“It’s surprising what you can accomplish when no one is concerned about who gets the credit.” This lettered sign stood on Reagan’s desk during his presidency and since it reflected his attitude, he cannot have worried much that his own part in the downfall of Communism has been seriously underestimated, a judgement which Peter Schweizer labours to correct in this book. For its theme, Reagan’s War, was the war against communism. By leaving out other aspects and events which did not touch on it – Israel, the Palestinians, the Lebanon, the Falklands, or the home economy – an exaggerated impression may have been given of Reagan’s singlemindedness. Even the inclusion of the assassination attempt, so nearly successful, is with an emphasis on Reagan’s belief that he had been preserved by God to conduct this war.
Reagan began political life as a Roosevelt-admiring Democrat. He had been aware of the attempt by communists to dominate and subvert the American film industry as early as 1946 and become involved in countering it, almost certainly sidetracking his career as a film star. The Korean War (1950-3) reinforced his attitude and, while still a Democrat he campaigned for Eisenhower, though disappointed later by his lukewarm anti-communism, and even less impressed by Nixon. This was also the time when anti-anti-communism became intellectually fashionable, Reagan encountering it when he was hired by General Electric to host and act in GE Theatre on television. Travelling round the country as the company’s roving ambassador to its plants and business contacts he was able to give speeches entirely based on his own views, unhampered by any kind of censorship. Schweizer distances Reagan from Senator McCarthy, who, he mentions, was initially supported by John F. Kennedy and never censured by him (p. 37). Reagan met Nancy Davis, who became his second wife (after his first wife Jane Wyman left and divorced him) through being asked to exonerate her of communist connections, apparently a case of mistaken identity. Reagan parted from General Electric in 1962; his attacks on the Kennedy Administration were inconvenient when GE was being investigated for price-fixing by the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. Also GE Theatre was, perhaps inevitably, losing its popularity. But he was still in television theatre, and this was the year of his last movie, The Killers. It was also the year in which he met Senator Barry Goldwater, and found they had much in common, politically and in their love of the outdoor Western way of life, typified by horse-riding. Reagan’s fluent speech-making particularly impressed Goldwater, as well as the Republicans who were running him for President. His uncompromisingly anti-communist speech on the eve of the 1964 election made a tremendous impression nationally, but Goldwater still lost in a landslide to Johnson.
Johnson, and Nixon who replaced him in 1968, never fought to win in Vietnam, as Reagan urged, nor does Schweizer suggest that the US public would have been willing to try. The policy of both Republican and Democrat administrations was to accommodate to the Communist powers, in the belief that both the USSR and China would wish to reciprocate, and also help them to some sort of compromise in Vietnam. In fact, the USSR planned and carried out expansion on all fronts, military and nuclear, naval and territorial in Africa and Latin America and finally, Afghanistan.
Reagan was on the sidelines nationally, but had to face local subversion during his terms as governor of California from 1966 to 1974, during riots, takeovers and sit-ins by students on the Berkeley campus. He put himself forward as a Republican candidate for the presidency in 1968, but the party preference for Nixon was overwhelming and Reagan supported him loyally from then on, and even undertook missions for him to Taiwan, South Vietnam and South Korea. He did, however, challenge Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, but lost again. The Carter presidency that followed probably saw US international status at its nadir, culminating in the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Reagan, who this time had won the Republican nomination fairly easily, now beat Carter soundly to enter the White House in 1981.
To put it simply, Reagan now reversed the US foreign policy of detente of more than a decade. “Going against the advice of the majority of his cabinet, Reagan commenced the largest peacetime military buildup in history.” (p. 140) Schweizer does not record how he got the enormous appropriations through Congress. His strategy was not so much one of direct confrontation, as of competition: to keep up, the USSR would end up bankrupt. The bill that Reagan ran up for the USSR to pay is estimated as $36-$44bn per annum. (p. 284) “They cannot vastly increase their military productivity because they’ve already got their people on a starvation diet,” he explained. (p. 141) This strategy, it would be fair to say, did not have popular support, and as the year 1984 for re-election came, he lost support for it from past presidents Ford and Nixon, from Republican business men and State Governors and even key members within his cabinet, but, as his National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane commented, “The president would have willingly lost the second election if it came down to changing his Soviet policy.” (p. 229) Reagan so often persisted in driving through his own policies that it is difficult to see where the idea came from that he was some sort of manipulated puppet, or even went with the flow of some inevitable train of events.
If the home opposition was considerable, to the extent that the Kremlin hoped to rely on it, that of the left in Europe was nearly hysterical. From released KGB and other archives Schweizer documents how much the USSR and East European governments funded the peace movements both in Europe and the USA, as well as terrorists such as the Red Army Faction in West Germany. As a quid pro quo, as it were, Reagan saw to it that arms in large quantities were sent to the anti-communist resistence in Afghanistan. His suggestions for a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), while mocked by the opposition at home as “Star Wars”, is now known to have really frightened the Russians. That all this might have risks and that Dr Strangelove was actually living in Moscow is illustrated by an anecdote of the applause at a vodka-lubricated party there for a general’s suggestion that the nuclear button should be
pressed now before it was too late. (p. 243)
Gorbachev owed his selection [as Soviet leader by the Politburo] to the pressures Reagan was exerting on the Soviet system,” Schweizer claims. (p. 245) In fact, Gorbachev, recommended by the veteran Soviet politician Gromyko as a new man “with a nice smile but … teeth of iron”, failed, with his glasnost and perestroika, to reform communism and provide both guns and butter. Although the two leaders seemed to have hit it off in personal terms – “Gorbachev immediately started to like Reagan,” recalled a Soviet diplomat (p. 254) – Reagan refused all Soviet disarmament offers, particularly in exchange for abandoning SDI, an irony in that the US has never followed it up.
Communism collapsed after Reagan left office at the end of 1988. In 1989 the system fell like a pack of cards; the USSR could no longer support the East European regimes and first Poland, then Hungary and Czechoslovakia and, in November, East Germany replaced their communist governments, and the Berlin Wall came down. “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan had demanded, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987. In due course the Soviet Union itself disintegrated and Gorbachev was swept away in the debris of what he had tried to prop up. Doubtless in his comfortable academic position, TIME’s “Man of the Decade” is explaining away the unfortunate accident that brought about this catastrophe.
Reagan is now a tragic victim of Alzheimer’s dementia, a fate bravely announced by himself and given in the last document printed in Reagan In His Own Hand. It is now up to his critics and detractors (and there are plenty of these, vide the Introduction, pp. 1 – 4) to assess his record and agree with, or refute what the Chairman of Solidarity declared in Warsaw in 1989: “Reagan was the main author of the victory of the free world over the ‘evil empire’.” (p. 278)