A similar fever has gripped conservative historians, who, for several years now, have been doing their part to burnish Reagan’s image by penning starry-eyed accounts of his presidency that exaggerate his achievements while glossing over any unpleasantness. The latest of these, Peter Schweizer’s Reagan’s War, is the real Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. It’s a monument in print.
Those looking for inside details about the debates and decisions that led to the demise of the Soviet Union won’t find them here. Schweizer is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute–along with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, one of the Vaticans of conservative orthodoxy–who has chosen instead to offer a predictable series of anecdotes that paint a simplistic, Hollywood-style tale of how one man’s lifelong crusade against Communism brought down the Soviet Union. As a young man, Reagan stood down Red hooligans in Hollywood, where he first recognized that Communism was an unmitigated menace. After reading The Treaty Trap and Power Through Subversion (both written by old friend Laurence Beilenson) in the 1970s, he developed the strategy that years hence would bog down the Soviets in Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America and roll back the frontiers of Communism. The list goes on. And while Schweizer does briefly acknowledge the Iran-Contra scandal, he does so only to cite it as “a testament to Reagan’s courage.” Schweizer’s Reagan is a real-life Jack Ryan: a selfless patriot who always gets it right.
Reagan’s War reveals more about the minds of the conservative intelligentsia than it does about Ronald Reagan. According to Schweizer, Reagan’s central virtue was his unbending belief in the evils of Communism and his willingness to maintain a steely hard-line in the face of those who lacked his internal fortitude. After all, Schweizer argues, he had “a well-developed plan seeking the demise of the Soviet Union,” honed over the course of three decades. The irony is that while the real Reagan did indeed see the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” he became far more flexible than many hard-liners would have liked. (Norman Podhoretz, for one, often worried that Reagan was going soft.)
As more sober-minded historians have pointed out, Reagan was a very different man at the end of his presidency, one whose crusading impulse had given way to a more nuanced understanding of the Soviet threat. While it’s true that Reagan’s hawkishness almost certainly played a role in helping reformists like Gorbachev overcome more hard-line forces in the former Soviet Union, as Barbara Farnham, a senior associate of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, has written, “He had been transformed from an ‘essentialist,’ who believed that the Soviet Union was governed by an ideology that put no limits on what it could justifiably do to gain its ends of ‘absolute power and a communist world,’ to an ‘interactionist,’ who saw the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in terms of mutual misperception.” To Reagan’s credit, this is hardly the Manichean outlook of an ideologue. Perhaps not surprisingly, Schweizer doesn’t share this view. Though he pays lip service to the post-Gorbachev softening of Reagan’s stance, Schweizer sees it as–you guessed it–perfectly consistent with Reagan’s decades-old master plan. The author bases this contention largely on Reagan’s adamant refusal to abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative and his failure to conclude any new commercial agreements with Moscow at the end of his presidency. By now, Reagan’s zeal for SDI, based on a profound belief in the immorality of nuclear war, is the stuff of legend, and so his refusal is unsurprising. What is surprising, and overlooked by Schweizer, is Reagan’s acquiescence in the decline in U.S. military spending that began under his administration, a far more significant sign than the state of U.S.-Soviet trade relations.
Reagan’s dramatic shift from confrontation to constructive engagement paved the way for George Bush’s more moderate presidency, which saw the Soviet Union diminish from a fading-but-formidable enemy to a virtual nonentity. Bush accomplished this by taking a lesson from his predecessor. Whereas Reagan pushed a hard-line policy against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua by financing anti-Communist rebels, Bush compromised with Democrats and various Latin American nations to rein in the Contras and bring about the elections that ousted the Sandinistas and ended years of civil war–exactly the kind of wimpy move condemned by Reagan’s acolytes. (Schweizer glosses over this entirely, indirectly crediting Reagan with the triumph without ever mentioning his successor.) Bush used a similarly thoughtful approach to assemble the Gulf War coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein and to manage the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Reagan’s War is less a paean to an actual man than an act of wholesale historical reinvention. Schweizer’s Reagan is a caricature, a one-dimensional Commie-fightin’ cowboy, who shoots first and ask questions later. All of this is in keeping with the broader Reagan Legacy Project wherein conservatives recast the Gipper as a sort of secular saint, a conservative answer to FDR and JFK. Doing so is a useful way for conservatives today to chasten, bully, and cajole those who dare stray from the Church of Reagan–the religion of low taxes, big military budgets, and hawkish foreign policy. It’s no accident, then, that Republicans frequently invoke the term “Reaganesque” to describe George W. Bush, as they have lately when advocating hard-line policies like a unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq that makes no bid for U.N. cooperation. They mean for Bush to be less like his father, the moderate multilateralist, and more like the manly, tough-talking, go-it-alone Reagan of legend. But as Bush demonstrated in his recent speech to the United Nations, he is quite willing to change tack and embrace a more nuanced approach to the national threat. So in that sense, he is indeed “Reaganesque”–just not the Reagan that Schweizer has invented.