A Heritage Foundation editorial widely printed shortly after June 6, among other things, made a case that the American people believed President Ronald Reagan's efforts ended the Cold War. Highly reliable polling data gives a different picture. Two surveys were conducted by an ATI team on the topic of what ended the Cold War. (See "Locating Consensus for Democracy", ATI 1998, p. 67). President George H. W. Bush's pollster, Fred Steeper, who approved all questions, was an ATI team member.
In March 1988, when the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was in the Senate for approval, the public in the first survey was asked to choose which of three developments was the main reason that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were ready to end the Cold War. The question found, ranked in order of decreasing support, 34% of the public chose (1) "The Soviet economy is so weak that they need to reduce their military spending," 34% of the public chose (2) "Soviet leaders really want to reduce the risk of war," and 28% of the public chose (3) "President Reagan's military build-up forced them to the bargaining table." Only 4% made no choice.
To help generate taxpayer willingness to shell out a total of over a trillion dollars for the military during the Cold War, our leaders' rhetoric from President Harry S. Truman to Reagan held to the theme that the Soviets continued to grow ever more powerful and threatening from 1947 to 1988. After 1988, with the Cold War rapidly ending, the U.S. media changed its tune and produced a barrage of stories of growing Soviet economic weaknesses. The first Bush administration, heirs to Reagan, no doubt hoped that the public was coming around to a consensus that it was the Reagan military build-up that brought the victory.
But the opposite happened. Four years after the first survey, in 1992, the same question was asked again by the same polling team. The percentages of the public that thought the Soviets were ready to end the Cold war as a result of (1) economic collapse grew from 34% to 63%, (2) the desire of the Soviet leaders to really reduce the risk of war dropped from 34% to 16%, and (3) the Reagan military build-up forcing the Soviets to the bargaining table, had no increase at all, in fact a drop in half, from 28% to 14%. Heritage Foundation, the people were just not with you on this one.
As for the possibility that the public has come around to that belief more recently, I think the media blitz-week, "All Reagan, all the time," of which the Heritage Foundation editorial was a part, has not changed the public's view very much on what ended the Cold War. Studies have shown that opinions on old developments, significant at the time enough to be remembered by most people, change very little over later years. (Loc. cit., pp 65-66)
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