RONALD REAGAN: DECISIONS OF GREATNESS
By Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson
Hoover Institution Press, $24.95, 168 pages
Life and professional partners, the Andersons completed this, their last book together, not long before Martin passed away. It is a model of careful research and clear writing and a tribute to a man, Ronald Reagan, whose vision of a world without nuclear weapons and his determination to bring it about led to the end of the Cold War.
While Reagan is now widely credited with the strategy that brought an end to the Cold War, as it was being played few realized that many things that were happening were part of a plan, not one-off events.
In July 1979, Martin Anderson accompanied Reagan on a visit to NORAD headquarters deep in a mountain in Colorado. There they saw the sophisticated system that could detect the firing of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile almost immediately upon its liftoff (aimed at the United States). What he also learned was that the only thing we could do to counter such an attack was to fire our missiles at the Soviet Union. No wonder this was dubbed “MAD” for the concept’s name, Mutually Assured Destruction.
This began to crystallize Reagan’s thinking that there must be a better way than a nuclear catastrophe that would kill 150 million Americans and a like number of Soviet citizens.
In June, Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, and President Carter had signed the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). The White House offered to send one of its arms control experts to brief Reagan on the treaty. He accepted. A few days later, Reagan assembled a group of several independent nuclear arms experts for a discussion of the treaty. At the end of that session he told the group he would publicly oppose SALT II because, “All it would do is limit the rate of increase of nuclear arms. What we need instead are Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.” (They came to be dubbed START.)
Much earlier, in 1967, his first year as governor of California, Reagan had been invited by Edward Teller, then head of the University of California’s management of the Livermore National Laboratory, to visit it and see what the scientists were working on. He accepted and found they were working on missile defense.
This stuck with him, and after the Colorado trip and SALT II, it occupied more of his thinking.
According to the Andersons, Reagan was convinced that a nuclear war could never be won by either slide and must never be fought. He saw it as his job to persuade his Soviet counterpart of the correctness of this conclusion. He knew it would not be an easy sell because by then, they were ahead of us in conventional and nuclear arms and appeared to be convinced they could survive and win a nuclear war.
Several efforts to have summit meetings with Soviet leaders failed because, as Reagan put it, “They kept dying on me” (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko). Finally, in early 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Reagan sensed that change might be possible. Margaret Thatcher, a shrewd judge of character, met him and reported “He is a man we can do business with.”
There followed four extraordinary summit meetings over four years in which the men moved from shadowboxing to a shared objective — no war — and genuine friendship.
The Andersons take us through many steps that paved the way for the meetings that changed the world. Reagan’s national security staff developed tactical plans to further Reagan’s strategy for pushing the Soviet economy toward collapse in order to persuade the Kremlin to negotiate. It was not until the realist Gorbachev came to power that the negotiations became possible. He realized that the USSR could not challenge Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) without bankrupting itself (and he mistakenly believed at first that SDI would be used to attack the Soviet Union from space).
Gorbachev was trying perestroika (restructuring the Communist economy) and glasnost (limited free speech). Both were uncorked genies he could not control. Negotiation was next.
The book moves with a sense of drama. Reagan is widely quoted from meetings not often cited. There are two appendices, one a detailed post-presidency interview of Reagan by Martin Anderson; the other an essay by Lowell Wood on “The Strategic Military Situation When President Reagan Took Office.”
Oddly, the book includes full-color reproductions of 16 posters from Reagan’s Hollywood films. Though not relevant to the book, they are interesting to see.
• Peter Hannaford was closely associated with President Reagan for a number of years and is the author of six books about him, the latest of which is “Reagan’s Roots” (Images from the Past).