Interview: Steven Hayward compares Reagan and Churchill

Roundup: Talking About History

In his new book, Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the making of Extraordinary Leaders, Steven F. Hayward — a familiar name to National Review Online readers — compares, as the title suggests, Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to him about those guys and making such assessments.

National Review Online: What made you first think of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill in the same sentence — and enough sentences to fill a book?

Steven F. Hayward: This was something of an accidental discovery growing out of my larger work-in-progress on the Reagan presidency (the second volume of The Age of Reagan, due hopefully next year). I began writing what I thought would be four or five paragraphs on the ways in which Reagan used the example and memory of Churchill. But I kept working through the material, and before long I was up to 5,000 words. I came to see that the parallels between them are extensive and profound. Martin Anderson and Peter Robinson both encouraged me to turn these musings into a short book.

NRO: Quoting Churchill is a bipartisan pastime in American politics. How does Reagan differ from other American politicians on this score?

Hayward: It turns out that President Reagan quoted Churchill more often than all other presidents put together. But beyond the fondness for the memorable quotation or witticism, it became apparent to me that Reagan fully absorbed the lessons of Churchill’s statecraft, and that this was central Reagan’s approach to the Cold War.

The easiest way to see this is to recall Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946, in which he said that World War II could have been prevented “without the firing of a single shot,” if only the Western democracies had armed themselves and stood up to the dictators. And then recall what Margaret Thatcher said about Ronald Reagan (in the pages of National Review, no less!) in the early 1990s; she said that Reagan won the Cold War “without the firing of a single shot.” I don't know whether the Iron Lady was consciously recalling the Iron Curtain speech in this remark, but the symmetry between Reagan and Churchill on the Cold War is compelling when you look more closely.

NRO: What was at the heart of their shared understanding and strategy for the Cold War?

Hayward: In the Iron Curtain speech and in his subsequent writings, Churchill emphasized two themes that became central to Reagan. First, the Soviets only respected military strength, which meant that the West needed to be at least as powerful at the Soviet Union. Second, Churchill argued that the existence of nuclear weapons made it imperative that the West reach a permanent settlement with the Soviet Union. Churchill was arguably the first advocate of détente back in the 1950s, but from a position of strength rather than sentimental good will that characterized the flabby détente we attempted in the 1970s (especially under Jimmy Carter, whom Reagan compared to Neville Chamberlain against the advice of his top campaign aides). Reagan’s emphasis on rearming the West before pursuing arms negotiations with the Soviets is well known, but his frequent statements about the necessity of reaching an honest settlement with the Soviet Union tended to be overlooked or discounted both at the time and even today....

comments powered by Disqus