- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at the City University of New York, has written a remarkable book about Ronald Reagan. It is remarkable because the author freed himself of the orthodoxy of modern academia in order to see his subject not as one-dimensional but whole.

As a young man on the University of California’s Berkeley campus in the 1960s, Mr. Diggins saw Mr. Reagan through left-liberal eyes, and later saw the Reagan presidency as “little more than the age of avarice and savings-and-loan scandals.” Unlike many of his academic colleagues, however, he dug into the growing body of evidence about the formation of Mr. Reagan’s view of the world and the president’s “intelligent, sensitive mind with passionate convictions.”

In “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History,” Mr. Diggins writes, “Reagan, it is now clear, delivered America from fear and loathing. He stood for freedom, peace, disarmament, self-reliance, earthly happiness, the dreams of the imagination and the desires of the heart.” His book examines each of these.

The author claims Mr. Reagan was an intellectual descendant of both Thomas Paine (which he would have acknowledged) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (which, despite Mr. Reagan’s occasional quotations of Emerson, is largely coincidental). He says Mr. Reagan was a “romantic” in the sense that he imagined a future always better than the past or the present. Mr. Reagan often preached that government should get out of the way so individuals could “go as far and as high as their talents take them.” Mr. Diggins sees this as evidence that Mr. Reagan saw God as benign, even beneficent.

He poses the paradox that American democracy is, at the same time, liberal and conservative. “America is liberal in its means and conservative in its ends,” he writes, noting, “The confident Reagan felt no need to listen to either the somber warnings of the Founders or the sermons of sin-struck fundamentalists. Instead he convinced Americans to believe in themselves.”

Mr. Reagan’s early years (and his mother’s influence on his outlook) are summarized, as is his growing hostility to communism during his Hollywood years and his time as governor of California. The main domestic events of his presidency are covered, such as supply-side tax cuts and welfare-reform efforts.

The book’s central thesis is that Mr. Reagan’s growing belief that negotiation was needed to end the nuclear arms race became his driving force. Mr. Diggins says this realization began to grow on Mr. Reagan in about 1983. But in fact, it began earlier. In 1979, the Carter administration concluded negotiations for SALT II. After it sent an arms-control expert to California to brief him, Mr. Reagan concluded that all it did was slow the rate of increase of nuclear arms and that what was really needed were Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, leading to the elimination of these weapons.

Mr. Reagan’s conventional arms buildup (“peace through strength”) was intended to show the Soviets, whose economy was tenuous, that they could not compete without bankrupting themselves. From the beginning of his White House terms, Mr. Reagan believed this would convince the Kremlin it should negotiate. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascendancy in 1985 that this took place. Theirs was a remarkable relationship that resulted in historic changes. The author gives full due to both Mr. Reagan — for making it possible to end the Cold War — and Mr. Gorbachev, who finally pulled the plug.

The book is not without mistakes. For example, Mr. Diggins misidentifies MediCal, California’s federal-state health program for the poor as “Medicare.” He has political consultants Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts organizing Mr. Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign (they worked on Gerald Ford’s). He writes that, in the 1980 elections, the Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time since 1945 (it was 1955). Army Gen. Alexander Haig is described as being in the Air Force.

These are minor flaws, however, in a book that in both grand sweeps and penetrating analysis gives the intellectual history of a president whose deeply held conviction that nuclear war had to be averted led to U.S.-Soviet cooperation to reduce (toward ultimate elimination) nuclear weapons.

The author concludes: “The Reagan presidency was about not only his economic and political policies, but his undying will to peace and his uncanny ability to trace political problems to their roots in emotion.”

Peter Hannaford is co-author of “Remembering Reagan.”

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