New Book Dissects Reagan's Role In The Cold War

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Author James Mann describes Ronald Reagan's role in winding down the Cold War in his new book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the Cold War. Caroline E. Dexter hide caption

itoggle caption Caroline E. Dexter
James Mann

Author James Mann describes Ronald Reagan's role in winding down the Cold War in his new book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the Cold War.

Caroline E. Dexter

Book Excerpt

Read an excerpt from The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan

What role did former President Ronald Reagan play in ending the Cold War — and how did that role evolve?

In a new book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, journalist James Mann finds that Reagan experienced a major transformation between the time early in his presidency when he called the Soviet Union a force for evil and his talks with leader Mikhail Gorbachev several years later.

In a famous 1983 speech, Reagan said: "I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil."

But by 1988, Reagan had found a Soviet negotiating partner in Gorbachev. At a summit in Moscow, Reagan was asked about his seeming acceptance of what he had called the "Evil Empire."

"I was talking about another time, another era," he replied.

Together, Reagan and Gorbachev wound down the Cold War. In his dealings with the Soviet leader, Reagan was rebelling against his earlier self, his conservative supporters and the Washington foreign policy establishment, Mann tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Realist leaders such as Richard Nixon and Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger criticized Reagan's policies toward the Soviet Union. Nixon argued that Gorbachev was "another Soviet leader, a new face on the same policies," Mann says. Nixon, who visited Moscow in 1986, essentially called Gorbachev an iron fist in a velvet glove.

"Quite a misperception," Mann says, adding, "All of these [analogies] turned out to not be true. But it really showed the images that American leaders lived with at the time."

Mann says several contemporary politicians, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as conservative pundits, were all quite wrong about Gorbachev's leadership.

Excerpt: 'The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan'

Mann cover

The Cold War was over. For years, many of America's political leaders and most established foreign-policy experts, such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, had spoken of the conflict between the two superpowers as an enduring stalemate. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, had grasped the possibility that the Cold War might come to an end. On this, it turned out that Reagan was right. He had not "won" the Cold War in the fashion that American conservatives later claimed. Rather Gorbachev had abandoned the field.

Yet Reagan had supported Gorbachev at just the right time. He had undercut the Soviet perceptions of the United States as an enemy, thereby helping to give Gorbachev the recognition and breathing room that he needed to proceed with domestic reforms that proved to be irreversible. Whereas Nixon had repeatedly depicted Gorbachev as yet another tough Soviet leader, a man of steel eager to reassert Soviet power, Reagan had come to a more accurate reading.

Reagan's successors eventually came around to his view of Gorbachev's significance. After an initial "pause" of more than six months, President George H. W. Bush and his senior advisers, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, decided to proceed toward their own summitry with Gorbachev. Bush announced at the end of October that he would meet soon with the Soviet leader in Malta. Ten days later, before the two leaders met, East Germans began rushing through the Berlin Wall. Bush was guarded in his public comments, unable to summon forth the rhetoric Reagan might have used and unwilling to say anything that might embarrass Gorbachev. "I'm not going to dance on the wall," Bush quipped. Scowcroft told reporters East Germany would probably remain a separate state within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Within two years, Bush's Soviet policy was tied as closely to Gorbachev as Reagan's had been, even though Gorbachev was losing support at home.

"They complain that we put too much emphasis on Gorbachev, but we're getting good deals from him all over the world," remarked Baker in the summer of 1991.

Gorbachev and his Communist Party fell from power following a failed coup attempt in August. But before the tumult, on July 31, Bush and Gorbachev signed a new treaty to cut back on long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons — a step toward the goal Reagan and Gorbachev had pursued at Reykjavik of reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons.

As the Soviet empire began to crumble, Richard Nixon did another about face. During the late 1980s, Nixon had aligned himself with the right-wing criticisms of Reagan's Soviet policy; he had repeatedly suggested that Reagan was too enamored of Gorbachev and too willing to reduce America's nuclear arsenal.

By the early 1990s, however, Nixon repositioned himself on the political left, this time urging more conciliatory policies toward Moscow and greater support for democracy in Russia. In particular, Nixon criticized the George H. W. Bush administration for not providing greater economic aid to Russia. In early 1992, soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Nixon denounced the Bush administration's "pathetically" insufficient economic support for the new government of Boris Yeltsin.

"The stakes are high, and we are playing as if it were a penny-ante game," Nixon wrote in a memo that was leaked to the New York Times. Nixon's words put the Bush administration on the defensive; officials rushed to defend the administration against the charge that it might somehow be "losing" Russia by not providing enough money.

Watching from retirement in California, George Shultz was astonished. Nixon's recommendation caused a lot of damage, Shultz believed, because it helped foster in Russia the notion that the route to economic prosperity was through aid from abroad. Above all, Shultz wondered what had happened to Nixon, whom Shultz had come to view during the Reagan years as a hawk.

"He flipped from over here to over here," Shultz said, gesturing with his hands to show the move from one end of the political spectrum to the other. One explanation for Nixon's behavior may have been supplied by the New York Times story itself. Its account of Nixon's memo said that this was "the latest of many public policy pronouncements that have helped to refurbish the image of the former President, who resigned in disgrace in 1974 over the Watergate scandal."

Nixon's push for aid to Russia attracted support from the Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. A few weeks after he was inaugurated, Clinton asked Nixon to come to the White House to talk about Russia. Nixon had mounted an intensive campaign to obtain the invitation from Clinton, enlisting the help of Republican political consultant Roger Stone and Clinton's adviser Dick Morris. This time there was no secrecy of the sort that had prevailed when Nixon visited the Reagan White House six years earlier. The Nixon-Clinton meeting was made public, to Nixon's considerable satisfaction.

"In twelve years, neither Reagan nor Bush ever put me on the White House schedule or put a picture out," Nixon told one of his aides.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War by James Mann. Copyright (c) James Mann, 2009.

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