New Book Dissects Reagan's Role In The Cold War The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan details how Reagan's attitude toward the Soviet Union was transformed during the 1980s. Author James Mann describes how many politicians, including contemporary ones, were wrong in their views of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

New Book Dissects Reagan's Role In The Cold War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. What role did Ronald Reagan play in ending the Cold War and how did that role evolve? Writer James Mann takes up those questions in a new book, and he comes up with some fascinating answers. Early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan urged audiences to look upon the Soviet Union as not merely America's rival in the Cold War, but as a force for evil.

P: 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.

SIEGEL: Now you don't sit down and negotiate with evil, but by 1988 Ronald Reagan had found a Soviet negotiating partner in Mikhail Gorbachev. In Moscow for a summit, Reagan was asked about his seeming acceptance of what he had once called the evil empire.


U: You still think you are in an evil empire, Mr. President?

P: No.

U: Why not?

P: I was talking about another time and another era.

SIEGEL: I was talking about another time, another era, he said. Together, Reagan and Gorbachev wound down the Cold War. That transformation is the story of James Mann's book "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan." Welcome to the program.

NORRIS: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Whom was he rebelling against?

NORRIS: He was rebelling against, in the first place, his earlier self. He was rebelling against his conservative supporters, and to some extent, he was also rebelling against the Washington foreign policy establishment.

SIEGEL: That's right. You describe a switching of places that took place between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon - as you described them, the two most important anticommunist politicians of the Cold War era - and when it begins Nixon is managing detente as president and Reagan is criticizing him.

NORRIS: Actually Reagan waited until Nixon's resignation. But when Gerald Ford took over, he criticized detente with the Soviet Union.

SIEGEL: And then as president, he finds himself being criticized by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for his policies towards Moscow.

NORRIS: When you move ahead to the period starting around '85 and '86, among his critics - along with the political right - are these realist leaders like Nixon and Kissinger. There are really two issues here. One is what's the view of Mikhail Gorbachev. And people like Nixon argued that Gorbachev was really just another Soviet leader, a new face on the same policies. Nixon went to Moscow in '86 and he came back and he said Gorbachev was really a steel fist in a velvet glove - quite a misperception.

SIEGEL: And as you remark, one of the most cliched and recurring images of the Cold War - about steel fists and velvet gloves.

NORRIS: Right, I call it the metallurgy of the Cold War.

For Nixon it was steel. I think Charles Krauthammer, the columnist, referred to Gorbachev's steel teeth. All of these turned out to not be true, but it really showed the images that American leaders lived with at the time.


SIEGEL: Now, many of the people whom you write about will be familiar to most of your readers. But the most surprising character is one Suzanne Massie who spoke, as you documented, with President Reagan about the Soviet Union and about the Russian people 22 times. And she described those meetings in a recent talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and here's what she said.

NORRIS: Many of these meetings were 90 minutes. To my surprise, the Reagan library has told me that I had more face time with him on this subject than any but his closest advisors. These meetings were always in the Oval Office with the National Security Advisor present - I outlasted four of them - three times followed by lunches with President and Mrs. Reagan alone.

SIEGEL: Suzanne Massie evidently was extremely influential with President Reagan about what to make of the Soviet Union and the people of Russia. Who is she?

NORRIS: Suzanne Massie was an author. She had written a couple of books about the Soviet Union, not about politics, not about diplomacy, simply about culture. She had co-authored a book that became a famous movie, "Nicholas and Alexandra."

SIEGEL: With her husband.

NORRIS: With her husband.

SIEGEL: And somehow, she was able to describe Russia and the Russians in a way that connected with Ronald Reagan.

NORRIS: Reagan was often looking for anecdotes, stories, and a feel for ordinary life and sometimes he couldn't get that from the CIA. He couldn't get it from other abstract sources. Massie was traveling back and forth to the Soviet Union. She was brought into Reagan at the beginning of 1984 by Robert McFarlane, Reagan's National Security Advisor for a couple of reasons, but one of them really was to give Reagan a fuller picture of life in the Soviet Union at a time when, McFarlane doesn't exactly say this, his advisors thought that he had a fairly thin, hawkish view of the Soviet Union.

You skip ahead about three years or so, and another National Security Advisor and his team start to try and keep Suzanne Massie away from Reagan because they think he's become too dovish towards the Soviet Union.

SIEGEL: And they identify her as an agent of his transformation.

NORRIS: Right. She's really the bellwether of his transformation. Her views never change. But for his own reasons Reagan's views begin to change as he begins to deal with Gorbachev.

SIEGEL: It is a bit breathtaking to be reminded of how many people were how wrong about Gorbachev's leadership of the Soviet Union and how little damage it did to their careers. Robert Gates is the defense secretary today. His job was at CIA being in charge of assessing what was going on in Moscow - had it dead wrong.

NORRIS: Actually, I think Gates was - within the government - the leading proponent of the view that the Soviet Union was not changing as much as Reagan or his Secretary of State George Shultz imagined. He really believed, until fairly late, that Gorbachev represented a new face for old policies. When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft were arguing that Gorbachev should be treated with great caution, that he was not dramatically new, it was really Gates' view that they were embracing.

SIEGEL: Colin Powell went from getting it wrong over Moscow to becoming secretary of state. And almost the entire conservative punditocracy was completely off base on the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.

NORRIS: Right. And I found, in interviewing for the book, some of them acknowledge how wrong they were, not all. I did have George Will, who was writing biting columns about Reagan, who wrote at the time, "We thought Reagan was a cold warrior. That was four years ago. Time flies." He did acknowledge that he had had it wrong.

SIEGEL: Jim Mann, thanks a lot for talking with us.

NORRIS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: James Mann is the author of "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.