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Every time that I teach any portion of a course dealing with Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, I gird myself...

Every time that I teach any portion of a course dealing with Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, I gird myself for the inevitable myth-busting that I’m going to do. The idea that Reagan won the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union through heavy military expenditures has become a piece of commonly accepted wisdom about the 40th president. In the eyes of Reagan’s defenders, the military buildup the president began in the early 1980s forced the Soviets to either accept a reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, or in trying to keep up with the weight of the military buildup ruined their own economy in the process. Consequently, toughness and a commitment to a strong military were the triumphalist lessons of the Cold War.

Beth Fischer’s The Myth of Triumphalism: Rethinking President Reagan’s Cold War Legacy (University Press of Kentucky, 2019) challenges this interpretation of Reagan’s Cold War foreign policy. Fischer argues that the military buildup was actually deeply counterproductive, frightening the Soviet leadership and delaying meaningful negotiations for several years. In lionizing President Reagan, triumphalists ignore the contributions that Reagan did make to ending the Cold War: a willingness to think radically about the elimination of nuclear weapons and to negotiating with his Soviet counterparts. Contemporary policymakers would do well to avoid the belligerent lessons offered by triumphalists and instead ought to pay attention to Reagan’s actual conduct during the Cold War.


Zeb Larson is a recent graduate of The Ohio State University with a PhD in History. His research deals with the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. To suggest a recent title or to contact him, please send an e-mail to zeb.larson@gmail.com.