The Gipper and the Hedgehog

How an "amiable dunce" outsmarted the world.

Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism, by Peter Schweizer, New York: Doubleday, 339 pages, $26

The innate and possibly genetically mandated stupidity of Republicans has long been treated as established scientific fact; it is so utterly beyond dispute that even a ninth-grade dropout like Cher, who once thought Mount Rushmore's heads were natural formations, can publicly declare George W. Bush "lazy and stupid" without fear of embarrassment. But however great a moron the current president is said to be, his dimwittedness pales beside that of Ronald Reagan. Even hardened journalists and academics, long resigned to their toil among the ignorant, have recoiled before the feeble-mindedness of Reagan.

Haynes Johnson, for one, was so struck by Reagan's vegetable-level intelligence that he put it in the title of his history of the Reagan presidency, Sleepwalking Through History. Frances Fitzgerald took the title for her account of Reagan's Star Wars program, Way Out There in the Blue, from a crack in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman about the simpleton Willie Loman: "way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine." Former JFK/LBJ whiz kid Clark Clifford called Reagan an "amiable dunce," and historian Edmund Morris found Reagan's life so vapid that he actually made up characters and anecdotes in hopes of producing a more compelling biography.

Yet if there was an eggplant where Reagan's brain should have been, how did he manage to win the Cold War? How did he bring a victorious end to an ideological and military deadlock that defied Kennedy's best and brightest, Johnson's political cunning, Carter's brilliance (certified not only by his nuclear physics degree but also by an Evelyn Wood speed reading diploma), Eisenhower's strategic prowess, and even Nixon's widely acknowledged (if not always admired) skills as a back-alley fighter?

he general response among America's chattering classes has been that Reagan was the political equivalent of the millionth customer at Bloomingdale's. He was the guy lucky enough to walk through the door as the prize was handed out, as if everything was pre-ordained and would have happened the same way no matter whether the White House had been occupied by Michael Dukakis or George McGovern or Susan Sarandon. An alternative theory posits that Gorbachev was some sort of Jeffersonian kamikaze pilot, taking his whole nation over the cliff for the thrill of being proclaimed Time's Man of the Decade.

Oddly, that's not the way the Russians see it. Says Genrikh Grofimenko, a former adviser to Leonid Brezhnev, "Ninety-nine percent of the Russian people believe that you won the Cold War because of your president's insistence on SDI," the Strategic Defense Initiative, as Star Wars was formally called. Grofimenko marvels that the Nobel Peace Prize went to "the greatest flimflam man of all time," Mikhail Gorbachev, while Western intellectuals ignore Reagan -- who, he says, "was tackling world gangsters of the first order of magnitude."

So how did Reagan do it? The answer, suggests Hoover Institution researcher and Cold War historian Peter Schweizer in his new book, Reagan's War, can probably be found in Isaiah Berlin's essay "The Fox and the Hedgehog." Berlin, musing on an obscure line penned by the Greek poet Archilochus, argued it was a modern typology. Archilochus wrote that the fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Berlin characterized foxes as running hither and yon, taking actions that are unconnected by any guiding principle and that may even be at odds with one another. "Hedgehogs, on the other hand," writes Schweizer, "relate everything to a single central vision."

Schweizer is not so unkind as to say so, but when it came to foreign policy, Jimmy Carter was the archetypal fox. Pulling the rug out from under right-wing regimes in Nicaragua and Guatemala, then arming theocratic fascist guerrillas in Afghanistan, he could never translate his supposedly superior intellect into coherent policy.

Unlike Carter, Reagan was never invited to contribute to foreign policy journals. But he knew one big thing: that freedom is the defining value of mankind, and communism was its antithesis. It was that, and not the arcana of missile throw weights or U.N. treaties, that defined Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union. "Details that animate so many in the world of politics, academe, and journalism did not interest him so much as the 'metaphysics' of the Cold War," observes Schweizer. "He was, in short, a hedgehog living in a world populated with foxes."

Reagan's War is not a biography, not a history of the Reagan administration, not even an examination of its foreign policy. It is, rather, a history of Reagan's one big thing: his lifelong confrontation with communism, which began on Hollywood's backlots and ended in a post-presidential visit to Germany, where he personally knocked a brick out of the defunct Berlin Wall. Working with White House documents (some declassified, some still secret), Reagan's own correspondence, and a wealth of material released from Soviet bloc archives, Schweizer argues persuasively that the collapse of the Soviet Union was no accident; it was the result of a strategy that Reagan had been advocating for nearly 20 years.

As early as 1963, Reagan argued that the arms race should be not reined in but accelerated. "If we truly believe that our way of life is best, aren't the Russians more likely to recognize that fact and modify their stand if we let their economy come unhinged, so the contrast is apparent?" he asked in a speech that year. "In an all-out race our system is strong," said Reagan, "and eventually the enemy gives up the race as a hopeless cause."

He wanted to use American technology to leverage an arms race that would force Moscow's wheezing command economy into a Hobson's choice between guns and butter. Either way, Reagan believed, the Soviets would lose: They could never keep up with the United States in an arms race, but abandoning it would be suicidal for a state that conducted all its business at gunpoint.

Reagan finally got to test his theory when he entered the White House in 1981. His defense team drew up a plan, later expanded into National Security Decision Directive 11-82, that explicitly made U.S. defense spending a form of economic warfare against the Soviets. The United States would "exploit and demonstrate the enduring economic advantages of the West to develop a variety of [arms] systems that are difficult for the Soviets to counter, impose disproportionate costs, open up new areas of major military competition and obsolesce previous Soviet investment or employ sophisticated strategic options to achieve this end." The objective was to make arms spending a "rising burden on the Soviet economy."

In retrospect, Reagan's point that the Soviet economy was on life support seems obvious to the point of banality. In fact, that's one of the arguments his critics use against him: that the Soviet economy would have imploded anyway, even without Reagan's defense buildup. But that's not the way foreign policy intellectuals saw it in 1982.

"It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable," declared economist Lester Thurow, adding that the Soviet Union was "a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States." (I wonder if Thurow had ever flown on a Soviet airliner?) John Kenneth Galbraith went further, insisting that in many respects the Soviet economy was superior to ours: "In contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement