Clare Boothe Luce famously said that each President is remembered for a sentence: "He freed the slaves"; "He made the Louisiana Purchase." You have to figure out your sentence, she used to tell John Kennedy, who would nod thoughtfully and then grouse when she left. Ronald Reagan knew, going in, the sentence he wanted, and he got it. He guided the American victory in the cold war. Under his leadership, a conflict that had absorbed a half-century of Western blood and treasure was ended--and the good guys finally won.
It is good to think of how he did it, because the gifts he brought to resolving the conflict reflected very much who he was as a man. He began with a common-sense conviction that the Soviets were not a people to be contained but a system to be defeated. This put him at odds with the long-held view of the foreign-policy elites in the '60s, '70s and '80s, but Reagan had an old-fashioned sense that Americans could do any good thing if God blessed the effort. Removing expansionary communism from the world stage was a right and good thing, and why would God not smile upon it?
He was a historical romantic, his biographer Edmund Morris says, and that's about right. He was one tough romantic, though.
When Reagan first entered politics, in 1964, Khrushchev had already promised to bury the U.S., Sputnik had been launched and missiles placed in Cuba. It seemed reasonable to think the Soviets might someday overtake the West. By the time Reagan made a serious run for the presidency, in 1976, it was easy to think the Soviets might conquer America militarily.
But Reagan said no. When he became President, he did what he had promised for a decade to do: he said we were going to rearm, and we built up the U.S. military. He boosted defense spending to make it clear to the Soviets and the world--and to America--that the U.S. did not intend to lose.
As President, he kept pressure on the Soviets at a time when they were beginning to fail internally. He pushed for SDI, the strategic defense missile system that was rightly understood by the Soviets as both a financial challenge and an intimidating expression of the power of U.S. scientific innovation.
There are those who say it was all a bluff, that such a system could never have been and will never be successfully developed. Put that aside for a moment, and consider a more relevant fact: If it was a bluff, the Soviets didn't know it. And more to the point, Reagan as President had the credibility with the Soviets to make a serious threat. (And a particularly Reaganesque threat it was: he said not only would we build SDI, but we would also share it with them.)
Reagan's actions toward the Soviets were matched by his constant rhetorical pounding of communism. He kept it up, for eight years, from "the evil empire" to "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," a constant attempt to use words to educate and inspire.
Margaret Thatcher said it best: he took words and sent them out to fight for us. He never stopped trying to persuade, to win the world over, to help it think about the nature of democracy and the nature of communism, and to consider which system it was that threatened the world's peace.