Can you imagine a world without the Soviet Union? You can now, but could you then? A world without bipolar conflict, without the threat of global nuclear annihilation, in which millions of formerly enslaved people would be free? Whether or not you could conceive it three decades ago, you can thank Ronald Reagan for not only imagining it, but making it happen.
A conceit we are likely to hear in coming days, as we remember Ronald Reagan’s foreign-policy legacy, is that back then “we were all Cold Warriors.” To quote the old punch line, What do you mean we
? When critics described Reagan as a Cold Warrior 25 years ago, it was a term of opprobrium, of derision, used to peg him as a narrow-minded, slightly kooky, old-fashioned, nationalistic dunderhead, a naïve, unsophisticated, and dangerous throwback. The sophisticates were the proponents of détente, of convergence theory, of moral relativism, who believed that arms control negotiations were the epitome of the diplomatic art. They saw the Soviet Union and socialism in general as an unquestionable fact of life, inconvenient at worst, perhaps instructive if one ignored the gulag and focused on the positive aspects like universal health care. His critics were not Communists, but they opposed anti-Communism; they had no definite foreign-policy agenda, but disdained those who did. Then Reagan, impossibly, became president. The perception they had cultivated of Reagan as a “nuclear cowboy” contributed to the first of his many great foreign-policy accomplishments. The President-elect’s transition team encouraged the Iranians to believe that the dangerously unstable right winger they had been reading about in the papers was capable of ordering a nuclear strike on them shortly after the inauguration, unless they made peace with him quickly. The result was the immediate release of the American hostages. The joke was on the mullahs.
President Reagan’s approach to foreign policy was based on his fundamental moral clarity, and courage to follow through on it. He saw the truth, and acted. This made many of his critics uncomfortable, particularly his penchant for expressing his ideals aloud. There was an uproar over calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” for example, because he dared to apply a normative standard to totalitarianism. The very fact that he thought in terms of good and evil was seen as an embarrassing intellectual shortcoming. When he went to the Berlin Wall before the Brandenburg Gate and spoke what has become the signature line of his presidency, entreating Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” it was greeted back home by the chattering class with rolled eyes and smirks. There he goes again.
The Soviets had actually predicted Reagan. His emergence fit into the Marxist-Leninist schema of the unfolding of history. According to the Soviet model, the United States was in the ultimate stage of the final crisis of capitalism. Their theorists (using Weimar Germany as a precursor) predicted that an economic shock would bring the defeat of a weak center-left government and the advent of reactionary nationalism as a last gasp attempt to salvage the country’s fading power. There would follow further economic decline, and ultimately collapse. With the Carter presidency, the 1980 election, and the recession of 1982, it looked like things were going according to plan. But then came something completely unexpected–Grenada. The United States took back the first piece of consolidated Communist turf. Sure, it was just a little island, but this was never supposed to happen. Communism was a ratchet effect, once red always red. A military operation that was dismissed by many in this country as insignificant sent shockwaves through the Soviet system. There followed the Reagan economic recovery, the military buildup, the Pershing deployment, SDI, the Reagan Doctrine–the body blows were landing so fast no wonder the Soviets panicked.
The other fashionable minimization of Reagan’s achievement is the thesis, “We all knew the end of the Soviet Union was coming. It was inevitable.” This is wrong on both counts. But by talking about the collapse of Communism as though it was inevitable, as though all we had to do was wait, the argument implies that not only was Reagan not a significant strategic leader, but that everything he did was a waste of time and money. It is true that Soviet socialism could not have sustained itself perpetually, in the sense that no state lasts forever. The Soviet system only persisted as long as it did because it looted its neighbors and stole technology it could never invent. But this could have continued for decades longer, maybe a century or more if they could have seized more territory. Yet Ronald Reagan saw no reason for the Soviet state to persist at all. As he said in Berlin in 1987, defeating socialism was “the question of freedom for all mankind.” He forced the Soviet Union to face its inner contradictions by stressing its economy past its breaking point, and by giving a message of hope and freedom to the captive nations. He also sought aid for anti-Communist insurgencies, not so much because they were pro-democracy but because we had a common enemy, and they had men in the field showing the Soviets and their proxies what it felt like to lose.
Reagan also faced a major task in rebuilding America’s strategic position in the world. We were in global strategic retreat, our military forces were facing a crisis of morale, our Navy was weak, our nuclear forces inferior, our intelligence community ravaged by firings and mismanagement, our diplomacy craven, pundits saying we had to get used to second-tier status, and politicians balancing choices between which sets of limitations we would be forced to accept rather than questioning the premise of limits themselves. Meanwhile Reagan’s opponents in Congress were sending letters of support to the Sandinista dictatorship, blocking aid to anti-Soviet insurgencies, hobbling the CIA, and trying to kill SDI. He also had to deal with a hostile (pretty much) pre-cable, pre-web media that never understood him and consistently questioned every aspect of his policies. But Reagan had a secret weapon–the American people. The Great Communicator could make direct appeals to the public, explaining his policies in terms they could understand, honestly, straightforwardly, and with conviction. And he did not do this all alone. He had his fellow warriors; Helmut Kohl, Pope John Paul II, and most importantly Margaret Thatcher. There were giants in those days. And together they achieved almost everything they set out to do.
It is said that Ronald Reagan was the right man at the right time. This is untrue. Reagan would have been the right man at any time. Imagine the world today had Reagan succeeded in being nominated and elected in 1968–a world without Watergate, without the humiliating defeat in Vietnam, without détente, without the SALT or ABM treaties, without the age of malaise, without all of the events that defined a generation of political cynicism, much of which is still with us, embodied in those whose political and professional identities were forged in those pessimistic days and who never got beyond them. It was unfortunate the country had to wait for circumstances to get so bad before reaching out to a man who reminded them that the future was not preordained. When the political class was preaching limits, Reagan reminded them of the limitlessness of human potential. When the tide of history seemed to be overwhelming, Reagan stood against it. Too often we have to look into the abyss before catching site of the horizon.
The reason Reagan ranks among our greatest presidents is because of the soundness and strength of his core beliefs, which were his touchstone, his guiding star. They were the source of his courage, his direction, and his optimism. The man who lacks substance complains he would have been great if only something important had happened. The great man is he who seeks out challenges, whose days are significant because he makes them so. Years ago, someone spray-painted on the Berlin Wall, “This wall comes down when belief becomes reality.” Ronald Reagan believed, and made the belief real.