It was 25 years ago, on Jan. 17, 1983, that the blueprint for American victory in the Cold War was quietly formalized by President Ronald Reagan. It came with the roar of winter, by the name of NSDD-75, probably the most important foreign-policy document by the Reagan administration, institutionalizing the president’s intention to undermine the Soviet communist empire.
The production of NSDD-75 was overseen by Reagan’s closest aide, National Security Adviser Bill Clark. Among Mr. Clark’s lieutenants at the National Security Council, staffer Norm Bailey dubbed NSDD-75, “the strategic plan that won the Cold War.”
Another NSC colleague, Tom Reed, called it “the blueprint for the endgame” and “a confidential declaration of economic and political war.” The Soviets, who somehow learned about the highly classified directive, were even more dramatic. An article on NSDD-75 in the Soviet press was titled: “New directive… threatens history.”
One of the longest of the 300-plus Reagan NSDDs, the chief author of NSDD-75 was Richard Pipes, the Harvard professor of Russian history on leave to serve Reagan’s NSC. Mr. Pipes defined NSDD-75 as “a clear break from the past. [NSDD-75] said our goal was no longer to coexist with the Soviet Union but to change the Soviet system. At its root was the belief that we had it in our power to alter the Soviet system through the use of external pressure.”
Secretary of State George Shultz described NSDD-75 as an effort to move beyond containment and detente, which is why it alarmed so many in the State Department. Indeed, it was revolutionary, turning on its head the doctrine of containment that had formed the cornerstone of American foreign policy since George Kennan sent his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow in February 1946.
The new policy, said Bill Clark, would “turn the Soviet Union inside itself,” encouraging “anti-totalitarian changes within the U.S.S.R.” America, said Mr. Clark, would “seek to weaken Moscow’s hold on its empire.”
Tamely titled, “U.S. Relations with the U.S.S.R.,” the opening to NSDD-75 established two core “U.S. tasks:” First, “To contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism … . This will remain the primary focus of U.S. policy toward the U.S.S.R.” And, second, “To promote, within the narrow limits available to us, the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system in which the power of the privileged ruling elite is gradually reduced.”
Mr. Pipes fought for this language, insisting the document articulate the central aim of reforming the Soviet Union. “The State Department vehemently objected to that,” recalls Mr. Pipes today. “They saw it as meddling in Soviet internal affairs, as dangerous and futile in any event. We persisted and we got that in.”
That bears repeating: those extraordinary lines, at once impossible but prophetic, whose historical significance cannot be overstated, were nearly removed by the State Department. Mr. Pipes points to the backing of Ronald Reagan, who he says “insisted” on the language, as well as the support of Bill Clark.
Here are a few other notables from NSDD-75:
In regard to Eastern Europe, the directive declared: “The primary U.S. objective in Eastern Europe is to loosen Moscow’s hold on the region.” Poland would be central to this strategy.
As for the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the directive affirmed that, “The U.S. objective is to keep maximum pressure on Moscow for withdrawal and to ensure that the Soviets’ political, military, and other costs remain high while the occupation continues.”
The directive even addressed Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s successor. The administration would “try to create incentives (positive and negative) for the new leadership to adopt policies less detrimental to U.S. interests.” NSDD-75 endeavored to “change” the Marxist system within the U.S.S.R. By seeking political pluralism, it hoped to repudiate the Communist Party monopoly. Precisely that would be done by Mikhail Gorbachev.
There was much more to the directive, too much to cover here — especially on the economic-warfare front. In short, NSDD-75 was an extraordinarily ambitious, across-the-board assault on the Soviet Union, a reality that was crystal clear to the Kremlin when it somehow managed to procure a copy of the document.
Obviously alarmed, the Soviets went public with the goals of NSDD-75. The Moscow Domestic Service released two statements on the directive on March 17 and 18, 1983 — not coincidentally, shortly after Reagan declared the U.S.S.R. an “Evil Empire” — dubbing it a “subversive” attempt “to try to influence the internal situation” within the U.S.S.R. “[T]he task,” said Moscow, was “to exhaust the Soviet economy.” The Reagan administration had “drawn up aggressive plans” for “mass political, economic and ideological pressure against the Soviet Union in an attempt to undermine the socioeconomic system.”
The directive resonated through the Soviet media. A piece by Grigori Dadyants in Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya stated, “Directive 75 speaks of changing the Soviet Union’s domestic policy. In other words, the powers that be in Washington are threatening the course of world history, neither more nor less.” Mr. Dadyants confidently assured his comrades that the grandiose “ideas of Reagan and Pipes” were “staggeringly naive.”
Well, it looks like the communists were staggeringly naive. As Reagan might have said, “There you go again … .”
Thanks to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clark, Richard Pipes and a few others, history was threatened 25 years ago this month — so much so that history was changed, and quite dramatically for the better.
Paul Kengor is author of “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” (HarperPerennial, 2007) and professor of political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. His latest book is “The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand” (Ignatius Press, 2007).