On the day Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, the United States faced challenges as daunting as any in its history.
The country’s globally dominant economy was like an all-but-beaten prizefighter, a giant on wobbly legs, eyes glassed over, swaying toward collapse. The legs were unemployment and inflation. Economists from the super-confident neo-Keynesian consensus of the ’60s and early ’70s believed that by stepping with one, then the other, they could keep the economy in overall balance.
Except that by 1980 both unemployment and inflation were in a supposedly impossible simultaneous advance. On Inauguration Day 1981, inflation was approaching the 20th century’s peacetime high while unemployment neared its post-World War II record. No one could agree on how to prevent a catastrophic fall.
Meanwhile, overseas, the West looked close to throwing in the Cold War towel. The long twilight struggle was global in scope, but from start to finish the prize was Europe. And with the United States in a geopolitical funk since retreating from Vietnam, by Inauguration Day 1981, the Soviets were bent on disassembling the Atlantic Alliance.
In the mid to late 1970s, they had stationed SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in their Warsaw Pact satellites. SS-20s allowed a nuclear attack on Western Europe from non-Soviet territories using missiles that could not reach the United States. Few believed that the U.S. would respond with home-based missiles, triggering a doomsday Soviet-U.S. exchange. NATO resolved to deploy 1,100-mile-range Pershing II missiles in Europe. Stationed at bases in West Germany, the Pershings were intended to ease European concerns about the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Immediately, Soviet propaganda and a fifth column of anti-nuclear activists mobilized, particularly in Germany. In 1978, Soviet-instigated denunciations and demonstrations had intimidated the Carter administration into canceling deployment of the neutron bomb. As Reagan entered office, the Kremlin hoped to make the U.S. back off Pershing deployment, too, effectively establishing a Soviet veto over future NATO weapons systems.
Meanwhile, after installing client regimes in Yemen, Afghanistan, Angola and Mozambique, the Soviets looked poised to grab control of the chokepoints in the Middle East’s European oil trade. In Central America, similar moves in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala were opening doors south toward the Panama Canal and north into the already unstable southern provinces of Mexico. A destabilized Mexico could force the U.S. to withdraw troops from Europe and elsewhere to protect its southern border.
Henry Kissinger has written that longtime Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko would study the world map for an hour daily, meditating on global strategy. Perhaps this brilliant multi-continental application of military, fifth-column and economic pressures was the result. Whatever its source, on Inauguration Day 1981, it was moving Western Europe toward what strategist Walter Laqueur called “Finlandization”—a “state of affairs in which, under the cloak of maintaining friendly relations with the Soviet Union, the sovereignty of a country becomes reduced.” The Soviets had commenced their Cold War endgame.
Little of this alarming context comes through in “Reagan: The Life,” H.W. Brands’s biography of the president who assumed office on Jan. 20, 1981. In his concluding chapter Mr. Brands compares Ronald Reagan favorably to Franklin Roosevelt. “What Roosevelt had been to the first half of the twentieth century,” he writes, “Reagan was to the second half.” Indeed, “in certain respects, Reagan’s accomplishment was greater,” for both at home and abroad he faced more challenging political obstacles.
But Mr. Brands’s admiration is for a shallow, unreflective man who could convince himself and the American people of most anything and who was lucky enough to be on the scene when the American economy took flight and the Soviet Union began to implode, in each case helped along only when he moved his policies toward those of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Relying on Mr. Brands, a reader would have trouble guessing the character of the challenges Reagan confronted or what Reagan did to defeat them.
Much has been written about how Reagan brought the Evil Empire to its knees. He rejected prior policies of détente and containment, replacing them with an approach that he summarized as “We win; they lose.” His grand strategy was as multi-faceted as that of the Soviets, combining economic pressures, support of Poland’s Solidarity movement and Third World anti-Soviet freedom fighters, an arms buildup, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and moral suasion.
For example, Reagan’s much admired “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech, delivered on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, was not just about American election-year politics, as Mr. Brands portrays it. Recalling the common struggle against Nazism was part of countering Soviet attempts to strip European public support away from the Atlantic Alliance. So was Reagan’s 1985 speech following a visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg, West Germany. Emphasizing decades of reconciliation, he drew a line between Germany’s totalitarian past and its free present, celebrating its alliance with the United States. Two years later, Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate opened public imaginations on both sides of the Iron Curtain to the end of divisions in Germany and Europe. Finally, Soviet-era dissidents have told former Reagan White House speechwriters how essential the president’s forthright addresses throughout these years were to their continued resistance.
Mr. Brands does give appropriate attention to Reagan the negotiator. Three chapters focus on the November 1985 Geneva summit and five on the October 1986 flash summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. But here again he reveals little comprehension of his subject.
Reagan established his approach to bargaining during his years as president of and lead bargainer for the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood actors union. In 1947, the newly elected SAG leader appeared before a congressional hearing investigating the influence of communists in the film industry. He rejected suggestions that the party should be banned from union activity. By fully informing the union’s membership, he said, he and his associates had kept the communists at bay. Decades later, at the end of the Geneva summit, as recorded in meeting notes but not in Mr. Brands’s book, he told the Soviets that a long night awaited him and his staff as they headed for Air Force One. They had to prepare their report to the American people, a speech that he delivered before Congress immediately after landing in Washington.
In other words, Reagan used speeches and other communications to make the stakes on any given issue clear to all. He unified supporters while encouraging dissenters inside the opponent’s ranks. He always worked to position the opposition as obstructionist if they were not forthcoming, but, as with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1988 Washington summit, encouraged a full measure of public applause when they came to terms.
In actual talks, he was an attentive listener. Yet reading transcripts, including those Mr. Brands quotes, one is struck by how candidly he engaged Mr. Gorbachev in debate about each side’s character and intentions. He worked to put Russia’s interests in a new light for the Soviet leader. One Soviet negotiator later said that, in negotiations, Reagan takes you by the arm, walks you to the cliff’s edge and invites you to step forward for the good of humanity.
Some of Mr. Brands’s blindness comes from not understanding pivotal factors. “The SS-20s threatened merely America’s allies,” he writes, “but the Pershings . . . threatened the Soviet Union itself”—which, of course, entirely misses the nuclear chess play.
Then, too, he writes that Reagan “promised Americans the gift of tax cuts, which he delivered without insisting on conservatism’s traditional preconditions, spending cuts.” So what was the purpose of all those battles with Tip O’Neill over budgets that the speaker declared “dead on arrival”?
In point of fact, Reagan’s was the only full presidency in the past five decades during which domestic discretionary spending in constant dollars has declined. Reagan’s Greenspan Commission put the period’s big entitlement challenge, Social Security, on a sound financial footing for the next quarter-century. And the surpluses of the later Clinton years came heavily from defense spending cuts, the result of ending the Cold War, impossible without the costly defense buildup of Reagan’s first term. But, of course, a biographer who fails to notice America’s role in the Cold War’s conclusion won’t make that connection.
Missing the essentials, Mr. Brands focuses on peripherals. He devotes six chapters and parts of others to Iran-Contra. Oblivious to strategic context, he presents resistance to Soviet moves in Central America as a kind of Reagan chew toy, a personal obsession. He absolves the president of foreknowledge about the diversion of funds to Nicaraguan resistance forces. He quotes White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan’s observation that Reagan “blanched” when Attorney General Edwin Meese informed him of the rogue operation. He adds that First Lady Nancy Reagan described the president as “pale and absolutely crushed” a few hours later when he told her. But, against his own evidence, Mr. Brands concludes: “Reagan didn’t know about the diversion of funds . . . because he didn’t want to know.”
He would have done better to pay attention to the first lady’s own astute assessment, which he quotes. “I can’t imagine that this problem would have developed during Ronnie’s first term,” she wrote, “when the ‘troika’ of [Chief of Staff James] Baker, [Counselor to the President] Meese, and [Deputy Chief of Staff Michael] Deaver was in charge. The West Wing was far more open then, and if anything devious had been going on in the White House basement it would have come to light—and certainly to Ronnie’s attention.”
Mr. Brands is weakest when plumbing deeper motivations. His explanation for every career move is Reagan’s drive to “play on a bigger stage,” which puts theatrical makeup on a banality: that a man who sought the presidency was ambitious. He does not grasp the prairie Protestantism of Reagan’s mother, which made dedication to first principles of individual freedom her son’s driving inner force. Nor does he see the influence of the lapsed Irish Catholicism of Reagan’s father, which instilled an iron sense of justice in the son. And it entirely escapes his attention that two groups Reagan so deliberately drew with him into the Republican coalition—non-hierarchical Protestants and Irish Catholics—look very much like his parents.
Drawing on memoirs and oral histories, as well as on Reagan’s own speeches and writings, Mr. Brands has produced a comprehensive, highly readable but superficial and largely clueless work. Those interested in knowing about the 40th president would do well to turn instead to authors like Steven Hayward, Craig Shirley, John O’Sullivan, Peter Schweizer and Peter Robinson.
This biography is newer. It isn’t even close to better.