BY ANTHONY FUREY
Three Days In Moscow: Ronald Reagan and The Fall of the Soviet Empire. Bret Baier. William Morrow, 2018.
Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980. Craig Shirley. Broadside Books, 2017.
IT'S HARD TO think of a more troubling development on the world stage than North Korea becoming a fully emboldened and entrenched nuclear state. The threat wouldn’t just be that they’d have weaponry capable of unleashing untold destruction.
It also means the troubled regime of Kim Jong-un would have an expanded orbit, with enhanced leverage over a number of other countries and a greater balance of power in world affairs for decades to come.
The issue of nuclear proliferation was bad enough when Pakistan, considered a state sponsor of terror, secured nuclear weapons in 1998. But as unstable of an actor as Pakistan is, its nuclear prowess is nowhere near as frightening as that of the Hermit Kingdom’s, which could do things like assist Iran or terror groups in developing their own weapons or even launch one itself against South Korea, the United States, or elsewhere.
It’s unclear where things are currently heading. Kim Jong-un has pledged denuclearization to President Donald Trump, but we’ve been down this road before. And now we’ve seen Kim parley with Putin in Vladivostok. The North makes promises, fails to keep them and continues to make progress on their nuclear program along the way.
The world must stop this, right? Of course. But not everyone sees it this way. There’s a troubling defeatism that has permeated a lot of public discourse. “Trump should learn to live with a nuclear North Korea,” reads a Washington Post headline. “How to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea,” reads another from the journal Foreign Policy. There are plenty more where those came from and the authors aren’t uninformed partisan commentators either. Many are experts in the field.
There’s a lack of moral clarity on an issue that should be a no-brainer. It’s hard to believe that so many informed people are willing to let their grandchildren live in a world where a rogue state commands a nuclear arsenal. But it’s far from the first time we’ve faced a situation like this.
The American-led insistence that North Korea denuclearize, while far from a perfect analogy, has similarities to Ronald Reagan’s unceasing commitment to dismantling the USSR.
In both cases, an unsustainable geopolitical situation arises. Everyone agrees something must be done, but what? A bevy of establishment naysayers contend that there’s not much that can be done about it, given the scope and complexity of the issue. But a leader steps forward in defiance of the defeatist attitudes around him and is determined against the odds to dismantle the problem.
Bret Baier’s new book Three Days In Moscow: Ronald Reagan and The Fall of the Soviet Empire gives both the bird’s eye view and the gritty details of what was Reagan’s driving foreign policy objective. Its main focus is to offer a deep dive into the 1988 summit between Reagan and Soviet secretary general Mikhail Gorbachev. But it also goes back to show just how committed Reagan had been to the issue and for how long.
From 1975, when he left the office of Governor of California, to 1980, when he secured the Republican Presidential nomination, Reagan focused on delivering his weekly radio addresses and touring the country giving speeches. The top refrain to which he constantly returned was his guiding philosophy that government was not the solution to the concerns that ailed America but one of the main problems.
“Another favourite theme was the evil of communism, a precursor of the battles he’d one day wage as president,” writes Baier. “His platform was the American way as an ideal still to be fully realized.”
BUT DESPITE HIS FERVENT anti-Communism, it’s interesting that Reagan never delved into the Red Scare of the late 1940s all that aggressively. In his capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he testified in front of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Reagan spoke passionately against Communism but also offered hints of nuance that escaped others who were consumed in the fight at the time.
“I would say in opposing those people that the best thing to do is to make democracy work,” Reagan says in his remarks. “Whether the [Communist] party should be outlawed, I agree with the gentlemen that preceded me that that is a matter for the Government to decide. As a citizen I would hesitate, or not like, to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. We have spent 170 years in this country on the basis that democracy is strong enough to stand up and fight against the inroads of any ideology.”
However one fact that Baier omits from his book — which is more an appreciation of Reagan than a critical biography — is that Reagan and his first wife, film star Jane Wyman, were actually FBI informants who provided names of suspected Communists to the agency, which gave the future president a code-name, Informant T-10. This news was first revealed by access to information documents released during his presidency in 1985.
That said, the documents show Reagan wasn’t entirely gung-ho with the arrangement, especially the notion that suspected Reds should be fired from their Hollywood jobs. “Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn’t?” he apparently told agents in one session.
This mix of being strongly anti-Communist but also against the harsh treatment of Communists in America shouldn’t be mistaken for a contradiction though. During his presidency and the years leading up to it, Reagan cemented his resolve to oppose the USSR while simultaneously viewing the Soviet people and its principal actors, such as Gorbachev, as complex individuals who deserved to be treated with inherent dignity. In fact, it’s arguably this nuanced and humane view that made him a more successful Cold Warrior than more rabid anti-Communists like Joseph McCarthy.
THE MOST POWERFUL passage in Baier’s book comes from before Reagan even entered the Oval Office. It was January 1977 and Jimmy Carter, who’d beaten Gerald Ford in the election the November before, was about to be inaugurated. (Ford had narrowly defeated Reagan for the Republican nomination in August 1976.)
Richard Allen, a man planning to run for governor of New Jersey, stopped by to visit Reagan at his home and ask his blessing, which he promptly gave. Talk then turned to world affairs:
“I’d like now to tell you my basic theory about the Cold War.”
“What’s that?” Allen asked.
“Some people say I’m very simplistic, but there’s a difference between being simplistic and simple. A lot of very complex things are simple if you think them through.
“Yes, sir,” Allen nodded.
“Keeping that in mind,” Reagan went on, “my theory of the Cold War is, we win and they lose. What do you think about that?”
Allen said he felt as if he’d been hit with a ton of bricks. The hair rose on the back of his neck. “Do you mean that? Do you actually mean that?”
“I said it. Of course, I mean it,” Reagan said with a smile.
Right after that meeting, Allen called his wife to say he was cancelling his bid for Governor and would instead spend the next few years of his life making sure Reagan became the next president.
The anecdote isn’t just a testament to Reagan’s clarity, but to how compelling and persuasive it was to his listeners. Weak leaders elicit weak responses; leaders with conviction receive strong responses.
When it comes to politics — and so many other of life’s pressing subjects — people are not looking for rambling academic answers full of caveats that ultimately lead them to throw up their hands and conclude no course of action is possible. They’re looking to chart a course, to set a goal and accomplish it.
The establishment voices in public policy circles in Washington and Ottawa routinely offer up reports and studies galore that do the opposite of provoke action. They grind government to a halt with elaborate rationales as to why any and all clear paths are near impossible. They become afflicted with what the financial sector calls “analysis paralysis,” where you can’t buy or sell any stocks because you’re too overcome with all the potential variables.
Another anecdote in Baier’s highly readable book illustrates why the plainspoken Reagan was never constrained by such doubts.
IF THERE'S ONE LINE that Reagan is most famous for, it’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” from his Jun. 12, 1987 speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. While the idea of calling for the tear down first came to Reagan’s speechwriters and the president embraced it, diplomats and officials urged him not even to mention the wall, which they saw as the elephant in the room.
“Right up to the day of the speech, the NSC [National Security Council] and State Department were submitting corrections,” writes Baier. “Mostly, they wanted Reagan to ditch ‘the line.’ But driving to the Berlin Wall with [Chief of Staff Ken] Duberstein, Reagan was serene. He smiled at Duberstein. ‘The boys at State are going to kill me,” he said, “but it’s the right thing to do.’”
It became one of the most dramatic and quoted lines in 20th century politics. And it was almost nixed by the supposed great minds behind the scene.
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley’s latest book Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980 isn’t so much about the grand arcs of history but a deep dive into how the Gipper changed in the years leading up to his third and eventual win at the presidency.
Whereas the uninitiated can read Baier’s book with great interest, Shirley’s is more for the historians and political junkies. There are compelling details though that further illustrate how long Reagan had been gearing up for his showdown with the Soviets, how it was a central part of his rise to the presidency.
Like how in 1977 — before the primaries were officially underway — Reagan gave an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference calling Communism “the absolute enemy of human freedom” and “the ugly reality captured so unforgettably in the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” The latter was a thinly-veiled allusion to President Gerald Ford’s refusal to meet with the Soviet dissident writer. “It was a smart reference, and immediately emphasized how different Reagan actually was from the one-term president,” notes Shirley.
It was this dogged insistence, from beginning to end, that the average voter picked up on in Reagan. “As far as Americans were concerned, Reagan was the first political leader since John Kennedy with the guts to stand up to the Commies,” Shirley writes.
Reagan knew in his core that the Soviet system was wrong, both for their people and for the world. And he knew that it needed dismantling sooner or later. Not just for moral reasons, but because the Soviet system was facing tensions from within that would soon boil over if the likes of Gorbachev didn’t achieve reforms.
It’s easier said than done, the establishment will tell anyone with a big idea. But you still need that firm guiding principle to underscore every decision you make. To achieve a goal, you first must embrace a goal. Reagan had that and history shows it served him well.
Few other leaders did and that remains true today. Reagan’s moral clarity is a lesson for today’s Western political leaders who fail to have an unyielding approach to the big issues of our time.
The problems are many: The weight of big government and the ever-expanding state. A sad moral relativism that is permeating the West. The attempts by China to force us under their influence. The trendy affinity in Western media and academic circles for Latin American socialism, even as it fails in Venezuela. The rise of political Islam not just in its traditional home in the Middle East but in Turkey, Algeria and elsewhere, with terrorist eruptions worldwide. And, of course, the nuclear development of North Korea and perhaps Iran.
The need to confront these issues head on is urgent, right? You’d think. But the same establishment defeatism faces these issues today as faced the USSR during Reagan’s time. It’s time to drop all of that, tell the false experts to take a hike and get serious.
If we’re going to have any success in confronting these issues, it will have to be with the sort of firm resolve that Ronald Reagan displayed in combatting the Communist ideology.
Anthony Furey is a columnist and the op-ed editor for the Sun chain. He hosts the morning show on SiriusXM Canada Talks. His book Pulse Attack: The Real Story About The Secret Weapon That Can Destroy North America, about electromagnetic pulse warfare, has been cited in the Senate and in the U.S. Congress. He has a BA in philosophy from the U. of T. This article was originally published in the Spring-Summer 2019 edition of The Dorchester Review.