By the time Mao Zedong died in the year of the U.S. bicentennial, it was clear that the Cold War had changed significantly. The Soviet Union, under Khrushchev and his successors, had thrown aside the cult of Joseph Stalin and had proved willing to consider limiting its nuclear arsenal if the United States would reciprocate.
The man who won the American presidency in 1980 and again in 1984 was instinctively suspicious of this effort for conciliation. Ronald Reagan was born (6 February 1911) and raised in small towns in Illinois. His memoir begins: "If I'd gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I would never have left Illinois." Later in life Reagan recalled not small-town parochialism and racism, nor his father's alcoholic rages, but a life of summer days, lifeguarding at Lowell Park in Dixon, having fun at Eureka College, and after college taking a job in Des Moines in which he broadcast Chicago Cubs baseball games as if he were watching them, while in fact reconstructing them from a running telegraphic account sent from the field. He went to Hollywood in 1937 with a six-month contract from Warner Brothers studio. He became a star in B movies and took leadership of the Screen Actors Guild. He did not leave the United States during World War II, though he later claimed to have done so, even asserting that he had filmed Nazi concentration camps for the army. In fact, Reagan made war movies at home.
By the early 1950s Reagan was convinced that communists had infiltrated Hollywood and the Actors Guild, and he so told the FBI. His career in film was waning. But in 1954 the General Electric Company asked Reagan to host a weekly dramatic show on television. To promote the show Reagan went around the country talking with workers at GE plants about life in Hollywood and about the virtues of private enterprise. In 1960 Reagan switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, and in 1966 he surprised nearly everyone by beating the two-term Democratic incumbent for the California governorship.
Reagan served two terms as governor, a tenure marked by incendiary rhetoric. He insisted that people who accepted government welfare were chiselers or cheats, and he threatened a "bloodbath" if students in Berkeley kept taking to the streets to protest against Vietnam War. Reagan's stature grew. In 1976 he challenged the Republican president, Gerald Ford, and nearly gained the nomination by attacking Secretary of State Kissinger's policy of détente. When Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter, Reagan was established as the Republican frontrunner in 1980. He thrashed Carter in that election, returning to themes that had made him famous: the venality of big government, the horrors of communism, and the unique ability of Americans to overcome all their problems and secure a luminous future.
Reagan's Cold War was a product of his experience in Middle America, in Hollywood, and on the circuit for GE; his chief source of information about the Soviet Union was Reader's Digest. He was not much interested in foreign countries. Like Mao he traveled abroad only reluctantly. Still Reagan knew what he did not like. The Soviet Union was an "evil empire," and its agents, he said at his first presidential press conference, "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat," in order to foment "world revolution." The Berlin Wall should be ripped down, free elections should be held throughout eastern Europe, and the Soviet government should stop violating the human rights of its citizens. The Vietnam War had been "a noble cause." ("We should declare war on Vietnam," Reagan had said in October 1965. "We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.") Revolutions, or even experiments in socialism, were the result of Soviet imperialism.
Reagan brought to office a set of convictions rather than a foreign policy. He delegated to his advisers the task of turning his dreams and fears into directives. This might have worked if everyone agreed on how to do a thing, but as Reagan's men and women often disagreed among themselves, the result was frequently chaos.
Again and again Reagan displayed an alarming ignorance of his own nation's foreign policy. He misstated the name given by the CIA to the Soviets' largest long-range missile, and when his error was pointed out to him he accused the Soviets of changing the name in order to fool the West. He mistook defensive weapons for offensive ones, failed to understand the strategic difference between placing missiles in silos or putting them on mobile carriers, and claimed that neither bombers nor submarines carried nuclear weapons. He prepared for his 1986 summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to be held in Reykjavik, Iceland, by reading the Tom Clancy thriller Red Storm Rising —because, he said, much of it was set in Iceland. Briefings of the president had to be short and snappy, reducible to a few small note cards or film clips. These were by definition devoid of detail or ambiguity, which tended to reinforce Reagan's black-or-white view of the world.
Yet the president was not altogether without assets as a foreign policymaker. He commanded the world's strongest economy. He put it into recession early in his first term, and ran up an enormous national debt thereafter, but the Gross Domestic Product nevertheless increased through the 1980s. Possessed of a sense of humor and an actor's charm, Reagan was liked even by those who disagreed with him. And despite his caustic characterizations of the Soviets and his resolve to build American military power until his enemies cried uncle, Reagan feared a nuclear holocaust and was determined to find a way to prevent it. Back in 1979 Reagan had visited the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. At the end of his tour Reagan asked the base commander what the United States could do if the Russians launched a missile at an American city. NORAD could track the missile, the commander replied, but could do nothing to stop it.
Reagan was astonished. "We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us," he said. To Reagan it seemed that, armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, the United States and the Soviet Union had come to the brink of Armageddon.
There might be a way out. The loophole was a system of lasers or rockets, deployed in space, that could destroy or knock off course any missile launched by Russia at the United States. Proposed by Reagan at the end of a defense budget speech to the nation on 23 March 1983, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as "Star Wars," soon after became the centerpiece of the administration's strategic planning. To Reagan it was a matter of logic and simple humanity: if you can prevent something as awful as a nuclear warhead from striking your nation, it would be irresponsible not to do so. But the Soviets reacted strongly against SDI. What Reagan had not said, they pointed out—and they assumed he realized it—was that a U.S. monopoly on missile defense would tempt the Americans to launch a first strike against them, secure in the knowledge that the Russians could not effectively retaliate. They were also concerned about a new arms race. The Americans would have to spend billions to develop SDI technology, while the Russians would be forced to increase their offensive capabilities in the hope of defeating the American shield. (The possibility of bankrupting the feeble Soviet economy had occurred to Reagan, though the strategic hazards of missile defense perhaps had not.) In any case, the Soviets said, meaningful arms negotiations could not take place between the powers so long as SDI remained on the table.
Reagan was disinclined to grant the Soviets any sympathy; moreover, he had found arms control distasteful. The Soviets continued, in his judgment, to stir up trouble around the globe: in the Middle East, Africa, and in Latin America, of special concern because of its proximity to the United States. When Reagan took office in 1981 the hot spot in Latin America was Nicaragua. Convinced that the Sandinista government was not only Marxist but a hemispheric agent of world communism, Reagan sought ways to unseat it. At the urging of William Casey, the director of the CIA, Reagan authorized the creation of an anti-Sandinista army, dubbed the contras, that would train in Honduras and harass the Sandinistas across the border. The contras were constituted mostly of members of Somoza's National Guard; at their peak they numbered about 7,500.
U.S. aid to the contras, and its related efforts to overthrow the Sandinistas, proved impossible to hide. In April 1984 the Wall Street Journal revealed that the CIA had mined Sandino harbor, hoping to discourage Nicaragua's trade. Congress now put its foot down, refusing to allow further funding of the anti-Sandinista war. Reagan branded the Sandinista government "a Communist reign of terror," and insisted that the United States had a moral right to overthrow it. The contras were "freedom fighters" similar to the American Founders. The administration would find alternative sources of funding for its sunshine patriots.
The Israel is refused to help, but the Saudis and the sultan of Brunei agreed to back the contras financially. Then National Security Council aide Oliver North, in the company of Casey and national security adviser Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane, had what North called "a neat idea." The fundamentalist Islamic government of Iran desperately wanted weapons to continue its war against Iraq. Despite its antipathy for the United States it was willing to buy U.S. arms and might out of gratitude intervene to secure the release of several American hostages then being held in Lebanon. North saw another benefit from selling arms to Iran: the money paid by the Iranians for the weapons might then be diverted to the contras. It would work as long as it was kept secret.
Word of the arms for hostages deal leaked out of the Middle East in November 1986. The contra connection was then uncovered as well. Congressional investigators wanted to know what role the president had played in the arms for hostages scheme and the diversion of monies to the contras, but either because he was stonewalling or because he genuinely could not remember what he had authorized and when, Reagan was unhelpful. He denied that he had known about the attempted swap, but documents indicated otherwise, and Reagan confessed, almost: "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it's not." He continued to deny that he had known about the diversion of funds to the contras. Senator William Cohen, a member of the congressional group that investigated Iran-Contra, participated in two interviews with Reagan and concluded, "with Ronald Reagan, no one is there."
The Iran-Contra affair and the nuclear freeze movement undoubtedly made him more tractable in negotiations with the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, who emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union, declared his intention to reform the Soviet economy and pursue greater flexibility in foreign affairs, especially to move forward with arms control. At first suspicious that Gorbachev's offer to negotiate a meaningful arms agreement was a ploy to weaken U.S. vigilance, Reagan came ultimately to accept Gorbachev's sincerity, but he would not fully grasp the opportunity provided by Gorbachev's policy.
The obstacle to a full-scale nuclear rollback was SDI. At summits with Gorbachev in 1985, 1986, and 1988, Reagan continued to insist that defense against a nuclear attack could not be wrong, especially if Armageddon loomed. When Gorbachev pointed out that a missile shield would enable the United States to launch a first strike with impunity, Reagan, who was amazed that anyone would think the United States capable of such a thing, offered to share SDI technology with the Soviets. Gorbachev thought this unlikely. He urged Reagan to agree to confine SDI to the laboratory for ten years; Reagan refused. Still, Gorbachev wanted arms reduction enough that he was willing to make cuts in the Soviet arsenal even in the absence of an agreement on SDI. The result was the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty of 8 December 1987, by which the Americans and Russians agreed to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. But Reagan's commitment to SDI slowed the progress of further arms negotiations.
Gorbachev then unmade the Cold War. He ended the bloody Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, released Soviet control of the eastern European satellites and the Baltic states, allowed the destruction of the Berlin Wall, wrenched the Soviet economy off its rusty statist moorings, began opening Soviet archives to scholars, and traveled the world, creating about himself an international cult far more Reaganesque than Stalinist. He brought change so quickly and with such verve that Reagan and his successors mistrusted it. George H. W. Bush, who followed Reagan to the presidency in 1989, reacted so slowly to Gorbachev's revolution that critics charged him with being "nostalgic for the Cold War." Bush finally got it and embraced what he called "the new world order," which meant that the United States would now call the shots. Meanwhile Ronald Reagan returned to California, firm in the belief that his policies had brought about the end of the Cold War but not fully understanding how. He was the last cold warrior. The Alzheimer's disease that dissolved his memory made for a sad yet fitting metaphor: a dark era had passed, and there was a world to be remade.