By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/7/2004 6:46:40 PM ET 2004-06-07T22:46:40

Did one of the 20th century’s leading cold warriors help hasten the end of the Cold War? 

In his first term, Ronald Reagan was confrontational.  He called his strategy “Peace Through Strength” — with an unprecedented peacetime military buildup and a lot of tough rhetoric. 

The Soviets, he said, famously, were an “evil empire.”

“They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat,” he said, and predicted their collapse. “The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism/Leninism on the ash heap of history.”

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice recalls that critics were horrified: “I was a young Soviet specialist at the time, and there were people who said, 'Oh, my God, how undiplomatic that is.'”

Even more alarming to many was his strategic defense initiative known as “Star Wars” — billions proposed for a missile shield. 

Then there was the famous speech at the Berlin Wall: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  In his second term, spurred on by Secretary of State George Shultz and wife Nancy, Reagan reached out to a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

In an interview with NBC News, Gorbachev said when they first met, they had to overcome years of mistrust. “After the meeting I told my team, he’s a real dinosaur," said Gorbachev, "and he said I was a hard-headed Bolshevik.” 

In Gorbachev, Reagan found a pragmatic leader struggling with a collapsing economy and a rising number of dissidents but open to ideas on free markets and human rights.

 

According to Russian expert Michael McFaul, “This was mostly an internal political transformation that happened in the Soviet Union, fostered by the ideas of Ronald Reagan — but mostly this happened within the Soviet Union.”

Still, former Reagan national security adviser and Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci credits Reagan. “He saw it as a corrupt system, and he believed if you just opened it up, it would fall of its own weight, and it did," he said.

In Gorbachev’s words: Reagan wanted to finish his time in the presidency as a peacemaker — and he did.

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