June 19, 2013
Lou Cannon on Ronald Reagan
Posted on May 1, 2009
By Lou Cannon
Even before the ink was dry on this notable document, Reagan’s supposed soul mates in the conservative punditry—especially William F. Buckley, George Will and William Safire—were accusing him of perfidy for trusting Gorbachev and were supporting Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in his battle to block ratification of the treaty. For years conservative pundits had risen to Reagan’s defense whenever liberals questioned his motives or his intellectual candlepower. Now they became derisive—Will accused Reagan of “moral disarmament”—or even abusive, as in the case of Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, who described Reagan as “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Mann usefully revisits this ground, although he doesn’t seem to realize that Reagan was confident of prevailing. Reagan knew intuitively that no one could sell the American people on the notion that he was soft on communism—and the surveys that were taken for him regularly by in-house pollster Richard Wirthlin confirmed his views. A Wirthlin poll in January 1988 found that six of 10 Americans (59 percent) thought the INF treaty must be in the national interest if Reagan thought it was. The treaty itself was favored by 79 percent. This overwhelming public support for the treaty assured that Helms would fail, and he did. The INF treaty was ratified on a 93-5 vote on May 27, 1988, just before the Moscow summit.
But it wasn’t just the far right that opposed Reagan’s summitry. Mann makes a singular contribution by digging up a memo at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library that recounts a secret Nixon meeting with Reagan at the White House on April 28, 1987. Nixon’s message was that Gorbachev, although smoother, had the same evil intentions of prior Soviet leaders. Reagan did not mention this meeting in his diary or his memoirs, but he could hardly have been impressed by it. At the time of the Nixon visit, Secretary of State George Shultz had just returned from a meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow that set the stage for the INF treaty. Nixon writes that he sensed a “coolness” in Reagan and, as he often did, disparaged Reagan’s command of issues. Reading the memo now, however, makes one wonder what planet Nixon was living on. “There is no way he [Reagan] can ever be allowed to participate in a private meeting with Gorbachev,” Nixon wrote. But Reagan had already done that at Geneva and, as the transcripts of the Reykjavik summit show, had held his own with Gorbachev, which was no small feat. Furthermore, Reagan had dismayed conservatives including Pat Buchanan, who then worked for him, immediately after the Geneva summit in 1985 by saying that Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who wasn’t out to dominate the West. Later, Reagan told me that he considered Gorbachev a “moral man.”
Mann’s book is a reminder that Reagan followed his own course, one that he had long charted. He was much helped by Shultz, to be sure, and by moderates on his staff such as Michael Deaver and by Nancy Reagan, but he followed his instincts against not only his fellow conservatives but the “realists”—as they thought of themselves—such as Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, all of whom misread the leaders of both their country and the Soviet Union.
Reagan and Gorbachev deserve considerable credit for following their instincts in trying to reduce the threat of nuclear war, as has been eloquently said by Alexander Bessmertnykh, a high-ranking Soviet official during the Reagan-Gorbachev summits. “The experts didn’t believe, but the leaders did,” Bessmertnykh commented at a retrospective Princeton conference, published in a valuable 1996 book called “Witnesses to the End of the Cold War.” In our current dangerous multipolar world, it’s worth remembering that enlightened leaders can make a difference—and to hope that President Obama pursues his idealistic goal of a world free of nuclear weapons even if his critics consider it a fantasy.
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