- - Sunday, December 13, 2015


By Robert Service

Public Affairs, $35, 843 pages

As the Soviet Union teetered toward collapse in 1990, Defense Minister Sergei Akhromeev lamented, “For seventy years the Americans have attempted to destroy our Union and they’ve finally achieved their end!” But his Politburo colleague, Alexander Bessmertnykh, demurred, saying, “It’s not they who have destroyed it but ourselves.”]

Left unmentioned was the outside force that played a seminal role in shoving the USSR into oblivion: adroit negotiations by President Ronald Reagan over eight years that (a) forced the Soviets into arms-reduction agreements that lessened the nuclear specter that had hovered over the world for decades and (b) convinced Moscow that it could no longer match the United States militarily, much less economically.

Robert Service, a longtime British academic and the author of numerous books on the USSR, has produced diplomatic history of the first rank. His story tells of how Mr. Reagan dealt not only with strong Soviet opposition to serious disarmament, but with hawkish figures in his own administration who felt that he was going dangerously far.

A strong defense hawk himself, Mr. Reagan had a deeper vision: of a world with reduced stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and fewer conventional forces facing one another in Europe. His point man was Secretary of State George Shultz, who gained experience in negotiating with the Soviets as President Nixon’s treasury secretary in 1973. And, as Mr. Service notes, he lacked the driving — often crippling — egos of previous secretaries such as Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig.

The Soviet leadership realized early-on that it teetered on the brink of economic ruin. The technological lag was particularly acute in such fields as computers. Even the few achievements were overshadowed by reality — for instance, the scientist who observed that when the first nuclear power station opened, “the nearby collective farm was still using a wooden plough.”

The Soviet dismay is reflected in archival documents which Service accessed. Here we find fascinating insider reading about the secretive communist regime as it awakened to reality. At a Party Secretariat meeting in August 1979, an economist lamented that the USSR was 60 percent less effective than capitalist societies in replacing manual labor. Exorbitant spending on defense, especially missiles, were showing “few indirect benefits in material comfort or cultural facility.” Even hard-liners in the defense agencies “knew that this made no military or economic sense.” As one horrified official exclaimed, “The future’s being eaten up!”

Mr. Reagan’s determination to reduce nuclear arsenals in both camps met spirited opposition in his own camp from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who Mr. Service writes “had a visceral dislike of anything that implied comprise.” Shultz’s position was that a U.S. refusal to negotiate “would be a free gift of propaganda to the USSR.” Shultz prevailed, and the laborious talks began.

Fortunately for Mr. Reagan, his desire for talks coincided with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to the Soviet leadership. Mr. Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were both realists when it came to assessing the dire Soviet condition. They, too, faced strong internal opposition, but ultimately prevailed.

Among the many economic absurdities recognized by Mr. Gorbachev were relations with Eastern European satellite nations, most of whom relied heavily upon cheap raw materials from the USSR. As Mr. Gorbachev exclaimed, “we can’t endlessly be a fount of cheap resources for them.”

The disarmament talks spanned many years in many locales, and Mr. Service’s detailed text becomes tedious at times. To be sure, bumps in the road were many, ranging from disputes over grain imports to misgivings by America’s European allies about being left defenseless. But Mr. Reagan persisted, and he prevailed.

Mr. Service’s admiration for Shultz is obvious, but he does give dissenters their voice. For instance, he quotes Frank Carlucci, who succeeded Weinberger as defense secretary, as declaring “Gorbachev has bamboozled Europe. Image of peace, compassion, but arms double talk.” Another administration dissident felt that verification of treaty terms “would remain impossible.”

A consistent stalling point was Mr. Reagan’s insistence on development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended for long-range detection and destruction of incoming enemy missiles. The Soviets insisted SDI was offensive in nature and demanded that it be discontinued. Mr. Reagan refused, and SDI development continued.

A continuing Soviet handicap was the failure of the KGB to provide “information and guidance about American politics.” It had no human sources at the top of the administration. “It could disclose nothing important that Gorbachev did not know,” Mr. Service writes, based on his examination of archives. And years of adherence to Marxist-Leninist doctrines hampered the Soviet perception of other countries.

The key discussion with Mr. Gorbachev came in November 1985. As Mr. Reagan would report to Congress, he and Mr. Gorbachev talked for 15 hours, in five of them on their own, except for interpreters. (This account should put paid to the claims in faux historian Bill O’Reilly’s current book that Mr. Reagan was mentally disabled for much of his presidency.)

The end results? Both powers reduced the number of nuclear missiles held on land, at sea and in the air. The Soviets left Afghanistan and agreed to German reunification. Mr. Service writes, “As the approchement grew, Mr. Reagan and his successor George Bush watched with wonder as the USSR dismantled its totalitarian politics and communist ideology and permitted a growing measure of civil freedom and economic reform.” Anti-communist fervor swept Eastern Europe. And, in the end, communism and the USSR went belly-up.

Mr. Service correctly calls the process “one of the cardinal episodes of recent world history.” His book should help cement Ronald Mr. Reagan’s seminal role in concluding the Cold War.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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