Ronald Reagan’s One Big Thing

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Fifty years ago, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Quoting from the Greek poet Archilochus, who said, “The Fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin divided the world into two types of people. Foxes pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. Their actions are connected by no aesthetic or moral principle. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, relate everything to a single central vision, a single universal organizing principle that defines what they think and believe. Most people are foxes; Ronald Reagan was a hedgehog.

The “one big thing” Reagan knew was the power and value of human freedom, which proved to be the defining principle of his worldview. It guided what he thought about domestic politics and was central to his vision for the world. For more than 30 years, Reagan embraced a vision for dealing with the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War that was remarkably consistent and proved to be decisive. People who note his apparent lack of interest in the details of diplomacy, missile throw weights, and international law fail to see his larger strategic vision. Details that animate so many in the world of politics, academe, and journalism did not interest him so much as the “metaphysics” of the Cold War. He was, in short, a hedgehog living in a world populated with foxes.

Ronald Reagan is impossible to understand outside of his 40-year battle against communism. It was a struggle that consumed more of his attention than any other endeavor and touched the very center of his life. It cost him his first marriage and brought him his second wife; it damaged his relationship with his children; death threats while waging it left him sitting up at night, guarding his kids with a .32-caliber pistol; and it brought him three assassination attempts. When a fourth deranged assassin named John Hinckley took him an inch from death, Reagan came to believe that his life had been spared by God for a divine purpose: defeating communism.

But if it is impossible to understand Reagan separate from his war, it is likewise not possible to understand the collapse of the Soviet Union separate from Ronald Reagan; the two are intertwined.

Walking the Difficult Path

Two virtues that Ronald Reagan so admired—courage and character—are what his nearly half-century battle against communism required most. Beginning in Hollywood and throughout his presidency, Reagan was always willing to speak the truth about communism. Sometimes his strong views brought physical threats against his life and family. More often, they would prompt ridicule or denunciation of him as a dangerous ignoramus. In either case, Reagan unflinchingly pressed on, opposed by old friends, cabinet officers, and sometimes even members of his own family.

A public life by definition depends in large part on public opinion. For politicians, failure to pay attention to public opinion means professional death. Over the course of U.S. history, American presidents have certainly demonstrated a willingness to challenge public opinion and proceed down a difficult path they view as necessary. One thinks of Lincoln on the eve of the American Civil War. But in the twentieth century, few American presidents have proven to be as immune to public criticism as Reagan was. Some, like Eisenhower, were cautious in the face of the critics and conservative by temperament. Others, like FDR, were reluctant to step ahead of public opinion. Even Richard Nixon, who claimed loudly to shun the opinions of the establishment, was still captive to it, concerned about how he was viewed or would be remembered.

But throughout the course of his public life, Reagan was strangely impervious to public opinion. While recognizing and appreciating the realities of electoral politics, Reagan was steadfast in his execution of the war against communism. In the face of poll numbers that showed widespread disapproval of his defense and foreign policies, criticism from elder statesmen, ridicule from the media, and withering attacks from his political opponents, Reagan didn’t seem bothered. He embodied the sense of rugged individualism that we so often associate with cowboys of the Old West; Reagan was truly his own man.

Of course, Reagan was a master politician. He understood the value of symbols and images in winning votes. But he was about more than his personal ambitions or vacant symbolism. He believed in ideas much larger than himself; and his ideas did not shift over the course of his public life, nor did he ever attempt to camouflage them. When they seemed unpopular, he clung to them stubbornly. When established opinion called them simpleminded, he smiled and pressed ahead. Reagan cared deeply about these ideas; he would not jettison them simply to collect more votes.

When Reagan thought about the world, he did not do it in the abstract way of most academics. If ideas did have consequences, Reagan believed that embracing and advocating the right ideas was the best way to be a leader of consequence. He had not only his views about policies but a worldview, and he had a strong sense of his place and America’s in the currents of history. When he spoke about the Cold War, his words were charged with a sense of personal conviction unlike that of any other Cold War president. Some no doubt will challenge or disagree with his view of the world, but few if any would question his sincerity.

In retrospect, it is clear that Reagan was largely correct about communism and his critics were wrong. Soviet communism was the threat that he claimed it was and was vulnerable in the way he said it would be. He was on the correct side of the great battles of the struggle against communism. Moscow and its supporters did try to gain a level of control in Hollywood; the peace movement in the 1970s and 1980s was being influenced by the Soviet Union; and Moscow and Havana did have plans to subvert Central America. Archives in the former Soviet bloc settle these debates.

He also predicted that the Soviet Union would “end up on the ash heap of history” half a dozen years before others saw it. How did a C student in economics from Eureka College envision all of this?

It is difficult to say with complete certainty. There were external influences over the course of the Cold War that directed and focused his thinking, as well as concepts and ideas that he developed on his own. But far from being a simple conduit for presidential aides and others who believed only they knew the proper course of action, Reagan embraced many of these ideas before he was president. He was himself once asked how he figured all of this out, and he gave an interesting answer. Rather than claiming superior intellect, he simply pointed out that everyone knew the Soviet Union was evil, expansionist, and in trouble but that no one wanted to say it. Courage, it seems, made all the difference, an important lesson in an age when supreme importance seems to be placed on the intelligence of our leaders rather than their courage.

If there were few leaders during the Cold War willing to consistently speak out openly about the evils of the communist system, there were fewer still who were willing to battle it directly. No American president throughout the history of the Cold War up until Reagan had been willing to make rolling back and defeating communism a primary goal. Even anti-Communists like Richard Nixon subscribed to the seductive idea that stability was most important and that a healthy Soviet Union was important for long-term peace. But Reagan understood that communism by its nature was a danger to peace because it relied on fear and external enemies to maintain its legitimacy. Only by its defeat would the Cold War end, so he chose to force tensions to a decisive conclusion rather than hiding them.

Many of Reagan’s most critical initiatives were launched alone. He approved massive defense increases in 1981, even though a majority of his cabinet was opposed and former presidents Nixon and Ford were advising him to cut spending. He launched the Strategic Defense Initiative almost entirely by himself, informing his secretary of state and most other advisers only hours before he announced his plans to the public. When he took a hard line over the declaration of martial law in Poland in an effort to keep Solidarity alive, he did so with scant support from any major ally save Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. All the while, he was ridiculed for failing to grasp the intricacies of the global situation.

Even when the opportunity arose to secure his place in history by striking a diplomatic bargain with Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Reagan resisted the temptation, much to the consternation of many who were watching. He would not change course, even in pursuit of political glory.

The Victory Lap

When it came, the collapse of the Soviet empire came at a dizzying pace.

On February 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan. It was the first complete military defeat in Soviet history. According to Sergei Tarasenko, an official in the Soviet Foreign Ministry, it made crystal clear that Moscow could not use force to hold its crumbling empire together.

In May 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev let the Sandinista government in Nicaragua know that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to provide aid. The following year, the Sandinistas were voted out of power in free elections.

In early June, 200,000 people gathered for a ceremony in Budapest’s Heroes Square. Five coffins were lying in front of the crowd, each bearing the name of a man who had been sentenced to death as a traitor after the 1956 revolution. The ceremony gave rise to more protests, and a few months later the Communist Party voted itself out of existence.

In mid-October, the East German city of Leipzig was illuminated by the light of thousands of candles as people gathered and sang “Dona Nobis Pacem.” The peaceful protest spread, and two days later, Erich Honecker resigned. Weeks later, the entire Politburo quit. On November 9, the Berlin Wall was breached and thousands of East Germans surged through the Wall’s crossing points and were greeted by West Berliners carrying champagne. “The Wall is gone! The Wall is gone!”

While these events were unfolding, ex-president Reagan watched from California, pleased with what was taking place. Reagan had always said that fear was communism’s most important weapon. Now around the world, in outposts and in the heart of the empire, ordinary people were acting fearlessly. Characteristically, Reagan would not take any credit for what was happening. By early 1990, invitations were being extended for him to return to Europe in what some in the media dubbed his “victory lap.”

In early September 1990 Reagan arrived in Berlin, greeted by a city newspaper that had printed the words to a new love song written in honor of him, “The Man Who Made Those Pussyfooters and Weaklings Feel Ashamed.” He made his final pilgrimage to the Wall and was given a hammer and chisel. He was 79 now, but he took a few pieces out of the large gray edifice. Then he walked along the death strip where East German border guards had once operated with orders to shoot anyone trying to escape. He shook hands with ordinary Germans. “Thank you, Mr. President,” one resident shouted. “Well,” he said in response, “we can’t be happy until the whole world knows freedom the way we do.”

From Germany he traveled to Gdansk, Poland, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement. He was greeted by torrential rain and hail, but 7,000 people had shown up for a public ceremony in his honor, chanting “Thank you, Thank you!” while singing “Sto Lat,” a song in honor of Polish heroes. As the crowd watched, Lech Walesa’s former parish priest presented Reagan with a sword.

“I am giving you the saber for helping us to chop off the head of communism,” he said.

Beyond the Final Scorecard

How did Reagan contribute to the demise of the Soviet empire? You can draw up a scorecard and count the economic costs that Reagan’s policies placed on a struggling Soviet economy, using Moscow’s numbers:

  • The second strand of the European natural gas pipeline Reagan stopped: lost revenue, $7–8 billion a year

  • The cost of counterinsurgency operations against Reagan-backed guerrillas: $8 billion a year

  • Extra arms shipped to Cuba to soothe anxieties following the U.S. invasion of Grenada: $3 billion

  • Military spending increases announced to match Reagan’s: $15–20 billion a year

  • Lost revenue due to restrictions on technology imports: $1–2 billion a year

  • Lost revenue from a sudden drop in oil prices: $5–6 billion a year

  • Extra aid delivered to Poland after Reagan’s sanctions: $1 billion

This amounts to a hefty price tag for a superpower that had total hard-currency earnings of approximately $32 billion at the time.

Or you can look at the body blows that the Soviet empire suffered. Military defeat in Afghanistan demoralized the Kremlin and the military as they suffered their first defeat of the Cold War. At the same time, the survival and eventual triumph of Solidarity in Poland burned a hole in the heart of the empire that could never be filled. In both of these cases, Reagan proved decisive in victory.

Since the end of the Cold War, a debate has raged about how it ended. It is fashionable now to denigrate Reagan’s role in winning the Cold War. His achievements and strategic vision are minimized in many quarters. We are often offered the image of Reagan as an amiable bumpkin who just happened to be there when it all happened around him. But not only was Reagan passionate and courageous in battle, he had a well-developed plan seeking the demise of the Soviet Union. Developed over the course of 30 years and spelled out in detail through several top-secret national security directives while he was president, the ideas and concepts behind it were largely his own. Make no mistake: This “bumpkin” won the Cold War.

It is revealing, though, that one person who never got wrapped up in this debate was Ronald Reagan. One of the last items to be removed from his Oval Office desk in January 1989 was a small sign that read “It’s surprising what you can accomplish when no one is concerned about who gets the credit.”

Today we live in a world very different from the one only a quarter-century ago. There is no longer talk of a large-scale war in Europe, no fear of a massive nuclear strike. Understanding Reagan’s struggle and final triumph over communism involves more than debating the past or deciding who gets the credit. It provides us wisdom and hope for the struggles of today and tomorrow. Reagan’s hope that we be guided not by fear but by courage and moral clarity is as apt today as it was during the height of the Cold War.