- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Historian John Patrick Diggins explores Ronald Reagan’s life and political philosophy in “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History.”

Mr. Diggins, 70, is a distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. The following are excerpts from a telephone interview with Mr. Diggins.

Question: Why did you write this book? What do you want your readers to take away from it?

Answer: I wrote it because I changed my mind about Reagan. … After the fall of communism, there were some historians who thought that people who lived in communist countries were happy with the regimes. And the whole issue of the Cold War on communism was terribly misunderstood, and I tried to write this book to clarify what the issues were. …

There was a widespread impression Reagan was very happy to escalate the arms race to force the Soviet Union to capitulate. The reality was that Reagan wanted to get rid of nuclear arms altogether. And then once that got under way in the late ‘80s with the help of [British] Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the tensions between the U.S. and Russia began to relax, and Mikhail Gorbachev renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine. That doctrine stipulated that the Soviet Union had the right to send the tanks of the Red Army into East European countries to put down any resistance to Soviet rule.

Q: How did Reagan’s reputation suffer from liberal biases in the teaching of history? Why do you think it is important to reappraise his life and career?

A: Reagan stood for free-market capitalism, which in the writing of American history was regarded as something that was holding back freedom and democracy. Reagan also believed in nationalism and patriotism, and this is in the ‘80s when American historians were talking about multiculturalism and relativism. Reagan stood for middle-class values of opportunity and upward mobility at a time when radicals were denouncing the beliefs as bourgeois.

Q: Why do you say that Reagan’s political philosophy was fully formed before he entered the White House? How did his acting career affect how he viewed politics?

A: His fierce anti-communism came out of fighting the Hollywood Reds in the 1940s, and his belief in America came from seeing how Americans survived the Depression by relying on their own initiatives and individualism. … He was one of the few presidents who knew exactly what he wanted to do when he went into office. It can’t be said about him that you don’t know where he stands.

Q: How was Reagan a conservative and a liberal both? Why did he switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party?

A: Because of his confrontation with communists and [his reading of anti-communist books], he decides by 1950 he is no longer a Democrat and becomes a Republican. He’s liberal in the sense that he believes in individual rights and economic opportunity. And he’s what we call an old classical liberal of the 19th century who is critical of big government. Modern liberals now believe in big government, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt.

Q: How did Reagan carry out his vision for supply-side economics?

A: Unlike the President Bush administration, he was not dogmatic about taxes, and he was willing to raise them several times in his administration. But the supply-side tax philosophy claims that you can reduce taxes and cut back government expenses, and Americans will do well because people will be motivated to work hard if less taxes are taken away. He was for trying to make taxes as minimal as possible, but when there was national debt, he could be talked into raising taxes.

Q: Why did Reagan increase the power of liberal big government given his beliefs?

A: In some ways, he couldn’t say “no” when farmers asked for subsidies and students asked for tuition grants. He was very easygoing, and he just couldn’t cut back harshly against people who were relying on government. So government increases under Reagan, and it increases because people want it to, though they deny it at the same time. … The people demand to get something, but they are unwilling to pay for it with higher taxes. That has continued down to our time.

Q: How did Reagan peacefully end the Cold War?

A: He did it by patience and the art of diplomacy. He turned away from listening to the hawks and his national security advisers, who did not even want to talk to the Russians. … Reagan felt the need to talk and to enter what he called a constant dialogue, and that began to pay off. He and Gorbachev began to like each other. That is what is called personal diplomacy. … That’s why I admire Reagan so much. It was one of the few times in history that catastrophe of war was avoided by the art of diplomacy and negotiation.

Q: How did Reagan’s religious beliefs influence how he saw his role as president?

A: He believed that there should be a role for religion in schools and that students should have the right to say prayers and express their beliefs. He didn’t believe in organized religion. He didn’t believe any particular religion should prevail in America. He believed in the right of religion perhaps more than he believed in religion himself.

Q: How was Reagan full of contradictions?

A: He starts out very militaristic. He talks about confronting communism and making America into a super nuclear power and standing tall in the Middle East and not allowing Iran to push America around by kidnapping our citizens, but then as he becomes president, he turns from a hawk into what seems a dove and he is all for peace and disarmament. And he gets very worried about the nuclear arms race getting out of control. That isn’t so much a contradiction as maybe a growth process.

Q: Why should Reagan be considered one of the nation’s greatest presidents?

A: After Lincoln, who was the greatest, the three greats were Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and Ronald Reagan. All the others were wartime presidents. They had behind them the triumph of winning a victory. We had to go to war with Washington against the British. With Lincoln, we had to go to war with the South over the issue of slavery. And with Roosevelt, we had to go against Hitler to defeat Nazism. The unique genius of Reagan is he helped bring down communism without going to war.

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