The common narrative about the end of the Cold War is that the Soviet Union’s decline began to inevitably steepen on the day that Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency. His peanut-farming predecessor, the conventional wisdom goes, was too soft to strike fear into the heart of the Kremlin, as evidenced by the Soviets willingness to invade Afghanistan in 1979.
The truth, of course, is always more complex than any brief story can convey. While Jimmy Carter may not have been quite the verbal swordsman that Reagan was, his defense policy was far more aggressive than most folks realize—certainly aggressive enough to antagonize the KGB and is rising-star chief, Yuri Andropov. East German spymaster Markus Wolf made this clear when recounting a February 1980 conversation he had with the future Soviet premier:
We began discussing the East-West conflict. I had never before seen Andropov so somber and dejected. He described a gloomy scenario in which a nuclear war might be a real threat. His sober analysis came to the conclusion that the US government was striving with all means available to establish nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. He cited statements of President Carter, his adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and of Pentagon spokesmen, all of which included the assertion that under certain circumstances a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union and its allies would be justified….
Carter’s presidency had created great concern in the Kremlin, because he had presented a defense budget of more than $157 billion, which he invested in the MX and Trident missiles and nuclear submarines. One of the top Soviet nuclear strategists confided to me that the resources of our alliance were not sufficient to match this.
See? And you thought Carter only flexed his muscles when dealing with killer rabbits.
(Image via Iconic Photos)