Thursday, March 24, 2016

Book Review: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, by James Mann (2009)

Paperback cover of The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, by James Mann, 2009. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Ronald Reagan delivering his "Tear Down This Wall!" speech, West Berlin, June 12, 1987. At the end of his speech, the Berlin Wall spontaneously collapsed.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meeting for the first time in Geneva, November 1985.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meeting in Moscow, 1988.
Ronald Reagan! Genial gladhander of the 1980’s, America’s great golden age! The only true conservative! The man with an anecdote for every occasion-and sometimes they were even true! Was he a wily genius who single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union? Or a stooge who was overly reliant on his advisors and just happened to be president at the right time? The truth lies somewhere in the middle, as it usually does. 

James Mann attempts to get closer to that truth in his 2009 book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. The book examines Reagan’s foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. Mann split the book into four sections that examine Reagan’s relationship with former president Richard Nixon, Reagan’s friendship with author Suzanne Massie, Reagan’s 1987 speech in West Berlin, in which he demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and Reagan’s summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. 

During his first term in office, Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” and said in a 1982 speech that “the march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.” During his second term in office, Reagan held five summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, and on his 1988 visit to Moscow, when asked if he still thought the Soviet Union was “an evil empire,” he said, “I was talking about another time and another era.” How did this change happen? That’s one of the key questions that Mann attempts to answer.

While The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan is a fine book, and an interesting look at Reagan’s attitude towards the Soviet Union, Mann’s unorthodox organization ends up hampering the book. In the first section, about Reagan’s relationship with Richard Nixon, we go through Reagan’s presidency chronologically. Then with the next section, we’re back to 1984, and the first time Reagan met Suzanne Massie. Because we’re constantly jumping forwards and backwards in time, the book becomes more repetitive than it needs to be. I can understand why Mann organized the book this way; it makes sense to examine Reagan’s relationship with Nixon in one short essay, but I think a straight chronological approach would have helped the book overall.

The section on Nixon and Reagan is quite interesting. During Nixon’s presidency Reagan had opposed Nixon’s policy of détente towards the Soviet Union, but after the 1986 summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik, when the two leaders came close to agreeing to eliminate all nuclear weapons, Nixon attacked Reagan’s policies towards the Soviet Union, essentially accusing him of becoming too soft on communism. Nixon and Henry Kissinger wrote a joint editorial in April 1987 attacking Reagan’s Russian policies, and later that same month Nixon secretly met with Reagan in the White House. The meeting did not go well, and Nixon refused to back off on his criticism of Reagan. 

For as much as the Republican party has deified Reagan since he left the White House in 1989, it’s very interesting to read about how many Republicans were angry about his policies towards the Soviet Union and Gorbachev during his second term in office. Conservative columnists like William F. Buckley, Jr., and George F. Will were both critical of any kind of arms limitation talks with the Soviets. 

Section two of The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan takes a closer look at Reagan’s friendship with Suzanne Massie, the author of a 1980 book about Russia, Land of the Firebird. Massie wasn’t an academic historian, but she had made many trips to the Soviet Union, and her then-husband was Robert K. Massie, author of Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography Peter the Great: His Life and World. Through contacts she had in Washington, D.C., Massie was able to meet with Reagan in January of 1984 to give him a report about life in the Soviet Union. For whatever reason, Reagan and Massie clicked, and she visited the White House many more times during Reagan’s second term. Massie carried back-channel messages between Reagan and the Soviet government, and she seems to have been an important influence on how he viewed the Russian people. Reagan dealt in the vernacular, in stories and anecdotes that would be easily relatable, and Massie was glad to supply him with her tales of life in Russia.

Reagan had a certain naiveté about the world, and the Soviet Union in particular. After Reagan had met with Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin, he was shocked at Dobrynin’s cosmopolitan sophistication, and he asked, “Is he really a Communist?” (p.85) Mann makes it clear that Reagan’s naiveté also extended to Mikhail Gorbachev. While most American politicians thought that Gorbachev was no different from the previous occupants of the Kremlin, Reagan seems to have intuited pretty quickly that Gorbachev was in fact a very different kind of Soviet leader.

Reagan’s Soviet counterparts during his first term in office were a trio of arteriosclerotic old men: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. Reagan made token overtures to each leader, but no serious discussions of a summit meeting occurred with any of the three Soviet leaders. Andropov and Chernenko were both very seriously ill during their entire tenures as Soviet leaders, so there was little prospect of a summit meeting occurring. Although Reagan was actually older than both Andropov and Chernenko, he continued to project a healthy vigor. 

Gorbachev realized that he needed an arms limitation treaty with the United States, in order to reduce the massive percentage of the Soviet budget that was going towards national defense. If Gorbachev hadn’t been so willing to strike a deal with Reagan, there might not have been the lessening of Cold War tensions that the world saw during Reagan’s second term. Reagan was extremely lucky that he was dealing with a Soviet leader who was more responsive to the West, and who was bent on reforming a Soviet system that was on the verge of collapse. 

Reagan also had excellent support from his very intelligent and capable Secretary of State, George Shultz. It was Shultz who worked out the nuts and bolts of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and it was Shultz who took Reagan's generalities and crafted specific policies from them. Shultz was an integral part of the lessening of Cold War tensions during Reagan's second term. Even though Shultz turned 95 in December of 2015, he is still an articulate defender of Reagan's place in history, as shown by this New York Times editorial.

Mann details all of the infighting in the Reagan administration concerning Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech, delivered on June 12, 1987, in West Berlin. While it’s now regarded as one of Reagan’s signature speeches, at the time, many members of the administration thought that the line should be toned down, as it might dissipate the goodwill that had been established between Reagan and Gorbachev. But Reagan was determined that the line should stay in the speech. Mann also chronicles the difficult dance that West Germany and East Germany were performing at the time, as German leaders on both sides were pressing for more economic agreements, much to the chagrin of their Western and Eastern allies. 

In the last section of the book, Mann examines Reagan’s summit meetings with Gorbachev. For whatever reason, Mann doesn’t cover the 1985 Geneva summit or the 1986 Reykjavik summit in detail, which is an opportunity missed. He does provide a more thorough look at the 1987 summit in Washington, D.C., and the 1988 summit in Moscow. Reagan delivered one of his best quips just before Gorbachev arrived in Washington, as a reporter asked him if he was worried about the younger Gorbachev upstaging him. Reagan responded, “I don’t resent his popularity or anything else. Good Lord, I co-starred with Errol Flynn once.” (p.266) 

One of the most interesting anecdotes concerned Reagan’s concern over a pair of cuff links he was going to give Gorbachev at the Washington summit. Reagan asked Colin Powell, then his national security advisor, “When do you think I ought to give him the cuff links?” Mann writes, “Powell tried to switch the conversation to what Gorbachev might say about Soviet SS-18 missiles, but Reagan talked about the cuff links again and again.” (p.267, both quotes) Cuff links! The leader of the free world was worried about the right time to give Gorbachev cuff links! Incredible! Does this show that Reagan was getting senile by focusing on trivial and unimportant details? Or does it show that Reagan knew that the personal connection between him and Gorbachev was just as important as the weighty issues they would be discussing?

The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan is a good examination of a pivotal time in modern history, and an intriguing portrait of one of the most fascinating presidents in modern history, a man who was both outgoing and aloof at the same time.

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