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Ronald Reagan and the Cold War: What Mattered Most

By seeking to talk to Soviet leaders and end the Cold War, Reagan helped to win it.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

In 1977, in a private conversation with Richard Allen, the man who would become his first national security adviser, Reagan explained that his approach to the Cold War was simple: “We win, they lose.” Allen was stunned by the simplicity and brilliance of this formulation. Others have cited it as the most cogent framework for illuminating the evolution of Reagan’s strategy.

Thomas Reed, a special assistant to Reagan for national security, and a former secretary of the Air Force, narrates the other story. Reed reports that Stuart Spencer, Reagan’s political consultant, accompanied the candidate in July 1980 on a flight from Los Angeles to the Republican nominating convention in Detroit. Spencer asked, “Why are you doing this, Ron?” With no hesitation, Reagan answered, “To end the Cold War.” I am not sure how, Reagan went on to say, “but there has to be a way.” Reagan focused on the weakness of the Soviet system, his fear of nuclear war, and his frustration with détente. Reed then adds, “Reagan was not a hawk. He did not want to ‘beat’ the Soviets. He simply felt that it would be in the best interests of both countries, or at least of their general citizenry, ‘to end this thing.’”

Reed goes on to emphasize that Reagan believed that the way to end the Cold War was by winning it. But if Reagan’s words to Spencer are parsed more carefully, it becomes clear that Reagan was not talking about “beating” the Soviets but, rather, seeking to end the Cold War.

It is easy to conflate “winning the Cold War” and “ending the Cold War.” Yet, when thinking about the strategy and aims of the Reagan administration, consider: What do the two terms mean? Was there, in fact, a strategy to win the Cold War, as many triumphalists claim, or was there instead a strategy to end the Cold War? What would it have taken to win the Cold War rather than end it? Would each involve different approaches, goals, and tactics, or would they overlap? What assumptions would shape the pursuit of one or the other?