In his autobiography, An American Life, Ronald Reagan writes about how he confronted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with the challenge that would win the Cold War.
“When I had arrived in the White House in 1981,” said Reagan, recalling his 1985 summit with Gorbachev in Geneva, “the fiber of American military muscle was so atrophied that our ability to respond effectively to a Soviet attack was very much in doubt.
“I wanted to go to the negotiating table and end the madness of the (Mutual Assured Destruction) policy,” Reagan explained, “but to do that, I knew America first had to upgrade its military capabilities so that we would be able to negotiate with the Soviets from a position of strength, not weakness.”
In his first term, Reagan did just that. Most significantly, he followed through on a promise to begin deploying nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles in Europe unless the Soviets agreed to dismantle their own intermediate range missiles already deployed within range of western European capitals.
Reagan deployed these U.S. missiles in the face of Soviet demands for a bilateral nuclear freeze that would have frozen in place Soviet nuclear superiority on the continent. He also went ahead with deployment despite bitter opposition from the leftwing of the Democratic Party.
Sen. Teddy Kennedy, pushing a congressional nuclear-freeze resolution that would have pre-emptively given the Soviets the very concession they most wanted, attacked Reagan’s strategy in apocalyptic terms. “The real shame is the policy of this administration, which has raised the risk of a third and last world war,” said Kennedy.
Undaunted, Reagan showed up in Geneva in November 1985 ready for a showdown with Gorbachev.
“I knew that he also had strong motives for wanting to end the arms race,” Reagan writes. “The Soviet economy was a basket case, in part because of enormous expenditures on arms. He had to know that the quality of American technology, after reasserting itself beginning in 1981, was now overwhelmingly superior to his. He had to know we could outspend the Soviets on weapons as long as we wanted to.”
So Reagan asked Gorbachev to take a walk to a boathouse with only their interpreters in tow. “We have a choice,” Reagan told Gorbachev. “We can agree to reduce arms — or we can continue the arms race, which I think you know you can’t win. We won’t stand by and let you maintain weapon superiority over us. But together we can try to do something about ending the arms race.” (Emphasis is Reagan’s.)
Reagan never backed down from his strategy — spectacularly refusing, for example, Gorbachev’s demand at the October 1986 Reykjavik Summit that the U.S. give up developing ballistic missile defenses (SDI).
In July 1987, the Soviets backed down. One month after Reagan went to Berlin and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Gorbachev agreed to a worldwide ban on intermediate-range missiles and dropped his demand that the U.S. surrender SDI.
Reagan’s conventional military buildup, European missile deployment and refusal to cave on SDI broke the will of an evil empire.
Now, here’s why this is important today: Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry opposed all the key policies Reagan used to win a bloodless victory in the Cold War.
In his first Senate race in 1984, Kerry championed the nuclear freeze. In September 1985, two months before Reagan met Gorbachev in Geneva, when freezeniks held their own Geneva summit, Kerry was their star. “Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., keynote speaker for the Geneva freeze meeting,” United Press International reported at the time, “told the activists that ‘if it were not for the freeze movement, I am confident that the government of the United States would not be in Geneva today talking with its Soviet counterparts.'”
In August 1986, two months before Reagan met Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Kerry fought to pre-emptively scuttle SDI. After a measure to steeply reduce SDI funding failed in the Senate, Kerry, according to the Associated Press, “called Star Wars ‘a cancer’ and said ‘what we must do is deny this program the funds that would enable this cancer on our nation’s defense to grow any further.'”
What about Reagan’s buildup of conventional weapons (which still benefits U.S. forces today)? “(C)andidate Kerry in 1984 said he would have voted to cancel many of them — the B-1 bomber, B-2 stealth bomber, AH-64 Apache helicopter, Patriot missile, the F-15, F-14A and F-14D jets, the AV-8B Harrier jet, the Aegis air-defense cruiser, and the Trident missile system,” the Boston Globe reported.
Is Kerry ready to be commander in chief? Voters will decide. But his record points to a reasonable conclusion: Had Kerry been president in the 1980s instead of Reagan, the West would not have won the Cold War when it did.