Martin and Annelise Anderson’s indispensable book, Reagan’s Secret War, chronicles Ronald Reagan’s methodical pursuit of a victorious but unrancorous end to the Cold War.
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Nixon went to “nuclear sufficiency,” an artistic combination of nuclear superiority through technological advances while maintaining approximate arithmetic equality and continuing to wave the banner of arms control. He extracted the U.S. from Vietnam without losing a non-Communist government in Saigon, opened up relations with China to pry open greater Soviet cooperation, effectively threw the Russians out of the Middle East, and negotiated the greatest arms control agreement in history with Moscow, in SALT 1.
The Watergate debacle took all the cards out of the hands of Nixon and Ford, and Carter came into office full of otherworldly notions of unilateral arms reductions and “an irrational fear of Communism.” Afghanistan was effectively annexed to the USSR (though it was never really subdued). Castroism spread to Nicaragua, and Angola and Ethiopia became quasi-Soviet satellites.
Reagan radically changed this landscape and within a few years had the Russians agreeing to remove deployed intermediate missiles in Europe in exchange for non-deployment of half as many U.S. missiles, some of which (Pershings) were not, in fact, very accurate (and all were replaced on the Western side by sea-launched cruise missiles anyway). The Soviet Union was prepared to agree to almost anything to avoid development of a sci-fi defensive system that doesn’t really perform as it was advertised even 25 years later.
For good measure, and as a sincere reflection of his strongest inborn faith, Reagan threw human rights into the equation, most famously with his speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987, peaking at: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan emphasized these issues enough to chivy the Soviets along, but not so gratingly that they balked and bolted the process. The authors recount the development of Reagan’s views on the subject, including a decisive defeat of Robert Kennedy in a worldwide radio debate on May 15, 1967, after which Kennedy told his aides not to pit him against Reagan again. (Carter should have listened to the tape of that debate before challenging Reagan to debate in October 1980.)
Direct senior contact between U.S. and Soviet leaders started with a productive interview Reagan had with the ancient Bolshevik confidence trickster (and foreign minister), Andrei Gromyko, September 28, 1984. It was clear that Reagan would be overwhelmingly reelected. Gromyko conveyed the Soviet leadership’s proposal, which was formalized by Chernenko on November 17, that simultaneous talks on START, INF, and conventional force reductions be opened. In a letter of November 28, Chernenko declared his interest in pursuing the elimination of nuclear weapons altogether.
ALL THIS WAS IN PLACE when Gorbachev succeeded to the Soviet leadership in March 1985, and the last 40 percent of this book is an account of the minuet with him. The Geneva meeting between them in November 1985, where Reagan told him the United States would never tolerate any other country having military superiority; Reykjavik in October 1986, where the Andersons debunk the theory that Reagan was taken to the brink of disaster by giving up all offensive nuclear weapons; all are recounted carefully from official notes. Gorbachev was almost offering total disarmament to avoid SDI. Reagan was delighted by the Russian obsession with SDI, and his failure to pursue joint development and deployment makes the case, though these authors don’t so describe it, that Reagan demoralized and tantalized the Russians with what amounted to a bait and switch about whether he really was seeking outright military superiority.
As he outlined to a February 3, 1986, NSC meeting, Reagan was offering to share the technology at the deployment stage. Of course the Russians couldn’t accept that, but the great question is why Gorbachev, a formidable man by all accounts, did not play a better game of poker himself, and realize that Congress might not fund it, and that it was pie in the sky anyway. The crunch came at Reykjavik when Gorbachev said, “Excuse me, Mr. President, but I do not take your idea of sharing SDI seriously.” Reagan replied, “If I thought that SDI could not be shared, I would have rejected it myself.” The reason it stopped there and they didn’t try to work out a joint deployment agreement is, presumably, that the Russians thought there was no chance of this.
By the time of Reykjavik, the Russians had been rattled by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in April 1986. And the Iran-Contra sideshow shook the Reagan administration in the fall of 1986 and early 1987. Everything went silent with the Russians after Reykjavik, but Reagan was confident they would be back, and Gorbachev did write to Reagan on February 28, 1987, offering an INF zero-zero agreement. This was quickly agreed, more than five years after Brezhnev had contemptuously rejected it.
Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, negotiated a START agreement with the Russians. The Cold War was effectively over when Reagan left office in January 1989, and his achievement was immense. The Soviet Union imploded, taking most of international Communism with it.
There are a few slips in the book: the 1984 election was never going to be close, and there wasn’t really much chance of a nuclear exchange with Andropov in 1983. Reagan’s Secret War makes no pretense to being a full history of the Reagan presidency, but it is a very powerful argument for why he was one of America’s great presidents.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?