By Manifesto Joe
Revisionist history has it that Ronald Reagan "won the Cold War" by, in essence, outspending the Soviet Union on a military buildup. Those evil commies just couldn't compete, the myth has it, and they were suddenly forced to fold their empire all over the world.
What utter right-wing hogwash.
Let's look a bit more closely at the situation as it really was in those days. The U.S., typically, has spent perhaps as much as 6% of its GDP on the military. The old Soviet Union often spent as much as 25% of its GDP on military outlays, depriving its civilian population of many basic needs so that lonely, unhappy young men could sit around on military bases in the Soviet part of the world, getting sick on boiled carp and bad vodka.
I remember all the right-wing alarmist BS of the time. I read in the National Review in 1985 (that was when I could still read that rag without tossing my cookies and making the pages stick together) that the Red Army was arguably the most formidable fighting force that the world had seen up to that time.
We know now that, around 1985, the Soviet military was a large, but largely ineffective, fighting force, ill-equipped and with miserable morale. Hell, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan kicked 100,000 of their asses for years and years, finally forcing them out of the country. (And yet, nobody now seems to be arguing that U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, won the Cold War. The argument seems at least as plausible.)
After the Soviet Union collapsed, conservatives all of a sudden crowed about the superiority of American fighting forces over those hapless commies. The story kept changing whenever it was convenient. So, which was it, right-wingers? The most formidable fighting force the world had ever seen, or a bunch of homesick clowns who couldn't beat a ragtag guerrilla force in one of the world's poorest countries?
The Soviet economy was at the root of the empire's decline, and it had been in trouble for a very long time. Its centrally planned economy was stagnating by the mid-1970s, when Reagan was still sticking his foot in his mouth as governor of California. Here's a passage from answers.com that summarizes this pretty well:
The vigorous Soviet economy of the late-1960s and early 1970s quickly fell victim to the very factors that had contributed to its success, central planning and raw materials allocation. Brezhnev recognized that the Soviet economy was slowing, and attempted to patch problems rather than completely overhaul the system. His efforts failed. Even if Brezhnev had attempted to overhaul the Soviet economy, the highly entrenched special interests that made their living by manipulating the Soviet Union's centrally planned economy could have defeated Brezhnev's efforts.
Throughout the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union's GNP and industrial output continued to increase, but at a lessening pace, eventually leading to economic stagnation. The Ninth Five Year Plan (1970–1975) saw a growth rate of approximately 3%. The period of 1975–1980 experienced a growth rate of between 1% and 1.9%, depending on whether revised Soviet numbers or the West's estimate is examined. Likewise, 1980–1985 saw a further decline in economic growth, between 0.6% and 1.8%. Declining economic growth rates were not confined to the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe, with its economies intertwined with the Soviet Union's, suffered a similar fate.
This declining growth rate in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the Soviet Union receiving a diminishing rate of return on capital investment. This proved disastrous for the Soviet economy, because by 1980, the Soviet Union was spending nearly one-third of its GNP on capital investment, with most of the sum dedicated to the military. The military was consuming such a large portion of the Soviet economy for two reasons: the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and the arms race with the United States. These two events would weigh heavily in the Soviet economic demise and lead to its inevitable fall. A weak economy prevented the Soviet Union from reacting appropriately to each experience.
Now, what Reagan admirers would have one believe from this is that the U.S. military buildup of the 1980s was what "won" the Cold War. The Cold War had been going on for about 35 years by the time Reagan even took his first oath of office. Did he hasten the Soviet collapse by a year or two? Perhaps -- but it's pretty clear from what we now know that the Soviet Union's economy was already, in essence, a dead man walking by 1980. Just a basic maintenance of the U.S. military for another 11 years was quite sufficient to see them run out of gas.
I've read that when one says something to Russian economists nowadays about Reagan winning the Cold War, they are unable to restrain their laughter. Everybody knew what the problems were in those days, they would say, and they were all right here.
Does this demonstrate the superiority of capitalism? Well, yes and no. Many of those who led the U.S. through the Cold War were Democrats, who advocated a mixed economy and were regarded by capitalism's right-wing ideologues as heretics. The Democrats weren't fans of the Soviet command economy, either, or of its police state. But they recognized a need for a reformist approach to capitalism, which one would be at a loss to explain to the typical Tea Party activist of 2011.
Now, less than 20 years after the final collapse of the Soviet Union, it looks like it is capitalism that is in trouble all over the world, and that seems largely for similar reasons -- its apparent inability to reform itself. For over 30 years in the U.S., wealthy individuals and giant corporations have insisted on gaming the political system to evade taxes, and on demagoguing much of the public into believing that any sort of tax increase will ultimately be a tax increase on them.
We now have the vantage point of seeing, from the second term of the Clinton administration, that it is quite possible for the federal government to raise enough revenue to run comfortably in the black without damaging the economy. But one wouldn't know that, if one listens to rich people and Corporate America, and takes their swill seriously.
Back to the Cold War -- it came to an end because of a general collapse of the Soviet economy, and that was something that was many years in the making. A military empire has to be paid for, and the Soviet empire had their system overextended long before Reagan became president. Less than 20 years later, it looks increasingly like something similar is happening here.
Years ago, there was a saying that the U.S. didn't win the Cold War -- Japan won it. Now I'd say it's looking more and more as though China was the real winner. The U.S. is so deeply indebted to them, and largely because of war expenses, that we aren't likely to get out of that debt within any living American's lifetime.
Now, as for Reagan and Mr. Magoo
Ronald Reagan was apparently an inspirational leader for many people. In contrast, what I generally saw for 8 years was a "Teflon" presidency and the amusing rightness of his critics' comparison to the cartoon character Mr. Magoo.
For those perhaps too young to remember, Mr. Magoo was a cartoon character whose life span was from about 1949 to 1965. The late character actor Jim Backus was his voice. Mr. Magoo doesn't get a lot of retro TV airplay nowadays, because I think he's regarded as far too politically incorrect, sort of like comedian Bill Dana's character Jose Jimenez or advertising's The Frito Bandito. I'll explain.
Mr. Magoo was a rich old dude who had poor eyesight and was hard of hearing, yet he insisted on continuing to drive his outdated flivver and to stroll through life as though there were nothing wrong. He would instigate catastrophes everywhere he went, but would himself walk away unscathed and oblivious about anything that had happened. People who had impaired eyesight and hearing were eventually offended by the character, so despite great popularity in his day, Magoo had a pretty short shelf life on the rerun circuit.
Compare this to a president who cut and ran after hundreds of Marines got blown up in Lebanon, yet today few call him a coward. (If it had been Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, there would have been all kinds of editorial comments about how yellow is not a color that goes with the decor of the Oval Office.)
Compare this to a president who was basically giving his blessings to a tradeoff with terrorists of arms for hostages -- and yet now few seem to remember this.
Compare this to a president whose policies led to the most expensive failure of U.S. financial institutions since the Great Depression. Not many seem to remember that, either.
Compare this to a president who created record deficits by cutting taxes broadly on wealthy Americans and big corporations, so much that now you can't reason with the average shithead on the street about how these people are looting the store and pushing the burden onto him or her.
This is a litany that could go on a long time -- but finally, compare this to a president who just happened to be sitting there, on the edge of dementia, at the time that Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Soviet system was no longer workable. And now, right-wing revisionist historians are strutting about, posturing as though this were a feat that Reagan pulled off all by himself. Few seem to recall the reality of the situation -- they just remember glittering speeches about the myth of some "shining city on a hill."
Mr. Magoo, I sez. The senile old fool walked away from multiple disasters unmarked. And he's still doing it posthumously.
"Magoo, you've done it again!"
Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.