Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Reagan’s Long Game

Ronald Reagan delivers his historic speech at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987. (Wikimedia Commons)
Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Bret Baier with Catherine Whitney (William Morrow, 416 pp., $28.99)

In January 1977, just after Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford and was inaugurated as president, I flew to Los Angeles to keep a morning appointment with Ronald Reagan at his home. I had come to request a favor from him. He quickly granted it, and then there ensued a six-hour conversation focused on the Cold War, Communist ideology, China, and U.S. relations with allies. He walked with me to my car as we conversed and then said, “Before you leave, Dick, I’d like to tell you my theory of the Cold War.” He continued, “Some say I’m simplistic, but there’s a big difference between being simplistic and having simple answers to complex matters.” I nodded in agreement.

“So, with that in mind, my theory of the Cold War is, ‘We win and they lose.’ What do you think of that, Dick?” I was somewhat flabbergasted, and responded with, “Governor, do you mean that?” He frowned and said, “Of course I mean it: I just said it!” I quickly replied, “Governor, I don’t know if you’re ever going to run again for president of the United States, but if you do, I’d like to be on your team.” He responded, “Welllllll . . . that’d be very nice.”

Some 40 years later, Bret Baier, a Fox News host, along with Catherine Whitney, has written a splendid book examining in exquisite detail the evolution of Reagan’s fundamental approach to ending the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, one that had lasted since the Bolsheviks seized power in late 1917 in a bloody struggle that took years to play out.

Three Days in Moscow is a fast-paced and tightly knit story that will hold the reader’s attention to the very end. The research and writing are top-drawer, with very few errors and minimal omissions. Baier describes in considerable detail the main players in the drama of ending a decades-long struggle defined as a nuclear standoff.

Reagan, a committed disarmer, realized that the enemy was driven by an ideology welded to growing power — a dangerous combination in any age, and the more so because nuclear weapons would be involved in any major conflict. He knew that any president would need a comprehensive strategy the moment he was sworn in. He saw the flaws in détente, the reigning strategy of the Nixon and Ford administrations, which was for Henry Kissinger, Ford’s secretary of state, the only way to survive.

Reagan recognized that the word “détente” means a mere relaxation of tensions, but for Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, it had achieved the status of strategic dogma, never to be questioned. In the 1976 Republican primary race, Reagan began his political attack on this attachment to détente, declaring it only a cover to continue building weapons of mass destruction, even while talks of disarming continued along another path. The Soviet Union built at a frantic pace, despite its inherently ineffectual, corrupt “socialist” system. In truth, it was a command economy, which Reagan recognized and resolved to weaken by denying it Western technology.

In 1980, Reagan and his small team engaged a flock of competing candidates in various primaries, beginning with the Iowa caucuses. George H. W. Bush, who had organized well in Iowa, won there and claimed that he had achieved momentum — for him, “Big Mo.”

Angered by the loss, Reagan turned his campaign upside down. Campaign manager John Sears had deliberately kept Reagan out of Iowa, telling him, “It’s merely a beefcake show, and you’ll win without even showing up.” Reagan reluctantly followed that advice, lost, and exploded, saying, “Now I’m going to campaign the way I want.”

It was a dramatic showdown, leading a few weeks later to a runaway win, in New Hampshire, that swung the momentum to Reagan. In the midst of the victory, on primary day, he fired Sears and replaced him with William J. Casey, a former Office of Strategic Services operative working behind enemy lines in World War II, former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and respected New York lawyer. Moving on to South Carolina, Reagan again emerged victorious, and he never looked back.

While the political machinery was engaging to ensure that Reagan would be nominated, I and the late Martin Ander­son, my close colleague and friend during the Nixon campaign and in the Nixon White House, began organizing the resources needed to flesh out Reagan’s proposals in domestic, foreign, and national-security policies. And then there was the challenge of reversing the opinion that Reagan was a “warmonger,” a man who could not create peaceful conditions when dealing with an adversary such as the Soviet Union. Even U.S. allies had to be reassured, since most of them consumed the views of the New York Times and the Washington Post, which dismissed Reagan as a “right-winger” who’d reach for the rifle on the wall as his preferred solution to any international problem.

Behind the scenes, Anderson and I assembled two extraordinary domestic- and foreign-policy teams to work closely with us. Each adviser met with Reagan, and their work immensely strengthened the policy machinery needed by a modern presidential campaign. My close colleagues, the late Fred C. Iklé and William Van Cleave, managed the work of these teams of experts, who numbered about 125, and many of the advisers moved directly into administration positions in 1981.

Reagan’s stunning victory in No­vember 1980 was a marker. He entered office prepared to implement the policies he had outlined in his campaign; he had the talent in place to move quickly on his agenda. Nothing was more important than the immediate restoration of U.S. military forces, with heavy emphasis on the Navy. He promised a 600-ship fleet and selected a talented man, John F. Lehman, to restore the Navy to being an all-ocean, blue-water fleet.

Baier does not go into detail on the 1980 congressional elections, but Re­publicans gained a Senate majority, and although the House still had a Democratic majority, it was one Reagan could do business with. This was especially true with the speaker of the House, Massachusetts Democrat Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, with whom Reagan developed a quite fine personal relationship. House support was especially important in funding the Pentagon and related agencies.

Reagan’s campaign chairman, William Casey, became director of central intelligence; Caspar Weinberger, a close Reagan friend, was named secretary of defense. After an intense campaign by Richard Nixon and members of Reagan’s California “kitchen cabinet,” Reagan appointed Alexander M. Haig as secretary of state. (Almost immediately, with Haig in place after a challenging Senate confirmation process, problems arose as he attempted to take charge of all foreign-policy matters.) Reagan’s choice for attorney general was his old friend William French Smith.

Martin Anderson was named chief of domestic-policy matters, Edwin Meese became counselor, James A. Baker was the chief of staff, and Michael Deaver was assistant to the president (I was named national-security adviser). Baier does not overlook the influence of Nancy Reagan in all this. Constantly at Reagan’s side, she had a significant hand in official appointments, and only rarely was Reagan willing to make a major appointment in the face of Nancy’s opposition.

In his first press conference, scarcely ten days into his administration, Reagan fielded a question about future relations with the Soviet Union, and in the process of answering he said that the Soviets would “lie, cheat, and steal,” which produced a collective gasp of feigned astonishment.

I was standing next to Secretary of State Haig on the side (we had been colleagues in the National Security Council in the first Nixon administration). As the press conference ended, the huge assembled press contingent made a beeline for Haig and me. Haig remained standing and began speaking with the gaggle. I eluded the pack and followed the president out onto the colonnade as he walked back to the Oval Office. I was a few yards behind him and his Secret Service detail when he suddenly stopped, wheeled around, and said, “Oh, say, Dick . . .” I closed the gap and came close to him, and he said: “The Soviets — they do lie, cheat, and steal, don’t they?” I smiled, knowing he was primed for a joke, and said, “They sure do, Mr. President.”

He turned and resumed striding toward the Oval Office, saying with a wink, “I thought so!” His statement at the press conference went far and wide, and was considered no joke on his part. Some allies were upset.

Baier does a fine job of describing the evolving relationship between Reagan and the Soviet leaders. At the outset, strongly anti-American leaders such as Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko all came and went. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev had assumed power, the stage was set for meetings between two personable leaders. And Reagan, by then well schooled about the personae of Soviet leadership and recognizing that change was under way, saw the possibility of an opening for discussion and negotiations. Thus began the famous Reagan–Gorbachev summitry that eventually brought an end to the Cold War.

As told by Baier, the story of Reagan’s visit to the Berlin Wall comes alive. In late 1978, two years before Reagan was elected and well before his actual campaign was launched, Peter Hannaford and I organized several international trips for him. One was to Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and the second, in October and November, to the U.K., France, and Germany. Reagan had never been to Germany.

Baier describes in detail Reagan’s visit to the Berlin headquarters of Germany’s largest publisher, Axel-Springer-Haus. Herr Springer had de­liberately placed his building at the precise spot where a young man, Peter Fechter, had attempted to cross the tangles of the barbed-wire barrier that preceded the construction of the concrete wall. Midway through the wire, Fechter was discovered and shot multiple times by the People’s Police, as the border guards were known. He was left on the barbed wire, bleeding and calling for his mother; the East Germans denied him medical care, and eventually he died from loss of blood. By the time of Reagan’s visit, of course, the wall had long been in place.

Reagan and Nancy, Hannaford with his wife, Irene, on Reagan’s left, and I with my wife, Pat, on his right, stood there for several minutes, silent. Reagan’s gaze was fixated intensely ahead, and from the corner of my eye, I could see him tense up, jaw firmly set and protruding. After what seemed an eternity, he turned toward us and said, “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down!” Thus was born the idea that eventually led to his famous speech nine years later, on June 12, 1987, when he stood at the Wall with West German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Baier does a good job describing the spat over the inclusion of those words in the speech at the wall. The State Department was opposed, as was the U.S. ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum. Colin Powell, then national-security adviser, was also opposed to using the phrase. The White House speechwriter working closely with Reagan was Peter Robinson, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Here Baier again excels at describing a complicated scene. The underlying truth regarding the use of the command “Tear down this wall” is that it was Reagan’s own, born nearly a decade earlier in an aside as he was standing at the wall. It was a line Reagan never forgot and was eager to use. Knowing in 1987 that he would soon be back, this time as president of the United States, at the place where he had first experienced the wall in person, he wrote it into the draft while working with Robinson. It reflects the fundamental fact that when an idea was firmly planted in the mind of President Reagan, woe to him who attempted to persuade him to drop it! Some time later, Kornblum, then U.S. ambassador, with typical chutzpah, claimed to have written the phrase into the speech.

The various meetings with Gorbachev are wonderfully detailed in Baier’s accounts, and one gets a sense of how important meetings are between leaders when there is a common purpose, even if not motivated by similar ideals. And when leaders take a chance and mingle with ordinary people, chemistry and personality are instantly on display. Gorbachev was popular among the crowds on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, just as Reagan, instantly recognizable, was among the street crowds in Moscow.

People who like people generally don’t go to war. One wonders whether Kim Jong-un would be mobbed on Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, in Washington. Perhaps this will be a later subject for the versatile and skilled Bret Baier.

Richard V. Allen — Mr. Allen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He was the national-security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1982, the chief foreign-policy adviser to Reagan from 1977 to 1981, and the foreign-policy coordinator in the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard M. Nixon.

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