Correction to This Article
A photo caption incorrectly identified author James Mann as Thomas Mann.
An Author Peers at Reagan, and the Brink

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

James Mann got interested in writing about Ronald Reagan when he discovered that, while Reagan was president, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld used to sneak off to undisclosed locations to prepare for Armageddon.

A longtime Los Angeles Times reporter, Mann left the paper in 2001 to write books full time. First up was "Rise of the Vulcans," a historical portrait of President George W. Bush's foreign policy team. Mann spent a couple of years asking Washington notables what they knew about Cheney, Rumsfeld and his other subjects.

"One guy said, 'Oh, well, I took part in these exercises with this guy,' " Mann recalls. "It took a while to find out what the exercises were."

It turned out, as Mann revealed in "Vulcans," that Cheney and Rumsfeld were part of a highly classified program "nowhere authorized in the U.S. Constitution or federal law." It was designed "to keep the federal government running during and after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union."

Rumsfeld was in the private sector at the time. Cheney was in Congress. But both had done stints as White House chief of staff, and now, as part of a small group of "team leaders" designated by Reagan, they had been tapped to help run a replacement government should the president die in a nuclear strike. They would vanish for days to rehearse, hooking up with "a convoy of lead-lined trucks carrying sophisticated communication equipment." Even their wives didn't know what was going on.

The discovery gave Mann a reporter's thrill.

He remembers thinking: "Jesus, if I ran into this in the course of other research, what else is there?"

But his work on "Vulcans," which was published in 2004, had him asking larger questions, too.

Reagan's first term had featured harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric, a massive arms buildup and a terrifying episode involving a 1983 NATO exercise that nervous Soviet leaders feared might presage a real attack. In this context, Mann's discovery made him wonder:

"How close did it come? And was Reagan really thinking about nuclear war?"

* * *

As soon as Ronald Wilson Reagan left office on Jan. 20, 1989, he began transitioning from his old role as partisan Rorschach test to the more exalted status of Major Historical Figure. Mann's new book, "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan," joins Princeton historian Sean Wilentz's "The Age of Reagan," published last year, as a notable artifact of this evolution.

Wilentz wrote a broader history, while Mann focused on Reagan's role in the end of the Cold War. Yet their books have a good deal in common. Each comes from a non-conservative author -- Wilentz is an outspoken liberal while Mann is more centrist, at least on foreign policy -- who sought to give a conservative icon his due. And each had to deal with powerful, competing myths that have obscured the historical record.

One myth painted Reagan as a heroic man of simple virtues who set out to "re-arm the country, cut the weight of government and win the Cold War," as columnist George Will once put it, triumphing gloriously on all counts.

The other myth dismissed the nation's 40th president as an ill-informed, saber-rattling B-movie actor who served as the pawn of powerful economic interests and had nothing to do with the end of the Cold War.

"Reagan is hard to read. Like a lot of performing artists, he was very conscious of the separation between what's on the surface and the inner man," Wilentz says. He was "a genius politician masquerading as a doofus."

"He had learned that you don't indulge in explaining your strategies," Mann says. Reagan may or may not have thought much about those strategies himself. Odds are, he relied more on his instincts. But we'll never know for sure, because catching him explaining would have been "like catching him dying his hair. It didn't happen."

At 62, Mann is still in transition himself. He retains the reporter's instincts built up over a three-decade career as a daily journalist. But he's now writing "what you'd call the near history," and he relies as much on documents as interviews.

He's talking about Reagan in his small author-in-residence office at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Its minimal decorations reflect a long-term professional interest in China, where the Los Angeles Times sent him as a foreign correspondent in the 1980s.

Mann grew up in Albany, N.Y., and in theory, his future was mapped out early. He came from a family of doctors and "went as far as getting into medical school" before deciding to try something else. Med school leave of absence in hand -- he hadn't yet enrolled -- he got a job at the New Haven Journal-Courier and never looked back.

After tours at The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun, he signed on with the Times' Washington bureau. In the great tradition of newspaper generalists, he went straight from the Supreme Court beat to Beijing. Returning to Washington, he wrote a book called "Beijing Jeep" and persuaded his bosses to let him cover foreign policy as an Asia specialist.

One day, Mann found himself in a Government Printing Office bookstore on H Street NW, where he picked up a little monograph called "Chinese Negotiating Behavior." An attempt to explain why China did so well in negotiations with the United States, it was based on a more detailed intelligence document that Mann -- his interest piqued -- eventually obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

"About Face," a 30-year history of U.S. relations with China, was one result. Another was the realization that he was ready to give up daily journalism.

"You do daily newspaper stories and you know that you're catching just a little piece of it," he says. "I was better at trying to tell the whole story."

In 2001, the Times offered a buyout. Mann took it.

Not long after Sept. 11, he got a contract for his group portrait of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage and Condoleezza Rice. Good instincts were followed by good luck: He'd had no idea how hot his subjects were about to get.

"This was not 2002, when you could have known that they were going to war in Iraq," he says, laughing. "This was in the middle of wrapping up, they thought, Afghanistan."

Another thing he didn't know was that his reporting on Cheney and Rumsfeld would lead him to those secret doomsday exercises -- and to the elusive, mythical president who authorized them.

* * *

Of all the documents Mann dug up while working on "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan," his favorite by far -- obtained from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. -- is "Memorandum to the File, Meeting with President Reagan at the White House, 5 p.m., April 28, 1987."

The disgraced former president had been smuggled into his old residence for a private talk. The press never sniffed out the meeting, but Nixon, as was his wont, wrote it up for the historical record.

He disparaged the expensive new decor of the White House living quarters. He reported telling Reagan that limiting intermediate-range nukes in Europe, which Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing, would be a mistake. And he congratulated himself for dissing George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state.

"I did get in one shot at Shultz, which I thought was quite effective," Nixon wrote.

The meeting had no importance in itself. Reagan didn't get what he wanted, Mann writes, which was Nixon's support for efforts to ease "the nuclear standoff of the Cold War." But Mann chose to highlight the encounter because it evokes a crucial difference in the way the two staunch, Republican anti-Communists viewed the Soviet Union.

Nixon assumed that the Soviet system was "a permanent if unpleasant fact of life."

Reagan believed -- despite decades of evidence to the contrary -- that it could be transformed.

And it was that belief that allowed him to see the beginnings of a massive transformation, personified by Gorbachev, where Nixon saw a velvet-gloved, steel-fisted seeker after world domination.

Mann never answered the question of how close we came to nuclear disaster in 1983. "Where the book started is not where it ended up," he says. But he does think the near miss "probably helped to produce in Reagan" the strong anti-nuclear sentiment he voiced in his second term.

To turn that sentiment into action, he had to buck both his right-wing base and national security "realists" like Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Hence the "rebellion" of Mann's title.

Confronted with Reagan's notorious opaqueness, Mann found creative ways to track his shifting views. One was the president's oddly close relationship with author Suzanne Massie, who had written about pre-Soviet Russian culture and who humanized the Russian people for Reagan in ways his official experts could not.

Massie and Reagan first met in January 1984. Some of the president's advisers encouraged the connection, Mann says, because, after the 1983 war scare, they worried that he had "too shallow and hawkish a view of the Soviet Union." Yet by 1987, "people in the same jobs at the National Security Council" were trying to keep Massie away from Reagan, thinking she reinforced excessively dovish tendencies.

"It told me how much Reagan had changed over those three years," Mann says.

Understanding his subject, he came to realize, required a kind of interpretive triangulation:

"You've got to take this guy's action, and what you can reconstruct of the bureaucratic battles underneath him, and his rhetoric, and realize that the rhetoric and the actions sometimes go in opposite directions."

Take Reagan's 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall, with its famous sound bite: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." For Mann, it is full of irony.

"It cuts in an entirely different direction from where Reagan was headed," he says. "It can be read, among other things, as political cover, because he is at the time working both on new summits with Gorbachev and on an arms control agreement."

That agreement would eliminate the intermediate-range missiles -- the Pershing II and its Soviet equivalent -- about whose preservation Nixon had been so worried. And it symbolized something even more important:

With the help of a fire-breathing anti-Communist president, the Cold War was coming to an end.

Mann bends over backward to acknowledge that while Reagan was an important actor, he played only a supporting role. "Reagan didn't win the Cold War," he writes. "Gorbachev abandoned it."

But Mann also thinks that the supporting actor -- who, between his frightening first term and his more hopeful second, dramatically re-imagined his part in the drama -- deserves a Cold War Oscar of his own.

"Yes, it was Gorbachev. But that relationship with an American president could have been different," Mann says. "It took a certain philosophy and it took a certain optimistic view of negotiations" to facilitate a peaceful denouement.

"And those were Reagan."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company