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Reagan's Cold War Education


One of the most fascinating interviews I've ever seen Brian Lamb conduct - and there are many on C-SPAN's Booknotes - was with Kiron Skinner concerning her book, Reagan in His Own Hand. The entire interview is here, and it's well worth your time to watch it. Skinner, whose expertise as an academic is on the history of the Cold War, famously discovered an incredible archive of material written in Reagan's own hand of more than a thousand radio broadcasts, mostly delivered from 1975 to 1979, which were broadcas all around the country. Reagan would give brief three minute overviews and anecdotes, many of them very specific, with some real insight on world affairs, domestic policy and more.

Skinner's book led to a massive reconsideration of Reagan as a historical thinker when it was released - she describes him as a one man think tank, and the comparison seems apt. Yet this is not to suggest Reagan was right about everything - Skinner highlights mistakes that he made or inconsistencies with later policies, particularly toward the engagement of dictators in Africa and elsewhere.

Yet as you step back and take a measure of this time, what's intriguing about these broadcasts is that together they depict a candidate who uses his time in the wilderness - post governorship, rejected by his party in 1976, before the 1980 election and the change it brought - to better himself not just in learning about the country but also in learning about foreign policy, and in sharing what he learned with a rapt audience in unedited fashion.

The vast majority of these radio addresses focus on the world as a whole. Reagan talks not just about Communism but also about defense and intelligence policy, outreach to the Third World, treaties, diplomacy and human rights issues. He does a series on the B-52 bomber and Salt II, and hints at the policy that would later come to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative in his criticism of the Carter administration's policies. He even devotes two commentaries to the intricacies of NSC-68, a report declassified in 1975 which sounded the alarm on the Soviet's military buildup to President Truman.

By 1976, Reagan had already succeeded as a sports broadcaster, actor, corporate spokesman, union leader and two-term governor. He had learned to adapt to the realities of the modern media, to dodge and parry in debate, to educate himself on key policy matters and to communicate them in winning fashion. Yet in the course of these radio broadcasts, you see Reagan clearly setting himself apart on matters of foreign policy, defense and the Cold War - casting off the Nixon/Kissinger approach and speaking with conviction of taking a different path.

(Quick aside: My favorite moment of the 1976 impromptu remarks Reagan gave after Ford was nominated is a shot of Kissinger in the audience, ignoring the speech entirely.)

There's a contrast here, of course - one you might have seen coming. The fans of the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, have made an art out of Reagan comparisons, particularly after a speech she gave last weekend at the Reagan Ranch. For my own part, by any measure other than name identification and a shared political party, this seems like so much thin ice. There is a key difference here, and nowhere do you see it more pronounced than on foreign policy. This difference has nothing to do with intelligence, in my view - it has to do with commitment and humility.

Reagan, in his time, could have adapted to the views of the establishment, but was not interested in living the life of a political celebrity. Rather, he built and focused his time on churning out content and material from his own hand with very little help; writing 15 radio broadcasts in a sitting, newspaper columns and more on the issues of the day. He was speaking not just to friendly, but unfriendly audiences; not just in controlled TV headshots and overproduced events, but in serious policy debates and discussions. Not satisfied just to talk about the Cold War in its broad strokes, Reagan aimed to read, learn, study and become a Cold Warrior with a coherent and unique commitment to the task at hand. The preparation served him well, guiding him toward solutions which he could bring with him to the White House.

There was some speculation on the left this week that Bill Kristol's recent criticism of Palin - after once being one of her chief boosters - is a sign of her diminished potential as a 2012 presidential candidate. We have no way of knowing this, and such predictions are rather silly when viewed through the lens of history, where so many personalities have been pronounced dead in politics only to revive over a weekend. Yet it's telling that Kristol's speaking out now, as someone primarily focused on foreign policy - someone who would, presumably, be aware of any efforts on Palin's part to gain in this arena of expertise. If the comparison to Reagan means anything, Palin might be expected to participate in the kind of public foreign policy debates with Kristol and others that Reagan had with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1978? If not, why?

Palin's choices make enormous sense if her aim is to be a successful political celebrity - to raise funds for her allies, glad hand and chat with friendly sources on TV; to be a powerful force for her view of what conservatism should be. Yet they make little sense for someone interested in learning and growing as a public figure, to prepare for leadership in the way that Reagan did - particularly understanding the challenges of the global sphere.

My argument for much of the past year has been that President Obama's approach to foreign policy is inconsistent and confusing at times - the White House, for instance, appears to be caught flat-footed by the events in Egypt. Yet few of the presidential aspirants on the right (and Palin is no exception) seem to be offering their own coherent alternative - the argument is left mostly to experts like Elliott Abrams and John Bolton, not to people who are presumably preparing to challenge Obama for his job. At the CPAC gathering of conservatives and libertarians this week in Washington, DC, will any of the potential 2012 candidates mention Egypt at all? It will be interesting if they do, and frightening if they do not.

The point is just this: the "Time for Choosing" Reagan is the Reagan that many on the right chose to remember and hail this past weekend. This is not a bad thing - that Reagan is fiery and committed; an ideologue and a true believer in full torrent. But the Reagan of 1964 is not the Reagan America got as president 16 years later. Tested and challenged, that Ronald Reagan had learned how to apply his policy beliefs, ran and won two challenging elections in the nation's largest state, survived a recall effort, traveled the world as an envoy and, more than anything else, absorbed a massive amount of knowledge about foreign policy and the world we lived in.

This process of learning is a natural requirement for most governors, executives who rise within a state not by knowing how the world works but typically by knowing how local politics works. The learning process required a degree of humility on Reagan's part, one that not all politicians have, but that nearly all need.

Reagan's line from his 1964 speech which still echoes most in the ears of conservatives posited two paths: "We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness." By the time he became president, Reagan knew how to take the nation down the right path - the one that led to an end to the Cold War we thought would last forever. And it's thanks to that fact that today, as my New Ledger colleague Dan McLaughlin has written, Reagan's monument is a wall that is no longer there.

(AP Photo)