Reagan's Critics

Reagan's Critics

Mini Teaser: The measure of "greatness" in American presidents is often theretrospective appreciation of their willingness to "stay the course"in the face of determined opposition from powerful opponents.

by Author(s): Stephen F. Knott

The measure of "greatness" in American presidents is often the
retrospective appreciation of their willingness to "stay the course"
in the face of determined opposition from powerful opponents. So it
was with Jefferson and Jackson, Polk and Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt
and Harry Truman. By this standard, Ronald Reagan must be regarded as
one of the most successful presidents of the twentieth century,
particularly in foreign policy.

Reagan confronted powerful forces of cynical, defeatist elites whose
memories of Vietnam had led them to abandon belief in America as a
force for good in the world, and unlike Richard Nixon, who is often
credited with the most successful Cold War foreign policy, Reagan
refused to let scathing criticism from Congress, the media, and the
universities grind him down. He also avoided the cynicism of Nixon
and Henry Kissinger, believing that America, as Reagan himself often
put it in Governor Winthrope's memorable words, "was a shining city
upon a hill."

Most important, of course, he succeeded, and he succeeded because he
was right. The record speaks for itself.

Shocking the Elites

In no foreign policy arena was Reagan's personal influence more
pronounced than in policy toward the Soviet regime, and in no other
area was his judgment so roundly criticized by "experts." The Soviet
Union was ruled, in Reagan's view, by a sclerotic group of oppressive
apparatchiks intent on world domination, but its economy was a
"Mickey Mouse system" on the verge of collapse, a collapse Reagan
intended to hasten. By engaging them in an arms race they could not
win, and isolating them from Western commerce (with the notable
exception of American grain), Reagan hoped to win the Cold War. "I
had always believed that, as an economic system, Communism was
doomed", Reagan noted in his memoirs. Once in office, his
intelligence briefings confirmed that belief, showing that "the
Soviet economy was being held together with baling wire; it was a
basket case, partly because of massive spending on armaments. . . . I
wondered how we as a nation could use these cracks in the Soviet
system to accelerate the process of collapse." As early as June 1981,
Reagan publicly made the remarkable prediction that "I think we are
seeing the first beginning cracks: the beginning of the end."

One weapon in Reagan's arsenal was an ample use of his formidable
rhetorical skills to take the offensive against Marxist-Leninism.
Within days of his inauguration, Reagan accused the Kremlin
leadership of recognizing no morality except that which would advance
their cause; that they reserved to themselves "the right to commit
any crime, to lie, to cheat." This was a shockingly blunt accusation,
particularly in light of the rhetorical restraint exercised toward
the Soviet Union by the immediately preceding administrations.
Reagan's rhetorical assault on the Kremlin reached its peak on March
8, 1983, with his address to the National Association of
Evangelicals, perhaps the most famous one of his presidency--the
"Evil Empire" speech. After noting America's own legacy of evil
regarding its treatment of minorities, Reagan asked his audience to
pray for those who lived under totalitarian rule. He went on to note
that as long as these regimes continued to "preach the supremacy of
the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict
its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the
focus of evil in the modern world."

With this statement, Ronald Reagan was seen by foreign policy experts
as diverse as Richard Nixon and Strobe Talbott to have crossed a very
dangerous line. Talbott accused Reagan of bearing the bulk of the
responsibility for worsening U.S.-Soviet relations by not accepting
military parity as the basis of relations with Moscow, and by
challenging the legitimacy of the regime as an "evil empire" doomed
to fail. Reagan's use of the bully pulpit to "bait" the Soviet bear
"made a bad situation worse." As Talbott asserted, "when a chief of
state talks that way, he roils Soviet insecurities." Talbott's basic
view was shared by the recently rehabilitated Richard Nixon, whose
Watergate sins were overlooked by some of the media in light of his
more conciliatory tone toward the Soviets. Talbott had conducted a
highly publicized interview with Nixon, published in December 1982,
in which they seemed to agree that isolating and publicly criticizing
the Soviet Union was a mistake. Talbott saw Nixon as the last
president capable of conducting a coherent and "successful policy for
managing the rivalry between the superpowers." Nixon (himself
inherently incapable of delivering a speech with the theme of good
versus evil) rejected Reagan's belief that the Soviet Union could be
weakened through external pressures.

We've got to make them understand that we're not out to get them. I
know there's a school of thought that if we can fence them in with
sanctions, their whole rotten system will come tumbling down. There's
a school of thought that hard-line policies on our part will induce
change for the better on their part. I wish that were the case, but
it's just not going to happen.

Nixon made it clear that he hoped to see a change in both the tone
and substance of Reagan's dealings with Moscow.

Looming over this question of Reagan's "provocative" rhetoric was the
notion that the superpowers were drifting toward nuclear war. A deep
sense of unease pervaded large sections of European and American
public opinion, particularly among the media and academics, but also
among many members of various legislative bodies. Reagan's rhetoric,
frequently criticized for its "harshness", was more than matched by
that of those urging accommodation. Senator Edward Kennedy remarked
in 1982 that "the arms race rushes ahead toward nuclear confrontation
that could well mean the annihilation of the human race." Former
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance found the Reagan administration's
treatment of the Soviets "needlessly provocative . . . bear-baiting",
and added that "the clock is ticking . . . and the pace of
development of weapons is proceeding at a rapid pace." Senate
Minority Whip and 1984 presidential candidate Alan Cranston was fond
of quoting a report of the American Psychiatric Association, which
found "that half the children of America are presently so concerned
with the nuclear war threat that they don't know what to do about
their careers, marriages, families. That's a terrible nightmare
hanging over our children." Cranston lost out in the Democratic
primaries to former Vice President Walter Mondale, who pledged that
if elected he would get on the hotline to Moscow and say to Mr.
Andropov, "Let's sit down in Geneva this afternoon . . . and I would
say . . . in the name of humanity can't we negotiate a verifiable
nuclear freeze on nuclear weapons?" Some Reagan opponents went so far
as to applaud the efforts of the British historian and anti-nuclear
activist, E. P. Thompson, who argued that the United States was "more
dangerous and provocative" than the Soviet Union, and that it was "in
Washington, rather than in Moscow, that scenarios are dreamed up for
theater wars . . . and . . . that the Alchemists of Superkill . . .
press forward." Thompson preferred a Soviet occupation to nuclear
war, because an occupation, at least, offered "the possibility, after
some years, of resurgence and recuperation." Thompson's missive was
warmly received by, among others, John Kenneth Galbraith, George
McGovern, William Appleman Williams, and Robert Heilbroner. "It's the
question, after all, of whether we, our children and our
grandchildren will live", was Galbraith's sophisticated way of posing
the issue.

Reagan also had to deal with a massive nuclear freeze campaign on
both sides of the Atlantic, a campaign described by Speaker of the
House Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., as "one of the most remarkable
political movements I have ever seen during my years in public
service." The movement reached its peak in 1982 and 1983 in the
months leading up to the deployment of Pershing II and cruise
missiles in Western Europe. One of the leaders of the American freeze
effort, Dr. Helen Caldicott, personified the movement's appeal to a
universal order free from the "artificial distinctions" imposed by
male politicians: "We're thinking of our babies; there are no
Communist babies; there are no capitalist babies. A baby is a baby is
a baby." The electronic media was quick to jump on the freeze
bandwagon, with ABC's "The Day After" depicting the impact of a
nuclear strike on Kansas. Its showing followed by days the arrival of
the first cruise missiles in Britain and appeared on the eve of a
vote in the West German parliament to accept the Pershing II
missiles. Commercial time was purchased by the Cranston campaign and
various freeze groups; one advertisement featured actor Paul Newman
inviting viewers to write or call for a "nuclear war prevention kit."
Television news divisions fed the frenzy, with NBC broadcasting a
documentary (on the eve of a massive anti-nuclear demonstration in
New York City) entitled "Facing Up To The Bomb." Promotions for the
program fostered the notion that doomsday was just around the bend,
with lines like, "The Nuclear Strategy Game: Are We Nearing
Checkmate? . . . Watch this broadcast as if your life depends on it.
It may."

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