Whenever I confront my conservative friends about their hero, and the man they claim was the best President since World War II, it generally goes down two lines.
First, they make claims about the economic expansion of the 1980's. I remind them that in fact that expansion was fueled on debt, that Reagan tripled the US debt in eight years, and that it also rested on a false run-up in real estate which ultimately culminated in the savings and loan scandals of the late 80's. I then remind them he made deals with the Iranians, supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and was far FAR to the left of their current party's platforms.
Well, then they remind ME that he "won" the Cold War.
Sure he did, and I'm the Queen of England (nice to meet you, we think you're very funny).
First, the fall of the Soviet Union was decades in the making, few if any scholars of the Soviet system deny this. The failings were myriad. The initial successes of drawing a vast "serf" class out of abject poverty turned into a system which didn't do enough to reward innovation or stand-out work. It did too little to bring basic goods to its people. Its people saw the west having better cars, better refrigerators and better blue jeans. Those systemic failures came from an underperforming, unimaginative system in the main, but also from sixty years of economic isolation.
At the same time, the Soviets suffered proxy defeat after proxy defeat in hot and cold wars in Korea, Angola, the Congo, Yemen, Egypt, Greece and even Vietnam where it wasn't the Soviets but instead Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnamese Army, fueled partly by the Soviets but also by the Chinese, which pushed the US out. The Soviets were generally beaten in the space race, in the naval race, and were understood, internally as well as externally, to have inferior forces on a one-for-one basis. It was a model they understood, but it still lead their people to feel their military forces were "not up to snuff."
And then came Afghanistan. A war which sapped their moral authority, their national will, and their treasury. A simple (or supposedly) little nation of "backward" people beat them, and beat them badly. They suffered tens of thousands of young boys killed, millions injured, and the army they were told was a powerful juggernaut against which the arms of the west could not stand, fell to an army of rag tag rebels who were given arms NOT by Reagan (certainly not at first) but rather through the pluck and guile of Charlie Wilson. Wilson had to convince a very reluctant Reagan DOD to help the Mujahedeen. Afghanistan ultimately became the capstone to the Soviet people of utterly failed model. Regan deserves credit for giving the Afghanis stinger missiles, a very important weapon that changed the dynamic of the war, but thinking Afghanistan was the root of the problem is something like blaming the attack at Ft. Sumter for the Civil War. The people of the USSR had enough of the failures and demanded change - change in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was already moving to decrease his army and pull back from the Warsaw Pact (WarPac) states when Reagan pompously told him to "tear down this wall." The wall was a decaying symbol that had already failed and the collapse of East Germany was already well underway and Reagan knew it - he just grandstanded to take credit for something which many other people had caused to happen - people other than Reagan.
And the thing is, no one I know of gives Harry Truman credit for "winning" WW2 because he decided to use the atomic bomb, yet, many, even most Americans will give Reagan credit for bringing down the Soviets when all he did was preside over the funeral.
Lastly, in 1981 it was clear the grain failures of the late 1970's (and the grain embargo imposed by the US after the Afghani invasion) were bankrupting the USSR. We had to know, HAD TO, that the Soviets could not and in fact WERE NOT competing with us militarily any longer. If you don't believe me, please look at the paucity of actual numbers of new planes, ships and tanks built by the Soviets in the 1980's. They fielded new designs, but damned few actual weapons. In short, we didn't need the vast upgrade in forces Reagan undertook. He spent trillions on defensive weaponry we basically never needed and would never use. The war in Iraq in 1991 could have been and would have been won with 1/4 the number of weapon systems as we had in 1991 overall. We have the wrong kind of army now, in great part due to the hold over of the Cold War mentality that heavy mechanized forces are needed in the modern battlefield and we built that army in the 1980s. That expense ballooned our debt and set us up to demand we have the most high-tech, most complex systems, and THAT along with the foolish privatization push, have brought us to a point that we have the most expensive military in the world but due to its own heritage of belief in systems over tactics, it is still incapable of winning low intensity conflicts. So, while Reagan didn't bring down the Soviets, the focus he and his neo-con offspring have on a government for and of and by the military, as well as their misunderstanding of what brought down the Soviets, may well imperil our own economic future and cause us to continue lose conflict we insist on fighting with the wrong tactics and the wrong type of army. If you want to hang a legacy on Reagan, hang the commitment to a bloated, unwieldy, politically dysfunctional military. If you feel that won the Cold War, then you may call me your Highness.