I first became interested in the Reagan years while working on an earlier book. I was examining the careers of the members of George W. Bush’s foreign-policy team for the book that was later published as Rise of the Vulcans. During this research, I happened across a then-unknown episode: The Reagan administration had conducted elaborate, highly classified exercises designed to keep the US government operating in various “undisclosed locations” outside Washington in case of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The details of that secret program (in which Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had been key participants) made me want to look further at the Reagan years.
Where did this episode fit in? Was Reagan, as president of the United States, really willing to contemplate a large-scale nuclear conflict? More generally, what was Reagan himself thinking and doing? Reagan’s rhetoric toward the Soviet Union was clear enough—but what was the relationship between his rhetoric and his actual policies? That was the starting point for this book. As I had in previous books, I wanted to examine the hidden aspects of American policy and to explain them in narrative form.
During the course of working on the book, I found some surprises. The archives showed that in dealing with the Soviet Union, Reagan on occasion operated in much the same way as he did in the Iran-Contra affair, secretly making use of low-level private intermediaries to carry personal messages back and forth. Even some of the plans for summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev went not through the secretary of state but through an ordinary American author—a woman who had gotten to know both Reagan in Washington and a KGB official in Moscow. The archives also showed that Reagan at one point had a testy standoff with former President Richard Nixon, who had been secretly brought back inside the White House for the first time since he had left after his Watergate resignation. Nixon was far more skeptical than Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev represented a significant change for the Soviet leadership. Reagan sought Nixon’s support for his efforts to cut back on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; Nixon refused to give it.
During Reagan’s second term in the White House, I found, his policies were generally at variance with his public image as a truculent Cold Warrior. Indeed, in the final three years of his presidency, Reagan was usually among the doves in the often-contentious debates inside the US government about the Soviet Union. The government nuclear-war rehearsals of the early 1980s that I had earlier discovered were not really representative of Reagan’s overall approach to nuclear weapons. In fact, these doomsday exercises may well have scared Reagan into trying to change American policy—for in his second term, he prodded US military and defense officials to accept cutbacks in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
From 1986 to 1988, the period at the heart of my book, Reagan was increasingly at odds over Soviet policy with the political right—that is, the same American conservatives who had supported Reagan from the beginning of his political career through his early years in the White House. Magazines like the National Review and columnists such as George Will despised Reagan’s unfolding diplomacy with Gorbachev.
Anyone writing about Reagan encounters a special problem: He rarely chose to explain his policy shifts or his not-infrequent changes in strategy or tactics. He had shrewd political instincts but rarely if ever articulated his underlying motivations. His interviews at the time, his private meetings, his autobiography and his diaries have little to offer on questions of political judgments, tradeoffs, or the reasons for reversing course.
Reagan was content to leave everyone with the impression that he was a man of simple principles. The world saw only the façade: Catching Reagan in some Machiavellian maneuver would have been akin to catching him dying his hair.
Reagan was content to leave everyone with the impression that he was a man of simple principles, a leader utterly without cunning. The world saw only the simple façade: Catching Reagan in some Machiavellian maneuver would have been akin to catching him dying his hair. Reagan’s way of avoiding extended explanations was to offer a few deflecting phrases that would shut off discussion. When conservative leaders complained about his courtship of Gorbachev, Reagan would dismiss their arguments by saying, “I just think they’re wrong,” without specifying how or why.
In diplomatic meetings, Reagan would drive foreign leaders crazy by telling jokes that made the time go by too quickly. As I wrote the book, I began to collect Reagan’s supply of anti-communist patter: “Question: What are the four things wrong with Soviet agriculture?” he would ask a dumbfounded visitor. “Answer: spring, summer, fall and winter.” For West German visitors, Reagan even kept an Erich Honecker joke in his repertoire.
A significant part of my research involves looking at documents– but there are some things that the written words can’t tell you and that can be obtained only from eyewitnesses. The interview I had that most vividly described Reagan’s operating style, and its impact on others, came from an official named Rudolf Perina, a Soviet specialist on Reagan’s National Security Council. He was one of the two American “note-takers” sitting in on a summit meeting where Reagan and Gorbachev talked one-on-one, outside the presence of top advisers like the secretary of State and Soviet foreign minister.
“Sometimes, when Gorbachev made a clever point, he would look around the room, in the vain hope there would be some audience there to recognize his superior intelligence,” Perina told me. “But these were one-on-one meetings, and there was no one there but the note-takers, who would avert their eyes and go back to their notes.” I loved that quote; I thought it captured perfectly the tenor of the summits between the two men, not in the heroic fashion both men would later describe them, but in the way the Reagan-Gorbachev meetings actually went down at the time.
James Mann, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent, is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His previous books include Rise of the Vulcans: A History of Bush's War Cabinet.