In 1982 Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London held a vote for the most hated people of all time, with the result being Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Dracula and Ronald Reagan. When somebody had asked the same question from some member of the captive nations in the Central and Eastern Europe, the answer would have been totally different. The politicians, unpopular in the West, enjoyed large popularity among the population of the communist countries. What is even more interesting – the division also exists today. What is a reason that some politicians, still criticized in the West, are among the most popular in the new Member States of the European Union.
The answer lies in different historical experiences of the second part of the last century. For the Central and Eastern Europeans the II World War was not the fight between good and evil – they had to fight against evil of totalitarian systems at the same time. They were occupied by both Nazis and Communists and did not see much difference between them. And at the end of the war, they had to see how the West presented them as the victory trophy to one of the evil gangsters, who was declared good only because he had helped the West to kill another gangster. These countries had now stayed nearly 50 years under the Soviet rule, and every time they tried to raise against oppression, no help came from the West.
For these people Ronald Reagan was the first President who really shared their understanding and had courage to tell the truth – the communism was the evil system. Former political prisoner Natan Sharansky remembered how he heard for the first time about Reagan’s “evil empire” speech. “One day, my Soviet jailers gave me privilege of reading the latest copy of Pravda. Splashed across the front page was a condemnation of President Reagan for having the temerity to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth – a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. (—) I understood that there had been much criticism of Reagan’s decision to cast the struggle between the superpowers as a battle between good and evil. Well, Reagan was right and his critics were wrong”. The same understanding was shared by female Soviet political prisoners, when they smuggled a congratulation letter for Reagan’s second inauguration from GULAG, thanking him for his work and wishing that it would continue. One of the initiators of this letter, Lagle Parek from Estonia, is remembering how one day, when suddenly a new wave of repressions was started against them, they understood that their message had reached Reagan. So it was, the letter is now proudly presented in the Reagan Library in California.
And most important: Reagan did not only talk, he also delivered. In early 1982, Reagan and a few key advisers began mapping out a strategy to attack the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system. Signed by the president in March 1982, top-secret directive NSDD-32 declared that the United States would seek to neutralise Soviet control over Central and Eastern Europe and authorised the use of covert actions to support anti-Soviet movements in the region. Approved by Reagan in November 1982, NSDD-82 declared the United States’ policy would be to disrupt the Soviet economy by dramatically reducing Soviet hard currency earnings. In January 1983, Reagan initiated NSDD-75, which called for the United States not to coexist with the Soviet system but rather to change it fundamentally (Bailey 1998). Reagan’s most fundamental challenge to the Soviet Union proved to be his military build-up. Reagan had serious doubts about whether the Soviet Union could afford the arms race economically and whether it could sustain it technologically. The SDI or ‘Star wars’ programme in particular posed a technological challenge that the stagnant and overburdened Soviet economy could not meet. In his nationally televised speech on 23 August 1983, Reagan announced his intention to develop a strategic defence against Soviet missiles, rendering nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. As Henry Kissinger observed, this had a chilling ring in the Kremlin, as ‘with a single technological stroke Reagan was proposing to erase everything that the Soviet Union had propelled itself into bankrupcy trying to accomplish’ in this case, it was not even the SDI programme per se that frightened the Soviet leaders, rather than the idea demonstrated to them that they simply could not compete with American defence spending—at least not without committing to the implementation of major changes.
As a result of the intensification of the arms race, the ‘Star Wars’ programme, the war in Afghanistan and the deployment of the new American missiles in Europe, the Soviet Union had to continue its high military spending, which became an unbearable burden for the Soviet economy. Reagan’s economic sanctions, especially in the area of technological transfers, made the situation for the Soviets even more difficult and costly. The next step in Reagan’s plan was to cut Soviet hard currency earnings by dropping oil prices which, as a result, pressed the Soviet Union to deep crisis.
So the Soviet Union had to change – perestroika began with the goal to stop the pressure on the Soviet empire and to win time. In this way, we can see that the world owes not to the goodwill of certain Soviet leaders, but rather to Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl and other Western leaders, whose policies had pushed Soviet Union into the corner which, in turn, helped Gorbachev to come to power. Russian politicians themselves have later confessed that Ronald Reagan was the true father of perestroika. But when it started, the pressure on the Soviets was not reduced but redoubled, gathering momentum for the complete destruction of Communism.
The main goal for the Soviets was to stop the “Star wars” program. The former Soviet Foreign Minister, Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, has recalled that ‘just the feeling that if we get involved in this SDI arms race, trying to do something like what the US was going to do, to do space programmes, space-based weapons, etc looked like a horror to Gorbachev’. The Soviets, therefore, decided to ‘trap’ Reagan, proposing that he should meet Gorbachev in order to advance a disarmament package of historic importance, with one condition that would be revealed only at the end of the meeting; the cancellation of the ‘Star Wars’ programme. During the summit in Reykjavik on 19 September 1986, everything went according to the Soviets’ plans—until the very end. When Gorbachev brought up the condition attached to the recently concluded agreements, Reagan responded with the only gesture the Soviets had failed to foresee; he simply got up and left the room, thus ending the summit. This conclusion, which initially seemed to be the beginning of a stinging defeat, turned into one of Reagan’s biggest victories. Margaret Thatcher has written that ‘President Reagan’s refusal to trade away the SDI for the apparent near fulfilment of his dream of a nuclear-free world was crucial to the victory over Communism. He called the Soviets’ bluff. The Russians may have scored an immediate propaganda victory when the talks broke down. But they had lost the game and I have no doubt that they knew it’.
Faced with Reagan’s refusal to trade away the SDI and ease the pressure on the Soviet Union, Gorbachev had no choice but to push forward with perestroika: his policy of liberalisation within the Soviet system. It would seem that Gorbachev had failed to appreciate the consequences of his actions; the nature of democracy is such that once is has been adopted, central authority diminishes. The Soviet leaders had forgotten that freedom is like toothpaste—it is easy to squeeze it out, but just try to get it back inside the tube again.
It does not mean, that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War alone. The evil empire could not be crushed without persons like John Paul II, Margareth Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and especially without these freedom loving people who raised up against totalitarian system and crushed it. This does not diminish the achievements of Ronald Reagan. His deeds and principles must be especially remembered now, when at least looking from the East, the West is again abandoning its principles. In a recent essay the Russian writer Dmitry Shusharin warned that the West is too mild towards the neo-totalitarian regimes on the territory of the former Soviet Union. By Shusharin, the West is ot ready to challenge such regimes and fight for himself as well as those suffering under these regimes. Soviet totalitarianism was destroyed thanks to the leaders as Ronald Reagan, who was firm in his protection of Western values. Unfortunately by Shusharin within 20 years „precisely what Ronald Reagan warned about, has taken place: Western elites have accepted the elites of the post-Soviet states just as they are.” This is by Shusharin far from Reagan’s clarity and firmness.
This is also the reason why leaders like Ronald Reagan are still honoured in the Central and Eastern Europe. Looking on the decisions, such as selling modern military technology to Russia, who just some years ago attacked brutally one of his neighbours, the new Member States do not understand, if the Western leaders have learned something from the history or not. It looks sometimes that the West is still not ready to accept the truth on communist crimes and tries desperately avoid all the topic. The people from the former captive countries, who are thankful for their freedom also to Ronald Reagan, want that the truth must be heard – because only truth makes us free