Scholars do not deny the enormous importance of the resistance movements in Eastern Europe to the eventual demise of the Soviet empire. Reagan himself paid homage to Poland's Solidarity and other similar efforts behind the Iron Curtain. But, says Schweizer, "People who try to make the case that the Soviet Union would have collapsed on its own ignore the fact that since 1917 it had always managed, by hook or by crook, to get breaks from the West that allowed it to sustain itself." That was particularly true of the detente policies of the 1970s, but Reagan's offensive on three broad fronts--political, economic, and military--radically altered the course. The strong rhetoric denouncing the "evil empire," the arms race and the threat of Star Wars that put added strains on the struggling Soviet economy, and the challenge to Soviet clients in Afghanistan and Central America--all were ways, albeit not equally successful, in which Reagan called the Soviets' bluff.
Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis came to similar conclusions while reviewing scripts from radio broadcasts Reagan made after he left the California governorship in the 1970s. "For years, people have debated who the chief strategist in the Reagan administration was," Gaddis says. "These scripts make it pretty dramatically clear the ideas came from Reagan himself." Gaddis also thinks most people fail to appreciate how Reagan became the only nuclear abolitionist to occupy the White House. "He was a very courageous critic of the conventional wisdom. He wasn't afraid to ask the simple questions: 'Why do we need nuclear weapons in the first place?' or 'Why can't we defend ourselves against them?' Sometimes the grand strategy community can become so sophisticated, so inbred, that they don't ask these questions."
The other quality often underestimated by both his admirers and his critics was his surprising flexibility and pragmatism. This was most striking in the unexpected way he struck up a close personal relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. But the pragmatic qualities are more broadly apparent in Reagan's domestic and economic agenda. Yes, his central goal of reducing big government went unachieved during his presidency. "He didn't turn back the clock on the welfare state he inherited," says Brown University historian James Patterson, author of America's Struggle Against Poverty in the 20th Century. Even if he had tried to, he could not have overcome entrenched federal bureaucracies or the strong interest groups that supported them. Yet, says Patterson, "Reagan's opposition to big government had a lasting legacy."
Why? At least in part because he didn't squander political capital in trying to achieve the impossible. Nor was he was interested in getting rid of such essential New Deal safety nets as Social Security. Then, in addition to military spending, notes Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, "there were lots of things he was very much in favor of funding--highways, the space program, law enforcement, border control . . . veterans benefits." For all that, Friedman adds, "we live in a world in which rhetoric matters. And phrases such as 'anti-big government' and 'antispending' have entered the political discussion because of Reagan."