John Lewis Gaddis: Reagan Was No Lightweight





John Lewis Gaddis, in a lecture at George Washington University (April 2004):

The principal point of which I wish to persuade you may come as something of a surprise: it is that Ronald Reagan – not his advisers, but Reagan himself – deserves to be ranked alongside Kennan, Nitze, Eisenhower, Dulles, Rostow, Nixon and Kissinger as a serious strategist of containment. Indeed, I will go beyond that to argue that Reagan succeeded, where they all failed, to achieve a workable synthesis of symmetrical and asymmetrical containment – drawing upon the strengths of each approach while avoiding their weaknesses – and that it was that accomplishment, together with the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, that brought the Cold War to an end.

For years intellectuals, journalists, political opponents, and especially academics derided Reagan as a telegenic lightweight, too simple-minded to know what containment had been about, much less to have constructive ideas about how to ensure its success. It certainly is true that Reagan relied more on instincts than on systematic study in shaping his positions. Those instincts, derived from his Midwestern upbringing, his experiences in Hollywood, and an occasional tendency to conflate movies with reality, included an unshakable belief in democracy and capitalism, an abhorrence of communism, an impatience with compromise in what he regarded as a contest between good and evil, and – very significantly – a deep fear that the Cold War might end in a nuclear holocaust, thereby confirming the Biblical prophecy of Armageddon. This was, to say the least, an unorthodox preparation for the presidency. When combined with the fact that Reagan took office as the oldest elected chief executive – he turned 70 shortly after his inauguration – it seemed reasonable to expect an amiable geriatric who would for the most part follow the lead of his own advisers.

That view turned out to be wrong on several counts. First, it overlooked the skill with which Reagan had managed his pre-presidential career: it was no small matter to have shifted the Republican Party to the right while centrist Republican presidents – Nixon and Ford – were occupying the White House. Second, it failed to take into account Reagan’s artful artlessness: his habit of appearing to know less than his critics did, of seeming to be adrift even as he proceeded quietly toward destinations he himself had chosen. Third, and most important, it neglected what Reagan himself had said in several hundred radio scripts and speech drafts prepared between 1975 and 1980: these almost daily commentaries, composed in longhand on legal pads without the assistance of speechwriters, provided a more voluminous record of positions taken on national and international issues than had been available for any other modern presidential aspirant. They put forward no comprehensive strategy for ending the Cold War. That would emerge only gradually, in response to what happened after Reagan entered the White House. These broadcasts and speeches did, however, contain most of the ideas that lay behind that strategy – and they establish that the ideas came mostly from Reagan himself.

Third, and most important, it neglected what Reagan himself had said in several hundred radio scripts and speech drafts prepared between 1975 and 1980: these almost daily commentaries, composed in longhand on legal pads without the assistance of speechwriters, provided a more voluminous record of positions taken on national and international issues than had been available for any other modern presidential aspirant. They put forward no comprehensive strategy for ending the Cold War. That would emerge only gradually, in response to what happened after Reagan entered the White House. These broadcasts and speeches did, however, contain most of the ideas that lay behind that strategy – and they establish that the ideas came mostly from Reagan himself.

The most striking one was optimism: faith in the ability of the United States to compete successfully within the international system. You would have to go back to FDR in 1933 to find a president who entered office with comparable self-confidence in the face of bleak prospects. Like Roosevelt, Reagan believed that the nation was stronger than it realized, that time was on its side, and that these facts could be conveyed, through rhetoric, style, and bearing, to the American people. “[I]t is important every once and a while to remind ourselves of our accomplishments,” he told his radio audience in 1976, “lest we let someone talk us into throwing out the baby with the bathwater. . . [T]he system has never let us down – we’ve let the system down now & then because we’re only human.”

It followed from this that the Soviet Union was weaker than it appeared to be, and that time was not on its side. Reagan had insisted as early as 1975 that communism was “a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature.” This too was an unusual posture for an incoming president. The fundamental premise of containment had always been that the United States was acting defensively against an adversary that was on the offensive, and was likely to continue on that path for the foreseeable future. Now, just at the moment at which the U.S.S.R. had achieved parity and seemed to be pushing for superiority in strategic weaponry, Reagan rejected that premise, raising the prospect of regaining and indefinitely sustaining American preeminence.

He did so by assuming expandable resources on the part of the United States, a view consistent with NSC 68, which Reagan read and discussed on the air shortly after it was declassified in 1975. He concluded, as he later recalled, that “capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism – money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever.” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was denying its people “all kinds of consumer products” in its quest for military supremacy. “We could have an unexpected ally,” he noted in 1977, “if citizen Ivan is becoming discontented enough to start talking back.” After becoming president, Reagan quickly became convinced, on the basis of intelligence reports, that the Soviet economy “was a basket case, partly because of massive spending on armaments. . . . I wondered how we as a nation could use these cracks in the Soviet system to accelerate the process of collapse.”

The Soviet Union was also vulnerable, Reagan insisted, within the realm of ideas. Despite his support for the Committee on the Present Danger, founded in 1976 to warn of the Soviet military buildup, Reagan never accepted its assumption that armaments alone could make the U.S.S.R. a viable competitor for the United States. Moscow’s failure to respect human rights, he maintained, was a serious weakness, even in a military super-power. Although Reagan had opposed the Helsinki Conference, which he regarded – shortsightedly – as having ratified Soviet control over Eastern Europe, by 1979 he was acknowledging that “something [is] going on behind the Iron Curtain that we’ve been ignoring and [that offers] hope for all mankind. . . . [A] little less détente . . . and more encouragement to the dissidents might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”

Mutual Assured Destruction, however, had to go. Unlike all previous presidents dating back to Kennedy, Reagan refused to accept the proposition that a nuclear balance of terror could ever lead to a stable international system: it was, he later recalled, “the craziest thing I ever heard of.” The SALT process, geared as it was toward reinforcing MAD, was flawed because it did nothing to reverse reliance on nuclear weapons or to diminish the risks that their continued existence in such vast numbers entailed. “I have repeatedly stated that I would be willing to negotiate an honest, verifiable reduction in nuclear weapons . . . to the point that neither of us represented a threat to the other,” Reagan wrote in a 1980 speech draft. “I cannot, however, agree to a treaty – specifically the Salt II treaty, which, in effect, legitimizes a nuclear arms buildup.”

The problem with détente, then, was not that it had encouraged negotiations with the U.S.S.R., but rather that it had done so without enlisting American strengths: the idea had been to “seek agreements just for the sake of having an agreement.” But “if we have the will & the determination to build a deterrent capability . . . we can have real peace. . . . [T]he men in the Kremlin could in the face of such determination decide that true arms limitation makes sense.” In Reagan’s view, then, rejecting détente was the way to reduce the danger of nuclear war and move toward a negotiated settlement of Cold War differences.

Such a settlement would require, however, a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet Union itself. That had been the long-term objective of containment since Kennan first articulated that strategy; but as the nuclear danger had grown, the American interest in trying to reform the U.S.S.R. had receded – at least until the Carter administration made the promotion of human rights there one of its chief priorities. Carter, however, had sought to change the Soviet Union while preserving détente, an impossible task in retrospect because one could hardly challenge a state’s internal makeup while simultaneously soliciting its cooperation within the international arena. For Reagan, reforming the Soviet Union required the abandonment of détente. “Our foreign policy should be to show by example the greatness of our system and the strength of American ideals,” he wrote in August 1980. “[W]e would like nothing better than to see the Russian people living in freedom & dignity instead of being trapped in a backwash of history as they are.

Reagan was, then, no lightweight. He came into office with a clear set of ideas, developed for the most part on his own, on how to salvage the strategy of containment by returning to its original objective: that of convincing Soviet leaders, as Kennan had written in 1947, “that the true glory of Russian national effort can find its expression only in peaceful and friendly association with other peoples and not in attempts to subjugate and dominate those peoples.” He would do this, not by acknowledging the current Soviet regime’s legitimacy, but by challenging it; not by seeking parity in the arms race but by regaining superiority; not by compromising on the issue of human rights but by capitalizing on it as a weapon more powerful than anything that existed in the military arsenals of either side. “The Reagan I observed may have been no master of detail,” Soviet ambassador Dobrynin later observed, “but he had a clear sense of what he wanted.”


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