The Reagan Presidency III
Jude Wanniski
June 22, 2004


Memo To: Historians
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Reagan’s Biographer

Probably the last place you will want to look for a clear assessment of the Reagan presidency is in his official biography by Edmund Morris. I forget how Morris was chosen, but I recall scratching my head when I learned a British biographer was getting the job. Maybe it was thought he would be “objective,” and perhaps he was, but he had to start his assignment from across “the pond,” without a clear focus on what it is like to “think” like an American, let alone size up this particular American President. After reading the reviews of Morris’s effort and skimming the material on his economic policies, I concluded it would be a waste of my time. He never got close to figuring out what Reagan was all about. Confirmation now comes in this week’s issue of The New Yorker in a Morris remembrance of his experience with the Gipper, in an article I did read from first to last, "The Unknowable", subtitled, “Ronald Reagan’s Amazing, Mysterious Life.”

Here we find the biographer’s method of putting the information he collects on index cards and then sorting them into classifications, as if he could put the man together from bits and pieces the way Dr. Frankenstein sewed together arms and legs and torso and head to bring back to life an amazing, mysterious monster. This is why it will take some one of you historians in the distant future to finally figure what was going on in the world of his time. Only then can you understand how Reagan actually saw with crystal clarity what moves had to be made on the chessboard before him, what pieces he had to sacrifice and what traps he had to lay to bring down the opposing “king” without actually using force of arms.

In the same issue of the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg, a genuine American who knows what it is like to “think” American, has at least a glimmer of what Reagan was doing and what he was not doing in order to topple the opposition -- the “evil empire,” without firing a shot. The only problem with Hertzberg’s otherwise excellent assessment is that he never understood Reagan’s intellectual commitment to classical, supply-side economics, with concepts he learned in school in the 1920’s when that was all that was taught. He thus correctly credits Reagan with “winning” the Cold War by approaching the problem in a way that was distinctly his, not the result of advice he was getting from conservative or neo-conservative advisors. But he does not see that the victory could not have been possible without the economic policies he pursued.

To this day the Russians insist it wasn’t simply the Reagan military build-up that broke their will to compete in the Cold War. I’d met Georgiu Markosov a few years before the Berlin Wall came down, when he was the Political and Economic counselor of the Soviet Embassy in Washington. Markosov told me some years later that it was Reagan’s domestic economic policies that confounded Moscow! “We saw your government lowering taxes and increasing spending and the economy expanding with big deficits financed with government borrowing. But at the same time what seemed magical was your interest rates were falling. How could this be? We knew then we could not win.” Indeed, historians of the future, how could it be? Figure that out and you will have a better fix on the Reagan presidency than our contemporaneous historians demonstrate.

by Hendrik Hertzberg
Issue of 2004-06-28

On January 20, 1981, the day a sixty-nine-year-old ex-movie star, ex-TV host, ex-liberal Democrat, ex-radio commentator, and ex-California governor named Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as the fortieth President of the United States, some eighty-five thousand Soviet soldiers and airmen, armed with tanks and helicopter gunships, were laying waste to Afghanistan the first time Moscow had invaded a country outside the line established by the furthest advance of the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. In the Soviet Union proper, Leonid Brezhnev’s bureaucratic apparatus maintained a corrupt, often cruel, and apparently impregnable stagnation. There was anti-American turmoil in Iran and Central America, among other places. To many people, it appeared that Soviet power was on the march, America in retreat.

Eight years later, as President Reagan prepared to hand over the White House to his Vice-President and designated successor, George H. W. Bush, astonishing things were happening on the other side of the world. Moscow’s empire was shriveling. The Soviet troops had almost all pulled out of Afghanistan, and not just Afghanistan: fifty thousand were going home from Eastern Europe, taking their nuclear missiles with them. The Soviet Union was changing in ways that went far, far beyond any of the thaws of the past. A rambunctious press wasn't just criticizing errors and excesses; it was lampooning the very idea of the vanguard party and historical materialism itself. Doctor Zhivago, serialized in literary journals, was being devoured by millions; even more wondrously, so were Darkness at Noon and Animal Farm and 1984. Within a year, the Berlin Wall would be rubble. A year or two after that, Leningrad would be St. Petersburg again, Boris Yeltsin would be elected President of Russia on an explicitly anti-Communist platform, and the Soviet Union, bloodlessly and without much fanfare, would simply go out of business.

The Cold War had been almost universally assumed to be a permanent condition. Someday, no doubt, it would end, as all things do. But if it ended quickly it would end catastrophically, in a nuclear conflagration that would take both sides down with it, along with untold millions of people; and if it ended slowly its end would come so far in the future as to be hardly worth thinking about. Among foreign-policy lites, American and European alike, no one doubted the imperative for the West to maintain a military machine sufficient to deter open Soviet aggression, conventional or nuclear. There was bitter contention over how much was enough, and about the wisdom or necessity of small wars on the periphery, in places like Vietnam and Central America. But every American President from Truman through Carter believed, or acted as if he believed, that through some combination of firmness and restraint, of patient negotiation and occasional sharp confrontation, time could be bought that would allow the Soviet Union to evolve in such a way as eventually to make the Manichaean East-West struggle obsolete.

The group that came in with Ronald Reagan shared many of these assumptions, but with a different twist. During the commemorations of Reagan’s life that followed his death, much was made of his optimism. The Reagan Administration, we were endlessly told, understood that the Soviet system was rotting from within, that it lacked the spiritual, economic, and political vigor that only democracy and free markets can provide, that it w as weak and doomed, and that all that was needed to topple it was the finger-flick of some additional arms spending and a bit of ideological boldness on the part of the United States. In truth, however, the Reaganite view of the Cold War at least, as represented by the likes of the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, and his deputy Richard Perle was deeply pessimistic. That view was that the West was losing, militarily and spiritually. The Soviets had more troops, more tanks, and bigger missiles bristling with bigger warheads. And they had more will, bolstered by a militarized society and a belief in the inevitable triumph of Communism, while the West was effeminate and degenerate. In the White House, the book that everyone read (according to Peggy Noonan’s memoir) was How Democracies Perish, by Jean-Franois Revel, which described democracy as a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes because it allows peace movements and radicals to sap its ability to resist, whereas Communist totalitarianism is both durable and immutable, because it liquidates its internal enemies and uses methods that are simple and infallible because they are undemocratic. When Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire and the focus of evil in the modern world, conservative and neoconservative commentators rejoiced that at last we had a President who had a moral vocabulary and a tragic sense of history, who recognized that some political systems are irredeemably tyrannical and aggressive, who rejected the contemptible claptrap that attributes every conflict to lack of communication. When Mikhail Gorbachev came along, these commentators, and many of their friends inside the Reagan Administration, saw the new Soviet leader as simply cleverer than his predecessors, and therefore more dangerous.

President Reagan blithely ignored all this. He was never much of a reader during his White House years, and one of the books he evidently didn’t crack was Revel’s. When Reagan said evil, it turned out he just meant bad. He didn’t really believe in immutable malevolence. The villains of Reagan’s world were like the ones in Frank Capra’s movies capable of change once they saw the light. And, the way Reagan figured it, Gorbachev with Reagans help, of course just might be seeing the light. Reagan, always lucky, was never luckier than to be on hand when a Soviet leader decided to lift the pall of fear and lies from his empire, thus permitting its accumulated absurdities and contradictions to come into plain view and to shake it to pieces. Like his postwar predecessors, Reagan did his part to maintain the external strategic conditions under which this could happen.

It took a while for some of Reagan’s admirers to appreciate what he had accomplished, or what he had refused to hinder Gorbachev from accomplishing. When the Berlin Wall fell, ten months after Reagan left office, Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense to the first President Bush, smelled a rat. We must not be euphoric, he warned darkly. Six months later, Frank Gaffney, a Reagan Defense Department official, told a conference of neo-conservatives in Washington that the Machiavellian schemes of Gorbachev had brought the Soviets closer to achieving their strategic goals than at any time since World War II. Not long after that, the Soviets achieved the strategic goal of nonexistence, and even the Cheneys and the Gaffneys had to recognize that it might not be just another masterly exercise in Communist disinformation. Still, fortune has been kind to such counselors of fear. Sidelined at Reykjavik, hamstrung in the first Bush Presidency, they bided their time, waiting for an Administration propelled not by optimism but by anxiety. They have found one.

Ronald Reagan’s domestic policies, like those of the current incumbent, were almost uniformly appalling. He shifted the tax burden downward, exacerbated economic inequality, created gigantic deficits, undermined environmental, civil-rights, and labor protections, neglected the aids epidemic, and packed the courts with reactionary mediocrities. He made callousness respectable. His foreign policy included such unsavory features as tolerating death-squad activity in El Salvador and Guatemala, arming Islamist extremists in Central Asia, cozying up to the apartheid regime in South Africa and the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and, of course, secretly providing weapons to the Iranian mullahs in exchange for hostages and for cash that was then used to finance an unlawful war in Nicaragua. Reagan was a pretty poor President in a lot of ways. But because he recognized that something momentous was happening in the Soviet Union because, against the advice of some of his lieutenants and to the consternation of some of his conservative admirers, he got out of Gorbachev’s way his Presidency, its safe to guess, will forever, and deservedly, be remembered in a positive light.

* * * * *