In this excerpt from Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster, Martin and Annelise Anderson trace Ronald Reagan’s thinking from his early concerns about the morality of bombing to his resolution, as president, to strive to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons.
The first record we have of Ronald Reagan’s publicly expressing his desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons is on March 23, 1982. That day he traveled from the White House to New York City to address a thousand people at the National Conference of Christians and Jews, where Henry Kissinger presented him with the Gold Medal for Courageous Leadership in Government, Civil, and Human Affairs. Only Nancy Reagan, Ed Meese, White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, and press secretary Larry Speakes made the journey with him.
But before Reagan spoke to his audience, he sat down with seven members of the editorial board of the New York Post for a long interview. Right at the end of the interview, one of the editors requested “permission to ask one small question.” Speakes agreed: “Sure. Let’s go ahead with one more quick one and then scoot out.” It didn’t work that way. The editor’s question was a long and detailed one about the growing rearmament of the Soviet Union.
The question got Reagan’s attention, and he explained how he felt about the leaders of the Soviet Union:
They’ve deprived their people. They’ve lowered their standards of living just to continue with this massive buildup. And I must say they’ve been tremendously successful with it. They’re—not only quantitatively but qualitatively—militarily they have been an industrial giant.
This is one of the reasons why we can’t retreat on what we’re doing, because I believe we’ve come to the point that we must go at the matter of realistically reducing . . .
And then Reagan paused, as if pulling together all he had learned in his first year—especially the intelligence from the CIA—about the Soviets. He seemed to be thinking of what had to be done; in the space of a few moments, he came to a conclusion and finished answering the editor’s question:
. . . if not totally eliminating the nuclear weapons—the threat to the world.
Reagan’s comment was stunning. If he was serious, with one comment he had carved out a new policy objective for the national security of the United States.
And Reagan was serious. From that day on, he was a bona fide abolitionist of nuclear weapons. He never saw that dream come true, but he saw it come a long way.
During his seven remaining years in the White House, Reagan referred again and again—more than 150 times—to the necessity of wiping out nuclear weapons, not just to protect the United States but to protect every other country in the world. He didn’t just talk to a reporter or two. He talked to the country and the world, to joint sessions of the Congress, to the United Nations, and especially to those in charge of the Soviet Union. He wanted all countries—especially the Soviet Union—to join the United States and reduce their stockpiles of nuclear warheads.
At first no one took him seriously. Perhaps it was just too hard to accept the fact that a president of the United States honestly felt he had a chance to prevent billions of people from being killed or maimed by nuclear weapons. Even in the White House, precious few supported his new policy goal. His advisers, save one or two, just did not believe it was possible, that it was a waste of time to even think about it. But Reagan, being Reagan, quietly ignored them.
When Ronald Reagan was a student at Eureka College in Illinois between 1928 and 1932, he did more than major in economics and play college football. He was also a pacifist. Reagan did not remain a pacifist when World War II broke out, but readily admitted that he had felt differently in his early twenties:
I went through a period in college, in the aftermath of World War I, where I became a pacifist and thought the whole thing was a frame-up. [Quoted in Lou Cannon’s Reagan (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982)]
While a young man in college, he had a discussion with a friend working with him in the kitchen of the girls’ dormitory—one of them washing and the other drying—about whether the United States would ever use the capabilities developed in World War I to bomb cities and thus civilians. Reagan was certain the United States would never do such a thing. The story, slightly revised, found its way into a March 9, 1988, speech at Notre Dame and a later speech, in which he did not indicate which side of the argument he had been on:
Our class debated whether or not Americans—people who, to our way of thinking, stood for high moral standards—would ever drop bombs from a plane on a city. And the class was about evenly divided. Half felt it might be necessary. The other felt that bombing civilians would always be beyond the pale of decency, totally unacceptable human conduct, no matter how heinous the enemy.
We believed that young men in America would refuse such an order. But a decade later, during World War II, few, if any, who had been in that room objected to our country’s wholesale bombing of cities under the hard pressures of total war. Civilization’s standards of acceptable conduct had changed.
It’s hard to say they changed for the better.
Ten years after he left Eureka College, Reagan got a personal taste of war during World War II. No longer a pacifist, although he still abhorred war, now he would fight for a cause that was clear and just. In the weeks before he left Des Moines, Iowa, for Hollywood, he completed the work that would make him an officer in his cavalry reserve unit. He was called up and served in a unit that made training films and edited film from the front lines. He left the military with the rank of captain, deeply affected by what he had seen as one of the first Americans to view the films of the bodies in the German concentration camps.
By the time I got out of the Army Air Corps, all I wanted to do . . . was to rest up a while, make love to my wife, and come up refreshed to a better job in an ideal world. (As it came out, I was disappointed in all these postwar ambitions.) . . .
I was a near-hopeless hemophilic liberal. I bled for “causes”; I had voted Democratic, following my father, in every election. I had followed FDR blindly, though with some misgivings. I was to continue voting Democratic through the 1948 election—Harry S. Truman. . . .
Like most of the soldiers who came back, I expected a world suddenly reformed. I hoped and believed that the blood and death . . . of World War II would result in a regeneration of mankind . . . and that the bird of happiness would rise out of the ashes and fly everywhere at once.
I was wrong. . . .
I discovered that the world was almost the same and perhaps a little worse. My first reaction was to take a vacation at Lake Arrowhead. There I could laze around and take time to figure things out. . . . The result of my weeks of freedom crystallized a determination in my mind.
I would work with the tools I had: my thoughts, my speaking abilities, my reputation as an actor.
I would try to bring about the regeneration of the world I believed should have automatically appeared.
[From Where’s the Rest of Me: The Ronald Reagan Story, Ronald Reagan with Richard Hubler (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1965)]
That vow that Reagan made in September 1945 was one of the most grandiose promises of the century. Undoubtedly others have made similar statements, but very few, if any, have come closer to accomplishing them than did Reagan, whose vision served him well.
After the war, the thirty-four-year-old Reagan was tall, handsome, soon to be divorced, and wealthy (he had just received a Warner Bros. contract for seven years for more than $20 million in today’s dollars).
The world awaited him.
In August 1945, U.S. atomic bombs had leveled two Japanese cities. Reagan was asked to do a dramatic reading of a poem condemning the use of atomic weaponry at a dinner on December 10, 1945, sponsored by a group called the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, which reputedly supported left-of-center causes. The poem, written by Norman Corwin, was titled “Set Your Clock at U-235.”
The poem warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons and suggested an international group to control them:
We are all in the zone of danger: we are in it together . . .
The answers are in us together . . .
Unless we work at it together; at a single earth.
Reagan was asked to repeat his reading two days later. But Warner Bros. intervened with an argument about his contract, and he was forced to pass up any further opportunities.
After 1945, as Reagan slowly made the political transition from Democrat to Republican, there is no record of him talking of the immorality of nuclear weapons until twenty-two years had elapsed. But at least twice along the long path to his becoming president, the dangers of nuclear weapons to the entire world appeared in his speeches. On September 28, 1967, as the governor of California, he spoke to students and faculty at Eureka College, Illinois, his alma mater, at one point asserting:
We are the generation that exploded the atomic bomb and brought a permanent terror to the world.
Nine years later, on August 19, 1976, after narrowly losing the presidential nomination to President Ford, he was asked to speak to the Republican National Convention. He electrified the delegates, and the rest of the nation, with these words:
We live in a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction that can, in a matter of minutes, arrive in each other’s country and destroy virtually the civilized world we live in.
But no one was prepared when Reagan announced, nearly fifteen years after the Eureka speech, that the best thing to do was to get rid of all nuclear weapons. From the Soviets came a long silence. The people close to Reagan, especially his national security advisers, humored him, assuming the notion would eventually go away. But it didn’t.
On February 18, 1982, in a meeting in the Situation Room that lasted more than an hour, Reagan was briefed on the exact dimensions of the Soviet threat. He wrote in his diary:
Had a briefing on Soviet Arms. It was a sobering experience. There can be no argument against our re-arming when one sees the production complex they have established for the mfg. of every kind of weapon and war machine.
Their sophistication is frightening.
On April 16, 1982, the National Security Council (NSC) met to review the national security objectives ordered by the president. William Clark, the national security adviser, opened the discussion, noting, “The importance of this study is indeed great; it will guide not only budget decisions but also the national security for the balance of the century.”
Tom Reed, counselor to the NSC, summarized:
The threats we face and the nature of our objectives are such that we are at a time of greatest danger to our national security since World War II . . . we call for active measures to counter Soviet expansionism, to encourage the liberalizing tendencies in the Soviet bloc, and to force the Soviet Union to bear the brunt of its economic mismanagement.
The bottom line is that we are helping encourage the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.
Reagan listened and then informed the group about his own thinking:
I have always been of the view that the Soviets, if they think they are ready to engage us, will not need an excuse, but at the same time will not engage us if they feel threatened. What we need is presence so that they know if they come in, they will have to confront the U.S. Can’t we use our presence in Europe to obtain that effect?
You look at Russian history. Protecting the homeland has always been of paramount importance. If they know that we might respond to them by hitting them anywhere in the world, that’s a strong deterrent.
We will do whatever is necessary to meet our objectives. A vigorous defense buildup will also be a great help at arms control talks. The Soviets do not believe that they can keep up with us.
If you compare Western Europe to the Soviet Union, you find that our Allies collectively have a greater population and higher GNP. Why should the Russians look ten feet tall and our Allies look like pygmies?
A few days later, on April 21, 1982, the NSC met to discuss the U.S. negotiating position for the strategic arms reduction talks (START) with the Soviet Union.
The first negotiations between the two superpowers on their stocks of nuclear weapons, known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), had taken place in 1969 in Helsinki, Finland. SALT I was signed in 1972 by President Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev; SALT II was signed by President Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev in 1979 but never ratified by the U.S. Senate. For many years Reagan argued that both SALT agreements allowed the Soviet Union to increase the number of its nuclear weapons significantly.
During the long, complicated discussion at that April 1982 meeting, as recorded in top-secret minutes, President Reagan ruled out any reference to the old SALT treaties:
I agree that we should not have a negotiation position taking an approach linked to SALT. It’s obvious that if we do, some will push us to ratify SALT II, which we think is lousy.
Isn’t one of the problems with limiting warheads that we cannot easily verify their numbers? This is really an important issue. . . . The landbased missiles are certainly the most important of all. Are they difficult to verify?
We have to reduce the first-strike sudden threat of the missiles. The bombers take twelve hours to arrive and are easier to spot. The submarines are not so accurate; and both the submarines and bombers can be attacked before they shoot their missiles.
The ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] is different. The greatest psychological factor has to be an emphasis on the land-based missiles and their special threat.
Ambassador Edward Rowny responded, “You are absolutely right. These missiles are the most destabilizing weapons. SALT II allowed them to build and deploy more.” Eugene Rostow, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, agreed with Rowny: “That’s right. They are the most destabilizing weapons.” And Secretary of State Alexander Haig told Reagan, “Your decision on the framework of our START position will probably be the most important of your presidency.”
Reagan wistfully ended the meeting on this note:
It’s too bad we cannot do in START what we did in INF [intermediaterange nuclear force], or what Ike [Dwight D. Eisenhower] proposed on all nuclear weapons.
First, we need to restore the balance.
Reagan was referring to a speech Eisenhower made to the United Nations on December 8, 1953, eleven months after taking office, in which he called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world. His straightforward idea was “to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldier . . . and put it into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.”
Eisenhower could not persuade the Soviets to join him, and the nuclear arms race began. Now Reagan was thinking of what might have been and of how important it would be to rein in all those nuclear weapons.
But no member of Reagan’s National Security Council responded to his passing thought. No one acknowledged his reference to the 1953 speech.
Later the same day, April 21, 1982, Reagan expressed his ideas—as he often did—in a personal letter, this one to a Miss Virginia Adams at the West Virginia School of Lay Ministry. He told her directly of his hopes:
We must reduce and hopefully eliminate nuclear weapons but we cannot do so unilaterally. The Soviet Union has the greatest offensive military power the world has ever seen.
On May 9, 1982, fifty years after his own graduation, the president flew with his wife, Nancy, to Eureka College to give the commencement address. Reagan had loved being a student in Eureka College and loved even more to go back to speak to the students. This was one of his main points:
My duty as president is to ensure that the ultimate nightmare never occurs, that the prairies and the cities and the people who inhabit them remain free and untouched by nuclear conflict.
I wish more than anything there were a simple policy that would eliminate that nuclear danger.
The next day, May 10, he was in Chicago, answering questions from students at Providence St. Mel High School, with the press in attendance. At the close of the event, a student stood and asked why “the United States had to have nuclear weapons instead of just relying on conventional weapons.”
Reagan carefully answered the student’s question in detail, ending by saying:
The ultimate goal that we could all dream of is the same one that’s in Geneva now—getting rid of them forever. And, believe it or not, you can be proud of your country. Under President Eisenhower, a number of years ago . . . he offered to the Soviets and to the world to turn all such weapons over to an international body like the United Nations and take all of them away as a threat between nations.
And the Soviet Union refused.
So, we’re going to try again.
A little over a month later, on June 17, 1982, Reagan addressed the United Nations for the first time. That day he did not mention his dream of getting rid of all nuclear weapons, but he did severely criticize the Soviet Union, especially for having had an opportunity to eliminate nuclear weapons and rejecting it. Here are excerpts of that speech:
In 1946, in what became known as the Baruch plan, the United States submitted a proposal for control of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy by an international authority. The Soviet Union rejected this plan. . . .
During my recent audience with His Holiness Pope John Paul II, I gave him the pledge of the American people to do everything possible for peace and arms reduction. . . . We must serve mankind through genuine disarmament.
With God’s help we can secure life and freedom for generations to come.
During the latter part of 1982, Reagan’s high-powered national security staff began taking his views on nuclear weapons seriously. Some were aghast; others argued with him. No one seemed to encourage him. No one seemed to think he was right, except Pope John Paul II.
But before he could pursue his dream, Reagan had many other things to do—especially guiding his economic program through a bad recession and making a critical personnel change.
Al Haig had never accepted that President Reagan meant it when he had said at the first meeting of the National Security Council in early 1981 that he would make the decisions. As time went on Haig became more difficult to work with. On June 25, 1982, he submitted his resignation, and Reagan accepted it. Haig announced that his reason for leaving was a fundamental disagreement on foreign policy, but, as Reagan wrote that night in his personal diary,
Actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Sec. of State did.
Even before accepting Haig’s resignation, Reagan had called someone he highly respected, George Shultz, and asked him if he would become his next secretary of state. That same night Reagan wrote in his diary:
I’d called him and like the patriot he is he said “yes.”
Shultz was sworn in on July 16, 1982, and soon became the key person at Reagan’s side as he began his drive to convince the Soviet Union of the necessity of nuclear arms reduction.
Toward the end of 1982, the U.S. economy began to recover, George Shultz settled in as secretary of state, and there was also a major change in the Soviet Union: Brezhnev—who had resisted all of Reagan’s attempts to engage him on the issue of nuclear arms—died on November 10, 1982, to be succeeded by Yuri Andropov, the former head of the KGB. Many doubted that Andropov would be an improvement over Brezhnev, but to Reagan it was someone new, someone he could try his negotiating skills on again.