Thursday, July 2, 2009


So, which "flavor" of Ronald Reagan the Cold Warrior do you prefer? The master manipulator who unspooled a systematic, carefully-planned strategy to first weaken, then take down, the Soviet Union? Or the genial, clueless bystander who just happened to be "on duty" when Mikhail Gorbachev broke the ice with glasnost and perestroika and allowed subsequent events to take their natural course? With Reagan's "official" White House biographer having long since plunged off the deep end, the second volume of Stephen Hayward's AGE OF REAGAN, to be released late next month, will probably reign as the default "standard pro-Reagan story" of how the Cold War came to an end. In the meantime, here's a very interesting, thought-provoking book that avoids falling into either camp and sounds a very loud ring of truth in numerous places.

Mann, author of RISE OF THE VULCANS, which walked a similarly thin line in describing the foreign policy of George W. Bush, gives Gorbachev most of the credit for relaxing tensions between the USA and the USSR, but argues that Reagan "helped create the climate in which the Cold War could end." Reagan did so in the face of strong opposition from the foreign-policy establishment, including fellow anti-Communists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who were alarmed at what they perceived to be Reagan's naivete in taking Gorbachev's new direction seriously. Fellow conservatives also strongly protested the summitry of Reagan's last several years in office, with one going so far as to label Reagan a "useful idiot for Soviet propaganda." I can affirm that this is true because I was one of them. Back in 1987-88, I was halfway convinced that Gorbachev was manipulating Reagan and taking advantage of Reagan's desire for a peace-loving "legacy." Reagan's successor George H.W. Bush, in fact, took a harder line on trusting Gorbachev during his 1988 Presidential campaign than Reagan did. Here is one instance in which Reagan's "first-class temperament" served him well. He was able to spot and exploit an opportunity to "defang" the Soviets without war by challenging them to live up to Gorbachev's professed desire for a freer USSR. The famed "tear down this wall!" speech in Berlin, the development of which is sketched out in considerable detail here, was just such a "practice what you preach" moment. Reagan was also known to place great stock in personal relationships as a tool of diplomacy, and Mann describes how Reagan received a great deal of assistance from Suzanne Massie, a lady who had written a history of Russia and served as a sort of informal adviser as Reagan hashed out his relationship with the Soviets during the Gorbachev era.

Mann's book is split into four parts, running on parallel tracks: (1) Reagan's disputes with Nixon, (2) Reagan's interactions with Massie, (3) the Berlin Wall speech, (4) the summits of the last several years of the Reagan Presidency. I understand the reasoning behind this approach, but it does lead to some annoying sloppiness, e.g. Mann "introduces" certain supporting characters in multiple places with pretty much the same language. Despite the clumsiness, the book is fair to all parties and, as the numerous blurbs on the back cover say, avoids falling into cliches of either the left or the right. While (if?) you're waiting for Hayward's saga to be completed, this book is a good way to while away the time and whet your appetite.

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