As America heads into a season that features a trifecta of patriotic holidays — Memorial Day, Flag Day, and the Fourth of July — Bret Baier’s Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire is perfect holiday reading. It is history — good history — with a lesson for today as the Trump Administration deals with foreign policy challenges from Russia to North Korea, China and, as always, the Middle East.
When one ponders Memorial Day in particular, there is the realization that many of those who died in the service of this country did so in one battlefield or another of the Cold War that wasn’t always so “Cold” — Korea and Vietnam the most prominent. Bret Baier gives seriously real perspective to the behind-the-scenes story of how it all came to an end. As Britain’s then-former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observed at Reagan’s funeral, Reagan had won the Cold War without firing a shot.
I confess I have a bias here. As a young Reagan staffer I was there for some of the stories related in the book, notably the December, 1987 Washington Summit with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was an amazing sight to see — and I was sensible enough to take lots of pictures. The sight of the Communist hammer and sickle red flag flying next to the Stars and Stripes on seemingly every lamppost surrounding the White House was particularly eerie in my young imagination. There was the shiny black Russian Zil limousine that raced Gorby through the streets of Washington and onto the White House grounds. The leather jacketed KGB agent I observed came with the unspoken message that seemed to summarize the Cold War exactly: Be Careful. And one of my favorites — a photo of the Gorbachevs and the Reagans during the former’s departure ceremony — Gorbachev looking directly into my camera lens.
What Bret Baier, writing with Catherine Whitney, has accomplished here is framing this story with an eye to the arc of Ronald Reagan’s life as a passionate opponent of Communism, from his time as the president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to his final moments as President of the United States and beyond as the Berlin Wall is torn down by joyful Germans — a literal enactment of Reagan’s famous call to “tear down this wall.” This followed not long after by the dramatic implosion of the Soviet Union itself. The latter an inevitability that Reagan had long seen coming, as when he predicted in his Westminster speech to the British Parliament that the Communist state was already headed to the “ash heap of history.”
Episode by episode the reader is taken through the behind-the-scenes episodes of Reagan’s determined mission to put an end to the horrors that were the world’s leading Communist state.
Of particular note is Reagan’s stance in 1947 — a full 33 years before becoming president — when testifying as the head of SAG before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan made crystal clear his opposition to Communism, but in his much-publicized statement to the Committee he also made it clear, in Baier’s words, that “in opposing communism, the best thing to do was to make democracy work.” It is a wisdom Reagan followed throughout his career, and had a particular impact when he would finally be in a position to do something about the Cold War as president. Not for nothing did his friend Congressman Jack Kemp refer to Reagan as the “O &W” — Oldest and Wisest.
Baier covers the familiar ground of Reagan’s famous 1964 televised appeal for the about-to-be-defeated Barry Goldwater, noting that in spite of Goldwater’s looming massive defeat Reagan’s upbeat, high-minded talk was the very embodiment of his belief that, in Baier’s words, “you don’t win hearts and minds by being angry, gloomy, and dour; you win them with a blend of solid principles and relentless optimism.”
A key part of the Reagan story is his 1978 visit to Berlin — where for the first time the future president saw the Berlin Wall in person. Reagan asked the U.S. Embassy staff to take him through the American “Checkpoint Charlie” into East Berlin. Baier writes:
While Nancy and the other wives ducked into a state-run department store to check out the goods, the men lingered outside. They saw a policeman stop a young man walking through the plaza carrying a shopping bag. As they demanded his papers in a harassing manner, Reagan watched. “It was quite chilling,” (Reagan aide Peter) Hannaford said. “Reagan saw that and he didn’t forget it.”
Later, back on the western side, they visited the Axel Springer House, the large publishing building overlooking the wall. “And high in the building, you look right down over the Berlin Wall to a place where not long ago before a young man had tried to go over, and they shot him and left his body hanging there,” recalled Hannaford. “It wasn’t still there, but it had happened not long before. When Reagan heard this story, his jaw set. You could just tell he had it in mind we could change all this one day. You could see it, hear it, in the things he had to say.”
And as Baier illustrates vividly that one day did finally arrive. The story of Reagan’s famous Berlin Wall visit as president in 1987 is endlessly instructive.
From the very beginning of his presidency Reagan (does this remind of a certain current president?) was not in the least averse to breaking the mold of what was — and was not — considered acceptable when it came to dealing with the Soviets. At his very first press conference after becoming president he was asked about his view of relations with the Soviets. Baier writes it this way:
… he replied that the Soviets would lie, cheat, and steal to get what they wanted, so doing business with them was pretty difficult.
When he said that so bluntly, people in the room gasped, their genteel sensibilities offended. Even some of his own staff blanched. But walking back to the Oval Office, he stopped and confronted NSC advisor Richard Allen, who was trailing him.
“Oh, say, Dick.”
“The Russians — they dolie, cheat and steal to get everything they want, don’t they?”
“They sure do, Mr. President,” Allen agreed.
Reagan grinned at him. “I thought so.”
What had sounded like an off-the-cuff remark — a gaffe, even — had actually been carefully planned. People could be as shocked as they wanted, Reagan figured; his goal was to make sure the Soviets knew he was on to them.
What is so striking here is that Reagan’s determination to bluntly, as they say, “speak truth to power” — Soviet power in this case — was throughout his presidency opposed by what, for lack of a better term, would be labeled the American — and European — foreign policy establishments.
Baier provides example after example of Reagan’s chief speechwriter Anthony Dolan and a later writer, Peter Robinson — with Reagan’s eager agreement — putting in colorful, blunt phrases that called the Soviets to account for both their system and their behavior around the world. The Reagan address to the British Parliament, drafted by Dolan, is a classic example. Baier again:
The draft Reagan sent out was distinctly Reaganesque and this predictably set off alarm bells with the moderates at the White House and State Department. The ongoing battle between true believers, whose motto was “Let Reagan be Reagan,” and the more pragmatic staffers, who sought to guard Reagan against the consequences of using inflammatory rhetoric, was reignited every time was to make an important speech. But while there would be more back and forth over the Westminster draft, the version Reagan had worked on essentially survived.
It was Tony Dolan who inserted the phrase “Evil Empire” in the draft of Reagan’s speech to evangelicals in Orlando. And sure enough, here’s what happened. Baier again:
By the time the draft got back to Dolan, it was covered with green ink, and the “Evil Empire” reference and surrounding text had been crossed out.
Dolan “fought back” insisting that the President himself see the draft. “Just send him the draft as it is. Let him decide.” And, right in character, after seeing the Dolan draft the President had restored the phrase to the speech. He also kept this line from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:
“The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see the final result. But it is conceived and ordered… in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”
The speech is another classic in Reagan delivering a message to the Soviets. As Baier describes, this was Reagan saying to then-Soviet head Yuri Andropov, Andropov a former chairman of the KGB: “I know what you are, and I’m going to make sure the American people know it too.”
The Baier recounting of the grief Dolan and speechwriter Peter Robinson — not to mention Reagan himself — would get for Reagan’s speech during his 1987 visit to the Berlin Wall is a summary of the larger problem Reagan — and now Trump — faced and face today.
In short, Robinson was assigned by Dolan to write the speech and after he visited Berlin himself ahead of time and actually spoke to Berliners — revealing to Robinson that contrary to what State Department and European diplomats said, average Berliners had not accepted the reality of the wall — into the speech draft went the phrase “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It had originated with no less than Reagan himself, when asked by Tony Dolan what he might want to say in his Berlin visit. “Tear down the wall” Reagan said, and from that moment the speechwriting drama unfolded. Baier references Dolan recalling the moment in a 2009 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled, appropriately enough, “Four Little Words.”
Well before a draft was circulated, I called the writer who had the assignment, Peter Robinson, and told him I was going to an Oval Office meeting.
Shortly before we walked to the West Wing, Peter told me what he wanted in the draft: “Tear down the wall.” I pushed back in my chair from my desk and let loose “fantastic, wonderful, great, perfect” and other inadequate exclamations. The Oval Office meeting agenda went quickly, with little chance to pop the question. But the discussion ceased for a moment toward the end, and I crowded in: “Mr. President, it’s still very early but we were just wondering if you had any thoughts at all yet on the Berlin speech?”
Pausing for only a moment, Reagan slipped into his imitation of impressionist Rich Little doing his imitation of Ronald Reagan—he made the well-known nod of the head, said the equally familiar “well,” and then added in his soft but resonant intonation while lifting his hand and letting it fall: “Tear down the wall.”
I had refused to talk to Peter until I was back in my office, such was my excitement. Slamming the door I shouted: “Can you believe it? He said just what you were thinking. He said it himself.”
And then? Dolan said:
With a fervor and relentlessness I hadn’t seen over the prior seven years even during disputes about “the ash-heap of history” or “evil empire,” they kept up the pressure until the morning Reagan spoke the line.“
Literally in the motorcade taking him to the speech, Reagan himself put it back in, laughing to aide Ken Duberstein that “the boys at State are going to kill me, but it’s the right thing to do.” Indeed it was, Reagan’s instincts, as ever, right on target.
Time after time in this book Bret Baier captures the essence of Ronald Reagan — and in particular Reagan’s blossoming relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. There are terrific, dramatic stories from behind the scenes at the four meetings between the two in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, Moscow and, at the very end of Reagan’s second term, New York City. But of note, and Baier gets this exactly, was Reagan’s 1988 three-day visit to Moscow, where he gave yet another significant speech at Moscow State University. He notes that Tony Dolan saw the Moscow speech as “the final flowering of Reagan’s philosophy” with “Reagan summoning a vision of the new world that awaited them, already striding forward — as if the Communist state was a mere technicality of history.” Within three years of Reagan’s departure from the White House Reagan’s vision came to pass. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was at last dissolved for good.
Eerily, Baier notes something else — an ominous something else. At one point in that Moscow trip Reagan took a walk in Red Square. White House photographer Pete Souza took a particular picture of the moment, this one of Reagan with a young Russian boy. Baier tells the tale this way: “Over the boy’s left shoulder is a blond man, standing like a tourist with a camera around his neck.” Decades later those looking at the old photo did a double take, and here Baier quotes Reagan’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater. “I saw the picture,” Fitzwater said. Fitzwater added this to Baier in referring to the mysterious “blond man”:
“I believe it was him; he denies it. But the picture looks just like him, and now, knowing his personality with thirty years of hindsight, I would bet my life on it that he was there.”
Who did Fitzwater and others believe was the young blond man in that photo? That would be 35-year-old KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Shades of the post-Communist future.
I could go on. But suffice to say, writing history — accurately — is a critical part of a nation’s very existence. Late last year a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, authored by historian Ron Chernow, made its appearance. Which is to say, 140 years after Grant left the White House, his life and presidency were still being analyzed, bringing Grant alive for modern Americans. Such is the way of the world for American presidents — they may be mortal, but their deeds live forever. And beyond question it is vitally important that their story be told by someone who is up to the task. Bret Baier, as with his earlier triumph also written with Catherine Whitney, Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, is more than up to the task of writing great history.
What Bret Baier and Catherine Whitney have accomplished here is no small thing, a serious contribution to Reagan literature. And in the era of President Donald Trump, Three Days in Moscow is a vivid reminder of just how much blunt words and a policy of Reagan-style “peace through strength” can actually do to solve the world’s problems.