Revising Ronald Reagan

Was the 40th president a peace-loving moderate?

Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, by John Patrick Diggins, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 493 pages, $27.95

By the time of Ronald Reagan’s death in June 2004, even Saddam Hussein felt a little nostalgic for the former leader. “I wish things were like when Ronald Reagan was still president,” the jailed dictator reportedly told one of his American guards. When word of the president’s death reached the British pop star Morrissey, performing on stage in Dublin, the man who’d once sung the anti-Thatcher tune “Margaret on the Guillotine” delivered backhanded condolences of his own, telling the audience that George W. Bush, not Reagan, should have died.

Something more than revulsion toward Bush has been at work in other quarters, however, as a number of journalists and academics have begun to re-evaluate the Reagan record. The Atlantic Monthly last year provided a measure of the strange new respect Reagan commands with the chattering classes when it ranked him as the 17th most influential American who ever lived. Not bad for a man once dismissed by respectable opinion as (in the words of the Democratic éminence grise Clark Clifford) “an amiable dunce.”

Reagan was no dunce, and contrary to what many liberals thought in the 1980s—and what many conservatives seem to think now—he was no super-hawk either. Recent volumes of Reagan’s speeches and correspondence, edited by Kiron Skinner and Annelise and Martin Anderson, have gone a long way toward dispelling the myth of his stupidity. Reagan’s radio commentaries, written in his own hand, demonstrate his familiarity with the work of the Austrian economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Meanwhile, Paul Lettow’s 2005 book Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons makes a convincing case for a surprisingly dovish Reagan. John Patrick Diggins’ new book goes a step further, arguing that Reagan was virtually a libertarian, a political romantic who stood for “freedom, peace, disarmament, self-reliance, earthly happiness, the dreams of the imagination and the desires of the heart.”

With language like that, Diggins, a professor of history at the City University of New York, might sound like a right-wing Reagan hagiographer. He’s not. Twenty years ago, when the term had more pragmatic connotations, Diggins might have been called a neoconservative; his heroes are center-left turned center-right figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Sidney Hook. Diggins was no fan of Gov. Reagan in the ’60s or President Reagan in the ’80s, and his newfound respect for Reagan does not come without reservations. But he writes that “my respect for the man grew from appreciating his boldness in dealing with the three miseries of the modern era,” namely “a suicidal nuclear arms race…an expanding welfare state that had made the poor helplessly dependent [and] a joyless religious inheritance that told people their kingdom was not of this world and they needed to be careful about pursuing happiness in case they came to enjoy it.”

Diggins sets out to write an intellectual biography not just of Reagan but of his times, with special attention to the neocons who always urged the president to take a firmer line against the Soviet Union. The hawks in Reagan’s administration assured him he couldn’t reason with communists. One adviser, the historian Richard Pipes, told Reagan the Russian mind worked in ways fundamentally different from our own. The peasant mentality of the Russian muzhik, Pipes had written in 1977, held “that cunning and coercion alone ensured survival: one employed cunning when weak, and cunning coupled with coercion when strong. Not to use force when one had it indicated weakness.” Reagan disagreed. Ignoring the advice of hard-liners like Pipes and the neoconservative strategist Richard Perle, Reagan preferred jaw-jaw to war-war. “We must and will engage the Soviets in a dialogue as serious and constructive as possible,” he insisted in a 1984 address.

A nuclear close call in 1983, when Soviet early-warning systems wrongly reported American missiles on the horizon and nearly triggered a Russian retaliatory strike, reinforced for Reagan the imperative of building trust with the enemy. After that incident, “I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us,” Reagan later wrote in his memoirs. Negotiation was possible, regardless of what the hard-line “experts” said.

To an extent that no one really appreciated at the time, Diggins argues, the “dunce” Reagan actually inaugurated an era of highly intellectual politics in Washington: The Reagan years “so overflowed with think tanks and ideas it seemed there could be no policy without a set of beliefs or doctrines, no politics without a political theory.” Reagan’s own political philosophy matured long before he arrived in Washington; it was shaped by reading the classical liberal economists Frederic Bastiat and F.A. Hayek and the morose anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, as well as Reagan’s clashes with Hollywood Reds as president of the Screen Actors Guild and campus radicals as governor of California. Perhaps the deepest influence came from his mother, whose relaxed Protestant religious views looked away from outside authority and to the inner self for guidance. Diggins argues that this inheritance infused Reagan with an Emersonian faith in humanity.

Not all those influences pulled in the same direction. Between the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Communist-turned-Quaker Whittaker Chambers lies a world of difference. Chambers, as Diggins reminds us, thought that in leaving the Communist Party he was joining the losing side of history. Reagan’s neoconservative advisers in the 1980s had similar feelings, insisting right up until the Berlin Wall came down that America was losing the Cold War. Before Reagan’s election, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz set the tone for the administration’s hawks by warning of the “Finlandization of America,” the collapse of American will to resist Soviet aggression.

Reagan didn’t buy it. “A salient point” about Reagan’s advisers, Diggins writes, “was their lack of faith in the American character. They believed that a native Protestant religion fed a flabby culture of consumption” that would be no match for the Soviets’ will to power. But Reagan saw America’s hedonistic ways as a virtue, not a vice—and not just in the struggle against communism. According to Diggins, “the genius of Ronald Reagan was, like that of Emerson, to persuade us that we please God by pleasing ourselves and that to believe in the self is to live within the divine soul.” As Exhibit A in his argument, Diggins quotes a letter Reagan wrote to a friend in 1951, telling her “my personal belief is that God couldn’t have created evil so the desires he planted in us are good.” This thoroughly unconservative belief in mankind’s innate goodness led him to trust both the American consumer and the Russian people—and ultimately Mikhail Gorbachev, leading to a dramatic de-escalation of the nuclear arms race.

Diggins has more faith in government than Reagan ever did. He’s also a biographer of John Adams, and it’s clear enough just from his Reagan book that he admires the strong-government Federalists much more than the anti-statist Jeffersonians. Like a good Federalist, Diggins also believes that the people, be they American or Russian, are an unruly mob whose liberties can only be guaranteed by sound government. This unabashedly elitist perspective distorts his account of the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev becomes a heroic figure, even though Diggins acknowledges (several times, in fact) that the Soviet premier wanted to save communism, not to bring the whole system crashing down. Yet Diggins insists that the fall of communism in Russia “offers no example of ‘history from below’ ”—of ordinary people rather than national leaders making history.

He’s wrong. The Soviet Politburo didn’t just decide to call it quits in the summer of 1991; instead, the USSR’s own strong-government types seized power from Gorbachev in a coup, only to find mass protests in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad opposing them and calling for an end to communism. Certainly Gorbachev’s reformist policies within Russia and his willingness to negotiate with Reagan on nuclear weapons contributed to the Cold War’s end. But it’s less than half the story.

The biographer is notably at odds with his subject on the role of popular discontent in the end of communism. But Diggins is right to credit Reagan—and, yes, Gorbachev—with scaling down the tensions of the Cold War, which seemed to be heating up in the early ’80s with the Soviet war in Afghanistan and various proxy wars in the Third World. (Diggins mentions the Reagan-era “nuclear freeze” movement in the U.S. and Europe, but in keeping with his skepticism about history from below he believes Reagan’s quest for disarmament sprang from sources peculiar to Reagan himself.) Diggins notes a paradox here: While Reagan reached out to Gorbachev in defiance of his neocon advisers, he gave the hawks what they wanted in Latin America and (to a lesser extent) places like Angola and the Philippines. Although he shines no new light on Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, Diggins gives a convincing overall explanation for Reagan’s seemingly contradictory behavior: However willing Reagan might have been to fight communism by covert means, the elimination of nuclear weapons was his overriding objective—his “dream,” as he said more than once.

Diggins provides good reason to think that Reagan meant it when he said in January 1984, “Reducing the risk of war—especially nuclear war—is priority number one.” The author traces Reagan’s concern over nuclear weapons back as far as his days with the Screen Actors Guild, and he notes the effect the 1983 television movie The Day After had on him. “It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed,” the president wrote in his diary. He came to have little patience for Strangelovian defense intellectuals who argued that a nuclear war could be won and that disarmament was a mirage. As he later wrote in his memoirs, Reagan was appalled by those advisers who “claimed nuclear war was ‘inevitable’ and we had to prepare for this reality. They tossed around macabre jargon about ‘throw weights’ and ‘kill ratios’ as if they were talking about baseball scores.”

On the domestic side, Diggins corrects both the left’s and the right’s exaggerations about the Reagan economy. Did the rich get richer while the poor got poorer? No; everyone got richer, with the poor gaining more in percentage terms. Diggins cites Urban Institute figures showing that from 1977 to 1986, the bottom quintile of earners saw their incomes rise 28 percent, compared to 11 percent for the top quintile. On the other hand, there was no Reagan economic miracle. “In terms of productivity and national income, the Reagan eighties performed reasonably well,” writes Diggins, “but no more so than the Kennedy-Johnson sixties had or the Clinton nineties would.”

Yet Reagan did bring about a revolution in the nation’s attitude toward wealth. His “spiritualization of capitalism,” Diggins writes, “has had an enduring effect on America’s political culture, having lasted longer than Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, or Johnson’s Great Society. Reagan allowed Americans to indulge the acquisitive instinct fully, to pursue avarice without angst.” Diggins is ambivalent about this: He thinks consumerism is closely tied to middle-class entitlements and the Reagan-era deficit explosion, the common denominator being a belief that the American really can have it all. The public “would gladly accept lower taxes, but whether they would accept cutbacks in their benefits and entitlements was another matter entirely,” he writes. “How to make good citizens out of grasping consumers?”

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