Reagan's Plan

Reagan's Plan

Mini Teaser: Despite protestations to the contrary, Reagan did have a grand strategy.

by Author(s): Kiron K. Skinner

Dinesh D'souza, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (New York: Free Press, 1997)

Beth Fischer, The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997)

William Pemberton, Exit With Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997)

The orthodox line that Ronald Reagan knew little and did less, and that his foreign policy success was the result of unusual good fortune--particularly in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev's coming to power--is losing ground. It is gradually being displaced by the revisionist thesis that Reagan was a shrewd strategist who orchestrated events, wanted victory in the Cold War, and sensed that it was possible. Still, the burden on those seeking to make the latter case is heavy, because Reagan has for so long been presented in terms of a thin, insubstantial persona, little more than a political brand name for a kind of class-B Hollywood anti-Sovietism. What is revealed by a close inspection of the record, however, is that the revisionists not only make the better case, but may even be underestimating the man.

Three recent books make the case for Ronald Reagan's seminal role in ending the Cold War, arguing in their different ways that Reagan was an unusually strategic-minded politician. In The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War, Beth Fischer contends that in the span of ten weeks the Reagan administration completely reversed its Soviet policy. On October 31, 1983, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam delivered a speech declaring that, through its military build-up and meddling around the globe, the Soviet Union posed the greatest threat to U.S. and global security. But in a televised foreign policy address on January 16, 1984, President Reagan went out of his way to stress the "common interests" of the superpowers, and to declare that the possibility of nuclear war was the most important security threat to both the United States and the Soviet Union. The January 16 speech, argues Fischer, "proved to be the turning point in his administration's approach to the Kremlin. With this speech, Reagan began seeking a rapprochement."

Fischer considers three domestic level explanations for the alleged policy change. One is that President Reagan moderated his Soviet policy in 1984 because it was an election year. Another is that by 1984, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and Secretary of State George Shultz had captured the supposedly passive President and implemented a more moderate approach to superpower relations. Fischer's third hypothesis is that the President himself led the reversal because of a genuine conversion. She finds this last thesis the most convincing.

Fischer argues that in the aftermath of the Soviet downing of Korean Air flight 007 in September 1983, the airing of the television movie "The Day After", which graphically depicted the effects of a nuclear war on the United States, and a Pentagon briefing on nuclear war, the President "had a turning-point experience." This experience tapped into his deep-seated and long-standing abhorrence of nuclear weapons, and his moral outrage over the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, which worked by holding civilization itself hostage before an act of mutual insanity. In addition to all this, the Soviet Union--apparently reacting to a major NATO training exercise (Able Archer) in November--upgraded the alert status of some of its nuclear-capable fighter aircraft. The superpowers had come too close to blundering into nuclear war for Reagan's comfort. According to Fischer, it was in response to this accumulation of factors that Reagan shifted U.S. Soviet policy in a cooperative direction--a year before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, it should be noted.

While Fischer's third and favored hypothesis is much stronger than the two she rejects, it is still unconvincing. Rightly, she finds remarkable the speed with which Reagan seems to have radically changed his assumptions about U.S.-Soviet relations and his policy goals. She does not, however, even entertain the possibility that this apparent radical change of strategy, far from involving an equivalently radical change of mind, was itself part of a single strategy--one that required a deliberate tactical change once the United States had managed to raise the stakes and make the cost of Soviet expansionism prohibitively high. Reagan and Shultz believed that the United States had succeeded in doing this by 1983-84, through a parallel course of rearming the U.S. military, reviving the American economy, and reinvigorating the diplomacy of containment. Fischer does not recognize that Reagan's Soviet strategy included policies and gestures of both confrontation and cooperation all along, and that what happened was that the proportions shifted. Rather than reversing himself in 1984, then, Reagan may instead have been moving to a different phase of a consistent policy he had broadly envisaged well beforehand. Statements made by Secretary Shultz in 1983, the policy coordination between Reagan and Shultz in January 1984, and Reagan's pre-presidential writings strongly suggest that this is the case.

Although there was a much more cooperative tone to Reagan's January 16 speech, the substance of that speech actually was presented seven months earlier in Shultz's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 15 and was approved in advance by Reagan. In that testimony, Shultz spoke about the "common interest" of the superpowers in avoiding nuclear war, and declared that the administration did not believe that "mutual hostility with the USSR . . . [was] an immutable fact of international life."

Furthermore, at the opening session of the Conference on Disarmament in Europe in Stockholm on January 17, 1984, Shultz, like Reagan the day before, spoke about peace and cooperation. He did so only after declaring that the division of Europe was "the essence of Europe's security and human rights problem." According to Shultz, the two speeches were a coordinated effort. One sounded more cooperative, and the other less so. But both emphasized the same themes.

Shultz has recently stated that he and the President were concerned about the raised temperature in U.S.-Soviet relations in 1983, reflecting the Soviet reaction to the successful deployment of INF missiles in Germany. That concern, however, did not lead Reagan to change his Soviet policy. Their speeches represented a tactical shift, not a strategic one, a concern to keep some momentum going on U.S.-Soviet relations in the aftermath of the Soviet walk-out of the arms control talks.

Between 1974, when he finished his second term as governor of California, and 1981, when he assumed the presidency, Reagan, along with a few of his advisers, began to draft what amounted to a new grand strategy for the United States. Most statesmen, scholars, journalists and even many of his advisers in the 1980s are unaware of how extensively Reagan talked and wrote about achieving superpower cooperation and world peace during those years. They are also unaware of how strongly he came to believe that while the American people had an enduring preference for cooperation with the Soviet Union, they were willing to undertake the effort and risks associated with a strategy of strength initially necessary in order to realize that preference. During the 1970s, Reagan launched two full-scale presidential campaigns and supported himself by delivering a daily radio address, writing a bi-weekly newspaper column and giving speeches on behalf of conservative causes. The result is a rich record of policy analyses and pronouncements from the 1970s so far overlooked by most of those who write about Reagan.

In Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, Dinesh D'Souza has largely ignored that record. True, D'Souza demonstrates keen insight into Reagan and his thinking about U.S.-Soviet relations, declaring that "Reagan was the guiding force behind . . . events." D'Souza understands that it was not the case, as frequently claimed, that Reagan opposed arms control. Rather, as dangerous as the nuclear arms race was, Reagan recognized that it was much more a symptom than a cause, and that Soviet imperial ambitions and internal repression were the real sources of the Cold War. His first task and main foreign policy goal, D'Souza rightly maintains, was to reverse Soviet fortunes at the source.

Despite all this, D'Souza's book does not establish that the President had anything approaching a coherent strategy for achieving that goal. Rather, D'Souza's methodology of building his case through interviews with former Reagan administration officials highlights an irony: elusive as Reagan was in public, he was at least as much so in private life. He did not reveal his deepest thoughts even to those who were close to him. This is why insider accounts, even subtle and appreciative ones, need to be supplemented with detached and systematic historical work.

Historian William Pemberton has begun this prodigious assignment by writing a book based on some of the open files on Reagan. Exit With Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan is a broad biographical sketch of Reagan's pre- and post-presidential years. Pemberton contends, as do a great many others, that "Reagan did not have a coherent foreign policy when he entered the White House; he had a few fundamental beliefs." This is a distinction that does not necessarily amount to a difference, for coherent foreign policies and grand strategies usually do not require more than a few simple ideas. Indeed, often one idea will do. In Reagan's case, his central premises were that democracy and free-market economies were the basis for world prosperity and peace; that nuclear weapons were evil and should be abolished; that a strategy of strength--military, economic and political--was a necessary condition for peace; and, finally, that the United States was an exceptional state in world history.

Pemberton contends that this set of beliefs--which in his view does not amount to a grand design--ultimately drove Reagan to his vision of a nuclear-free world. And while Fischer underplays the possibility that some of Reagan's advisers were central to the American contribution to ending the Cold War, Pemberton sees Shultz as critical: "Shultz understood that despite Reagan's evil empire rhetoric he intended to open serious negotiations when American strength and Soviet vulnerability converged to bring Moscow to the bargaining table."

This apart, Pemberton's explanation is similar to Fischer's: he contends that Reagan improvised, responding to international events as they unfolded; like Fischer, he sees the January 16 foreign policy address as "mark[ing] a real shift in Reagan's thinking"; and he too makes his case essentially by analyzing Reagan's activities in office.

In fact, the content of Reagan's January 16 speech was not, as Fischer and others would have it, a response to his having suddenly "learned" about the dangers of nuclear war. Nor did the speech represent a fundamental policy shift. Rather, it represented a tactical adjustment that reflected a strategy toward the Soviet Union that Reagan had been mulling over for years--indeed, long before he assumed the presidency.

Let's review the speech. Crucially, Reagan began by declaring that the neglect of U.S. defenses during the 1970s had been reversed by 1984. The United States was thus in a more credible position "to convince any potential aggressor that war could bring no benefit. . . . Now there is less danger that the Soviet leadership will underestimate our strength or question our resolve." Only after discussing America's military and economic resurgence did the President proclaim that the superpowers have "common interests" in avoiding nuclear war, and that "1984 is a year of opportunities for peace." Reagan carefully related the U.S. preference for mutual cooperation to its strategy of strength, arguing that the former could be achieved only after the latter was in place.

A careful look at the historical record shows that the President had outlined most of what was in this speech years earlier. During his pre-presidential years, Reagan honed four core hypotheses about U.S.-Soviet relations and the Cold War. First, he argued that nuclear weapons did not fundamentally change the nature of international relations. In his view, then, arms control would be easier to achieve and more significant once fundamental issues like Soviet expansionism had been addressed.

Second, Reagan believed that the United States was an exceptional state in world history because it protected internal freedom and equality, promoted these values abroad, and was not, in the Cold War context, seizing territory as the Soviet Union had done in Eastern Europe.

Third, he saw the Soviet Union as an abnormal state because it had no popular base of support, suppressed freedom of every sort, set itself up as the world leader of states with similar characteristics, and was prepared to foment major international crises as a means of fostering internal control. Reagan's "evil empire" speech of March 8, 1983 has become Cold War folklore, but Reagan had been speaking about the Soviet Union in precisely these terms since at least 1978. In a speech on April 10 of that year, for example, he intoned:

"There is an evil influence throughout the world. In every one of the far-flung trouble spots, dig deep and you'll find the Soviet Union stirring a witches' brew, furthering its own imperialistic ambitions. If the Soviet Union would simply go home, much of the bloodshed in the world today would cease."

Reagan's final--and at the time most contentious--proposition was that Russia's inefficient economy and inferior technology ultimately could not survive competition with the United States over armaments. He discussed his hypothesis repeatedly in his daily radio broadcasts and bi-weekly newspaper columns in the late 1970s.

From these four hypotheses Reagan deduced a grand strategy. The strategy was in one sense as simple as "peace through strength", Reagan's foreign policy mantra during the 1970s. But despite his reputation as a reckless warmonger, his stress on peace as the goal was as firm and sustained as that on strength as the means. "Peace" was the title of one of his daily radio addresses in the spring of 1975. He mentioned U.S.-Soviet peace twice in announcing his intention to seek the presidency on November 20, 1975. Reagan amplified this theme during the 1980 presidential campaign, declaring in a speech in Boston on August 20 that the American goal was "not just . . . peace in our time but . . . peace for all time."

Who was the source of this long-standing and consistent theme? As far as one can tell, Reagan himself. Sometimes, especially during his first post-gubernatorial year, Reagan's daily five-minute radio commentaries were drafted by a political adviser, most often Peter Hannaford. A handwritten draft of the 1975 address on peace by Reagan is in the archives.

Reagan remains elusive, for he was a genuinely humble man who kept his own counsel. The requirements of evidence to make the case that he really had a strategy, and that he himself substantially crafted it, are distinctly high. The good news is that a paper trail exists--in the form of his various speeches, broadcasts and statements as well as the archives of his private papers--to make that case. The puzzle is why so few have bothered to follow it. The three books at hand underscore the need to go deep into the public and private record to make even a minimally convincing revisionist case about Reagan and his presidency. Plenty of work remains to be done.

Essay Types: Book Review