The orthodox line that Ronald Reagan knew little and did less and that his foreign policy success was the result of unusual good fortune—particularly in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev’s coming to power—is losing ground. It is gradually being displaced by the revisionist thesis that Reagan was a shrewd strategist who orchestrated events, wanted victory in the Cold War, and sensed that it was possible. Still, the burden on those seeking to make the orthodox case is heavy because Reagan has long been presented as a thin, insubstantial persona, little more than a political brand name for a kind of class-B Hollywood anti-Sovietism. What is revealed by a close inspection of the record, however, is that the revisionists not only make the better case but may even be underestimating the man.
In The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War, Beth Fischer makes the case for Ronald Reagan’s seminal role in ending the Cold War, arguing that Reagan was an unusually strategic-minded politician. In her new book, Fischer contends that in the span of ten weeks the Reagan administration completely reversed its Soviet policy. On October 31, 1983, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam delivered a speech declaring that, through its military buildup and meddling around the globe, the Soviet Union posed the greatest possible threat to United States and global security. But in a televised foreign policy address on January 16, 1984, President Reagan went out of his way to stress the “common interests” of the superpowers and to declare that the possibility of nuclear war was the most important security threat to both the United States and the Soviet Union. The January 16 speech, argues Fischer, “proved to be the turning point in his administration’s approach to the Kremlin. With this speech, Reagan began seeking a rapprochement.”
Fischer considers three domestic-level explanations for the alleged policy change. One is that President Reagan moderated his Soviet policy in 1984 because it was an election year. Another is that, by 1984, National Security adviser Robert McFarlane and Secretary of State George Shultz had captured the supposedly passive president and implemented a more moderate approach to superpower relations. Fischer’s third hypothesis is that the president himself led the reversal because of a genuine conversion. She finds this last thesis the most convincing.
Fischer argues that, in the aftermath of the Soviet downing of Korean Air flight 007 in September 1983, the airing of the television movie “The Day After,” which graphically depicted the effects of a nuclear war on the United States, and a Pentagon briefing on nuclear war, the president “had a turning-point experience” that tapped into his deep-seated and long-standing abhorrence of nuclear weapons and his moral outrage over the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, which worked by holding civilization itself hostage before an act of mutual insanity. In addition to all this, the Soviet Union—apparently reacting to a major NATO training exercise in November—upgraded the alert status of some of its nuclear-capable fighter aircraft. The superpowers had come too close to blundering into nuclear war for Reagan’s comfort. According to Fischer, it was in response to this accumulation of factors that Reagan shifted U.S. Soviet policy in a cooperative direction—a year before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, it should be noted.
Although Fischer’s third and favored hypothesis is much stronger than the two she rejects, it is still unconvincing. Rightly, she finds remarkable the speed with which Reagan seems to have radically changed his assumptions about U.S.-Soviet relations and his policy goals. She does not, however, even entertain the possibility that this apparent radical change of strategy, far from involving an equivalently radical change of mind, was itself part of a single strategy—one that required a deliberate tactical change once the United States had managed to raise the stakes and make the cost of Soviet expansionism prohibitively high.
In fact, the content of Reagan’s January 16 speech was not, as Fischer and others would have it, a response to his having suddenly “learned” about the dangers of nuclear war. Nor did the speech represent a fundamental policy shift. Rather, it represented a tactical adjustment that reflected a strategy toward the Soviet Union that Reagan had been mulling over for years—indeed, long before he assumed the presidency.
Let’s review the speech. Crucially, Reagan began by declaring that the neglect of U.S. defenses during the 1970s had been reversed by 1984. The United States was thus in a more credible position “to convince any potential aggressor that war could bring no benefit. . . . Now there is less danger that the Soviet leadership will underestimate our strength or question our resolve.” Only after discussing America’s military and economic resurgence did the president proclaim that the superpowers have “common interests” in avoiding nuclear war and that “1984 is a year of opportunities for peace.” Reagan carefully related the U.S. preference for mutual cooperation to its strategy of strength, arguing that the former could be achieved only after the latter was in place.
A careful look at the historical record shows that the president had outlined most of what was in this speech years earlier. During his prepresidential years, Reagan honed four core hypotheses about U.S.-Soviet relations and the Cold War. First, he argued that nuclear weapons did not fundamentally change the nature of international relations. In his view, then, arms control would be easier to achieve and more significant once fundamental issues like Soviet expansionism had been addressed.
Second, Reagan believed that the United States was an exceptional state in world history because it protected internal freedom and equality, promoted these values abroad, and was not, in the Cold War context, seizing territory as the Soviet Union had done in Eastern Europe.
Third, he saw the Soviet Union as an abnormal state because it had no popular base of support, suppressed freedom of every sort, set itself up as the world leader of states with similar characteristics, and was prepared to foment major international crises as a means of fostering internal control. Reagan’s “evil empire” speech of March 8, 1983, has become Cold War folklore, but Reagan had been speaking about the Soviet Union in precisely these terms since at least 1978. In a speech on April 10 of that year, for example, he intoned:
There is an evil influence throughout the world. In every one of the far-flung trouble spots, dig deep and you’ll find the Soviet Union stirring a witches’ brew, furthering its own imperialistic ambitions. If the Soviet Union would simply go home, much of the bloodshed in the world today would cease.
Reagan’s final—and at the time most contentious—proposition was that Russia’s inefficient economy and inferior technology ultimately could not survive competition with the United States over armaments. He discussed his hypothesis repeatedly in his daily radio broadcasts and biweekly newspaper columns in the late 1970s.
From these four hypotheses Reagan deduced a grand strategy. The strategy was in one sense as simple as “peace through strength,” Reagan’s foreign policy mantra during the 1970s. But despite his reputation as a reckless warmonger, his stress on peace as the goal was as firm and sustained as that on strength as the means. “Peace” was the title of one of his daily radio addresses in the spring of 1975. He mentioned U.S.-Soviet peace twice in announcing his intention to seek the presidency on November 20, 1975. Reagan amplified this theme during the 1980 presidential campaign, declaring in a speech in Boston on August 20 that the American goal was “not just . . . peace in our time but . . . peace for all time.”
Reagan remains elusive, for he was a genuinely humble man who kept his own counsel. The requirements of evidence to make the case that he had a strategy, and that he himself substantially crafted it, are distinctly high. The good news is that a paper trail exists—in the form of his various speeches, broadcasts, and statements as well as the archives of his private papers—to make that case. The puzzle is why so few have bothered to follow it. Scholars need to go deep into the public and private record to make even a minimally convincing revisionist case about Reagan and his presidency. Plenty of work remains to be done.