the most dangerous myth regarding the legacy of the late
President Ronald Reagan is that he was somehow responsible
for the end of the Cold War.
communism was doomed in part because it fell victim to the
pro-democracy movement that was also then sweeping Latin
America and parts of Africa and Asia during this same period.
No credit can be given to the Reagan Administration, which
was a strong supporter of many of these right-wing dictatorial
regimes, such as the Marcos regime in the Philippines.
Soviet Union and its communist allies in Eastern Europe
collapsed primarily because their governments and economies
rested upon an inherently unworkable system that would have
fallen apart anyway. A centralized command economy can have
its advantages at a certain phase of industrialization,
when large smokestack industriesfrom machine
tools to tanksdominate manufacturing. Such a system
could, for a time, make the Soviets a formidable military
power, but was totally incapable of satisfying consumer
demand. Thus, the old joke that the Soviets were working
on an atomic bomb that could fit inside a suitcase: they
had perfected the bomb, but they were still working on the
premier Nikita Khrushchevs famous line in the late
1950s that we will bury you was not a threat
of war, but a reflection thatover the past few decades
up to that timethe Soviet economy was growing faster
than its Western capitalist counterparts and was projected
to surpass that of the West within a couple of decades.
as the new wave of industrialization based upon information
technologies took off, the economy of the Soviet Union stagnated.
Totalitarian systems cannot survive without being able to
control access to information. Cracks in the system were
becoming apparent as early as the 1970s. North Korea remains
the most centralized communist country in both political
and economic terms and it has even taken some small steps
to liberalize its economy. The other nominally communist
governments are China, Vietnam, and Laos, whose economies
have largely gone capitalist, and Cuba, which has decentralized
and democratized segments of its economy.
In a December 2003 interview, former Soviet leader Mikhail
Gorbachev said the fall of the Soviet Union had nothing
to do with the arms race. When it became clear to
us that the one-party model was mistaken, we rejected that
model, he said. A new generation of more educated
people started to be active. Then society required freedom,
society demanded freedom.
was not Reagans military buildup or bellicose threats
against the Soviets and their allies that brought down the
system. Instead, such threats possibly allowed these regimes
to hold on to power even longer as people rallied to support
the government in the face of the perceived American threat.
Soviet military spending, in part as a reaction to the U.S.
military buildup that began in the latter half of the Carter
administration, certainly hurt the Soviet economyas
it did (and is still doing to) ours. This
was, however, only a minor factor.
Then, as has become typical of presidential addresses since the U.S. invasion, there is the rewriting of history:
The reality is that it was the people themselves who brought down the system.
most significant case was Poland, whereeven before
Reagan became presidentthe communist regime was
forced to recognize the independent trade-union movement,
Solidarity. This helped expose the lie that the communist
governments were workers states. Despite
the Polish regimes decision to ban Solidarity at
the end of 1981, pro-democracy Poles continued to organize,
as did dissidents in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany,
the Baltic states and elsewhere. Many of these democratic
leaders were openly skeptical of Reagan administration
policies. Dissident Czech playwright and later president
Vaclav Havel, when asked about Western influences on his
movement, replied that he had been more inspired by John
Lennon and Frank Zappa than by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald
President Reagans verbal support for democracy had
little credibility in many of these countries. For example,
while he denounced Polands martial law regime, he
was a strong supporter of the more repressive martial
law regime then in power in Turkey, a NATO ally. In challenging
left-wing governments in the Third World, Reagan backed
insurgents with ties to U.S.-backed dictatorships, and,
in the case of Afghanistan, even Islamic fundamentalists.
Ronald Reagan was certainly capable of inspirational leadership,
idealism, and personal charm, the myth that he is responsible
for the downfall of communism and the end of the Cold
War does a disservice to the millions of Eastern Europeans
and others who faced the tanks and struggled against great
odds for their freedom. It was not American militarism,
but massive nonviolent actionincluding strikes,
boycotts, mass demonstrations, and other forms of ingenious
non-cooperationthat finally brought down these communist
Zunes, Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus,
is a professor of Politics and chair of the Peace &
Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.
He is the principal editor of Nonviolent Social Movements:
A Geographical Perspective (Blackwell Publishers, 1999).