Reagan's Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster

By Boyer, Paul | Arms Control Today, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Reagan's Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster


Boyer, Paul, Arms Control Today


Reagan's Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World From Nuclear Disaster By Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson Crown Publishers, 2009, 450 pp.

The husband-and-wife team of Martin and Annelise Anderson has established a cottage industry of producing works enhancing Ronald Reagan's image. The truly Herculean labors of the Andersons, who are based at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, have already given us Reagan in His Own Hand (2001), a selection of the future president's radio talks; Reagan: A Life in Letters (2004); Reagan's Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan's Vision (2004); Stories in His Own Hand: The Everyday Wisdom of Ronald Reagan (2007); and Reagan in His Own Voice, a three-CD set of the radio talks.

Their latest effort, Reagan's Secret War, welcomed with lavish praise by Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Ed Meese ("superb"), and George Shultz ("an immense contribution"), continues in the same admiring vein. For the Andersons, Reagan is a colossus who even in death still dominates America: "His spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost."

Acknowledging Nancy Reagan's help in giving them access to classified documents, the Andersons quote her plea to them: "I just want people to know who Ronnie is." They conclude, "We hope this book has helped to accomplish that goal." One may safely predict that this work will please the former first lady, to whom, along with Shultz, the Andersons dedicate the book. How the broader world of scholars, arms control insiders, and observers of the Reagan years will view it may be more problematic.

Much of the book consists of direct quotes from Reagan's speeches, letters, pre-presidential radio talks, private communications with Soviet leaders, diaries (as edited and abridged by historian Douglas Brinkley), and comments at meetings of the National Security Council (NSC) and the smaller National Security Planning Group (NSPG). Like Bibles in which Jesus' words are printed in red, every quote from Reagan is highlighted with an impressive gray background scrim.

The authors range widely over Reagan's presidency, including the 1981 assassination attempt, the economic program, and the Iran-contra scandal. Yet, as the subtitle promises, the focus is on Reagan's strategic thinking, particularly the 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The Andersons make a simple point: Above all else, Reagan was a man of peace whose unwavering objective, rooted in his personal history and reinforced by his brush with death in 1981, was a world free of nuclear weapons.

The Andersons quote Reagan's repeated assertions of his peaceful intentions and wholly endorse his insistence that the massive military buildup and intensified nuclear weapons competition of his first term were only a means to his Utopian goal: to force the Soviets to recognize the futility of competition and the inevitability of total nuclear disarmament as their best option.

With equal conviction, they embrace Reagan's view that the missile defense system envisioned in his SDI proposal would advance the cause of peace. As the United States developed and deployed a foolproof anti-missile system, the Russians would realize that competition in this area too was futile and would gratefully welcome Reagan's offer to share the new technology. Once the shimmering vision of universal nuclear disarmament was achieved, a global defensive shield would protect all the world's peoples against any cheaters or rogue states tempted to nuclear adventurism. As the Andersons uncritically quote vast swaths of Reagan's rhetoric and embrace his own assessment of his motives, they sometimes seem simply to be channeling him rather than offering a critical assessment of the implications, context, and contemporary resonance of his strategic thought.

The book certainly has its merits. The authors convincingly portray Reagan as an active shaper of strategic policy. …

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