In the elation surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan was hailed as the hero who brought down communism and ended the threat of nuclear holocaust in a World War Three. This perception still persists. However, some historians present a very different view, that of a hero despite himself.
For one, Raymond Garthoff in his Détente and Confrontation. American Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, but also Wilfried Loth in Overcoming the Cold War. A History of Détente, unabashedly accuses first the Carter administration and then the Reagan administration of erratic, irresponsible behavior endangering world peace – behavior stemming as much from incompetence as from fear of the imaginary red scare. It is a miracle that those “cowboys wielding nuclear guns” did not accidentally cause a graver crisis that might well have ended in a nuclear holocaust and the eradication of Western civilization.
In this context it is also all the more comprehensible that Western Europeans regarded the political and military excesses of the U.S. with growing suspicion and distance, perceiving a growing divergence of interests between the NATO allies. Post-Helsinki U.S. policy was increasingly marked by return to cold war confrontation, reflecting both isolationism (with regard to objectives) and expansionism (with regard to its sphere of influence) at the expense of its Western and other allies. No wonder, then, that Western Europe broke rank when the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan, and on both Poland and the Soviet Union after the imposition of martial law in Poland in the notable absence of Soviet military intervention. The tendency to regard the interests of Europe as a whole as separate and distinct from the increasingly imperialistic and interventionist policies of the U.S. both supported European initiatives at détente and improved economic and other exchanges that were plainly and simply in the interest of the continent.
This lack of realistic assessment of the international situation, especially with regard to East-West relations, might be blamed as much on the frequent change of U.S. administrations during the 1970s that precluded reasonable continuity of foreign policy as it can be blamed on their raging anti-Soviet propaganda that conditioned not only the public, but also its representatives in Congress. Persistent search of the spotlight in order to gain voter support, as it became apparent from the activities of Carter, Reagan, Jackson, Brzezinski, Haig, and others, meant that hawkish popular slogans were at almost all times more important than the achievement of any measurable objective gains for the country. It is also much easier to rally popular support with inflammatory slogans warning against some perceived threat than by patiently pursuing legitimate reforms and policies aimed at improving the domestic economy. In times of crisis, leaders are evaluated by their success at avoiding losses; in times of peace, their actual and constructive managerial capabilities are the focus of critical review. Hence diverting public opinion from internal to external (even if those were, in fact, self-created) problems became an effective tool for many U.S. politicians of the era. In this way, stemming or “resolving” self-created problems in Latin America and in the Middle East could be claimed by both the Carter and Reagan administrations as a “success.”
On the other hand, a lack of understanding of international affairs and of the complexity of East-West relation by most newly elected U.S. officials, as both Loth and Garthoff exemplify repeatedly, contributed to irresponsible shifts in the policies of the Western superpower. Part of this situation can be blamed on propaganda supported by previous administrations that conditioned conventional wisdom in U.S. public opinion from which the platforms of future leaders were inevitably drawn. While U.S. presidents in the 1950’s and 1960’s were keenly aware of the disparity between their propaganda and the actual international political situation (secret channels and cooperation between consecutive U.S. presidents and Soviet leaders are just one famous example), that gap between the perceptions of the public at large and its leaders seemed to narrow almost to a close - and to everybody’s disadvantage - under Carter and Reagan. Only two years into his presidency did Reagan gain a somewhat more realistic view of the actual East-West balance of power and only then did he begin to make first efforts at meaningful talks with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, although it was the Soviet Union that was criticized for secrecy and a deplorable lack of transparency towards its own people, the U.S. kept its populace just as much in the dark regarding the actual international situation. Some U.S. leaders did not care to learn more in the first place, as became apparent from the vociferous but entirely ignorant protests against the SALT II treaty carried on by Senator Henry M. Jackson. Others such as Zbigniew Brzezinski seemed to have a very personal agenda, stirring Carter into outright confrontation with the Soviet Union. Still others, like presumably Haig and Reagan, had their hands partially tied by the actual or perceived forces of public opinion. The power of public opinion was all the greater because U.S. propaganda actually succeeded in convincing its voters; the Soviet Union was in reality freer in its international policies because, for one, there were no voters it needed to be accountable to, and, secondly, Eastern Europeans as a people never really took Soviet propaganda all that seriously when it came to its allegation of facts or interpretations.
The double standards applied by the U.S. was particularly visible and striking during the post-Helsinki process, when its interventionist international policies became unobstructed by having to keep up any pretenses of détente. Numerous U.S. military interventions and its support for ugly authoritarian regimes throughout the Third World, as well as ill-advised strategic and tactical alliances, reflected not only outright disrespect for the Helsinki Final Act, for numerous other bilateral and multilateral treaties, and even for basic human rights, but it also showed that the U.S. was ready to ally with just about anybody if it could only be expected to limit Soviet influence anywhere around the globe – including in Eastern Europe. This attitude of “all’s fair in love and war” presented a striking contrast with the high standards to which the U.S. tried to hold the Soviet Union at the same time. Also on the question of disarmament, while the Soviet Union was ready to accept parity by limiting arms on both sides, the U.S., especially after the failure of SALT II, only tried to force the Soviets into outright capitulation by advancing proposals, such as the “zero-option,” aimed at gaining domestic and international public support but in reality disabling not only Soviet offensive, but even defensive capabilities – an “offer” that could only be refused.
During the mid- to late-1980’s, East-West relations could be summed up as an era of U.S. policing and “containing” the Soviet Union, keeping it surrounded by overwhelming U.S. arsenal, troops, and systems of alliances, and confining it to international paralysis, where any action by the Soviet Union not only led to open sanctions, but also covert U.S. counteractions. It is ironic that, when the U.S.-led arms race finally strangled the much less efficient Soviet Union economy, the same militant attitudes and rhetoric of the U.S. military-industrial complex promptly and foreseeably needed to find new enemies – and they were in many cases former allies whom the U.S. had groomed to thwart erstwhile Soviet influences in the first place.