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."

Arthur Schlesinger, just back from a trip to Moscow in 1982, said Reagan was delusional. "I found more goods in the shops, more food in the markets, more cars on the street—more of almost everything," he said, adding his contempt for "those in the U.S. who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink." (By the way, Schlesinger, who has spent his life in praise of JFK's adventures in Vietnam and Cuba but foamed at the mouth over every other American military action of the Cold War, proves Isaiah Berlin wrong: In addition to foxes and hedgehogs, there are also chameleons.)

Reagan nonetheless persisted. He boosted production of conventional arms and borrowed a play from the Soviet book by backing anti-communist insurgencies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most controversially, he poured billions of dollars into his missile defense program.

Whether SDI will ever work (20 years later, it's still mostly theoretical) and whether, even if it does work, it's a wise strategic choice in a world where America's most implacable enemies are not superpowers with hundreds of ICBMs but terrorists with suitcases, are arguments for another time. But what has largely been overlooked in the debate is that the Soviets had no doubt whatsoever that it would work.

At arms summits, Gorbachev frantically offered increasingly gigantic cuts in strategic missiles—first 50 percent, then all of them—if Reagan would just abandon SDI. Schweizer, mining Soviet archives and memoirs still unpublished in the West, shows that Gorbachev's fears echoed throughout the Politburo. SDI "played a powerful psychological role," admitted KGB Gen. Nikolai Leonev. "It underlined still more our technological backwardness." Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko understood exactly what Reagan was up to: "Behind all this lies the clear calculation that the USSR will exhaust its material resources before the USA and therefore be forced to surrender." Most tellingly of all, the East German-backed terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction began systematically murdering executives of West German companies doing SDI research.

Reagan, unmoved, stiff-armed the Soviets on SDI while winning huge concessions on other weapons. When Gorbachev complained, Reagan needled him with jokes. (Sample: Two Russians are standing in line at the vodka store. Time passed—30 minutes, an hour, two—and they were no closer to the door. "I've had it," one of the men finally snarled. "I'm going over to the Kremlin to shoot that son of a bitch Gorbachev!" He stormed up the street. Half an hour later, he returned. "What happened?" asked his friend. "Did you shoot Gorbachev?" Replied the other man in disgust: "Hell, no. The line over there is even longer than this one.")

The arms buildup (and a little-appreciated corollary, Reagan's jawboning of the Saudis to open their oil spigots and depress the value of Soviet petroleum exports) quickly took its toll. The Soviet economy began shrinking in 1982 and never recovered. By Schweizer's accounting, the various Reagan initiatives were costing Moscow as much as $45 billion a year, a devastating sum for a nation with only $32 billion a year in hard-currency earnings. Meanwhile, Reagan's rhetoric (the "evil empire" and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speeches in particular) emboldened opposition movements in Eastern Europe. Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union itself disappeared a little later.

Neither Reagan's strategy nor Schweizer's book are without flaws. Regarding the latter, it makes me a little nervous that, in areas where I have firsthand knowledge, Schweizer is sometimes a mite sloppy with the details. He writes, for instance, that Moscow gave Nicaragua's Sandinista government two squadrons of MiG fighters. Actually, despite their endless pleading, the Sandinistas never got a single MiG—Schweizer apparently has them confused with Soviet-made HIND helicopters, which were much less upsetting to the arms equilibrium in Central America. And I scratched my head over his contention that Grenada's Marxist government permitted the Soviets to use the island as a transit point for arms shipments to El Salvador. Why bother, when Cuba and Nicaragua were so much closer?

As for Reagan's strategy, it came with both costs and risks, all of which Schweizer brushes past. The defense spending binge (coupled with increased domestic spending that Reagan wouldn't or couldn't block) saddled the country with a trillion dollars in debt, which is real money even by Washington's standards. The U.S. government has always thrown money around like a drunken sailor, but enshrining the practice as a standard weapon in our military arsenal is a little scary.Even scarier is the risk that, when you draw lines in the sand, someone will cross them—or worse, obliterate them. Schweizer describes a chilling scene at a Moscow party where Hungary's foreign minister listened in horror as a group of drunken Soviet generals slammed shots of vodka and bellowed that the imperialists were about to gain military superiority and the time had come to push the button. We weren't the only country with Strangelovian elements.

Schweizer's narrative, nonetheless, is important—and not just to settle historical scores with the Schlesingers of the world. The flipside of his argument about Reagan's role in the fall of the Soviet Union is that detente was a dismal failure: that the Soviets responded to U.S. restraint with increased troublemaking in the Third World; that arms-control agreements actually destabilized the world by allowing Moscow to catch up with us; that, had we taken a firmer hand, the Cold War could have ended a decade or more earlier, at the cost of much less blood and money.

Those are sobering thoughts as we confront a new enemy that is as antithetical to freedom as was Soviet communism but much less predictable: Islamist terrorism. We once measured the threat to our security in easily quantifiable terms: the number and location of the enemy's soldiers and tanks, the aim of his missiles. As we learned on September 11, 2001, that way of reckoning has joined blimps and the Maginot Line on the scrap heap of military history. Reasonable persons may differ over whether George Bush chose the right target when he invaded Iraq. But it seems clear that Bill Clinton's tentative response to earlier Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and U.S. embassies in Africa only served to embolden Osama bin Laden. The 9/11 attacks taught us that if we wait around until the first punch is thrown, we're going to get a bloody nose and worse.

If only we could bring Ronald Reagan back from the fog into which he's vanished, I'd love to hear what he'd have to say on the subject.