Eight Years That Shook the World

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

“The paradox inherent in democracy,” Donald Kagan has written, “is that it must create and depend on citizens who are free, autonomous, and self-reliant. Yet its success—its survival even—requires extraordinary leadership.” I was reminded of this judgment by Yale’s eminent historian as I noted the news report that President Bush had presented a Congressional Gold Medal to Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Reagan for their service to the country and, I would add, to the free world. And perhaps just as important an event: This past June marked the 25th anniversary of Mr. Reagan’s Westminster speech on June 8, 1982, and the 15th anniversary of his Berlin Wall address on June 12, 1987.

In the Westminster address, he predicted that “the march of freedom and democracy [would] leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history,” and how right he was. It took extraordinary moral courage to make such a prophecy at a time when the Soviet Union was on the march, threatening Western Europe with intercontinental missiles. Still more to utter in 1987 his historic words in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

More and more it becomes obvious, if not to the dominant school of American historians, that in terms of achievement Mr. Reagan was one of the country’s greatest presidents. Why? Because his momentous deeds were accomplished without war, without bloodshed. It is not to minimize the pantheonic stature of Abraham Lincoln to point out that his decision to save the Union cost millions of lives. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991, the outcome of the eight years of Mr. Reagan’s extraordinary leadership, saved the world from what might have been a nuclear war.

In fact, Mr. Reagan was one of the most successful U.S. politician-statesmen of the postwar era. An editorial in the distinctly nonconservative London Economist hailed Mr. Reagan in these words: “Judged strictly on his own terms, Ronald Reagan was a great president. He said he would reduce regulation; he did. He said that he would cut taxes; he did. He said that he would spend the Soviet Union into submission; he did. He was a successful president . . . because he knew who he was and what he believed in.”

Mr. Reagan fits perfectly a definition of what Sidney Hook called the “hero in history.” That phrase was the title of a book in which the philosopher dealt with the role of personality in history and the impact of that force on mankind: “The great man or woman in history is someone of whom we can say on the basis of the available evidence that if they had not lived when they did, or acted as they did, the history of their countries and of the world, to the extent that they are intertwined, would have been profoundly different. Their presence, in other words, must have made a substantial difference with respect to some event or movement deemed important by those who attribute historical greatness to them.”

An immediate test of that definition is to consider how different a world it would be today had Jimmy Carter defeated Mr. Reagan and won a second term in 1980. For it was Mr. Carter’s stupendous misjudgment of Soviet history and ambitions that led him early in his term to exult that “we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.” Of course, he changed his mind after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “This action of the Soviets has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

Mr. Reagan, the Great Communicator, understood the realities of Soviet imperialism and acted accordingly. One can be certain that he would not have become an apologist for Fidel Castro’s dictatorship as Mr. Carter, with all his good intentions, has become.

In his view of history, Mr. Hook repudiated the notion that “no man or woman is indispensable.” There are moments in history, he argued, when “a particular person may very well be indispensable.” He defined two categories of heroes, the “eventful” individual and the “event-making” man or woman, the truly great figure in history. The eventful man is like the legendary Dutch boy who with his little finger stopped up the gap in the dike all night until aid could come. He saved the town by his deed, but any Dutch boy passing by could have done the same thing. “He was a hero by happenstance,” writes Mr. Hook.

“The event-making individual is someone who by extraordinary traits of character or intelligence or some other distinctive facet of personality has largely shaped the viable alternatives of action between which he chooses, alternatives that but for him would probably not have emerged,” Mr. Hook writes. “Such individuals are not made by events so much as events are made by them.”

There are villainous event-making “heroes” like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, and there are freedom-loving democratic event-making heroes in history like Winston Churchill and Mr. Reagan, whose eight years in office trumped the 10 days that shook the world.