In Summer 1987 I was invited to a dinner party while vacationing in Rome. The other guests, some American, some European, were mainly diplomats and international civil servants. Before long the conversation had veered round to Ronald Reagan. Those present were almost all either hostile or contemptuous towards the President–”an amiable dimwit…sleepwalking through crises…out-of-control deficits…reckless warmonger…prisoner of his own prejudices…waging an unwinnable arms race with the Soviets.…” And so on and so forth.
Before long, largely because I was then working in Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street, I found myself cast as chief counsel for the defense. Patiently I responded by pointing out that Reaganomics had led to “the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history.” That was dismissed as the calm before the Slump.
But it was a defense of Reagan’s foreign policy that aroused the most derisive and bitter opposition. The Soviet empire, I was told, was stable and increasingly prosperous. Reagan’s “confrontational” approach was doomed to fail while risking a nuclear war. His arms build-up, including “Star Wars,” would bankrupt America before it even inconvenienced the Soviets.
Only one other person at the party seemed unsure of these verities. He sat looking more and more uncomfortable as the other guests hooted at the claim that Reagan’s economic, military, and ideological competition with the Soviets was undermining their power in Europe. Eventually, he intervened with obvious reluctance:
“Well, I don’t think much of Reagan either. But I have just come back from a tour of Eastern Europe. And everyone there says exactly what our Downing Street friend is saying. They all think Reagan is a hero and a great statesman. And they predict he will bring down the Soviet Union.”
For a moment it was the Perfect Squelch. The guests went quiet. Several looked uneasy and downcast. One or two people made as if to respond–but stopped before actually speaking. An uncomfortable silence reigned.
And then the rationalizations, tentative at first but growing in confidence as one followed another, began to pour forth: “Yes, doubtless some East Europeans did believe such things…that was understandable since they had only very limited information about the West…they had an exaggerated view of Reagan because the Kremlin’s attacks had exaggerated his importance…the East’s growing prosperity would gradually erase such discontent…hadn’t some survey shown that East Germany was now more prosperous than Britain?… Gorbachev’s reforms would soon undercut Reagan…yes, Gorbachev, Gorbachev, he offered real hope.”
Even at the time, these dismissals of Reagan and Reaganism should have struck well-informed people as transparently false. Only one year previously dissident intellectuals from every East European country, inspired by Reagan, had signed a joint declaration calling for freedom and independence. It was an unprecedented act of defiance against Moscow.
Even the Communists were preparing their escape from the coming collapse. Over a breakfast in London in 1986 an Hungarian Communist apparatchik described how the party intended to maneuver its own hard-liners into accepting multi-party elections–and then to form a new post-Communist social democrat party to fight the free elections.
In Poland a Western academic visitor was told the following joke: The Polish Communist party is launching a recruitment drive–with valuable prizes. If you recruit one person to join the party, you win a two-week vacation in New York. If you get five people to join, you are allowed to resign from the party yourself. And if you bring in ten new recruits, you get a certificate stating that you had never been a member of it.
What is even more significant is that the man telling the joke was a senior member of the Polish politburo. By summer 1987 the signs of Communist decay were all around–and two years later they would bring the entire empire crashing down.
Reagan sensed all this. He could repeat anti-Communist jokes by the bushel–and he knew that jokes in a totalitarian society were the only permissible form of truth-telling. He even told such jokes to keep Gorbachev off balance in negotiations.
Yet these sophisticated diplomats in Rome, who were paid to think about such matters, could not see what was in front of their noses. They were “amiable dimwits…sleepwalking through crises.” No–that’s not quite right. They were the “prisoners of their own prejudices.”
In their case the prejudice that animated them was anti-anti-Communism which transformed itself effortlessly into anti-Reaganism when the occasion warranted. They did not want to believe that Communism was both oppressive and declining since that would have made their policies of appeasement needless and shameful. They did not want Reagan to be right since that would mean they had been outsmarted by a dimwit and an icon to the great unwashed. And they seized on Gorbachev as a way of denying Reagan or the West any credit for the liberation of half a continent–not grasping, of course, that Gorbachev’s reforms were made necessary by Reagan’s ruthless military and economic competition. (In shorthand, without Reagan, no Gorbachev.)
My dinner-party companions were not alone in these opinions. They were merely voicing the conventional wisdom of the foreign-policy establishments, the political class, and the media elites on both sides of the Atlantic. Some in those circles went a great deal farther than merely sneering at Reagan. Vladimir Bukovsky, the great anti-Soviet dissident, later discovered in the archives of the Soviet Communist party that a delegation of German social democrats had appealed to the Kremlin to crack down on Eastern Europe on the grounds that a Soviet collapse would weaken the Left everywhere. (A false prediction, alas.)
Reagan did not stand entirely alone against these chic appeasers. Even an abbreviated list of his allies would have to include the Pope, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, some politicians whose staunch role is unappreciated outside their own countries such as Italy’s Francesco Cossiga, dissidents of great courage such as Vaclav Havel and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Western sovietologists like Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes, and the enslaved peoples of the Soviet bloc.
But Reagan was the leader of the free world. His leadership of this freedom coalition made all the difference. It meant that the power of the United States stood behind the striking shipbuilders of Gdansk, the “velvet revolutionaries” of Charter 88, and brave individuals like Andrei Sakharov in the very shadow of the Kremlin. And that ultimately enabled them to win.
In what will remain his best epitaph, Lady Thatcher said: “President Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.” He did so because he knew that the people on the other side of the barricades were his friends–and ours. The diplomats have been calling him a lucky dimwit ever since.