Wednesday, July 13, 2005

# Posted 9:53 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REAGAN'S INTELLECT: Once again, well-read citizens have been confronted with a deluge of new books about the 40th president. Just this spring, we have seen the publiction of John Ehrman's The Eighties, Gil Troy's Morning in America and Paul Lettow's Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. In additon, John Gaddis has published a revised edition of his classic treatise Strategies of Containment, distinguished from its predecessor mainly by a brand new chapter on Ronald Reagan.

In due time, scholars will respond to the specific arguments that each of these four authors make about the specific aspects of Reagan's legacy on which they focus their research. But to focus on such specifics is to mistake the forest for the trees, since their is a powerful interpretive thread that unites all of these new works. That thread is the appraisal of Reagan's intellect.

The question of Reagan's intellect is so important because it is the skeleton key that unlocks the riddle of whether America's great triumphs in the 1980s are better described as a fortunate accident or as the direct result of Reagan's controversial policies, both foreign and domestic.

Unsurprisingly, liberals prefer the former interpretation while conservatives prefer the latter. However, this partisan divide tends to obscure the fact that not all that long ago, the relevant question was not whether Reagan deserved credit for the triumphs of his decade, but whether Reagan's profligate spending had eviscerated the American way of life, or whether things were destined to get better.

As late as 1992, WaPo correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Haynes Johnson argued in his bestselling account of the Reagan era that while Reagan may have contributed something to the end of the Cold War, what he left behind was a dangerously debilitated America that might never regain its strength after the traumatic decades of the Cold War.

As one might expect, Johnson's book does cast aspersion on Reagan's intellect, often in a harsh and condescending manner. Yet the question of Reagan's intellect is not integral to Johnson's argument because the evidence of Reagan's alleged failure is the visible, tangible, concrete and material decline of American society.

A decade and a half later, all of the vital signs of American life indicate that the Reagan era was a time of triumph, not failure. Thus, the question has become to what degree the president once held responsible for the nation's decline was actually the author of its almost totally unexpected success.

Although John Gaddis doesn't argue (a la Dinesh D'Souza) that Reagan compelled the Soviet Union to surrender, he does argue that Reagan understood, long before Gorbachev came to power, that the United States could spend the Soviets into submission. Although almost all Americans recognized that the Soviet Union's planned economy was a major liability, most of them (including Jimmy Carter) insisted that an arms race was inherently unwinnable.

In contrast, there is evidence that Reagan favored a military build-up precisely because he recognized its potential to bankrupt the Soviet Union. The question is, how much evidence? Although Gaddis presents the evidence as fairly robust, I was not persuaded. Undoubtedly, Reagan argued on occasion that the United States could and should win an arms race. But this idea never became a part of Reagan's cannon. Instead, the 40th president (and most certainly all of his advisers) expended a much greater effort on explaining to the American public why liberals such as Carter were so committed to underestimating the Soviet threat.

To a certain degree, these arguments are not mutually exclusive. One might say that what Reagan and his advisers were insisting upon was the underestimated malevolence of a declining Soviet Union.

If one has as much faith in Reagan's intellect as Gaddis implies, then it makes sense to interpret his limited statements about Soviet vulnerability as foundational tenets of his grand strategy for winning the Cold War. But before accepting such a speculative interpretation, I think we will need to see much more evidence emerge from the Reagan archives.

Although I have considerable respect for Reagan's intellect, I would resist any effort to describe Reagan's many pronouncments as expressions of an underlying and coherent policy agenda. Although there was a strong ideological and philosophical core to Reagan's politics, there floated around this core numerous ideas that were not fully developed and often contradicted one another.

To be continued...
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