Reagan Was His Own Man


Mr. Mann is the author of The Rise of the Vulcans. His latest book, from which this article is excerpted, is: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan.

Absolutely without guile. This is the interpretation of Reagan that has endured, both with conservatives who yearn to see him as a man of uncomplicated virtues, and among liberals who cling to the belief he was a dunce. It is the version of Reagan that many took from his television appearances, where his answers to questions were often formulaic; from the meetings where he deflected visitors and confrontation with stories and jokes; even from his diaries, where he recorded the events of the day (most of them, anyway) in a sanitized fashion and with a few brief impressions. It is the view of Reagan put forward by his wife, who devoted most of her life to protecting his image, with guile when necessary. Indeed, this may even have been the way Reagan perceived himself.

Yet any examination of Reagan's policies in the last years of the Cold War will show that he acted with what certainly looks like guile-or if not guile, then crafty instincts. His actions sometimes did not fit with his rhetoric-and it is the blend of the two, of his words and his actions, by which Reagan should be judged. Ringing anti-Soviet speeches served to marshal support for conciliatory policies. Conversely, the continuing diplomacy made it easier for Reagan to give speeches reaffirming a belief in democratic principles without raising the hackles of Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders. Visitors found Reagan virtually impossible to pin down, and often that was the point. "He had a facility for charming people while he was not budging an inch," observed Frank Carlucci, his national security adviser.

To be sure, Reagan's personal operating style sometimes seemed strange or even, occasionally, embarrassing. He chose to sign an important arms-control treaty with Gorbachev at a date and time set by his wife's astrologer. He used the valuable time of a summit meeting to tell jokes that made his own advisers cringe. He was so detached from daily events by his final year in office that his top subordinates made many decisions on their own without telling him.

Nevertheless, the judgments on which he based his policy toward the Soviet Union during this period usually turned out to be correct--even when, in retrospect, other prominent American political leaders and foreign-policy experts were wrong. Reagan guessed that Gorbachev represented significant change-that he was not just another in a line of leaders eager to reassert Soviet power around the globe, despite what both conservatives and old hands like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were arguing. He sensed that the Soviet economy was in desperate shape. He figured, rightly, that the Soviet Union would eventually be willing to enter into arms-control deals without the series of conditions it had previously set. He decided that Gorbachev would not react strongly to his speech at the Berlin Wall, despite what the State Department and the National Security Council were saying. Above all, Reagan recognized that the Cold War was not a permanent state of affairs; that it could, one day or another, draw to a close.

It seems fair to ask: How much of this was attributable to Reagan himself? Or to put it another way, was Reagan merely a tool or vehicle used by other people, other interests? Such questions are raised not merely by Reagan's veneer of guilelessness, but also by his often-passive approach to decision making. An examination of the record, however, shows that no one person or group "owned" Reagan.

One frequent claim, most prevalent during Reagan's early years in the White House, was that he was merely the instrument of conservative forces of right-wing groups in the U.S. heartland and of military hawks in Washington. But during Reagan's eight years in office, this interpretation became increasingly implausible, and by his final three years in office, it was demonstrably false. If Reagan had been merely a puppet of the American right, there would have been no embrace of Gorbachev, no drive to reduce America's supplies of nuclear weapons and missiles, no treaty to ban intermediate range missiles in Europe, no negotiated deals for the release of the imprisoned journalist Nicholas Daniloff, no abandonment of the "evil empire" label. If Reagan had heeded the wishes of conservatives, then George Shultz would have been replaced as secretary of state by someone like Jeane Kirkpatrick.

During Reagan's final three years as president, frustrated American conservatives regularly offered a contrary theory: that he had become the tool of a cabal of "moderates" inside his administration. They complained that the president, in his policy toward the Soviet Union, was carrying out the agenda of a group of officials including Shultz, Frank Carlucci, Colin Powell, and Howard Baker, with Nancy Reagan lurking in the background. The conservatives kept crying, "Let Reagan be Reagan," a slogan implying that Reagan was who they thought he was or wished him to be. In fact, this supposed "moderate" faction did not own Reagan either. Shultz and others at the State Department and National Security Council tried repeatedly but in vain to persuade Reagan to change the Berlin Wall speech and to remove its core sentence, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." In 1988, Shultz and others were eager for Reagan to conclude a second major arms-control treaty with Gorbachev to limit intercontinental missiles. But the decision was up to Reagan, not Shultz, and in the end, the administration decided to hold off.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War by James Mann. Copyright (c) James Mann, 2009.

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kai marsden - 5/20/2009

of course he was they all are except kennedy who has the guts to institute executive order 11110 to abolish the federal everyone president or sleezy chickens liking there playmoney at cost of corpses soon to be.after obama there will be no will end.wake up.

William J. Stepp - 5/17/2009

Ronnie and Casey were wrong about the USSR, just as the CIA had been in the 1950s and '60s, as well as libs such as Art Schlesinger Jr.

There is no such thing as "academic freedom," just as there is no such thing as "free speech." Freedom is indivisible--it has to do with upholding property rights, which include the rights of owners of academic institutions and people they make contracts with, such as professors, janitors, etc.
Of course, to the extent that property rights are violated, that is the fault of the State, which allegedly was created to defend them.
Just another canard, like the idea held by conservatives (but not libertarians!) that Ronnie was a great man.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/16/2009

Perhaps the USSR would have collapsed from its own internal economic mess whatever R.R. had done, but Reagan and Bill Casey felt that was a certainty throughout several years when nearly all our professional Russia-watchers believed and forecast that the power of the evil empire was actually growing...

I think that is right, but in the sense that slavery would have collapsed if there had never been a Civil War--it might have taken a while.

It doesn't surprise me Mann says in his book that Reagan did not win the Cold War, because to do so he probably would be admitting he was wrong at the time. (No, I am not familiar with Mann's book or his previous work either, but have Googled him and found he spent years in liberal enclaves where Reaganism was not tolerated. It is a sad thing to feel obliged to draw conclusions from such associations, but the lines are very taut in this country and "academic freedom" --even to the present day--does not extend to cover people who have ever had the slightest agreement with Ronald Reagan about anything. (As we all know).

In fact, this essay is so mild in its criticism of Reagan it seemed to me to be taking a step or two along a new path, beginning the road back. That was in my mind when I made my first comment above, and if so, Mr. Mann is to be encouraged. Reagan's success was so sweeping it really is impossible to ignore.

William J. Stepp - 5/15/2009

I haven't read the book, but according to The Economist's recent note on it, the author argues that Ronbo didn't win the Cold War. Rather, the Soviet Union collapsed of its own internal economic contradictions, and would have done so sooner or later no matter what Ronnie did.
Which is clearly the case given the reality of communism.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/15/2009

What the author is saying here, without intending to, is that Reagan was a great success internationally as POTUS, which of course he was. I am astonished that there was nothing critical of Reagan in this essay, apart from the snide reference to Nancy's fortune teller. (Mr. Mann obviously has never had a crazy wife who sometimes needs to be appeased). Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, and there is no gainsaying that central fact, regardless how much unwarranted lionizing of Gorby is attempted.