Saturday, February 18, 2012

Was Reagan Merely a Figurehead President?

Ronald Reagan suffered much derision as a cue-card reading intellectual midget who acted his way through office. After reading Reagan’s Secret War by Martin and Annelise Anderson, we believe that they have demolished this churlish and childish characterization of Reagan.

Webster Tarpley, in his book Bush: the Unauthorized Biography, in the chapter on the Reagan assassination attempt, develops the theme of Reagan’s vacuity and absence from daily management and leadership in implicating Bush in the assassination. Unfortunately, Tarpley exposes a wide credibility in his analysis, not because Bush is innocent, but because he is plain wrong about the President’s engagement in his own administration. But Tarpley is not the first or the last to advance this accusation against Reagan.

The Andersons present solid evidence from the historical record including official White House meeting minutes, press accounts, and Reagan’s diaries which show a chief executive who is not only leading his aides and cabinet officers, but who is at the forefront of policy innovations, persuading them of his positions, and, when needed, correcting their wayward tendencies.

Reagan’s abilities to establish policy and oversee its implementation are powerful proof of an active mind and healthy grasp of complex geopolitics during one of the worst times of American-Soviet relations, the subject which consumes the narrative of the Andersons’ book.

The authors point out many instances when Reagan overruled his staff, such as early in his presidency when he sent a personal letter of negotiation and diplomacy to the ailing Leonid Brezhnev in an effort to seek a resolution to the arms race. In this particular instance, Alexander Haig and his staff considered the letter too “mawkish” and sought to recast it in the stern language of the State Department.

When introducing his forward thinking Zero-Zero Policy to resolve the Soviet deployment of theater nuclear missiles in Europe, Reagan firmly corrected his truculent, obstructionist Secretary of State’s insistence on opposing the policy. Reagan insistently overrode with reason Haig’s obstinate objections.

In attempting to establish direct communication with the Soviet General Secretary, Reagan had followed the steps of John Kennedy who established similar correspondence with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the October Missile Crisis of 1962 in attempt to bypass his unstable and borderline psychotic generals who were hellbent on a nuclear first attack.

The Andersons provide many similar examples of Reagan's active leadership in policy and negotiation, as well as his major speeches and press conferences where he proposes and defends forward thinking policy options including the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dismissed as Star Wars, which really was a modernization of the anti-ballistic missile strategy with technological advances – an American strength and a Soviet weakness.

In taking on the USSR, Reagan’s Secret War reveals that Reagan grappled with the Soviets in a way his predecessors could not either for lack of personal presence, strategic insight, or clarity of thought. Reagan, often against his own staff’s revanchist thinking, formulated a policy of confronting the Soviets from strength using both economic and technological advantages, use of personal and negotiating strategies, and pursuit of nuclear arms elimination – not merely reduction. He also bluntly discarded the tendency of our leaders to make asymmetrical concessions in order to adapt to Soviet strategic superiority - proving that Kissinger's snarky comment, "What is strategic superiority and what does one do with it when one has it?" was as vacuous as hoover vacuum cleaner.

In the end, the USSR was unable to sustain the arms race, keep pace with technological innovation, or maintain the philosophical severity of the totalitarian system.

Some may say that Reagan always took a nap – which, if true, is not surprising or alarming. Many management consultants prescribe “power naps” and medical science provides ample justification for their usage. Douglass MacArthur, during his Pacific Campaign, always took afternoon naps, but no one has seriously chastised him for doing so. And FDR slept away half of his days during the end of his tenure due to rapidly failing health in the midst of war – yet we hear nary a peep of criticism for his patent incapacitation.

The attack from his enemies that Reagan was aloof and unengaged is simply a scurrilous and unfounded accusation.

Reagan's Secret War, Martin and Annelise Anderson
Bush: the Unauthorized Biography, Webster Tarpley

Copyright 2010-12 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.

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