BOOK REVIEW: A Reagan oral history

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By Stephen F. Knott and Jeffrey L. Chidester

Rowman & Littlefield, $44.95, 249 pages.

Reviewed by Peter Hannaford

Beginning in 2001, scholars of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia conducted an oral history of Ronald Reagan’s political years, beginning with his first campaign for governor of California through his last public speech in 1993. The project consisted of extensive interviews of 46 men and women who had worked closely with Mr. Reagan, including chiefs of staff, Cabinet secretaries, senators, military officials, campaign advisers and behind-the-scenes people who played important roles.

Each set of interviews covered a day to a day-and-half and were conducted by teams of scholars. These weren’t quiz-type interviews. Instead, the interviews would ask “triggering” questions, then let the interviewee reminisce at length.

Stephen F. Knott was co-chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center. Jeffrey L. Chidester is now its chairman of the National Discussion and Debate Series. Together they have written this book which is unique among the approximately 100 books that have been published about the 40th president.

Mr. Knott and Mr. Chidester provide the narrative thread, following the Reagan career highlights in chronological order. That alone would not have been remarkable, for the main facts are well-known. Their contribution was to intersperse their narrative with quotations — short and long — from the oral history interviewees. These comments provide colorful, lively texture to the Reagan story. Here are insights into his thinking, his character and his management style.

The tension, uncertainty and confusion that attended the first few hours after the president had been shot by John Hinckley Jr. puts the reader right in the Situation Room of the White House, with first-person comments by many of the leading participants.

The Iran-Contra issue erupted late in President Reagan’s second term. Looking back on it, the late Lyn Nofziger trenchantly observed, “I suspect he had a lot of self-doubt about Iran-Contra. What people don’t really understand is that by the time that [Iran-Contra] came along, Reagan was dealing with people who didn’t know him and he didn’t know them. They had come into the second administration and had no idea how he thought or how he worked.”

While the author-editors record Mr. Reagan’s long-standing desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons and mention several elements of his concerted strategy to undermine the Soviet system, they never really connect the dots. They cite several key events such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) “Evil Empire” speeches and the deployment of Pershing cruise missiles in Western Europe, but do not see that they were part of a single-minded strategy. Deeper probes of some of their interviewees might have made this clearer.

Mr. Reagan in 1982, for example, approved two National Security Defense Directives, NSDD-32 and 75. The former declared we would seek to undermine Soviet control in its European satellite states. The latter committed the administration to seeking change inside the USSR itself.

Behind the Reagan “peace through strength” military buildup was the president’s belief that once the Soviet leaders saw they could not keep pace, they would come to their senses and sit down with the U.S. to reach an agreement to end the Cold War. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev took over in 1985 that Mr. Reagan believed he had found a realist. This turned out to be true. While only Mr. Gorbachev could actually end the Cold War, it was Ronald Reagan who brought him to that pass.

There is ample evidence that the Reagan strategy not only got the attention of the Kremlin, but also frightened its occupants into a position in which it was largely paralyzed by the sequential deaths of three of its top occupants.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, many of its former government people attested to this in interviews and previously secret reports.

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