Peter Schweizer is the author of several books including Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism & was the Executive Producer of “In The Face Of Evil: Reagan’s War In Word And Deed.” I was a huge fan of the book and the movie, would highly recommend both of them, and was very pleased to get an opportunity to do a phone interview with Peter last week. Here is the edited transcript of our conversation…
John Hawkins: Can you tell us a little bit about why the Soviets felt so threatened by the Star Wars Defense Initiative?
Peter Schweizer: I think they felt so threatened by it because it was their key vulnerability. I mean, under communism you lack initiative and incentive for technological innovation and they always respected American technological prowess. With Reagan they had somebody who not only wanted to harness that technological progress but somebody who, they were convinced, was determined to squeeze their arteries, so to speak. He was determined to try to win; so the two of those together, I think, are what made it in their minds such a lethal combination.
John Hawkins: Was there a fear that, let’s say, a couple of decades down the road, they’d be in a position where we could do a first nuclear strike on them and they wouldn’t be able to respond?
Peter Schweizer: Yes, there certainly were some elements in the Soviet leadership who feared that the United States could do that, and these were generally paranoid people, the KGB in particular, but there were a lot of Soviet leaders, the Foreign Minister Gromyko, Dobrynin the ambassador, people like Gorbachev, who knew that the United States was not a threat in that way.
Their fear was that it would take away really the only thing that made them a superpower. The United States was a superpower because of its economy, its cultural influence, its political example to the world. The only thing that made the Soviet Union a superpower was its nuclear arsenal and if you took that away, if you took the fear of that away, they basically would lose all their superpower status and they would become sort of a large third world country. So I think that’s what they were most concerned about, the fact that they were going to lose all the power and influence that came from their nuclear capability.
John Hawkins: One thing that we seldom hear discussed is the economic “warfare” that Reagan engaged in against the Soviets. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Peter Schweizer: Yes, one of the things that Reagan understood very early on was that if you looked at the balance sheets of exports and imports and hard currency earnings of the Soviet Union, it was basically the size of General Motors, which of course is a large corporation — but when you think of a country, an empire with more than 200 million people, that’s not a very big balance sheet.
So he understood pretty quickly that was a key vulnerability, that the Soviets were a military superpower, but an economic dwarf, and that we wanted to exploit that. So he looked at their balance sheet and saw how small it was. He also saw that they relied upon just a handful of things for the bulk of their earnings — and those were basically the export of oil, natural gas, some gold, and, of course, arms. So they really zeroed in on those areas to cut back on the amount of income that they were earning. At the same time he was determined to get them to spend more and he did that by cranking up the arms race and by cutting off their access to western technology that made it more expensive for them to develop things internally.
John Hawkins: From the book I understand — Wasn’t Reagan talking about doing that sort of thing way back in 1964? Is that correct?
Peter Schweizer: Yes, I mean what is remarkable, I think, about Reagan is that people always assume that he is sort of this empty suit. He had all these smart people around him so even if they give him some credit for developing a strategy to bring down the Soviets, it was really the people around him — it was not Reagan.
The simple fact is if you look back through the course of Reagan’s statements and the policy prescriptions that he laid out beginning in the 1950′s and 1960′s, you see very much the strategy that he adopted as President. So I don’t think it’s a case of Reagan’s aides imposing it upon him; I think it’s a case of Reagan setting the terms for what was to be done and then bringing on very smart and very effective and capable people to carry it out.
John Hawkins: How much of an impact did the war in Afghanistan have on bleeding the Soviets and did they ever try to convince Reagan to stop funding, stop funding and training the Mujahideen?
Peter Schweizer: Yes, Afghanistan was a big blow in a number of respects. It was a blow financially; it was costing them about 300 million dollars a year which, again, for an economy basically the size of General Motors in terms of earnings, was a large amount of money. It was also causing enormous problems domestically as a lot of people were dying in that conflict and it caused reverberations throughout the empire because this was an empire based on fear.
If you were the leader of the communist government in Poland or Bulgaria or Hungary you were supportive of the communist cause, but you also looked over your shoulder knowing that the Soviets had the capability to smash you if you got out of line. Afghanistan changed that and that era of invincibility for the Soviets was gone. The Soviets really, since the Second World War, had not suffered a military defeat. This was really their first military defeat and it really shook their confidence and shook the confidence of people around the world who were their allies.
John Hawkins: One thing that I found fascinating, and this is something a lot of people may not know, is that our military deliberately disrupted Soviet training exercises and sent planes toward Soviet airspace in order to intimidate them, that sort of thing. Did that play a role in convincing them that Reagan wasn’t the same sort of guy who had been in there before?
Peter Schweizer: I think it did. I think the Reagan strategy was not only based on material issues like building up the military and cutting off technology, it had a very strong and clean psychological component — that was to change the Soviet notion that the United States was not going to fight, that the United States could be pushed around, as we really basically had been since Harry Truman.
So Reagan was determined to change the psychological climate of the Cold War and to make the Soviets a little bit nervous and he did that through these military exercises. It was everything from sending a flotilla of the U.S. Navy into Soviet waters to flying B-52 bombers over the North Pole toward Soviet air space and having them turn back just at the last moment and all of this was really designed to change the psychological climate of the Cold War and put the Soviets on notice that the United States was not going to be pushed around any more.
John Hawkins: Another thing I learned from the book and the movie was that during the eighties, the Soviets, at least part of the Soviet leadership, were seriously considering a first nuclear strike and an invasion of Europe. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?
Peter Schweizer: Yes, we know based on Soviet military plans that have now come out of the archives that they did have a plan for a 14 day conquest of Western Europe and they believed that Western Europe was that weak, that the occupation would not be that difficult and they, in fact, even had new street signs that they were going to put up in London and Paris, celebrating Soviet heroes. So they had a very real plan to take over Western Europe and they also considered a nuclear option and this was in part because up until 1980 it really felt like a balance of power or what they called the correlation of forces had been shifting in their favor. They were reaching the point, they were very close to the point where they believed they could dictate terms to the United States.
Then all of a sudden along comes Reagan who changes the equation entirely. In fact by 1984-1985, there were elements in the Soviet military who believed that the trend had irrevocably shifted against them, in other words, there was no way that they would ever gain the upper hand again and some of them seriously believed that given that reality, their best bet was to try to go with what they had then and defeat the United States militarily with a military strike.
John Hawkins: Let me ask a little bit more — just one follow-up question on that. I mean, most people look at that and think it sounds insane. They’re going to launch nukes, we’re going to hit them back… We’re going to lose 100 million people each… Any more elaboration on their thinking? I mean, what were they expecting? Were they expecting to knock us out first or….?
Peter Schweizer: They believed that they, with their land based nuclear missiles, could hit us first. Second of all, they had invested a huge amount of money, by some estimates 5% of their gross national product, in building up a civil defense program and this included a facility, an underground facility, that was the size of Washington, D. C. It was an underground city and so the leadership, the Kremlin leadership, was expecting to be able to go to this underground city which had cars, which had food, which had barber shops and everything. So they really honestly believed that it was a better choice for them to live in that kind of a world, in that kind of a situation, as opposed to seeing a dream of conquering the United States, you know, fall by the wayside.
John Hawkins: Another fascinating thing I actually learned from your book, that’s covered in the movie — by the way, I’ve been saying that a lot, a lot of “fascinating things I learned from the book”…
Peter Schweizer: Good. (laughs)
John Hawkins: Did the Communists manage to co-opt the peace movement? They actually had people they were paying off, Communist agents in the peace movement? People who were at least taking money from them to do their bidding — Is that correct?
Peter Schweizer: They did. You know, there was certainly an anti-nuclear sentiment in Western Europe and in the United States and there were people, you know, lots of people that had that sincere belief, but what the KGB and the Soviet bloc intelligence did was give that movement meaning, like setting up organizations, by organizing protests. They wanted to try to make those protesters as politically relevant as possible.
So we know, for example, that one of the top people in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, which was the largest anti-nuclear group in Great Britain, was actually on the payroll of East German intelligence. We know that one of the largest peace movements in Germany was funded by East German intelligence and we know from KGB files that the KGB provided funding and helped organize protest movements in the United States. So it was a very elaborate campaign effort and very significant in importance to that movement growing and having a political voice in the United States and Western Europe.
John Hawkins: Let me ask you this: True or false — Jimmy Carter’s administration approached the Soviets and asked for help in getting elected in 1980?
Peter Schweizer: They did. They actually did it twice, in 1980 in the waning days of the election fearing that he would lose to Reagan. Carter sent an emissary to the Soviet embassy to meet with Anatoly Dobrynin and Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, writes about this.
This is his account and basically the deal was: if you demonstrate some sort of grand gesture whereby it would make us look good and help us beat Reagan, we will return the favor; we’ll give you something in exchange. The Soviets decided not to do it because at that point they thought Carter was so unpredictable and they thought that Reagan perhaps would end up being another Richard Nixon, somebody they could deal with, so they didn’t take it.
In 1984, Dobrynin says that Carter approached him at the Soviet embassy and said that, you know, Reagan was a dangerous man who needed to be defeated and that he wanted to have them work together to accomplish those ends. So, you know, you have to say there’s at the least an unusual and really quite horrific situation where an ex-President of the United States is pledging to work with our enemies on the international stage to defeat an incumbent President.
John Hawkins: How do you answer people who say that Reagan had nothing to do with the fall of the Soviet Union? It was just going to happen any way and he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the credit…..
Peter Schweizer: Well, I would say a couple of things. First of all, the Soviet Union has been in economic crisis, there was an economic crisis from the very beginning in 1917, but they’d always been able to figure out a way, working internationally, to bail out their system. They got western businesses that would set up industries, they got western banks to loan them money, they were able to get peace agreements with the West that would provide temporary relief to their economy. So the Soviet economy was always in crisis but they’d always been bailed out by the West. Reagan’s administration is really the only one that never did that. So that would be the first point that I would make.
The second one is that we know, just based on solid information, that what Reagan did cost a weakened Soviet economy enormously and pushed them over the brink. We know that Reagan’s defense build-up, for example, led the Soviets to raise defense spending some 44% over the course of five years.
That’s an enormous amount of money for an economy that’s already spending a third of its gross national product on defense and we also know, finally, just from the testimonies of people inside the Soviet Union, that the whole reform movement, Perestroika for example, the rise of Gorbachev, wasn’t something that happened in isolation. You could make a very strong case that Reagan caused Gorbachev to become President — that, in other words, the Kremlin leadership by 1985, was so much feeling the need to reform and change to keep up with Reagan, that the Reagan challenge is what brought Gorbachev and the reformers to power. So I think those are all very compelling reasons to give Reagan the credit — and nobody else.
John Hawkins: A related question to that one — The other theme that we hear from people on the left today is, “Well, We were all Cold Warriors back then” and “All of us were with Reagan.” How much help did Reagan actually get from the American left in fighting the Soviet Union?
Peter Schweizer: He got none. I mean, you can certainly find your occasional sort of Anti-Communist liberal, Henry Jackson, Scoop Jackson, Senator from Washington state, a liberal democrat that’s strong on defense, but those are really the exceptions to the rule.
It’s hard to find a single example of a liberal democrat supporting Reagan strategy, the strategy of cutting off access to western technology and credits, the Reagan strategy of the massive defense build-up, or the rolling back communism overseas. It’s really impossible to my mind to find any liberal democrat that supported all of those programs, all of which were critical to the success in the Cold War. You can find somebody that maybe supported the war in Afghanistan or maybe somebody who supported strong defense, but it’s really hard to find somebody that supported all of them across the board.
In fact, certain people like Carter and other officials, Tip O’Neil and others, often complained to the Soviets how dangerous they thought Reagan was. So it’s really revisionist history and I think is a perfect example of what the Irish meant when they said that, “Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.” You know you have the success of winning the Cold War and now everybody claims to be part of making that happen.
John Hawkins: Would it be fair to say that Gorbachev was a Communist who wanted to save the Soviet Union but failed?
Peter Schweizer: Yes, I think that’s how Gorbachev would describe himself. Gorbachev was never a closet liberal in that he wanted to see the communist system changed to become sort of a social democracy, you know, a western style democracy. He was always a true believer in Marxism, Leninism; he always believed that the population of the Soviet Empire really did want socialism and he was stunned when he opened up the system and allowed people to actually voice their opinions. I think what Gorbachev had was a naive faith and belief in the system but he also had an enormous respect for Reagan and he knew that Reagan’s convictions were real, that Reagan did want to see communism wiped from the face of the earth, and Gorbachev did believe that the only way that they could compete against Reagan was by trying to radically change the system.
John Hawkins: One thing I’ve wondered about & I’d like to get your opinion on: When Gorbachev started to see the rebellions, when he started to see Poland going south, and he could see the writing on the wall that things were going to break up, why didn’t Gorbachev send in the tanks?
Peter Schweizer: I think for a couple of reasons. First of all, his main objective in Glasnost and Perestroika — this was really his account — was to get badly needed capital from the West. The oil and natural gas industries which had been cut off from western technology were not generating nearly the money they were before. They needed investment from the West. They were defaulting on bank loans. They needed western technology, computer technology, etc. to modernize their economy. So that was always his number one objective and he knew that by invading Poland or by invading any of the other countries that were starting to pull away, that would be completely gone, that he would set back his cause 20 years if he did something like that.
The second reason, I think, is that he honestly believed that even if these countries became more independent, they would be natural allies, that they were sort of faithful to the cause of communism even if they were a little bit bitter about Russian dominance. So I think that naivete’ played a role again.
John Hawkins: Tell us a little bit about your movie “The Face Of Evil: Reagan’s War In War And Deed.”
Peter Schweizer: Well, it really drew out of the book. I was contacted after the book came out by a Hollywood producer named Stephen Bannon and another producer named Tim Watkins who wanted to do a film based on the book and what they basically did was take the book and cinematically re-create the story of Reagan’s life. I think it’s a stunning visual accomplishment because they not only manage to get the narrative right and bring out the facts to people, but it is very moving, very emotional; it really touches Reagan’s soul, his faith in God, his belief in liberty and does it in such a way that I think is just, you know, very artful.
John Hawkins: Are there any blogs you’re reading regularly or semi-regularly these days?
Peter Schweizer: I read a lot of websites like NationalReview.com and I look atThe Corner, & Powerline, I guess. …That’s basically it. I do the news sites,NewsMax, The Drudge Report, that sort of thing. I do Powerline blog because I have a friend that told me, “You’ve gotta read this,” but that’s probably the one blog that I read regularly.
John Hawkins: Last question —Is there anything else you’d like to say or promote before we finish up?
Peter Schweizer: No. I just think Reagan was a wonderful leader. He demonstrated the power of courage and I think he was right and it applies to the war on terrorism today; you know, evil is powerless if the good are unafraid. I think that’s a philosophy that we can carry to the war on terrorism. I think that’s a philosophy that we can carry forward in any battles we are facing in our lives.
John Hawkins: I really appreciate your time…
Peter Schweizer: Oh, good, great…
John Hawkins: Thank you.
Full Disclosure For a brief period of time, RWN sold copies of “In The Face Of Evil: Reagan’s War In Word And Deed” on commission. Once I completed my interview with Mr. Schweizer, I ceased running ads for the movie in order to avoid a conflict of interest.
PS: Thanks to Stacy Harp from MediaSoul for helping to set up the interview.