Reagan looked, acted, and talked like an anticommunist Cold Warrior from start to finish in his doctrine about aid to freedom fighters and in his policies on El Salvador and Nicaragua. Yet Reagan did lower the rhetoric and move to meaningful negotiations with Gorbachev. Did this represent a reversal by Reagan, as Beth A. Fischer argues in The Reagan Reversal (1997)? Or did Reagan maintain a hard-liner perspective and accept concessions from Gorbachev as the Soviet leader moved to end the Cold War? Fischer suggests that by January 1984 Reagan was backing off of his hard-line rhetoric and rejection of negotiations because of a growing awareness that confrontation with Moscow could get out of control and lead to a nuclear Armageddon. Fischer points to three events after October 1983: the Soviet shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007, which not only horrified Reagan but raised the danger of a series of human errors producing a disaster; the controversial television movie The Day After, which focused on the effects of nuclear war on Lawrence, Kansas; and, third, Able Archer 83, war games carried out by U.S. and NATO forces in Europe that raised Kremlin concerns about a nuclear first strike to such a degree that the Soviets put their forces on alert.
Reagan was more multi-sided with respect to the Soviet Union and the Cold War than Fischer suggests. Although he never gave up on aid to freedom fighters, Reagan did respond to conflicting recommendations from his advisers and exhibited some flexibility toward Moscow before Gorbachev arrived. In the spring of 1983 hard-liners and Secretary of State Shultz encouraged Reagan to move in two somewhat contradictory directions. Hard-liners led by William Clark and the National Security Council strongly endorsed Reagan's speech on 8 March with its reference to the Soviet "evil empire" and his endorsement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on 23 March.
Shultz disliked both speeches and SDI and did not know about the "evil empire" reference. When Shultz met with Reagan on 10 March with a well-prepared rationale for a new approach to Moscow, to his dismay he found the room filled with Clark and other National Security Council officials opposed to negotiations. As Shultz later recounted, he met privately with Reagan the next day and told him that "I needed to have direction from him on Soviet relations. I went through with him again what I was trying to achieve. 'Go ahead,' he told me." Shultz noted that despite the green light from the president he had to be careful and keep checking back with Reagan on the "proposed route" to improved relations with the Kremlin. On SDI, Shultz indicated that he first heard about the strategic defense idea at a dinner with the president on 12 February and in a debate with Clark early in March. Shultz took his concerns to the president, emphasizing that Reagan was changing basic strategic doctrine without much scientific and technological basis or consultation within the administration or with Western allies. Shultz supported research and development consistent with the ABM Treaty and reliance on existing doctrine and the structure of U.S. alliances. Reagan, however, brushed aside the secretary's rationale and his offer to redraft the reference to SDI in Reagan's speech. The president pushed to announce SDI before it disappeared in the face of resistance and criticism from administration officials, Congress, allies, and public critics.
Shultz had more success when he persuaded Reagan, against the resistance of Clark and the National Security Council, to open a dialogue with Soviet officials. At the 12 February dinner with Reagan, Schultz suggested that Reagan meet with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. "Great," responded Reagan, although Clark and the National Security Council tried to head off a wayward president who had yet to meet with any Soviet official. For two hours Reagan and Dobrynin reviewed issues, including human rights and the Pentecostals, a small group of Christians who had been in the U.S. embassy in Moscow for five years and wanted to emigrate to practice their religion. According to Shultz, Reagan thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, wanted to be involved, and wanted to move forward. On 28 February, Moscow responded with a less than direct indication that if the Pentecostals left the embassy and went home they would eventually be able to emigrate. After the "evil empire" speech Reagan approved a response to Dobrynin, and the Kremlin began to allow the Pentecostals to leave. Dobrynin kept repeating "the less said publicly the better," and Shultz kept repeating "quiet diplomacy." From April through July, Shultz kept up the quiet diplomacy, Moscow released Pentecostals and family members, and Reagan stayed silent as promised.