For Many, Appreciation Grew Over Time
Tributes Note Reagan's Cold War Role and His Vision of a United Europe
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A06
LONDON, June 6 -- He scared them at first, a Hollywood cowboy who rose to the most powerful office in the world with seemingly no background in or grasp of foreign affairs. But many Europeans over time grew to respect Ronald Reagan's commitment to winning the Cold War and his willingness to work peacefully to bring about the demise of the Soviet Union, commentators and historians said Sunday.
Some contrasted Reagan's image here with that of another president who has inspired a similar mixture of fear, concern and, at times, contempt among Europeans: George W. Bush. But unlike Bush, they said, Reagan gradually overcame these perceptions, persuading many that he had their best interests at heart.
"I think the man on the bus would probably say we underestimated him, we thought he was too simplistic," said the German political scientist Michael Stuermer of the 40th American president, who died Saturday. "Somehow, he managed to bring about change in the Soviet Union, helped it understand that it was at its end. Ultimately, we owe him a great thank you."
European leaders marked Reagan's death with unusually fulsome praise, crediting him also with setting the stage for Europe's reunification, celebrated in last month's historic expansion of the European Union to include eight members of the former Soviet bloc.
"His commitment to overcoming the East-West conflict and his vision of a free and united Europe helped create the conditions for a development in which ultimately the restoration of German unity was made possible," wrote German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in a letter to President Bush.
But most of the encomiums failed to note how European perceptions of Reagan altered over time. At first many saw him as an American rustic lacking both the knowledge and the sophistication to navigate in a complex world. His administration's campaign to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles aimed at the Soviet bloc triggered mass protests throughout Western Europe, and his characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" struck many here as bellicose and frightening.
"Reagan was very much a rural American with football in his blood, and all of this seemed quite strange to us," said British author Godfrey Hodgson, who wrote a history of modern American conservatism and produced a three-part television documentary on the Reagan era. "People felt he was reckless and a little chauvinistic. But this country was very polarized politically. For every person who found Reagan scary there were those who found him reassuring."
Chief among his fans was Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Britain during the Reagan presidency and a fellow conservative who shared his passionate anti-communism and opposition to the Soviet Union while cutting back the power and purse strings of government back home. But as Times of London political columnist Peter Riddell pointed out, the two leaders often fought on issues such as the United States' invasion of the former British colony of Grenada, which Thatcher opposed, and Reagan's evolving advocacy of nuclear disarmament, which she viewed with skepticism.
"They had this ideological cement which enabled them to have arguments," said Riddell, who reported from Washington during the last days of the Reagan era and has written a history of British-American relations. "Plus they were such different people. He was so relaxed and easygoing, and he rather enjoyed being harangued by her."
Riddell said that Reagan's advisers and lieutenants, especially in the Pentagon, believed the president overindulged Thatcher because he admired her so much. Thus she was able to persuade him to override the Pentagon's wishes and veto a request to sell U.S. arms to a democratically elected government in Argentina after the Falklands conflict. "She played him absolutely brilliantly," Riddell said.
While Britons found Reagan hard to understand at times, Hodgson said, they admired his sense of style and effortless affability. President Bush, by contrast, seems tense and hostile to many Europeans.
"George W. Bush appears to dislike and despise us," said Hodgson. "We get the feeling he believes Europe is unimportant, elderly, weak and irrelevant. Reagan did not give off those vibes at all. Even if he was a bit scary, we knew he was a friend."
Europeans were angered and dismayed by many of Reagan's policies, including his support for repressive governments in Central America and South Africa and, in his second term, the Iran-contra affair. But many grew to admire his commitment to nuclear disarmament and his willingness to cooperate with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in reducing the threat from nuclear weapons.
Germans gradually warmed to Reagan, said Stuermer, after a difficult beginning.
"The Germans tend to refer to American presidents they do not like as cowboys, without understanding what cowboy means, that cowboys were generally peaceful people, who were interested in their cattle," he said. "There was great fear of a confrontation with the Russians." But the confrontation over missile deployment turned out to be "the last great battle of the Cold War, preparing the ground for Gorbachev."
"Maybe he had a great touch of luck, but maybe he knew something," said Stuermer. "He was not the most sophisticated American president, but maybe he knew something that other people did not know."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company