The Weekly Standard on Reagan
THE DEATH OF RONALD REAGAN brings to a close the most surprising political life of the 20th century. A century that through 1979 was notable for world wars, ideological mass murder, and the relentless advance of statism had a happy final act no one but he expected. If he had not lived and succeeded, the 20th century would not have been, in the fullest sense, the American century it turned out to be.
Reagan was utterly American. He dreamed vast optimistic dreams, and lived to see some of the most unlikely ones come true. He was accused of living a Hollywood-shaped fantasy life, and in a way he did. But rather than inhabit a dream world of his own making, Reagan had an ability to mold reality until it resembled his dreams.
Reagan was utterly of his century. Born in 1911, he aspired to a personal heroism of the Jack Armstrong variety, fulfilled in the 1920s by his many rescues as a lifeguard. Captivated by the drama of major league baseball, he became a radio announcer and mastered the forgotten art of “re-creation”–transforming unadorned narrative from a ticker tape into a dramatic spectacle that existed mainly in his own head. Reagan fought his way from the sticks to the big city in the openly ambitious yet innocent way replicated in so many early 20th-century success stories.
As a successful Hollywood actor, he went through the midcentury flirtation with the left–not only, as some biographers imply, the anti-Communist left–characteristic of young idealists of that time and place. Politically active by his early 30s, he concluded from experience that the left was a false god, and a frighteningly real threat to American democracy.
Beginning in the 1940s, Reagan devoted much of his life to a political struggle against the left in general and Soviet-style communism in particular. He fought and plotted against the Communists everywhere he could–from the grubby, petty politics of the actors’ union all the way to private councils with the first Polish pope and the climactic summits of the Cold War. Today, few on either side of that struggle would deny that this American dreamer proved to be communism’s worst nightmare.
As president, Reagan won the Cold War with a host of specific moves, some of them well known and some of them only recently revealed, with the declassification of documents and the work of a small but growing group of appreciative scholars.
He made these moves believing, from the outset of his presidency, that they could help bring final victory. Of his close advisers, probably only two–the second of his six national security advisers, William Clark, and CIA director William Casey–shared so extravagant a hope. But isolation of this kind never stopped Reagan. It didn’t even seem to bother him. He operated on faith, and openly announced his vision in London in 1982, consigning communism to the “ash heap of history” in a world where democratic ideas are destined to triumph.
Little more than nine years later, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, which together had spanned northern Eurasia, no longer existed. For many, the completeness, even more the swiftness, of his prophecy’s fulfillment is the biggest barrier to understanding the magnitude of Reagan’s achievement. Most now concede Reagan gave communism a shove, but for a system to disappear so utterly, it must have been a hollow shell to begin with. No matter who was president, many believe, it would have been only a matter of time before the inevitable collapse took place.
Such dismissals of Reagan face an inconvenient fact: When he ran for president, few or none of these trends were in evidence. In 1980, socialism still stood as the big idea of 20th-century politics. Despite its manifest economic failures, it looked anything but terminal. In the wake of the worldwide social upheaval of the 1960s, it had gained new momentum.
The Soviet bloc was not retreating, but advancing at a faster pace than at any time since the late 1940s. During the 1970s, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Nicaragua all became pro-Soviet dictatorships.
In Western Europe, the major political event of the 1970s was the rise of Eurocommunism. In 1976, the Communist party received an unprecedented 34 percent of the vote in Italy, to 38 percent for the ruling Christian Democrats. In Portugal in 1975, a right-wing civilian dictatorship was ousted by leftist army officers who came within an eyelash of installing a Communist dictatorship on NATO’s southwestern coast. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at one point contemplated a cutoff of clandestine American aid to Portugal’s democratic opposition, citing the hopelessness of their cause. At the same time, many of our allies were skeptical of the need to deploy intermediate missiles to match a Soviet buildup that was designed to target every NATO city in Europe.
The United States was not seen as a dominant superpower, but was beginning to have the earmarks of a fading one. In the wake of the SALT II treaty of 1972, the United States zclosed down its antiballistic missile defense while the Soviets kept theirs. The terms of SALT permitted the Soviet Union to take an overwhelming lead in intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In 1977, President Carter unilaterally terminated the B-1 bomber and development of the neutron bomb while cautioning Americans against “inordinate fear of communism.”
Even the economic climate, for so long the greatest strength of the United States and its allies, appeared in question. Commentators were writing not about the end of socialism but about a crisis of capitalism. This consisted of such things as the transformation of industrial states into the Rust Belt, OPEC oil embargoes, drivers stalled in interminable lines to buy price-controlled gasoline, and the new phenomenon of “stagflation”–inflation and unemployment rising rapidly at the same time. The Club of Rome and other authoritative voices cautioned the West to prepare for an “era of limits.”
President Carter and the Democratic Congress enacted massive payroll tax increases and new energy taxes and price controls in 1977 and 1979. Extraordinary inflation moved into double digits in 1979 and 1980, lifting millions of taxpayers into higher and higher tax brackets in an unindexed tax code with rates ranging up to 70 percent.
Welfare rolls, violent crime, and illegal drug use were all skyrocketing in the United States. The most fashionable new cause among social activists was a movement for “welfare rights.” Carter’s special White House adviser for narcotics, Dr. Peter Bourne, advocated selective decriminalization of drugs, and was forced to resign when it was learned he was putting his ideas into practice by writing illegal prescriptions to fellow administration officials suffering from stress.
In his 1981 inaugural address, Reagan cautioned Americans that things would not get better all at once–and they did not. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, appointed in 1979 by President Carter to fight a worldwide run on the dollar, sat on the economy by keeping short-term interest rates as high as 18 percent, and the Reagan recession of 1981-82 proved to be the worst since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate peaked at nearly 11 percent one year after congressional enactment of the Reagan tax cuts. Yet Reagan, his popularity dipping well below 40 percent, refused to attack Volcker and urged voters to “stay the course” on tax policy. The Republican party was hammered in the congressional and gubernatorial elections of 1982.
In the Cold War, Reagan’s early moves seemed equally unavailing. He endorsed and redoubled Carter’s effort to match Soviet intermediate missile deployments in Europe, but the nuclear freeze movement, which opposed all NATO deployments, pretty much took control of the streets of Western Europe and gained increasing influence in the United States.
Beginning with his first budget, Reagan initiated a huge military buildup. It was widely seen as an act of catch-up, inspired mainly by fear of Soviet intentions. Reagan did believe the Soviet military machine was awesome and increasingly dangerous, but he sensed that the rest of Moscow’s physical resources had been stretched thin to support it. Continued denial of most-favored-nation trade status, diplomatic obstruction of the European-financed Soviet oil pipeline, inauguration of the Reagan Doctrine of support for anti-Communist insurgency in the Third World, and announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative were all designed to strain the Soviet economic base further, or at least serve notice that the Soviets could expect such stretching well into the foreseeable future.
In his very first presidential press conference in 1981, Reagan described the Soviet leaders as men who will tell any lie to achieve their aims. Most reporters and commentators, and not a few of his own supporters, assumed Reagan had made a rhetorical blunder. But it was no more inadvertent than his provocative description of the Soviet Union as headed for the “ash heap of history” the following year, or his “evil empire” line in 1983. Reagan believed that communism was based on lies, and that telling the truth about it could have an impact far beyond what the experts imagined.
The Soviet leadership of the early 1980s responded with a hostility as menacing as the most dovish of Reagan’s critics could have predicted or feared. The latter part of 1982, soon after the London speech, saw the rise to supreme power of former KGB head Yuri Andropov, the man who almost certainly gave final approval to the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II the year before. Andropov was probably the most brilliant of Soviet leaders other than Lenin, and by far the most dangerous given his audacity and the offensive military power at his disposal. The Soviet shootdown of a civilian Korean airliner in 1983, and in particular the Soviet leader’s utterly contemptuous, unapologetic reaction to it, had an air of imminent potential destruction about it. How close the world may have come to nuclear war we will not learn until much more is known about the politics of the 1982-84 period in the Kremlin, including the circumstances of Andropov’s succession and his unexpected death in early 1984.
When the noticeably less dynamic Konstantin Chernenko succeeded Andropov, Reagan gently opened the door to a resumption of arms negotiations. With the succession of Mikhail Gorbachev on Chernenko’s death a year later, Reagan almost instantly adopted Gorbachev as a friend and took superpower relations on a dizzying 180-degree turn that unnerved some of his staunchest supporters.
But in 1986 at Reykjavik, Reagan rejected a seemingly generous Gorbachev arms proposal that would have involved our restricting SDI to the laboratory in exchange for a huge reduction in Soviet offensive missiles. A visibly angry Reagan walked out of the talks against the wishes of his advisers and against the backdrop of withering attacks from the establishment media. Yet a year later, Gorbachev returned to the table offering almost identical offensive reductions with no restrictions on SDI, and in 1988 he ordered a unilateral withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan. The end game of the Cold War had begun and, with it, the unraveling of Soviet communism.
Why did Reagan reject the tempting deal in Iceland–described by then-national security adviser Robert McFarlane as the “steal of the century”–against the near-unanimous advice of his aides? The reason he gave at the time in his speech to the American people should be taken at face value: He believed it would be wrong to agree to leave the American people unprotected from nuclear attack. It was reminiscent of an equally counterintuitive decision five years earlier, when–also against near-unanimous advice–Reagan fired every striking air traffic controller in the country, knowing that a single subsequent accident could destroy his presidency. He did it because he believed striking against the public was wrong and must not be tolerated.
The Iran-contra scandal, in which Reagan attempted to negotiate the release of American hostages by means of secret arms sales to the Islamist regime in Iran, was the gravest threat to Reagan’s presidency not just because it didn’t work and subsequently came to light. It was threatening because more than any other event in his eight years, it went against the grain of what made Reagan successful: his belief that there is an absolute right and wrong, and his determination to act, and to persevere, in what he knew to be right. The American people, and steadily increasing millions around the world, understood and respected this quality in Reagan and were disconcerted when he was caught doing what he had said was wrong.
This is a central lesson of Reagan’s political success–American voters will trust a leader who believes in right and wrong and acts on it, even at his own seeming expense. And the reverse is also true: Reagan trusted the American people, believing that they are both good and gifted, equal to almost any challenge thrown at them.
Against a widespread fatalism in 1970s America, Reagan believed that the people would respond to the economic incentives of his deep tax-rate reductions, to overnight dismantlement of Nixon- and Carter-era energy price controls, and even the severe monetary crunch engineered by the Volcker Fed to end double-digit inflation. He was right, but was reluctant to take personal credit for achievements he attributed to the determination and competence of his fellow citizens.
These domestic successes were deeply intertwined with his successes abroad–and not just in the material sense that the success of Reaganomics helped make possible the Reagan arms buildup and his forward strategy in the Cold War. The vision that moved Reagan most of all was America as a shining city on a hill, exerting magnetic power on the rest of the world. And as one of his biographers, Dinesh D'Souza, has written, “his American exceptionalism was inextricably united with American universalism.”
Reagan believed that people everywhere aspire to what Americans already have–democratic self-government based on the central belief of the American founding, which is also the main driving force in American history: that all men are created equal.
American elites seldom understood or respected Reagan at any stage of his career. A rare exception came in a Washington Post editorial in his second term, which noted with bemusement that when Reagan ventured abroad, he found not just the nation but the world was his oyster.
It was no accident. Ronald Reagan was the decisive figure of the American century because he believed in and successfully acted out our deepest principles, in a way that made them believable and accessible to more of the world’s people than ever before.