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Reagan Best Remembered for Winning the Cold War - 2004-06-11

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was in full swing.

At the beginning of his presidency, Ronald Reagan announced a massive buildup of nuclear weapons, promising to roll back communism around the world. Soon afterward he characterized the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

When Mikhail Gorbachev took the Soviet reins of power in 1985, the Soviet Union's economy was suffering, while the United States continued to develop and amass weapons. The military gap between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was getting wider. President Reagan seized the opportunity to meet with Mr. Gorbachev in 1986.

The two leaders eventually signed treaties banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles and limiting strategic arms. Alan Lichtman, a Presidential historian at American University here in Washington, says Mr. Reagan will be remembered as the President who won the Cold War.

"The Cold War had been this long and bitter struggle going on since 1945, the end of World War II," said Mr. Lichtman, "and yet on Ronald Reagan's watch, whether he was responsible for it or not, the Cold War, in effect, came to an end with an American victory and the beginning of the dismantlement of the Soviet empire."

In 1987, President Reagan visited the Berlin Wall, long a symbol of communism and Soviet domination. "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate!" said President Reagan in his now-famous speech at the Berlin Wall. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Less than a year after Mr. Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was down, a sure sign the Cold War was ending.

Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, a politically conservative Washington think thank, is a journalist who covered the late president for nearly 40 years. He says Mr. Reagan accomplished a great deal.

"He ended the Cold War without firing a shot, and he did that though an extraordinary buildup of the military, the U.S. military," said Mr. Edwards, "and sticking to such meaures as the Strategic Defense Initiative, which convinced the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev that they could not win an arms race."

Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, says some people viewed Mr. Reagan's foreign policy as reckless and too heavy on defense, but that is how he accelerated the end of the Cold War. "He basically believed that the Russians couldn't compete with us and that they would only respect us if we had overwhelming strength," explained Mr. Wayne, "and he sought to produce a military with overwhelming strength, and in the end, the Soviets backed down."

Lou Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter and Reagan biographer, says the main achievement of the Reagan presidency was the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Reagan's central premise was that if we negotiated with the Soviet Union from a position of strength, the Soviet Union wouldn't be able to do it, they'd have give up or roll back," said the journalist, "and he didn't know quite how it was going to end, because they didn't have the economic power to do it."

Experts say President Reagan knew the Soviet economy was in trouble and took advantage of that opportunity. It was a move that dramatically altered the face of Europe and the relationship between the world's super powers.