Reagan Reconsidered

Reviewed by Yitzhak Klein

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris; and Ronald Reagan,
by Dinesh D'Souza

Morris’ ignorance of public affairs is evident once again in his account of Reagan’s presidency. A central theme of Reagan’s foreign policy was the political struggle against the Soviet Union. In the popular mind this struggle has become associated with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars.” The Soviets knew they had neither the technology nor the economic resources to build effective strategic defenses, and they strongly suspected that the United States did, so they made eliminating SDI a major target of their negotiating strategy. Reagan’s refusal to give in on SDI caused a breakdown in strategic arms control talks and earned him the opprobrium of American liberals who thought Star Wars a fantasy that made war more likely. In the end, however, it was Reagan’s steadfastness on SDI that convinced the Soviets that they could not compete with America in a sustained arms race, and they returned to the negotiating table on American terms. Morris writes a great deal about SDI, but again makes no effort to explain its significance within the larger strategic and political context. One gets the impression that he focuses on SDI simply because of its literary value—the drama of Reagan’s meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva and Reykjavik—and because Morris accompanied Reagan at the Geneva summit in 1985.
Dramatic as it was, however, the confrontation over SDI was not the turning point in the struggle between East and West, something of which Morris appears completely unaware. The actual turning point occurred several years earlier, in 1983. At that time, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was over Western Europe: The United States sought to preserve NATO’s political integrity, the Soviet Union to destroy it. The Soviets’ chosen tool was the deployment of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), nuclear weapons that could threaten Western Europe but not the United States. In response, NATO decided to deploy an American INF system in Western Europe, consisting of Pershing II and cruise missiles targeted at the Soviet Union. The Soviets sought to block this step through veiled threats that the deployment of the American weapons would trigger a war. With Soviet encouragement, a mass protest movement sprang up against the deployment of American INF throughout Western Europe.
Had the Soviet campaign succeeded in turning Western European governments against Reagan’s policy, it would have signaled the demise of the Atlantic alliance—and the success of Moscow’s thirty-year-long effort to neutralize the European powers. The key diplomatic victory of Reagan’s career came when the United States and its European allies called the Soviets’ bluff and closed ranks over INF deployment. It was this political success that demonstrated to the Soviets that they could not pry NATO apart through bullying diplomacy. They already suspected they lacked the arms and technology to match NATO in a conventional war, so their inability to defeat NATO politically signaled the ultimate failure of thirty years of Soviet foreign and economic policy intended to bring Europe under Soviet hegemony in America’s despite. It paved the way for the rise of Gorbachev and perestroika, which in turn unleashed the process of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. It provided the essential political foundation for SDI. The few times Morris mentions INF, he is oblivious to its importance.
The foundation of Ronald Reagan’s political success lay in his domination of American politics, his ability to define the country’s political debates, win those debates at the polls, and remold policy—first in California, later in America and the world—according to his vision. Morris offers no analysis of the sources of Reagan’s appeal to the American voter. Nor is he interested in the manner in which Reagan crafted his electoral victories. Reagan’s presidential campaign of 1984, to cite one example, was a first-rate work of political engineering. Knowing that women were a majority of the electorate and that women voters leaned heavily against him, Reagan and his staff conducted a skilled campaign that led to his winning a majority of women’s votes in November 1984. Among men, Reagan enjoyed an unprecedented landslide. Yet in Morris’ lengthy memoir, the 1984 race merits about a page of anecdotes, the 1980 contest even less.
Edmund Morris has produced a compendium of stories, recollections and one-liners, almost untouched by analysis or perspective. Morris apparently takes for granted that most of his readers were politically aware during the Reagan presidency and appreciate instinctively Reagan’s dominance of American politics and the profound change he worked on political and economic agendas around the world. He therefore does not attempt to explain these things. As raw material for subsequent historians, Morris has offered an accessible, amply indexed volume. But a scholar or student a generation from now, trying to understand Reagan’s role in creating America’s dominance of world politics at the turn of the twenty-first century, will find this book of little use.
Dinesh D’Souza, a senior policy analyst in Reagan’s White House during the last two years of his presidency, is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader is not intended to be a definitive biography of Reagan, and in fact dedicates only two brief chapters to Reagan’s life prior to his election to the White House in 1980. Rather, Ronald Reagan is everything that Dutch is not: An analysis of Ronald Reagan as a policymaker of vision, and as a leader who motivated the American people and its allies to support him in realizing that vision. Reagan, according to D’Souza, was the most significant American leader since Franklin Roosevelt, setting his stamp upon the second half of the twentieth century as deeply as Roosevelt did upon the first.
According to D’Souza, Ronald Reagan deserves credit for two great political achievements which together reversed America’s domestic and international decline: Winning the Cold War, and reviving the American economy after a decade of stagnation.
The reason for Reagan’s success against the Soviets, D’Souza explains, was his determination to break with United States foreign policy as it had been conducted by every president since Truman. Before Reagan, American foreign policy centered either on containment, that is, struggling to prevent the Soviet Union from increasing its sphere of influence; or on détente, the effort to temper Soviet belligerence through negotiated agreements. Under what Charles Krauthammer has called the “Reagan Doctrine,” America took a more aggressive approach, actually attempting to roll back Soviet gains, and ultimately to bring the entire Soviet system down. “The West won’t contain Communism,” Reagan told students and faculty at Notre Dame University in 1981, just months after taking office. “It will transcend Communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are being written even now.”
As D’Souza notes, Reagan’s goal was itself dismissed at the time as bizarre by most professional observers of Soviet-American affairs. Settled opinion among the cognoscenti was that the Soviet Union was going to be around a long time, and that Reagan’s attempt to ruin it created the grave danger of war. Reagan’s unique contribution was the realization that it was indeed possible to drive the Soviet Union to ruin. In the aftermath of the Soviet demise, the same cognoscenti now like to dwell on the inevitability of the process, an outcome of the Soviet Union’s internal economic and political decline. It is an attitude that again leads them to judge Reagan’s contribution to be marginal. D’Souza points out that the Soviets’ final collapse might have been long delayed, had not Reagan pressed the Cold War to its conclusion. Reagan not only foresaw the possibility of Soviet collapse; his policies were designed to make it happen.
According to D’Souza, Reagan’s strategy consisted of two components, each of which was intended to undermine the Soviet leadership’s confidence and exploit internal Soviet economic weaknesses. The first was thwarting Soviet expansionist efforts through covert and overt operations. This meant a rejection of the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” according to which a country that had turned to Communism would stay that way for good. Reagan supported the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, the Solidarity labor union in Poland, Jonas Savimbi’s anti-Communist forces in Angola and the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. As a result of this new American assertiveness, the spread of Communism was halted. During the seven years before Reagan took office, from 1974 through 1980, Soviet influence had been extended to South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Grenada and Nicaragua. During the Reagan years, not a single country fell into the Soviet orbit.
The second element in Reagan’s strategy was the dramatic buildup of America’s military capability. America’s armed services were re-equipped with a new generation of precision-guided munitions, and deficiencies in training and personnel were made good. Large-scale investments were made in sophisticated weapons systems such as the Trident submarine, the Stealth fighter and bomber, the Pershing and cruise missiles, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. The effects of this policy were far-reaching. The Soviet Union, which could not match either the volume or the technological sophistication of America’s rearmament, was forced to agree to the reduction of conventional and nuclear arms on terms highly advantageous to the West. The effect on America’s allies was equally profound; they realized that the Soviet Union could no longer hold up its end of the Cold War, and that the United States was therefore destined to win.

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