PEACE THROUGH STRENGTHTen Decisions That Won the Cold War

HUMAN EVENTS asked a distinguished panel of 14 judges-several of whom have played significant roles in formulating U.S. foreign policy-to pick ten decisions of particular importance in leading America to victory in the Cold War.

The panelists nominated decisions, then voted on them, ranking their choices 1 through 10. A No. 1 ranking by a judge earned a decision 10 points, a No. 2 ranking earned it 9 points, and so on. The decision with the highest aggregate score-“Americans Elect Ronald Reagan,” which received 71 points-was rated the No. 1 decision overall that led to victory in the Cold War.

Americans Elect Reagan
  • Score: 71
  • When: November 4, 1980
  • Who: American voters
  • What: In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan won 44 states, defeating President Jimmy Carter by an Electoral College landslide of 489 to 49. The election brought with it a revolutionary change in U.S. foreign policy, especially toward the Soviet Union. In the Carter years, America dealt weakly with its adversaries. The U.S. seemed impotent to stop the expansion of the Soviet Empire.

    But Reagan came into office determined to aggressively defend U.S. interests. He wanted not merely to contain Soviet Communism but to defeat it. As early as 1977 he told his future National Security Adviser Dick Allen (see “Reagan’s Early Call: Win Cold War”) that he had a “simple” concept for the Cold War: “My view,” he said, “is that we win and they lose.”

  • 2
    Reagan Launches Strategic Defense Initiative
  • Score: 62
  • When: March 23, 1983
  • Who: Ronald Reagan
  • What: Ronald Reagan’s nationally televised speech unveiling SDI (see page 14), called on America to work, for decades if necessary, to develop the technology to liberate the country from the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction-which held that the only way we could protect ourselves from a Soviet nuclear strike was to maintain the ability to launch a devastating counter-strike. “I have become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence,” said Reagan.

    Liberals were outraged by Reagan’s proposal. Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts decried “the misleading red scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes of the President.” Kennedy thus coined SDI’s famous slang name. Unlike domestic Democrats, the Soviet leaders trusted in America’s ability to develop and deploy a strategic defense, and knew they lacked the economic and technological capacity to match the U.S. in this area. It later became an obsession of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to get the U.S. to give up SDI.

  • 3
    Reagan Begins Military Build-up
  • Score: 38
  • When: 1981
  • Who: Ronald Reagan
  • What: Ignoring the arguments of those who claimed that a military build-up in the face of the Soviet Union would increase the risk of war or even nuclear conflict, President Reagan made good on his campaign promises to stand up to the expanding Soviet Empire. Liberal Democrats argued that the United States could not afford to match the immense manpower and massive nuclear power of the Soviet Union. Reagan made the decision to run deficits if necessary to revamp the U.S. military on every front, including upgrading strategic forces with new missiles, bombers and submarines, expanding the Navy, and modernizing our conventional ground forces. By 1985 U.S defense spending matched Soviet defense spending. After that, because of our superior technology and economy, the Soviets couldn’t keep pace. During Jimmy Carter’s term, we spent an average of 4.9% of GNP on defense (or $113 billion annually in 1989 dollars). During the Reagan years, the U. S. spent 6.1% (or $234.2 billion annually in 1989 dollars).
  • 4
    College of Cardinals Elects Pope John Paul II
  • Score: 34
  • When: October 16, 1978
  • Who: Roman Catholic College of Cardinals
  • What: The Catholic cardinals elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland as the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years. A surprise choice, Wojtyla was respected for his rectitude, his charisma (he was athletic and youthful at age 58), and his firm resistance to Communism. John Paul II, who was wounded by three bullets in a 1981 assassination attempt, helped to destroy Communism not through force, but by refusing to be intimidated by Poland’s Communist leaders, or by the Kremlin. Rather, he gave moral witness against them, while allying himself with the strategy of the Reagan Administration in inspiring Poland’s Solidarity movement to resist the regime there. This Polish pope was truly Reagan’s partner in bringing down the Evil Empire, showing those living under Communist subjugation that principled opposition to tyranny was still to be found in high places in the West outside of the United States.
  • 5
    Reagan Refuses to Surrender SDI at Reykjavik
  • Score: 32
  • When: October 12, 1986
  • Who: Ronald Reagan
  • What: Secretary of State George Shultz called the Reykjavik summit of October 1986 the “highest stakes poker game ever played.” Unprecedented arms reduction offers passed between President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. But Reagan suspected there was a catch. He reportedly told advisers, “I’m afraid they’re going to try to go after SDI.” He was right: Gorbachev made moving forward with an arms deal contingent on the U.S. surrendering the program.

    Reagan refused, and angrily terminated the summit, standing up against bitter criticism (that Gorbachev no doubt anticipated) from liberals who opposed SDI and viewed arms control as the Holy Grail of U.S.-Soviet relations.

    In 1999, former Reagan arms-control official Ken Adelman reported in the Wall Street Journal that Gorbachev himself shares the view that Reagan’s refusal to surrender SDI at Reykjavik was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. The Soviets were already straining under the financial burden of keeping up with Reagan’s defense buildup, and could never have matched SDI.

  • 6
    Establishment of NATO
  • Score: 30 points
  • When: April 4, 1949
  • Who: President Truman and Western leaders
  • What: After it became clear with the Soviet blockade of Berlin that Soviet occupation and domination of Eastern Europe was no temporary consequence of World War II, President Truman and the leaders of Western Europe and Canada decided to promote Western Europe’s security and stability by forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The founding members were Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United States. Greece, Turkey, and West Germany followed in the 1950s.

    The United States’ participation in NATO made it clear to the Soviets that an attack on Western Europe would be met with determined resistance from America, since the treaty required its signatories to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all. NATO successfully deterred westward Soviet aggression for 40 years without having to fire a shot in anger.

  • 7
    Americans Re-Elect Reagan
  • Score: 30
  • When: November 4, 1984
  • Who: American voters
  • What: The 1984 presidential election provided Americans with a stark choice on national security matters. Former Vice President Walter Mondale of Minnesota, the Democratic candidate, opposed the key Reagan policies that would eventually lead to victory in the Cold War. Debating Reagan two weeks before the election, Mondale said, “Now, why do I support the [nuclear] freeze? Because this ever-rising arms race madness makes both nations less secure, it’s more difficult to defend this nation, it is putting a hair trigger on nuclear war. This administration, by going to the Star Wars system, is going to add a dangerous new escalation.”

    On November 4, 1984, Americans gave Reagan an unprecedented landslide victory. He took every state except Mondale’s home of Minnesota, and won the Electoral College 525 to 13.

  • 8
    Reagan Aids Anti-Communists: Reagan Doctrine
  • Score: 28
  • When: 1981-1989
  • Who: Ronald Reagan
  • What: Despite vociferous protests from the media and liberal Democrats, President Reagan forcefully implemented his doctrine sending arms and other aid to anti-Communist resistance movements around the world as part of his strategy of putting pressure on what he believed was a fragile Soviet Union. Reagan saw the battle against Soviet Communism as global in scope as the Soviets had client states or movements in every corner of the globe. “Support for freedom fighters,” he said in his 1985 State of the Union Address, “is self-defense.”

    Most notably, the United States sent tens of millions of dollars to Afghan guerillas resisting the Soviet invasion of their homeland and to Nicaraguan Contras fighting the Marxist Sandinista dictatorship-sparking pitched political battles with liberal Democrats in Congress who advocated appeasement of the Sandinistas. The Reagan Doctrine proved that Communism would face determined resistance every where it turned. This bled the anemic Soviet treasury, and paved the way for overall victory in the Cold War.

  • 9
    Reagan Says, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall”
  • Score: 27
  • When: June 12, 1987
  • Who: Ronald Reagan
  • What: The State Department did everything it could to prevent President Reagan from mentioning the Berlin Wall in his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. Weeks prior to the scheduled speech, Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson was given his marching orders by the ranking American diplomat in Berlin: “He said,” Robinson related in a recent interview on Fox News, “‘Don’t have him mention the Wall. . . . Don’t make him sound like an anti-Communist cowboy.'” Undeterred, Robinson wrote the famous line.

    “Reagan singled out the passage and said he particularly wanted to deliver it,” Robinson said. Mildly annoyed by the State Department’s repeated attempts to purge it, Reagan finally said, “I’m the President, aren’t I?” Told “yes,” he replied, “Well then, the line stays in.”

    Reagan’s words reflected his vision that the Cold War was primarily a moral struggle and that even the Soviet dictator should know Soviet tyranny was unjust. The words gave hope to millions trapped in Eastern Europe by Communism. Two years later, the wall was torn down.

  • 10
    Pope John Paul II Tells Poles, “Be Not Afraid.”
  • Score: 21
  • When: June 2, 1979
  • Who: Pope John Paul II
  • What: When he first returned to Poland as Pope, John Paul II’s calm defiance of Communism discombobulated Polish Communist officials. “Do not be afraid to tell the truth,” he told two million people during a Mass in Warsaw. “Do not be afraid of the system. People are created not to enmity but to solidarity.” The Pope’s sermon inspired workers in Gdansk to found a labor movement called Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa. In 1981, Solidarity was banned by the regime. But returning to Poland in 1987, the Pope demonstrated he had taken his own advice “to be not afraid.” He insisted to Poles it was necessary to challenge “the very premises” of Communism, kissed the gravestone of murdered Solidarity priest, Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, and in another Mass before two million people in Gdansk served communion to Walesa and repeated the word “Solidarity” over and over in defiance of direct warnings from the Polish government that he do nothing to encourage the movement.