Let's end this nonsense: Reagan's military buildup did not cause the Soviet Union to collapse

Let's put this to rest now. The idea that Reagan caused the Soviet Union to collapse has been said so many times over the years but the facts just don't back it up.

The idea goes something like this:

Ronald Reagan increased US military spending. He introduced the "Star Wars" technology to protect the USA against enemy missiles. In response to this, the Soviet Union increased military spending dramatically which, in turn, caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

No, Sorry. Wrong.

Of course Reagan DID spend up big, no doubt about that.

And he DID introduce the "Strategic Defense Initiative" (SDI) which created some huge problems for the Soviet military and the politburo

But did the Soviets increase military spending? The data says no.

The above graph comes from Arming America: Attention and Inertia in US National Security Spending by James L. True (1998). Link here. Graph is on page 17 of 42 of the pdf file. (Edited 2015-08-14)

. Things to note:
  • This graph measures spending in comparative dollars. Since the US had a larger economy than the Soviets, we can assume that if a 1:1 comparison between the two was made in terms of percentage of GDP, the Soviet Union would have a higher result. If you compare 1985 levels, for example, the US is probably spending around 6-7% of GDP on defence while the Soviets were spending around 13-14% of GDP.
  • The Soviets passed the United States in the early 70s and peaked  around 1982.
  • The US increased spending dramatically under Reagan, with a peak around 1985 and greater than the USSR.
  • Soviet defence spending plateaued between 1981 and 1988.
  • Soviet defence spending collapsed from 1989 onwards.
  • Much ink has been spilled over the years by economists and defence analysts in trying to determine reliable Soviet defence spending figures. If you want to complain about the standard of Soviet data, remember that experts have been dealing with this for decades. In short, if your argument against my position involves attacking the reliability of the statistics in question, please complain to the thousands of experts over the past few decades who have made it their business to work out reliable stats. Appeal to authority? You bet.
The graph clearly shows that, in real terms, the Soviets did not increase military spending much in response to Reagan. In fact the opposite appears to be the case: Reagan was responding to the Soviets. Soviet defence spending in the 1970s was pretty big and Reagan obviously did spend up big in response. But did the Soviets respond to Reagan's spending by increased spending? No they didn't.

Of course the idea that Reagan defeated the Soviets has been around for years. This 1994 article in The Atlantic - only three years after the collapse of the USSR - already contains the facts I am re-stating here:

The Soviet Union's defense spending did not rise or fall in response to American military expenditures. Revised estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency indicate that Soviet expenditures on defense remained more or less constant throughout the 1980s. Neither the military buildup under Jimmy Carter and Reagan nor SDI had any real impact on gross spending levels in the USSR. At most SDI shifted the marginal allocation of defense rubles as some funds were allotted for developing countermeasures to ballistic defense.

If American defense spending had bankrupted the Soviet economy, forcing an end to the Cold War, Soviet defense spending should have declined as East-West relations improved. CIA estimates show that it remained relatively constant as a proportion of the Soviet gross national product during the 1980s, including Gorbachev's first four years in office. Soviet defense spending was not reduced until 1989 and did not decline nearly as rapidly as the overall economy.

So what did cause the USSR to collapse? In short: the economic stupidity known as Perestroika, a policy so bereft of common sense that it caused factories to produce less and less industrial goods. From 1987 onwards, the economy of the Soviet Union began to collapse with severely reduced output and hyperinflation. The downturn was so severe that birthrates declined - an indication of the personal stresses that Russian households were being subjected to. The economy shrunk significantly for around 4 years before communism was abandoned and the economy collapsed even further. By the mid-90s GDP was probably half of what it had been in 1987. There are more details about this in a previous post I have written.


Frederick Froth said...

Speaking of Ronald the soporific "great communicator" this site provides a unique assessment of the Reagan years.


The Reagan years were of course just a minor prelude of the great cultural wrecking project facilitated by George W Bush.


And of course what will inevitably happen if the GOP regains power come November. Coupled with this too.


Frederick Froth said...

I find this 2004 essay provides some useful contexts for understanding what generates the various cultural and political agendas of the GOP in its current psychotic form.

www.yuricareport.com/Dominionism/The DespoilingOfAmerica.htm

Ernie Reeves said...

The USSR's leadership had more to do with its downfall than anyone. However, Reagan's military build up expedited the end of the Cold War, and the economic policy you blame for ruining the Soviet Union was only possible if the war was over.

Their economy was already stagnant due to oil prices in the 80's. The Soviets could not keep up with the US's military spending: and knowing that they were more willing to negotiate peace.

After successful nuclear disarmament treaties, Gorbachev was able to enact perestroika: the main aim of which was to redirect resources formerly used on military spending (no longer needed due to the treaty). To argue perestroika is to blame for the USSR's downfall is to ignore all the signs of its imminence prior to it and other reforms.

And if you do argue it is the main cause, than Reagan contributed to its enactment through military spending. He forced their hand: they could have either kept pace (they couldn't), fake it, or improve relations. They chose the latter, and the decision to do so was, I suspect, made more appealing by Reagan's harsh talk and immense military build up.

One Salient Oversight said...


Your argument is incorrect for a number of reasons.

First you argue that "the economic policy you blame for ruining the Soviet Union was only possible if the war was over". The facts say otherwise. High levels of inflation occurred from 1986 onwards. The policy that caused it was enacted in 1985.

Secondly, you argue "The Soviets could not keep up with the US's military spending", but the data I provide shows no military spending increase at all by the USSR in response to Reagan's build-up.

In short, you have failed to interact with the evidence that I have provided and have merely restated the historical myth.

Gary Verderamo said...

What kind of insanity is this article perpetrating? LOOK AT THE GRAPH! The graph clearly shows a steady increase in military spending over the years. There is a small plateau from 1975-1978, but then the spending increases. Part of this is due to an increase in US military spending. However, the spending increase continues all the way up through to 1981 when the numbers fall off a bit before going back up again in 1984 through to 1987-1988. Of course, this also coincides with the USSR's withdrawal from Afghanistan, so this makes sense. Then of course, things just fall off completely with the Soviet collapse.

Regardless, of these small valleys in spending, Soviet military spending is still more or less on par with US military spending if you look at this chart. How anyone can look at this chart and see both lines rising at roughly the same times and staying at roughly the same levels and then say that they were not similar is beyond me.

Even if the Soviets wanted to reduce military spending they couldn't. Reagan's spending increases forced them to maintain levels. Also the war in Afghanistan forced them to maintain levels.

Also let's not forget the production/purchase of over 300 MIG-31's which were designed to shoot down the B1 bomber. Now, Carter shut the B1 program down, but Reagan restarted the program. This meant the Soviets could not scale back or even cancel the MIG-31 program.

Now, when you consider Reagan also pumped up the Seawolf class subs and Star Wars the Russians felt they were being overwhelmed. So, again, even if they wanted to cut back spending they couldn't because they were already falling behind in their eyes.

In regards to Star Wars, just the idea of it was enough to give the Soviet top brass fits. Add the B1 and Seawolf in and the new (at the time) M1 Abrams tank and they must have been going nuts with worry. So, even if the spending didn't increase, it certainly didn't decrease either. Considering Gorbachev's desired reforms...a lot of the money that could have been used for those reforms was tied up in military spending that they just couldn't reduce even if they wanted to.

Gary Verderamo said...

Looking at some of the other comments about the Soviet economy. Their economy started slowing long before Gorbachev came to power. It actually started slowing under Brezhnev and Gorbachev started calling it the "Stagnant Economy", or something like that. I know the word stagnant was used.

The idea that Gorbachev wanted to divert resources from the military to the economy is correct, but how could he when the country was fighting a war in Afghanistan (which he ended) and while the Soviets were engaged in an arms race (there were nuclear talks going back to Nixon) which wasn't limited to nukes. Then along comes Reagan increasing US military spending. Talking about Star Wars and Seawolf class subs and bringing the B1 back to life and modernizing the Navy and increasing its size to just under 600 ships. The M1 Abrams came online and was being introduced.

The Soviets were overwhelmed. There was no way they could significantly reduce military spending in the face of all that. This is one of the reasons Gorbachev was so eager to sigh nuclear weapons treaties.