President Obama signed an arms-reduction treaty with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev in Prague Thursday morning. While Reagan’s self-appointed defenders on the right are decrying Obama’s new nuclear plan, his former secretary of State, George Shultz, tells John Avlon he sees a continuity of vision between the two presidents.
“I believe we’ve come to the point that we must go at the matter of realistically reducing… if not totally eliminating, nuclear weapons—the threat to the world.”
That wasn’t some son-of-a-hippie Obama talking. That was Ronald Wilson Reagan speaking to the New York Post editorial board on March 28, 1982. It was the first of 150 times that President Reagan publicly spoke of his desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons, as detailed in a book published last year by two of his senior policy advisers, Martin and Annelise Anderson, titled Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster.
“President Obama has picked up on the notion that we can seek a world free of nuclear weapons, and that was very strongly felt by President Reagan,” said George Shultz.
But today President Obama is being called everything from a sellout to a threat to national security for articulating a similar vision—and taking steps to reduce nuclear arsenals with a new treaty, a revised nuclear posture review, and a multinational nuclear summit in Washington next week. Among the details of the treaty Obama signed on Thursday with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia is a reported one-third reduction to both the United States’ and Russia’s deployed strategic warheads, to 1,550.
“President Obama has picked up on the notion that we can seek a world free of nuclear weapons, and that was very strongly felt by President Reagan,” the Gipper’s former secretary of State, George Shultz, told me by phone from his home near the Hoover Institution in California, after returning from a meeting with Obama in Washington on Tuesday.
“What he’s proceeding toward is trying to get to a world free of nuclear weapons,” Shultz said. “And how do you do that? You take a series of steps. First of all, since most nuclear weapons that exist are in the hands of Russia and the United States, you’ve got to start there. And since the START Treaty that was proposed by President Reagan expired last December, it’s important to get it replaced with a treaty that has verification permissions in it and continuous investigations.”
Shultz described the treaty’s broad outlines as containing “relatively modest reductions” but concluded, “I think it’s a constructive step.”
• Stephen L. Carter: The Need for New Nuclear Weapons Not surprisingly, Reagan’s self-appointed defenders in the conservative media take a far less nuanced view. While some liberals are disappointed in a continuation of U.S. “first strike” policy, some conservatives are infuriated in particular by a decision to tell countries complying with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the U.S. will not retaliate with nuclear weapons if it is attacked with chemical or biological weapons. (Rogue states like Iran and North Korea are consequently not covered by this change in policy.) Here’s a sample of their recent screaming, as compiled by Media Matters.
Sarah Palin compared the position to a weak kid in a schoolyard who says “punch me in the face and I’m not going to retaliate.” Rush Limbaugh has stated that Obama “has done a great job of undermining our national defense.” Glenn Beck declared his policy “the most dangerous thing I think I’ve ever heard a president say.” And Pamela Geller wrote in her blog Atlas Shrugged that Obama is “leaving us bare naked vulnerable like a virgin slipped a Rophynol on her first date with a Chicagoland gangsta.” Classy.
The conservative reaction is reminiscent of earlier outcries. Reagan adviser Martin Anderson recounted to me that “whenever Reagan started reducing [nuclear weapons] down, a lot of people went crazy, saying, ‘My God, he’s going to ruin everything’… The problem is that a lot of people, whenever they see nuclear weapons going down, they think, ‘We’re gonna die.’ The only problem is, it’s the other way around. If you don’t do something, one day we will die.”
Peter Scoblic, author of U.S. vs. Them, a book on conservatism and nuclear policy, told me: “As they did during the Cold War, what conservatives are forgetting today is that safety from nuclear threats cannot be found in a more aggressive nuclear posture. Quite the opposite. We need nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack, but given the overwhelming conventional superiority of the United States, American security is actually best served by reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, which is what Obama is doing.”
Ironically, it was the student left in the 1980s that propagated the image of Reagan as a callous nuclear cowboy in their peace protests. That image was far from the deeper reality, but it has persisted in the minds of some conservative activists.
Reagan’s legacy remains potent if sometimes oversimplified and therefore misunderstood.
Nonetheless, it is members of Reagan’s administration and their contemporaries who see the continuity of vision between Obama and Reagan, albeit only in the nuclear policy area. In Washington, Secretary Shultz, former Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn had screened a copy of their documentary Nuclear Tipping Point at the White House for Obama on Tuesday night. (At the end of the screening, Obama apparently excused himself with a Reaganesque quip: “If I don’t get up to the residence pretty soon, my wife will exercise a nuclear option on me.”)
In the continued wrestling over Reagan’s legacy, the best living authorities are the people who knew him best. They are invested in a longer, more honest view than the vicious vagaries permitted by partisan politics. And so we’ll let Shultz have the last word: “President Reagan’s view, and my view, is that the existence of nuclear weapons makes us less safe. Because the more of them that are around, the more fissile materials laying around, the more likely it is that somebody will get their hands on one and one will go off in some city somewhere. So we’re better off—and so is everybody else—if we can get rid of them.”
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.