Reagan’s fans frame him as the architect of America’s victory in the Cold War. I would give such an accolade to those who designed containment, such as Truman, Kennan, Marshall, and Ike, but I do think Reagan deserves a lot of credit for the Cold War ending when it did.
He escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union, which it could not afford. He also instructed the CIA to shut down the importation of Western technology into the USSR, strangling their economic growth and forcing them to the negotiating table under Gorbachev. His Strategic Defense Initiative, although fanciful, was taken seriously in Moscow, leading the Soviets to believe that they could not resist American technological superiority. Reagan’s refusal to surrender SDI led to his failure in eliminating all nuclear weapons but did succeed in eliminating the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF), which had held Europe in a balance of terror for decades. It was the first major reduction of nuclear weapons, leading to further dismantlement by successive presidents.
He called the Soviets an “Evil Empire” in 1983. This may have been hawkish, but it also empowered Eastern Europeans behind the Iron Curtain to oppose communist tyranny. He also pushed for greater human rights within the Soviet Union, highlighting that dimension of the authoritarian regime’s brutality after Nixon’s cold pragmatism.
Reagan’s critics will point to his failures, like placing marines in Lebanon as part of a UN peacekeeping force and withdrawing them after Hezbollah bombed their barracks. They’ll mention the Iran-Contra Affair, a scandal rivaling Watergate and relatedly, American support for murderous right wing factions in Central America. These are legitimate criticisms, but Reagan still deserves credit for the fact that in 1980 the Soviet Union had the upper-hand and by 1990 it was on the brink of collapse. Having Gorbachev, and not Khrushchev or Putin, as his Soviet counterpart helped, but Reagan’s policies fostered the conditions for that historic victory for liberal democracy and world peace.