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

Perhaps most worrisome to the Reagan administration was the support
for the freeze among the American Catholic Bishops. Catholic voters
represented a substantial bloc within the Reagan coalition, and as
the election of 1984 neared, the prospect of a confrontation with
some of the Bishops was troublesome. In October 1982, a five man
Committee on War and Peace chaired by Chicago Archbishop Joseph L.
Bernardin issued a statement branding elements of U.S. nuclear
strategy immoral. The Committee condemned the first use of nuclear
weapons under any circumstances and stated that even if U.S. cities
were attacked first, "no Christian can rightfully carry out orders or
policies deliberately aimed at killing noncombatants." Reagan and his
advisors tried to persuade the Bishops that their proposed stance
would weaken the American arms control position, but to no avail. The
administration sensed that the Soviets were attempting to manipulate
Western opinion when, two days after the Bishops' statement was
revealed, Leonid Brezhnev announced that the Soviet Union would
expand its arsenal because the United States was threatening to "push
the world into the flames of nuclear war." The Reagan administration
appeared momentarily helpless to stop the freeze juggernaut.

The message to President Reagan in all of this was, according to the
media, that "the consensus that has supported the U.S. strategy of
nuclear deterrence for thirty-five years is breaking apart."
Unquestionably, that consensus in the United States and among its
European allies was under great stress during Reagan's first term.
His radical program to hasten the downfall of the Soviet Union was a
frightening prospect to many in the West who had become somewhat
complacent (or resigned) during the détente of the 1970s. Reagan told
the world in a highly publicized address to members of the British
Parliament that he intended to launch a "crusade for freedom", the
long term goal of which was to "leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash
heap of history." Reagan would later state that this was part of his
consistent attempt to "speak the truth about them [the Soviets] for a
change, rather than hiding reality behind the niceties of diplomacy."
Reagan's June 1982 Westminster speech was seen as further evidence of
his lack of foreign policy sophistication. Concern that he was unable
to fathom the complexities of foreign policy was shared by Europeans
and Americans alike. The New York Times reported that the speech was
one of the "dark spots" that marred an otherwise successful trip to
Britain: "The stark, democracy-versus-Communism language of Mr.
Reagan's speech . . . stunned many Britons. . . . Andrew Alexander, a
conservative columnist for the conservative Daily Mail . . .
described Mr. Reagan's speech as an 'oversimplified view of the
world.'" A pessimistic Times editorial dismissed the speech as
"Ronald Reagan's Flower Power" by stating that Soviet society had
always endured great hardship to resist foreign danger and that only
during periods of "East-West thaw" did the potential for change occur
in the Soviet bloc. Prior to Reagan's speech, former Prime Minister
James Callaghan declared that "the Europeans have a better
understanding of the complexities of the present world difficulties
than the United States." Former French Foreign Minister Couve de
Murville echoed Callaghan when he wrote that he "dream[ed] . . . of a
real American foreign policy which takes realities into account."
Robert Kaiser, writing in The International Herald Tribune, observed
that "it seems hard to be a sophisticated European and also an
admirer of Ronald Reagan", citing--and presumably agreeing with--a
conservative British editor who judged that the Reaganites have
"alarmingly simplistic beliefs that divide the world into goodies and

In the wake of the Westminster speech, and in light of the
considerable pro-freeze opposition arrayed against him, many
observers wondered how Reagan intended to carry out his offensive
against Soviet Communism. Persistence was one way. The refusal to
halt the deployment of the intermediate range missiles in the face of
stiff domestic and international opposition represented one of
Reagan's most impressive triumphs. He stayed the course and, making
full use of the "bully pulpit", Reagan outmaneuvered, not just the
Soviets, but the freeze movement as well. As time wore on, the
credibility of this movement was weakened as repeated predictions of
an imminent Armageddon proved false. The Strategic Defense
Initiative, announced in March 1983, weakened its broad appeal still
further. Moreover, Reagan adroitly paced himself in using his
anti-Soviet rhetoric; he would launch stinging attacks on the Soviet
Union--and then pull back and reassure Western public opinion that he
would not take the West into war. Evidence that Reagan's rhetoric
stung the Soviet leadership was attested to by Sovietologist Seweryn
Bialer, no admirer of the president's foreign policy. Based on his
three visits to Moscow in 1983-4, Bialer reported that:

"President Reagan's rhetoric has badly shaken the self-esteem and
patriotic pride of the Soviet political elites. The administration's
selfrighteous moralistic tone, its reduction of Soviet achievements
to crimes by international outlaws from an 'evil empire'--such
language stunned and humiliated the Soviet leaders . . . [who]
believe that President Reagan is determined to deny the Soviet Union
nothing less than its legitimacy and status as a global power . . .
status . . . they thought had been conceded once and for all by
Reagan's predecessors."

Through his first term, Reagan won many Americans over to his view of
the Soviets, and by the time of his November 1985 summit meeting with
Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, a majority of the American people agreed
with his description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and an
expansionist threat. The Soviets themselves also came around to his
position on certain issues, for instance agreeing to the so-called
zero-zero option on intermediate-range ballistic missiles that most
pundits had greeted initially as non-negotiable on the Soviet side
and therefore unserious.

By reminding his countrymen and their allies repeatedly of his
conviction that free societies were legitimate and totalitarian
regimes were not, and by refusing to be bogged down by "experts"
who settled for the status quo, Reagan rejuvenated the West and
contributed to the decline of the Soviet Union. He did what many
considered not only truly dangerous in an age of nuclear weapons, but
unjustified in a relativistic world: He conducted foreign policy in
such a way as to make clear that he viewed the American political
order to be clearly superior to that of its main rival. By Christmas
Day of 1991 the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. It was the victim,
in part--as former Soviet Former Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh put
it--of Reagan's policies, particularly the Strategic Defense
Initiative which, Bessmertnykh believed, "accelerated the decline of
the Soviet Union." In the end, Reagan proved the advocates of the
status quo wrong, though many, such as Strobe Talbott, are still
loath to admit it. It did not matter, for this unsophisticated
B-grade actor had seen his vision become reality.

The Reagan Doctrine and the "Quagmire"

There was another dimension to Ronald Reagan's anti-Soviet plan--what
came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine. As with many of his
policies, the "Reagan Doctrine" was not the result of careful
analysis and planning. "Not one nano-second" went into crafting this
"doctrine", recalled Reagan's National Security Adviser Robert
McFarlane, and the term itself was actually coined by Charles
Krauthammer in Time magazine and was never officially adopted by the
Reagan administration. Yet despite its slapdash evolution, it
provided the intellectual underpinnings for a highly effective covert
campaign to topple a number of Soviet client states. Krauthammer
arrived at the "doctrine" by extrapolating from a passage in Reagan's
1985 State of the Union address, which argued that "we must not break
faith with those who are risking their lives--on every continent,
from Afghanistan to Nicaragua--to defy Soviet-supported aggression
and secure rights which have been ours from birth." In practice, not
breaking faith was to come to mean launching an offensive that,
unlike previous policies, "supports not the status quo but

One of the first battlegrounds in this offensive was Poland; in May
1982 President Reagan signed a secret order, National Security
Decision Directive 32, to destabilize the Polish government. This
destabilization was to be accomplished by keeping the Solidarity
movement alive, with help from the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul
II himself. This union between the Reagan administration and the
Catholic Church was "one of the great secret alliances of all time",
according to Reagan's first National Security Adviser, Richard Allen.
Money for the outlawed union came from the CIA, the National
Endowment for Democracy, secret Vatican bank accounts, and Western
trade unions. The network created by the Vatican and the United
States funneled tons of communications equipment into Poland. With
this equipment, numerous underground newsletters flourished (over
four hundred by 1985), and Solidarity routinely broke into government
radio programming with messages like "Solidarity Lives!" or "Resist!"
By 1987, the pressures exerted by Solidarity and the Catholic Church
had forced the Soviet-backed government of General Wojciech
Jaruzelski to begin discussions with the church that ultimately led
to the election of Lech Walesa as president of Poland.

Essay Types: Essay