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

Can causality--and historical greatness--be so casually assigned? Reagan's detractors and especially Europe's Ostpolitikers have sullenly pooh-poohed Reagan's role, locating history's mighty hand in their own pliancy toward Moscow (aka "detente") and the farsighted generosity of Gorbachev. Of course, we can never allot precise weight to history's many agents. But we can sift among contending explanations by way of elimination.

Did detente turn around history? This fitful policy of arms control and accommodation cannot bear the causal weight attributed to it by Reagan's gainsayers. Detente and thaws have been around since the 1955 great-power summit in Geneva. But the "Spirit of Geneva" was blown away one year later by the suppression of Poland and completely forgotten by the time Nikita Khrushchev issued his Berlin Ultimatums (1958) or banged the rostrum at the UN General Assembly (1960). The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 produced an earnest attempt to tame the nuclear menace, but only a scant three years later, rapprochement was overwhelmed by escalation in Vietnam. There was more detente in 1967, when President Johnson met with Alexei Kosygin in Glassboro, New York; yet the much-touted "Spirit of Glassboro" was brutally dispelled by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Another stint of great-power detente accompanied German Ostpolitik from 1969 to 1972, complete with salt agreements and Nixon-Brezhnev embraces. That phase came to an end in 1973 when Moscow threatened nuclear strikes during the Yom Kippur War while dispatching its Cuban pawns to Africa. Nor did the much-celebrated Carter-Brezhnev summit in Vienna in 1979, where another strategic arms agreement was signed, keep the Soviets from invading Afghanistan a few months later. This record hardly vindicates the dŽtentists. Detente was the foreign policy equivalent of Carly Simon's "killing me softly" song. It would de-fang and then subvert Soviet power by propitiating it. Alas, this lovely theory cannot explain Moscow's capitulation in the Cold War when there was much detente and so little surrender during the three decades prior to Ronald Reagan.

So on whom or what do we bestow the title of the "evil empire's" killer? Was it Mikhail Gorbachev himself who pulled down what Lenin and Stalin had built up? It is tempting to finger Gorbachev, but this would ascribe too much wisdom and foresight to a man who wanted merely to reform, but not to relinquish, the empire. At no point, however, did Gorbachev want to yield Moscow's pride of place as the number two superpower. And he was blissfully confident that the risks were tolerable: "There is no reason to fear the collapse or the end of socialism", Gorbachev assured Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu three weeks after the Berlin Wall had been breached and three weeks before the Romanian dictator was executed by his own people.

Leaders who know what they are doing or who have wittingly decided to give away the imperial store do not talk this way in their memoirs or anywhere else, unless they are either benignly naive or blind to the fearsome dynamics they themselves have unleashed. Perhaps it was this naivety that joined Gorbachev and Reagan at the hip in the final years of the Cold War: their childlike faith in a world without nuclear weapons and their blessed belief in the transcendentality of history. But it will not do to invoke a surfeit of innocence (or ignorance), at least not by equal measures. Naive or not, Reagan was made from far sterner stuff than was his Soviet counterpart. His genial grin and wise-cracking demeanor concealed a spine of steel when push came to shove.

Ronald Reagan, after all, had fired 11,000 traffic controllers, even though their union was one of the few that had supported him in 1980. He fired them because he said he would if they walked off their jobs. Concerning Gorbachev, Reagan said, soon after their first summit in Geneva in 1985, that he "grew to like him more" as the meeting went on because he "could tell jokes about himself and even about his country." Yet at their next meeting in Reykjavik in 1986, where Gorbachev would not budge on the "Star Wars" question, Reagan was decisive and unforgiving. He recalls in An American Life how he stood up from the table to proclaim that the meeting was over. Then he turned to his Secretary of State: "Let's go, George. We're leaving." Like any good diplomat, Shultz was crushed by so much roughness, but Reagan was completely unfazed. Later on, he explained: "I went to Reykjavik determined that everything was negotiable except two things, our freedom and our future."

The American economy was also made from sterner stuff than Gorbachev's collapsing command economy. After the faux prosperity of the 1970s, fueled by skyrocketing oil prices and infusions of Western loans, the Soviet economy went into a terminal tail spin while its U.S. counterpart turned on its afterburners: super-Keynesian deficit spending and accelerated micro-economic reform, a seemingly bizarre, yet triumphant combination that riled the conventionalists in both camps. The supply-siders were upset by the heavy government spending, the Left by the government's retraction from the economy through deregulation. Miraculously, growth returned after the stagnation of the 1970s while inflation did not.

How could the Soviet Union keep up, now that its European missile gambit had failed while Reagan's "Star Wars" strategy threatened to devalue its last superpower badge: a bloated arsenal of intercontinental nuclear weapons? Note that there is no straight causal line between SDI and the Soviet Union's self-dissolution. Reagan did not go for Edward Teller's illusionary claims about "Star Wars" because he wanted to use SDI as the final nail in the Soviet coffin. For Reagan, SDI spelled out the promise of transcendence, if not salvation. A nuclear abolitionist at heart, he believed truly that the missile shield would render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." The idea was not to dispatch the Soviet Union, but to liberate both superpowers from a death-dealing curse. Nor is there any conclusive evidence in the Politburo record, as available today, that would confirm the SDI-as-empire-killer theory so beloved by Reagan boosters.

Gorbachev and the Politburo did not suddenly decide to fold and quit because they thought Reagan held an unbeatable hand full of laser cannons and "brilliant pebbles." Even those mesmerized by American prowess could hear what their scientists told them: SDI in the 1980s was a Rube Goldberg contraption cluttering up the labs in Los Alamos and Livermore. Even if SDI worked, it could be overwhelmed with relatively cheap and unsophisticated countermeasures. And so it remains, twenty years and many billions of taxpayers' dollars later.

To labor these obvious points is not to belittle Reagan's history-transforming role. It is rather to make a plea for a more complex rendering of events. First, there is always an element of serendipity--a favorable constellation of forces, events and personalities. While Reagan's America was on a roll, propelled by rapid economic growth and ballooning self-confidence, Gorbachev's Soviet Union was grinding to a halt. When he came to power, defense expenditures were claiming up to 20 percent of GDP and rising. As the economy stagnated, Siberian oil production began to decline in 1983, and world oil prices, having risen twelvefold in the 1970s, began to plunge in the mid-1980s.

It must have become clear even to the Politburo's most doctrinaire blockheads that the Soviet Union could no longer service its key national interests: provide a decent standard of living to its population, keep up with Reagan's armament juggernaut, and subsidize an ever more demanding bunch of indigent clients from Czechoslovakia to Cuba. This was his serendipitous moment, but there was more to his fortune than a favorable constellation of the stars.

Fortuna, as Machiavelli reminded us, is not just good luck, but strength, foresight and will. Though the Soviet system was doomed to die, Reagan brought the reckoning closer by doing exactly what George Kennan had prescribed was necessary in his famous Foreign Affairs article forty years earlier. Later, Kennan would abandon his previous convictions by preaching an accommodationist line, yet his original containment doctrine was Reaganite to a fault:

"[The] United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet power must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection . . . and in this way to promote tendencies, which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power."

Precisely. Euromissiles, massive aid to the Afghan rebels, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the arms build-up, the INF deployment, the demonstrated willingness to use force (Libya), support for Poland's Solidarity moment and Soviet dissidents--these all added up to what Kennan termed an "unalterable counter-force at every point" while Reagan's even-keeled leadership minimized "indecision, disunity and internal disintegration within this country" (notwithstanding the less grandiose moments of Reagan's watch, like the withdrawal from Lebanon after the massacre of 241 Marines in 1983 and the unforgivably reckless Iran-Contra affair).

But there was more than pure power politics in the ways of the early Kennan. Call it the metaphysics of politics: the moral message that transcends mere interest and advantage and resonates in men's souls at the right time and in the right place.

Essay Types: Essay