CONELRAD READ ALERT: Selected Books and Miscellaneous Tracts
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THE REBELLION OF RONALD REAGAN: A History of the End of the Cold War

When Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004 the video clip of him delivering his famous line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” from seventeen years earlier started running on the 24-hour cable news channels almost immediately. The clip was repeated numerous times over the course of the next week until the 40th President of the United States was buried at sunset on June 11, 2004 at his library in Simi Valley, California. The debate over whether Reagan had won the Cold War had begun, of course, before his death, but it shifted into overdrive during the week that preceded his state funeral. Ironically, some of the same conservative pundits and politicians who had trashed the Great Communicator during his second term twenty years before could not speak highly enough of him during this mourning period. James Mann’s fantastic new book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War performs a superb public service in detailing the conservative backlash that Reagan faced after the 1986 Reyjavik summit and how his “rebellion” of remaining true to his instincts triumphed in the end.

In five sections – the longest of which deals with the Berlin Wall speech – Mann presents a thorough history of the end of the Cold War that is packed with surprising and often humorous details. Those on the left expecting a damning portrait of an absentee President who bumbled his way through eight years on the world stage will be just as disappointed as those on the right who demand nothing short of a hagiography declaring Reagan the single handed victor over the “evil empire.” Mann’s impeccably researched book offers a truly balanced view of Reagan and his handling of Cold War relations during his presidency.

The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan explores the evolution of Reagan from a bellicose governor of California (When asked how he would handle the seizure of 68 hostages from the USS Pueblo in North Korea in 1968, Reagan responded by saying “I’ll you what I’d do, I’d send them a cable tonight listing sixty-eight cities, and I would tell them that I’m going to bomb one city an hour until I get the boys back.”) to a seasoned second term president who talked seriously about eliminating all nuclear weapons.

It was the “second term” Reagan who infuriated conservatives like George F. Will who had the pinched-bowtie audacity to talk back to the Gipper when one of his negative columns triggered a telephone call from the president:

“George, I’m not enjoying reading you as much as I used to,” said Reagan. To which the impudent columnist replied: “I’m not enjoying watching you as much as I used to.”

In 1987 Senator Dan Quayle became an outspoken challenger of the president’s diplomacy with the Soviet Union, but only after winning a reelection campaign in Indiana in which his fealty to Reagan was promoted to voters. This was in the period of Quayle’s political career – before becoming Vice President – when he was still taken seriously. As it turned out, Quayle was just the pretty face delivering the dire foreign policy warnings of the less photogenic détente architects Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Indeed, as Mann notes, the former president and his secretary of state were both so concerned by Reagan’s outreach to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that they joined forces for an unprecedented op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times (and soon thereafter in the conservative National Review). The piece expressed particular worry over the removal of American nuclear missiles from Europe.

Nixon’s vaunted foreign policy wisdom – his post-resignation calling card to the media and to his successors in office – comes in for a beating in Mann’s book. The author reveals that many of Nixon’s sometimes petty observations on Reagan’s Cold War diplomacy (some contained in “memos for the file” in Nixon’s papers) were flat-out wrong. Mann goes into fascinating detail on the long and winding road of Reagan’s relationship with the 37th president. This includes an account of a secret visit Nixon paid to Reagan in the White House living quarters in April of 1987. Mann’s narrative captures wonderfully the bizarre quality of Nixon’s unease at being back at the scene of the crime. The former president’s awkward joking about taping systems in the White House cause Reagan to offer Nixon a drink (which he declines).

While the book focuses on the period of 1986 through 1988, Mann does discuss the tense days of 1983 and before: the KAL-007 airliner shoot-down, the Kremlin’s alarm over NATO’s Able Archer nuclear war drill (they thought it might be the prelude to a U.S. attack), the impact of THE DAY AFTER TV movie on Reagan’s thinking. This period and earlier briefings Reagan received on projected nuclear war casualties are critical to understanding his reversal on the tough rhetoric of the 1980 campaign and the first term.

Another key to understanding Reagan’s changing view of “the evil empire” is found in the person of writer Suzanne Massie. Massie, who is the author of what must now be considered an influential book – Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia – played an unlikely role in Cold War history. The fifty-year-old writer was introduced to Reagan in 1984 by National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. Her initial visit with the president in the Oval Office was to discuss her recent trip to the USSR. Reagan was intrigued by her stories about the Russian people. Massie, who was not a recognized Soviet scholar, helped humanize Russia for Reagan in a way no one else in his cabinet or government could. We learn from Mann’s reporting that Reagan was reading Massie’s “Firebird” book in Geneva as he was preparing for his first meeting with Gorbachev. In fact, the president was so engrossed with the tome’s stories of 19th century Russian shopkeepers that it interfered with an official briefing he was receiving from Paul Nitze, his lead arms-control negotiator. To the consternation of some in the president’s inner circle, Massie became something of an informal foreign policy adviser and back-channel courier for Reagan. In retrospective interviews for Mann’s book, Nancy Reagan described Massie as “pushy” and Massie likened the former first lady to a “nasty nurse.”

The centerpiece of The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan is the lengthy section on Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall. Over the course of fifteen chapters Mann lays out a revealing micro-history of the speech and the events that shaped it. This account will almost certainly stand the test of time as the definitive record of this pivotal moment in Cold War history. From the mechanics of writing the speech to the stagecraft of positioning Reagan in front of the Brandenburg Gate to deliver it, it is all in here and more. There is even the ironic revelation that the U.S. reached out to the Soviets to help ensure the president’s safety in West Berlin. Many readers may also be surprised to learn that Colin Powell (then Reagan’s Deputy National Security Adviser) actively tried to soften the language of the speech and that people like Condoleezza Rice (in a 1995 book) and Brent Scowcroft belittled it. Mann also points out that the Berlin Wall speech is not even mentioned in George P. Schultz’s 1,138-page 1993 memoir of his tenure as Reagan’s Secretary of State – a stunning omission that speaks volumes about what Schultz thought of its impact.

Today many conservatives point to Reagan’s first term arms escalation (including the plans for S.D.I. aka Star Wars) and his anti-Soviet posture as the primary components in winning the Cold War. Mann’s assessment is that it was Gorbachev’s reforms and Reagan’s instinct to deal with the Soviet leader that turned the tide. If Reagan had not had the courage to change his views and to override people like Robert Gates (then Deputy Director of Intelligence for the CIA who seriously misread Gorbachev), history might have taken another direction or at least a longer path.

Mann also populates The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan with many entertaining tidbits such as the Reagans turning off, after fifteen minutes, a tape of Madonna’s 1986 bomb SHANGHAI SURPRISE while resting up for the G7 summit in Italy; the president's penchant for dozing off when meeting with Pope John Paul; and Gorbachev’s furious contemporaneous reaction to learning that a 19-year-old named Mathias Rust has managed to land a small plane near Red Square in 1987. “This is even worse than Chernobyl,” the Soviet leader told Warsaw Pact members he was meeting with in East Berlin. “This is a major embarrassment.” Mann also reveals that while visiting the White House in 2005 Nancy Reagan was forced for the first time to descend into the White House bunker. Secret Service agents escorted the reluctant former first lady into the shelter because a Cessna plane had breached restricted Washington air space. Mrs. Reagan claimed to the author not to even know such a bunker existed (it was originally built during the Truman administration at the beginning of the Cold War).

At just 396 pages James Mann’s book is a marvel of informative and compelling efficiency and parts of it read like a swiftly paced novel. It is difficult to read The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan and refrain from drawing comparisons to George W. Bush. This is so mainly because President Bush himself promoted his so-called Reagan-esque qualities. Given the evidence supplied in the book, Reagan had a much better gut feeling about Russian leaders than the 43rd president ever did and he rarely mistook stubbornness for character.

See also our review for James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet.

THE REBELLION OF RONALD REAGAN: A History of the End of the Cold War
By James Mann
2009
Viking, New York
396 pages

[ 1 | COMMENTS | Jul 18, 09 | 9:37 pm ]

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