How Ronald Reagan Won and Other Lessons From the Cold War

Norman Stone discusses ‘The Atlantic and Its Enemies’ and why the Soviets' demise was not inevitable.

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Ten years before President Ronald Reagan stood in Berlin to demand, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" communism's demise was in no way assured. Decades of proxy wars saw communist and capitalist powers bargaining and competing for footholds around the world. British historian and former Oxford University professor Norman Stone's book The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War begins just as World War II allies become Cold War competitors. He follows the successes and failures on both sides of the Iron Curtain until communism finally falls, along with the Berlin Wall. Stone, who lives in Oxford and Istanbul, recently talked with U.S. News about the Cold War and its lessons for today. Excerpts:

Why did you decide to write this now?

If you were writing in the 1990s, you could write the most awful romantic guff about the emergence of free nations. The formula for bringing capitalism and free markets to the ex-Communist countries didn't go as planned, so that perspective saved me from writing a lot of cheesy propaganda.

What surprised you in writing about the Cold War period?

I was impressed by the resilience of the Anglo-American world, its propensity for change.

Do you think it was inevitable that the West would win the Cold War?

Inevitable is not a word I would use. You could imagine, for instance, that the Soviet leaders wouldn't make their terrible blunder of invading Afghanistan. Or, if the Soviets had been in a position to dominate oil prices, they could have carried on making trouble for the Western economies. So, I wouldn't say it was entirely inevitable. It could have gone on in the old way for quite a long time.

What was the turning point in the Cold War?

There was a pretty bad economic crisis in the West, but at the turn of 1981-1982, things started getting better. And if you're sitting in Moscow, you say, "Ah, the Americans are recovering and so are the British." The crisis of capitalism that the Soviet leaders had expected wasn't actually happening. They then thought, "Well, we will try to come to terms with the strange force of capitalism." They knew perfectly well they couldn't do that if they went on producing leaders in the old mold, who would just talk the usual Marxist gobbledygook. And once they tried to carry out a degree of reform in Russia, the whole Soviet system began to unravel.

Did Ronald Reagan win the Cold War?

I think there's an obvious element of truth in that. In America in the early '80s, people were saying, "We've got awful social problems, let's see if we can solve them." And Moscow would look at something like that and say, "Ah, well these geezers aren't collapsing after all, so let's see if we can do a deal with them." Which I think is the end of the Cold War.

How do you think the Cold War relates to current wars with radical Islamist groups?

Some Islamic radicals have learned from communist tactics about how you influence the West and how terrorism can be spread. I can see certain parallels with the way the Vietnam War was used by Moscow to discredit the United States. The Russians were just rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of this gigantic superpower involved in that mess.

Are there Cold War lessons that apply to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan?

If you're going into places like those, think about what you want to get out of them. And think about having the right means to do it, because that was the problem with Vietnam. There, the dimensions grew and the Americans were utterly unprepared. America's best friends would say that involvement in Iraq was very badly prepared, without much idea of an exit strategy. I feel the same has been done with Afghanistan, though I don't know the details of that too well. It does seem that there is an American weakness for willing the ends but not the means.

What lessons from Cold War history can Western society take moving forward?

It is certainly true that the West won the Cold War because the level of prosperity that came after the Marshall Plan was just stunning. There's been a level of quite extraordinary prosperity in the West, but also a degree of cultural impoverishment and a coarsening of things, which I do find deeply discouraging.