The Reagan Legacy: A Cold War Soldier's Perspective

Life for a professional soldier in the decade of the 1970s was hard.  We had fought in a war that had claimed the lives of over 50,000 of our brethren.  Our leaders reassured us that we had not lost the war, but in our hearts we knew better.  We knew that, as a nation, we had not acquitted ourselves well in Vietnam.  Our citizenry and our Congress seemed to neither appreciate nor respect us, and our status as veterans was a liability rather than an asset.  

Life became infinitely harder as we watched the drama of Watergate unfold.   By 1977 a new, comprehensively inept president was in office.  We were living with mortgage rates approaching 20%, double-digit inflation, gas shortages, and our President, by way of a solution, was telling us to turn our thermostats down and don a sweater. 

Jimmy Carter was busy giving away the Panama Canal and demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of our strategic role in the preservation of a free and democratic South Korea.   Cold War soldiers, along with our nation and our world, watched in shame and horror as a ragtag group of Arab fanatics took an American embassy staff hostage.  Equally shameful and horrific, we watched a rescue attempt go horribly wrong. 

A great malaise fell over our military and our country.  Our president proclaimed it and told us it was our fault.  We were dazed and confused.  We were on the ropes, wondering how we could get back in the fight.  Our spirit was wounded, and our President, our Congress and our Department of Defense seemed utterly incapable of meaningful action. 

I watched the Soviet Army grow in strength, and ours deteriorate.  Our military budget could not sustain our most basic needs.  Routinely, commanders in Europe were buying basic necessities like toilet paper for their troops out of our own pocket.  Year after year we received a 3% raise to compensate for 8% inflation.  Officers were leaving the Services in unprecedented numbers, and reenlistments were at record lows.

The officer corps paid attention to the campaign rhetoric leading up to the 1980 election.  Not at first, of course: military officers are, with the notable exception of Wesley Clark, determinedly  apolitical. 

As the election year cacophony began to penetrate our closed world, we watched and listened, and we liked what we saw and heard.  Ronald Reagan made sense to the corps of military professional leaders struggling with the everyday stuff of national defense.  On one hand, we heard our collective nemesis, the Eastern Ivy League Elitists, talk about how complicated this all was — far too complicated for an actor and ex-governor from the West Coast.  On the other hand, we heard an affable, eloquently plainspoken man tell us what, in our hearts, we knew to be true. 

Reagan was telling us that this is really hard, but not all that complicated.  He told us in plain language that we’ve got to rebuild our military and defeat Communism.  He was, I vaguely recall, also talking about tax rates and tax cuts.  But what sunk in, what made an indelible impression on us was his view of the Cold War.  Military professionals did not talk in terms of détente, or containment — we talked about setting the conditions for winning.  It seemed that at last we had a presidential candidate that spoke our language.  I cast my first absentee ballot in that election.

I remained in the Army because of Reagan’s promises and predictions. The year Ronald W. Reagan became president, I became the Operations Officer of a nuclear-capable field artillery battalion.  Our national nuclear policy was Mutual Assured Destruction.  Appropriately, the acronym was MAD.  That doctrine may have made sense in Boston and in the pages of the Foreign Affairs Journal, but it most assuredly did not make sense to an Army major with a wife and two kids.  Fortunately, it didn’t make sense to Reagan either.  History will remember him as the single most important contributor to nuclear disarmament, but not in the way that Jimmy Carter would have done it. 

Reagan’s foreign policy advisor, Richard Allen, tells us that Reagan discussed his Cold War views with him very early in the campaign.  Allen fully expected to hear a folksy version of containment and détente.  What he heard was pure Reagan — “We win, they lose.”  The military saw that philosophy set in motion as our budgets dramatically increased, enlistments began to rise, pay increases were shoved through a reluctant Congress, our Army National Training Center in the Mohave Desert became a reality, and we went on the Cold War offensive.  We felt good about ourselves again and we knew we were on the right path.

In the 30 years preceding Reagan’s election, the Soviet Union’s foreign policy was expansionism and ours was containment.  They were pretty good at executing their foreign policy and we were not.  A key component of the Soviet policy was that once a nation came under its sphere of influence, it would be retained in that sphere at all costs.  The list is long and frightening — Cuba, Viet Nam, South Yemen, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and of course, on his watch, Grenada.  Reagan changed the rules with the Reagan Doctrine and with his simple, clear vision of the future.  Famously in Grenada and Nicaragua, and quietly in other places, Reagan set about opposing and reversing the Soviet’s hegemony gains.  

I’m not a man given to open displays of emotion — a quarter century of service as a Combat Arms officer trains one to be a stoic — but when the Berlin Wall fell, I openly wept for relief and joy.  Clearly, we had won a long, hard battle and my children and my country were safer and more secure now than in any period in my lifetime.

Consider this: but for Reagan, where would be right now?  Would the Soviet Union have imploded?  Maybe not — probably not.  Would we be mired in Iraq?  Certainly not.   Would we have allowed the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to travel to New York to address Columbia University and the United Nations?  Certainly not.   Consider this — in November 1988, Reagan denied an entry visa to Yasser Arafat, which prevented him from addressing the UN.  Reagan did so because Arafat ”knows of, condones and lends support to” acts of terrorism.   Truly great leaders seldom see shades of gray, they see black and white, and Reagan was a truly great leader.  It’s interesting to note that the NY Times had a fair and balanced piece on that event on November 27, 1988.  They’ve come a long way, baby!  And, sorrowfully, so have we.

I cannot but help to wonder how Ronald Reagan would have approached the War on Terrorism.  In my heart, I think I know.  I celebrate the example he has set for untold generations to come, and I pray that we have the wisdom to follow his example.
“What Would Reagan Do?” makes an interesting slogan for a tee shirt.  It makes an infinitely better underpinning for our current foreign policy.