This Sunday commemorates the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, America’s (post-Kennedy) Presidential Sweetheart. Though forever embedded in our historical fabric as a swashbuckling Cold War hero, Reagan’s contributions may have been only mediocre, to say the least. Read more about the actor-turned-president’s overrated political effect in the Cold War in Michael Kinsley’s 2001 article, below.
“I’ve become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence,” said President Reagan in his “Star Wars” address of 1983, in which he first proposed to build a defense against nuclear missiles. Its purpose, he said, would be “introducing greater stability” in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. “We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage.”
Reagan’s hagiographers, currently frolicking in celebration of his 90th birthday, now say he was lying about all this. They don’t put it that way, of course. But that is the necessary implication of their claim that Reagan’s tough rhetoric, his costly defense buildup, and his Strategic Defense Initiative in particular were all part of a successful strategy to defeat communism and win the Cold War.
If Reagan was lying in order to hide an actual intention to destroy the Soviet Union, whom was he trying to fool? Not the enemy, since the whole theory is that Reagan scared the Soviets into giving up. If he was lying, it must have been in order to deceive the American citizenry about the most important issue facing any democracy. Not nice.
But more likely he was telling the truth. In favor of this theory is the fact that in all his denunciations of communism and the Soviet Union, before and during his presidency, the emphasis was on the enemy’s enormous and allegedly growing military strength and the need to counter it for our own survival—not the hope, let alone the intention, of toppling it.
The famous exception is his “Evil Empire” speech of 1982, in which he predicted that communism will end up “on the ash heap of history.” Reagan’s critics wrongly denounced that speech for stating the obvious about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys of the Cold War. But even on this occasion he described the collapse of communism as “a plan and a hope for the long term.” He (correctly) gave most credit to communism’s own economic and political failures. And the “concrete actions” he advocated to hasten the day (although “we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change”) were entirely unmilitary—basically the creation of what became the National Endowment for Democracy.
In the economic sphere (discussed in last week’s column), the Reagan hagiographers give him credit for things he intended that never happened, such as smaller government. On the world stage, they credit him for things he never intended that did happen.
Well, so what? Even if Reagan didn’t intend his military buildup to achieve victory, that was the happy result—wasn’t it? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly the half-centurylong bipartisan policy of containment played a role. The effect of variations one way or another is debatable. The notion that Jimmy Carter left us weak and vulnerable is certainly exaggerated. Once you give up the idea that Reagan planned it all, the notion that his buildup (for which we’re still paying) made the crucial difference becomes less than obvious.
Some former Soviet apparatchiks have testified that Reagan’s policies were devastating. This is oddly persuasive to people who wouldn’t have believed a word these guys said when they were following the party line of their previous masters. But it’s amazing how credible you can become when you tell me what I want to hear.
Suppose events had played out closer to the way Reagan actually predicted. Suppose that, two decades later, communism’s internal collapse was continuing on a long fuse, but meanwhile its military strength had continued to grow. And suppose we had responded with continued Reagan-style increases in defense spending. What would the Reagan hagiographers be saying then? Would they be saying, “Well, he did a lot of great things, but his defense policy doesn’t seem to have worked”? No, they would be saying exactly what they’re saying now: that history had proved him right.
Winning an argument you refuse to lose is a Pyrrhic victory. If no outcome short of outright defeat or nuclear annihilation would be accepted as evidence that Reagan’s policy was a failure, no particular outcome is evidence that it was a success.
One Reagan foreign policy initiative almost no one tries to defend is trading weapons for hostages in Iran-Contra. It was morally contemptible, it violated one of the central principles that got Reagan elected, it trampled the very value of democracy it was ostensibly designed to promote. And it didn’t even work.
But the question history must decide is: Was it better or worse than oral sex with an intern? It seems to me that subverting the Constitution on an important policy matter is worse than embarrassing everybody with your private squalor. It seems to others that overzealousness in freedom’s cause is easier to forgive than raw self-satisfaction. Whoever is right about that, the mantra of the Lewinsky scandal was that the lying, not the original transgression, is what counts. If so, Reagan’s sins are at least equal to Clinton’s. He never testified under oath until he was out of office and his claims not to remember things had become sadly believable. But at the height of the scandal Reagan lied to us on television just as spectacularly as Clinton did, with that little shake of the head, rather than a Clintonian bite of the lower lip, as his signature gesture of phony sincerity.