Tuesday, June 2, 2009

By Martin and Annelise Anderson
Crown, $32.50, 480 pages

Filled with material heretofore classified, “Reagan’s Secret War” documents many meetings of the National Security Planning Group that show how President Reagan sought to replace the old policy of facing off with the Soviet Union through the lens of “mutually assured destruction” with steady reductions of nuclear weapons, leading to their eventual elimination.

All the while, Mr. Reagan was pursuing a strategy to undermine the Soviet economy. Among other things, Soviet access to Western capital met obstacles, and controls were tightened to prevent Soviet acquisition of technology.

After the oil embargoes of the 1970s, the high price of oil produced huge profits for Soviet oil exports. By the mid-‘80s, however, when the Saudis led an increase in production and the price of oil fell sharply, Soviet reserves of hard currency began to dry up. The authors, Martin and Annelise Anderson, both members of the Reagan administration, hint that this was more than coincidental.

The antecedents for his views go back to the ‘60s. Mr. Reagan first spoke of economic victory in a 1963 speech. His first brush with intercontinental ballistic missile defense was in 1967 when, as the new governor of California, he visited the Lawrence National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., where the scientists briefed him on their work on missile defense.

Many times over the years, Mr. Reagan mentioned the need to rid the world of nuclear arsenals. In 1979, after accepting an invitation from the Carter White House for a briefing on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT II, Mr. Reagan assembled a group of independent arms experts for a briefing. At its conclusion, he released a statement saying he would oppose SALT II because it only slowed the rate of increase of nuclear arms, while what was needed were arms-reduction talks.

It is his pursuit of arms reduction that occupies a great deal of this book. He spoke of it tirelessly, both to his advisers and in public.

This is the definitive book on Mr. Reagan’s strategy for bringing the Cold War to a successful end. The Andersons are well-suited to the task of researching and writing it. Martin Anderson was an economic adviser to Mr. Reagan and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Annelise Anderson was associate director of the Reagan Office of Management and Budget. Both were Reagan presidential campaign advisers. They are the authors of two other important Reagan books, and both are senior fellows at the Hoover Institution.

When Mr. Reagan became president, he fulfilled a campaign promise to rebuild U.S. military strength. Knowing that the Soviets were straining their economy with their arms spending, he insisted that the United States would let “no one” get ahead of it. In 1983, he announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), calling for development of a missile shield that would make nuclear weapons obsolete. He offered to share it with the Soviet Union.

Mr. Reagan’s logic escaped the Kremlin’s leaders. The authors say, “The Soviets found it difficult to believe that any country would deliberately build up its armed forces in order to persuade an enemy to join them in sharing reduction of nuclear weapons so that neither party could destroy the other.”

Exchanges of letters with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his successor, Yuri Andropov, proposing summit meetings were unavailing. Then, after Mr. Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984, he received a friendly letter from then-leader Konstantin Chernenko about the possibility of an accord between the two nations, provided the United States did not develop SDI.

Thus began a long and stubborn insistence by the Soviets that the United States keep its missile defense plan in the laboratory. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 following Mr. Chernenko’s death, he returned again and again to this theme in letters and at the first summit, at Lake Geneva in November 1985. While some of Mr. Reagan’s advisers saw SDI as a bargaining chip, Mr. Reagan did not.

At the hastily called October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, talk quickly turned to the idea of systematically eliminating all nuclear weapons — the “zero option.” At the final session, however, Mr. Gorbachev said he wouldn’t sign an agreement unless SDI were deep-sixed. Despite Mr. Gorbachev’s earlier insistence on U.S. abandonment of SDI, this had not been expected to be part of the agreement. The summit ended abruptly. U.S. media and political critics lit into Mr. Reagan for failing to reach an agreement.

In early 1987, however, Mr. Gorbachev unexpectedly agreed in a letter to a treaty in which the entire category of intermediate-range nuclear weapons would be eliminated. SDI was not mentioned. The authors conclude that this surprise in the Soviet approach was caused by several factors: a collapsing Soviet economy, a booming one in the United States, and realization that U.S. technology and monetary resources meant a missile defense system the Soviets could not match.

The arms-reduction treaty was negotiated successfully in Washington that fall and signed in Moscow on June 1, 1988. The authors conclude, “The statements released that day by the two leaders stated, for all purposes, that the Cold War was over.”

Peter Hannaford was closely associated with President Reagan for a number of years and is the author of five books about the 40th president.

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