“If you are going to bluff, make it a big one” Amarillo Slim, Famous American Gambler and Author
Mikhail Gorbachev died yesterday, eighteen years after his partner in peace, Ronald Reagan. They were strangers to each other, even though they represented opposing sides to a seemingly never ending conflict known as the Cold War. Their strange partnership led to the signing of the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House on December 8, 1987. Unfortunately, their hard work that led to what should have been an enduring peaceful relationship was not to be, but at the time it was a huge achievement that ended the Cold War.
Ronald Reagan is considered the man who won the cold war, and liberating various countries that had been devoured by the Soviet Union after WWII, and often called “The Man Who Beat Communism.” In true Reagan fashion of graciousness, tact and self-deprecation, he used the Hollywood jargon of only being a supporting actor, saying that “Mr. Gorbachev deserves most of the credit, as the leader of this (Russia) country.” They were both simply patriots of their countries caught up in the life and death conflict of their time. However the demise of the Soviet Union shows that the main protagonist was indeed Ronald Reagan, and the real supporting actor was Mikhail Gorbachev.
When Reagan began his first term in 1981, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan just two years earlier, ending détente and killing any chance for the SALT II agreement. As various historians who personally knew Reagan have written, he truly despised nuclear weapons as the biggest threat to humanity. He was intent on doing his best to end that threat, and he apparently had a plan to do so. What that plan was as stated herein seems the most logical, but not universally accepted; logic is often the orphan of history.
We have an historical meeting initiated by Ronald Reagan with Pope John Paul II. There was no public announcement as to the agenda. There were none present but Reagan and the Pope. The meeting took place in the Vatican on June 7, 1982. The meeting lasted almost an hour, but there’s no record of what they discussed. Odd though that the most powerful leader on earth, and the leader of the largest religion on earth, spoke that long together and there’s no record. But consider the fact that John Paul II was the first Polish Pope in history, that the Polish Solidarity movement was being crushed by the Soviet regime, coupled with the growing tensions between the two super powers, and that their opening public remarks were about such things, it can be assumed it was not a prayer meeting. Both men were clear in their disdain for communism, Soviet domination and aggression, and condemnation of the nuclear threat.
What followed does shed some light on the fact that these two very serious men embarked on a coordinated campaign against all these things; they definitely had a plan. The Pope embarked on various visits to the Eastern Block, including Poland, espousing human rights and the morality of freedom. He was one of the most beloved Popes of all time and his mere presence in these oppressed countries had a destabilizing effect on the Soviet backed regimes.
Reagan had an equally risky role, an American style poker game of bluff. It was risky because he couldn’t pull a punch as it required him to create what could not be doubted as being real. His plan has derisively been called “Star Wars” for its fantastical concept of rendering a nuclear strike useless, making the Soviet advantage of such weapons obsolete with a satellite system of laser technology shielding the US. It was called SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Reagan announced SDI on March 23, 1983 as a technological achievement not only for national defense but to make nuclear weapons obsolete. Some, especially the Soviets, wondered if in fact it already existed; it was Soviet doctrine back then that Americans were always methodical in their development of technology and lacked the deceptive know how for “active measures”. That doctrine was inaccurate, at least in this instance as SDI did not yet exist, and at best was only in a theoretical phase. In fact, despite huge funding, much of which was a red herring, it never came into existence. The Soviets never recognized it as a bluff, took it as an existential threat to their security, condemned it as aggression, and proceeded developing their own shield, but at a cost bankrupting an already sclerotic economy.
When Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet General Secretary in 1985, he was not looked on as being anyone radically different from his predecessors, but following various discussions and meetings with Reagan it became increasing clear that he was a revolutionary. Reagan was not a geopolitical visionary, although he did reject the failed accommodation policies of détente; he was a pragmatist who saw in Gorbachev someone he could work with to achieve a common interest. It was not the failure of either of these men that after their tenure Russia devolved into chaos, with Putin ultimately taking control; that is more the failure of those who followed as we have not had such leadership since then.
It was strange but great that these men were able to reach out to each other to achieve what was at the time a way to peace, but it is the Reagan legacy that he so intuitively understood the dynamics of leadership in others like Pope John Paul II and Gorbachev to make that happen. The real catalyst however is what Henry Kissinger described as “A bluff taken seriously is more useful than a serious threat interpreted as a bluff.”