Who Won the War?

Who Won the War?

Mini Teaser: In the Cold War, Reagan overreached--and hit the mark.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Smith

Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (New York: Random House, 2005), 254 pp., $25.95.

Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (New York: Random House, 2005), 327 pp., $27.95.

One of the many puzzles with Ronald Reagan is why so many people found such an articulate man so puzzling, or rather, why so few people listened to what this supremely eloquent man was actually saying on some of the most profound issues of his time. This conundrum is at the heart of both of these valuable books. They deal with the same issue, but from rather different perspectives. They agree that the prime roles in ending the Cold War were played by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev; that the obsession with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) shared by the two leaders (from contrasting standpoints) was both exaggerated and invaluable in pushing forward the peace process; and that from first to last, Reagan made no secret of his grand strategy, which never deviated in essentials, though the circumstances in which it was implemented certainly did. Why then did so many apparently well-informed people fail to appreciate what he was up to?

Ambassador Matlock has provided a distinguished example of history from the engine room. From his days at the beginning of the 1980s as the senior officer in charge of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, through three years as the National Security Council expert on European and Soviet affairs, to his appointment at the end of 1986 as ambassador to Moscow, he was at the heart of American policymaking on the Soviet Union-both a uniquely privileged observer and a participant during the critical times.

He has rendered a detailed account and, at the same time, given a robust defense of his stewardship. A few bruises are nursed from the bureaucratic battles of not-so-long-ago. His considerable admiration for George Shultz as secretary of state does not deter him from a few stinging criticisms of Shultz's negotiating tactics. But one gets the impression that any settling of personal scores flows solely from such tactical differences.

Paul Lettow does not get as up close and personal as Matlock. His book is based on detailed research of the written record and a range of interviews. But the two books complement each other. They start from the essential point that so many people missed at the time and for quite some years afterwards: that Reagan came to office with a genuine hatred of all nuclear weapons. He did not aim simply to prevent the Soviets from having more of what he regarded as the hateful things. He wanted to rid the earth of them altogether.

Before he entered the White House, Reagan had developed a powerful loathing of the prevailing nuclear strategic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, which was based on the premise that no country would ever attack a nuclear-armed adversary because it would be wiped out by the inevitable retaliation. It meant that the leader of a country facing such an attack would be confronted by an awesome dilemma. He could retaliate and have his own country wiped out as well, or he could give way to irresistible force. Suicide or surrender: For Reagan, the choice was unacceptable.

His anti-nuclear ambition perplexed so many people because it seemed so out of character for the Cold War hawk, the hardheaded critic of the "Evil Empire." Even some of those who admired him most and knew him best were thrown off balance. In an interview with me while she and Reagan were still in office, Margaret Thatcher described the idea as "pie in the sky."

The other reason why Reagan's basic purpose was so often undetected was that his tactics were the opposite of those employed by most nuclear disarmers. Rather than being overawed by the might of the Soviet Union, Reagan believed it was economically vulnerable and that it would be unable to sustain prolonged technological competition with the West. The path to nuclear disarmament therefore led through an arms race, but an arms race with a difference. Reagan's basic purpose was neither the accumulation of arms nor the setting of agreed limits, but their reduction or even elimination. This should have been clear from what he said and did right from the beginning. Matlock points out that, in his first month in office, "Reagan stated that he was in favor of negotiating to achieve 'an actual reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons' on a basis that would be verifiable."

In his first major statement from the White House on arms negotiations in November 1981, he made two revealing proposals. The first was that negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons should no longer be known as salt (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) but as start (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks). This could be, and was, easily mistaken for a bit of cosmetic diplomacy-the statesman as spin doctor. But it indicated one of Reagan's most profound beliefs: that the purpose of such negotiations should not be to solidify the status quo or to moderate the increase in nuclear weapons, but to bring about an actual reduction. He made no secret of this intention, but it seemed so out of character that relatively few people appreciated the significance at the time.

The other proposal was to have no intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe, East or West. This became known as the "zero option." Reagan had inherited the NATO dual-track strategy, whereby the alliance would deploy these weapons only after seeking a negotiated agreement with the Soviet Union. The zero option was consistent with dual track: It was put forward by the Germans because of domestic political opposition to deploying the missiles, and it was supported by hardliners in the Pentagon because they did not believe that German opinion would ever permit effective deployment. But the policy was contested both within the administration and within the alliance. It was left to Reagan to decide, and his anti-nuclear instincts once again were decisive.

both Matlock and Lettow stress Reagan's determination, especially in the early years, to make nuclear competition prohibitively expensive for the Soviets. Every time he intensified such competition, he was making it more and more difficult for the Soviet Union to keep up and therefore bringing serious disarmament that much closer. Both books show repeatedly that this was not just an accidental consequence of the Reagan strategy, but a deliberate objective.

This was particularly so with the most controversial of these policies, his cherished SDI. Reagan believed in it so strongly because he saw that it could serve a double purpose. If it worked, it could provide the defense against nuclear weapons for which he yearned. But even if it did not work (and he never seems to have committed himself to the proposition that it would), it would increase exponentially the burden of economic and technological rivalry for the Soviet Union.

Others in the administration had a more nuanced approach to SDI. Some, most notably Shultz and Robert (Bud) McFarlane, Reagan's national security advisor, regarded it simply as a bargaining chip that they would have been happy to trade away if the deal was good enough, though their determination to bargain hard made them effective instruments of his policy. Some saw it as valuable leverage on the Soviets, without having any great confidence that it would ever become operational as Reagan hoped, but also without being prepared to trade it away.

SDI would not have had any of these uses if Soviet leaders had been as confident as its critics in the West that it would never work. In that case, they could have watched the program proceed, happy in the belief that American resources were being wasted in a futile quest. But their awe of American technology was too great for such an assumption. If the United States was taking the program so seriously, surely there must be something in it. The Soviet authorities did not know enough to be able to sit back and let the Americans get on with it.

So East-West relations came to be dominated by two processes. One was the apparently endless negotiations over nuclear disarmament. The most dramatic session was at Reykjavik in October 1986. "The most productive summit we ever held", Shultz remarked to me a few years later. Had he said the most complicated, he could hardly have been challenged. Not even those who were in the most restricted meetings could agree what had been said there. When they briefed congressional leaders of both parties upon their return to Washington, Shultz said they had been discussing eliminating all ballistic missiles, whereas Reagan spoke of all nuclear weapons.

They had indeed gone that far, but not in a structured negotiation. Lettow documents, after studying the recently declassified U.S. memorandums of conversation, or "memcons", how they reached that point in a mood of almost casual enthusiasm. "Reagan declared that it would be fine with him 'if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.' Gorbachev replied, 'We can do that. We can eliminate them.' Shultz was not a silent spectator; he interjected to say, 'Let's do it.'"

Essay Types: Book Review