The 'Amazing and Mysterious Life' of Ronald Reagan

The 'Amazing and Mysterious Life' of Ronald Reagan

Mini Teaser: Mr. Reagan was a simple man with simple straightforward ideas. But he pursued a subtle and complex foreign policy. Maybe we missed something. Where was the rest of him?

by Author(s): Josef Joffe

In 1987, Ronald Reagan uttered the immortal phrase: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" Two years later, the Berlin Wall, the symbol and brace of the Soviet empire, fell under its own weight, while the real thing collapsed without a sigh on Christmas Day 1991 when the Soviet Union committed suicide by self-dissolution. No empire has ever exited from history without major war--recall the violent demise of the Wilhelmine, Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires in World War I. So whatever else Clio--the Greek goddess of history--may yet report about him, she will always praise Ronald Wilson Reagan for this absolute first in the annals of statecraft: an empire that died in bed. They thought him demented when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall. Yet down it came, and as I retrace the historic voyage of America's 40th president, I would like to note that I helped to pry a chunk or two out of the Wall.

Many forces contributed to the fall of the "Evil Empire", but foremost among them was the deployment of those 464 cruise and 108 Pershing II missiles slated to offset triple-warhead Soviet ss-20s and Backfire bombers that could reach all of Western Europe (but not the American homeland). Needless to say, it was not the "theo-logic" of deterrence that drove the counter-deployment. The drama was not really about "circular-errors probable" or "hard-target kill capabilities." The name of the game was as old as Thucydides' disquisitions on Peloponnesian power politics. It was a pure test of will and strength, and on its outcome hung, as it turned out, history. Yet what a slender thread it was.

Shift to the summer of 1982. One key European leader, German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, would fall three months later--in large part because his Social Democrats were abandoning him over the missile deployment. Western Europe and West Germany, which was to take the bulk of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), appeared to be in a prerevolutionary mood. Millions were marching against NATO and America; pacifism and neutralism were given a new name: "Hollanditis." The Soviets were playing missile angst to the hilt, predicting that Western Europe would crack under the pressure.

First to crack, though, was Paul Nitze, chief INF negotiator. More despondent about Europe's resolve than most, he had taken his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinski, on a walk into the woods near Geneva on July 16, 1982, where he offered a compromise: 75 triple-warhead ss-20s for the Soviets, 75 cruise missile launchers for the United States, but none of those swift Pershing IIs with their super-accurate nuclear warheads that could reach Moscow in minutes. After Helmut Schmidt's ouster in October, and with the Soviets salivating over an easy victory to come, Nitze grew ever more agitated about West Germany, the keystone in America's entire deployment architecture. Whenever he returned from Geneva, he would warn his colleagues at the State Department in ever more dire terms that without compromise the Germans would bolt.

I recall a lunch that I had in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt in the summer of 1983 that surely turned around history (at least a bit). Burt was worried about Nitze, who kept pressing for a "walk in the woods"-type deal, arguing that if the Germans defected, so would everybody else. But to follow Nitze into the woods would undo the deployment as well. By unbundling its "double-zero" decision of 1979 (either no missiles, or 572 for the West), NATO would step onto a slippery slope. Once the Pershings that the Soviets pretended to fear were out of the equation, the Kremlin would pocket the prize and then play for time, confident that Western governments would not have the stomach to battle their peace movements sine die.

I took the opposite line, arguing that the Hollanditis hypothesis was wrong: Though the protesters dominated the television screens, they remained a minority. Moreover, the majority did not care enough about INF to reverse their governments, let alone topple them. Though nobody wanted the missiles in his back yard, other worries like unemployment, inflation or the threat to social security consistently and cross-nationally dwarfed inf. National elections would be decided on domestic grounds. Hence, Helmut Kohl would win the November 1983 vote. He did, and on the very next day, the first missile components arrived in West Germany. Thus, a single lunch had stiffened the resolve of the State Department, and the rest is history. All 572 missiles were deployed on Ronald Reagan's watch, and so the greatest Soviet power play in Europe was thwarted in an expense-account eatery on K Street.

Well, not quite. Messrs. Burt, Nitze and certainly Joffe were but bit players in the historic drama of empire's end. Enter Ronald Reagan, a president who, whatever else he was and did, was an extraordinary exemplar of "Only in America." He was an ingŽnue even by American standards, but as tough and hard-bitten as any Soviet general-secretary (post-Stalin, that is). He hated communism, but embraced Mikhail Gorbachev. He presided over the greatest peace-time military buildup in American history, but loathed nuclear weapons, confiding in An American Life that his "dream became a world free of nuclear weapons." He elevated supply-side economics from Arthur Laffer's back-of-the-envelope doodles to the reigning dogma of the White House and radically cut taxes--only to pragmatically raise them again in 1982 and 1983 when a "decent respect" for the opinions of Congress so demanded.

Ronald Reagan was John Wayne and Alan Alda rolled into one, a character they don't make in Europe, perhaps no longer even in America (who is John Wayne today?). Europeans showed nothing but contempt for him. They ridiculed him as a "cowboy" and matinee idol of b-movie fame, blithely or willfully ignoring that he had cut his teeth in politics as boss of the powerful Screen Actors' Guild and sharpened them as a two-term governor of California. Though not given to hard work, especially not past 5 pm, it was Reagan who pulled America out of its Carterite malaise and moroseness--who not only proclaimed a new "morning in America", but made it happen with his lopsided grin and infectious optimism. Can anybody imagine Messrs. Chirac and Schršder delivering "It's morning again in France/Germany" speeches that would drag their countries from despondency and morositŽ?

The Euromissiles played a staring role in the final act of the Cold War. Militarily, they were but pawns in a nuclear world defined by 10,000 strategic warheads on either side. But on the Cold War's central chessboard, they looked like kings and queens that would complete the irresistible thrust of Soviet power launched in the 1970s. One Soviet surrogate, North Vietnam, had beaten the United States in Southeast Asia. Another, Cuba, had anchored Soviet-bloc power in the darkest heart of Africa, in Angola. America had just lost Iran to the Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and with it, one of Washington's key allies in the Middle East. Finally, as Carter's America was being humiliated by Iranian hostage-takers and held up to ridicule by botched rescue gambits, the Soviets were forging into Afghanistan--as Alexander the Great had done on his imperial march to India. To complete the degradation of America, only two key allies--Turkey and West Germany--heeded Washington's call to boycott the Moscow Olympics of 1980. And the economy was wallowing in stagflation.

What would have happened had Western Europe finally buckled, had it refused to station INF? Moscow's boldest dream would have come true: to separate Western Europe from its transatlantic protector, to create zones of inferior security and, thus, to end up dominating the entire continent. Detente and Ostpolitik had already driven a sizeable wedge into the Atlantic Alliance, pushing Western Europe, and especially West Germany, closer toward the Soviet orbit. Now imagine that hundreds of Soviet ss-20s and Backfires had remained unmatched and unbalanced. Posing a separate threat, they would have consecrated Soviet strategic superiority on the Old Continent while silently reminding the West Europeans to remain on their best behavior. NATO would have collapsed de facto right then and there, and not twenty years later, when Berlin and Paris joined with Moscow in 2003 to try to derail the American war against Saddam Hussein.

Unlike Paul Nitze and the arms controllers in the State Department, Reagan focused not on the scholastics of deterrence or the frailties of European will, but on the chunkier issues of power--how it is kept, expanded or lost. According to Reagan's biographer Edmund Morris:

"Nothing . . . deflected him from what he was convinced was his double mission: at home, to restore the American entrepreneurial spirit after fifty years of federal paternalism, abroad to display such a resolute contempt for Marxism-Leninism that it would follow Nazism onto the 'ash-heap of history.' Both conceits were perceived as laughably naive in 1981, at least in those Chardonnay-fragrant areas of Manhattan and Marin County where political issues are always described as 'complex.' [After eight years], the "evil empire" began to self-destruct, just as he had said it would."

Essay Types: Essay