RONALD REAGAN AND HIS QUEST TO
ABOLISH NUCLEAR WEAPONS
By Paul Lettow. Random House. 327 pp. $25.95
President Ronald Reagan at his first meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland
Paul Lettow has found the purloined letter of the Reagan presidency: the fact that much of his Cold War policy was driven by a desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons. This aspect of Reagan is part of the public record but has so far been hidden in plain view because it doesn't seem to fit his conservatism and seems so otherwise outlandish.
Lettow, a first-time author whose book resulted from his work on an Oxford doctorate, demonstrates that Reagan had acquired his fundamental beliefs in this area by the 1960s. He wanted to do away with nuclear weapons entirely, perhaps because he thought the biblical story of Armageddon foretold a nuclear war. He believed that the Soviet economy would buckle under the pressure of stiff competition in the arms race. And he supported missile defense as a technological and moral alternative to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
Lettow follows this constellation of beliefs into the White House. In 1982, Reagan signed a presidential directive known as NSDD-32, which said that the United States would muster all aspects of national power to pressure the Soviets and seek to reverse the expansion of its power. The weak Soviet economy was considered the key point of leverage.
Onto this hard-line policy Reagan grafted his goal of abolishing all nukes. Many of Reagan's aides were appalled by his "ridiculous" nuclear abolitionism. Such advisers as Secretary of State Alexander Haig and U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director Kenneth Adelman occasionally tried to dissuade him from it or at the very least keep him from airing it publicly (both to no avail). Reagan's nuclear aversion ran so deep that his aides got the sense that, incredibly, he didn't even know if he would retaliate against a Soviet first strike.
Missile defense was a key part of Reagan's anti-nuclear worldview. He schemed to make the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) administration policy, cutting out bureaucratic naysayers and then springing his idea on the world in his 1983 "Star Wars" speech. He argued that SDI would cast into doubt the success of a ballistic missile attack, thus undermining the usefulness of the missiles and spurring negotiations toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons. The United States could then share missile-defense technology with the rest of the world as an insurance policy against any stray nukes. This view was idiosyncratic, to say the least. As Lettow writes, "Not a single individual within his administration subscribed fully to [this] concept."
But in the U.S.-Soviet dialogue that had begun in earnest by 1985, the Soviets proved obsessed with ending SDI, affirming the administration's belief that Moscow feared not being able to keep up technologically. Reagan loved a political cartoon that showed a husband and wife watching a news report on how SDI would never work. The wife turns to the husband and asks, "Well, then why don't the Russians want us to have it?" In an exchange with Reagan at their 1985 summit in Geneva, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that Reagan's vision of a nuclear-free world guaranteed by SDI "contained many emotional elements, elements which were part of one man's dream."
He was right. But Reagan was adamant, and Gorbachev had to accommodate him. In 1986, he wrote Reagan a letter proposing the elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2000 in exchange for the end of SDI. Reagan aides countered. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger proposed abolishing all ballistic missiles as part of a deal to share missile-defense technology. Reagan loved the idea, but only as a step toward the achievement of his ultimate dream.
All this set the stage for the storied 1986 Reykjavik summit. Reagan and Gorbachev quickly began an ever-escalating negotiation that produced a proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. The sticking point was Gorbachev's insistence that the deal restrict SDI to the laboratory. But Reagan wouldn't budge on his devotion to SDI and walked away. According to Adelman, the president was "madder than hell" and believed that Gorbachev's objective all along had been just to kill SDI.
Some of Reagan's aides, especially National Security Adviser John Poindexter, tried to suppress the magnitude of what had been discussed. They were shocked by Reagan's willingness to go to zero. Still, many Reagan officials believed that a powerful good came out of Reykjavik: Having failed to get the Soviet Union out of its economic predicament by controlling the arms race and killing SDI, Gorbachev would have to scale back Soviet defense expenditures and attempt economic reforms.
In this effort, of course, the Soviet Union unraveled. And so Reagan achieved no small measure of vindication. His long-held belief that the Soviet economy was Moscow's weak point -- and could be exploited by an American arms buildup -- proved correct. Missile defense did not, of course, lead to the end of all nuclear arms, but by contributing to the Soviet crack-up it helped achieve the next best thing: the end of the nuclear balance of terror as we had known it for 40 years.
Lettow's book gives the reader an odd appreciation for impracticality. It was Reagan's utopian belief in the possibility of eliminating nuclear arms that spurred his creativity. That belief prompted his policy to cross ideological boundaries, making for a yeasty, original mix. But the most important ingredients to his success were the most intangible: intuition and imagination.
Working off newly declassified documents and extensive interviews with the key players, Lettow conveys this extraordinary story crisply and convincingly. Although his sympathy for Reagan is obvious, he gives a straightforward historical account that will challenge the assumptions of Reagan admirers and detractors alike. He has made a significant addition to our understanding of Reagan and the endgame of the Cold War. Score one for dreamers.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.