In the 1980s, the Reagan national security team pursued goals that emanated from the beliefs of the president himself. The team used a variety of tools to achieve the goals. In “Planning Reagan’s War,” author Francis Marlo describes Ronald Reagan’s plan for winning the Cold War as a “grand strategy.” He doesn’t see it as hyperbole, but as a term of art. His definition is, “The planned use of all available tools of statecraft to achieve first-order national goals based on a given understanding regarding the nature of the international system.” In a word, it is comprehensive. The author writes that there are three central parts to a grand strategy: beliefs, goals and tools.
When Reagan met Richard Allen (who was to become his first national security adviser) in the late 1970s, Reagan said, “My idea about the Cold War is, we win, they lose.” As a candidate, he began to get briefings that convinced him the Soviet economic system was not far from crisis. He believed that if its leaders could be pushed to the edge of insolvency, they would come to their senses and negotiate to reduce nuclear weapons and to end the Cold War.
His determination to end the need for nuclear weapons had its beginning back in 1967 when, as California’s new governor, he spent a day at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, then headed by Edward Teller. The scientists briefed then-Gov. Reagan on their work on plans for defense against nuclear missiles.
Then, in the summer of 1979, Reagan visited the early-warning facilities of NORAD deep in a Colorado mountain. There he learned that the only way we could respond to the launching of a Soviet missile was to launch one of our own.
A few weeks later, the White House sent an executive to California to brief Reagan on the contents of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). A few days later, Reagan announced his opposition to it because, as he put it, “All this does is reduce the rate of increase of nuclear arms. What we need instead is START, a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.”
When Reagan became president, the members of his national security team were like-minded. They agreed that neither the yearslong policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union’s ambition nor the supposed restrictions of the policy of MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction (consisting of SALT and detente) — were going to lead to a conclusion of the Cold War.
Once these beliefs took shape as policies and actions there was furious opposition, most especially by the devotees of MAD echoed by many in the news media. Critics denounced the administration’s approach, the author says, “as unrealistic, reckless, dangerous and destabilizing.”
A series of National Security Defense Directives set out strategies such as defeating any Soviet attack on the United States or its allies (NSDD-32). This resulted in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which proved climactic at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 when Mikhail Gorbachev failed to persuade Reagan to shelve it, knowing that the USSR could never match it without causing its own economic collapse.
NSDD-75 had as its goal the undermining of Soviet control of the Warsaw Pact countries of central and Eastern Europe. NSDD-66’s goal was “to contain Soviet power, limit the Soviets’ hard currency earnings and promote change within the Soviet Union,” Mr. Marlo said.
The details of these were not well known outside the inner policy circles of the administration. The grand strategy amounted to a full-scale change from the essential timidity of “containment” and detente.
Outside critics responded largely to public manifestations of the strategy as it played out. For example, when Reagan said, in 1982, that the West would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history,” critics scoffed because they were sure, as the author puts it, “that the Soviet system was extremely stable and largely immune to external pressure.” That notion had been embedded in much of the foreign policy intellectual community for years. Ultimately, facts would force it to change.
The author clearly describes all the elements of our military, economic and political warfare intended to weaken and fundamentally change the Soviet state. The ultimate change and collapse of the USSR in 1989-90 testifies to the success of the Reagan grand strategy. A realist was needed on the other side, and Mr. Gorbachev was that realist, but his ultimate realistic responses would not have occurred if the Reagan strategy had not forced him to make them.
Peter Hannaford, a director of the Committee on the Present Danger, is the author of “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions,2012).