Review: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan
Religion & Liberty Online

Review: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan

In the new book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, James Mann wants you to meet Reagan as the rebel who parted ways from cold war hawks in his own administration and foreign policy “realists” who were loyal to containment. It could be argued that Reagan was the atypical conservative dove in Mann’s view.The author does provide a relatively fresh thesis on Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War, which reinforces his rejection of what he calls “both left wing and right wing extremes.” Mann believes conservatives who champion Reagan as the president who had a well formulated economic and military plan to execute the end of the Soviet Union, and left wing critics who saw Reagan as lucky, overly simplistic and vapid, were both wrong.

When it comes to Soviet diplomacy, Mann’s account is highly praiseworthy of Reagan and his Secretary of State George Schultz. He sees the end of the Cold War as a result of both of men’s instincts and creativity in dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev, rather than the heavy arms build up, resistance to détente, and “saber-rattling” of Reagan’s first term. Critics of Reagan from the right, “failed to see the dynamics that were propelling change [in the Soviet Union]. Reagan would come to grasp the situation better and more quickly than they did,” says Mann.

The author does recognize Reagan’s early formed views about the need to attack the immoral nature of the Soviet system. Mann observes:

The Cold War and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union were not the result of some “giant misunderstanding,” Reagan declared; rather, they were a “struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” Choosing words that would be remembered for decades, Reagan branded the Soviet Union “an evil empire.” Stuart Spencer, Reagan’s longtime political adviser, had opposed the use of this rhetoric, and Reagan later admitted that Nancy Reagan hadn’t liked it either. Yet Reagan later acknowledged that he had given the “evil empire” speech with “malice afterthought. . . . I wanted to let [Soviet Leader Yuri] Andropov know we recognized the Soviets for what they were.”

He gives Reagan considerable praise for his forward thinking on U.S. Soviet relations, a kind of forward thinking that allowed Reagan to continually dismiss the Soviet Union and its satellite states as having the capability to exist permanently in their existing form.

The book breaks down in four narrative parts to support Mann’s argument. He compares the views and actions of the two most well known American anti-communists in the 20th century, Reagan and Richard Nixon. Next he focuses on the informal advising of Suzanne Massie, who Mann believes influenced Reagan to open up diplomacy with the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. She does not receive any considerable attention in other Reagan portrayals, but Mann shows that she was used as an occasional back-channel for discussions with Gorbachev. The author looks at Reagan’s Berlin diplomacy and his Berlin Wall speech at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, and his second-term summit meetings with Gorbachev.

The narrative is filled with interesting anecdotes, some not chronicled in other accounts of Reagan’s presidency. One example is his description of the long forgotten Mattias Rust, who was a nineteen-year-old West German bank trainee in 1987 who flew his single-engine Cessna from Helsinki to Moscow to promote world peace. Mann talks about how it was a critical embarrassment to the Soviet Union’s air defenses, and one that allowed for Gorbachev to fire a host of hard-line military leaders, enabling him to push forward with greater reforms.

Mann concentrates much of the content of his book on often forgotten conservative opposition to arms reduction discussions with Gorbachev. He rehashes criticisms from columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, and conservative lawmakers like Senators Jesse Helms and Dan Quayle. Interestingly George H.W. Bush’s selection of Quayle as his running mate does show the early signs of the first Bush administration’s attempt to take a harder stance against Gorbachev. Many foreign policy experts were still suspicious that Gorbachev did not represent fundamental change within the Soviet Union and George H.W. Bush initially agreed. All throughout this time, Richard Nixon and former secretary of State Henry Kissinger reunited to criticize Reagan’s largely positive views about Gorbachev. Of course some lawmakers and foreign policy officials were horrified by Reagan’s desire to get rid of all nuclear weapons, a position he was however consistent with during his entire political career. It certainly was a critical reason in his support and loyalty for a strategic missile shield, or Strategic Defense Initiative.

Another anecdote worth mentioning from Mann’s account, and mentioned in other books about Reagan, is the overt evangelizing of Gorbachev by Reagan. He was convinced he could persuade Gorbachev to believe in God or convert if he could find the right words or story. This was quintessential Reagan. However, he also felt he could convince a Soviet leader of the superiority of the free market by taking them to a random home in the United States. It was a suggestion that seemed to irritate many aides every time he brought it up. Reagan was always somebody who focused on the big picture, he didn’t like to be bogged down in detailed policy debates or disputes. Many naive criticisms of Reagan would harp upon this fact and suggest he received his views about foreign policy and the Soviet Union from a few anti-communist Hollywood films. In fact, Clark Clifford famously blabbered about Reagan calling him “an amiable dunce.”

But the over-arching point of Mann’s study is that Reagan’s brilliance was in recognizing the change in Gorbachev and the Soviet Union and adapting to that before virtually anybody else. It is a fresh view in the Reagan chronicles, and while he does discuss certain aggressive defense and national security orders of the first term, this is an ultimately incomplete study. It does provide space for nuanced discussion and thought on the goals and views of Reagan for future discussions.

Long time Reagan aide Peter Hannaford also reviewed Mann’s work for The Washington Times. Hannaford declares:

In explaining Ronald Reagan’s moves toward nuclear-arms-reduction pacts with the Soviet Union, James Mann writes, “Increasingly, Reagan rebelled against the forces and ideas that had made the Cold War seem endless and intractable.”

He says this of the period 1986-88. In fact, that rebellion was a hallmark of the entire Reagan presidency. The author has missed the fact that this was the final phase of a determined and well-developed strategy…

Mr. Mann gives us a lively book. What he misses is Mr. Reagan’s early, unflagging commitment to a strategy that would bring the Cold War to a close. Tactics and rhetoric changed to fit changing circumstances. Ultimately, only Mr. Gorbachev could stop the Cold War, but it was Mr. Reagan who brought him to that pass.

I believe Hannaford is correct because he looks at the entire scope of Reagan’s career. Additionally, what forced so many changes in the Soviet Union? What caused the Soviets to make so many major concessions to Reagan? I think one has to give some weight to the arguments put forward by authors like Peter Schweizer who penned Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Ultimate Triumph over Communism . All the more since Mann quotes Reagan aide Stuart Spencer saying, “He was obsessed with one thing, the communist threat, ” and that it was “the driving force behind his political participations.”

Reagan’s strategy of covert operations to undercut the Soviet Union globally is under emphasized even when the author recognizes Reagan’s overall goals. I can remember my father telling me later how when he was an Air Force pilot in the 1980s with the Strategic Air Command (SAC), it was routine PSYOPS to make aggressive flight patterns towards Soviet air space and then break off at the last moment. This was just one example of the aggressive action of challenging the Soviet Union in an offensive manner across the globe. The U.S. military was of course just one facet of an all out policy to challenge the Soviet Union. Even when some of Reagan’s rhetoric changed, his policies fundamentally remained the same. Much of Reagan’s brilliance came not only from his instinct to abandon containment but to attack the Soviet Union where it was always most vulnerable, and that was at its economic deficiency. Even more damning, was Reagan’s scathing indictment of the values that the Soviets actually espoused.

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.