In the annals of bad predictions, the one registered by German Democratic Republic honcho Erich Honecker in the final year of the Cold War surely ranks near the top. Honecker, archetype of the drab apparatchik, had spent his entire adult life working his way up the ladder of the East German Communist Party. Manning the security portfolio of the Party’s Central Committee in 1961, it was his job to oversee the construction of the Berlin Wall, erected to stanch the massive flow of East German citizens fleeing the Soviet-controlled zone of the city. Honecker had frequently defended the ugly structure (referring to it as the “anti-fascist wall”) with an intensity and righteousness suggesting a genuine belief in the wall’s ostensible purpose: that it was meant not to keep Easterners in but Westerners out. And so it was with this history of personal involvement in the building of the wall, sustained by a devout faith in the inevitability of worldwide proletarian revolution, that Honecker prophesied on January 19, 1989, that it “will still exist in 50 and even 100 years.”
Of course, the wall collapsed less than a year later, finally putting an end to the nightmare that was the East German police state. Honecker issued his sunny forecast on the last full day of Ronald Reagan’s presidency; the remark was intended as a valedictory insult to the conservative president and his devoutly anti-communist administration. Reagan had, after all, stood feet away from the Wall less than two years earlier to deliver what would become the most famous speech of his presidency, the one in which he personally called upon the Soviet premier, “Mr. Gorbachev,” to, “Tear down this wall!”
Ultimately, the Berlin Wall did not come down as a result of Reagan’s demand. Nor did Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the wall — that liberating task was left to the people of East Germany themselves. But Gorbachev’s role in bringing it down was fundamental nonetheless. In the years and months preceding the wall’s collapse, Gorbachev announced dramatic changes in the Soviet Union’s relationship to its satellite states. The most significant moves occurred in 1988, when Gorbachev ordered the slow withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. That same year, Gorbachev renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine, the imperialist foreign policy principle that justified Soviet military intervention in Eastern Bloc countries to “protect” socialism (the sort of action that was undertaken to put down the1956 Hungarian democratic revolution, legitimized by Brezhnev after the fact, and which was repeated in Czechoslovakia in 1968). Gorbachev’s announcement that the Soviet Union would no longer support puppet governments opened the way for a series of democratic revolutions across Eastern Europe.
It was in the midst of this reformist atmosphere that the gdr regime decided to allow East Germans to travel directly to West Germany without having to transfer first through another Warsaw Pact country. When an East German Communist Party official mistakenly announced — in a televised news conference — that the new policy was being implemented “immediately” rather than the following day, hundreds of thousands of people swelled at the wall. Soldiers of the crumbling Soviet regime and its East German client were in no position to quell the demonstrators, who destroyed not just to an edifice but the ideological, political, and military hostility it represented.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall a debate has raged amongst historians, both professional and amateur, over who was responsible for ending the Cold War. Triumphant conservatives argue it was Ronald Reagan, who went on the offensive against the Soviets with both a massive defense build-up and morally robust rhetoric that rallied the world to the side of the United States and its allies (Pope John Paul II and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are co-stars in this narrative). Others argue that the downfall of the Soviet Union was inevitable, the foreseeable outcome of a totalitarian regime based upon an unsustainable social and economic system.
The series of events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall is a microcosm of the larger debate about how the Cold War ended and who (or what) “won” it. Most historians agree upon the decisive role played by Gorbachev, who, in spite of his abject denial that it was ever his intention to end the Soviet system, did recognize the need for internal and external reforms. But Gorbachev was able to implement these reforms in large part due to Reagan, who correctly recognized that the Soviet premier was not like any of his predecessors in that he genuinely wanted to change the communist structure from within. Reagan’s prodding — as evidenced by the “Tear down this wall speech” — quickened the process.
The story of how the wall fell illustrates the thesis of James Mann’s compelling new book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. That argument can be summed up in Mann’s judgment that Reagan “had not ‘won’ the Cold War in the fashion that American conservatives later claimed. Rather Gorbachev had abandoned the field. Yet Reagan had supported Gorbachev at just the right time.” Had not Reagan backed the Soviet premier at crucial moments throughout the men’s coterminous period of power, history could very well have turned out differently.
Mann, the author of Rise of the Vulcans, which studied the histories and ideologies of George W. Bush’s foreign policy hands, brings two talents that are immensely important in the writing of this sort of political book. First, he is a scrupulous journalist who takes the time to interview sources and pore over historical documents. Second, Mann is a student of American foreign policy, not a general-interest writer who comes to this subject by chance.
Mann begins his study with an examination of Reagan’s political maturation. His anti-communism was forged in the cauldron of the intensely politicized Hollywood of the 1940s, when he valiantly fought the entryist strategy of Communist Party members to seize control of the entertainment industry’s unions. Suddenly, the twilight struggle all made sense. From that time onward, Reagan didn’t view the Soviet Union as a mere strategic competitor of the United States, but as a ruthless and expansionist slave state whose agents and fellow travelers were ideologically committed to the lowest tactics, including deception and murder, to impose their system on free people. Reagan’s famous “evil empire” speech, which enraged domestic liberals (and some conservative realists who pooh-poohed moralistic oratory), was the rhetorical apotheosis of his ideological journey.
The Reagan administration began with a verbal assault on communism the likes of which had not yet been seen before in the American presidency. In the years between his governorship of California and the presidency, Reagan toured the country giving speeches and recorded a series of radio addresses, many of which articulated his strong anti-communist beliefs. As much as liberals might have ridiculed Reagan for his intense, personal hatred of communism, Mann views it more as a strategic asset than a weakness. For one, it meant that he was able to distinguish between an ideology, which he loathed, and individuals, whose initiative inspired him. “Reagan’s personalized version of anticommunism also implied, however, that once a Soviet leader could establish that he was straightforward rather than deceitful and was trying to alter the Soviet system, then Reagan might be willing — more willing, in fact, than Richard Nixon — to give credence to that leader and to try to do business with him,” Mann writes. And so Reagan, at least in this reading, was the perfect sort of American leader to work with a Gorbachev, a man who very clearly was not a Stalin or a Brezhnev.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Mann’s narrative is his description of the tussles between Reagan and the old Cold Warriors Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Desperate to remain in the thick of things after the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter showed little interest in what they had to say, the two men offered themselves up as informal advisers to Reagan and his national security team. The book begins with what Mann describes as a “clandestine visit” Nixon made to the White House in April 1987. That same month, Nixon co-authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with his former secretary of state and national security advisor, in which the two men attacked the Reagan administration for pursuing arms control talks with the Soviets, a path that could “create the most profound crisis of the nato alliance in its forty-year history.” It was the first time they had come together on a public policy issue since Nixon’s resignation.
The disgraced former president had a long and complicated relationship with Reagan. Mann reveals that Nixon viewed the former actor as a “lightweight,” but the two men were, at least early in their careers, ideologically akin as “the two most successful anti-communist politicians of the entire Cold War.” They were also distinguished by their clairvoyant predictions, made at a time when most assumed a permanent state of conflict with the Soviet Union, that the United States would ultimately triumph. Yet the ultimate policy of “détente” pursued by Nixon and Kissinger would throw the Republican Party into disarray, spur the growing influence of the conservative movement, and provide Reagan with an important opening.
When he ran for president in 1976 as the movement favorite against Gerald Ford, Reagan openly promised that he would appoint a new secretary of state. Kissinger’s tenure “had coincided precisely with the loss of American military supremacy,” Reagan argued. Mann recounts how Reagan spearheaded a movement on the floor of the 1976Republican National Convention to add a “Morality in Foreign Policy” plank to the party platform not so subtly criticizing the more conciliatory approach pursued by Nixon and Kissinger, a style evidenced in their decision to refuse a visit to the White House by exiled Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. While Ford ultimately won the nomination, the vote was close and the victory was attenuated by such concessions to the conservative wing of the party. By that point, it was clear that Reagan had won over the base of the gop and that his highly moralistic version of anti-communism had prevailed in its ranks.
Once Reagan became president, Kissinger returned the favor, blasting the administration in op-eds and articles. In addition to the aforementioned Los Angeles Times piece (later republished in the Washington Post and National Review, Reagan’s favorite magazine), Kissinger penned a contemptuous piece for Newsweek in anticipation of the signing of a treaty banning intermediate-range missiles. “The most conservative U.S. administration of the postwar era stigmatized nuclear weapons with arguments all but indistinguishable from the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament,” Kissinger thundered. He echoed his claim that direct talks with the Soviets and bilateral agreements would provoke a “crisis of confidence” between America and its Western European allies. (It is no small irony that today, Kissinger is a leading proponent of universal nuclear disarmament.) Nor did Kissinger content himself with opining about the supposed naïveté of the Reagan administration in public forums. After a meeting with Kissinger, Anatoly Dobrynin, the long-serving Soviet ambassador to the United States, wrote that the former secretary of state, “stressed that the Reagan administration had no coherent program to deal with the Soviet Union because Reagan had never thought about it seriously.”
It may strike some as strange that these Republican figures — who, while brandishing sterling anti-communist credentials like Reagan, “opened” China and led the way to normalized relations with its communist regime — would so vociferously oppose the gestures of their fellow Republican. But throughout the Cold War there existed heated disagreement among conservatives about how to deal with the Soviet Union and international communism. Mann demonstrates the fragility of the Kissingerian assessment of the Cold War, and with the school of foreign policy “realism” with which it was most closely associated. The Kissinger vision of the Soviet-American standoff, Mann writes, did not place enough emphasis on the ideological nature of the conflict, and assumed that the “belief system” of America’s rival superpower was a constant factor that would last forever and thus sustain Soviet power at home and abroad. It was Reagan, long derided as a reactionary anti-communist with little to no strategic foresight, who properly understood communism’s internal contradictions and the role that American power could play in easing it out of existence.
Despite his heroic status amongst contemporary conservatives, Reagan’s decision to engage with the Soviet leadership was denounced by many of his supporters at the time. Howard Phillips, then leader of the Conservative Caucus, went so far as to label Reagan a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” George Will, while cordial with Reagan on a personal level, launched frequent attacks on him in his popular syndicated column. Skeptical views of Gorbachev’s reformist credentials weren’t just limited to conservative hardliners in the punditocracy and Nixon administration retreads. In 1985, Reagan’s own cia director William Casey told the president that Gorbachev and his allies in the Soviet system “are not reformers and liberalizers, either in Soviet domestic or foreign policy.” Both Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Robert Gates, then the cia’s senior Soviet specialist, expressed similar opinions.
Ironically, Mann demonstrates, it was Ronald Reagan, stalwart of the conservative movement, fervent anti-communist, and fierce opponent of détente, who would be the American president to engage with the Soviet leadership. And, equally ironic, it was those “realist” architects of détente — the ones who favored easing tensions a decade earlier — who lashed out at Reagan for being a softie. But Reagan was no less determined a foe of communism as president than at other points of his political career. Indeed, Mann suggests that it was Reagan’s desire to end communism and win the Cold War — a prospect that few ever imagined possible — that made him more perspicacious in dealing with the Soviets.
Reagan’s strategy was not one of mere bluster, as his critics like to portray it. For instance, in drafting the covert policy directive nsdd-75, which sought to weaken the Soviet Union from within, Reagan personally eliminated sections that would have allowed the United States to block the Soviet Union’s ability to gain hard currency. According to Mann’s interview with administration Soviet specialist and nsdd-75 author Richard Pipes, Reagan knew that genuine compromise — that is, getting the Soviets to make promises they would actually keep — was possible with Gorbachev in a way it had never been with his more ideologically rigid predecessors. “Reagan’s willingness to do business with Gorbachev gave the Soviet leader the time and space he needed to demolish the Soviet system.” It was never Gorbachev’s intent to destroy the Soviet Union, of course, but once people are given a taste of freedom — which was one of Gorbachev’s explicit goals — they invariably want more of it. This was something that no Soviet bureaucrat, living in a closed society for his entire life, could have been able to predict.
In spite of the strength of its overall argument, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan has several important weaknesses. Primary among them is that Mann ignores many of the events and trends that might undermine his thesis. This tendency has the unfortunate effect of leading Mann to rely heavily upon the Great Man theory of history; he places undue emphasis on the singular roles played by Reagan and Gorbachev. There is barely any mention, for instance, of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, which humiliated the Russians and put them on the defensive internationally. Mann also glides over the war in Afghanistan, properly termed the “Soviet Vietnam” for its devastating effect on the Soviet military and national psyche, and how American funding of mujahideen warriors helped weaken the Russians. Finally, Mann understates the significance of the faltering Soviet economy, the dire state of which played a major role in forcing Gorbachev to concede certain reforms in order to keep his regime afloat. So while it’s true that “Gorbachev unintentionally destroyed the Soviet system” and “Reagan gave him the help he needed to do it,” many other factors contributed to this favorable outcome.
Mann also has a strange fixation on the character of Suzanne Massie, an amateur historian of imperial Russia who, by sheer ambition and pluck, became a personal friend of Reagan. Massie possessed a less-than-academic expertise on Russian Orthodox Christianity, a subject of interest to the religious American president. Mann makes Massie out to be the president’s brain on Soviet issues, and while she occasionally would pass messages through diplomatic back channels — including during periods when official communication between the White House and Kremlin was limited — Mann fails to show how she was anything more than a glorified courier. Massie met with the president about 20 times during his two administrations, which, while it was, as Mann notes, more than any other Soviet expert, is hardly evidence that she was a major influence on Reagan’s thinking, never mind administration policy. Mann spends so much time focusing on the Massie-Reagan relationship that he feels the need to add the strange caveat that “There is no evidence that this was some sort of romantic affair; Massie was no Monica Lewinsky.” No historian has ever suggested that she was, and that Mann felt it necessary to insert this explanation ought to have given him pause about the importance he ascribed to her.
Much like Rise of the Vulcans, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan is as much a history of the personalities that surrounded Reagan as it is a study of the former president himself. But the book’s final weakness is a casualty of Mann’s love for bureaucratic details: the amount of time he devotes to telling the story of the “Tear Down This Wall” speech. Mann spends nearly 100 pages (in a 400-page book) reviewing the process that produced the speech, devoting ample time to the administration infighting over the insertion, deletion, insertion, etc. of the seminal line, which, in Mann’s telling, must have been the most controversial riposte ever uttered in a presidential speech. There are not many surprises in Mann’s account (for instance, that the State Department was furious with the final product is hardly a revelation; “I just thought it was in bad taste,” one deputy assistant secretary tells Mann) and the overall narrative gets bogged down somewhere in the middle of this tedious segment. Moreover, Reagan’s role in the drafting of the speech and the subsequent controversy over its editing was minor, and his near-absence from a full quarter of the book may test the patience of some readers looking to gain insight into the former president’s thought process. (“I think we’ll leave it in,” Reagan’s characteristically concise reply to a White House staffer’s inquiry about the line’s fate, was the extent of his involvement in this entire episode.)
The “rebellion of Ronald Reagan” was not just one insurgency, but several. First and foremost, Reagan’s foreign policy was an assault on the conventional wisdom of the time, which had assumed that the Soviet Union would last forever and that the Cold War would be a permanent factor of American life. Secondly, Reagan rebelled against the establishment forces within the Republican Party which had upheld this dogma, an establishment whose downfall presaged the conservative revolution that would dominate American politics for the next 20 years. Finally, Reagan rebelled against his fellow conservatives, who preached continued isolation while he sought out a partner in the Kremlin. Reagan got the last laugh, outsmarting not only East German communists, but also many Americans on his right flank who denounced his policies as appeasement.
Reading this book, one cannot escape the conclusion that the world was incredibly lucky to have Gorbachev and Reagan overlap. In Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union had a leader whose attempt to humanize the “evil empire” would prove to be its undoing. And like a more recent Republican president, Ronald Reagan was derided as a simpleton for his “Manichean” view of the world. But as James Mann shows, Reagan was flexible enough in his thinking to realize the possibility that the Soviet system, while inherently evil, was also capable of producing leaders who were not.