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Containment, Reagan, and the Collapse of Communism

Sheldon Anderson, Associate Professor, Department of History, Oxford, OH, and former Title VIII-Supported Short-term Scholar, Kennan Institute

Date & Time

Apr. 5, 2004
12:00pm – 1:00pm ET


At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Sheldon Anderson, Associate Professor, Department of History, Miami University, Oxford, OH, and former Title VIII-Supported Short-term Scholar, Kennan Institute, discussed some common perceptions of U.S. foreign policy at the end of the Cold War. He explained that policymakers and political commentators tend to use certain "historical myths" to explain and praise the Reagan administration's hard-line policies toward the Soviet Union. Anderson argued that history is much more complicated than these myths suggest, and that a more careful study of historical events leads to the conclusion that history cannot be distilled into a set of universally applicable lessons.

According to Anderson, there are six main myths from recent diplomatic history that are incorporated into the mindsets of most policymakers and therefore have an important impact on U.S. foreign policy. He argued that the first three myths relate to the idea that international systems based on balance-of-power and Realpolitik are the most stable: great power diplomacy maintained a stable European states system and a "long peace" from 1815 to 1914; when Europe abandoned Realpolitik with the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, it led to World War II; and in the post-war period, U.S. containment policy created a stable bi-polar world. The second three myths, Anderson continued, supposedly prove that it is necessary to take a hard line against totalitarian regimes: the failure of Britain's policy of appeasement toward Hitler demonstrates the folly of ever appeasing a dictator; Franklin Roosevelt "gave" Eastern Europe to Stalin at the Yalta conference in 1945, further proving that it is dangerous to negotiate with dictators; and Reagan's hard-line policy toward the Soviet Union was successful because it led to the collapse of Communism.

Anderson gave special attention to the theory that containment was the only effective way to deal with the Soviet Union and that Reagan's policy of "hard-line containment" was most effective of all. He noted that many people maintain that Reagan forced the Soviet Union to spend itself into bankruptcy with his aggressively anti-Communist rhetoric and military build-up. Anderson, however, argued that internal U.S. government documents from the time demonstrate that it is inaccurate to credit the Reagan administration with having a single, coherent policy. He maintained that the hard-line aspects of Reagan's policies were in fact the most risky and least effective.

The argument that the Soviet Union bankrupted itself by trying to outspend the U.S. military, according to Anderson, is not supported by facts. He noted that the Soviet military budget did not increase substantially in the Reagan era and that the Soviet military had developed a cost-effective plan to respond to a potential U.S. development of "Star Wars" missile defense. Anderson contended that Reagan's aggressive anti-Soviet stance did not cause Gorbachev's reforms. In fact, he argued, it was simply a matter of luck that Soviet leaders responded to U.S. policy by seeking rapprochement instead of developing their own aggressive policy.


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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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