How They Misjudged the Reagan I Knew

In a hot, crowded room in a turn-of-the-century house overlooking Reykjavik harbour, the President of the United States listened intently to his advisers. A few hours earlier, after a day and a half of intense negotiation, Mikhail Gorbachev had agreed to accept American proposals to slash nuclear arsenals--but only if Ronald Reagan would confine his Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) to the laboratory, effectively killing any chance it could be built. The question was whether to accept Gorbachev's offer and abandon SDI, or reject it and return home without an agreement, leaving the US free to continue work on a defence against ballistic missiles.

As happened often, the president's advisers were divided. Reagan asked his chief of staff, who was among those urging him to accept the Soviet proposal. "If we say 'Yes', won't it be just so we can leave here with an agreement?" It was a rhetorical question. The President had made the most consequential decision of his political life.

Thus did Ronald Reagan's "No" to Gorbachev end the 1986 Iceland summit. Immediately, a breathless world press reported the apparent failure at Reykjavik. Without an agreement, the rebuilding of American defences, including SDI, would continue. Relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, already deeply strained, would surely worsen. Experts were despondent. Reagan was not.

Of course, there would be no Nobel prize for the only American president to challenge two closely-related, widely-accepted ideas: first, that the Soviet Union was a permanent feature of the postwar world and, second, that the great challenge to Western diplomacy was to find a peaceful accommodation with the men who ran the Kremlin. Reagan's rebuilding of American military power was an inescapable responsibility. He had inherited a demoralised, hollowed-out defence establishment. A third of the Navy was unfit to sail. Air-to-air munitions in Europe were down to a four-day supply. It was far from clear whether Nato had the resolve to deploy medium-range missiles to offset powerful new Soviet missiles aimed at Western Europe. Almost anyone becoming president in 1981 would have modernised American forces.

What made Reagan different from his predecessors was his contrarian optimism about Communist tyranny. To the consternation of conventionally-wise foreign ministries around the world, Reagan saw and proclaimed that the "evil empire" was headed for the "ash heap of history". It was not principally the European missile deployment that alarmed Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernyko and eventually Gorbachev. Nor was it the rebuilding of American forces nor even the SDI--although the Soviets, actively working on their own version of SDI, feared that US missile defences might neutralise Moscow's nuclear missile force. Indeed it was those offensive Soviet missiles, a daunting technological accomplishment, that blinded much of the world to the Soviet Union's economic and social failure.

Rather, what caused the Kremlin dictators to dread an actor turned politician was Reagan's determination to put a lighted match to what he saw was the desiccated ideology of the Soviet Union's "scientific socialism". In foreign ministries around the world, in academic and other "politically correct" elite circles in London, Paris and Bonn, the American president had launched a destabilising philosophical war against the vast Soviet Empire. Even now, the irony that so non-intellectual a man should choose to engage the Soviet Union on the battlefield of ideas has eluded most commentators and historians.

Reagan's was not the rhetoric of detente. His policy did not call for co-operative programmes in science, agriculture, space and energy. He took pains not to reassure but to discredit the Kremlin leaders. They ruled brutally. They ruled without consent. They built a military machine at the expense of the material wellbeing of ordinary citizens. Their economy produced only weapons, while their ideology produced cynicism at home and instability abroad. If pushed, they would fall.

Editorial writers ridiculed what they regarded as Reagan's lack of sophistication, especially concerning the Soviet Union. They deplored his defence build-up. They caricatured him as a cowboy with six guns blazing. But Reagan was indifferent to praise from journalists and the admiration of diplomats. Though he was not an intellectual, he knew what he was doing and why.

Much has been written about the source of Ronald Reagan's policy of re-igniting the political dimension of the Cold War, of challenging the legitimacy of the Soviet leadership, of pushing them until they fell. Theories abound about the influence of this adviser or that, about the authorship of one inflammatory phrase or another. Who was it who wanted to stop the Soviet oil pipeline into Germany? Was Edward Teller behind the SDI? Who penned the phrase "evil empire"? From inside the administration, the identity of the architect who erected the last grand strategy of the Cold War was clear: it was Reagan himself. And much as those of us who were privileged to advise him might wish to share the recognition of success that will clearly come with the passage of time--liberals are too confused or self-serving to credit the Reagan strategy with the Western victory in the Cold War any time soon--the truth is that Ronald Reagan was singular in understanding, and acting to exploit, the depth of Soviet vulnerability.

So there he was in that small house in Iceland, half-way through his presidency, trying to decide how far to go to get Mr Gorbachev's signature on the arms control treaty of the century. He wanted the Soviets to reduce their nuclear forces. He wanted them to abandon plans to deploy missiles in Europe. He wanted to return to Washington in triumph.

But he wanted something even more important. He wanted the Soviet leaders to know that they could no longer hide the failure of their totalitarian state behind a frightening display of planes, ships and missiles. They could no longer gain ill-deserved legitimacy at summit meetings with democratically-chosen U.S. presidents.

Reagan made clear that the democratic West could and would counter Soviet military power, outperform the Communist world in science and technology, and provide material well-being for citizens beyond Moscow's wildest dreams. He would not miss an opportunity to contrast Western freedom with the misery of Soviet tyranny.

Ronald Reagan embodied American optimism. His leadership, confident and cheerful, was instrumental in the demoralisation of the Soviet leadership that produced a Western victory without war and ended half a century of conflict between East and West.

Richard Perle is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Richard Perle served as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, and a staff member to Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.). Mr. Perle is coauthor of An End to Evil (Random House, 2003) and author of Hard Line, a political novel. He codirected AEI's Commission on Future Defenses.
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