Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War

ronald_reagan

Dealing with scholarship on Ronald Reagan can be difficult. Using just book titles, it is often a challenge to differentiate between serious attempts to understand the administration of the 40th President and efforts that simply bask in his glory. I’ve fallen into the trap before, but I recently tried James Mann’s ‘The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan‘ and it most definitely fits into the former category.

Grappling with the ‘triumphalist’ paradigm, Mann’s book recognises Reagan’s ‘crucial role’, even if ‘Gorbachev played the leading role’ [1]. The U.S. President buttressed Gorbachev’s position, facilitating the progressive reforms that would ultimately lead to the end of the Cold War. Reagan’s contributions were important, and he should be credited for his role, but Gorbachev’s actions were vital.

That is the overall argument of ‘Rebellion‘. But I was most interested in Mann’s analysis of Reagan’s changing attitude towards the Soviet Union. The Committee on the Present Danger was extremely proud to count Reagan among its membership prior to 1980 presidential campaign. Reagan certainly appears to have been an enthusiastic supporter; fully 32 Committee on the Present Danger officials joined the new administration [2]. However, within a few short years a number of these figures had left, including Committee on the Present Danger Executive Board Members, Richard Pipes and Eugene Rostow. Reagan had moved on.

The message of the Committee on the Present Danger in the late 1970s, I would argue, encapsulated a moment in U.S. history; the fear of U.S. decline and of Soviet ascendency. But, contrary to Committee plans, this fear would not rebuild the anti-Communist consensus of the late 1940s. Reagan began to understand that this represented a static view of the world. The universal truth of ‘freedom’ in which he believed meant he could look beyond Soviet totalitarianism. He really meant it when he spoke of Communism as ‘a sad and bizarre chapter in human history’, and he was eager to help turn the page [3].

The ‘Rebellion’ in Mann’s title, therefore, refers to Reagan’s disagreement with ‘traditional’ conservatives. As President he could perceive that change was not simply desirable, but actually possible. The Committee on the Present Danger, as just one example, was too dogmatic to appreciate that Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was evolving, so focused was it on the ‘Strategic Balance’.

Reagan, in this account, deserves praise. Mann does not commit himself in the debate on whether Reagan had a clear vision, or instead acted on ‘crafty instinct’, but argues that it hardly matters [4]. The traditional conservative view in the late-1980’s was clearly resistant to Reagan’s conciliatory approach, but it was exactly this approach that allowed Gorbachev to take the reform path.

True to form, the Committee on the Present Danger, as late as the early 1990s, continued to label the Soviet Union as America’s greatest threat and advised against conciliation. Not because of ‘loose nukes’, but because its military was still capable of invading Western Europe.

For whatever reason, Reagan was able to transcend this type of traditional Cold War thinking. Groups including the Committee on the Present Danger could not, or did not want to, make this shift. Reagan deserves credit for his ability to look beyond the stereotype of the Soviet Bear, even if, as Mann concludes, it does not make him the pivotal figure in the end of the Cold War.

[1] Mann, J., ‘A History of the End of the Cold War: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan‘, (Penguin Books: New York, 2010), p. 346
[2] The Committee on the Present Danger, ‘The Fifth Year and the New Administration‘, 1980, in the Hoover Archives, CPD Papers, Box 177
[3] ‘Ronald Reagan: In His Own Words‘, BBC News, 06-06-2004, [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3780871.stm], accessed 13-01-2012
[4] Mann, ‘Rebellion of Ronald Reagan‘, p.342