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The Nation
February 3, 2003
book review
There he goes again; Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year
Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism
By Walter C. Uhler
Walter C. Uhler, a weapons acquisition executive in the Defense Department, writes about Russia and military history for a variety of publications. The views expressed are personal and not intended to represent the official position of his employer.

REAGAN'S WAR: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism.
By Peter Schweizer. Doubleday. 339 pp. $ 26.

Near the end of his threadbare, tendentious and dubious hagiography of Ronald Reagan, Peter Schweizer recounts the President's first trip to Moscow, in late spring 1988. Reagan had undertaken the visit, so Schweizer claims, in order to push "just once more against the Soviet edifice." Schweizer waxes euphoric about how the dissidents at Spaso House "erupted with cheers" as Reagan entered the room, how he wowed the students at Moscow State University and how Reagan lectured Gorbachev, in the words of one observer, like "a parent trying to reason with a child." Strikingly absent from Schweizer's account of the visit, however, is perhaps the most revealing incident of all. When asked whether he still considered the Soviet Union to be the Evil Empire, Reagan answered: "No. I was talking about another time, another era."

Beyond questioning why Schweizer would omit such an important incident (obviously it doesn't fit with the author's portrayal of Reagan as a principled and relentless anti-Communist), one also might ask what had happened during the five years since Reagan first used the term. Had Reagan changed? Was he perhaps won over by Gorbachev? And why the criticism by prominent conservative columnist George Will ("Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West--actual disarmament will follow")?

Schweizer gladly recalls Reagan's accusation against the Kremlin: "The only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain [their objectives]." Yet, criminality aside, it's an allegation worth recalling when reading Schweizer's book. For after discounting for Schweizer's transparent and obnoxious attempts to put an epic glow on everything that Reagan touched, there still remains the bias and incompetence about his claims that might add up to something worse:

No, President Eisenhower was not a coward, even if Reagan claimed that under Ike it was "painfully clear that our foreign policy today is motivated by fear of the bomb." After Stalin, fear of the bomb affected American and Soviet leaders alike, including Reagan (something Schweizer strains to ignore). And no, JFK had not "given up too much" to bring the Cuban Missile Crisis to a peaceful conclusion. As for Lyndon Johnson, he may have been "naive" for believing that a slow escalation of the war in Vietnam might succeed, but hindsight has not been kind to people, like Reagan, who claimed that the war "must be fought through to victory."

President Nixon virtually gave away America's grain to the Soviet Union, and Henry Kissinger "approved the sale of advanced computers to Moscow for the first time." Schweizer casts as their gravest mistake, however, "giving up too much to Moscow" when they signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Reagan severely criticized Gerald Ford for failing "to do everything possible to rescue Saigon" and for signing the Helsinki Accords, which put "our stamp of approval on Russia's enslavement of the captive nations." However, Schweizer remains silent about those Soviet dissidents, inspired by the accords, who demanded that the Kremlin abide by the Helsinki provisions.

Finally, Schweizer quotes Politburo member Boris Ponomarev to demonstrate that President Jimmy Carter had "not shown enough stature." Implying that the Soviets believed Carter, like Kennedy, to be "too liberal to fight," Schweizer claims that "the Kremlin was coming to the conclusion that it had another green light" for adventurism in the Third World.

Obviously Reagan's acute sensitivity to the failings of sitting Presidents abandons him once he is seated. But so does Schweizer's. Virtually every initiative by Reagan is overblown, while most of his failures go unmentioned. For example, America's invasion of Grenada not only is called a "shocking setback" for the Soviets but also is evidence that "Reagan was advancing in the developing world, backing anti-Communist insurgents and using military might when necessary." The book does not mention the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which preceded America's invasion of Grenada and cost the lives of 241 US servicemen.

Schweizer is at his scholarly worst, however, when he attempts to deny that Reagan's military buildup and reckless talk nearly provoked the Soviet leaders into launching a pre-emptive nuclear attack--to pre-empt the pre-emptive nuclear attack that they believed Reagan was about to unleash on them. Events during the course of 1983--such as President Reagan's "Evil Empire" and "Star Wars" speeches, America's reaction to the shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter pilot, the US invasion of Grenada--intensified the KGB's ongoing search (since Reagan's inauguration) for evidence that the United States intended to inflict a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR.

In November of that year, the KGB mistakenly believed it had found such evidence. A pre-emptive nuclear strike by the United States might occur under the cover of the Able Archer military exercises that US/NATO forces were conducting, to test, as Frances FitzGerald relates in Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan and Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, "the command-and-control procedures for the use of nuclear weapons." Moscow's KGB "Center" issued a flash alert for all information indicating that the United States was preparing an imminent nuclear strike.

Consequently, according to Professor Beth Fischer in The Reagan Reversal, Moscow upgraded "the alert status of twelve of its nuclear-capable fighter aircraft," and "in East Germany and Poland, Soviet forces began to prepare for a retaliatory nuclear strike."

Although the crisis subsided, why the Soviet Union did not launch a pre-emptive strike of its own remains an open question. After all, as Fischer notes, "prevailing nuclear doctrine at the time held that in the face of an impending nuclear attack, the Soviets should have sought to avoid disaster by launching a pre-emptive nuclear attack of their own."

Schweizer acknowledges that Soviet leader Yuri Andropov "believed that a first strike was being planned," but cites Gen. Nikolai Detinov (without an endnote) denying that the military brass "took the threat of an American attack seriously." Schweizer then adds, "Neither did the aged Defense Minister [Dmitri] Ustinov." To prove that point, Schweizer adds an endnote that refers the reader to page 130 of Andrei Kokoshin's book, Soviet Strategic Thought, 1917-1991 (MIT, 1998). Yet, when the reader turns to page 130, he finds no mention of Ustinov.

Schweizer also claims that "Likewise, Foreign Minister Gromyko dismissed such paranoia, explaining that the Americans would never strike first, but only 'in response to aggression.'" As proof of Gromyko's quote, Schweizer refers to pages 522-23 of Anatoly Dobrynin's memoir, In Confidence. But there we find neither Gromyko nor his quote. What we do find, however, is Dobrynin's assertion that Ustinov believed "that the Reagan administration was actively preparing for war."

Time and the inaccessibility of sources prevented this reviewer from checking all but a few endnotes for their accuracy. Nevertheless, Schweizer's careless treatment of the readily available evidence raises doubts about his handling of the archival evidence from Eastern Europe that was to distinguish Reagan's War from his earlier (terrible) book, Victory. Suffice it to say that the research in the instances mentioned above allows Schweizer to claim: "The [Soviets'] real concern was not over a surprise attack but Reagan's stubborn efforts to regain superiority and undermine Soviet power." We do know, however, that numerous scholars believe that Soviet preparations to pre-empt an American pre-emptive attack had a sobering effect upon Reagan. Professor Fischer, for example, notes that "Reagan was visibly shaken by the Soviet's misinterpretation of the NATO drill," which came on the heels of his personal screening of the television movie The Day After and a subsequent, extremely sobering briefing about US nuclear-war plans.

Consequently, Reagan too began to fear the bomb, a fear that Gorbachev cultivated in his quest to achieve serious arms-reduction agreements. Although Fischer asserts that "the Reagan administration began pursuing 'cooperation and understanding' with the Soviet Union in 1984 because it sought to avoid inadvertent nuclear exchanges in the future," Schweizer dismisses this fundamental reorientation as a mere change in "diplomatic tone," which didn't prevent the "underlying strategy against Moscow [from] intensifying."

Schweizer also claims that Reagan's hard-line policies brought Gorbachev (the "radical" reformer) to power, ignoring Robert D. English's acclaimed scholarship on the subject. According to English, the "heightened foreign threat served hard-line interests in a struggle that was primarily domestic, the main goal of its exponents was to squelch reforms."

The most persuasive evidence indicates that Gorbachev viewed the Soviet military--and its fear of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative, "Star Wars")--with circumspection until two events radically altered the Soviet political environment. The first was Andrei Sakharov's advice to Gorbachev in February 1987 that he should not allow concerns about eliminating SDI to prevent him from pursuing arms control agreements with America. The renowned physicist dismissed SDI as "a Maginot line in space."

The second was the May 1987 incursion into Soviet air space (and Red Square!) of Mathias Rust's Cessna airplane. It provided Gorbachev with the pretext of purging the military, about which he subsequently remarked: "Let everyone here and in the West know where the power is--it is in the political leadership, in the Politburo." Thus, Gorbachev had overcome a significant obstacle to his pursuit of "mutual security."

But back to Schweizer. According to him, when the "aging lion" first encountered the "young tiger" in Geneva in 1985, Reagan "established the high ground." The Soviet leader soon began "zeroing in on Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative," because it "provoked passions of fear in Gorbachev." Absent from Schweizer's epic tale, however, are Gorbachev's words to Reagan about SDI, reported in his Memoirs: "I think you should know that we have already developed a response. It will be effective and far less expensive than your project, and be ready for use in less time."

Were Schweizer concerned with facts, he would have discovered that in 1985, a Soviet protivodeistvie (counteraction) effort to defeat Reagan's SDI produced the Topol-M ICBM. Development and production of the Topol-M survived both the collapse of the Soviet Union and a decade of economic hardship in post-Soviet Russia. First deployed in 1998, it remains the principal reason that many present-day Russian officials do not fear President George W. Bush's decision to withdraw America from the ABM Treaty. They believe that the Topol-M will remain capable of penetrating any national missile defense that America might deploy during the next fifteen to twenty-five years.

So much, then, for Schweizer's claim that Reagan's SDI sowed debilitating technological doubts and exacerbated economic hardship in the Soviet Union.

Schweizer's book is riddled with other errors that render it unreliable to everyone except ideologues. For example, consider his assertion that in early 1989, "Mikhail Gorbachev, strapped for cash and no longer able to support the empire, had announced that he was cutting free the countries of Eastern Europe." According to Russia expert Archie Brown, in early 1985 moral scruple, not considerations of cash, prompted Gorbachev to tell some East European leaders that they "should no longer imagine that the Soviet Union would send tanks to their rescue if they failed to establish a modus vivendi with their own populations."

But Schweizer's book will certainly be of use to those ideologues who cite Reagan's early prescription for winning the cold war--military strength, national missile defense and a belief that "in an all out race our system is stronger, and eventually the enemy gives up the race as a hopeless cause"--as the model for today's American Empire.

To see the legacy of Reagan's early presidential years, one need only read the Bush Administration's Nuclear Posture Review (which lowers the threshold for use of nuclear weapons) or its new National Security Strategy (which not only justifies pre-emptive strikes and discounts the value of arms control agreements, but also arrogantly proclaims "that the President has no intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead the United States has opened since the fall of the Soviet Union."

But here's the rub: Reagan's hard-line policies did not win the cold war. Instead, it was a post-Able Archer, accommodating Reagan who permitted Gorbachev's idealistic and revolutionary policy of "mutual security" to bring the cold war to a peaceful conclusion. Gorbachev's accomplishments offered the world the prospect of a genuinely new world order. By embracing the early Reagan, however, America's "New World Order" has become but a more obnoxious form of the old.

Like Reagan before Able Archer, lesser Soviet leaders (before Gorbachev) were quite prepared to continue an arms race that increasingly jeopardized the security of the world. Unfortunately, today's world is ruled by such lesser leaders; which is why the Bush Administration's neo-Reaganism seems destined to create more enemies and arms races.

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