Our Hero

Thursday, October 30, 2003

"When history is taught at all nowadays," George F. Will wrote not long ago, "often it is taught as the unfolding of inevitabilities—of vast, impersonal forces. The role of contingency in history is disparaged, so students are inoculated against . . . the notion . . . that history can be turned in its course by . . . individuals." Working for Ronald Reagan amounted to a graduate course in just the opposite, the ability of a single man to change the entire world.

Yes, I know. Margaret Thatcher may believe the 40th chief executive won the Cold War—Lady Thatcher has often said that "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot"—but her view is hardly universal. Well, then. If Ronald Reagan didn't win the Cold War, how did the conflict end? There are only a couple of other explanations.

One holds that the Soviet Union simply collapsed, like a poorly designed Astrodome after a storm dumped tons of snow on the roof. What placed the fatal stresses on the USSR, the explanation goes, were economic stagnation, imperial overreach—that is, an empire that had grown so big the Soviets could no longer afford it—and the rise of a generation that failed to share the Communist faith of its parents and grandparents. Reagan? Don't be silly. He had nothing to do with it.

Or had he?

The Soviet Union certainly did suffer from economic stagnation. But the Soviet economy had been growing feebly since at least the early 1970s. What changed during the 1980s wasn't so much the economy of the USSR as the economy of the United States, which responded to the policies of Ronald Reagan by growing dramatically. By the time Reagan left office, the U.S. output of goods and services had expanded by an amount nearly equal to the entire economy of what was then West Germany. The only way the Soviets could have expanded their economy by that amount would have been by annexing West Germany itself. If the Soviets finally decided they'd had it with the creaking, backward economic contraption that Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev had given them, in other words, they did so because they'd caught a glimpse of the sleek new beauty that Ronald Reagan had given us.

Imperial overreach? True enough, the Soviets found themselves stuck with an empire they could no longer afford. But you can hardly blame them. By rebuilding our military, Ronald Reagan had forced the Soviets to spend more on theirs. By arming the contras in Nicaragua and the mujahideen in Afghanistan, he had compelled the Soviets and their proxies to engage in long, expensive wars of attrition merely to cling to territory they had already come to think of as their own. By delaying the construction of the Soviet natural gas pipeline and working with oil-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, to hold down the price of oil, a principal Soviet export, he had deprived the Soviets of vital sources of hard currency. Costs up, revenues down. The Soviet case of imperial overreach came courtesy of Ronald Reagan.

Did a new generation of Russians refuse to place its faith in the communism of their forebears? Evidently. But why? In part, surely, because of the transformation young Russians saw taking place in the United States.

During the 1970s, the United States looked like a nation in decline, just about as Karl Marx would have predicted. Even President Carter contended the country had seen better days. "The symptoms of . . . [a] crisis in the American spirit are all around us," Carter said in an address from the Oval Office on July 15, 1979. Then, on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan took office. "The crisis we are facing today," he said in his first inaugural address, "[requires] our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds. . . . And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans." As polls indicated, the American people responded to the Reagan presidency with a renewed sense of patriotism and self-confidence. "Morning in America," the campaign slogan for Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, was widely derided in the media, as presidential campaign slogans tend to be. Yet it captured the mood of the nation. If you'd like proof, take a look at Reagan's 1984 victory. He carried 49 out of 50 states, receiving more votes than any other candidate for president in history.

Morning in America? As the children of the Soviet apparat would have recognized, that wasn't in Marx's game plan. Ronald Reagan made communism look a lot less like the wave of the future and a lot more like another misbegotten nineteenth-century ideology, such as syndicalism or anarchism, that was destined for the ash heap of history.

The other explanation holds that the Cold War ended because a spiritual and cultural revolution swept Eastern Europe. Led by Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and Václav Havel, the velvet revolution of 1989 toppled one Eastern European regime after another until, in a reversal of the domino theory, the USSR itself came crashing down.

The explanation has a certain amount to be said for it. "The pope would have done just what he did, Reagan or no," Richard Allen, Reagan's first national security adviser, explains. Walesa, Allen believes, "may have been a bit more cautious absent Reagan." But then again, maybe not. "As for Havel, he found great solace in Reagan's presence. . . . [But] he was already committed [before Reagan became president]." It appears certain, in other words, that the pope, Walesa, and Havel would have done all they could to foment a revolution in Eastern Europe even if Reagan had never left Hollywood.

What appears a lot less certain is that the pope, Walesa, and Havel would have succeeded. Reagan gave the revolution in Eastern Europe very substantial support. He provided funding and equipment to Solidarity in Poland, for example, both covertly, by way of the CIA, and overtly, by way of the AFL-CIO, whose assistance to Solidarity the administration coordinated. Still more important, Reagan let the Soviets know that as events in Eastern Europe unfolded he expected them to keep their hands off. "He grew concerned [in spring 1981]," Richard Allen says, describing just one incident, "about Soviet troop movements in and around Poland." To prevent the Soviets from crushing the Solidarity movement in Poland just as they had crushed the 1968 Prague Spring, on April 3, Reagan, still in the hospital after the attempt on his life, sent a blunt message to Brezhnev, threatening, as Reagan later wrote, "The harshest possible economic sanctions." Did Reagan's action forestall a Soviet invasion? If a definitive answer exists, it lies buried in the archives of the Politburo. Yet soon after Brezhnev received Reagan's letter, the Soviet forces stood down. The revolution of 1989 might not have proven as soft as velvet if Ronald Reagan hadn't spent eight years beforehand proving as hard as steel.

Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and Václav Havel led a revolution. Feel free to choose any explanation for the end of the Cold War that you like. But if you settle on either of the final two, sooner or later, I think, you'lll notice something peculiar. Even though the explanation you've chosen directs your attention not to decisions made in Washington, D.C., but to events on the Eurasian landmass, it will make a lot more sense if you bear Ronald Reagan in mind.

Just Say "Nyet"

On the night in 1976 when Ronald Reagan lost the Republican presidential nomination to Gerald Ford, Michael Reagan was seated with his father in a Kansas City hotel not far from the convention hall. "This was the first time in my life I'd ever seen my father lose," Mike says. "So I asked him, 'Dad, what's going through your mind'"

What disappointed him most, Reagan replied, was that now he'd be unable to face the leader of the Soviet Union at the negotiating table. "My dad said to me, 'Michael, I wanted to sit down with Brezhnev. I was going to allow him to choose the place. I'd even allow him to choose the room, choose the table, and choose the chairs. I wanted to sit there and listen to him tell me, the American president, representing the American people, everything the United States was going to have to give up just to get along with the Soviets. Michael, I wanted to listen to him for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then I was going to get up from my chair very slowly while he was talking, and I was going to walk around to the other side of the table. And then I was going to lean over and whisper in his ear, 'Nyet.'"

Nyet. What other politician of the day so yearned to utter that syllable to the general secretary of the Soviet Union? Jimmy Carter? Hardly. Not long after taking office in 1977, Carter announced that under his leadership the United States was at last free of its "inordinate fear of communism." Carter's fellow Democrat, Walter Mondale? Once again, hardly. Running against Reagan for president in 1984, Mondale denounced the 40th president for his hard line with the Soviets. Even among Republicans, what other politician wanted to say nyet to Leonid Brezhnev? George H.W. Bush? Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Yet again, hardly. Running against Reagan in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, each placed himself to Reagan's left.

"The great man or woman in history," the philosopher Sidney Hook argues in his book, The Hero 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.


Does Reagan fit the description? He does indeed. No one else would have done what he did. And what he did changed the world. But you needn't take my word for it. "He was an authentic person and a great person," Mikhail Gorbachev said in a recent interview. "If someone else had been in his place, I don't know if what happened would have happened.?"

There you have his principal adversary all but admitting it: Ronald Reagan was a hero in history.