President Ronald Reagan: A Legacy of Freedom in Europe

President Ronald Reagan: A Legacy of Freedom in Europe

Ronald and Nancy Reagan walking together (AP Images)

A file photo of President and Mrs. Reagan at the White House in 1986.

By Jeanne Holden
Special Correspondent

Washington — Many people will celebrate on February 6 the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan because he played a major role in ending the Cold War and promoting freedom in Europe. In fact, many of Reagan’s policies outlasted his presidency and continue to serve U.S. interests to this day.

Among his accomplishments, President Reagan advanced three key principles that remain fundamental to security relationships in Europe: “trust, but verify”; no artificial divisions into “blocs” or “spheres of influence”; and “mutual assured destruction” is not an acceptable nuclear deterrence policy.


In 1982, Reagan restarted arms talks with the Soviet Union, but his goal was not limiting the arms race as the SALT talks had done. Rather, he sought substantial reductions of the superpowers’ stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In a 1982 speech to the British Parliament, Reagan declared that “our purpose is clear: reducing the risk of war by reducing the means of waging war on both sides.”

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters in March 2010 in arguing for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, when President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987 — which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons — it marked the transition from arms control to the actual reduction of nuclear arsenals.

Reagan also believed that verification had to be a critical element in any nuclear arms reduction agreement and repeatedly used the Russian proverb “trust, but verify” in his speeches.

It is a phrase that has withstood the test of time. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in 2010 in arguing for the New START accord, “Verification provides the transparency and builds the trust needed to reduce the chance for misunderstandings and miscalculations.”


Probably Reagan’s most enduring foreign policy legacy stemmed from his steadfast belief that the Soviet Union had no moral right to dominate Eastern Europe. This rejection of spheres of influence has guided subsequent U.S. administrations.

As Secretary Clinton said in July 2010: “The United States does not recognize spheres of influence.”

Reagan did not believe that freedom could be left to wither in accommodation with autocracy. He told the British Parliament in 1982, “Our mission today: to preserve freedom as well as peace. … I believe the renewed strength of the democratic movement, complemented by a global campaign for freedom, will strengthen the prospects for arms control and a world at peace.”

Reagan believed that a U.S. military buildup, resolve in dealings with the Soviet Union, and open support for anti-communist resistance and opposition groups throughout the world would eventually bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table. Although these policies were often described as confrontational, Reagan sought to achieve “peace through strength.” Moreover, Reagan made it clear in his public and private communications that he and his government were open to talks with Soviet leaders, and that he believed in the possibilities of negotiation and compromise.

Reagan was quick to seize the opportunity to engage with Gorbachev and the new generation of Soviet leaders who came to power in the mid 1980s. He was willing to explore bold disarmament initiatives and work with his Soviet counterpart to jointly dismantle the bipolar, Cold War world order despite criticism from many of his own supporters.

On June 12, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to improve the Soviet economy, to move forward on reforms, and to abolish the “Iron Curtain” splitting Europe. Speaking at the Berlin Wall in front of an audience of thousands, Reagan said: “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. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In 1989 after the Soviet leader declared that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene in the affairs of the states of Eastern Europe, repressive Communist regimes across the region rapidly collapsed. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist.

When Reagan died in June 2004, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed up Reagan’s legacy in her eulogy:

“Others prophesied the decline of the West; he inspired America and its allies with renewed faith in their mission of freedom. … Others hoped, at best, for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union; he won the Cold War — not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting his enemies out of their fortress and turning them into friends.”