Kenneth Adelman was the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and he gave an extensive interview to the Miller Center of Public Affairs (HT to Betsy’s Page for pointing out this great resource to fist person history).
Near the end of the interview with Adelman, he is asked about the end of the Cold War. I found his answer to the question fascinating since Adelman was arguable as involved as any person serving the US Government.
“… he [Reagan] was intent that if we build up, they ‘re not going to be able to afford to keep up with us. A lot of people think that’s what won the Cold War. I don’t. Because if you look at Soviet Defense spending, it increased four to five percent every year through the 70’s and pretty much continued steadily until Gorbachev started all his economic reforms that crashed the whole place. It was not the case that the Kremlin was pretty steady and then when the Reagan build-up began in ’81 on, then the Kremlin went to match it. They didn’t match it very much; they didn’t do much different in Reagan’s time than they had done, as far as we knew, on defense spending.Adelman goes on to explain:
So this idea of bankrupting them because they couldn’t do it, I thought it was a bad theory. People still say it all the time. I still think it’s wrong. What got them was SDI.
In 1984, I did a study in the Arms Control Agency where we calculated Soviet paid –for propaganda; 80% of it was about SDI. It wasn’t even a program; it was a speech. I mean the Pentagon takes 3 years to gin up a program. They had been doing some ballistic missile defense and there was nothing; it was cotton candy. The whole first summit, the whole second summit, the whole third summit was dominated by SDI. If the Kremlin had any sense they would have said, “It’s a stupid idea, you want to waste your money, waste your money. Let’s get back to the game.” But they went ape-shit. Once they went ape-shit it was just heavenly because it really did affect their thinking, it affected their planning.I’m just fascinated by this sort of stuff. Going to college at this time I can recall all the bile on campus directed toward Reagan. He was a buffoon, a cowboy and he was going to bring about the end of the world.
I testified a hundred times about it. “SDI won’t work,” I said. That’s certainly not what we heard from the Russians. They wouldn’t be going crazy if it didn’t work. And again, what was the ultimate defense against the Democrats in the Senate and House? You don’t think it works, but guess who does think it works? It was phenomenal, better than we ever expected. And [Alexander] Bessmertnykh, who was Foreign Secretary under Gorbachev after Shevardnadze at Princeton a few years ago said that SDI was what really ended the Cold War and ended the Soviet Union. It wasn’t obviously singular, but it was the last straw.
Today we can see that Reagan was right (but don’t expect his critics to admit that they were wrong). It is also fascinating to read first hand reports from people like Adelman that show Reagan to be the most anti-nuclear President we have had since WWII.
The final irony is that while Reagan was in real life undermining the Soviet war machine and system of oppression with threats of SDI – Hollywood was taking the exact opposite approach. Remember the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox? It came out just before Reagan was to enter office. In the movie – the Russians have a super weapon, a plane that none of our defenses could counter. A weapon that would irreversibly tip the balance of power to the Russians. At the time Hollywood would have us believe that it was our military that was behind (with movies like Firefox) and it was our system that was doomed (remember Escape from New York?)
In fact – it was Reagan and the USA that had the threat of his own super weapon (SDI) and it was the threat of this weapon that tipped the balance of power irreversibly in the battle of ideologies. Truth was much better than fiction here.
I admit that I am bothered by renewed talk about reviving the idea of SDI. I hope that like in Reagan’s day that it never goes beyond the speech stage.