This is the first of what will be a series of posts contemplating the ideas of Ronald Reagan which appear in “Reagan, In His Own Hand.”
In 1975, Ronald Reagan gave a cautionary radio address on the topic of peace. In it, he drew parallels between the gathering storm that was Nazi Germany prior to WWII and that of the Soviet Union in the mid ‘70s.
Reagan asked whether it would be said of his time, as it was of the WWII generation, “they were better at surviving the catastrophe than they were at preventing it.” He noted that WWII didn’t happen because the free world engaged in a massive military buildup, but rather because they tended the brewing threat with “anguished passiveness.” He cited examples of how perceived U.S. weakness emboldened the Japanese to strike at Pearl Harbor.
The central lesson, Reagan concluded, is that “to abdicate power is to abdicate the right to maintain peace,” or as Laurence Beilenson put it, “Peace is purchased by making yourself stronger than your adversary.” It was upon this “peace through strength” philosophy that Reagan forged the policies that ultimately ended the Cold War.
It’s tempting to look back on Reagan’s policies and rationalize the obviousness of them. The Soviet Union was choking on its own economy. It was a simply a matter of time before it succumbed to its own structural deficiencies. Reagan, we’re told, didn’t slay the Soviet giant; he simply gave it a little shove as it toppled under its own weight.
The reality is that the logic of Reagan’s policies wasn’t so obvious at the time. These were controversial ideas that were highly criticized. Reagan was attacked as being dangerous, insane, a war monger who was sure to lead us to nuclear annihilation. A certain Senator from Massachusetts once referred to the Reagan years as a time of “moral darkness.” So why was Reagan able to see clearly what so many can only claim to have seen in hindsight?
Part of the reason, I believe, is that Reagan had unique insights into the Communist mind. During his years in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he stood strong against attempted Communist takeover. Experiencing it first hand, he came to know Communism as evil and to loathe its principles. Reagan was referring to Communism as a disease that must be eliminated years before he dubbed the Soviet Union an evil empire.
Reagan must also have benefited from watching world events. As his writings and speeches attest, he was fluent on the issues of the day. With his anti-Communist sentiment firmly in place, he certainly must have tracked Soviet responses during the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other volatile incidents. He must have noted how the Russians reacted to shows of U.S. strength, passivity, and indecisiveness.
I believe Reagan’s convictions, built on decades of attention to these matters, combined with his “peace through strength” philosophy, and assisted by his background in economics (his college major) placed him in a unique position to evaluate Soviet strength, character, and motivation. While many assumed that the Russians thought and sought the same things we did, Reagan understood that U.S. and Soviet interests were not only different but opposed. He knew that safety and peace were illusions as long as the Soviets rivaled the U.S. militarily. He recognized that treaties and appeasement weaken rather than strengthen one’s position.
So, Reagan eschewed the conventional wisdom, disdaining calls for “détente” and “coexistence.” He committed the U.S. to an all out arms race, one which the Soviet economy had no hope of sustaining, and he realized his vision of relegating Communist Russia to “the ash heap of history. As Reagan would say, not bad, not bad at all.
It’s difficult to avoid seeking parallels between Reagan’s victory in the Cold War and today’s War on Terror. I won’t strain the analogy by suggesting that George W. Bush is the second coming of Ronald W. Reagan. He is not. Still, I think some similarities are instructive.
By acting on a doctrine of preemption, Bush has tried to apply Reagan’s first lesson: that’s it’s better to prevent the catastrophe of continued terrorism than to try to survive it. Bush also grasps the principle of purchasing peace through strength—at least on a large scale. He has strayed from this principle in the micro, in places like Najaf and Fallujah. This was apparently done for political considerations, and time will tell if this was wise.
However, I’m well satisfied that Bush, like Reagan, understands the nature of his enemy. He too has bucked popular opinion, abandoning illusions of “control” and “containment” in favor of a more decisive strategy. I’m equally satisfied that Bush is guided by a clear vision. He has spoken eloquently of the momentousness of establishing a free and vital Afghanistan and Iraq in the heart of the Middle East. He sees past the painful costs of battle, beyond the stark consequences of failure, and on to the implications of success: two freed nations, a foothold in the midst of an unstable region, and a large down payment on the purchase of a durable peace.
Time will tell if President Bush’s vision is as true as President Reagan’s. In the meantime, Bush will continue to be called dangerous, insane, a war monger, and worse. But my suspicion is that Bush, like Reagan, will one day be vindicated.
Update: Though it's not specifically about Reagan, I wanted to link to this post by Cassandra because it strikes a similar theme.