Wes Vernon
April 23, 2007
The inside story of the Soviet downfall
By Wes Vernon

It was December 1980 a month after the presidential election of that year and six weeks before Inauguration Day. The scene was a weekend cocktail party in Alabama. A businessman named Bob Callahan held a conversation in almost whispered tones with another guest, Ollie Deschamps, a supermarket mogul who had been close to the campaign of then President-elect Ronald Reagan and asked him what Ronald Reagan really intends to do."

Who are you going to tell?" DesChamps asked.

"Nobody but me and Ginger [Callahan's wife]."

At which point, the supermarket CEO walked Callahan over to a corner of the room and said, "Okay. Ronald Reagan wants to do three things: One, build up the economy. Two, build up defense. Three, he's going to bring down the Soviet Union."

Fast forward eight years

When Ronald Reagan walked out of the White House January 20, 1989, handed George H.W. Bush the keys (figuratively speaking), and flew off with Nancy to the California ranch, few Americans knew that item three in that whispered conversation at an Alabama party had even been attempted, let alone that it was on the verge of being realized.

In fact, some believed that Iran-Contra had tarnished Reagan's presidency notwithstanding the "seven fat years" (to quote the late Bob Bartley) his economic policies had given us.

Truth will out (sometimes slowly)

Since that day, bit-by-bit there has emerged a large body of evidence that this "amiable dunce [as one powerful fixture of Washington's Georgetown establishment called him]" had worked through back channels around the world in a series of events that led to the end of the Cold War.

Comes now The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism," the first time so many of the pieces to the puzzle of the wiley Gipper's back-channel maneuvering have ended up between the covers of one book. This is not to denigrate previous offerings with some of the same information (other books and a 1998 TV documentary). But this is by far the most complete account. And author Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College has done some serious digging, including new information and interesting angles that put previously known facts in clearer perspective.

The secret plan gets underway

1 Reagan viewed his space-based missile system, SDI, as designed to force the Soviets to overspend their military budget, which high-ranking Soviet officials said "accelerated" the decline of the Soviet empire. The president fooled the Soviets by rigging an SDI test in 1984.

Ted Kennedy ridiculed it as "Star Wars," and that nomenclature stuck with the liberal establishment, notably the media. At one point, President Reagan tangled with Helen Thomas (an anti-Reagan political advocate thinly disguised as a "reporter") about the term at a White House briefing. The president protested that "Star Wars" gave the wrong impression "of what it is we're talking about." Thomas responded that the terminology was "popular," but did not mention that it was "popular" because the media repeated it over and over again.

Soviets: Too clever by half

2 When Reagan learned the Soviets were stealing critical technical and scientific information from the United States, he organized a team to sabotage the technologies and encourage their use by the enemy. One result was a huge pipeline explosion.

The Moscow plot was learned from a Soviet defector on loan from the French government (one of the few times in modern history when the French actually helped rather than hindered American foreign policy).

Oil and gas politically combustible

3 Reagan enlisted the help of officials of Saudi Arabia and worked with them to manipulate the world's oil market, encouraged them to increase production, thereby lowering the price of oil. That sent catastrophic shock waves through the Soviets' oil-heavy economy. (It also created an "oil recession" here in the U.S. for such oil-rich states as Texas, but that was cushioned by a national economy that in every other respect was roaring, thanks to Reagan's supply-side tax policies.)

4 Reagan also limited the financial advantage to the Soviets of their chief natural source, natural gas. His administration partially blocked the building of a pipeline from the USSR to Western Europe. That had a devastating effect on the Soviet economy. Had the pipeline been built as planned, it could have put the Soviets in an ideal position to blackmail Western Europe into doing its bidding and perhaps ultimately all but abandon its membership in NATO.

At a cabinet meeting prior to cancellation of the pipeline, there was a raging debate about the president's public opposition to the pipeline project. Reagan listened and finally said, "Well, they can have their damned pipeline." Pausing as the softies in the room heaved a sigh of relief, the former actor hit the table with his fists and finished: "But not with American equipment and not with American technology." He stood up and left the room. End of story.

With one footnote: American corporate interests that stood to gain from building the pipeline lobbied hard to change Reagan's mind to no avail.

Soviets not "laughing all the way to the bank"

5 Reagan further helped to de-stabilize the Soviet economy through export controls on high technology transfers. Depriving the USSR of vital trade and technology was key.

One of the unsung heroes in the economic plan was Roger W. Robinson, formerly of the Chase Manhattan Bank, where he served as vice president in charge of the bank's loan portfolio for the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. Robinson and his colleague Norm Bailey, working with President Reagan and his National Security Advisor William Clark, went after the Soviets' hard currency flow so that the Soviet hard currency income for 1982 was way down from where it had previously been, mainly backed by oil and gas which as noted here were also in a free fall.

6 The idea of providing Stinger missiles to Afghan rebels fighting the occupation of the Soviet army came directly from Reagan himself. He had proposed the idea during his campaign.

The plan from the get-go

7 As revealed in the pre-inaugural conversation in Alabama, Reagan entered office with an overriding purpose in mind to bring an end to the Soviet Union. He was no Johnny-come-lately. His antipathy to communism dated back to at least the late forties. During and after his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, he had fought off the Communists in Hollywood. Moreover, he had defended the "Captive Peoples" behind the Iron Curtain as host of CBS's GE Theatre. In the 1960s, he mourned the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and linked their assassinations to Soviet Communism.

8 Another directive (NSDD-75) was "Operation Rollback" by which the U.S. endeavored to "change" and "eventually reduce" the Marxist system within the USSR. Since the Communist system and the USSR were one and the same, this meant transforming the USSR itself.

9 The "Reagan Doctrine" stipulated that the U.S. would lend moral support (and when possible provide arms and other aid) to effective anti-communists around the globe. Even though special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh couldn't have cared less, that very policy is what led to the Iran-Contra nonscandal.

10 Reagan had privately pleaded with Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, but the Soviet leader repeatedly rebuffed his request. At that point, the president went public with his "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech to the cheers of Berliners. He was no Johnny-come-lately here either. In his first year as Governor of California, Reagan had called for tearing down the wall.

11 Reagan had actually considered a military invasion of Poland in response to any Soviet military intervention. The Soviets of course aimed to repel Polish efforts to throw off the yoke of communism. Author Kengor's interviews with high-ranking Reagan administration officials clearly showed how dead serious the president was about preventing Soviet hegemony in Poland.

Prior to the inaugural, soon-to-be Defense Secretary Caspar "Cap" Weinberger warned Reagan that taking on the Soviets over Poland would be difficult because "[W]e don't have the ability to project our power that far." Reagan interrupted and said, "Stop. Yes I know that, Cap, but we must never be in this [weak] position." That foretold the coming military buildup.

12 While Reagan saw to it that the U.S. could use military force if needed, what really went a long way was his administration's National Security Decision Directive (NSDD), which authorized clandestine support for the polish anti-communist union Solidarity, allowing for secret financial, intelligence, and logistical support for Solidarity's efforts against the Soviet Empire.

13 Reagan and Pope Paul II frequently shared valuable information about their mutual support for Solidarity. All of this was done through secondary channels. Reagan ended up calling the Pope "my best friend."

Reagan made Gorby possible?

14 Paul Kengor's book presents what at the very least can be termed credible evidence that Reagan's presidency eased the way for Gorbachev's elevation to Soviet General Secretary and de facto leader of the Soviet Union.

In a 1984 letter to Reagan, his longtime friend Bill Clark gave the president a remarkably prescient assurance: "Another few months of 'standing tall' should restore the arms balance in Europe and very likely influence the rise of a less dangerous Soviet leader than the dying Andropov." Of course, the "less dangerous" Gorbachev ultimately came to power

At least one Gorbachev biographer questions cause-and-effect on that. On the other hand, the odious Stalinist Valentin Falin bitterly complained that the Reagan team's "strategic operation" to deprive the Soviet Union of hard currency was so crippling that it "called for the appearance of Gorbachev."

Kengor concludes that "at the very least, Reagan's presidency played a role in his [Gorbachev's] rise to the leadership position."

The inside story

The evidence Kengor has amassed can best be summed up by his quote of Norm Bailey, Executive Director of Reagan's Senior Interdepartmental Group-International Economic Policy (SIG-IEP):

"The fact is that the first [term] Reagan administration adopted, designed, and successfully implemented an integrated set of policies, strategies, and tactics specifically directed toward the eventual destruction (without war) of the Soviet and the successful ending of the Cold Ear with victory for the West."

The Crusader wades through the entire thicket of how Ronald Reagan derided by his critics as "disengaged" actually focused like a laser beam on what he set out to accomplish, and never wavered despite some nail-biting within his own cabinet.

Step by step, Paul Kengor connects all the dots. We are indebted to his scholarship.

© Wes Vernon

Comments feature added August 14, 2011

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