When liberal historian John Patrick Diggins informed Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that he was writing a biography of Ronald Reagan, Schlesinger urged him not to make Reagan “look too good.”
But unlike Schlesinger, who made “his” president—John F. Kennedy—look too good (i.e., an Arthurian king who would have ended the Cold War had he dodged Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets), Diggins was an old-fashioned historian, the kind who followed the evidence no matter where it led.
And the evidence—Reagan’s diaries, declassified papers, and above all the speeches—led Diggins into declaring Reagan one of the three greatest presidents, alongside Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But Diggins was an apostate among liberals who have then and now sought to deny Reagan credit for winning the Cold War. Some have proclaimed Mikhail Gorbachev the true hero who ended the conflict rather than the “lightweight” and “mentally challenged” Reagan. For those who think America did win, they have credited the victory as the result of Harry Truman’s containment policy, the purpose of which was to destroy the faulty Soviet economy by hemming the Russians in.
It has been left up to the center-right and conservative historians to give Reagan his due. Although they are generous to Gorbachev they empirically make the case that it was Reagan who won the Cold War.
But there has been minor disagreement as to the hinge event that resulted in the Soviet collapse. For some it was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan—Russia’s “Vietnam”—that signaled the end. For others it was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, Bret Baier has his own moment when the Cold War ended, but it is less dramatic and more symbolic. He points to Reagan’s 1988 speech to initially hostile Russian college students. Against the backdrop of a Lenin statue, Reagan in the heart of Communist Russia won them over with a speech praising Jeffersonian democracy.
Baier’s approach is epic, along the lines of liberal historian treatments of FDR and JFK. As such he is less concerned with Reagan’s closed-off personality (which obsessed Edmund Morris in his forgettable biography of the president). Instead he focuses on Reagan’s developing philosophy toward communism.
Reagan the anticommunist activist was born in a battle with Hollywood Communists while head of the Screen Actors Guild in 1946. Here he learned about Communist duplicity and terror tactics (during this period Reagan slept with a pistol near his bed). Their goal was to take over the tinsel-town unions, but Reagan prevailed by opening the floor to a membership vote as to determine the ideological complexion of the union.
A year later Reagan extended using democracy to fight communism to the nation at large in testimony before Congress in its investigation into communist influence in Hollywood. In contrast to other anticommunist witnesses who wanted to ban the Communist Party, Reagan disagreed and asserted that the best way to expose communism was to present all the facts to the American people.
But it would be in the 1950s that Reagan would craft the policies that would one day cause the Soviet collapse. As a spokesperson for General Electric he witnessed first-hand the economic strength of the country by touring factories. This strength would be instrumental to Reagan’s belief that the Cold War could be won.
Appalled by a nuclear exchange, Reagan saw America’s robust economy as a weapon. He believed that by involving the Soviets in a costly arms race they would not be able to keep up and would implode.
This message reached national audiences and won him political backing when he gave a speech for the doomed Goldwater campaign in 1964. Enunciating his criticism of the “welfare state” and those who refused to fight Soviet aggression, Reagan advocated for not only “peace through strength” but also taking the Soviets on economically.
During his first term in office Reagan put these views into practice. Rather than taking the Soviets on directly, Reagan funded their opponents in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and behind the Iron Curtain in Poland. Most of all Reagan upped the nuclear ante, placing nuclear missiles in Western Europe.
Still, this supposed “hard-liner” did reach out to Brezhnev early in his term advocating for a reduction in nuclear weapons by the two powers.
Baier takes us through the famous speeches: “the Evil Empire” and “Tear Down This Wall.” Again and again, he shows how the détente-minded in the White House, namely George H.W. Bush, sought and failed to rein him in. Baier dispenses with the perception that Reagan was a non-intellectual. He shows that Reagan was a closet writer, revising and even rewriting speeches that did not reflect his uncompromising anticommunist views.
By the time of the Gorbachev summits, Reagan had his strategy intact. These meetings did not occur because Reagan had turned “soft” on communism (an accusation made against him by conservatives outside the White House loop at the time), but was in reality using the strategies developed in the 1950s to win the Cold War.
The summits were Reagan’s greatest hour. While he believed Gorbachev to be a more reasonable type of Soviet leader, Reagan refused to back down. To an enraged Gorbachev he refused to use the term “peaceful coexistence” to describe their relations. But apart from his economic might, Reagan’s biggest ace in the hole was SDI or, as it was labeled by critics, “Star Wars.” Despite Reagan promising to share this with Gorbachev, the Soviet ruler was terrified of an American missile shield. Even among his advisers who knew such a shield was an unworkable fantasy, they nevertheless applauded how Reagan used this as leverage.
Although clearly sympathetic, Baier relies on fact. And for reasonable people it is apparent that Reagan did end the Cold War. Baier’s work validates Margaret Thatcher’s salute to Reagan at the end of his presidency for “ending the Cold War without firing a shot.”