No political personality with whom I have been acquainted over the past forty years, save perhaps Sen. Barry Goldwater, ever evinced more dedication to first principles, values and fundamental beliefs than did Ronald Reagan. To his critics, he was “ideological” and “hidebound,” representing primitive and narrow views about society and the world.
That Reagan, a flexible tactician, stayed the course on basic principles and grand strategy has been demonstrated over and over, and most recently by two books, one containing many of his radio scripts between 1975 and 1980, entitled Reagan In His Own Hand (The Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2002), and a second, extraordinary volume just out, Reagan: A Life In Letters (The Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2003).
Both volumes are edited by Martin and Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner, and should be on the bookshelf and at the bedside of every informed conservative. These volumes and other recent research have had an enormous and positive impact on the scholarly and public assessment of Reagan’s tenure and influence on America and the world.
Reagan’s views on all public policy issues were shaped over years, and were based on a vast cumulative experience in life, dogged research, reading, introspection, dialogue and writing. As I gradually became his chief foreign policy advisor in the late 1970s, one of my tasks, especially during the pre-campaign years of 1977-’80, was to extend the scope of what he read and heard, and to be sure that he was exposed to the broadest universe of opinion on topics that mattered.
But that brings me to the point of my story: precisely what Reagan felt about the Cold War, and how consistent he was in his approach to it. It began as a personal journey, and what I heard him say had a profound influence on what I and others (including many Democrats) would and could do to help him.
In January 1977, within days of the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, I flew to California to meet Reagan at his home in Pacific Palisades. Reagan’s advisor Peter Hannaford had arranged the visit to facilitate my request to Reagan to support my candidacy for governor of New Jersey, my home state, and to sign several fundraising letters. I had helped Reagan modestly in his 1976 campaign against Ford, working on foreign policy through my old Nixon campaign and White House colleague, Martin Anderson. As the sole author of the draft foreign policy platform for the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, I had been able to help provoke the major floor fight between Ford and Reagan, whose campaign had caught fire when he assailed the defective policy of “d??© ´ ¥nte” with the Soviet Union, conceived by Nixon and Kissinger and adopted by Ford.
I met Reagan at his home late on that January morning in 1977, my first occasion to be one-on-one with him in relaxed circumstances. After a few preliminaries, I nervously asked if he would come to New Jersey in support of me, and if he would sign a few fundraising letters. “Why, yes!” he answered. “Of course I will come and yes, I’ll sign some letters to help you. But why did you come all the way out here to ask me this when you could have simply telephoned me?”
I responded that I thought such a request ought to be made in person. He laughed, and said he’d be happy to lend a hand. “But when are you going back East?” he asked.
“Tonight,” I replied, “on the ‘red-eye’ to Washington.”
“Well,” he said, “it’s not yet noon?and I have all day. I’d like to talk to you about foreign policy and defense. Can you spare some time for me?”
Could I? Yes, indeed, I could?and we began a wide-ranging discussion. Nancy Reagan arranged for some sandwiches, and we continued talking through lunch. I was struck by the breadth of his knowledge and his mastery of detail, though I thought some areas could use reinforcement.
His resolute opposition to d??© ´ ¥nte and to the theory of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (“MAD”) as the centerpiece of American policy toward the Soviets was exceptionally important, and I had never heard a major politician dissect the failings of those flawed policies of Nixon and Ford so skillfully.
By mid-afternoon we had “circled” the globe and analyzed the major issues. While I was a veteran of working with skilled and well-informed political leaders, including Nixon, widely considered the most informed foreign policy expert of the Republican Party, I had never quite experienced an exchange of the type I was having. It was something quite special.
And then Reagan delivered the coup de grace on the Cold War. He said, “Well, we have been discussing a lot of issues for the past few hours, and now I’d like to tell you my theory of the Cold War.”
“Of course, Governor,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “some say that I am ‘simplistic,’ but I believe that many complex problems have simple answers. There’s a difference between ‘simplistic’ and ‘simple.'”
I nodded, waiting for the punch line.
“So,” he said, “about the Cold War: My view is that we win and they lose. What do you think of that?”
Stunned at hearing someone of stature put it just that way, so plainly, reflecting my own deepest conviction, I stammered: “Governor, do you mean that?”
“Of course, I mean it,” he responded. “I just said it.”
All I could muster was: “Well, sir, if you mean it, and if you are going to run for President again, you can count me in.”
He believed that America was stronger and better than the Soviets, more flexible, imaginative and just, could integrate its economic, technological, capital and moral resources to emerge the victor. This was heady stuff, and very radical.
Returning to Washington on the “red-eye,” I pondered what he had said. I had no idea whether Reagan would contest the presidency in 1980, but within a week I had decided that a run for governor of New Jersey, however interesting for me, was a subordinate task to making sure that Ronald Reagan would have another chance at the presidency. I dissolved my campaign committee, returned some contributions and the rest of the story became history. I had the chance to work as a draftsman with a great architect, with the result that in 1980 Reagan came to office four years after our meeting in California, and came with a plan, wasting no time in carrying it out.
Few realized that, all along, he was shaping a plan to “win” the Cold War decisively. And he did!