May 21, 2013
Lou Cannon on Ronald Reagan
Posted on May 1, 2009
By Lou Cannon
Former House Republican leader Newt Gingrich, chatting online with Politico, called President Barack Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons “a dangerous fantasy.” If so, it is a fantasy that Obama shares with Gingrich’s hero Ronald Reagan, who in the second term of his presidency negotiated successfully with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals and set the stage for the end of the Cold War.
Reagan was at once a fierce anti-communist and an advocate of abolishing nuclear weapons in direct negotiation with the Soviet Union. To national security establishments in both the United States and the Soviet Union, which depended on the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation to keep the arms race growing, Reagan’s views seemed contradictory. To Reagan—and eventually to Gorbachev, as well—these policies fit together and were aimed at securing a safer and more stable world.
In a previous book, “The Rise of the Vulcans,” journalist James Mann explored the significant influence of neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration. His interesting conclusions came out of the reporting of the story, and a scary story it was. But in “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War,” Mann begins with a dubious premise that he fails to sustain with research and reporting. The premise and the central contention of the book is that Reagan began his two-term presidency as an ardent Cold Warrior and—for reasons that are never precisely explained—changed his goals in midcourse and sought to bring this long conflict with the Soviet Union to a peaceful conclusion. Mann starts off by tearing down a straw man, which is his claim that there are only two essential explanations of Reagan and the Cold War. The first is the triumphalist view that Reagan single-handedly won the Cold War through a combination of “confrontation and pugnacity.” The second is that Reagan had nothing to do with the outcome—that he was “either lucky or irrelevant.” These indeed were once the competing caricatures of conservatives and liberals who were trying to explain history according to their ideologies, and there are still those on both sides of the barricades who indulge in such simplicities. But in the 20 years since the end of the Reagan presidency, the closing stages of the Cold War have been examined in nuance and complexity in a host of books that neither deify nor vilify Reagan (or Gorbachev, for that matter). These include books by academics such as Martin Anderson, Sean Wilencz and Philip Zelikow, journalists such as Don Oberdorfer and myself, former participants in the process such as George Shultz and Margaret Thatcher and many, many more. Two of the best—“Autopsy on an Empire” and “Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended”—were written by Jack F. Matlock Jr., the National Security Council expert on Soviet policy in the run-up to Reagan’s first summit meeting with Gorbachev and later, as Mann notes, a distinguished U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. In Matlock’s account both Reagan and Gorbachev emerge as flawed but skilled negotiators who make mistakes but get the essentials right.
Mann also gives primacy to the Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations—they held four summits and a meeting with George H.W. Bush after he was elected president in 1988. But Mann’s premise that Reagan did not decide to end the Cold War until he’d been in office several years does not withstand close examination. As Mann sees it, there was an enormous contrast between Reagan’s first term, when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and his second, when he practiced diplomacy in negotiations with Gorbachev. In the first term Reagan built up U.S. military power and succeeded over the opposition of the nuclear-freeze movement in deploying U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Germany to counter Soviet missile deployments in Eastern Europe. “It seems likely … that Reagan’s opposition to nuclear weapons crystallized during these early years in the White House,” Mann writes. “Once he became president, Reagan was gradually obliged to confront the reality of what nuclear war would mean, and to recognize the necessity of split-second judgment and the possibility of error.”
Although having the power to push a button and wipe out civilization would doubtless concentrate the mind of anyone, Reagan had long worried about accidental nuclear war and opposed as immoral the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD, the premise of deterrence in the nuclear age. He expressed his fears in a dramatic speech to the Republican National Convention in 1976, just after he had lost the presidential nomination to Gerald Ford, but it was after midnight and Reagan was a defeated candidate, so his words didn’t get much attention. In “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” I quoted the well-informed Strobe Talbott as describing Reagan as “a romantic, a radical, a nuclear abolitionist.” This was not praise from Talbott, an advocate of traditional deterrence.
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