Dec. 28, 2016
Reviewed by Jason Saltoun-Ebin
Reagan: American Icon
By Iwan Morgan (I.B. Tauris, 2016)
Are we still in the “Age of Reagan”? The election of Barack Obama 20 years after Reagan left office appeared to have closed that chapter in American politics. The American people, and the Electoral College for that matter, in that election put the first African American into the White House and, probably just as significant when looking at the historical arch of American politics, the first true left-of-center politician since perhaps LBJ.
While Reagan embraced conservative values intent on restricting access to abortions and defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, Obama essentially used a wrecking ball to destroy the “family values” conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s through supporting increased access to abortions and later same-sex marriage. But Obama, for all he did for progressive values, just couldn’t close the lid on the Reagan Era, which likely would have required either the subsequent election of another true progressive POTUS or a majority of progressives on the United States Supreme Court.
Iwan Morgan, Professor of U.S. Studies and Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History at University College London, has been teaching and writing about American politics from across the pond for over 40 years. His just released book, “Reagan: American Icon”, argues that “Reagan would probably not have felt at home in the polarized partisan environment of the twenty-first century” and that although “both Reagan and Trump ran against government and promised to return America to greatness … Reagan grounded his appeal in his long-espoused ideas about freedom” while “Trump lacks a philosophical core.”
“The two also differed diametrically in their appreciation of how demography was reshaping the electorate,” Morgan writes. “Just before winning a respectable 34 percent share of their votes in 1984, Reagan remarked: ‘Hispanics are already Republican. They just don’t know it yet.’ … Trump, by contrast, seemed intent on causing Latinos offense with his tough stance against renewed amnesty and deterring illegals from entering the United States.”
Morgan, like many who took on Reagan before him, struggled with where he stands not so much on the Reagan presidency (which he calls “consequential”), but on his own opinion of Ronald Reagan. “More often than not, biographers develop a more positive view of their subject as a consequence of engaging in detailed study of a life,” Morgan admits. “Accordingly, this volume comes to conclusions that once would have surprised the author, who shared the conventional left-liberal suspicion of Reagan’s competence and conservatism in the 1980s.” Morgan continued, "The Reagan this biography portrays is complex rather than one-dimensional; someone who benefited from having a variety of careers before entering politics; a deep thinker if not an original one; a conservative but also a pragmatist; a committed anti-communist who was dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons; a passionate advocate of freedom who aligned the United States with repressive regimes for Cold War advantage in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; and an eternal optimist about his country’s future who could not empathize with disadvantaged groups needing the assistance of government to get by in 1980s America."
Morgan acknowledges that there were areas that Reagan came up short, his response to the AIDS crisis and out-of-control defense spending to name just two, but spends so little time on those subjects that readers without a fine-tooth comb are likely to completely overlook the critiques. Morgan, for example, notes that Reagan “did not always live up to the ideals he espoused” but quickly lets him off the hook because, he writes, “perfection is not a human quality.” Perfection may not be a human quality, but it is precisely the willingness to excuse imperfection from our leaders, whether they are presidents or prime ministers, that opens the door for imperfections to fester into bigger problems, like sending American Marines into Beirut in the early 1980s without a clear mission.
Historians looking at the 2016 American election may very well determine that the election turned on values. Reagan, for Morgan, became an American icon by “giving voice to his nation’s best values … the fundamental qualities of decency, optimism, and belief in individual potential inculcated in the small-town Midwest of the early twentieth century to the White House of the late twentieth century.” If that’s the case, the values that won out in 2016 surely were not those of Reagan’s childhood or even likely the values of traditional conservatives. In fact, it’s not even clear what values Trump supporters share which may explain why Trump’s election could end up keeping Reagan-era conservatism alive just long enough for Trump to be at the center of the last chapter in the Age of Reagan.
Highly recommended, “Reagan: American Icon” turns a complex subject into a readable narrative suitable for anyone interested in the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Naturally I wanted to pick Morgan’s brain a little more and he graciously agreed to respond to a few questions.
Five questions for Iwan Morgan about his work on the life and times of Ronald Reagan.
1. You titled the book “American Icon” but isn’t it true that in much of Europe Ronald Reagan has really also become a European Icon for his efforts to defeat communism, unite Germany and remove the iron curtain that had blanketed Europe since the end of World War II?
I suggest in the book that insofar as Europe was concerned Reagan was one of the two great 'presidential liberators' of the twentieth century. Franklin D. Roosevelt had helped to free Western Europe from the grip of Nazism in World War II; Reagan helped to free Eastern Europe from Communism. I still see him as an American icon rather than a European icon, however. Reagan's belief in the quintessential American ideal of freedom endowed him with certainty that Soviet Communism would eventually collapse because it could not stifle forever the basic human desire to be free. Other Western leaders in the 1980s were so-called foreign policy realists who believed that Soviet military power would preserve Communism in Eastern Europe far into the future. In contrast to them, Reagan was convinced that stepping up political, economic and psychological pressure on the Soviet Empire would bring about its demise. Critical to this belief was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland which continued to operate underground after a military regime took power in that country in late 1981 with orders from Moscow to crack down on dissent. Reagan's thoughts on this score are outlined in the fascinating exchanges in his working lunch with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Casaroli on December 15, 1981 (a document posted on The Reagan Files)
2. You took on not just the Reagan presidency but also his whole life and did so in just over 300 pages. A remarkable achievement in many ways considering historians have spent over 1,000 pages on the same subject. How were you able to do so? Was there some area you wish you could have explored more?
I wanted to write about Reagan's entire life because it encompassed so many aspects of America's twentieth century: a youth spent in the small-town Midwest, once the backbone of the nation; careers in three forms of cultural media - radio, movies and television - in their golden eras; a supporter of FDR when liberalism was ascendant, he then journeyed rightward with the emergent conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s; he becomes governor of California shortly after the Golden State replaced New York as the most populous state, thereby heralding the growth of what political historians would label the Sunbelt region of the Southwest and South; and finally, of course, a consequential president who did much to move American politics to the right, promote the Republican party to parity with the Democrats, and lay the foundations for ending the Cold War on American terms. How to put all that into some 340 pages of text (and a total word length of 150,000 when notes are included) was the greatest challenge I have faced in a forty-year career of writing history. If I managed to do so successfully, it was only by keeping it clear in my mind that I was not primarily writing for fellow academics but doing so mainly to capture the interest of lay readers who may not have the time or the inclination to read massive tomes. Of course, I want other scholars to think well of the book, but I believe that historians have an obligation to sometimes write for a wider audience, rather than just each other, in order to spread understanding about the relevance and significance of their discipline. That said, there were subjects that I wished I could have explored in greater length than I was able to in my biography. Chief among them were Reagan's momentous governorship of California, which only receives one chapter, his very significant de-regulatory policies as president, and his response to the AIDS crisis.
3. You called President Reagan’s ability to negotiate the 1987 INF Treaty, which eliminated intermediate range nuclear weapons from Europe, not only his greatest achievement but the greatest achievement of any American president since 1945. Yet many Americans at the time thought President Reagan was wrong to negotiate at all with the Soviet Union on arms reductions. What was the mood in Europe and particularly G.B. during these negotiations? Wasn’t Prime Minister Thatcher reluctant to lose so much deterrence?
I think Reagan's role in securing the INF treaty of 1987 was a remarkable one. He had to battle opposition from three groups at home. With help from Secretary of State George Shultz and other supportive officials, he faced down internal opposition within his own administration from hawks in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the CIA. He also held firm against critics in the broader foreign policy establishment who accused him of surrendering America's military superiority to negotiate with a powerful adversary - chief among them were Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, both of whom conducted public campaigns against the INF. The third source of opposition were the conservative organizations tied to the New Right, who had once regarded Reagan as their champion but now thought he had gone soft on communism. Meanwhile some of America's staunchest allies worried that he was abandoning the strategic doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which in their eyes had underpinned peace in Europe since 1945. Chief among them was Margaret Thatcher. She was outraged to discover that Reagan had been willing to eliminate all classes of nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit of 1986 - agreement on this had only foundered over Soviet insistence that the Strategic Defense Initiative should also be terminated as part of any deal. To win Thatcher's support for INF, Reagan guaranteed he would support US sale of Trident submarine-based anti-ballistic weaponry to modernize the UK's independent deterrent.
4. In terms of Reagan’s presidency, you note that he left a complex legacy yet you rank him as a “consequential president” along with Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, up there with the best of the American presidents. No president, or prime minister for that matter, can be perfect, and Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan certainly made their mistakes. But shouldn’t they be judged on the consequences of their achievements? Other than the 1987 INF Treaty, what do you see as Reagan’s greatest achievements? Where do you think he came up short?
I intentionally used the label 'consequential president' because I did not want to assess Reagan in terms of conventional presidential rankings like 'great' 'near great,' and so forth that tend to rely on subjective score-carding. Reagan was consequential because he did much to change America's course in the 1980s and beyond. It is not claiming too much to say that US history would have been very different with another president at the helm in this period. Reagan was very consequential in a host of ways, not all of them beneficial to America. On the plus side were: his reduction of Cold War tensions and nuclear-arms reduction negotiations; his renewal of the presidency after the decline of its leadership effectiveness in the 1970s; the restoration of national confidence in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation; his role in revitalizing the Republican party; his commitment to tax reform in 1986; and his eschewal of political polarization through willingness to compromise with the opposition Democrats on a range of legislative issues. On the negative side were: the massive 1980s budget deficits that did much to distort the American economy, indirectly hasten the decline of US manufacturing, and create a legacy of huge public indebtedness; the free-market economic policies that were instrumental in spurring the growth of income inequality, which had hitherto been in steady decline throughout the twentieth century; his incapacity to reach out to African Americans because he did not understand the need for a benevolent state to combat racism; and his revival of the imperial presidency in the Iran-Contra imbroglio. All this leads me to conclude in my book that Reagan's presidency was highly consequential in terms of how it changed America. It depends on one's point of view, however, whether the changes he instituted are in sum considered to have changed America for the better or not.
5. Last, as an outsider having studied and written about American politics for lets just say a few decades, and as a Brit going through your own political turmoil, do you want to offer any thoughts on what the American Founding Father’s got right and what could be improved on? Is there anything like an Electoral College in the British system? Could Great Britain be in the position of having someone come to power that did not reflect a majority of the popular vote?
America has been a central part of my life since 1973 - the year I was first appointed to a teaching position in the UK. It is for me a country of endless fascination in terms of its history, politics and culture. Throughout my time in the academy I have told cohorts of undergraduates that the American Constitution is a remarkable document given that it is only 3000 words long in original format (about the size of a student essay) plus another 4000 for its 26 amendments. It has survived so long because it is definite in principle but flexible in detail, which allows for significant reinterpretation over time. The most obvious shortcoming in the original had to do with its silence on racial equality, an issue dealt with in Amendments 14 and 15 that were not interpreted in an egalitarian manner from the 1890s to the 1960s - and are now threatened with renewed erosion of voting rights. On the issue of the Electoral College, the inability of the candidate winning the popular-vote majority to gain an Electoral College majority in two of the last four presidential elections is worrying, but its constitutional abolition any time soon is unlikely. It might be salutary to note that the UK system is undemocratic by comparison to the US system. A government conventionally comes to power in the UK by winning a majority of the country's 650 parliamentary constituencies, but this has not translated into a popular-vote majority in any election since World War II. Because we have a first-past-the-post system and usually have 5 or more parties competing with each other, a plurality rather than a majority vote suffices to come to power. The Conservatives won a parliamentary majority in the 2015 general election with just 37 percent of the vote - and there is only a limited system of checks and balances to correct such a democratic deficit. So if America is going to change its electoral system, it not should look over here for guidance on how to do so!
Nov. 9, 2016 –
Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War
Nate Jones. Forward by Tom Blanton.
A National Security Archive Book.
The New Press, (New York) 2016.
I recently got called out for being too nice in my book reviews. That’s a problem when I generally only review books that I actually like. I know I’m supposed to note something the author could have done better or some point of disagreement. But most of the books I review share my same purpose – disseminating government secrets, promoting transparency, and hopefully learning something from the past. Nate Jones’s new book on Able Archer 83 does all those things so well you should go out and buy it right now. Really! Click here and buy it now!
That being said, I’ll pick it a part a bit too because there is just so much good stuff in there screaming for an intellectual discussion. (I hope he reads this and sends me his response so I can post it below.)
For Jones, Able Archer 83 (Google it for the quick overview) represents the most important of the series of events in 1983 that brought about a turn in Ronald Reagan’s thinking from “evil empire” war rhetoric toward respectful engagement with the Soviet Union. Jones was not the first to identify this “turn”. That started with Beth Fischer, as he notes, but he is the first I believe to center the turn around Reagan’s thinking about the Soviet response to Able Archer 83. That event, as Jones notes, scared the crap out of the Soviet leaders who thought the annual NATO exercise in 1983 could be a pretext for a first-strike and thus moved Soviet forces toward an elevated level of readiness.
Jones argues that the NATO exercise could have actually been the closest the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That may be true, but the problem I see is that in the Cuban Missile Crisis both American and Soviet leaders had their fingers on the button making it an actual crisis. During Able Archer 83, President Reagan barely paid attention to the exercise and had no idea the Kremlin was actually freaking out. Without both fingers on the button, I don’t see how the exercise can be elevated to the status of crisis. In fact, it wasn’t until the next year, thanks to some deft espionage, that Reagan first learned that Soviet force had actually been put on high alert and prepared for an American first-strike.
Fortunately, Able Archer 83 is really just a lesson in poor communication brought about by heightened tensions following President Reagan’s decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 just two months before, and growing tensions in the middle east after the bombing of the marine barracks on Oct. 23, 1983 left almost three hundred Americans dead. Albeit, a very important lesson in what can happen when lines of communication fail during periods of heightened tension. In this case, but for cool heads in the Kremlin nuclear Armageddon may have become a reality.
Going back to the big picture here, and this is where I think historians of the end of the cold war are in need of some help, I’m not convinced, as Jones is, that Reagan’s turn had in fact anything to do with the war scare events of 1983. Henry Maar may still convince me with his forthcoming work on the nuclear freeze movement, but for the moment I’m still of the camp that the pivot Reagan made in 1984 toward engagement with the Soviet Union was exactly inline with his campaign promises and policies when he first came into office. “We are going to negotiate from a position of strength,” he promised in the campaign. That’s exactly what he did.
The events of 1983, including Able Archer 83, may have had an impact on his decision to engage the Soviet Union, but in my mind his turn was entirely consistent with what he had said all along. The United States was “armed to the teeth,” Pat Buchanan advised Reagan in 1985, and there was nowhere left to go but negotiate.
Bravo Nate Jones. Thanks for fighting for these documents, twelve years alone for the February 15, 1990 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Report, “ The Soviet ‘War Scare.’” Don’t. Ever. Stop.
Nate Jones responds …
First, I strongly agree that Saltoun-Ebin’s critique on just what exactly caused Reagan’s “turn” from Confrontation to Rapprochement in 1983-1984 is very much an open question. (It’s less an open question that there was a turn, I think.) This is what history is all about, using the documents to make your case …As long as the documents are in the public domain –and many during this era of “the Turn,” including the State Department files of Secretary of State Shultz, DOD files of Secretary of Defense Weinberger, key British documents, and many notes of the National Security Planning Group meetings, unfortunately are not yet. Jason, keep heroically fighting for them! He is one of the best allies the National Security Archive has.
Some (Matlock, Oberdorfer, and others) argue the change happened early in 83, perhaps during Reagan’s snowed in dinner with Shultz when the president asked about visiting the USSR and was perhaps even slightly jealous of the SecState’s visit to China. Others (Saltoun-Ebin distinguished among them) argue that Reagan followed his master plan through: spend one term ramping up to negotiate from a position of strength, the next term –I guess he correctly assumed he would get one— using that strength to end the Cold War. And there are more I don’t have space to get into! Dobrynin’s Soviet-centric argument that Reagan just bumbled his way to peace; James Wilson’s chronicles of the battles of the bureaucrats –I cannot wait for his next FRUS volume, on this very period.
I do, however, think my argument is more nuanced than “Able Archer scared Reagan into ending the Cold War.” I had a wonderful conference on the Cold War in the 1980s with Henry Maar –I can’t wait to read his book on the Freeze Movement either—and Mark Kramer in Blaubeuren, Germany which I came away from convinced it was a number of things including Able Archer and the 1983 War Scare that pushed Reagan’s turn towards Rapprochement. These also included a desire to be bigger than history: political pressure, pressure from the nuclear freeze movement, and certainly Gorbachev’s willingness to negotiate. (Though as I cite in the Book Andropov once complained “why do I get just this president [Reagan] to deal with?” showing perhaps Reagan’s early build up, psyops and intransigence was unnecessary.
I do think that if you read Reagan’s own words in his diaries they are perhaps the best proof that nuclear war was frequently his mind. Here’s just one entry; there are several more, a week after Able Archer 83 “George Shultz & I had a talk mainly about setting up a little in house group of experts on the Soviet U. to help us in setting up some channels. I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them we ought to tell them that no one here has any intention of doing anything like that. What the h- -l have they got that anyone would want."” My point: I welcome this great debate; let’s keep getting the documents out and see how it evolves!
But my larger and final point: the reason I wrote Able Archer 83 and spent over a decade fighting to get some of the documents published in the book declassified --worth noting, for comparison, one of the documents I got released has seven codeword’s while most leaked by Snowden have four or less! -- is that even if the War Scare had NO effect on Reagan (I don’t believe this), it should still be widely studied and remains one of the most important, and dangerous, instances of the Cold War.
I hope I largely succeeded in doing this and I am buoyed by Jason’s kind words. As I wrote in the note on sources [paraphrasing]: Most current histories of Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, or the nuclear arms race now include mention of Able Archer 83 and the 1983 War Scare. But if one follows the footnotes, they will find that few have promulgated new documentary evidence. No longer! The goal of my work is to further the study of the 1983 War Scare and its danger (not necessary Reagan’s turn) by showcasing the declassified primary sources –long secret, now public—and to use these documents to craft a precise, accurate, and readable narrative of events surrounding Able Archer 83, establishing what we now know and indicating what we must further study –and then to get it get declassified!
Nov. 4, 2016 — Simi Valley
So the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library opened its doors 25 years ago today. To mark the occasion, former Attorney General and all-around Ronald Reagan advisor Edwin Meese, former CA governor Pete Wilson, and Reagan’s second and last secretary of state, George P. Shultz, made the trip to Simi Valley along with David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States. (Click here to continue reading.)
Oct. 28, 2016 —Book Review: "The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War,” by H.W. Brands. DoubleDay, 2016.
It might not have been the kind of hand-to-hand combat Teddy Roosevelt preferred, but in The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman At the Brink of Nuclear War, acclaimed historian H.W. Brands argues that Truman wasn’t afraid to get bloody when it mattered.
What mattered to Truman: whether the president of the United States or the commander in the field determined American tactics and policy. General MacArthur, one of the most decorated soldiers in American history, led the American-supported United Nations effort to defend Korea from a Chinese-backed communist takeover. Whereas MacArthur publicly supported the direct bombing of China and hinted at American use of nuclear weapons to end the conflict, Truman believed that containment would ultimately succeed and that the risk of a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union outweighed either the benefits of a direct attack against China or use of nuclear weapons.
These different approaches, Brands shows, played out before American eyes thanks to eager reporters looking for any discrepancy in tactics or policy to come out of the White House and General MacArthur’s own public statements. The two obliged.
Not surprisingly, 15 years after 9/11 and a continued American presence in the middle east, the next white house will no doubt be faced with tough decisions that will likely conflict with the advice of American military leaders.
The case of Truman and MacArthur and the Korean conflict, Brands demonstrates, could have better guided these decisions. Yes, the cold war is over, but containing terrorism, much like containing communism, seems to have been the better approach. Why invade China, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, when keeping the Soviet’s or the Libyan’s or even the Chinese contained would have saved American lives and been more cost-effective? Improved intelligence gathering and analysis was to be the key to taking out Osama Bin Laden and preventing another 9/11, while a war in Afghanistan and Iraq has allowed once marginalized groups to fill the vacuum. Crossing into China may have prevented the split of the Korean peninsula and the small headache that North Korea has so far been for the United States, but at what cost? Truman wasn’t about to find out. Choosing between a communist North Korea or World War III didn’t seem to keep him up at night. Better a wall than a war, perhaps Representative John F. Kennedy observed at the time.
Truman’s cool head and conviction proved correct with the fall of the Soviet Union and thus the de facto end of the communist threat. Doing so knowing that it could cost him his job and possibly usher in a new era of Republican leadership demonstrated true grit – those long-lost Midwestern values that come with doing what is right no matter the consequences.
MacArthur, a World War II hero in the pacific theater and then head of the American effort to transition Japan to a constitutional democracy, was not one to back down from a fight. Whether demanding Truman fly half-way across the world if he wanted a meeting or ordering the bombing of North Korea without presidential approval, Brands shows us that the early stages of the Cold War could have quickly gone in a more violent direction. Nuclear weapons, with a different finger on the button, may have been used, while an American attack on China seemed all but inevitable. Cooler heads in the Oval Office – those able to take a longer view of history – proved better suited to the enormous responsibility that comes with balancing both American foreign and national interests against the perceived immediate dangers of a worldwide communist movement.
So where does that leave us? “The celebration that greeted MacArthur on his return from Asia,” Brands writes after Truman’s public firing, “was unlike anything ever seen in America, and unlike anything ever imagined almost anywhere.
Rome had lavished public triumphs on its victorious generals, and America had done the same after the Civil War and the two world wars, but to save the greatest celebration for a general who had just been fired, amid a war that was far from won, suggested that something larger was afoot. The parades for MacArthur were celebrations, but they were also protests: against the president who fired him, against the ambiguous policies the president pursued, against the constraining circumstances that kept America from smiting its enemies as decisively as it had done in those earlier, more satisfying wars. The millions of Americans cheering and shouting for MacArthur wanted the general to lead them, like a modern Moses, out of the wilderness of uncertainty that seemed to be Americans’ lot in the contemporary struggle against communism. MacArthur was the last general to return home after World War II; if anyone could restore the certainty – the moral certainty, the civic certainty, the political certainty – that had characterized the American life during the earlier struggle against facism, MacArthur could.
But it wasn’t MacArthur, or Joe McCarthy, or Kennedy or Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan who all stared communism in the eye and called out evil when it was popular to do so. It was patience, adherence to a well thought-out policy of containment, and most importantly a willingness to sacrifice self for country when it mattered most. Truman did just that and lost his job and reputation, while Brands reminds us how with a different finger in the oval office we now might be arguing over whether World War III had started with a communist invasion of Korea or the American decision to attack China.
An important contribution and a must-read for military historians, presidential historians and those interested in the Korean War.
June 29, 2016 —
SDI anyone?? Finally found a day for a quick visit back to the Reagan Library last week to see if enough documents had been released for a new edition of “The Reagan Files: Inside the National Security Council.” Probably not but I have yet to go through everything and it has just been two years since the last addition.
Back to SDI….scanned through the folder on the March 11, 1987 meeting on SDI. Meeting minutes are still classified but a more extensive briefing package was located than what I found last time and included in the second edition of “Inside the National Security Council.” Just realized I never uploaded those doc’s so here we go — (almost) everything you wanted to know about the White House, Congress and various agencies battling over the future of SDI. Given the various positions identified in the briefing papers it is no surprise this meeting is still classified.
Aug. 15, 2015 — New Doc’s re Kuwaiti Airliner Hijacking on Dec. 1, 1984
On Dec. 1, 1984, a Kuwaiti Airlines flight from London to Karachi was hijacked by two Lebanese Shi’a gunman after refueling in Kuwait. The plane was diverted to Tehran where the standoff lasted six days. Two American UNAID workers were killed. This small release contains messages from President Reagan to the Swiss Ambassador in Iran, President Zia and King Fahd thanking them for their help and reminding them of the task moving forward. The documents were released in 2015 and are part of the Terrorist Incident Working Group (TIWG) files in the Oliver North collection at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Click here to download the documents.
June 10, 2015 — New Docs thanks to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library
In this memo from DCI Casey to Reagan and his senior officials, Casey briefly summarizes “the relative implications of counterterrorism steps taken with respect to each of the major Middle East sponsores of terrorism and different types of targets.” (Uploaded June 10, 2015)
This report, prepared by the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis for the Directorate of Intelligence, reviews the cases of Iran, Lebanon, Syrian and Libya. It concludes: “Policy options aimed at reducing Middle Eastern terrorism that are not country-specific are unlikey to succeed. Aggressive policies designed to discourage the broad phenomenon of international terrorism may reduce the short-term vulnerability of certain diplomatic personnel and installations, but they will not affect the underlying political roots of the problem.” (Uploaded June 10, 2015)
May 12, 2015- “REAGAN: THE LIFE”, by H.W. Brands.
Just when I thought it would be a while before I came across another book as impressive as Rick Perlstein’s recent “The Invisible Bridge,” Brands “Reagan: The Life”, not only competes with Perlstein in terms of readability, he equals if not surpasses “The Invisible Bridge” when it comes to scholarship. Yes, it really isn’t fair to compare the two as Brands and Perlstein really take different approaches to the same subject, but with both bio’s released within a year of each other, there is no way around it for the Reagan community. In short: Brands is a welcome compliment to Reagan scholarship and well worth the read. Highly recommended!
Just as I was about to get to the half-way point of H.W. Brands impressive biography of Reagan (May 12, 2015) I popped into Santa Barbara’s most famous bookstore, Chaucer’s, to pick up “Infamy.” After reading the first page I knew the rest of “Reagan” would have to wait. Reeves doesn’t deviate from form — which works perfectly in his telling of how American hysteria after Pearl Harbor led to the forced incarceration of Japanese, and Japanese Americans, (Yes, U.S. citizens too!) during World War II. To say that lives were ruined does not do justice to the over 100,000 loyal Japanese Americans who dutifully obeyed the U.S. Government’s forced relocation policies.
Run, don’t walk to your neighborhood bookstore to pickup this important book that happens to also be a great read. And if you can’t run, click here to buy from Amazon.com
Feb. 6, 2015 — “Ghosts of East Berlin”
by Eric Friedman and Celeste McConnell-Barber
Imagine you are a 10 year-old American boy living in Santa Barbara, Calif., it is 1988, and your mother tells you that you are moving to East Berlin for six months because your step-Father, an English professor at UCSB, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship. Or, same situation, but you are a wife and mom to a ten-year-old. What to do? Like most 10-year-olds, Eric Friedman got on the plane because his mom forced him to. Unlike most American mothers in 1988, Celeste McConnell (now McConnell-Barber) jumped at the opportunity to give her son a once in a lifetime experience.
She was right.
Twenty-five years later, mother and son published a memoir of their time in East Berlin, one of the few accounts of what it was like for ordinary Americans to live behind enemy lines in communist East Berlin.
“Ghosts of East Berlin” (CreateSpace, 2014), is really two books. The first is the memoir of Eric Friedman, a 10-year-old American boy from Santa Barbara forced to live in East Berlin for six months. His account is exactly that – his 10-year-old impressions of life in East Berlin. From riding the subway to school, to meeting and making friends, and occasional visits to West Berlin, Mr. Friedman, now a public servant in Santa Barbara, brings us into East Berlin at a time when the Berlin Wall was a fixture of the Cold War, which was still very much hot. Recent Communist reforms had allowed for Fulbright scholars to study in East Berlin, but the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany, let alone the end of the Cold War, were still only long-term goals within the highest levels of American government.
The second book is the memoir of Eric’s mother, Celeste McConnell-Barber. More sophisticated, Celeste grapples with questions of practicality: from learning how to feed her family when the supermarkets are practically empty to navigating the subway and border crossings into West Berlin.
Together, Mr. Friedman and Ms. McConnell-Barber deserve our collective thanks. Mixed with humor and heartfelt stories, “Ghosts of East Berlin” should be required reading for those trying to understand what life was like in East Berlin not long before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Highly recommended!
Nov. 17, 2014 — Iran-Contra … Chemical Weapons…SALT 1 & 2 draft options
Some new doc’s….enjoy!
Aug. 5, 2014 – “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan"
I sat down a few weeks ago with Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm and Nixonland, to discuss his latest, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The book, due out today, has already received glowing reviews. My favorite so far: Frank Rich in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. I would add to that the excellent review by George Packer for The New Yorker.
Aug. 3, 2014 — The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cuban Missile Crisis
A special thanks to Dr. Diego Trinidad for his comments on the importance of the November 10, 1981 NSC meeting. It was widely reported in 1962 that as part of the general agreement ending the Cuban Missile Crisis President Kennedy pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba. Dr. Trinidad brought it to my attention that, in his 45 years of research on Cuban-American relations, the Nov. 10, 1981 NSC meeting is the first time he found official confirmation of President Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba. Sec. Haig said in the Nov. 10, 1981 meeting: “The Soviet threshold on Cuba is clear: it is the 1962 Accords – the promise not to invade [Cuba] is the line. Invasion is the trigger for a serious Soviet response. Up to that point, there is a free play area.” Click here to go to the full meeting minutes.
July 28, 2014 --
I’ve been reluctant to write about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 because I have not been very comfortable with the comparison to the 1983 downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007. In my mind the two situations are so different that comparing the two disasters would not be helpful. Here is why:
June 5, 2014 — The Reagan Legacy at 10
The 40th President of the United States, the larger-than-life Ronald Reagan who left office 25 years ago with an impressive 63 percent approval rating among Americans, passed away 10 years ago this week. Amidst the celebrations this week for the man and his presidency, reflecting on the America Reagan left behind in 1989, in particular on the Americans Reagan left behind, should not be left out of the conversation.
May 14, 2014 — New Reviews!
The reviews are coming in! Here are few of the latest for the second edition of “The Reagan Files: Inside the National Security Council”.
“The Reagan Files is … a treasure trove of information for those seeking a much deeper understanding of Reagan’s foreign policy."
April 1, 2014 —
The memo’s indicate that the U.S. Air Force conducted an unsuccessful ASAT test on Nov. 13, 1984 “designed to test the miniature homing vehicle’s ability to acquire and track against a light source in Space.” The Feb. 1, 1985 memo indicates that the Air Force is now recommending a test against a target satellite."
April 1, 2014 —
Congrats to Bob T. (@Tbobx) for the correct guess of former DCI William Casey. The memo is now online and can be found by clicking here: May 24, 1983 memo from William Casey to President Reagan on the budget and the Soviet Union.
March 31, 2014 —
Free signed copy of any one of my books to the first person who correctly identifies the author of this quote from a letter to President Ronald Reagan dated May 24, 1983:
"On an even more fundamental level, I believe that we are at a historic watershed. We may be the last custodians who have a chance to turn back impending bankruptcy and permanent establishment of Soviet power at our front door. If we don't aggressively act on these dangers during the next 12 months we are not likely to have the credibility to get a sufficient mandate to deal with an even greater threat in the next four years."
*One entry per person. Document (and thus the winner) will be posted online tomorrow! Entries must be submited on “The Reagan Files Facebook page”.
March 30, 2014 —
New page! I’ve started a collection of speech drafts, and have uploaded several drafts of President Reagan’s “Evil Empire”, “SDI” and “Ivan & Anya” speech. Check them out under speech drafts, and please email me any drafts you have that you would like to share so that I can add them to this new page. The page can be accessed under “Document Collections” or by clicking here: Selected Speech Drafts.
March 8, 2014 —
Thirty-one years ago today President Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech. Oddly, I couldn’t find the official speech draft online, although it has been released at the Reagan Library for several years. Well, here it is! Enjoy! This link is to the draft President Reagan edited days before this speech.
Feb. 17, 2014 —
Now available!! A second edition of “The Reagan Files: Inside The National Security Council” is now available for purchase. The second edition includes the meeting minutes of several recently declassified NSC/NSPG meetings, as well as new information on over fifity other meetings. The book is an invaluable resource for those studying foreign policy during the Reagan years. The full table of contents can be viewed by clicking here!
Feb. 10, 2014 —
by Jason Saltoun-Ebin
I recently read a piece on Foreign Policy arguing that President Reagan showed courage for his decision to cut-and-run in Beirut, which he made about thirty years ago this month. I have spent way too much time on this subject not to respond.
First, the writer argued that Reagan sent Americans to Beirut as part of a Multi-National Peacekeeping Force. That is of course correct, but there is so much more to it than that: behind the closed doors of the White House Situation Room, Reagan and his team saw an American presence in the Middle East both as an opportunity to keep the Soviets out of Lebanon and as the chance he was looking for to show the world that the United States had moved beyond the "ghosts of Vietnam."
Second, the author argued that Reagan deserves a lot of credit for a "tough decision". I'm not so sure it was a tough decision or that Reagan came to the decision to abandon Beirut for the right reasons. In terms of saving American lives in the short term there is no question that it was the right decision. But why make that decision in January/February 1984? Why not in April 1983 after terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killing over fifty of the best American Middle East analysts? At that point Reagan knew that there were going to be more American casualties - the reality was that the Marines stationed in Beirut just could not be protected, which of course proved out in October when 241 Americans were killed after a suicide truck bomber rammed into the American Barracks at the Beirut International Airport. Why not pull out then?
In my mind the only explanation for why Reagan pulled the Marines out of Beirut when he did was that he did not want to go through 1984, an election year, with the realization that the Marines in Beirut were sitting ducks. Had Reagan's approval ratings for most of 1983 been over fifty percent (they were in the mid forties), I suspect he would have stuck it out in Beirut longer. But with more Americans disapproving of his leadership than approving, Reagan could just not take the chance that American casualties in Beirut would jeopardize his reelection.
Third, and this goes to the heart of this piece, did Reagan really make a courageous decision to cut-and-run? If you believe, as I do, that his decision rested on the fact that it was an election year decision than I don't see how it could have been courageous. It was a safe decision. A courageous decision, in my mind, would have been a determination to let the MNF do their job at least through the 1984 election. Would sticking it out a little longer have changed anything? We know what pulling out led to - and yes, it did lead to emboldening terrorists (think of the hijackings of TWA 847, the Achille Laura, Pan Am Flight 73) - but what if Reagan had made the really hard choice and told his advisers, "I don't care if this is an election year, we have a job to do and we are going to do it!" I'm not arguing for an open-ended commitment, just suggesting that a decision to let the Marines do their job at least through the 1984 election would have set a better precedent while also accomplishing another of Reagan's goals: showing that the U.S. had moved beyond Vietnam.
Last, if reelection did in fact sway Reagan's decision in 1984 to cut-and-run, why then did he not reintroduce troops in 1985? My feeling is that by 1985 Reagan realized that the Middle East was not as "vital" as he thought it was in 1981 and 1982. Reagan also had his hands full with the arms-for-hostages dealings in Iran and the numerous Middle East crises that just seemed to be never-ending. Then, by 1986, after his first one-on-one with Gorbachev, he knew that the cold war could be managed without American troops in the Middle East. So, Reagan may have actually backed into the right decision (though I think the timing did do damage to American prestige), but giving him credit for doing so misses the point that were it not an election year, and had his approval ratings been higher, he very likely would have kept American troops in Beirut for the near future.
In "Dear Mr. President...Reagan/Gorbachev and the Correspondences that Ended the Cold War", historian Jason Saltoun-Ebin sheds new light on the end of the Cold War by presenting, in many cases for the first time, the top-secret correspondence between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Saltoun-Ebin shows, through this private correspondence, that the most important reason for the end of the Cold War was simply the trust that Reagan and Gorbachev built through their letters. Although Reagan and Gorbachev at first found little to agree upon, they started the path towards the end of the Cold War by agreeing that despite their differences, they would continue to correspond. From when Gorbachev took office on March 11, 1985 till Reagan left the presidency in January 1989, the two most powerful leaders in the world exchanged over forty letters. It was this dialogue -- this decision that they could individually make a difference -- more than anything that led to the cooling of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and then the end of the Cold War. Trusting did not come easy for either of them. The letters presented in "Dear Mr. President..." show, once again, that the pen is mightier than the sword.