The Legacy of the Ronald Reagan Administration

Thursday, October 13, 2016
Jacob M. Weisberg

Chairman and Editor in Chief, Slate Group LLC;
Author, Ronald Reagan: The American Presidents Series: The 40th President, 1981-1989

James Graham Wilson

Historian, U.S. Department of State;
Author, The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War

Peter J. Wallison

Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research;
Former White House Counsel (1986-1987);
Author, Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World's Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again

Susan D. Chira

Senior Correspondent and Editor on Gender Issues, New York Times

Peter J. Wallison, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and former White House counsel to president Ronald Reagan, Jacob M. Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of Slate Group LLC, and James Graham Wilson, historian at the U.S. Department of State, join the New York Times’ Susam D. Chira to discuss the legacy of the Ronald Reagan administration. The panelists discuss the policies and priorities of the Reagan administration and the lessons to be learned for U.S. foreign policy today.

The Lessons from History series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein. 

CHIRA: Welcome, everyone. Thank you so much for attending this meeting on “Lessons From History: The Legacy of the Ronald Reagan Administration.” This meeting is part of the Lessons From History Series, and thanks for attending.

Let me briefly introduce our panelists. You have their full bios, so I’m just going to go over it quickly.

Here is Peter Wallison, the resident fellow for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research; Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of the Slate Group; and James Graham Wilson, historian, the U.S. Department of State. Please look at their bios for the fantastic works that they’ve authored that give them the credibility to join our panel. And what I’m going to do is first chat with our distinguished panelists, and then we’ll open it up to our members for questions in a little bit.

Now, we’ll start with Jacob Weisberg. And what I thought that each of the panelists could address is when discussing Ronald Reagan’s legacy, one of the most disputed questions among historians is to what extent was he responsible for ending the Cold War. So if we start with Jacob Weisberg, and then we’ll go to Mr. Wilson and Mr. Wallison.

WEISBERG: Susan, thank you. And thank you for taking a break for an hour from one of the most important things happening in America—

CHIRA: (Laughs.)

WEISBERG: —which is the New York Times coverage of Donald Trump today, a subject we’re going to make every effort not to talk about, because we really want to talk about Ronald Reagan.

If I had to sum it up in a sentence, I would argue, and I do argue in my book, that Reagan deserves more credit for the end of the Cold War than anybody except Gorbachev, and with the crucial distinction that Gorbachev set out to reform and save communism and failed, whereas Reagan met his goal, which was to undermine communism and destroy it.

But I think that it comes at the end of a career and a presidency that is totally fascinating, in large part because of its tremendous contradictions. Reagan came to office—and I hope we can talk about this in a little bit—with really what was at the time a very eccentric view of communism, a view that was wrong in many ways and right in certain others. And he set out with these really contradictory goals to, on the one hand, undermine and destroy communism; on another hand, to make America safer from nuclear attack; and finally, and increasingly, to abolish nuclear weapons.

And these goals weren’t just in tension. They were really in conflict through much of his administration. And I think the job of a historian looking at this history is to say how do you reconcile a strategy and goals, which in many cases look utterly incoherent, with the successful outcome, the peaceful end to the Cold War, and ask—I mean, the question of credit in some ways is secondary, but I think ultimately resolves in some way around did you do the right thing and do you share in the credit for what happened.

CHIRA: Very good.

Mr. Wilson.

WILSON: I agree with much of what Jacob Weisberg’s—much of his account. And I would end that or just reinforce that to me Reagan had this ambivalence between wanting to end communism and wanting to abolish nuclear weapons, and that this often led him into different directions, although one thing that is—I’ve often not known at the time was that he was writing Soviet leaders from the very start of the administration, notwithstanding his public rhetoric.

And I think do think that Mikhail Gorbachev was the single most important figure in the end of the Cold War. I wrote in my book that Ronald Reagan is the second one.

And just to add one more figure in this, I think that the arrival of George Shultz in the summer of 1982 and the kind of 16 or 18 months that followed that, where you had a rationalization of some of these conflicting impulses, that that actually sets up very well a policy strategy of engagement even before the arrival of Gorbachev in March of 1985.

I’m also supposed to say that my views do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State, even though I’ve just praised a wonderful secretary of state. (Laughter.) I had to get that in there.

CHIRA: I think that would be uncontrovertible.


CHIRA: Mr. Wallison, would you care to—


I don’t see a conflict between what Reagan did at the beginning of his administration and what he was doing at the end to eliminate nuclear weapons and so forth, which he—this was always his objective, as was the route that he thought he would take to do that, and that is—but even before he was elected, he was telling people making speeches—and he’s quoted, for example, in magazines to the effect that he thought the U.S. economy was so much stronger than the Russian economy, the Soviet economy, not actually understood by many people at the time—in fact, it was heretical in many quarters—but that not only was it stronger, but it could out-compete the Soviet Union on military matters. And if he put enough economic, financial, and military pressure on the Soviets, the Soviet Union would eventually succumb to negotiations, which is what he always wanted.

Now, he was fortunate in one sense, and that is that Gorbachev, after a series of deaths of preceding leaders in the Soviet Union—premature deaths, but they were quite old to begin with—he was fortunate that Gorbachev came into place. But Gorbachev was subject to the kinds of pressures that Reagan had put on the Soviet Union, because during the Reagan administration, not only was this a massive military building, and not only did he not succumb to pressures, for example, in Europe not to put in Pershing II missiles, did not succumb to pressures in the United States about anti-nuclear activities, but after doing all of that, the U.S. economy actually did boom. And throughout the world at the time, countries were looking at the United States as a leader, and they were privatizing and they were deregulating and doing the things the United States had done.

You have to remember that the Russians—the Russian or the Soviet ideology was that they were on the cusp of history; history was going in their direction. And it certainly didn’t look that way to Gorbachev when he got into office, because the United States was clearly the leading country in the world, putting tremendous pressure on the Soviets in all those areas that I talked about.

And then, in 1984, Reagan won a landslide in the United States, won a landslide election in the United States for four more years. So if you think about what was going on in the heads of people in Moscow at the time, at least those who were reading foreign newspapers and understood what was really happening in the world, I’m not at all surprised that Gorbachev then did decide that he had to come to the negotiating table, and did in 1987 to agree on the first arms-limitation treaty between the two countries. And Reagan would have gone further, but he didn’t have time.

CHIRA: Did you want to jump in, Jacob?

WEISBERG: Yeah. I mean, I think there is—you know, there’s a natural tendency to try to make coherent the story of what Reagan had tried to do. But I think there’s a very big difference between what Reagan thought he was doing and what he ended up doing. I think he came to office with these tremendous contradictions. On the one hand, you can’t trust the Soviets. But if I can make personal friends with the Soviet leader, we can make a deal. The treaties aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but I really want to sign a treaty. I want to eliminate all nuclear weapons, but I also want to build them up for various reasons.

And I think the way those contradictions resolved themselves—I mean, to put the story short, I think in the first term he pursued a military buildup, a very confrontational strategy, NSDD-75, challenging the Soviets everywhere in the world. And that produced a situation which horrified him, which was a heightening of tensions, a heightening of dangers, no summit meetings or negotiation with the Soviets in the first term.

And I think he radically reversed course in his second term and went from the strategy of extreme confrontation to a strategy of extreme conciliation, where he became such a radical in favor of the abolition of all nuclear weapons that he essentially horrified everyone in his own administration, with the exception of George Shultz, who got behind him in his strategy. So I see kind of quite a radical departure that was an improvisation, which is a term I borrow from James—it’s the title of his excellent book on this subject—but improvisation in relation to the reality that what he tried in the first term didn’t get the results he wanted.

CHIRA: James, do you want to come in—

WILSON: There are three moments that I wonder whether this kind of complicates the story a bit, but I think it’s very much decisions by Reagan himself that were kind of unusual. And the commonality that I think that he possessed was a way of wringing out the cynicism of a particular matter.

And the first one was the zero-zero option—the zero option, right, in 1981, where, yes, of course, he was continuing the very controversial, very politically fraught deployment of INF in Western Europe. There were those around him—Caspar Weinberger—who said setting the bar at zero is—you know, we obviously don’t want that, but it’s a great opening position. And Reagan’s attitude was, well, I think it would be great to have that as the ultimate objective. And then in 1987 there was actually a tremendous amount of angst that Reagan would follow through on that, on INF.

The second one was the Strategic Defense Initiative, which again, I think, many people around him thought was a kind of cynical ploy to hold up against the Soviets. But Reagan’s attitude was, well, this is actually a great thing to having a defensive shield against these missiles.

And then the third one was in, I think, the spring of 1986. Fred Ikle, who was at the Pentagon, kind of brought back an idea he had from 10 years ago, which was what if we had zero fast flyers? That is to say that the real source of strategic instability is land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and what are we going to put that forward and see what Gorbachev says? And Reagan’s attitude again was, well, I think that would actually be a great idea that we should all go toward.

So as—yes, of course, Reagan had these impulses, this anti-nuclear streak with him throughout his lifetime. But I do think that when he’s in office, there are these kind of improvisations that were not really expected by the people around him and not really understood by the broader public at the time.

CHIRA: Yeah, please.

WALLISON: I really do think you have to start separating Reagan from the people around him, because Reagan was a conviction politician. He came into office with the belief that the Soviet Union could be forced to the negotiating table. And again I have to say I don’t see a contradiction here. As he—as his policies, from his perspective—and we’re talking only about his perspective, because, again, almost everything he believed was not conventional wisdom within his own administration or people who had served in foreign policy or military policy, positions before he came into office.

And as his policies to him seemed to be succeeding, and then he had the opportunity to deal with Gorbachev, who he recognized immediately as a person he could actually deal with, then he did change his policies to be much closer to what his policies were intended to be at the beginning. They were intended to force the Soviets eventually to the negotiating table. He hadn’t actually laid out what he would want in that—at that negotiating table except some kind of arms limitation.

But when you look at SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, which he had not only thought the United States could successfully pursue technologically, but that if we were successful in pursuing it, we would provide it to the Soviets. And he offered that to the Soviets on the theory that if both sides had it, then neither side was going to attack the other. And that was an opportunity for—at least first-strike attack on the other—and that was an opportunity then to actually reduce nuclear weapons. And so he gets to a meeting in—where was that with SDI?


WEISBERG: Reykjavik.

CHIRA: Reykjavik.

WALLISON: Reykjavik. I’m sorry. That name has slipped my mind. But he gets to Reykjavik, and Gorbachev says, well, I’ll deal with you, but only if you agree that SDI will not be pursued beyond whatever technological work you are doing right now. You won’t go to the testing period or anything like that. And Reagan said, no, I won’t do that. And we’re not going to deal with one another until you agree to accept what I’m talking about.

Now, if you think about what Reagan thought at that moment—not about what Fred Ikle thought or anyone else in his administration, but what Reagan was thinking at the time—it was simply I have got them where I want them and where I expected them to be, not perhaps this quickly, but I was hoping that by the end of my administration they would be in the position they are in now. And Gorbachev is a person I can deal with, so I’m going to make as much use as I can of this relationship.

CHIRA: Jacob, you—well, James has some SDI thoughts, right?

WILSON: I agree with, I think, the overall thrust of this. I would, I guess, quibble a little bit on one or two points. One would be that it was the second year of the administration that he did, in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, right, switching from SALT to START, that that was consciously that only limiting nuclear arms is not good enough. We have to find a way of setting the floor lower than current levels. And that comes much earlier than Gorbachev.

And to the point about being willing to share SDI with the Soviets as a kind of insurance policy, I agree wholeheartedly that this is a tremendously important thing in the second term. If Reagan had been campaigning in 1980 and saying these things, I think he would have been—it would have caused quite a bit of puzzlement of what he was talking about.

So, I mean, I think one way of looking at it is as his ambitions grow, as he gets to meet Gorbachev, and Gorbachev is not at all what he expects from a communist, a leader of the communist world—he’s a very decent, polite fellow; the wife—there’s a loving relationship. And if you see in the diaries of Reagan after the first encounter in Geneva, it’s—you know, Reagan is saying this is extraordinary. This is a guy I think believes in God. He’s really not the type of person I was expecting at all.

I’ve become a bit fixated recently on 10 days in October 1985, the month before that first encounter, where you had, on a Friday afternoon, a kind of deputies-level meeting at the White House about how to and whether to reinterpret the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in a way that would allow more significant testing on SDI. It’s a meeting that doesn’t end with a decision.

Then Bud McFarlane, the national security adviser, goes on “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning and, whether he intended to or not, he responded to a question that everyone interpreted that to mean that we would not shift to a broad interpretation of the ABM Treaty. And then, the week that follows, you see a real kerfuffle among the Reagan administration.

Paul Nitze, who’s in Western Europe, where he’s being berated by our allies—what does this mean? You have George Shultz, who’s quite horrified. Caspar Weinberger is raring to go. And by the end of the week, it culminates with a Friday evening NSC meeting where Reagan really, I think, does not quite understand the level of passion about this and does not really come down with a clear decision. The decision is basically to kick the ball down the—kick the can down the road.

A few days later, when George Shultz gives a speech in San Francisco—and to me this really encapsulates this enigmatic role of SDI, because, I mean, this is sort of how the decision was made to announce it in ’83, this kind of crush of the different agencies in the summer of 1984, when the Soviets basically, I think, assumed—figured out that Reagan is going to get reelected, and they make an offer about negotiations on anti-satellite missiles. And you have Shultz and others kind of carving out this three-track nuclear and space talks that I again would go back to.

That gets figured out in January of ’85 and commences shortly thereafter. And one of the reasons why that’s important is not just because Gorbachev—it’s right before Gorbachev comes in—but it also precedes a very tragic moment involving the shooting of Major Nicholson in the border in Berlin. And that was the type of shock that you would have, unpredicted shock. Another one would be shooting down of the KAL 007 in the fall of ’83 that I think Shultz and others were—not just Shultz, but I think many others were very concerned that these incidents would happen, like with Daniloff before Reykjavík. And it had the potential to kind of throw off all negotiations we had at the table. And so the trick was to kind of delink different parts of our relationship with the Soviet Union so that you would not have the entire relationship fall apart.

CHIRA: Yes, do you want to—

WEISBERG: Just a few quick words about SDI.

CHIRA: Yes, very good.

WEISBERG: The great moment in Reykjavík when Reagan says the way that we will avoid undermining the deterrence is that I’ll share SDI with you, and Gorbachev’s response is you won’t even give us current technology for milking cows. (Laughter.)

But I see SDI as the most successful episode ever of magical thinking, because it was clear that Reagan believed in SDI. And he believed in it as an umbrella that would be, essentially, once the scientists figured it out would be impermeable and would be an alternative to nuclear weapons. No one around him believed that. Gorbachev was being advised by Soviet scientists that it was impossible. But Reagan’s faith in it was so compelling because it was genuine that he essentially ended up, to a significant extent, creating doubt in Gorbachev’s mind about whether it was possible. And if Gorbachev had believed what his science advisers were telling him about SDI, he wouldn’t have cared that we were going to abrogate the ABM treaty because nothing was going to happen in anybody’s lifetime that would make it the kind of defense shield that Reagan thought it would be. In fact, he bought in to Reagan’s faith in this idea and ended up making more and more significant concessions. And I actually think it was one of the things that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union because he felt that the Soviets would be unable to keep up with the technology they would need to pursue it.

Everyone around Reagan thought it was a bargaining chip. Bud McFarlane, who was the key person in initially selling him the idea, George Shultz, who was his principal supporter in arms control going into Reykjavík, I think they all thought that at the key moment Reagan was going to give up his idea of SDI in exchange for really significant concessions. And the shock at the end of Reykjavík was that he wasn’t willing to.

There’s a—you know, I agree with James that George Shultz is the strong number-three person credited with ending the Cold War. And, you know, if there’s someone who should have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize and didn’t, I would probably argue that it should have been George Shultz. But I think there’s a strong case that Shultz really failed at Reykjavík by letting Reagan follow his own impulse to walk away from a great deal because of SDI.

CHIRA: I wanted to pick up a thought that you mentioned, Jacob, but I think everyone might engage in an interesting way. This discussion has kind of hinged on Reagan’s own convictions and to what extent, you know, he pursued views and policies that were completely at odds with his advisers and the political establishment, resonant in some ways right now.

But I wondered, in terms of his views of communism, how were they singular or shared by his followers? And how did they motivate him, and where might they have led him wrong or right?

WALLISON: Let me try to hand that, if I can, or at least start the discussion on that subject.

CHIRA: Please.

WALLISON: Again, I want to say something about Reagan that is really important, and that is he was a conviction politician. It had a lot to do with SDI also. But well before his administration, well before he came into office, he was talking about a policy that he thought would bring the Soviets to their knees, so to speak, in dealing with the United States and in general. And he believed that and very few people, other than Reagan, believed it.

If you know about what the CIA was talking about concerning the power of the Soviet military machine and their ability to grow it and the power of their economy, all of that was not something that Reagan believed, and he turned out to be right because in fact his view that the United States, because of the nature of its economy, was going to be able to out-compete the Soviets in any area and militarily was certainly one of them, and all that was necessary was to get that machine going, and that machine started to go in 2003 when we overcame the recession that occurred shortly after he came into office. And in 2003, the U.S. economy grew at 7 and 8 percent in some quarters. So the point was that he was seeing the things happen that he thought were going to happen.

And I’m not at all surprised that Gorbachev would accept the idea that SDI was a valid or legitimate problem for the Soviets, no matter what his science advisers said, because his science advisers probably told him that the United States couldn’t build the kinds of things that they were already building that he knew about. And in fact, SDI has been tested now, years later, and, to some extent, it’s had some success. It hasn’t had the appropriations that it would have gotten probably under Reagan, but in any event it has had some success, so it wasn’t a completely crazy idea to begin with. And I think Gorbachev recognized that.

But from the standpoint of his convictions, Reagan’s convictions, that’s what motivated the Reagan administration, that’s why he was so successful, and that’s why Gorbachev recognized that in Reagan and understood that there wasn’t any way he was going to bargain with the United States to stop what it was doing. Reagan was forcing the hand of Gorbachev in that sense. Gorbachev had to believe that this person was going to proceed with something that he could not actually be sure would not work. And so he had to come to the bargaining table.

Now, the way historians have argued this is, well, it wasn’t really Reagan, it was Gorbachev. And I won’t dispute that. But Gorbachev encountered a force that he probably never would have acceded to if that force hadn’t believed so strongly in what the force was telling him could happen if the Soviets didn’t come to the table.


CHIRA: Jacob?

WEISBERG: I don’t disagree with all that, but I think it’s very interesting to look at that in the context of Reagan’s personal view of communism going back to the early days of his career. And I did a lot of research on this when I was out at the Reagan Library and tried to dig into this. On the one hand, Reagan had a view that communism was uniquely aggressive, terrible, dishonest, expansionist. He had this pamphlet, that I think was a John Birch Society Pamphlet, called “The 10 Commandments of Nikolai Lenin” which was all a forgery. But it had things like Nikolai Lenin says the communists may lie, cheat, steal, engage in any immorality to advance communism. Another quote from “The 10 Commandments” is, it would be acceptable if three-quarters of humanity perishes if the other quarter became communist. That’s actually up on the wall at the Reagan Library, although they attribute it to Vladimir Lenin, who actually existed, as opposed to Nikolai Lenin, who Reagan would typically attribute that quote to. But no Lenin ever said anything like that. So on the one hand, he has this view of communism as, you know, the ripe fruit view, that communists will take Latin America and then North America will fall into their hands like ripe fruit, said Lenin.

On the other hand, he had this really unusual insight based on his common sense, which was that communism was an absurd way for people to live and that no one would choose to live that way. And I found in his—they have some boxed files of things Reagan kept in his desk, that he took from California to Washington and back to California. And some of it is, you know, like old business cards and weird sort of junk that accumulates in your desk. There are also some speeches that he held onto. One of them was an essay he wrote in 1962 that was not published or delivered at the time called “Are Liberals Really Liberal?” And in it, he essentially speculates that communism—there’s a decent chance that communism is just going to collapse because it’s contrary to human nature, which was, I think, an enormous insight, but also was a very embarrassing, naïve view to have on the conservative right in the years when Reagan was running for office.

And remember, he’s, you know, elected in 1980 and surrounds himself with neoconservatives who hold exactly the opposite view from the totalitarian school, that Soviet communism is essentially almost a permanent fact of nature, it’s going to be impossible to dislodge. And Reagan thinks, actually, they might just give up because it’s such a ridiculous system. He was a lot closer to being right than they were. But he—I think he stopped staying that actually because even he was aware of the expression on people’s faces when he would say that was, come on, seriously? Grow up. Don’t you know anything? And you know, I think that kind of contradiction goes right on through his presidency, where he simultaneously, pursuing confrontation with this aggressive enemy, and on the other hand thinking, you know, any day now they’re going to realize there’s a better way to live.

CHIRA: James, do you want to leap in before we open for questions?

WILSON: I’ll say very quickly that I think—I still find it a mystery, after Reykjavik, why—I mean, Gorbachev could have gone home and said, look, there is this guy who is going to build a shield, and basically he wants America to be invulnerable. We, the Soviet Union, still have the SS-18s, which are the central kind of concern of the U.S. strategic thinkers. We are coming online with these SS-24s, SS-25s, you know, we can probably be able to overcome this shield. But in the meantime we’re going to wait out this president, this president who has been—political fortunes have been grievously wounded by Iran-Contra. And we’re going to wait two years. And you know, see what happens.

And instead of that, Gorbachev actually waits about six weeks and then immediately comes out and kind of disaggregates the package that he was insisting on at Reykjavik, which—one thing that gets overlooked is that the INF treaty basically was coming together at Reykjavik. So—(audio break)—and I still think that you would have seen—you could have had a very different outcome. You could have had a Soviet leader who believed all these things that Reagan was saying, and was compelled by his behaviors, and they could have pursued economic reform without political reform, as China did. And, you know, the Soviet Union could have been around much longer than it did.

CHIRA: So at this time we’d like to invite members to join the conversation. A couple of reminders before we start. This meeting is on the record. So please wait for the microphone to come to you, stand, state your name and affiliation, and please ask a question, don’t make a statement, if you don’t mind. And keep it concise so we can recognize as many members as possible.


Q: Thank you. Welcome to all. Michael Skol of Skol and Serna.

The name of this series is the Lessons From History. And I’m wondering what lesson the panel would derive from the Reagan administration on the question of when does a country to decide seriously to negotiate with an enemy? It’s a question which is very active today, whether it’s the United States versus Iran, or the Colombian government and the FARC. And these days, the Nobel Prize committee seems to favor premature negotiations rather than what I think the Reagan administration did. What lessons do we have?

CHIRA: Who would like to address that?

WALLISON: Well, let me just start, throw something out. And that the—what I see we get from the Reagan administration as a lesson depends very much, of course, about who we are dealing with. But national strength in the United States is very important. And not only the strength but the will—the observed will to use that strength is extremely important. And I think the lesson of the last eight years has shown—at least if you look at what’s going on in Syria—that it is very important for the United States to assert to have the strength and assert itself in order to keep things in the world at large from falling to pieces.

WEISBERG: I guess I would say that the lessons are around morality, improvisation, and imagination. You know, I think—you know, we haven’t really talked about this—but one way in which Reagan was absolutely distinctive, and very different from, if you would imagine a scenario, a counterfactual in which George H. W. Bush was president in the same years, or became president at some point, if Reagan’s Alzheimer’s had been detected early and he’d resigned.

Bush would not have taken the moral stance in relation to communism that Reagan did. It went against his view of foreign policy and his approach to projecting American values. He wouldn’t have given the Berlin Wall speech. He wouldn’t have given Reagan’s Westminster speech in 1983. And I think if you talk to people in the former Soviet empire and Eastern Europe, as I did when I made a trip through Eastern Europe in 1988, they point to the way that Reagan upheld liberal values, and the role that played in the collapse of communism. So that’s one.

And number two, and I really want to credit James and his excellent book for this point. His book is “The Triumph of Improvisation.” And it’s about the ways in which both Reagan and George H. W. Bush at the—during the Cold War, at the end of the Cold War, were ready to depart from their ideology and their beliefs in order to make the world safer and respond to events in a constructive way.

But finally, I think there is a point about imagination because, again, if you posit a George H. W. Bush presidency, it would have placed a very high premium on stability. It would not have imagined the possible downfall of communism in the way Reagan did, or if it did I think it would have been more inclined to focus on the risks associated with that as opposed to the positive things that would come from it. So, to me, those are all relevant lessons.

CHIRA: James.

WILSON: I think it’s very—strength is important. It was important to Regan. Negotiating from strength is important. A moment I think of when I hear when to negotiate—I mean, first of all, Reagan always sought to negotiate. And also there was a moment after the deployment of the Pershing IIs and cruise missiles in the fall of ’83, where George Shultz writes the president saying: We have restored our strength. It is now time to negotiate. And I think it’s worth thinking about that moment in terms of the broader strategic modernization, which bedeviled both the Carter, and Reagan, and Bush administrations in terms of the MX—the deployment of the MX Missile.

And there were people very happy to point out to Reagan at that moment, the end of ’83, no, we have not changed anything. We are still trying to figure out how politically to come up with kind of equivalent land-based deterrent to the Soviet SS-18s. We were still not quite certain whether our Trident II submarines are going to be as effective. So there’s always going to be moments where—to intervene and say, well, we have not restored our strength. But I think that there’s sort of no reason to wait.

And it’s important what you say there. I mean, it’s not just about getting them at the table, right? I mean, I think Gorbachev—the Soviets were already at the table. It’s about how do you, you know, push them to get a deal that you want?

CHIRA: OK. So I think this gentleman here had his hand up.

Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.

I was on the policy planning staff during the Reagan period. And the first period was extremely chaotic. The idea that he would say he wants to get rid of all nukes and then triple the budget to develop more was because of some deep sense of how to go about it, I think was wrong. It was simply chaotic. He did not read papers. We had to use the CIA discreet film studio to make things to talk to him. So he wasn’t a reader. He wasn’t informed. You had to find people he was willing to listen to, because he surrounded himself with some very bizarre characters who didn’t know anything about the world. So you found someone like Senator Laxalt of Nevada, who had an open mind, and you convince him that something had to be done with the president, the president trusted him because they used to go riding together, and he would talk some sense into him.

CHIRA: So if I might ask for your question. I value your perspective, but what is the—

Q: Yes. The question is, do you think any president would be better off if he has a wife who consults a soothsayer and says which world leaders he should talk to on which date? Because that’s what was going on until Shultz got there and got some rationale into that chaotic White House.

CHIRA: Do you want to address or do you want to pass? (Laughter.)

WILSON: Well, I’ll say two quick things. First of all, I mean, I don’t think that that element of Nancy Reagan really had any effect on the administration. I do think she’s important in terms of her really wanting him to be remembered as a man of peace, and not the kind of nuclear cowboy that was in sort of certain newspapers or public mind.

Secondly, in terms of, you know, how did you get him—how did you get an idea into Reagan’s head—I do think that he—I mean, I go through these files, you know, that everything Reagan saw. I do think he would read—he did read things. He obviously was much more attentive to visual stimulation.

And to go back to the point about SDI and the kind of magic of it, I mean, the way that Edward Teller and others at Livermore would convey what they’re up to, I mean, it really was quite incredible, the level of technology they’re describing. I don’t know whether—you know, how much of it actually was working. But from his perspective, I mean, sitting down and reading, and then also seeing the simulations of it, it was not—it comported with his own tremendous unbounded optimism for what American society could achieve technologically.

CHIRA: Peter, you wanted to say—

WALLISON: Yeah. I think, without dealing with the particulars of what we heard from the floor, there was a widespread view—it’s still apparently true—that there was—this view exists that Reagan really was very ignorant. And there’s really nothing you can do to argue about that except if you read Kiron Skinner’s book called “Reagan In His Own Hand,” which has—I don’t know whether any of you had seen it, but I dealt with it a lot in my book that is somewhere around here, and that is, Reagan had written before he became an active candidate.

He wrote 670 radio scripts for himself, because he was giving these radio addresses every week—670 of these in his own hand. And this is what, to people who are really looking at Reagan and trying to figure out what he knew and what he didn’t know, it became a puzzle, because these were very deeply researched pieces. They were short, of course. They were five-minute radio addresses. But they were very deeply researched, and they were written in his own hand, which means that he didn’t rely on a staff or anything like that to do them.

Of that, 25 percent of them—27 percent, actually—were on foreign policy and military policy. And if you look at those—and I did for my book—you found that there was—here was a person who knew a great deal about this subject. And what was interesting to me—and I reported it in the book—was the fact that there were so many things that he knew so much about when he was president and he paid no attention to. That is to say, when these issues came up in meetings, Cabinet meetings and so forth, he seemed completely uninterested in weighing in on these.

And so what was it? Incidentally, I should say I was counsel to Reagan, actually, during the Iran-contra period. That’s a different story—

CHIRA: Another topic for our panel.

WALLISON: —we can get into another time, but I’d love to talk about that. But—so I attended the Cabinet meetings. And one of the really interesting things that you found is that the things that I knew that Reagan knew something about, he ignored. At least I knew afterward, because I saw Reagan in his own hand. I read the book—read the pieces themselves.

So why was it that he did not weigh in on things that he had written about? And I came to the conclusion that he had a strategy. He wanted only four things. He wanted to accomplish four things in his presidency. One was to confront and change the Soviet Union. And the second was to get the U.S. economy moving through deregulation and tax cuts. Third was trade, which would force American companies to become more competitive. And the fourth was to restore the confidence of the American people.

Those are the only four things he really paid any attention to, and everything else he just left his administration to handle. You could argue whether it was sensible to do that, but he felt that because he had made his policies and his principles so clear, his administration would run within those boundaries fairly smoothly. And, in fact, it did.

CHIRA: Other questions? Sir, back there.

Q: Is this on? This subject today is about the legacy of the Reagan administration. And one of the places that President Reagan chose to militarily confront communism happened to be in Central America. It was a place I had spent a lot of time in in the 1980s.

CHIRA: I’m sorry. Could you identify yourself?

Q: Oh. My name is Scott Greathead. I’m a lawyer and a member of the Council.

That conflict in Central America, which included Iran-contra and the administration’s support of the contras, which I hope one of you will speak about, because it’s been largely forgotten, I would submit, was a primary contributor to the enormous problems we have with immigration right now from Central America.

When that conflict ended, it was a few years after U.S.-trained troops murdered six Jesuits and two members of their household staff at the University of Central America in San Salvador, which happened the week the wall fell in Berlin, at a time when I think most people believed that the era of communism was pretty much over and it was time to end these wars in Central America.

So am I correct in asserting that the millions of Central American immigrants who are fleeing conditions of violence, in a place where we left hundreds of thousands of weapons behind and where tens of thousands of Salvadoran children, who grew up in Los Angeles with families who were fleeing the war and were sent back to Central America after inventing gangs called the Salvatruchas and others, are terrorizing people?

CHIRA: OK. Anyone want to address?

WEISBERG: I guess I’ll just maybe say a couple of things about that. I mean, first of all, on immigration, I think it’s—I think you have to acknowledge that—and it seems to be beyond what’s possible today—but that Reagan was extremely pro-immigration. The term amnesty is part of our vocabulary because Reagan used it as a positive term. He supported amnesty and he supported robust immigration from Latin America.

In terms of how much U.S. policy is responsible for that, I think you’d have to get into a very detailed sort of place-by-place conversation. But one thing I will say is that I don’t think Reagan, as his views, particularly in the second term, around the Cold War changed and he became cooperative with Gorbachev and in favor of radical disarmament, I don’t think he went back and updated the rest of his worldview around communism.

So he was fully capable of still pursuing a policy that was assuming aggressive Soviet expansionism around the world at a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and the Soviets had clearly and explicitly abandoned that policy, if, in fact, they had even held it in anything like the way he thought they held it before that.

And then, to just say one word around Iran-contra, I don’t think it’s forgotten, but I do think, you know, it’s understudied. And there’s a lot of new scholarship on this that is really interesting. But going back through the record, the thing that struck me about Iran-contra was how much it was an outgrowth of Reagan’s personalized approach to foreign policy, in particular his obsession with the American hostages in Lebanon.

Reagan had a kind of paternalistic view of his role as president that included the idea that he had a level of responsibility for every American citizen. And it gnawed at him that these Americans, including the CIA agent under cover and others who represented the American government, were being held hostages in these terrible conditions. And he would sometimes start these National Security Council meetings with the question, how are my hostages? My hostages.

And I think it was his focus on these individual human beings that in some ways propelled the first part, the Iran part, not the contra part, which to this day I don’t think we have evidence that he knew about. But the arms-for-hostages part was an outgrowth of his focus on the hostages.

CHIRA: Let’s have another question. Sir, in the back there.

Q: Hi. Thomas Kostner (ph) with—(inaudible)—Bank.

A question on trade policy, and maybe we can link it to the current debate about trade. But he was a free trader, right? At the same time, he put quite a restrictive trade policy in place, especially on imports from Japan. So if you could elaborate on what he did and how he did it.

CHIRA: Anyone care to—James?

WALLISON: I’ll weigh in on this.

CHIRA: Peter?

WALLISON: All I can say about that—I really am not a trade specialist. Actually, I’m not a foreign-policy specialist either, as you can tell. But all I can say about that is that this was something that Reagan spoke about frequently and wanted to achieve. He wanted to open up the borders so the United States could compete more effectively around the world, and he thought one of the reasons that one would do this is that this would force our companies to become more competitive. An alliance or an element that was similar to that, but not necessarily a trade issue, had to do with what was going on in the United States at that time, which was the effort to change managements in the largest companies, which were deemed to be very slack and inefficient. And we in—I was also in the Treasury Department for a long time, and we had a lot of attempts by people representing these companies coming in and telling us, oh, this is terrible the way these takeovers are occurring; it’s very wasteful and it’s breaking up these wonderful companies. And we would say, forget it; the president’s policy is to allow as much of this to go on as was going on, and he’s not going to interfere, and we’re not going to take any actions to help you. And I think, over time, it did have the effect that we were hoping and Reagan was hoping would occur.

WEISBERG: Susan, can I just add a word on that?


WEISBERG: I mean, I think it’s just so stark right now. What was Reaganism? Reaganism was a belief in lower taxes, smaller government, free trade, free enterprise, military strength, and a strong projection of American power. It was the ideology of the Republican Party from 1980 until 2015. It is now—it is now, I think—you can make an argument that there’s a possibility it will come back, but I think it’s also possible we will look at this as a historical period in which American politics was dominated by that set of beliefs. And I personally think it’s pretty much ended.

CHIRA: Yeah. Other questions? Right in the back.

Q: Thank you. Deroy Murdock, senior fellow at the Atlas Network and a member of the Council.

I’d like to invite you to engage in some counterfactual speculation. On the evening of November 11th—I believe it was—1989, citizens of East Berlin started jumping onto the Berlin Wall and waving to the people on the other side, eventually jumping over into West Berlin. What do you think would have happened had Gorbachev called East German dictator Erich Honecker and said that wall stays up at all costs? How much longer could—how much longer could the wall and the Iron Curtain have stayed up?

CHIRA: I don’t know. What do you guys—

WILSON: I have a—my initial response to this is that, you know, we have—the panel is about Reagan’s legacy, and Reagan was an important figure at the end of the Cold War. However, I also think George H.W. Bush was a tremendous figure at the end of the Cold War, and Secretary of State Jim Baker, and others. And it’s difficult—obviously, the counterfactual, let me just address part of it, right? You asked about, well, how would—what if Gorbachev had acted different. And, you know, if you’re looking at the U.S. response to this, the way it went through, and Bush was criticized almost immediately for being not triumphant enough. But George Bush, who as vice president for eight years had been in charge of something called the Special Situations Group, which was a kind of crisis-management interagency group, that sometimes looked at, OK, what would be the really worst-case scenarios that could happen in the Cold War, and one of them was the kind of sudden or gradual loosening of power, of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, and that you would have a moment such as the counterfactual you raised, that you would have a kind of—some kind of repetition of the Prague Spring or Hungary in ’56. And I think that that’s why Bush was particularly cautious when you kind of look at him on camera.

I should also add that I’ve been to the Gorbachev Foundation, and still sort of trying to find Politburo meetings from this time. And I still don’t think we’ve gotten the full accounting of the discussions around Gorbachev during that week. I do think that they were much more concerned during that period with the Baltics—the kind of inner empire, if you will, or the union. But I think it’s still an outstanding question of what exactly Gorbachev and those around him were talking and thinking about during that week.

WEISBERG: And, Jim, there’s some—

CHIRA: Peter? Oh, sorry. I’m sorry.

WEISBERG: I’m sorry. I was going say there’s some evidence, isn’t there, that Gorbachev by that point had to let those Eastern European leaders know, you guys are on your own; the calvary’s not coming. So, in that sense, it may not be a good counterfactual, because that wasn’t a call that Gorbachev made at the moment. It was a continuation. And this is what, I sort of agree with you, we don’t know enough about. But I think it points in the direction of that die had been cast; he wasn’t intervening.

CHIRA: Peter, did you want to say something?

WALLISON: Yeah. I’d just add that, as when I was talking before about what Reagan had done with the U.S. economy and so forth, had done during this period of the ’80s—I hope I said the ’80s; I might have said 2003—(laughter)—

CHIRA: No, I think you’re OK.

WALLISON: 1983. I think everyone knew that. But what Reagan had done was really change the way the world looked at the United States and about the way the United States pursued its objectives. So I don’t actually think it would have mattered one way or the other whether Gorbachev was in power at that time or not; that the people of the Soviet Union and the leaders of the Soviet Union probably understood that they were on the losing side and they’d better change the nature of their economy if they were going to be able to compete with the United States.

CHIRA: So I have one final question. This gentleman’s had his hand up.

Q: Thank you very much. Mahesh K. Kotecha, SCIC. Hi, Peter.

WALLISON: Hello, Mahesh. (Laughs.)

Q: Great to see you. The question is to you and actually, more broadly, to the panel. You mentioned the things that Reagan cared about. I think two of you did: deregulation, and the term was a magic of the marketplace. And I wonder if you could comment on the legacy of that. You have written about the financial crisis. Could you sort of do the pros and cons of that legacy? In two minutes or less. (Laughter.)

CHIRA: We are pledged to end on time, so. (Laughs.)

WALLISON: Well, actually, it does fit in very much with my book, which is—(laughter)—

CHIRA: Well done. (Laughs.)

WALLISON: —“Hidden in Plain Sight.”

Well, it happened the financial crisis was caused by the United States government’s housing policies. It was not a crisis of the private sector. And I won’t go any further into that, but if you—

WEISBERG: That’s another meeting. (Laughter.)

WALLISON: It’s another meeting, and a long meeting, and I’m happy to talk about it at that point. But if you look at the crisis as the result of deregulation, that would be wrong. There was deregulation, but in fact, what the United States was doing at that time through government housing policies was forcing decline in mortgage underwriting standards, which produced a massive bubble and finally a collapse.

Mahesh, I appreciate the question, but I was unable to provide enough time to answer it.

CHIRA: OK. Do you want to address? Because—this will be our closing comment.

WILSON: A very quick, quick comment about Gorbachev’s perceptions, and I do think it relates to some of these discussions—Gorbachev’s perceptions in November of ’89, and that it was not just the recovery of the United States, but international capitalism more broadly, and specifically West Germany, the FRG, and Japan that in Gorbachev’s—to him, their kind of peaceful recovery had—went entirely against the predictions of Marxist Leninism. He was seeing that actually this could happen, and it was not just a conspire against the Soviet Union.

CHIRA: Right. Well—did you want to say before we wrap up?

WEISBERG: Well, just a—just a very concise last word. I think Reagan thought that the federal government was essentially incapable of good and the free market was essentially incapable of evil—(laughter)—and that he was—he was—despite his many insights, both views were excessive. And we have—but he has a very—he has a very significant positive legacy, but I think there’s also a negative legacy attached to the overreach and extremism of both views.

CHIRA: Well, I’d like to thank everyone for attending. And I’d like to thank our panelists: Peter Wallison, Jacob Weisberg, James Graham Wilson. Thank you so much. (Applause.)


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