The "Amazing and Mysterious" Life of Ronald Reagan

By Joffe, Josef | The National Interest, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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The "Amazing and Mysterious" Life of Ronald Reagan


Joffe, Josef, The National Interest


IN 1987, Ronald Reagan uttered the immortal phrase: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" Two years later, the Berlin Wall, the symbol and brace of the Soviet empire, fell under its own weight, while the real thing collapsed without a sigh on Christmas Day 1991 when the Soviet Union committed suicide by self-dissolution. No empire has ever exited from history without major war--recall the violent demise of the Wilhelmine, Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires in World War I. So whatever else Clio--the Greek goddess of history--may yet report about him, she will always praise Ronald Wilson Reagan for this absolute first in the annals of statecraft: an empire that died in bed. They thought him demented when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall. Yet down it came, and as I retrace the historic voyage of America's 40th president, I would like to note that I helped to pry a chunk or two out of the Wall.

Many forces contributed to the fall of the "Evil Empire", but foremost among them was the deployment of those 464 cruise and 108 Pershing II missiles slated to offset triple-warhead Soviet SS-20s and Backfire bombers that could reach all of Western Europe (but not the American homeland). Needless to say, it was not the "theo-logic" of deterrence that drove the counter-deployment. The drama was not really about "circular-errors probable" or "hard-target kill capabilities." The name of the game was as old as Thucydides' disquisitions on Peloponnesian power politics. It was a pure test of will and strength, and on its outcome hung, as it turned out, history. Yet what a slender thread it was.

Shift to the summer of 1982. One key European leader, German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, would fall three months later--in large part because his Social Democrats were abandoning him over the missile deployment. Western Europe and West Germany, which was to take the bulk of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), appeared to be in a prerevolutionary mood. Millions were marching against NATO and America; pacifism and neutralism were given a new name: "Hollanditis." The Soviets were playing missile angst to the hilt, predicting that Western Europe would crack under the pressure.

First to crack, though, was Paul Nitze, chief INF negotiator. More despondent about Europe's resolve than most, he had taken his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinski, on a walk into the woods near Geneva on July 16, 1982, where he offered a compromise: 75 triple-warhead SS-20s for the Soviets, 75 cruise missile launchers for the United States, but none of those swift Pershing IIs with their super-accurate nuclear warheads that could reach Moscow in minutes. After Helmut Schmidt's ouster in October, and with the Soviets salivating over an easy victory to come, Nitze grew ever more agitated about West Germany, the keystone in America's entire deployment architecture. Whenever he returned from Geneva, he would warn his colleagues at the State Department in ever more dire terms that without compromise the Germans would bolt.

I RECALL a lunch that I had in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt in the summer of 1983 that surely turned around history (at least a bit). Burt was worried about Nitze, who kept pressing for a "walk in the woods"-type deal, arguing that if the Germans defected, so would everybody else. But to follow Nitze into the woods would undo the deployment as well. By unbundling its "double-zero" decision of 1979 (either no missiles, or 572 for the West), NATO would step onto a slippery slope. Once the Pershings that the Soviets pretended to fear were out of the equation, the Kremlin would pocket the prize and then play for time, confident that Western governments would not have the stomach to battle their peace movements sine die.

I took the opposite line, arguing that the Hollanditis hypothesis was wrong: Though the protesters dominated the television screens, they remained a minority.

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