Why did it happen?

There is a sentiment among some that the Soviet Union was going to collapse anyway, and that Reagan didn’t have anything to do with it – he was simply fortunate enough to be President at the right time. This assumes that the root cause was the Soviet economy. (Never mind that some of the “it was gonna happen anyway” crowd once praised the Soviet economic machine.)
But there’s a problem with this theory. History shows that governments can eviscerate their nations’ economies and survive for quite some time. Cuba is a prime example: its economy collapsed decades ago, yet Castro managed to hold power for over 40 years, longer than any head of state in modern times. North Korea has been Communist for ten years longer, and during its entire existence the dictatorship has remained in one family. (Marxian hereditary monarchy?) Nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq have rich oil deposits, but the percentage of the population that actually benefits from petrodollars is quite small, although probably not as small as the privileged elite class in any given Communist nation.
So what was unique about the Warsaw Pact nations? They, and they alone, were involved in an arms race with the United States. And they lost. And the Warsaw Pact governments needed to save face. Much of their domestic propaganda had focused on their ability to rattle the US. Cuba and North Korea never had such pretensions. (If their “defiance” of the US appeals to anyone, it appeals to Western leftists, UN flacks, and fellow tinhorn despots, not to their subjects.) I believe that this need to save face is what influenced glasnost and perestroika, what I referred to as “Plan B” in my previous post.
I can identify one other aspect of the Warsaw Pact not found in other Communist nations: the degree to which its atrocities, particularly the Soviet gulag, has been documented. Perhaps the party chiefs saw the need to downplay the Evil Empire image, just as Khruschev saw the need to condemn Stalin.
Update: Bjørn Stærk asked his readers to offer their opinions on Reagan’s reputed role in the collapse of the USSR. I excerpted much of this post and threw in an additional remark:
In retrospect, citing the Saudis and Iraq as an example wasn’t a good idea. The Saudi and Saddam-era governments had plenty of cash despite the dysfunctions of their economies at large. The Soviets crisis arose when the public sector was becoming as cash-starved as the private sector.

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One comment

  1. Alexei

    I’ve thought about it more than once, and I still have more questions than answers. This first is, what did Reagan do that none of his post-WWII predecessors had done? Nothing in particular, but the combination of his policies made the Soviet leaders as uncomfortable as they never had been since WWII. For instance, Soviet experts apparently found a cheap, asymmetric response to the SDI but America’s ability–and readiness–to spend that much on the military scared both Soviet generals and planners. His belligerent speeches would have been laughed at (it was Truman who should have coined ‘Evil Empire’), but Reagan showed he meant what he said when he fired the air controllers, occupied Grenada, etc.
    However, few Americans realize how obvious it was to a Soviet citizen capable of some reflection, that the economy and the society were in a crisis. Every reasonable person was asking herself, ‘How can this last?’ Especially troublesome were a stark decline in work ethics, a social disaster in rural areas (which continues to this day), and–to those who could grasp the concept–an incredibly inefficient use of resources. When Gorbachev was elected Secretary General, there was an almost universal hope for a change, although which direction it would take was a mystery. When society at large realizes change must come, it inevitably comes, if in an unexpected shape.