I am honored to speak at this conference sponsored by Timbro, one of the major free market think tanks of Scandinavia and Europe… and by the Institute for Information on the Crimes of Communism, which is undertaking with the clarity and force of truth the essential task of insisting on memory of the injustice, misery, and horror that communism visited on humanity.
I am honored as well to appear on the same podium with John O’Sullivan, executive editor, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, former editor of National Review and of National Interest and speechwriter to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher… and with Robin Harris, senior advisor and confidant to Prime Minister Thatcher throughout her years at Downing Street and collaborator (as was John) with Lady Thatcher on her books, in Robin’s case including The Downing Street Years and Statecraft.
Between them, John and Robin have helped define both British and American conservatism in our age.
And it is an honor to appear with Gregor Gauden, editor-in-chief of the Polish publication Rzeczpospolita and fellow dissident with Lech Walesa during the Solidarity years.
And finally, it is an honor to share a podium with Mart Laar, the Prime Minister of Estonia in the time just after liberation and institutor of the economic reforms that have led to so much growth and economic freedom in that heroic nation.
I have been asked to speak on Ronald Reagan’s lifelong opposition to communism.
I am going to talk about three elements of his opposition to communism: first, about the journey of intellect and experience that produced this opposition; then about a little understood element of his tactical genius in peacefully facing down the Soviets; finally about his grand strategy, including elements of which only a few people are aware.
In a sense, the story of intellect and experience is a twice-told – or twice two hundred told – tale.
Everyone knows of Mr. Reagan’s opposition to the communist attempts after World War II to take over the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood.
Stories of that time in his life abound, including of a meeting had been called and it turned out that the communists ran it.
Afterwards, the word went around that those who couldn’t stomach that crowd and what they were up to should meet at a particular home. Reagan got there early.
Soon Olivia de Havilland arrived. Seeing Reagan, she said, “I thought you were on of them.” He replied, I thought YOU were one of them.”
As one actor after another arrived, the exclamation was heard, “I thought you were one of them.”
Again and again the answer came back, “No, but I thought YOU were on of them.”
It was a lesson in the communist tactic of making opponents feel isolated and the power of saying, “You are not alone.”
It was a lesson Ronald Reagan carried with him to the White House.
When the communists called a strike against the industry and enforced their picket lines with goon squads, those who opposed the strike found an underground route behind the lot into the studio facilities.
Reagan insisted on riding in full view, the only one in a bus that drove straight into the studio front gate.
People would see that he was not afraid of the thugs and their tactics. Again he was saying, this time by his actions, “You are not alone.”
In March 1947 Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. He served seven terms through 1959.
Someone once asked what it was that stopped the communists from organizing Hollywood. “They ran into a one-man army,” a commentator reported, “an army by the name of Ronald Reagan.”
Some stories are less known but equally telling — as when, in the late 1970s, he first visited the Berlin Wall. With him was Richard Allen, later his first national security advisor.
As Allen tells it, Reagan stood looking at the wall. He said nothing. But Allen could see his face and see the fury building in him.
The same storm that had swept away the communists in the union was gathering against the citadel of communism, the Soviet Union.
But Reagan’s opposition to communism wasn’t simply emotional.
Even now, it is little known how widely and deeply he read. He was a voracious consumer of books, articles, speech, everything.
The Andersons of the Hoover Institution have show that he wrote his own highly informed and incisive radio scripts and maintained an extensive correspondence, even while in the White House.
In his White House years, he also kept an extensive diary – a small portion of which has been published.
Until he entered formal politics he wrote his own speeches… and I can testify that, even in the White House, he would upon occasion edit or add. He was an outstanding editor.
In the most literal sense he was a man of letters… and speeches… and scripts… and much else.
But, as I say, this enormous output would not have been possible without an even more enormous input.
He was extensively read in history… American… ancient… European.
When I was working as a volunteer in the New York office of the 1980 campaign, I was assigned to help the advance man in the candidate’s visit to the city. As we rode out to Newark airport, where Mr. Reagan would arrive, the advance man told me of the years he had spent with the soon to be president. In the evening, he said, the governor liked to tell stories from American history, and would go on for hours doing so.
Later I saw him ad lib such a story in speeches.
It wasn’t just history.
He was extensively read in economics, including Hayek and Friedman.
Hayek once said that Mr. Reagan had told him that he had read only the first chapters of Hayek’s landmark Constitution of Liberty. But, Hayek added, he governed as if the had read it all.
And he may have. My observation was that he did not want people to know how much or how deeply he read.
Near the end of his presidency Barbara Walters asked him in an interview what books he was into at the moment. It happened that I knew he was going through several books about various areas of policy and history. But his answer – typical of him – was the comedian George Burn’s recently released memoire of his wife and show business partner Gracie.
Reagan could quote from memory passages ranging from Scottish Ballads… to Whitaker Chamber’s classic account of his own personal war with communism – first a war within his soul – Witness… to, as he once in my presence threatened to recite, Dangerous Dan McGrew.
And he knew the writings of Marx and Lenin.
You may recall his first press conference when he said that the Soviets “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.”
The media howled, but all he was doing was telling them in their ignorance what Lenin himself had said about the ends-justify-the-means morality of communism.
He understood communism and communist ideology perhaps better than any of our presidents… perhaps better than any presidential advisor.
All this knowledge… all this passion… all this sense of history… he brought with him to the presidency.
That and something more….
He was in the Oval Office one day in the second term.
A report had come in from the CIA saying once again that the Soviet Union was stable and permanent.
“I don’t believe it,” he told a senior aide, who later told me.
“Why,” the advisor asked.
“Because” Reagan said, “communism is against human nature.”
Consider that for a moment: “Communism is against human nature.” Here was a politician with a philosophical (in the purest sense of the term) concept of man and the human spirit as a force in history.
Not everyone peered so deeply. When Reagan came to office, many thought the West would lose the Cold War.
Reagan understood that, if we were strong and of courage, we would win – because the greatest force in time and space is not guns or dollars or any of the tangible instruments of power.
With the Pope… with Mrs. Thatcher… he believed… he knew… that the greatest force moving history is the human spirit… the hunger for freedom… the thirst for achievement… the aspiration, the pursuit of happiness.
In the speech that launched his national political career – it was played numerous times on national television during the 1964 presidential campaign – Reagan quoted a U.S. senator referring to the American people in socialist style as “the masses”. Reagan followed up the quote remarking, “I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as ‘the masses.’”
You ask about his lifelong opposition to communism.
His opposition wasn’t life long in any true sense. It was a product of his maturity – of his experience, of his learning, of his thought.
But what we can be sure is that from his mother and father, from the towns where he grew up in Northern Illinois, from college study, from his early career, he came to his maturity with an American understanding of freedom… and of the glory of the free man and free woman… and knowing in the most basic, fundamental sense what so many sophisticates of that age… and I am afraid our age… had forgotten: That free men and women are not the masses… that each is an individual soul… and proud… and in freedom, whatever their economic circumstances, magnificent.
That affirmation germinated in his youth and grew in his manhood and defined his life and achievements.
Yes, as an American I would say that it was it was an American affirmation.
But the American affirmation is not a national affirmation. It is a universal affirmation… as was said in the American beginning, that all men are created equal… with inalienable rights… including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
These “self-evident” truths are true not because they are American, but because they apply for all time… in all places… to all souls.
This Ronald Reagan knew. This Ronald Regan believed.
Now what I have just talked to you about is Ronald Reagan’s personal journey and his moral insight. I’d like to take a few moments to talk about a rarely understood source of his tactical insight.
I suspect it will come as a surprise to a European audience that understanding Reagan’s service as a union president is central to grasping his tactical genius.
Take this story that Reagan used to tell about his days heading the Screen Actors Guild: Negotiations with the studios had just finished. Before signing the final agreement, he and his team retired to assess the results. “We looked it over and decided that some of what we’d got would be bad for the industry, so we returned to the room and gave it back.”
It sounded like a Boy Scout’s good-deed-of-the-day tale, but no Reagan story gives a clearer window to his amazing effectiveness on the world stage.
Think of the dynamics of a labor negotiation. The union starts with three lists: the first list, the must-haves; the second list, the nice-but-not-essentials; and the third list, the there-to-give-aways.
Against the ruthless studios, Reagan had worked so far into the “give aways” that he had reached a fourth list, the “we’ll ask, but we don’t want under any circumstances” list.
This was the man that congressional Democrats such as House of Representatives speaker Tip O’Neill and Soviet leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev initially considered such easy pickings.
From the first, Reagan approached the presidency like a labor leader — as a platform for negotiations.
One Soviet official summed up the Reagan negotiating style saying: “When you bargain with Ronald Reagan, he takes you by the arm, leads you to the edge of the cliff, and then invites you to take a step forward for the good of humanity.”
But there was more to it than that.
Like a labor leader, he sought to enter talks with the strongest possible hand and to weaken that of his opponent. This meant aggressive initial offers that also, as was often said inside the administration, “seized the moral high ground.”
His opening and ultimately successful bid on intermediate-range missiles in Europe was that the United States would not build such weapons if the Soviets would junk those they’d already deployed. It had the unanswerable moral appeal of eliminating a class of weapons but was so unbalanced that his chief negotiator, Paul Nitze, protested: How could he, Nitze, seriously table such a one-sided offer?
Reagan replied: “Just tell them that you work for one mean SOB.”
The President used public opinion as a bargaining lever, also like a labor leader. Just as he appealed to the nation to back his tax cuts, he appealed to the people of Europe to stand up to the Soviets. Finally, standing before the bust of Lenin at Moscow State University, he appealed to the Soviet people to join the community of normal nations.
His public-diplomacy campaign included broadcasts directly to Europe as well as the now widely replayed pair of Normandy speeches in 1984.
After they walked out of the Intermediate Nuclear Force talks in his first term, the Soviets launched a massive European campaign against the U.S.-led deployment, much as they had against the proposed neutron bomb deployment of Reagan’s predecessor. Had they forced a second retreat, they would have established an effective veto over new NATO weapons systems, crippling the alliance and setting the stage for a very different world than we know today.
Reagan’s effectiveness in arguing for staying the course helped produce wins for the pro-NATO party in the British, German, Canadian, and, of course, U.S. elections that followed. Only after those victories did the Soviets return to the bargaining table.
Time after time, in classic labor leader fashion, President Reagan marshaled popular support, then held out to the last moment before coming to terms. And although during actual negotiations he would stand behind the curtain as much as possible (another classic parleying technique), he stepped forward when necessary to drive deals to a close or to jump-start stalled talks (as at Reykjavik).
Reagan once said that, after negotiating with the great moguls of Hollywood, the Soviets were a snap. Perhaps so. But the U.S.-USSR negotiations of his term were among the final Cold War battlefields, central to the strategy that produced the Evil Empire’s peaceful collapse.
Like so many commentators today, the Soviets never figured out that it was not just an actor they faced across the bargaining table. It was an American labor leader, perhaps the most experienced and skilled negotiator ever to sit in the Oval Office.
Now, we’ve gone over Reagan’s personal journey and at least one essential tactical element of how he dealt with the Soviets.
I am going to talk to you for a few minutes on his grand strategy, elements of which very few people know and some who should know better have forgotten.
It is now said that the policy of containment brought down the Soviet Union, but as of the late 1970s containment was not working. The Soviets had evolved an endgame strategy that would have left them in effective control of the entirety of Europe and left the United States isolated and embattled—all but impotent.
The Soviets had begun pouring resources into insurgencies at the mouth of the Red Sea and in the lower quarter of Africa—chokepoints in Western Europe’s access to supertanker-delivered Middle Eastern oil.
Soviet-sponsored “peace” movements had, as I just noted, intimidated President Jimmy Carter into canceling NATO deployment of the neutron bomb. They would soon attempt to stop President Reagan’s plans to base Pershing missiles in Europe in response to Soviet SS-20 deployments.
Soviet-sponsored insurgencies were under way in Central America, and, if successful, destabilization of southern Mexico was a likely next target.
Unstopped, by the year 2000 these Soviet initiatives would likely have produced, one, a Soviet chokehold on Western Europe’s economy; two, an effective Soviet veto over NATO weapons deployments; three, collapsed credibility for the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Europe as Europeans saw that the Warsaw Pact could hit European targets from non-Soviet Eastern Europe while the United States would have to respond from its mainland, escalating a regional nuclear exchange into an unacceptable global one; and four, pressure on the U.S. southern border that, as instability in Central America spread north to Mexico, would compromise the capacity of the United States to maintain a troop presence in Europe.
By 1981, the Soviets were rushing toward what some characterized as the “Finlandization” of Western Europe, meaning not outright occupation but hegemony in the manner of Soviet hegemony over Finland. Instead, on Christmas Day one decade later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Under Ronald Reagan, America and its allies moved from a passive and failing policy of containment to matching and besting the Soviet Union in all the areas where it claimed superiority.
Putting economic stress on the Soviet system — leading it, in Reagan’s word, to “implode”—was central to the strategy. Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer has found that the concept of linking a military buildup with the goal of bankrupting the Soviet Union appeared in Reagan’s statements reaching back several decades before his presidency.
Other elements of the strategy were military modernization and political persuasion, including public information campaigns making the Soviets accountable for their actions at home.
As military historian Norman Friedman has said of the administration’s thinking: “A Soviet regime that had to recognize the rights of its citizens would be accountable and could not be aggressive. Thus human rights in the Soviet Union—irreversible domestic liberalization—became the central policy goal.”
Reagan and his associates stopped the Soviet encirclement strategy, meeting Soviet-sponsored insurgencies with counterinsurgencies.
They went forward with Pershing deployment.
They made the case for freedom’s superiority to communism more insistently than any other Cold War administration, not only in the president’s own statements—beginning with his first press conference—but also through Radio Free Europe and every vehicle of communication at their disposal.
Russian and Eastern European dissidents of the period have spoken since of how much these words heartened them and helped them persevere, in the process driving up the cost and complexity of holding together the Soviet empire.
According to Hoover’s Schweizer—who studied Moscow’s own numbers in data that became available to researchers—the list of U.S.-induced Soviet costs included blocking a second strand on the Russia-to-Europe natural gas pipeline ($7-8 billion a year), operations against U.S.-backed guerrillas ($8 billion a year), extra arms to Cuba after the U.S. operation in Grenada ($1 billion), matching the U.S. arms buildup ($10-15 billion a year), costs associated with technology import restrictions ($1-2 billion a year), lost revenues from oil price declines that were in part the product of U.S. diplomacy ($5-6 billion a year), and extra aid to Poland following U.S. sanctions ($1 billion).
Mrs. Thatcher has written that Reagan’s missile defense plans, the Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI, tipped the balance. Its promise to make the Soviet Union’s massive post-Cuban Missile Crisis investment in a first-strike capacity obsolete crushed the will of the USSR’s leadership.
But military historian Friedman suggests that SDI was just the most spectacular manifestation of a broader revolution in military affairs driven by application of the microchip to both weaponry and operations. The Soviets understood, he maintains, that this information revolution threatened to make their entire military establishment obsolete, and their political and economic systems left them incapable of matching it – while the entrepreneurial boom that produced the advances in the microchip was a payoff of the Reagan economic program.
John Lehman, Reagan’s secretary of the navy for much of his presidency, has told of steps designed to convince the Soviets that a military confrontation had become useless.
I believe that very few people know that the decision to find and photograph the wreck of the Titanic was part of this shadow play.
According the Lehman, speaking at a small conference at the time of the christening of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, the Administration was looking for a means of demonstrating to the Soviets the gulf between U.S. undersea capabilities and theirs and this was it.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, as the Soviet Union began to falter and crumble, we continued to state the case against communism, as in calling on Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. But we also made clear in speech after speech, including during the 1988 Moscow Summit, that we did not pose a military threat to the Soviets – and that we were there to help them become a “normal” nation.
I have spoken today about Ronald Reagan’s personal journey against communism and some of the tactics and the strategy he used – in concert with Prime Minister Thatcher, Pope John-Paul II, and other global leaders – to bring down the Soviet Union.
Twenty years have passed since these events. Memories dim. New generations rise. Even the greatest events become scrambled in the puzzles of time.
Some today say the Russians lost the Cold War. I do not believe that is what Ronald Reagan, were he here, would say.
I believe he would say that the Russian people won, the people of Eastern Europe won, all of humanity won the Cold War. The Soviets lost. The Russian people, the Poles, East Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Bulgarians, and people everywhere won.
And if pressed about the role of his tactics and strategy, I believe he would say that, at bottom, what tipped the balance was that simple fact and central truth: That communism was incompatible with the human spirit… and that the assertion of this spirit in places where it had been suppressed required most essentially for someone to say, “You are not alone.”
And I feel certain he would applaud the truth of what the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, V.S. Naipaul said some years ago about what he called “the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness.”
“So much is contained in it,” he said. “The idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement.”
“It is,” he said, “ an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end will blow away.”
This is what Ronald Reagan believed in. This is what he stood for and fought for. This is what he achieved.