypse – perhaps more deeply than most of his critics did. He had warned, as early as 1976, of “horrible missiles of destruction that can, in a matter of minutes, . . . destroy virtually the civilized world we live in.” His rejection of Mutual Assured Destruction, and hence of the SALT process, stemmed from a long-standing conviction that relying on nuclear weapons to keep the peace was certain sooner or later to bring on a nuclear war. Détente itself, he believed, had frozen the nuclear danger in place, rather than doing anything to alleviate it. And where did these views come from? It’s clear now, as it was not then, that Reagan was the first, and so far, the only flat-out nuclear abolitionist ever to be President of the United States.

That’s the key to understanding the Strategic Defense Initiative, which shattered orthodoxies on all sides. By endorsing a program to defend the United States against long-range nuclear missile attacks, Reagan called into question the 1972 Soviet-American treaty banning strategic defenses, a fundamental pillar of the SALT I agreements. In doing so, he denied the basic premise of Mutual Assured Destruction, which was that vulnerability could produce safety. He thereby reversed an American position on arms control dating back to the Kennedy administration. But he also linked SDI to the goal of lowering the nuclear danger: missile defense, he insisted, could in time make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”

From an operational perspective, SDI was a very distant prospect in 1983, and it’s almost as distant today. As grand strategy, though, SDI was a brilliant demonstration of how to kill multiple birds with a single stone: in a single speech Reagan managed simultaneously to preempt the nuclear freeze movement, to raise the prospect of not just reducing but eliminating the need for nuclear weapons, to reassert American technological preeminence, and, by challenging the Soviet Union in an arena in which it had no hope of being able to compete, to create the strongest possible incentive for Soviet leaders to reconsider the reasons for competition in the first place. To reinforce that argument, he later proposed – in a gesture so unorthodox that virtually no one apart from himself took it seriously – to share the technology of SDI with the nation against whose weapons it was to be developed.

This suggests one other thing that’s surprising about Reagan, which is that he had never ruled out the possibility of negotiations with Moscow, as long as they could be geared toward ending, not perpetuating, the Cold War. His May 1982, national strategy directive had predicted that although the next few years “will likely pose the greatest challenge to our survival and well-being since World War II, . . . our response could result in a fundamentally different East-West relationship by the end of the decade.” He made it clear, in a quiet meeting with Secretary of State George Shultz in February 1983 – before the “evil empire” and SDI speeches – that he wanted to begin talking to the Russians, despite the reservations of his own staff. And when it became clear, in the fall of 1983, that the Kremlin had interpreted a NATO military exercise – Able-Archer 83 – as preparation for an actual American attack on the USSR, Reagan decided that the time had come, again, to make a speech, this time not for the purpose of rattling the Soviet leadership, but rather to reassure it.

The most important passage was unmistakably his own: his suggestion that if only a typical Soviet couple, Ivan and Anya, could meet a typical American couple, Jim and Sally, and there was no language barrier between them, they would not debate the differences between their respective governments but would instead talk about their jobs, their children, and their hopes for the future. “They might even have decided that they were all going to get together for dinner some evening soon. Above all, they would have proven that people don’t make wars.” I have heard it said – but cannot verify this, so it’s not in the book – that when the draft of this passage made its rounds in the White House, written out in longhand on a yellow legal pad, a young staffer asked, much too loudly: “Who wrote this shit?”


It’s clear now that Reagan’s strategy, once détente had been dismantled and American military and economic preeminence had been reasserted, was simply to wait for the Grim Reaper to complete his work in Moscow. “Sooner or later,” Secretary of State Shultz reminded the President in the summer of 1984, “the Soviets would have to face the hurdle of a generational turnover when the senior members of the Politburo retired or died and would be replaced by younger men who might have a significantly different outlook.” Reagan needed no prompting, and when that did in fact occur, with Gorbachev’s appointment as Chernenko’s successor in March 1985, he moved rapidly to take advantage of the opportunity. He had always intended for his strategy of confrontation to prepare the way for one of persuasion, and now the moment had come. The points of which he hoped to convince Gorbachev boiled down to three:

First, that the United States was sincere in seeking to lower the danger of nuclear war. Reagan had long believed that “if I could ever get in a room alone with one of the top Soviet leaders, there was a chance the two of us could make some progress. . . . I have always placed a lot of faith in the simple power of human contact in solving problems.” It sounded naïve, but when this finally happened – when Reagan actually did sit down across from Gorbachev, with only their interpreters present, at their first summit conference in Geneva on November 19, 1985 – the really big story, as Shultz recalled, was “that they had hit it off as human beings.” Despite vigorous disagreements on responsibility for the Cold War, human rights, regional conflicts, and especially SDI, Reagan found “something likeable about Gorbachev.” The Soviet leader caught the mood as well: “something important happened to each of us on that day. . . . We both sensed that we must maintain contact and try to avoid a break.”

That personal chemistry led, over the next few months, to the emergence of a top-level Soviet-American consensus in support of a proposition that, only a few months earlier, would have seemed improbable if not ludicrous: that it might indeed be possible to move, not just from the limitation to the reduction of strategic arms, but toward their drastic reduction, perhaps even elimination. It was Reagan who, by challenging the conventional wisdom of détente, the SALT process, and the concept of MAD that lay behind it, brought the United States around to this position. It was also he who persuaded Gorbachev – face-to-face in Geneva in front of a fireplace – that he meant what he said. And when Gorbachev, most dramatically at the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, made it clear that he shared that vision, it was Reagan who reciprocated by assuming sincerity on the part of the Soviet leader, despite disagreements over the future of SDI that prevented an explicit agreement.

The third Reagan-Gorbachev summit, held in Washington in December 1987, did produce an agreement to dismantle and destroy a particular category of weapons, the intermediate range nuclear missiles both sides had deployed in Europe. It also prepared the way for the deep cuts in ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers that would, by the end of the century, significantly reduce the number of nuclear weapons Russians and Americans had targeted at one another. And the Washington summit was significant in one other respect: it led Gorbachev, in a report to the Politburo on his return to Moscow, to acknowledge Reagan’s success in conveying sincerity about American intentions: to report to the Politburo in words that acknowledged Reagan’s persuasiveness:

"In Washington, perhaps for the first time, we understood . . . how important the human factor is in international politics. Before that, we were content with a rather banal formula. We said that in foreign policy, of course, contacts between the leaders of states and governments . . . are contacts between the representatives of two irreconcilable systems. . . . But it turned out that . . . policymakers, if they are really responsible people, . . . also represent purely human qualities, the interests and the aspirations of common people. … This is an important aspect of the new international thinking, and . . . in Washington, we . . . felt that in a very, very clear way."

The second point of which Reagan hoped to persuade Gorbachev was that a command economy, when coupled with authoritarian politics, was a prescription for obsolescence in the modern world. Reagan had argued this often in the past, but he left it to Shultz – who had taught economics at Stanford – to put the case to the new Kremlin leader. The Secretary of State was eager to do so, convinced that what Gorbachev needed was a tutorial on trends that “were already transforming the worlds of finance, manufacturing, politics, scientific research, diplomacy, indeed, everything.”

Shultz began the seminar in Moscow in November 1985, and it continued over the next several years. What he sought to convey to Gorbachev was that Soviet power was becoming monodimensional in an increasingly multidimensional world. The USSR was a superpower “only because it is a nuclear and ballistic missile superpower,” he told his staff early in 1986. It made sense, then, to reduce Soviet and American capabilities in that particular area – as both Reagan and Gorbachev seemed to want to do – because the United States and its allies were so far ahead of the Soviet Union in all other areas. It was also important, though, to be certain that Gorbachev understood the failures of the Soviet system in these other areas, together with the need to correct them. For the only way he would be able to do that, Shultz believed, would be to “change the Soviet system. So we need to keep trying to influence Gorbachev in that direction.”

By the spring of 1987, Shultz was carrying pie charts to illustrate trends on gross national product and international trade through the year 2000, projections not at all to the advantage of the U.S.S.R. “What drives this growth?” he asked, professorially. “Science and technology,” Gorbachev responded. “Yes,” Shultz acknowledged, “but hitched to an incentive-based, market-oriented economic system.” “We should have more of this kind of talk,” Gorbachev acknowledged.

It would be too much to claim that Shultz’s tutorials planted the idea of perestroika in Gorbachev’s mind: the Soviet economy faced such severe problems by the mid-1980s that there was no real alternative to fundamental restructuring. What Shultz did do, however, was to explain why this was the case, and to point the way toward possible solutions. Gorbachev admitted to Shultz, in 1988, that he had thought a lot about “the charts you brought on what the world would look like in a few years,” and had “consulted experts.” If the trends projected in them continued, “our two countries have a lot of reason to cooperate.” A month later Reagan himself, with Gorbachev’s blessing, was standing beneath a huge bust of Lenin at Moscow State University, lecturing to students on “a very different revolution that is taking place right now, quietly sweeping the globe without bloodshed or conflict . . . . It’s been called the technological or information revolution …”

So just as Reagan had established common ground with Gorbachev on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, Shultz managed something similar with respect to economic and technological issues. The idea, in both instances, was to bring the new Soviet leader around to the American way of thinking – and by doing so, to change the nature of the regime he led.

The Reagan administration’s third objective was to persuade Gorbachev that the Soviet Union had itself become, over the years, what it had originally sought to overthrow – an oppressive empire. The principal instrument of persuasion here was the Reagan Doctrine: a plan to turn the forces of nationalism against the gains the Soviet Union had made in recent years in the “third world,” and eventually against its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe itself. The idea echoed Kennan’s predictions, from as early as 1947, that Stalin’s determination to control communist parties beyond the boundaries of the U.S.S.R. might come across, in those regions, as a new form of imperialism which would, in time, generate local resistance. It emerged as Reagan administration strategy as early as 1983, when NSDD 75 pointed out, “a number of important weaknesses and vulnerabilities within the Soviet empire which the U.S. should exploit,” by seeking “wherever possible to encourage Soviet allies to distance themselves from Moscow in foreign policy and to move toward democratization domestically.”

Reagan’s use of the term “evil empire,” in March, 1983, was the first public hint of this strategy: by January, 1985, he was openly promising support to those “who are risking their lives – on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua – to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” The Reagan Doctrine was firmly in place, therefore, before Gorbachev took power. Once he had done so, Reagan and Shultz set out to convince him of its logic: that just as the tides of history were running against command economies, so they were also running against latter-day empires.

On this issue, however, Gorbachev needed no convincing. He had little interest in continuing support for Marxist movements in the Third World. He admitted to Reagan that he had first learned of the invasion of Afghanistan only over the radio; by 1987 he was making it clear that the Russians would soon be pulling out. And with respect to Eastern Europe, it’s clear now from Soviet sources that the Reagan Doctrine was pushing against an open door: that the Brezhnev Doctrine, which it had been meant to challenge, had been little more than a bluff from the beginning. Brezhnev himself and his advisers had quietly concluded, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, that the U.S.S.R. could never again use force to reassert its authority against an Eastern European satellite that was seeking either to reform or reject socialism. So when Reagan publicly challenged Gorbachev, in Berlin in June 1987, to “tear down this wall,” he was much closer to getting his wish than he himself realized.

The final acknowledgement that the Brezhnev Doctrine was dead came shortly after Reagan had left office, when the year 1989 saw one Eastern European country after another throw out their Soviet-installed governments with no apparent objections, and certainly no resistance, from Moscow. It was a sign of how far things had come when Gorbachev’s press spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, announced – with a degree of whimsy unprecedented for a Soviet official – that the Brezhnev Doctrine had been replaced with the Sinatra Doctrine: the Eastern Europeans were now “doing it their way.” Did the Reagan Doctrine have something to do with this? Less than one might think, because Brezhnev himself, had he still been in power, probably would have had little choice but to respond in much the way that Gorbachev did. In this instance, but only in this one, the Russians themselves were ahead of Reagan.


George F. Kennan had warned, as the Cold War was beginning, against the illusion that American leaders might influence their Soviet counterparts “by reasoning with them, by arguing with them, by going to them and saying: ‘Look here, this is the way things are.’” They were not about to turn around and say: “‘By George, I never thought of that before. We will go right back and change our policies.’” That was true enough of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko: certainly Reagan’s own efforts to get through to these last three Soviet leaders brought minimal results. Gorbachev, however, was different. Neither the Soviet Union nor the Russian empire that preceded it had ever produced a leader who combined openness to the outside world with an unwillingness to employ brutality. He was prepared, therefore, to listen to an American administration that said: “Look here, this is the way things are.” And he did change Soviet policies, more fundamentally than he or anyone else could possibly have expected.

One of the best explanations for why Gorbachev did so has come from Reagan himself. It may have been that “the metamorphosis started when he was still a young man, working his way up the inefficient and corrupt Communist bureaucracy and witnessing the brutality of the Stalin regime.” But it could also have resulted from “discovering that the three percent of Soviet agricultural land cultivated by private profit-making farmers produced forty percent of the meat in his country.” Or possibly “the robust recovery of the American and Western European economies following the recession of the early eighties – while the Communist economies went nowhere – convinced him that central planning and bureaucratic control . . . sapped the people’s incentive to produce and excel.” Whatever the case, Gorbachev must have realized that the Soviet Union could no longer support or control Stalin’s totalitarian empire; the survival of the Soviet Union was more important to him. . . . I think in our meetings I might have helped him understand why we considered the Soviet Union and its policy of expansionism a threat to us. I might have helped him see that the Soviet Union had less to fear from the West than he thought, and that the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe wasn’t needed for the security of the Soviet Union.

There’s less triumphalism in this account than in those put forward by many of Reagan’s advisers and acolytes: indeed there is little in it to which Gorbachev himself could take exception. It places the Soviet leader in the center of the picture, thereby reflecting the conviction of Kennan and the other early architects of containment that the Soviet system would change only when it produced a leader who was willing to change it. It emphasizes the structural deficiencies within that system that had brought it to the point of crisis. It stresses the contrast that had developed, as a result, between the respective accomplishments of capitalism and communism. In the end, Reagan claims credit only for having explained a few things: that the U.S.S.R. could not hope to win an arms race with the United States, that Soviet expansionism – past and present – had created more vulnerabilities than strengths, and that common interests could outweigh long-standing differences. Gorbachev has provided no comparably succinct account of his political and ideological trajectory in his own memoirs; but he has made a point of insisting that “the 40th President of the United States will go down in history for his rare perception.”

It seems reasonable, then, to follow Reagan’s lead, and seek no single explanation for what happened in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev: internal developments were surely more important than external pressures and inducements, although in just what proportion may not be clear for decades. What one can say now is that Reagan saw Soviet weaknesses sooner than most of his contemporaries did; that he understood the extent to which détente was perpetuating the Cold War rather than hastening its end; that his hard line strained the Soviet system at the moment of its maximum weakness; that his shift toward conciliation preceded Gorbachev; that he combined reassurance, persuasion and pressure in dealing with the new Soviet leader; and that he maintained throughout the support of the American people and of American allies. Quite apart from whatever results this strategy produced, it was an impressive accomplishment to have devised and sustained it: Reagan’s role here was critical.

What one can also say is that Reagan – and Shultz – had a clearer vision than Gorbachev, in 1985, of the changes the Soviet Union would have to make in order to survive. Gorbachev knew only that his country could not continue along the path that it had followed under his predecessors: the next six and a half years would see his initial efforts to redeem Marxism-Leninism while remaining a super-power dissolve into an increasingly desperate series of improvisations that ultimately led to the complete collapse of Soviet authority, at first abroad, and then at home. Reagan, to be sure, shed no tears over the demise of the U.S.S.R. But it was Gorbachev’s actions, not his, that brought about that outcome. So who had a strategy and who did not? That question, at least, is easy to answer.

The more difficult question is where the Reagan strategy fits within the traditions of symmetrical and asymmetrical containment. For in his assumption of unlimited resources – his belief that “we could outspend them forever” – he was squarely within the symmetrical containment camp. In contrast to the authors of NSC 68 and the strategists of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, however, Reagan made this calculation on the basis of what the Soviet economy, not his own, could withstand. He thereby exploited the multidimensional nature of American power at a time when Soviet power was becoming increasingly monodimensional. This allowed retaining the initiative while shifting the competition onto terrain that favored the United States, an approach consistent with the legacy of asymmetrical containment. Reagan thereby avoided the costs, risks, and frustrations of competing on terms set by the other side – the symmetrical response dilemma that had undermined domestic support for the wars in Korea and Vietnam. But he also yielded no gains to the U.S.S.R., whether by acknowledging its spheres of influence or by overlooking the mistreatment of those who lived under its rule: in this way, he insulated his administration from the fears of falling dominoes and the moral qualms that had beset practitioners of asymmetrical containment.

To a greater degree than any of his Cold War predecessors, therefore, Reagan drew on the strengths of both symmetry and asymmetry, while avoiding their weaknesses. He did so, not because he knew these terms – there is not the slightest evidence that he or anyone else in his administration read the first edition of Strategies of Containment – but rather because he understood the paradox they were meant to illustrate: that competing at times and in places chosen by adversaries minimizes risks but drives up costs, while competing at times and in places of one’s own choosing minimizes costs but drives up risks. And so, without ever putting it in quite this way, Reagan devised a remedy: a strategy of high risks and costs that sought, by changing rather than containing an adversary, to make possible a world of much lower risks and costs. In doing so, he resolved a contradiction that had bedeviled strategists of containment from the earliest days of the Cold War.

“Reagan’s was an astonishing performance,” Henry Kissinger has written, “and, to academic observers, nearly incomprehensible. . . . When all was said and done, a president with the shallowest academic background was to develop a foreign policy of extraordinary consistency and relevance.” He did this by drawing upon a few simple habits: a focus on outcomes rather than on details; a willingness to choose among priorities rather than to be pulled apart by them; an understanding that priorities can shift as policies achieve their purposes; a refusal to be intimidated by orthodoxies; a realization that power resides as much in ideas as in material capabilities; an ability to combine conviction with the capacity to express it; a belief that no strategy can sustain itself if it fails to advance the principles upon which the society it seeks to defend is based. Reagan’s foibles – of which there were many – were also, in a way, a source of strength, because they encouraged others so easily to underestimate him. And he always counterbalanced these quirks with a healthy endowment of good humor and common sense. It was these qualities, together with the reforms Gorbachev brought about within the Soviet Union, that allowed both leaders to achieve the result Kennan had hoped for from the strategy of containment when, four decades earlier, he first proposed it.

Kennan had been no admirer of Reagan during his presidency. But when I asked him in 1996 who or what had ended the Cold War, his answer reflected a certain reassessment. “I think the historical forces were a greater factor in overcoming the Cold War than were the actions of any individuals,” he replied. “But if you have to find two individuals who contributed greatly to this, I would put first of all Gorbachev . . . but also Ronald Reagan, who in his own inimitable way, probably not even being quite aware of what he was really doing, did what few other people would have been able to do in breaking this log jam.” Of course, it is also possible that Reagan really did know, all along, what he was doing.

John Lewis Gaddis is Welling Visiting Professor, The George Washington University Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University.

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