Tuesday, March 3, 2009

By James Mann
Viking, $27.95, 380 pages

In explaining Ronald Reagan‘s moves toward nuclear-arms-reduction pacts with the Soviet Union, James Mann writes, “Increasingly, Reagan rebelled against the forces and ideas that had made the Cold War seem endless and intractable.”

He says this of the period 1986-88. In fact, that rebellion was a hallmark of the entire Reagan presidency. The author has missed the fact that this was the final phase of a determined and well-developed strategy.

Mr. Mann was for years a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. The author of two other books, he is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In the introduction to “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan” he writes, “I wanted to examine the hidden aspects of American foreign policy and to explain them in a historical narrative.” Several dozen interviews and examinations of previously inaccessible archives later, he has done just that.

He divides the book into four parts, “Two Anti-Communists” (Mr. Reagan’s and Richard Nixon’s different visions); “Informal Adviser” (the role of Suzanne Massie, who occasionally passed back-channel messages from the White House to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev‘s associates); “Berlin” (the tug of war within the administration over Mr. Reagan’s famous speech about the Berlin wall); and “Summits” (the four meetings between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev).

The book’s chronology begins Nov. 8 through 10, 1982, with the death of Leonid Brezhnev and the accession of Yuri Andropov. It should have begun 15 years earlier. In 1967, his first year as California governor, Mr. Reagan accepted an invitation from Edward Teller to visit the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for a briefing. There he learned that the scientists were working on a missile defense program. Seventeen years later, with Mr. Teller sitting in the Oval Office, Mr. Reagan made the nationally televised speech that launched the Strategic Defense Initiative. Afterward, Mr. Reagan asked Mr. Teller what he thought of it. The scientist quipped, “Well, it only took you 17 years.”

Twelve years later, Mr. Reagan visited the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) early-warning system deep in a Colorado mountain. It brought home to him the potential horror of nuclear war. The sophisticated equipment could quickly detect a nuclear missile headed toward us; however, the only defense was to launch our own.

Mr. Reagan, from the beginning, made it clear he would rebuild our military defense structure so that the Soviets could not match it. He knew from early intelligence briefings that the Soviet Union’s economy was under great strain. He aimed to increase the strain until the Kremlin’s leaders realized an arms race was futile and agreed to work out arms-reduction agreements. Alas, “They kept dying on me,” he commented after the successive deaths of Mr. Brezhnev, Mr. Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Meanwhile, Mr. Reagan turned up the juice. In his 1982 speech to the houses of the British Parliament, he declared that communism would end up “on the ash heap of history.” He signed national security directives NSDD-32 and 75. The former declared that we would seek to undermine Soviet control in its European satellites. The latter committed the administration to seek change inside the Soviet Union itself. In 1983, he gave his “evil empire” and Strategic Defense Initiative speeches within two weeks of each other.

It was not until he met Mr. Gorbachev, in November 1985, that Mr. Reagan felt he had met a man with whom he could work. With the Soviet economy in perilous condition. Mr. Gorbachev had begun perestroika to modernize it and was desperate to find ways to reduce military spending.

At their initial Lake Geneva meeting, President Reagan said, “We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed. We’re armed because we mistrust each other. We have two alternatives: find a way to begin to trust each other or have an all-out arms race. That, Mr. Gorbachev, is a race you can’t win.” Mr. Reagan later related that he was certain he was dealing with a realist.

The author goes into detail about the role Ms. Massie played in Mr. Reagan’s preparation for this trip. She had written a popular book about Russian history and culture. From her travels, she told him of the tribulations of the Russian people.

In November, 1986 at Reykjavik, Iceland, the second summit between the leaders ended abruptly when Mr. Gorbachev said he would sign an agreement leading to the elimination of all nuclear weapons only if Mr. Reagan agreed to put his Strategic Defense Initiative on the shelf. Mr. Reagan, mistakenly, was widely criticized for failing to sign an agreement. Reykjavik turned out to be the climactic Cold War event. Already well into his economic reforms, Mr. Gorbachev had played his last card, and Mr. Reagan trumped it.

In 1987, at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the president declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He rightly understood this would encourage the growing impetus for freedom throughout the Warsaw Pact countries. With that exception, his rhetoric that year was less sharp than it had been. Instinctively, he knew Mr. Gorbachev’s efforts at internal reform would gain momentum if the United States appeared to be less bellicose toward the Soviet Union.

Late that year, the two leaders signed the first nuclear-arms-reduction treaty. The Cold War was drawing to and end.

Mr. Mann gives us a lively book. What he misses is Mr. Reagan’s early, unflagging commitment to a strategy that would bring the Cold War to a close. Tactics and rhetoric changed to fit changing circumstances. Ultimately, only Mr. Gorbachev could stop the Cold War, but it was Mr. Reagan who brought him to that pass.

Peter Hannaford was closely associated with Ronald Reagan for a number of years. He is the author of five books about the late president.

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