Reagan's Critics

By Knott, Stephen F. | The National Interest, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Reagan's Critics


Knott, Stephen F., The National Interest


The measure of "greatness" in American presidents is often the retrospective appreciation of their willingness to "stay the course" in the face of determined opposition from powerful opponents. So it was with Jefferson and Jackson, Polk and Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. By this standard, Ronald Reagan must be regarded as one of the most successful presidents of the twentieth century, particularly in foreign policy.

Reagan confronted powerful forces of cynical, defeatist elites whose memories of Vietnam had led them to abandon belief in America as a force for good in the world, and unlike Richard Nixon, who is often credited with the most successful Cold War foreign policy, Reagan refused to let scathing criticism from Congress, the media, and the universities grind him down. He also avoided the cynicism of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, believing that America, as Reagan himself often put it in Governor Winthrope's memorable words, "was a shining city upon a hill."

Most important, of course, he succeeded, and he succeeded because he was right. The record speaks for itself.

Shocking the Elites

In no foreign policy arena was Reagan's personal influence more pronounced than in policy toward the Soviet regime, and in no other area was his judgment so roundly criticized by "experts." The Soviet Union was ruled, in Reagan's view, by a sclerotic group of oppressive apparatchiks intent on world domination, but its economy was a "Mickey Mouse system" on the verge of collapse, a collapse Reagan intended to hasten. By engaging them in an arms race they could not win, and isolating them from Western commerce (with the notable exception of American grain), Reagan hoped to win the Cold War. "I had always believed that, as an economic system, Communism was doomed", Reagan noted in his memoirs. Once in office, his intelligence briefings confirmed that belief, showing that "the Soviet economy was being held together with baling wire; it was a basket case, partly because of massive spending on armaments. . . . I wondered how we as a nation could use these cracks in the Soviet system to accelerate the process of collapse."(1) As early as June 1981, Reagan publicly made the remarkable prediction that "I think we are seeing the first beginning cracks: the beginning of the end."(2)

One weapon in Reagan's arsenal was an ample use of his formidable rhetorical skills to take the offensive against Marxist-Leninism.(3) Within days of his inauguration, Reagan accused the Kremlin leadership of recognizing no morality except that which would advance their cause; that they reserved to themselves "the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat." This was a shockingly blunt accusation, particularly in light of the rhetorical restraint exercised toward the Soviet Union by the immediately preceding administrations. Reagan's rhetorical assault on the Kremlin reached its peak on March 8, 1983, with his address to the National Association of Evangelicals, perhaps the most famous one of his presidency - the "Evil Empire" speech. After noting America's own legacy of evil regarding its treatment of minorities, Reagan asked his audience to pray for those who lived under totalitarian rule. He went on to note that as long as these regimes continued to "preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world."(4)

With this statement, Ronald Reagan was seen by foreign policy experts as diverse as Richard Nixon and Strobe Talbott to have crossed a very dangerous line. Talbott accused Reagan of bearing the bulk of the responsibility for worsening U.S.-Soviet relations by not accepting military parity as the basis of relations with Moscow, and by challenging the legitimacy of the regime as an "evil empire" doomed to fail. Reagan's use of the bully pulpit to "bait" the Soviet bear "made a bad situation worse. …

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