Created: 2000-05-16
Last Modified: 2000-06-07
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Frances Fitzgerald on SDI and the Fall of the Soviet Union

J. Bradford DeLong

May 2000

From Frances Fitzgerald (2000), Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War (New York: Simon and Schuster: 0684844168).

pp. 473-476: "No one in Washington foresaw the collapse of the Soviet system, but the conservatives were the very last to see that the system was vulnerable and that it was changing. In his memoir, published in 1990, Caspar Weinberger wrote that, 'In a world in which there are two superpowers, one of which has the governmental structure and military might of the Soviet Union, it is essential for our very survival that we retain the military strength we acquired in the 1980s....' And 'My feeling has always been that no general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union will be allowed to alter in any fundamental way the basically aggressive nature of Soviet behavior.'

"Yet, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, conservative pundits began to advance the argument that the Reagan administration had played a major role in its downfall. Among others, George Will and Irving Kristol argued that SDI, Reagan's military buildup and the ideological crusade against Communism had delivered the knockout punch to a system that had been on the ropes since the early 1980s. A parade of former Reagan administration officials, including Weinberger and Richard Perle, came forward to assert that Reagan had known all the time that the Soviet Union was on its last legs and had aggressively foreclosed Soviet military options while pushing the Soviet economy to the breaking point. According to conservatives, the combination of military and ideological pressures gave the Soviet Union little choice but to abandon expansionism abroad and repression at home, and SDI was the key to this winning strategy. The Star Wars initiative had put the Soviets on notice that the next arms race would be waged in areas where the U.S. had a decisive technological advantage.

"This argument contrasted sharply with previous conservative complaints about Reagan's embrace of Gorbachev, and it did not persuade scholars of the Soviet Union. Yet, since it is the inveterate propensity of Americans--or at least of American pundits--to relate the falls of sparrows in distant lands to some fault or virtue of American policy, it went against the grain to deny the argument entirely and to propose that the enormous military buildup of the Reagan years had no role at all in the demise of the Soviet Union.

"Thus a vague and unexamined version of the conservative thesis entered the public discourse: SDI and the U.S. military buildup forced the Soviets to spend more than they could afford on their defenses and/or convinced them of the inherent weaknesses of their system. But the evidence for this proposition is wanting.

"From 1983 to 1987 the Strategic Defense Initiative alarmed Soviet leaders because it threatened to reverse what they saw as the trend toward strategic stability and stable costs. Nonetheless, they did not respond to it by creating their own SDI program. That is, they continued their existing research programs on lasers and other advanced technologies, plus their existing design-work on space weaponry, but they did not mount an effort to test or develop SDI-type weapons. In addition they studied counter-measures to space-based weaponry, but since the SDIO never designed a plausible system, they had nothing specific to study, and their military spending was not affected. Between 1985 and 1987 Gorbacheve spent a great deal of effort trying to convince the Reagan administration to restrain the program, presumably because he thought his own military-industrial complex would eventually force him to adopt a program of some sort to counter SDI, but by the end of 1987 the Soviet leadership no longer regarded SDI as a threat.

"Then, too, the Soviets did not respond to the Reagan administration's military buildup.

"As CIA analysts discovered in 1983, Soviet military spending had leveld off in 1975 to a growth rate of 1.3 percent [per year], with spending for weapons procurements virtually flat. It remained that way for a decade. According to later CIA estimates, Soviet military spending rose in 1985 as a result of decisions taken earlier, and grew at a rate of 4.3 percent per year through 1987. Spending for procurements of offensive strategic weapons, however, increased by only 1.4 percent a year in that period. In 1988 Gorbachev began a roun do budget cuts, bringing the defense budget back down to its 1980 level. In other words, while the U.S. military budget was growing at an average of 8 percent per year, the Soviets did not attempt to keep up, and their military spending did not rise even as might have been expected given the war they were fighting in Afghanistan.

"During Reagan's first term, some in the Kremlin were concerned that the U.S. might possibly be gaining a first-strike capability and might actually launch a nuclear war. This was, of course, the mirror image of the fears expressed in Washington in the mid-seventies. Nonetheless, though the strategic arsenjals on both sides grew like Topsy in the 1980s, the strategic balance remained extremely stable. Without any spending increases, the Soviets continued to turn out and deploy strategic warheads at about the same rate the U.S. did. When the START I treaty was signed in 1991, the U.S. had deployed 12,646 strategic warheads, the Soviet Union 11,212--the numbers so large as to be almost meaningless in terms of deterence.

"At the beginning of Reagan's first term, some conservative enthusiasts in the administration might have believed that the U.S. could spend the Soviets under the table in an all-out strategic arms race. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff never thought this, nor did the CIA, for the simple reason that Soviet spending on strategic weapons was a very small fraction of the overall Soviet military budget. According to one MIT expert, Soviet spending for the procurement, operations, and maintenance of its strategic offensive forces amounted to only 8 percent of its entire defense budget. In other words, had Gorbachev achieved the 50 percent reductions he was seeking at Reykjavik, he woul not have made savings of any significance in terms of the Soviet economy.

"What happened during the 1980s was that the Soviet economy continued to deteriorate as it had during the 1970s. The economic decline, of course, resulted from the failures of the system created by Lenin and Stalin--not from any effort on the part of the Reagan administration. Without Gorbachev, however, the Soviet Union might have survived for many more years, for the system, thought on the decline, was nowhere near collapse. It was Gorbachev's efforts to reverse the decline and to modernize his country that knocked the props out from under the system. The revolution was in essence a series of decisions made by one man, and it came as a surprise precisely because it did not follow from a systemic breakdown.

"At the time the American public understood this better than most in Washington--and thanks in large part to Ronald Reaga. Reagan had no idea what Gorbachev was up ot, but he always described the world in terms of individuals rather than institutions and portrayed U.S.-Soviet realtions as the personal relationship between two heads of state. His own officials considered this naive. But it was Gorbachev who changed the Soviet Union, and Reagan's 'embrace' of him as an individual was surely the most important contribution the United States made to the Soviet revolution..."

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