The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 21, 2017

Ronald Reagan’s “Secret” Crusade
Lee Edwards - 03/02/10
Reagan's Secret War

A review of Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson’s Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster (Crown, 2009)

Historians of the Left as well as the Right agree that the Reagan presidency of the 1980s was marked by a series of remarkable accomplishments. The American people regained most of the confidence they had lost as a result of President Jimmy Carter’s governmental ineptitude and the traumas of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The sweeping tax cuts and other initiatives of the Reagan administration produced a period of sustained economic growth unequaled in U.S. peacetime history. The forty-year-old Cold War effectively ended following four Reagan-Gorbachev summits and the signing of the INF Treaty eliminating nuclear weapons in Europe.

But historians differ sharply over the reasons for these historic events, especially the role of President Reagan. Those on the Left tend to cite the natural resiliency of the American people, the pendulum of history that swings between liberalism and conservatism every quarter-century or so, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s handling of the Leninist nomenklatura and his pragmatic deal-making with the United States. Reagan, they say, just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Some even argue that Reagan delayed the collapse of Communism with bully-boy tactics and extremist rhetoric, such as calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

Conservatives counter that no one is that lucky, and that Reagan conceived and implemented a comprehensive strategy that restored public confidence (“It’s morning again in America”), created unprecedented prosperity (17 million new jobs between 1981 and 1989), and peacefully concluded a conflict that had occupied the world for decades. Liberals demand: Where is the proof?

Fortunately for history and Reagan’s place in it, indisputable evidence of Reagan’s personal leadership has been supplied by Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson, senior fellows at the Hoover Institution. Over the past decade, the Andersons (with the initial assistance of political scientist Kiron Skinner) have published three thick volumes documenting Reagan’s core contributions and ideas: Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America (2001); Reagan: A Life in Letters (2003); and now their latest, Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster.

Reagan’s Secret War is a model of archival research and clear writing, characterized by a welcome willingness to let the principals tell their sorry without unnecessary commentary by the authors. It is an indispensable addition to the literature about one of the most consequential presidents in American history.

In his foreword,former secretary of state George P. Shultz reveals that while President Reagan was as firm an anti-Communist as could be found on the planet and was resolved to end the Cold War by winning it, he was also convinced that all nuclear weapons should be abolished. He loathed the policy of MAD—Mutual Assured Destruction—saying, “What’s so good about a peace kept by the threat of destroying each other?” His solution was the elimination of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons, coupled with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would keep America safe in the event of a nuclear attack by rogue governments.

Reagan and Gorbachev

The true test of a presidency, Shultz writes, is whether the ideas promulgated have “staying power.” Reagan’s idea of abolishing nuclear weapons in conjunction with SDI, although questioned and even opposed by experts within his administration and by skeptical conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr., continues to attract support at home and abroad.

The INF Treaty led to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which over the next ten years brought huge reductions in ICBMs, sea-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons on long-range bombers. The net reduction of the most dangerous nuclear weapons, write the Andersons, was 38 percent for the United States and 53 percent for the Russians. And all the while, SDI continued to be tested and perfected.

Another Reagan priority was to persuade the Soviet Union to stop denying the human rights of its citizens. In every one of his summit meetings with Gorbachev, President Reagan brought up human rights not simply as an abstract moral question but as a practical issue that directly affected U.S.-Soviet relations. History teaches us, Reagan said, that “those countries which respect the rights of their own people tend, inevitably, to respect the rights of their neighbors.”

Even before he was elected president, the Andersons reveal, Reagan had in mind one highly visible symbol of the Soviet Union’s wanton disregard for human rights. In 1978, Reagan was traveling in Europe with Richard V. Allen, who would become his national security adviser. They visited the Berlin Wall, which had divided East and West Berlin since 1961. Reagan walked over to the wall, touched it, and then said to Allen, “This wall should be torn down.”

Berlin Wall speech

Nine years later, President Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and issued his famous challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, on November 9, 1989, the wall that East German Communist boss Erich Honecker had boasted would stand for another hundred years came tumbling down. By the end of 1989, all of Eastern and Central Europe had shed their Communist shackles.

The portrait of Reagan that emerges from Reagan’s Secret War is of a highly intelligent, disciplined, and quietly confident man who did not feel it necessary to demonstrate his intelligence or quickness. On his desk in the Oval Office of the White House was a sign that read, “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”

The Andersons, particularly Martin Anderson, had unusual access to the most confidential documents of the Reagan presidency, including the minutes of the National Security Council (NSC), previously classified as Top Secret and unavailable to researchers. The minutes substantiate Reagan’s personal decisions and directions on national defense, arms-control negotiations, and U.S. strategy regarding the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Latin America. Reagan chaired 355 meetings of the NSC or its smaller and more secretive component, the National Security Planning Group—a near record for a president in peacetime.

The authors draw upon the NSC documents as well as the personal diary that Reagan kept as president. During his eight years in the White House, Reagan filled five 8 1/2–by-11-inch leather-bound volumes with his own writing. Another key source for the Andersons was the White House Daily Diary, which logged the president’s comings and goings, his phone calls, and all of his meetings. The authors were thus able to determine, for example, how often he met with members of Congress and national security experts. The record is clear: Ronald Reagan was one of the most engaged presidents in modern U.S. history.

Reagan’s Secret War provides fascinating insights into the president’s relationship with two key leaders of the era—Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan had quickly discerned the importance of the Polish pope and devoted two radio commentaries—when he was not yet a presidential candidate—to John Paul’s historic visit to Poland in June 1979. Reagan saw in the pope, the Andersons write, a man who thought as he did about the evils of Marxism-Leninism.

In 1981, Reagan met with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican’s “ambassador” to the United States, about the tense situation in Poland, where the Communist regime had banned the trade union Solidarity. At a meeting of the NSC, Reagan committed his administration to firm U.S. action, saying that the Helsinki Accords had been violated. He wrote in his personal diary that “this may be the last chance in our lifetime to see a change in the Soviet Empire’s colonial policy re Eastern Europe.” The full story has yet to be reported, but covert U.S. aid helped sustain Solidarity underground activities leading up to the collapse of Communism in Poland and the other Soviet satellites in 1989.

Reagan and Pope John Paul II

By the end of the first year of the Reagan presidency, the Andersons recount, the president and the pope had exchanged a dozen letters about Poland and about the need to prevent what Reagan called “the disastrous consequences of nuclear conflict.” Preventing such a conflict by abolishing nuclear weapons would be a central objective of Reagan in his meetings with Gorbachev in Geneva (1985) and Reykjavik (1986).

What is clear from the transcripts of the plenary as well as the private sessions of these two summits is that Reagan was always prepared, stuck to his main objective—the abolition of offensive nuclear weapons along with the development of the defensive SDI system—in the face of Soviet pressure, and used one-on-one meetings with the Soviet leader to advance his agenda. At Geneva, Reagan bluntly told Gorbachev: “I’ll tell you now, you can’t win the arms race. There is no way. There’s no way that we’re going to allow you to maintain supremacy, or anyone else, over the United States of America.”

At Reykjavik, the United States and the Soviet Union came very close to an agreement eliminating all strategic offensive weapons over ten years but were blocked by Moscow’s insistence on limiting SDI to “laboratory research.” Reagan later wrote—and Soviet experts subsequently confirmed his analysis—that the Soviets didn’t want the United States to proceed with SDI because America was ahead in this technology “and they were trying to catch up.”

When Reykjavik ended abruptly without any agreement, the Washington Post referred to “the aura of collapse and bleak prospect that hangs over the Soviet-American scene.” But Reagan was confident that the Soviets, knowing they could not prevail in an arms race, would return to negotiations—which they did within four months. Gorbachev announced that Moscow was ready to conclude a separate agreement on medium-range missiles in Europe without any conditions on SDI.

“In effect,” write the Andersons, “the Soviets had given up trying to conquer the world and accepted the inevitable. The Cold War was close to being over . . . and Reagan, keeping his word, would never crow that the United States had ‘won’ the Cold War.”

But in fact, the United States, led by a determined commander in chief and masterful negotiator, had won the Cold War—without firing a shot, in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase. As President Reagan put it in his farewell address to the American people, “We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.”

To learn more about Ronald Reagan and anti-Communism, visit the ISI short course on America’s Security.

Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and author of the forthcoming William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement (ISI Books).

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