His critics derided him as naive, but Ronald Reagan set out to win the Cold War all the same—to win it, we repeat, not just manage it. Who looks naive now? By Hoover fellow Richard V. Allen.
There is a widespread and interesting tendency among historians, scribes, and pundits to attribute final victory in the Cold War to factors and causes other than those which actually brought that long, drawn-out struggle to a slow-motion, essentially nonviolent but unmistakable conclusion, beginning in 1989.
One segment of this school, exemplified by the writings of Strobe Talbott, presently deputy secretary of state, holds that the administration of Ronald Reagan actually aggravated and prolonged the Cold War through constant provocations and mindless hostility.
As the growing body of literature of recent years shows, however, an increasing number of scholars are reassessing this flawed and simplistic notion. To those of us who had the privilege of participating in the process that eventually led to the end of the Cold War, there are different, more accurate, and demonstrable causes for the ultimate victory, but there is no disagreement whatsoever over details; they cannot undermine the general agreement that Reagan’s leadership was the essential unifying factor.
That leadership did not begin just on January 21, 1981. It has not only important historical roots but great and important historical momentum that carried well beyond January 20, 1989, when he left office.
EVOLVING VIEWS: THE POSTWAR WORLD
That Ronald Reagan’s fundamental attitude toward Communists generally and toward the Soviet Union and other communist regimes in particular was shaped by his experience in Hollywood early in the Cold War is undeniable and well documented. He witnessed the origins of the Cold War, the loss of all of Eastern Europe, the fall of Nationalist China, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, and the beginnings of the war in Vietnam.
His emergence on the national political scene in the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater also shaped his beliefs, and by 1968, his first attempt at the presidency, the basic elements of his thinking were cemented into place.
It was in 1976, as he challenged an incumbent president for the Republican nomination, that he began a concentrated focus on developing a comprehensive and coherent national strategy. That campaign was faltering after a series of primary losses, but when he began his spring offensive in 1976, with an attack on the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, his campaign ignited and he very nearly won the nomination.
"WE WIN AND THEY LOSE: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?"
What is striking is that nearly all who joined the effort in the early phases of the Reagan movement came because they were intellectually committed to his views, not because they might collect fat campaign consulting fees and jobs in a future administration. Equally striking is that the group that joined in the Reagan effort was remarkably small, but very efficient.
I would like to relate briefly my own experience. At the Republican Convention in Miami in 1968, then serving as Richard Nixon’s foreign policy coordinator, I came upon a small group of men in the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel. My friend Phil Crane, then a college professor, pulled me into the crowd to greet Governor Reagan and proceeded to berate me, saying, "Dick, you are on the wrong side here." Eight years and two stints in the Nixon White House later, no longer under the illusion that Richard Nixon was a committed conservative, I knew better. I was on the wrong side.
Martin Anderson, my trusted colleague from 1968—and obviously he, too, was on the wrong side in 1968—asked me when he was traveling with Ronald Reagan to write some memoranda during the 1976 campaign, and I did, enthusiastically so. Reagan versus Ford was truly an easy choice.
A few weeks before the Kansas City Convention, the venerable Bryce Harlow called to say that Ford and Reagan forces were at loggerheads over the drafting of the foreign policy portion of the platform and wondered if I, as someone yet uncommitted to either side, would write the draft.
Of course, I was committed, but there was no need to advertise that fact, and I went ahead and wrote it. That draft, that platform, helped provide the springboard for a surge by Reagan, one that nearly carried him to victory. That platform, an outright repudiation of Nixon-Ford-Kissinger foreign policy, never saw the light of day in the campaign of 1976, just as twenty years later the 1996 platform was buried by the Dole-Kemp campaign (the candidate remarked that he had not yet bothered to read it).
In January 1977, I visited Ronald Reagan in Los Angeles. During our four-hour conversation, he said many memorable things, but none more significant than this. "My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic," he said. "It is this: We win and they lose. What do you think of that?" One had never heard such words from the lips of a major political figure; until then, we had thought only in terms of managing the relationship with the Soviet Union.
Reagan went right to the heart of the matter. Utilizing American values, strength, and creativity, he believed we could outdistance the Soviets and cause them to withdraw from the Cold War or perhaps even to collapse. Herein lay the great difference, back in early 1977, between Reagan and every other politician: He literally believed we could win and was prepared to carry this message to the nation as the intellectual foundation of a presidency.
There was also an obvious danger in such a foreign policy. In the atmosphere of the late 1970s, stating this proposition directly invited frontal attack, even a repetition of the vicious distortions of the Johnson campaign against Gold-water, who was depicted as unstable and trigger-happy.
SHAPING THE MESSAGE
A lot of work had to be done to package this strategy in a convincing way without scaring people or provoking media assault. The development of the strategy evolved slowly over the next few years. The intellectual and policy components of a national campaign were gradually drawn together. The governor’s extensive national speaking schedule was the perfect sounding board to test the themes that emerged. Those themes never varied in the essentials, primarily because he was the principal author of everything he said and he would never say anything with which he disagreed.
Ronald Reagan’s leadership was the essential unifying factor leading to the West’s victory in the Cold War.
By late 1976, after months of preparation, the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) was formed. It was an organization of concerned citizens, preponderantly Democrats along with a sprinkling of Republicans, all deeply concerned about the state of our military preparedness and our policy toward the Soviet Union.
As one of the few founding Republican directors of the CPD, I considered it an important counterweight to the prevailing thinking represented by the policy of détente. It was soon obvious that the CPD was moving in the same direction as Governor Reagan, and as the work of the committee progressed, Reagan joined. The combined resources of the committee’s directors and the firepower of its participants represented an extraordinary seminar in which Reagan’s ideas could be tested and refined.
By 1979 and early 1980, we were holding regular discussions and briefing sessions on both coasts with selected CPD directors, laying the foundation for the bridge over which the neoconservative Democrats could come to the Reagan cause and, ultimately, the Reagan administration.
One cannot overemphasize the importance of this historic coalition. It assisted in the process of Reagan’s mastery of subjects such as arms control, military hardware, force structure, budgeting for national security, intelligence capabilities, and the like and assisted him in testing and honing his views on grand strategy.
ENCOUNTER AT THE WALL
There was an obvious need for the governor to embark on foreign travel. Following an April 1978 East Asian trip, Reagan visited Britain, France, and Germany in November. It was in Berlin, at the tail end of this trip, that Reagan experienced a powerful firsthand encounter with the face of communism. Approaching the Berlin Wall, his countenance darkened, and he stood before it in silence for several minutes before turning to Peter Hannaford and me, saying, "We have got to find a way to knock this thing down." Nine years later, as president, he would utter those historic words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Entering East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, we went to Alexanderplatz and entered a large store. As we departed, we stood on the platz, observing the silent shuffling of the people passing by—no merriment, not much talking, very drab. At that moment a pair of Volkspolizisten ("People’s Police") sauntered past and within thirty feet of us stopped a citizen carrying shopping bags, forcing him to drop them on the spot and show his papers, one officer poking him with the muzzle of an AK-47 and the other probing through the bags with his gun. I believe the encounter with the wall and witnessing the armed harassment of an ordinary citizen seared into the governor’s memory the brutality of the communist system and reinforced his dedication to placing it upon the ash heap of history.
THE 1980 PLATFORM: GUIDE TO GOVERNANCE
The extensive travel here and abroad, the speeches, the articles, the radio broadcasts, and the constant study of critical issues became the amalgam of the 1980 Reagan offensive on foreign affairs and national security. All of this had to be rooted in his particular way of thinking about the revival of the U.S. economy; were it not for the sorry state of our defenses and the incredible disarray in Carter foreign policy by 1980, foreign policy issues might well have been muted. Spreading Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, Poland, Central America, and Cuba; hostages in Iran; massive defense and intelligence cuts; and a generally feckless Carter foreign policy catapulted international concerns to a central position in the campaign.
By spring 1980, and especially with the addition of Bill Casey as campaign manager, we began to consider the party platform. We made an important decision to write a platform that would not be focused on winning an election but rather one that would serve as a guide to action on the very first days of a Reagan administration.
On the foreign policy side, we formed a large corps of substantive advisers in foreign policy, defense, and intelligence. Marty Anderson established a similar corps of advisers on the domestic side. Of the 120 advisers who worked with us over long months, virtually each one had the opportunity to meet with and brief the candidate, and their work was integrated into the campaign.
By early 1980, few inside the Beltway believed Ronald Reagan could be a serious candidate. Losing in Iowa galvanized the governor, and he decided to campaign in his own style, barnstorming through New Hampshire by bus day after day, morning, noon, and night. Resting his campaign on straightforward notions reflected in a platform that was entitled simply "Family, Neighborhood, Work, Peace, and Freedom," he directed that no statement, no release, no speech be made without complete conformity with those five fundamental concepts.
Earlier I referred to the unanimity among the group working closely with Reagan. That unity and purpose of vision were, in my mind, absolutely crucial to the smooth campaign that brought final victory. Inevitably, a postconvention campaign brings new people and a great deal of posturing and backstabbing. Yet there was very little of this in 1980 and none detectable at the upper reaches. That would change, of course, when the election was over, but the single vision prevailed throughout the fall.
PEOPLE ARE POLICY
Better than anyone, Ronald Reagan knew that policy does not exist as an abstract notion; to implement it, the right people are indispensable. As he put it, "Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and do not interfere as long as the policy you have decided upon is being carried out." Thus it was that a large reservoir of skilled people who had participated in the campaign were ready for action on day one of the new administration.
The first year of the administration was replete with examples of Reagan’s determination to implement his plan. There was a leader, and the leader had a clear concept of how to marshal U.S. strength in the service of a historic objective.
As he had remarked to me in January 1977, his overriding objective was to ensure that we would win and they would lose; this was at once a prophecy and a plan. That he succeeded beyond our expectations and his own, and those of the rest of the world, is both a matter of record and the main event of the second half of the twentieth century.
Richard Allen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. The holder of a master’s degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame, Allen was a senior staff member at Hoover from 1966 to 1968, at which time he took a leave of absence to serve as Richard Nixon’s foreign policy coordinator subsequently serving twice in the Nixon White House. He was Ronald Reagan’s chief foreign policy adviser from 1977 to 1980 and served as President Reagan’s first national security adviser from 1981 to 1982. A Hoover fellow since 1983, he is currently a member of the US Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee.
His research papers are available at the Hoover Institution Archives.
Adapted from the essay "Ronald Reagan: An Extraordinary Man in Extraordinary Times," in the new Hoover Press book The Fall of the Berlin Wall after Ten Years: Reassessing the Causes and Consequences of the Cold War, edited by Peter Schweizer.