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Reagan’s Most Convincing Role

Front cover of Reagan American Icon
Reagan: American Icon
by Iwan Morgan
I.B. Tauris 320pp £20

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has stimulated further interest in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In a book completed long before the outcome of the 2016 US election was known, Iwan Morgan offers a concise comparison of the two men’s superficial similarities and greater differences. Both campaigned against the Washington elite and against supposed Democratic mismanagement, but Reagan had a ‘philosophical core’ that Trump lacks. Moreover, Reagan’s governorship of California gave him practical political experience and reinforced his instincts to temper his convictions with pragmatism.

It is not surprising that cheerleaders for a Trump presidency should wish to link the 45th US president with the 40th, for Reagan’s reputation, already high from the time he left office, has risen in subsequent years. His intellectual limitations led to underestimation of his political skills. Now he is, if anything, overrated because of the part he played in the end of the Cold War and it is his contribution to that outcome which Morgan regards as his greatest achievement. Yet the decisively important emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as a transformational Soviet leader had nothing to do with Reagan, contrary to those who have suggested that the Soviet Politburo chose a ‘soft-liner’ because they were so worried by the hard-line president. 

Morgan gives us a highly readable, nuanced biography, reminiscent in tone of Lou Cannon’s magisterial President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (2000), but less of a door-stopper. He is also strong on the American domestic context. Given Reagan’s lack of grasp of policy detail, a lot depended on the quality of his team. Two of his best appointments were James Baker as chief of staff and George Shultz as Secretary of State. 

Among all the conservative groups, Reagan was, as Morgan notes, ‘most in tune with the anti-détente Cold Warriors’, but the peace component of his belief in ‘peace through strength’ was, to a greater extent than American liberal opinion appreciated at the time, no less significant than strength. Indeed, he shared with Gorbachev a conviction that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of the great powers was both feasible and desirable, a viewpoint that horrified some people in their own administrations, as it did both Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand. 

Although Morgan is generally reliable on the dramatically improving relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the greater part of Reagan’s second term, he is less sure-footed on the Soviet side of the relationship. It was, for example, far from the case that Gorbachev was ‘the youngest ever full-voting member of the Politburo’. At 49, when he joined the ruling group of the Soviet Union in 1980, he was remarkably young by the standards of the Brezhnev era, though far younger men had reached the Politburo in Stalin’s time, Anastas Mikoyan and Vyacheslav Molotov among them.

American conservatives who argue today that they and Reagan were right all along in their policy toward the Soviet Union, that they forced their Communist adversary to surrender, conveniently forget that Reagan was attacked by them at the time of the Washington summit with Gorbachev in 1987 and their Moscow meeting in 1988 as ‘a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda’. It was the most belligerently anti-Soviet conservatives in his administration – Caspar Weinberger, William Casey, Fritz Ermath and Richard Perle among them – who were most sceptical of Reagan’s willingness to ‘do business’ (in Thatcher’s words) with the Soviet leadership. It was of great consequence that, when it came to dealing with the Kremlin, Reagan preferred the judgement of Shultz and the State Department to that of the Pentagon (Weinberger and Perle) and the CIA (whose leading Soviet specialist and future Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ ‘misunderstanding of Gorbachev’s intentions’, as Morgan aptly observes, was ‘close to total’). 

Morgan has provided a rounded picture of Reagan’s rise to power and of the mixed fortunes of his domestic and foreign policy. Domestically, these included the failure to attack poverty and racism. Indeed, Reagan consciously aimed to undo Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ reforms and no group benefited more from his policy preferences than America’s superwealthy. Morgan, then, is surely right in viewing Reagan’s role in negotiating the end of the Cold War as both the most surprising and most significant feature of his time in office and in assessing him not as a ‘great president’ but, nevertheless, as a ‘consequential president’.

Archie Brown

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