At one of the decisive moments in the Cold War, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to badger President Reagan into giving up the Strategic Defense Initiative, part of Reagan’s response to the Soviet dictator was to invoke his “favorite paper,” Human Events.
This is what liberal author Richard Reeves reveals in President Reagan—“The Triumph of Imagination,” a biography published this week.
The scene was Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland. The day was Oct. 12, 1986. In face-to-face negotiations, Gorbachev offered Reagan a deal: The Soviets would eliminate all their intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe and cut their intercontinental ballistic missiles by half, if the U.S. did the same—and also if the U.S. gave up any testing of SDI, Reagan’s program to develop a defense against ballistic missile attack.
Reagan countered with a better deal: “It would be fine by me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” he told Gorbachev. But when the weapons were eliminated, Reagan wanted to have developed an SDI that the U.S. could share with the Soviets to protect both nations from a madman in a third country (and, in Reagan’s mind, to protect the U.S. if the Soviets secretly violated the agreement).
Gorbachev wouldn’t budge. Even with an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons, he would not allow development of SDI. At most, he would agree to “laboratory-only testing.”
Reagan believed the Soviets were already violating the ABM Treaty, which barred development of missile defenses beyond one national site. (The Soviets had built one around Moscow, while the U.S. had none.) Now, Reagan was angered by Gorbachev’s insistence that the U.S. not be allowed even to test SDI.
Basing his account on the official U.S. notes of the meeting, Reeves narrates what happened next:
“‘We may not build SDI in the end; it might be too expensive. But I promised the American people that I would not give up on it. … I can’t confine work to the laboratory,’ Reagan said.
“‘I can’t do that,’ said Gorbachev.
“‘I can’t give in,” said Reagan. ‘I have a problem you don’t have. If they criticize you, they go to jail—’
“Gorbachev interrupted that one, saying: ‘You should read what’s being said about me in our newspapers.’
“The notes went on: ‘The President continued that the people who were the most outspoken critics of the Soviet Union over the years’—he mentioned his favorite paper, Human Events—‘the so-called right wing, and esteemed journalists, who were the first to criticize him.’
“‘They’re kicking my brains out,’ Reagan said.
“Gorbachev said he had done all he could, had said all he had to say.”
Moments later, Reagan terminated the summit, leaving the Soviet dictator with no deal to take home to help bolster a Soviet economy crumbling under the weight of the arms race. For refusing to cave on SDI, Reagan caught hell from liberals such as Sen. Teddy Kennedy. But he won cautionary praise from editors Allan Ryskind and Tom Winter of Human Events. Reagan, Kennedy said, had sacrificed an historic opportunity on the “uncertain altar of SDI.” But the cover editorial on the next Human Events said: “We give the President kudos for not tossing in the towel on the Strategic Defense Initiative, and don’t minimize the pressure he was under to cave, but, really, how could he have held his head up if he had buckled on such a crucial issue bearing on our national survival?
“By proposing such tight restrictions on testing,” the editors of Human Events explained, “Gorbachev, in effect, wanted to murder SDI in its crib, and, because the President refused to go along, insisting SDI was crucial to keep the Soviets honest, the summit foundered.”
In his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan wrote that he had long hoped the U.S. and Soviet Union could get beyond the doctrine of “Mutual Assured Destruction,” which deterred nuclear war by guaranteeing that both nations retained the ability to annihilate the other in response to a first strike. “Since I knew it would be a long and difficult task to rid the world of nuclear weapons, I had this second dream,” wrote Reagan, “the creation of a defense against nuclear missiles, so we could change from a policy of assured destruction to one of assured survival.”
This moral and strategic vision was married to Reagan’s correct perception that the Soviet Union was an economic “basket case” that could be driven to collapse if forced to chase the U.S. in an arms race.
Reeves’ biography points to ways Human Events (which during Reagan’s entire political career was edited by Ryskind and Winter) helped inspire, inform and fortify Reagan’s vision of the Cold War, particularly on SDI.
Human Events, which was “Reagan’s favorite reading for years,” Reeves notes, was “promoting the idea of ‘defensive weapons,’ specifically ‘Space Lasers,’ a kind of electronic umbrella to destroy ballistic missiles fired from the Soviet Union.”
He points specifically to an article by then-Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R.-Wyo.) that ran in the issue of Human Events published four days before Reagan’s 1981 inauguration. Like Reagan, Wallop rejected MAD and suggested ballistic missile defense as an alternative. “This illusion of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ has blinded U.S. policymakers to the need for a potent defensive system,” wrote Wallop. “Fortunately, with the coming of a new administration comes hope that this disturbing policy will be turned around.”
Wallop noted that candidate Reagan had indicated his support for space-based lasers as a strategic defense. “The strategic implications are obvious,” said Wallop. The lasers will not spell the end of war, but they at least hold the promise of barring nuclear-tipped missiles of mass destruction from the arena of war. To be sure, the superpower that grasps this promise first will have an enormous strategic advantage.”
Reagan, of course, did grasp it.
Early in his presidency, Reeves says, Reagan was shocked to learn 150 million Americans could be killed by a nuclear exchange under the existing MAD scenario. “Reagan was intrigued by another idea, a nuclear shield scheme being pushed in Human Events,” wrote Reeves.
In the Jan. 29, 1983, issue, Human Events made a hard push for the plan. “Reagan, the Human Events reader, was still fascinated by High Frontier, the missile defense scheme financed by the Heritage Foundation,” writes Reeves. “At the beginning of 1983, Human Events had published a five-page interview with Gen. Daniel Graham, who had been director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1974 to 1976, and who had formed High Frontier Incorporated early in 1981. He outlined a series of space umbrellas using 432 satellites to spot and target missiles as they left the ground, shooting many of them out of the sky with high-speed pellets.”
Two months later, on March 23, 1983, Reagan gave a nationally televised address unveiling SDI. “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” he asked. “Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are—indeed, we must!”
Three years later at Reykjavik, Reagan refused Gorbachev’s demand to give up SDI, citing his promise to the American people—and reminding Gorbachev what his critics might say about it not in the New York Times or the Washington Post, but in the pages of the Ryskind-and-Winter-edited Human Events.
In his memoirs, Reagan recalled his 1983 decision to embrace SDI. “Some people may take a different view,” he wrote, “but if I had to choose the single most important reason, on the United States’ side, for the historic breakthroughs that were to occur during the next five years in the quest for peace and a better relationship with the Soviet Union, I would say it was the Strategic Defense Initiative, along with the overall modernization of our military forces.”
Gorbachev came to the same conclusion. Ken Adelman, who traveled with Reagan to the Iceland summit as Arms Control and Disarmament director, later described the event in a 1999 article for the Wall Street Journal.
He reported that when Gorbachev was asked what had been the turning point in the collapse of the Soviet Union, he quickly responded: “Oh, it’s Reykjavik.”
All newspaper editors dream of having some impact on the world around them. Because they always stuck to their principles—just like their loyal reader Ronald Reagan—Human Events editors Ryskind and Winter helped win the Cold War.