Barack Obama stunned Democrats in early 2008 when he praised Ronald Reagan for changing “the trajectory of America,” likening the role he hoped to play as a transformational president more to Reagan than Bill Clinton.
Republicans will go nuts to avoid admitting it, but the similarity between Obama and Reagan on the nuclear issues dominating the news is striking.
Reagan had a deep desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and no president in our lifetime came closer to achieving it. GOP revisionists are trying already to rewrite that history, but go no further, as I have, than Reagan’s most favorable biographers and this Reagan commitment becomes almost axiomatic.
Martin Anderson, who ran the research and policy operation for Reagan’s early presidential campaigns and then became his top domestic policy adviser, cites Reagan’s speech at the 1976 Republican National Convention as the starting point for this startling initiative. In Anderson’s 1988 book, Revolution, he recounts how aides to then-president Gerald Ford, who had just narrowly defeated Reagan for the nomination, approached the convention skybox where he and Reagan were seated and asked if Reagan would agree to join Ford on stage.
Reagan’s impromptu and brief speech that night focused on “the challenge” of saving “our world from nuclear destruction,” and the need to do something about the “horrible missiles of destruction” that “the great powers have poised and aimed at each other.” Anderson, a Reagan confidant, concluded: “All during the next ten years˜the years of political eclipse after his defeat in 1976, the hectic, chaotic years when he campaigned again for the presidency, the transition after he won, and the years of his presidency as he grappled with dozens of complex issues˜the concern about nuclear war, and the challenge to diminish the threat of that war was always foremost in his mind.”
Anderson recalls Reagan bringing up the subject on the campaign plane earlier in 1976. “What we should be trying to do is reduce the number of nuclear weapons, not just limit their growth,” Reagan said to his advisers, a revolutionary idea at the time. Instead of SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), “we should be having Strategic Arms Reduction Talks — START,” he said. START is precisely what it became under Reagan, and eventually the first Bush, and that’s what Obama is trying to renew and expand today.
Ironically, Anderson anticipated the argument advanced in recent days by GOP talking heads like Rudy Giuliani, who derided the Obama pursuit of “a nuclear-free world” as “a 60-year dream of the left.” Anderson wrote: “When President Reagan signed the 1987 nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, he effectively stole the policy crown jewels of the Democrats in America and leftists everywhere.”
American Enterprise Institute scholar Steven Hayward did a two-volume biography of Reagan that explores the Gorbachev/Reagan meeting at Reykjavik in 1986, when the two leaders agreed on a 50 percent drawdown of nuclear weapons, pointing toward a goal of “complete liquidation.” “Do we have in mind — and I think it would be very good,” Hayward quotes Reagan as saying, “that by the end of the two five-year periods [the time frame contained in the proposal] all nuclear devices would be eliminated, including bombs, battlefield systems, cruise missiles, submarine weapons, intermediate-range systems and so on?” Replied Gorbachev: “We could say that, list all those weapons.”
“The unheard of had occurred,” observed Hayward, “the president of the United States and the secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had just agreed to seek the total abolition of all nuclear weapons, not just strategic nuclear missiles. When news of this moment in the negotiations emerged from Reykjavik, the U.S. defense establishment and the European allies were astonished and alarmed.”
Dick Cheney, then the House GOP whip, called Reagan negotiators and said: “What the hell have you guys done?” Richard Nixon later wrote: “No summit since Yalta has threatened Western interests so much as the two days at Reykjavik. No deeper blow has ever been dealt to allied confidence in the U.S. than by the incorporation of the nuclear-free fantasy into the American negotiating position.” James Schlesinger, the defense secretary under Nixon and Ford, called it “casual utopianism” and blasted Reagan for “clearly doing more to weaken deterrence” than the no-nukes pastoral letter of the Catholic bishops. Only a disagreement between Gorbachev and Reagan about an American missile defense system prevented the signing of this all-encompassing agreement.
When a scaled-back settlement involving the reduction of intermediate-range nuclear forces was reached in 1987, Republicans like Idaho senator James McClure observed: “We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft — I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin.” George Will said Reagan was engaging in “the moral disarmament of the West by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.” National Review concluded: “It is simply impossible any longer to count on the Reagan administration one way or another.”
Michael Deaver, perhaps Reagan’s closest aide during the first presidential term and an intimate in their days in the California statehouse, suggests in his book, A Different Drummer, the roots of this Reagan drive. He had talked about arms reduction going back to 1976, but Deaver says it wasn’t until the immediate aftermath of the nearly-successful assassination of Reagan in 1981 that he got serious about it. Reagan might have acted sooner except his Soviet partner before Gorbachev, Leonid Brezhnev, was far less open to arms reduction. Deaver recalls that while Reagan was recovering from his wounds, he wrote a six-page “heartfelt letter” to Brezhnev that he “pulled from his bathrobe pocket” during a national security meeting at the White House.
“Handwritten on a yellow legal pad,” the letter, wrote Deaver, “came from his soul.” Deaver was “impressed that a man in his condition would undertake such a project.” After reminding Brezhnev that they met once when Reagan was governor at Nixon’s California home, Reagan “went on to say how much the world needed peace and that the two of them needed to think through the historic responsibilities they shared. There were no proposals, just a direct and personal message to jump-start a dialogue.” When his top advisers rewrote it “with canned State department boilerplate,” Reagan said: “Send it the way I wrote it.”
Reagan‚s official biographer, Edmund Morris, the only writer granted access to the president’s personal diary, found “the first and only time” that he ever noted that he was “greatly depressed” was in late 1983, after he watched an advance print of The Day After, a seven-million-dollar ABC movie about nuclear winter. The image of Jason Robards walking through the radioactive ashes of Lawrence, Kansas, wrote Morris in Dutch, left Reagan “dazed.”
With everyone from Sarah Palin to Mitt Romney, and the real national chairs of the GOP at Fox, going crazy about Obama’s continuation of START in a one-third reduction of nukes, this Reagan record is sure to be distorted.