Reassessing an American cowboy: Thoughts on Reagan’s unexpectedly complex legacy

April 1, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 1, 2016

This week, I stumbled upon “Reconstructing Ronald Reagan,” a 2007 article that Russell Baker wrote for The New York Review of Books. Most of the piece is devoted to a review of John Patrick Diggins’s biography, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History, and especially the book’s argument that the nation’s 40th president was strongly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the 19th-century Transcendentalist movement. A secondary concern of the essay, however, is Reagan’s foreign policy legacy: Baker also writes about the books Transforming America: Politics and Culture During the Reagan Years by Robert Collins, The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror by John Arquilla and (much more briefly) the 900-page volume Reagan: A Life in Letters.

Two things struck me about Baker’s article. One was that, writing in 2007, the author could not help comparing the Gipper’s administration with that of the president at the time, George W. Bush, and the comparisons are not kind. A sample:

One hears people formerly contemptuous of [the actor-cum-politician] comment that, having seen Bush, they now rank Reagan with the immortals. It is easy to dismiss this as cynical joking, yet here is the eminently respectable Diggins discussing “the Gipper” in the same paragraph with Lincoln and anointing him as one of American history’s “three great liberators.”

The other thing is that historians give a great deal of credit to Reagan, a fervent anti-communist, for his willingness to engage in diplomacy with the Soviet Union. It turns out that the 40th president had a signal interest in decreasing the likelihood of an apocalyptic nuclear war.

Baker, after calling Reagan “the lone champion of nuclear disarmament in a government dominated by people at ease with the possibility of doomsday,” quotes the following passage from Diggins’s book:

Reagan may be admired not only for what he did but also for who he was, a thoughtful, determined man of character and vision. No doubt some Americans, especially intellectuals, would laugh at such a description. Such skeptics share a widespread assumption that the cold war was inevitably coming to an end and that Reagan happened to be in the right place at the right time. Reagan, however, was not simply receptive to a historical situation; on the contrary, he helped to create it. In taking action that would force events, Reagan led rather than followed, often going against the counsel of his national security advisors and secretary of defense.

Reagan is widely hailed on the right (and, less frequently, on the left) as a transformational leader, but some of the details of his accomplishment on this front have been obscured by the popular conservative narrative.

In 2004, Irving Kristol argued,

The Cold War need not have ended when it did, or as it did. It was Ronald Reagan, by his arms buildup and his inability to contemplate anything but an American victory, that persuaded the Soviet leaders they were fighting a losing war.

Although Kristol’s essay directly invokes the prospect of nuclear war, he makes no distinction between Reagan’s conventional military buildup and his agreement with the Soviets to reduce the size of both nation’s strategic nuclear arsenals.

In 2011, Deroy Murdock wrote about Reagan’s “aggressive military buildup, including missile-defense research,” and praises his 1988 summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Here, the fact that Reagan agreed to mutual reductions in nuclear weapons is not stated outright; it can only be inferred by the careful reader.

In a 2013 appreciation in The Daily Signal, Baker Spring, a national security researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation, praises Reagan for his military buildup and moral leadership, but he mentions atomic weapons only in passing. Reagan’s critics, write Spring, “argued against the increased funding for the military and the arming of freedom fighters in places such as Nicaragua in favor of a nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union.”

But all three of the policies mentioned by Spring in that passage, including a nuclear freeze, really were Reagan’s. U.S. nuclear arms declined very gradually in the 1980s before dropping roughly in half, to about 10,000 warheads, during the following decade, which saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

It just goes to show that memory can be awfully selective, especially when the facts are complicated or disagree with the popular narrative. And I’m not trying to pick on conservatives here. The right’s elision of Reagan’s arms-reduction treaties is significant, but the left is also guilty of portraying the Californian as an empty-headed dunce or an overly aggressive cowboy. A lot of liberals remember the casual ad-libbed joke that Reagan made in 1984 about starting World War III; fewer recall his pivotal role in defying the American defense establishment and coming to terms with a Communist regime that he fervently detested.

The truth, with all its nuances, turns out to be fascinating when you take a closer look. It’s a lesson that’s worth remembering.

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