BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reagan on War’

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By Gail E. Yoshitani
Texas A&M University Press, $35, 250 pages

After World War II, the United States veered from one strategic military policy to another. The “mutual assured de- struction” of President Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers gave way to the “graduated escalation” of Robert McNamara during the Vietnam era.

But the blossoming of terrorism and insurgencies in the last decades of the 20th century posed unprecedented challenges. How should the United States respond to adversaries who operate out of the darkness, with foreign sponsors such as Cuba (to cite one of many) providing covert arms and other aid?

During the Reagan administration, military policy was redefined in what became known as “The Weinberger Doctrine,” as enunciated by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. He argued that U.S. forces should be sent abroad only when it is “deemed vital to our national interests,” or those of our allies. Intervention should be done “wholeheartedly … with the intention of winning” and with “clearly defined political and military objectives.” There must be a “reasonable assurance” of support from the public and Congress, and the size of the forces involved should be adjusted to meet changing circumstances.

Army Lt. Col. Gail Yoshitani teaches history at the U. S. Military Academy. She casts her book in the form of studies of three uses of the Weinberger Doctrine: the dispatch of Marines to Lebanon; support of the Democratic government of El Salvador against insurgents; and the intervention in Granada to prevent establishment of a Castro-backed government. To say that she made intense use of the Weinberger papers at the Reagan Library is an understatement; indeed no less than 97 pages of her 250-page book are devoted to source notes. These papers offer insight into how the Weinberger Doctrine was crafted over a period of weeks with input from throughout the national security establishment.

So what is the scorecard? Although both Israeli and Syrian forces were pressured into withdrawing from it, Lebanon (and the rest of the Middle East) remain mired in seemingly insoluble turmoil. In the instance of El Salvador, communist guerrilla forces were put down. (Conscious of Vietnam-era sensitivity over the word “advisers,” military men sent to El Salvador were called “trainers.”) The Sandinista government in Nicaragua was toppled in free elections. In Grenada, a fast-moving joint task force put the Cuban-led guerrillas to flight.

One recurring problem for the Reagan administration was the refusal of congressional leftists to recognize that foreign interests (read Cuba and the USSR) were directing many “national liberation movements.” William Casey, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, horrified many veteran officers with the extent to which he was willing to cite sensitive information to make the case for intervention, especially in Central America. As one retired officer told me years later, “Some of the lefties around town would not accept the fact of Cuban involvement [in El Salvador] even if Fidel himself showed up driving a tank. Bill was wasting his time putting out this stuff.” History proved that Casey did the right thing - something his critics still remain unwilling to admit.

The extent of communist involvement in Latin America and elsewhere was emphatically documented once again this January when the Cold War International Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center released excerpts from a 1992 historical study by the Vietnamese army. The papers, obtained and translated by Merlin L. Pirbbenow, a 27-year veteran of the CIA, tell how North Vietnam “sapper trainers” schooled terrorists from Nicaragua, El Salvador and other countries. Vietnamese experts even offered training at camps inside Nicaragua.

In his memoir, Weinberger said the conduct of the Vietnam War shaped his thinking about defense policy. As he put it, “it was a terrible mistake for government to commit soldiers to battle without any intention to win.”

One advantage Reagan had in shaping foreign policy was the overwhelming support he commanded from the American public. He won election in 1980 by clobbering the hapless President Jimmy Carter by an Electoral College advantage of almost 10-to-one (489 to 49). Although congressional leftists whittled down his support over the years, he left office with a popularity unmatched since Eisenhower. As he proclaimed after Grenada, “A period of self-doubt is over.”

As Col. Yoshitani makes clear, much of the credit goes to the Weinberger Doctrine.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of “A Dictionary of Espionage” (Dover Books, 2012).

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