The winner: no one

November 25, 1991

If you ask a True Believer in Ronald Reagan what his greatest accomplishment was, most -- including Reagan himself -- will likely say, "he won the Cold War." As we survey the wreckage that was once the mighty Soviet Union, abjectly promising to pursue the principles of free-market democracy as the price of enough food to get through the bitter Russian winter, the claim takes on a superficial plausibility.

From the vantage point of a 10-year perspective on the Reagan years, it is hardly deniable that this failed movie actor's policies did indeed hasten the demise of the Soviet Union. Reagan did this essentially by engineering one final Herculean surge in the deadly 40-year marathon that was called the arms race. In retrospect, it is clear that Reagan's entire policy was to show the Soviets that America could spend the Russians into ruin.

Yes, the strategy succeeded, but it must be rated a miracle that it succeeded without an exchange of the awesome weapons that arms race finally produced. To be sure, Reagan's partisans solemnly contend that it was "Star Wars" which finally forced the Soviets to give up. But that contention is palpable nonsense. If Mikhail Gorbachev has been of the same mentality as his predecessors, Stalin and Brezhnev, the response to "Star Wars" would not have been negotiation but rather ultimatum: A single step toward deploying "Star Wars" would be regarded as an aggressive act in violation of solemn treaty commitments and would call for the appropriate response -- including a nuclear strike if necessary. Such a step would have resulted in the destruction of both nations, and conceivably all life on the planet as well.

But, Reagan partisans contend, the proof is in the pudding: Gorbachev did capitulate, so "we won." That, too, is palpably nonsensical. Rather, what we did in the final sprint of the Cold War -- a sprint which could have been avoided with a little patience -- was to spend ourselves into a staggering debt which will remain with us as far as the eye can see. In the aftermath of the Cold War we are unable to extend any meaningful assistance to the long-suffering Soviet people who, by our own claim, have been enslaved for 70 years. It is the ironic measure of our own bankruptcy that we were barely able to scratch up $500 million to help the Soviet Union destroy the very weapons which we spent trillions to defend against. As for assistance to prevent the Soviet Union from falling back into the dark night of dictatorship, we can offer almost nothing; we can only hope that the Japanese and the Europeans, whose robust economies are unencumbered by the toll of spending trillions of dollars over the years to "win" the Cold War, will come to the rescue.

No one would argue that this country is anywhere near the economic calamity that confronts the Soviet Union as winter draws closer. But who can deny that the Reagan/Bush debt of $4 trillion is a major factor in the growing hardship Americans confront? Granted, there is no direct connection between that and the closing of libraries and firehouses in Baltimore or the layoffs of professors at state universities in Maryland. But when citizens must shell out a 30 percent surcharge on their federal income tax for interest alone, is it any wonder they have nothing left to pay for state and municipal services?

So who won the Cold War? The only answer is, no one did. We both lost. The only difference is the Soviets have the candor to say so; so far we do not.

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