God, the Gipper, and Gorbachev
How Ronald Reagan’s spiritual diplomacy helped bring down the Soviet Union
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When President Ronald Reagan touched down at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow on May 28, 1988, he had more than missiles on his mind. Reagan had ostensibly arrived for his third summit with the general secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Publicly, the purpose of the visit was arms limitations. Privately, the Gipper (as Reagan was known) had an ulterior motive in meeting with “Gorby,” as some in the West called him. Reagan wanted to talk to the leader of the second-largest atheist nation in the world about God.
Not surprisingly, when Reagan was later escorted to the Grand Kremlin Palace, where he was greeted by the smiling Soviet leader, he was asked to make some remarks in St. George’s Hall. It was a Sunday, and the American president ended his comments with “Thank you and God bless you.” It was the first time the word God had been used in that hall in nearly 70 years. It marked a deliberate (and crafty) strategy on the part of the president to bring eternal things into the political discussion.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev died Aug. 30, 2022, at the age of 91. Born as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was just ramping up his mass murder of Ukrainians and kulaks who resisted his collectivization efforts, Gorbachev not only would live to see the end of the Soviet Union, but he would become a principal architect in its demise. And, contrary to some contemporary accounts, he didn’t like it.
At the time, Western journalists fawned over his supposed reforms in Russia, perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”), but in fact Gorbachev was responsible for neither. Both had been undertaken before he ascended to power in 1985. Indeed, perhaps shockingly, Ilya Zaslavsky, later elected to the Russian parliament after the fall of communism, called Reagan the “father of perestroika.”
At age 54, Gorbachev was young for a Soviet leader. In fact, his three predecessors appeared ancient by comparison. And they all died within a three-year period, leading Reagan to tell his wife Nancy, “I want to talk to the Soviet leaders but they keep dying on me.” Gorby had a round face, a harmless look with his glasses, and a distinctive birthmark that some would quip took on the map shape of whatever country the Soviets were invading at the time. Western media adored him, treating him like a rock star. To them, he was not a “real” communist.
Gorbachev himself begged to differ. Though he spoke in appropriate code that concealed his real motivations, he spoke plainly behind closed doors. He told his first Politburo meeting he was “deeply devoted to the idea of collective work,” adding, what “we need is more socialism.” While it is true that Gorbachev advanced both perestroika and glasnost, he saw both as well within Soviet dogma. Also, he had no other choice. The Soviet economy was crashing after decades of extreme military spending—spending that was undetected or misunderstood by even the CIA. By 1985, it was eating the Soviet economy alive. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observed, Gorbachev didn’t “understand that the system is the problem.”
Even as the CIA focused on the Soviets’ remaining strengths, Reagan understood that the country teetered on the brink. Privately, in his diary, he wrote, “They are in bad shape and if we can cut off their credit they’ll have to yell ‘Uncle.’”
Reagan was nearly alone in these assessments. Still, by 1982, he had put in place an economic program that would cut the legs out from under the USSR’s economy and ultimately hasten the communist system’s collapse.
Reagan recognized that, as the old joke went, Russia exported only four things: gold, oil, vodka, and spies. He thought he’d let the CIA handle the spies, and he wasn’t about to stop vodka shipments. But gold and oil he could do something about.
He made a deal with Saudi Arabia’s oil minister to lower prices and increase production. Within a year, oil was flowing more freely and Soviet prices fell. Reagan also pursued a money-tightening program that sent the value of Soviet gold exports into a nosedive. Meanwhile, on the cultural front, he followed the advice of the many who urged him to blast rock ’n’ roll music over Voice of America and Radio Free Europe’s systems into the heart of captive European nations. When I later interviewed people from Hungary, Romania, East Germany, and other countries behind the Iron Curtain—people who were kids when the Berlin Wall fell—every one of them spoke of the importance of rock music at the time. They called it “the music of freedom.”
SHORTLY AFTER REAGAN’S COMMENTS at St. George’s Hall in 1988, he and Gorbachev headed off for a one-on-one meeting. It was their third since Gorbachev had become general secretary. Almost immediately, the Gipper referenced God again. “What if you ruled [that] religious freedom was part of your people’s rights?” he asked. No one would have dared ask such a question of Stalin or his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. But Reagan sensed Gorby might be open. Such a declaration, Reagan insisted, would make him a hero, “and much of the feeling against your country would disappear like water in the hot sun.”
Gorbachev bobbed and weaved. He had actually been baptized as a child, he said, but now did not believe in God. Then, uncomfortably, he tried to turn the question back to civil rights in America. But Reagan was never one to be sidetracked. He told Gorbachev a true story: Reagan had once asked his son Ron, a professing agnostic, “What if I served you a gourmet dinner? Would you believe there was a cook?” Gorbachev, the head of “godless communism,” said Ron’s answer would have to have been yes.
The following day at Spaso House, Reagan repeated the story and injected an even more spiritual tone. “I have to believe,” said the Gipper, “that the history of this troubled century will indeed be redeemed in the eyes of God and man, and that freedom will truly come to all.” Then he again ended with “God bless you.”
When he met up with Gorbachev again, Reagan gave him a videotape of a Gary Cooper movie, Friendly Persuasion, about a Quaker caught in the American Civil War and the necessity of listening to God. One might have thought Reagan was on a mission to convert Gorbachev personally, a sort of Billy Graham crusade to the heart of the evil empire. After that night’s dinner, Reagan ended with “God bless you” yet again, uttering the name of the Lord in the presence of a Soviet leader more times in a few days than in perhaps the past half-century.
BEFORE HIS MISSION TO MOSCOW, though, Reagan had to do everything he could to make sure Gorbachev had ears to hear. By 1985, when Gorbachev agreed to meet in Geneva, he was already holding a losing hand. The arms race had tilted decidedly against him, beginning with the delivery in 1981 of America’s revolutionary Trident submarines. These vessels were so stealthy that even America’s own anti-submarine methods couldn’t find them. They were so successful, and so advanced, that the U.S. Navy did something it almost never did: It delayed delivery of more advanced missiles with longer range because they just weren’t needed.
After that, Reagan’s bomber programs came online. Then, he and Thatcher ordered several hundred Pershing II and cruise missiles deployed in Europe to counter the ill-conceived plan of one of Gorbachev’s predecessors to sprinkle mobile, impossible-to-find SS-20 missiles all over western Russia. (Gorbachev told his advisers that was a poor decision, but for the time being he was stuck with it.) Then came 1983, and Reagan hit the Soviets with “the old one-two.”
First, at a convention of evangelicals, the Gipper called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” That inflamed Reagan’s opponents like few other comments he ever made. Even Nancy urged him not to say it. But Reagan believed the Soviets were an empire—and that they were evil. And the reference to the film Star Wars should not be dismissed, as culturally it was one of the most important movies of the 20th century. Everyone knew exactly what Reagan’s “evil empire” line referred to.
Second, Reagan announced his plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a system to shoot down enemy missiles in flight. Now the media thought they had him. The stupid old ex-actor walked right into that, his opponents thought. They derided the new program, dubbing it “Star Wars”—in the process walking right into one of the biggest backfires in media history.
Instantly, what Reagan’s critics meant as an insult turned a difficult-to-grasp technical program into an easy-to-understand concept. More importantly, virtually everyone knew that in Star Wars the movie, the Evil Emperor was an old, decrepit, wrinkled creep—who sorta resembled Gorbachev’s three predecessors. And Luke? Well, despite the difference in age, Luke and Reagan shared the optimistic belief that even the Death Star could be overcome. So, when Gorbachev came on the scene, where did that leave him? With his pale skin and that red birthmark on his head … well, he reminded some folks a little of Darth Vader when the helmet came off.
It was ironic and telling that Gorbachev became obsessed with SDI before a single element of the program had ever even been fabricated or tested. He brought it up at every meeting with Reagan. In their second, critical meeting at Reykjavík in 1986, Gorbachev took the offensive. He quickly surprised the American president by offering not just to limit missiles, but to eliminate half of each nation’s nuclear forces.
Reagan was nothing if not quick on his feet, and quickly one-upped him. Why stop at half? Reagan said. Why don’t we eliminate them all?
A stunned Gorbachev had sought a public relations coup, not a real settlement, and was so shaken by the counteroffer that he asked for a brief recess. When he came back, SDI was suddenly back on the table.
Now frustrated, Reagan wouldn’t budge on Star Wars. He turned to his Secretary of State, George Schultz, and asked, “Am I wrong?”
Schultz, who could be quite critical of Reagan, said, “No, Mr. President. You are right.”
Reagan picked up his folders and left. An exasperated Gorbachev shuffled after him. “I don’t know what else I could have done,” he muttered.
Reagan, both angry and disappointed, snapped, “You could have said yes.”
Over the next two years Gorbachev moved steadily toward Reagan, signing a treaty removing and destroying all short-range nuclear missiles in Europe—a first in history. Both men hoped for more in Moscow, but by then, Reagan was in his final year as president and had to attend to more eternal business.
When Reagan went to Moscow in 1988, the highlight of his trip was to be his speech to communist students at Moscow State University. These days, one can hardly imagine a Republican president getting a decent reception at any American university, so for an American president to speak to future Communist leaders was a challenge for the ages. But Reagan dove in, speaking literally beneath a giant bust of Lenin. He talked about freedom but also faith, painting a picture of “families of every conceivable nationality worshipping together.” Liberty, he concluded, was a “gift from God.”
The young communists went wild. They cheered him, and Reagan, looking at the bust of Lenin, said he thought he saw it cry.
By then it was clear that all the elements of Reagan’s statecraft and spiritual offensive had come together. Even the rock ‘n’ roll. I interviewed a woman from the captive region of Moldova in 2010 and was surprised at her story: “I was atheist but not communist. For some reason they let in the rock ’n’ roll musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I came to Jesus and was baptized because of Jesus Christ Superstar.”
In his dialogues with Gorbachev, Reagan invoked the name of the Almighty at every possible opportunity—and so did Gorbachev (“Let us pray to God …” or “God help us”). At one point, he told Michael Deaver, his deputy chief of staff, “He believes.”
Deaver didn’t quite know what to say. “Are you saying the general secretary of the Soviet Union believes in God?” he asked. Reagan said he didn’t know for sure but, “I honestly think he believes in a higher power.” Then, as if to confirm it, Russian church leaders were allowed to appear on television for the first time ever.
Reagan never knew whether his conversations with Gorbachev bore fruit. His son Michael got to know Gorbachev and, himself a Christian, pressed Gorbachev for an answer many years later. Something had changed. Where he had earlier told Michael Reagan that he was “not a die-hard atheist,” now Gorbachev told a story about his Christian grandmother. In March 2008, the London Telegraph headlined a story, “Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian.” Historian Paul Kengor, whose God and Ronald Reagan tracked the Gipper’s spiritual life, told me he had received an email from a student who knew Gorbachev well in later years and insisted he had not converted. Michael Reagan, writing for beliefnet.com, came to a different conclusion: “My own suspicions—and my father’s—were confirmed. Mikhail Gorbachev is indeed a man of faith.”
As with the state of every soul, we won’t find the final answer on this earth.
—Larry Schweikart is co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States and author of Reagan: The American President
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