Correction to This Article
This book review incorrectly said that four Soviet leaders died in the four years before Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985. Three Soviet leaders died in the three years before Gorbachev assumed power. This review also incorrectly described the summit meeting between Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1986 Reykjavik, Iceland, as their first. The two leaders held a summit in Geneva in 1985.

Book Review: 'The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan,' by James Mann

By Ronald Steel
Sunday, April 26, 2009


A History of the End of the Cold War

By James Mann

Viking. 396 pp. $27.95

Are the great questions of war and peace, victory and failure, too important to be left to the "experts"? This is the question posed decades ago by David Halberstam in "The Best and the Brightest," his landmark study of the Vietnam War. And it is one provocatively raised by James Mann in this revealing inquiry into the role played by Ronald Reagan in the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War.

In his previous book "Rise of the Vulcans," Mann subjected George W. Bush's inner circle of war planners to critical scrutiny. Here he turns back the page to an earlier Republican president, elected as a fierce opponent of communism, who in his second term challenged "the forces and ideas that had made the Cold War seem endless and intractable."

Reagan's rebellion, in Mann's engrossing account, entailed viewing with guarded hope, rather than with cynicism, the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to liberalize the internal structure of the Soviet state and transform Moscow's relations with its empire and its adversaries. Responding to Gorbachev's initiatives, Reagan found himself, Mann relates, at odds with his political base within the Republican party, with much of his own national security bureaucracy and with both Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In Reagan's "rebellion," two schools of foreign policy struggled for dominance. On one side were the "realists," who believed that the behavior of states was dominated by the struggle for power and that the contest would continue interminably and without quarter until one side or the other accepted total defeat. Reagan, however, in Mann's view, believed that the Cold War rested less on the weight of armies and weapons than on the struggle of ideas and political values. In the relatively youthful Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985 after the death in office of four Soviet leaders in as many years, he found a different kind of adversary -- one who spoke of social reform at home and of reversing the decades-long arms race with the United States.

During their first summit encounter -- at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986 -- the two leaders came remarkably close to an accord not merely to reduce, but actually to scrap much of their missile forces. This astonishing proposal failed largely because Reagan insisted on pursuing his effort to build an anti-missile arsenal known to skeptics as "Star Wars." Today, more than 20 years and billions of dollars later, that project remains more dream than reality -- but a lucrative one, still producing juicy pork for what Dwight Eisenhower labeled the "military-industrial complex."

The intriguing question is why Reagan, who had won the presidency twice by denouncing communism as a force of evil, was so receptive to Gorbachev. Mann attributes this largely to the influence of an American cultural historian named Suzanne Massie. Enamored of the "soul" of ancient Russia rather than with machinations in the Kremlin, she became Reagan's unofficial adviser. To the dismay of his foreign policy team, Reagan met with her more than 20 times in the White House and used her as his personal messenger to Gorbachev, bypassing his own official advisers.

In the face of intense opposition to his overtures to Moscow by Nixon and Kissinger, as well as by the Republican punditry, Reagan employed political rhetoric to secure his base. A generation after JFK stood at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan went there in June 1987 with a message of his own: "Tear down this wall."

In fact, by that time the Wall was already being undermined by Gorbachev himself, who had made clear to Russia's satellite regimes in Eastern Europe that they could not count on the Red Army to protect them against their own people. Reagan's speech, which Mann follows in considerable detail, was pure theater. But it fortified his position with Senate Republicans, whose support he and Secretary of State George Shultz needed to push through a treaty with Moscow banning medium-range nuclear missiles.

Two years later, on Nov. 11, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down as Gorbachev allowed the East German regime to collapse. Soon the two Germanies were reunited. And in 1991 the Soviet Communist Party disintegrated and with it ultimately the Soviet Union itself. Did Reagan make it happen? This would be too strong, Mann insists. The Cold War ended largely because Gorbachev "had abandoned the field." But by supporting Gorbachev at the right time, even in the face of intense opposition from within his own party, Reagan had "helped create the climate in which the Cold War could end."

Mann is wise not to overdo Reagan's role. In addition to whatever contribution Reagan may have made, the Soviet Union was brought down by the immense economic strain of the Cold War and the futile and demoralizing war in Afghanistan. (This is a lesson that Barack Obama, prodded increasingly by key advisers into his own Afghan morass, would do well to ponder.)

In fashioning a compelling and historically significant story, Mann has cast new light both on Reagan and on the strange ending of a decades-long conflict between two great imperial powers that somehow, through skill and fear and plain dumb luck, never degenerated into a war that would have destroyed them both. With this book, following John Patrick Diggins's landmark study "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History" (2007), Reagan revisionism has truly begun in earnest.

Ronald Steel is professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Southern California.

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