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RAGONE: Reagan and the power of conviction
‘Sophisticated thinking’ often just a mask for muddled ideas
"We win, they lose. What do you think of that?"
It was sometime in 1979, and Ronald Reagan was responding to a query from his future national security adviser, Richard Allen, who was gently probing the candidate's strategy for dealing with Soviet communism.
It was a jarring sentiment, more so back then than today, for it revealed what many - including some who were closest to Reagan - considered an unsettling naivete in his approach to world affairs. "This man couldn't possibly be elected leader of the free world" was the conventional thinking of the day. Even as late as October 1980, few in the media or chattering class gave the former actor much of a chance.
But Ronald Reagan was supremely confident that he would win the election, that America would be restored to its former glory, that the West would ultimately triumph in the Cold War. He never took seriously the prevailing notion that detente or coexistence with the Soviets was inevitable or, worse yet, desirable. To his thinking, there was only one acceptable outcome: victory.
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. Of course, we were destined to win the Cold War. The Soviet empire was in a state of advanced decline. Years of neglect had driven its economy to the brink of ruin; its hold on Eastern Europe was beginning to wane; and those same pressures were forcing to the surface deep-seated political unrest at home. It was only a matter of time before the entire system came crashing down.
Yet few could perceive it at the time - certainly not the keepers of conventional wisdom. "Those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse," opined the respected historian Arthur Schlesinger not long after Reagan's election, were "wishful thinkers who are only kidding themselves." Noted Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith took it a step further. "The Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower," he posited during the 1984 campaign. For Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson, the Soviet planning system was nothing short of a "powerful engine for economic growth" as late at 1985.
Which raises the question, once asked by conservative scholar Michael Novak: "What did [Ronald Reagan] know that we didn't?" It wasn't so much what he knew but what he believed. Reagan had no special insight into the Soviet Union. He wasn't analyzing data that others were overlooking or spending every waking second pouring over raw intelligence.
When it came to dealing with the Soviets, Ronald Reagan had a more visceral approach. Dating back to his days as a surrogate for Barry Goldwater, he firmly believed that Soviet communism was destined for failure, that freedom - more specifically democratic capitalism - would ultimately prevail. In his four decades as a public figure, he never wavered from that simple, single truth. It was ultimately what drove him to ratchet up the arms race just as the freeze movement was gaining momentum, to brand his adversary an "evil empire" when many were urging cooperation.
Historians will continue to debate Ronald Reagan's role in winning the Cold War. Fair enough. It's much too complicated and nuanced an event to be reduced to a single person. What's less debatable is the transformative nature of his presidency, a fact admitted by none other than Barack Obama - much to his campaign's chagrin - during the 2008 Democratic primary. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not," the candidate confessed during a moment of candor. That may ultimately prove to be Reagan's legacy.
Nick Ragone's latest book is "Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions that Changed the Nation" (Prometheus Books, 2011).
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