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Improbable events

Why the Cold War ended without nuclear disaster

Improbable events

President Reagan addresses students and faculty of Moscow State University on May 31, 1988. (Doug Mills/AP)

Thirty years have gone by since Ronald Reagan in 1988 spoke to students at Moscow State University. At a time when the Soviet Communist Party still claimed to be the vanguard of wisdom, Reagan said, “Freedom is the recognition that no single governmental authority has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious.”

Reagan for 40 years, ever since he fought Communists in Hollywood and faced threats of acid being thrown on his face, had been one of the Soviet Union’s staunchest critics—but 1988, miraculously, was a time in Moscow when, in his words, “the accumulated spiritual energies of a long silence” were breaking free.

I deliberately use the word “miracle.” It comes from the Latin miraculum, “object of wonder.” We believers in God think of miracles as events that occur because of God’s supernatural power. The more general definition is “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.”

The sports use of “miracle” is part of that broader usage. Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson told his players after their Super Bowl victory this year, “An individual can make a difference, but a team makes a miracle.” When the United States hockey team beat the defending gold medalists from the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics, announcers waxed eloquent about the “Miracle on Ice.”

The Cold War suddenly ended and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Ever since then, journalists and historians have debated who or what was key.

That success prefigured what would happen a decade later, when the Cold War suddenly ended and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Few people other than Ronald Reagan expected that. Even his prescient predictions were more hope than forecast. Ever since then, journalists and historians have debated who or what was key. Reagan? Mikhail Gorbachev? Material circumstances?

William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Norton, 2017) sees the Soviet leader as the central figure. President Reagan tactfully contributed to that notion. At a press conference during his Moscow trip 30 years ago he said, “Mr. Gorbachev deserves most of the credit, as the leader of this country.”

Others have disagreed. A Slate article in 2004 had this headline: “How Reagan won the Cold War.” Fred Kaplan wrote, “Did Ronald Reagan bring on the end of the Cold War? Well, yes. Recently declassified documents leave no doubt about the matter. … The Soviet system was dysfunctional; its empire was collapsing; the cupboard was bare. And Reagan’s surging military budgets, without question, brought this internal crisis to a head.”

To put it simply, the U.S. and the S.U. in 1988 were runners near the end of an ultramarathon. Both were tired, but the U.S. suddenly surged and the S.U. couldn’t keep up. In 2014 George Weigel noted “the Soviet Union’s economic vulnerability” and said Reagan exploited “that vulnerability by launching a full-throttle American defense expansion that he knew the Soviets … could not match, given their system’s economic, technological, and bureaucratic incapacities.”

Weigel also emphasized the ethical attack: “Reagan understood that the Soviet Union was ideologically vulnerable: that a steady, fact-based, morally-driven critique of communism’s abominable human rights record would rattle the men in Moscow, expose cracks in the Soviet system, encourage brave dissidents to exploit those cracks, and hasten the end of what Reagan called, perhaps undiplomatically but certainly truthfully, an ‘Evil Empire.’”

So if Reagan did it—and Gorbachev contributed by being, unlike other Soviet Belshazzars, someone who could read writing on the wall—then why did Reagan have the opportunity to do it? Neither Jimmy Carter nor Walter Mondale, the two Democrats he defeated, would have escalated the arms race to where the gasping Soviets had to give up.

Pundits had dismissed Reagan as too conservative to gain election. He won because “Reagan Democrats” voted for him. The No. 1 issue prompting that party switch was abortion. It’s highly likely that Reagan would not have been elected without 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. The Cold War would have gone on. A nuclear war could have destroyed the world.

I don’t know why terrible things happen, but I do know that preborn babies aborted during the 1970s did not die in vain. I’m still amazed that since 1945 nuclear weapons have gone unused. Thanks be to God.