June 20, 2013
Lou Cannon on Ronald Reagan
Posted on May 1, 2009
By Lou Cannon
Reagan’s concerns about nuclear war reflected a stew of influences from science fiction to Armageddon. These crystallized into an epiphany on July 31, 1979, when Reagan toured the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. After viewing the network of radar detectors designed to warn of a surprise attack, Reagan asked the commanding general what could be done if the Soviets fired a missile at a U.S. city. Nothing, the general told him, except to give the city that was about to be destroyed a few minutes’ warning. Reagan was shaken. This incident was a probable inspiration for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that Reagan proposed as president. It was first and vividly recorded by Martin Anderson, who accompanied Reagan on the NORAD visit, in his book “Revolution.” I don’t know if Mann is aware of the incident or even of the book, for “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan” surprisingly lacks a bibliography.
As to Reagan’s overall intentions, there is no doubt that he saw the military buildup he promised as a candidate and promoted as a president as a means to an end. On June 18, 1980, when Reagan was the presumptive presidential nominee, he was asked at a luncheon at The Washington Post if the military buildup he advocated would intensify the arms race. Reagan agreed that it would but said this was desirable because it would bring the Soviets to the bargaining table. In his first presidential news conference, on Jan. 29, 1981, Reagan said he favored “an actual reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons.” On April 24, after lifting the grain embargo that President Jimmy Carter had imposed on the Soviet Union, Reagan over the objections of Secretary of State Al Haig wrote Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev an impassioned letter calling for a “meaningful and constructive dialogue which will assist us in fulfilling our joint obligation to find lasting peace.” Later that year Reagan embraced the formula of “zero-zero” that became the framework for U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations.
Mann mentions none of this except the letter to Brezhnev, and that in passing in a single dismissive sentence. He acknowledges, however, that the basic reason no U.S.-Soviet negotiations occurred in Reagan’s first term had more to do with the Soviet Union than with the United States. Brezhnev, who brushed off Reagan’s letter, was a faltering leader. He died in 1982 and was replaced by Yuri Andropov, seriously ill when he became leader of the Soviet Union. He died 15 months later and was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko, also on his last legs. Chernenko lasted little more than a year. “They kept dying on me,” Reagan said when asked to explain why he didn’t meet with a Soviet leader in his first term. It was an odd locution, but Reagan was right. It wasn’t until Gorbachev, vigorous and reform-minded, came to power in 1985 that it was realistically possible for any U.S. president to negotiate with a Soviet leader.
Negotiate Reagan and Gorbachev did, at summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow. There were ups and downs along the way, partly because there were factions in both the United States and the Soviet Union that were opposed to meaningful negotiations and partly because Reagan was reluctant to confine SDI to laboratory testing, as Matlock says he could have safely done. Disagreement on this issue caused the breakup of the Reykjavik summit, but the progress made there and in the aftermath led to the breakthrough treaty reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Not only was it the first U.S.-Soviet treaty to provide for destruction of nuclear weapons, it also provided for on-site monitoring of the process.
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