A lesson from Ronald Reagan on appeasing dictators

Thirty years ago, while a student at the Senior U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, my classmates and I witnessed an incredible phenomenon.  The once feared "Bear" of the  Soviet Union, which we had trained all of our respective careers to engage and to defeat on the land, sea, and air, imploded in front of our eyes.  The once all-powerful and feared "Evil Empire" was no more.

As many of you may recall, this did not come about by accident.  Rather, it came through the determination and strong resolve of then-president Ronald Reagan.  Before President Reagan, no other U.S. president had openly declared a stated policy of victory over the Soviet Union.

Upon assuming office, Reagan knew better than to appease the Soviet Union, as many of his predecessors had done.  Tyrants respect only power, be it perceived or actual.  Reagan set about to break the Soviet Union primarily through his vision of the implementation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an anti–ballistic missile program designed to shoot down Soviet nuclear missiles in space.  Otherwise known as "Star Wars," SDI technology sought to create a space-based shield that would render nuclear missiles obsolete.

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced the SDI program in a television address broadcast nationally.  "What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack — that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?" he said.  "I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."

The Strategic Defense Initiative was ultimately most effective not as an anti–ballistic missile defense system, but rather as a propaganda tool, which  put intense military and economic pressure on the Soviet Union to fund its own anti-ballistic missile system.  This strategy was proved to be effective because, during the 1980s, the Soviet economy was teetering on the brink of disaster

At the time, American scientists were not even sure if SDI technology could be developed, and an operational system could ever be deployed.  But, despite repeated attempts by the Soviets in subsequent arms control negotiations to block the SDI, Reagan stood firm, and despite repeated pressure from even his own advisers, he did not back down.  Although this may not have been the sole factor that led to the downfall of the USSR, the message was clear — the United States would no longer appease our potential adversaries.

More than any other strategy, Reagan's unwavering commitment to the SDI convinced the Soviets that they could never win an arms race and forced Gorbachev to end the Cold War peacefully, at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.

Compare this moment in history thirty years ago to what is taking place today on the international stage.  President Vladimir Putin recently called the dissolution of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."  It therefore comes as no surprise that he now seems to be on the verge of re-invading Ukraine.  Meanwhile, President Xi of China has openly stated he plans to unify China through the seizure of Taiwan as part of the PRC's long plan to achieve hegemony.

Rather than appease them or send humanitarian supplies when the invasion ultimately occurs, as did President Obama, let's take a lesson from the playbook of Ronald Reagan thirty years ago.  Tyrants respect only raw power — either the threat or its swift application.  As we saw recently in Syria, once a red line is crossed without consequences, threats are merely idle words.

While the Cold War may have ended, the fight for freedom is never over.  It is a never-ending battle, not for the faint of heart, that must be waged year after year, generation after generation.  President Biden, let us not be forced to relearn the hard lessons of the past.  As Thomas Jefferson stated, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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