The Epic Story of

His Forty-Year Struggle and

Final Triumph Over Communism

By Peter Schweizer

Doubleday. 339 pp. $26

In 1990, former President Ronald Reagan visited the birthplace of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk, Poland. As 7,000 people stood to cheer Reagan in heavy rain and hail, a priest presented him with a sword for, as the priest said, "helping us to chop off the head of communism." This story comes from Peter Schweizer's ambitious Reagan's War, a book that tries to show that Reagan deserved that sword.

Schweizer argues that Reagan was a hard-nosed, ideologically convinced anti-communist whose entire public life was shaped by a determination to rid the world of this great evil. He saw his presidency as an opportunity to shift the United States out of detente and containment policies into a new and much tougher confrontation with its Cold War adversary. Reagan's hard line against the Soviets was politically unpopular, and as his poll numbers plummeted -- and as opponents in Europe and elsewhere staged massive anti-Reagan, pro-nuclear-freeze marches -- waffling advisers urged him to moderate his stance.

Reagan stuck it out. Economic sanctions against the Jaruzelski military regime in Poland cost the Soviets hundreds of millions; blocking a second pipeline for Soviet gas to the West cost them billions more. Limiting commercial credits, blocking the Soviet Union's access to advanced Western technology, forcing it to send extra arms shipments to Cuba and keeping the Red Army bogged down in Afghanistan cost further billions. Psychological warfare kept the Soviets off-balance even as Reagan's pressure on Soviet clients in the Third World drained Moscow's resources and sapped its will. Last but not least, Reagan's defenders argue that his massive military buildup, capped by the missile defense system that derisive critics called "Star Wars," forced the Soviet Union down the path of reform and retrenchment that culminated in the breakup of the empire and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It turns out that liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. deserves at least partial credit for setting Reagan on the anti-communist path. After Schlesinger denounced a Hollywood political group as a communist front, Reagan resigned when the group refused to denounce communism in a formal resolution. Soon afterward, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild on an anti-communist platform and found himself in the middle of one of the most poisonous political battles in California history. According to Schweizer, Reagan's commitment to the anti-communist cause led to the break-up of his marriage with Jane Wyman.

As the confrontation over communism deepened in the early years of the Cold War, Reagan sat at the feet of former communists such as Arthur Koestler (author of Darkness at Noon) and Whittaker Chambers, the informant whose testimony sent Alger Hiss to jail. These men made a lasting impression; Reagan's 1983 speech calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" quoted Chambers.

Schweizer goes on to document the ways in which anti-communism both encouraged and shaped Reagan's shift from show business into politics. He also portrays a Reagan viscerally stimulated and involved with the day-to-day details of his political work, writing speeches on 3-by-5 index cards, carefully organized in a desk drawer and wrapped in rubber bands.

The themes of Reagan's presidency appear early on. Communism was a weak system, he told friends early in the 1950s. The United States should attack communism at its most vulnerable point: its economy. The United States should look for ways to keep the economic pressure high, either by isolating the communist world in the global economy or by maintaining a defense budget that the communists could not afford to match.

Most readers will be convinced by Schweizer's evidence that Reagan's policy in the White House reflected deeply held and long-nurtured beliefs that, in many cases, dated back to the Truman administration. Schweizer's picture of a passionately committed, deeply engaged president doggedly focusing on a few key policy initiatives toward the superpower rival is also convincing. Reagan may not have known the names of all the members of his cabinet, but he knew what he wanted to do to the Soviet Union, and he kept a vigilant eye on those charged with implementing his strategy.

Schweizer would also like to persuade us that Reagan's strategy worked -- more precisely, that the Soviet Union fell when it did because Reagan shifted U.S. policy from the long, dreary failure of containment to the kind of aggressive rollback that conservatives like himself had advocated from the Cold War's beginning. Here the ground is less firm. The Soviet crash was a complex series of events; historians may never reach consensus about why the Soviet empire fell. After all, they still argue about Rome.

Some of the implications of Schweizer's argument look less than plausible. If Jimmy Carter had managed to get re-elected in 1980, would the Soviet Union still be standing? Or if Reagan had been elected president in 1976, would the USSR have fallen four years earlier? For that matter, if Barry Goldwater, Reagan's choice in 1964 and a supporter of a tougher policy toward the Soviets, had defeated Lyndon Johnson, would the Soviets have given up the Cold War by 1973?

But even if Schweizer's most ambitious claims cannot quite be sustained, this is still a fascinating, well-written, useful and important look at one of the three or four most important American political leaders of the 20th century. No serious assessment of the 40th president of the United States can ignore the central importance of anti-communism in his career; after Schweizer, none will. *

Walter Russell Mead is senior fellow for United States foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

President Reagan with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987