An Artist of Diplomacy; Book Explores How President Reagan Changed History

Article excerpt

Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Historian John Patrick Diggins explores Ronald Reagan's life and political philosophy in "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History."

Mr. Diggins, 70, is a distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. The following are excerpts from a telephone interview with Mr. Diggins.

Question: Why did you write this book? What do you want your readers to take away from it?

Answer: I wrote it because I changed my mind about Reagan. .. After the fall of communism, there were some historians who thought that people who lived in communist countries were happy with the regimes. And the whole issue of the Cold War on communism was terribly misunderstood, and I tried to write this book to clarify what the issues were. ..

There was a widespread impression Reagan was very happy to escalate the arms race to force the Soviet Union to capitulate. The reality was that Reagan wanted to get rid of nuclear arms altogether. And then once that got under way in the late '80s with the help of [British] Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the tensions between the U.S. and Russia began to relax, and Mikhail Gorbachev renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine. That doctrine stipulated that the Soviet Union had the right to send the tanks of the Red Army into East European countries to put down any resistance to Soviet rule.

Q: How did Reagan's reputation suffer from liberal biases in the teaching of history? Why do you think it is important to reappraise his life and career?

A: Reagan stood for free-market capitalism, which in the writing of American history was regarded as something that was holding back freedom and democracy. Reagan also believed in nationalism and patriotism, and this is in the '80s when American historians were talking about multiculturalism and relativism. Reagan stood for middle-class values of opportunity and upward mobility at a time when radicals were denouncing the beliefs as bourgeois.

Q: Why do you say that Reagan's political philosophy was fully formed before he entered the White House? How did his acting career affect how he viewed politics?

A: His fierce anti-communism came out of fighting the Hollywood Reds in the 1940s, and his belief in America came from seeing how Americans survived the Depression by relying on their own initiatives and individualism. .. He was one of the few presidents who knew exactly what he wanted to do when he went into office. It can't be said about him that you don't know where he stands.

Q: How was Reagan a conservative and a liberal both? Why did he switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party?

A: Because of his confrontation with communists and [his reading of anti-communist books], he decides by 1950 he is no longer a Democrat and becomes a Republican. He's liberal in the sense that he believes in individual rights and economic opportunity. And he's what we call an old classical liberal of the 19th century who is critical of big government. Modern liberals now believe in big government, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt.

Q: How did Reagan carry out his vision for supply-side economics? …