Magazine | May 19, 2014, Issue

A Night at The Improv

The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War, by James Graham Wilson (Cornell, 280 pp., $29.95)

In the early innings after the end of the Cold War, the media and much of the foreign-policy community wanted to give Mikhail Gorbachev the full credit for its surprising and abrupt end, portraying President Ronald Reagan mostly as a hindrance. After Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Strobe Talbott’s 5,000-word treatment in Time magazine’s “Man of the Decade” valentine devoted but a single sentence to Reagan, chiefly to shove him offstage. But as was the case with Eisenhower, another Republican president dismissed as a simpleton during his time, subsequent revelations about Reagan spawned a significant upward revision even among many liberals. Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, no friend of conservatives generally, wrote in 2008: “[Reagan’s] success in helping finally to end the Cold War is one of the greatest achievements by any president of the United States — and arguably the greatest single presidential achievement since 1945.” This revisionism is taken as vindication of what conservatives knew all along: Margaret Thatcher was right when she said Reagan won the Cold War without the firing of a single shot.

The revisionism about Reagan, however, has deepened rather than resolved a number of puzzles about him, and Gorbachev also remains out of focus in some important ways. Although it is unlikely that major new revelations or startling archival documents will appear in the future, revisionism about the Cold War’s endgame is likely to grind on for a long time because new interpretations will propose intuitive and speculative insights into the contradictions and unknowable innermost thought processes of Reagan and Gorbachev. This is a tall order, requiring a combination of biographical and political genius, qualities that are almost as rare as genuine statesmanship.

As his title suggests, James Graham Wilson, a historian at the State Department, embraces the theme of “improvisation” to explain the Cold War endgame. Wilson focuses on a quartet of actors, including George Shultz and George H. W. Bush along with Reagan and Gorbachev. His compact narrative — just 204 pages of text — proceeds in disciplined chronological order, which restrains the sort of sweeping and dubious generalizations that often mar other treatments of the Cold War’s last decade. Wilson is sparing and careful in his judgments; some are astute, others more contestable.

Readers can never know whether publishers have cut down a manuscript, but we could use a longer account from Wilson, as his narrative leaves us wanting more depth on some key points and doesn’t unravel some of the mysteries of Reagan. To his credit, Wilson displays none of the usual subtle condescension that often seems obligatory in writing about him. Reagan “was not the cowboy his critics alleged,” Wilson says right at the outset, adding that “Reagan as statesman now commands a presumption of greatness.”

But it is less clear that the concept of “improvisation” presents a genuinely “new direction” for understanding the end of the Cold War. All statesmanship, like battle, involves a large amount of improvisation. Historians and biographers share with politicians the conceit of mastery over events, and we flatter ourselves that we can reduce causation to single narrative dimensions: It was all Gorbachev! It was Reagan’s cunning master plan! It was the materialist dialectic in reverse! To paraphrase Churchill, first we shape our narratives, and then our narratives shape us. Real political life is almost always more chaotic and less in the control of government leaders than we think.

Wilson is quite right to call into question the two leading monistic narratives, Reagan Triumphalism and Gorbachev Triumphalism. Wilson rightly notes the central contradictions of Reagan: a fierce anti-Communist who also wanted to negotiate real arms control; someone who perceived Soviet leaders as rigid Marxist-Leninist ideologues, but who could also appeal to them sentimentally as normal human beings (the Soviets no doubt found these two sides of Reagan deeply confusing); the person who set off hardliners in his inner circle against supposed moderates such as Shultz. Wilson describes all of these tensions well, but we get no closer to figuring out how Reagan calibrated his flywheel.

Maybe we can’t unravel those contradictions. Reagan was not introspective, and his diary offers only superficial clues about his thought processes. But he had an uncanny grasp of when to talk and act tough with the Soviets, and when to be conciliatory. He knew he needed both factions — hardliners and engaged negotiators like Shultz — in his tent. But somewhere was a fine sense of judgment scarcely visible even to intimates. Reagan’s deeper subtlety might be seen in a comment he once made to Bud McFarlane — not included in Wilson’s narrative — that while he could fire Shultz and make Cap Weinberger secretary of state (a job Weinberger coveted), he’d get bad policy. Wilson thinks that Reagan kept on Weinberger and other hardliners out of personal loyalty and refused to resolve staff clashes out of personal aversion to conflict, but this is too simple and is controverted by other evidence.

#page#Wilson’s “improvisation” narrative implicitly discounts the Reagan Triumphalism that is popular among conservatives, and while he doesn’t heap scorn on the narrative as do many other writers, he does miss or skip over some evidence that lends some credence to the idea that there was more deliberateness than improvisation to Reagan’s Cold War strategy. To be sure, there were few people around Reagan who thought out loud that the U.S. might win the Cold War inside a decade, and even Reagan himself said the night the Berlin Wall came down that while he expected the end of Communism, he never thought it would happen so soon. But there were in fact some perceptions — especially in CIA deputy director Herbert Meyer’s prescient 1983 memo to Bill Casey and Reagan — that the U.S. might be on its way to winning the Cold War in two or three decades, and for reasons that turned out to be precisely correct.

There are other places where Wilson’s admirable restraint leads him to debatable judgments. He thinks that Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric “had no bearing on the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.” This requires much more argument. Reagan’s critics in the early 1980s complained loudly that Reagan’s hardline rhetoric and uncompromising arms-control policy would strengthen Kremlin hardliners and make any future thaw in relations impossible, but there is contemporary evidence — chiefly from people Wilson discounts, including William Clark and Richard Pipes — that this tough stand in fact made it more likely that a liberal reformer would come to power after the Brezhnev generation expired.

Gorbachev was that liberal reformer, and while Reagan’s rhetoric may not have affected Politburo thinking (though I think it did), Reagan’s critics were surely refuted by this succession. Wilson’s “improvisation” thesis fits Gorbachev very well, and Wilson may not have gone far enough in appreciating the deeper factors behind Gorbachev’s often erratic course. “The Politburo,” Wilson rightly notes, “would never have chosen Gorbachev to lead the country in 1985 had its members possessed any inkling of the reforms he would adopt — especially if they had known that so many of these reforms were destined to fail!” Gorbachev did not have unlimited freedom to improvise.

Wilson does bring to our attention one episode of the Gorbachev story that remains underappreciated: his decision in December 1988 to announce more or less unilaterally that the Soviet Union was throwing in the towel on the Cold War. Most significant was that Gorbachev conceived his United Nations speech as “Fulton in reverse” — that is, an announcement that the Iron Curtain should soon be lifted. It was not known publicly at the time that Gorbachev conceived his intent as being in continuity with Churchill’s great theme, and this is an instance in which Wilson’s even-paced narrative does not convey the full drama and significance of the moment.

One important departure from most treatments of the Cold War endgame is Wilson’s detailed discussion of the aftermath of Reagan under President George H. W. Bush. Bush is often left out of the story, and Wilson is right to concentrate more fully on Bush’s actions from 1989 to 1991. Wilson thinks that “when walls came down, Bush was better suited than Reagan to set the terms for Cold War victory,” and Bush’s much ridiculed “prudence” is certainly congruent with Wilson’s “improvisation” theme. But Reagan was just as restrained as Bush on that November day when the Berlin Wall suddenly came down, appearing on ABC’s Primetime Live clearly not inclined, as were many conservatives disappointed with Bush, to do a sack dance in the end zone of Communism.

While the course changes and adjustments that Wilson narrates can carry the “improvisation” theme, it is less clear that they support a finding of inconsistency on the part of any of the four principals in his book. Improvisation fits Gorbachev best; less well Reagan, Bush, and Shultz. A practical synonym for “improvisation” is “muddle,” and much of the entire Cold War story from the beginning was often a tale of muddle and blunders followed by recovery and adjustment. Perhaps the endgame story can’t really be understood except in continuity with the whole scene stretching back to the 1940s — a thought Wilson suggests briefly at the end — and it could easily have taken a different and more ominous course had other figures been in charge in the Kremlin. Even Wilson’s lean narrative cannot escape conveying the near-miraculous nature of it, and even if his cautious judgments can be contested, there is no slighting the miraculousness of this epic.

– Mr. Hayward, the author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980–1989, is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

Steven F. Hayward is a visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He writes daily at

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