June 10, 2004
By Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 with a mandate not just to
contain communism, which was the U.S. policy since 1947, but to
roll it back.
Between 1975 and President Reagan's election, Angola, Afghanistan,
Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Somalia and South
Vietnam - to name a few - had come under Soviet domination. A
Soviet naval base was established on the island of Socotra, capable
of intercepting vital shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
Many believed that after the Vietnam defeat, the United States
would lose the Cold War.
Mr. Reagan turned everything around. Working with Mr. Reagan's
clear and compelling overview, his team designed a complex strategy
of defeating the Soviets. As the renowned Chinese strategist Sun
Tsu taught, he won the Cold War (which can be compared to World War
III) without firing a shot - a great strategic feat.
Mr. Reagan succeeded in convincing the Soviets that competing in
the Strategic Defense Initiative, a ballistic missile defense
program that opponents nicknamed "Star Wars," would bankrupt them.
By convincing the Kremlin that it would lose the arms race, he
effectively triggered Soviet capitulation.
The Reagan Doctrine postulated that engaging and bleeding the
Soviets and their allies in Third World arenas where people
resisted their domination would not only contain, but roll back
communist expansion. The Reagan administration did so despite
resistance from Democrats in Congress, which defunded aid to the
The Reagan Doctrine also made U.S. allies out of the many "captive
nations" that made up the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which
were sent clear signals that independence was attainable.
As a young audience researcher for Radio Liberty in 1988, I
remember the Kyrghyz who told my interviewers that they were
watching what was happening in Estonia: If the little Baltic
republic were successful in gaining freedom, they, too, would fight
for independence. Thus, Mr. Reagan created a chain reaction of
liberation, which ultimately blew up the Soviet empire.
There was an economic dimension to Mr. Reagan's strategy, as well,
which he demonstrated when he convinced the Saudis to flood the
market with cheap oil in order to deny hard currency to the
Kremlin. Yes, those were the days - a mere $10 a barrel - as the
Saudis were frightened by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and
the Soviet air force was only a striking distance from their oil
fields in the Persian Gulf.
Another economic move in the grand chess game Mr. Reagan played
against the "evil empire" was intercepting the flow of technology
and credits necessary for building a Soviet cash cow - the gas
pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe.
Finally, there was Mr. Reagan's war of ideas. This crucial aspect
of the fight involved telling the Soviets and their satellites the
truth - the truth about the gulag, Stalin's prison labor camp
system in which millions of people died for their political and
religious convictions - or for no crime at all. These gulags were
replicated by KGB clones everywhere - from Albania to
The war of ideas extended to the promotion of great freedom
fighters such as Nobel Prize winners Andrey Sakharov, Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky (whom Mr. Reagan made a U.S. poet
laureate in 1987) and Czeslaw Milosz.
There was also support for the Polish independent trade union
Solidarity and for Charter 77 in Prague headed by a playwright,
Vaclav Havel, the first president of an independent Czech Republic
more than a decade later.
There was, above all, the great mastery of symbol and slogan:
paraphrasing Karl Marx, an "evil empire" that belongs on the ash
heap of history and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
So, those who claimed that Mr. Reagan was a simpleton, a
"primitive anti-communist" were dead wrong. Just as Franklin D.
Roosevelt and Winston Churchill defeated Nazism, Mr. Reagan and
Britain's Margaret Thatcher defeated communism.
The legacy of Ronald Reagan is alive today. It is alive in the
liberated countries liberated from the evil empire, which only
recently became U.S. allies by joining NATO. It is alive in
retaining Russia a friendly neutral power over the Gorbachev,
Yeltsin and Putin administrations. And it is in the main lesson of
his Cold War victory: You must fight your adversary with the word,
as well as with the sword. You must win the war of ideas, as well
as the battle of bullets.
Today, what would Mr. Reagan do? He would appeal for the
liberation of women in the Muslim world, he would call for the
freedom of Sudanese Christians from slavery and genocide, he would
demand that the brainwashing of Palestinian and Iraqi youth to
become suicide bombers be stopped. He would also launch a strategic
energy initiative to liberate the United States from its worst
chemical dependency - Middle Eastern oil.
Ronald Reagan promoted freedom, upholding the American example of
the shining city on the hill. We cannot do less.
Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage
First appeared in The Washington Times
Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 with a mandate not just to contain communism, which was the U.S. policy since 1947, but to roll it back.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 450,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2014, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973