A September 12, 1990 file photo shows former U.S. President Ronald Reagan holding a hammer and chisel next to the Berlin Wall on Poltsdammer Platz in East Berlin.
A September 12, 1990 file photo shows former U.S. President Ronald Reagan holding a hammer and chisel next to the Berlin Wall on Poltsdammer Platz in East Berlin.
Michael Probst / Reuters

The conventional wisdom has it that Ronald Reagan was elected to his first term in 1980 largely on the strength of economic considerations. Yet there can be no doubt that a good many voters supported him because they had been growing increasingly worried about the decline of American power and resolve in the face of the growing power and aggressiveness of the Soviet Union. Nor is there any doubt that these voters included a significant number of life-long Democrats (I myself among them), who saw in the Carter Administration—and especially in Mr. Carter's announcement shortly after taking office that it was becoming less and less necessary to contain Soviet expansionism—evidence that the Democratic Party was still in the grip of the neoisolationist forces that had captured it in 1972 behind the candidacy of George McGovern.

It was true that after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Mr. Carter had repented of his conversion to McGovernism and emerged as a born-again Truman Democrat. Confessing that the invasion had effected a "dramatic change" in his view of "the Soviets' ultimate goals," he even went so far as to proclaim a new presidential doctrine, reminiscent both in spirit and substance of the doctrine bearing Truman's name which had originally committed the nation to the policy of containment in 1947. The new Carter Doctrine of 1979 warned the Soviet Union that "an attempt . . . to gain control of the Persian Gulf region" would be "regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the U.S." and would be "repelled by use of any means necessary, including military force."

But the new Carter did not confine himself to drawing a line in the Middle East; he also began reversing course in Central America. Earlier in his term, demonstrating that he really had overcome what still earlier he had dismissed as "that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear," Mr. Carter helped topple an already tottering Somoza regime and enthusiastically threw his support to the new government in Nicaragua despite the fact that it was dominated by the openly communist Sandinistas. Now, when the Sandinistas began acting like communists by moving to eliminate all political opposition, the new Carter cut off American aid; simultaneously he sought to bolster the junta in El Salvador in its struggle against the guerrillas there who were linked to the Soviet Union through their Cuban and Nicaraguan supporters. Here too, then, a line was being drawn.

Finally, Mr. Carter combined these gestures with a heightened enthusiasm for military spending on the one hand and a correlative diminution of enthusiasm for arms control on the other. Having come into office in 1976 with a pledge to reduce the defense budget by at least five billion dollars, Mr. Carter three years later called for a five-percent increase in the defense budget; and having spent an enormous amount of time and energy pressing for the signing and ratification of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaty (SALT II), he now withdrew it from consideration by the Senate (where not even a Democratic majority could produce enough votes for ratification).

Welcome though all this was to dissident Democrats like myself, many of us interpreted it as an election-year accommodation to the new political climate in the United States which had first shown itself in the outburst of patriotic sentiment during the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and which had erupted into blazing visibility after the seizure of the hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In any case, in Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat, we thought we had discovered a more legitimate heir to the mainstream Democratic tradition in foreign policy—the commitment to containment running from Truman through Kennedy, Johnson and Senator Henry M. Jackson—than Jimmy Carter, let alone Mr. Carter's leading Democratic rival, Senator Edward Kennedy. Whereas the Democrats of 1980 seemed to have lost the heady faith in American power expressed by Senator Kennedy's older brother John in 1960, Mr. Reagan wanted to "get the country moving again." In fact, Mr. Reagan could have run under that very slogan without striking a discordant note, since he was calling for the same kinds of policies that it had symbolized for Kennedy in 1960: repair of a military imbalance (the "missile gap" then, the "window of vulnerability" now); a tougher policy toward Soviet expansionism (beginning with this hemisphere—Cuba then, Central America now); and a more assertive American role "to assure," as Kennedy put it in his inaugural address, "the survival and the success of liberty." And when, in office, Mr. Reagan gave key positions to Democrats like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Eugene V. Rostow, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle and Richard Pipes—all of whom had in one way or another been associated with Senator Jackson—he seemed to be forging a living link between the old Democratic mainstream and his own administration.


If, however, a good many of his Democratic supporters saw in Mr. Reagan the hope that the Republican Party would now assume the responsibility for containing Soviet expansionism that had originally been shouldered by the United States under Democratic leadership but that the Democrats since Vietnam had been increasingly eager to evade, others regarded him as the carrier of a quite different political tradition, and one more indigenous to the Republican Party. This was the tradition that regarded containment as a species of appeasement and that advocated a strategy aimed at the "rollback" of Soviet power and the "liberation" of its East European satellites.

It must be acknowledged that those who either hoped or feared that Mr. Reagan meant to pursue such a strategy had reasonable cause. Two decades earlier, in converting from a Democrat to a Republican, Mr. Reagan had thrown in his lot with the most conservative elements of his new party, first coming into public prominence with a speech in support of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention, and then succeeding Goldwater as the leader of the Republican right. And while in his 1980 campaign the loudest echoes from the past came from the John F. Kennedy of 1960, in his early statements as President Mr. Reagan sounded rather more like John Foster Dulles and the Richard Nixon of 1950—the Nixon, that is, who had denounced containment as a "cowardly" policy and who, like General Douglas MacArthur in Korea, believed that the only alternative to victory over "international communism" was defeat.

Thus, speaking very early in his Administration from the same platform from which Jimmy Carter had declared that containment was growing obsolete, Mr. Reagan referred to communism as a "bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written." Naturally, in turning the tables on the old Marxist prophecy that capitalism would eventually perish of its own internal contradictions, Mr. Reagan did not suggest that he had any intention of helping the process along by going to war. Nevertheless, the echoes of the liberationist rhetoric of old were inescapably there.

More surprisingly, given the more conciliatory posture Mr. Reagan began to adopt toward the Soviet Union during the 1984 campaign, these echoes were sounded again both by the President himself and his secretary of state, George Shultz, at the very height of that campaign itself. The United States, declared Mr. Reagan in August of 1984, "rejects any interpretation of the Yalta agreement that suggests American consent for the division of Europe into spheres of influence," and a week after, declaring that "the tide of history is with us," Mr. Shultz added: "We will never accept the idea of a divided Europe." Again a note of caution was struck to ward off any suggestion that military means were under consideration ("We may not see freedom in Eastern Europe in our lifetime. Our children may not see it in theirs"). But if the hands here were the hands of Shultz, the voice was the voice of Dulles.

It was in statements like these, coming on top of Mr. Reagan's characterizations of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and a "focus of evil," that the Soviets themselves professed to detect an ominous turn in American policy. As one observer, writing in 1984, summarized it after extensive conversations with Soviet officials: "All this sounded to Soviet ears very much like the revival of . . . ‘rollback' [and] contributed to the impression that the U.S.S.R. was dealing with a new phenomenon—an Administration that seemed truly and unprecedentedly committed to the goal of doing the Soviet Union in"—or at least of rolling back the Soviet system "right to the gates of the Kremlin itself."

Surely, however, to take such professed Soviet impressions of the Reagan Administration at face value was to fall victim to a campaign of disinformation. Perhaps the Soviets had some grounds for apprehension when Mr. Reagan first assumed office, but by 1984, after watching his performance as President for three years, they had no reason whatever to believe that he was trying to resurrect the dream of rollback. On the other hand, they had every reason to pretend to such a belief. For by simulating alarm over the rhetorical belligerency of the Reagan Administration, they could—and did—help to provoke a clamor both in the United States and Europe against the minimal steps the Administration really was taking to shore up a Western position that had deteriorated badly during the years of détente.

Indeed, in any effort to understand the foreign policy of the first Reagan Administration, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that its overriding purpose was to prevent the balance of military power, and the "correlation of forces" generally, from tilting irreversibly toward the Soviet Union. Mr. Reagan and his people not only said but genuinely believed that the Soviets had been allowed by the misguided policies of the past three Presidents (two of them, of course, Republicans) to achieve a net military superiority over the United States; that this had already spawned political consequences in the form of an increase in Soviet adventurism first in Africa and the Middle East and then in Central America; that unless the United States moved rapidly, both in the military and political spheres, it would be unable to restore a safer balance; and that arms control negotiations would at best retard the ability of the United States to move fast enough and would at worst lock it permanently into a position of inferiority and therefore of extreme vulnerability.

From this assessment of "the present danger," it followed that the first order of business must be to close the military gap by an immediate refurbishing and modernization of the American military arsenal, both nuclear and conventional, and by the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe to match the growing force of Soviet SS-20s. About this Mr. Reagan himself was absolutely clear and steadfast. Against enormous pressures, often coming not only from his Democratic opponents but also from within his own party as his budget deficits mounted, he refused to cut back significantly on military spending. He successfully resisted comparable pressures both within the United States and in Western Europe to back away from deployment of the Pershing II and cruise missiles. He adroitly avoided (though not without considerable help from the Soviets) arms control negotiations that might have jeopardized his military programs. He used the prestige of his office to fight against newly fashionable proposals such as the nuclear freeze and the doctrine of no first use of nuclear weapons which would have prevented both the modernization of the American arsenal and the deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe. And finally, he authorized further research on and development of a system of strategic defense in the hope that it would provide a better way than arms control to neutralize the threat of a Soviet first strike.

Clear and steadfast as he was in the matter of military hardware, Mr. Reagan recognized with equivalent clarity that the balance of power could not be repaired by hardware alone. It was also necessary to restore a willingness to use the military hardware that Americans were once again willing to buy. Here the main obstacle was cultural. Not perhaps since the 1930s in England had the idea of using military force fallen into such widespread disrepute as it did in the United States in the aftermath of the American experience in Vietnam. Whatever other "lessons" Vietnam might have been thought to yield, the one that seemed to take deepest root in American culture was that military force had become, or was at any rate on the way to becoming, obsolete as an instrument of American political purposes in the Third World.

This putative lesson had already been drawn by a number of prominent people in connection with the oil embargo of 1973, when a tiny and militarily powerless nation, Saudi Arabia, demonstrated that it could blackmail and exact tribute from a superpower like the United States. But it took the sight of American helicopters scrambling desperately out of Saigon almost two years later to drive the idea home. No matter that, strictly speaking, the United States had not been defeated militarily in Vietnam; the fact remained that the nation had poured virtually everything it had short of nuclear weapons into Vietnam in order to prevent a takeover of the South by the North, and it had failed.

When to these considerations was added the ever-mounting tide of nuclear pacifism—the belief that no rational purpose whatsoever could be served by the use of nuclear weapons—the Clausewitzian law that war is the continuation of politics by other means seemed well on the way to being repealed so far as the American political culture was concerned. The upshot was, as Meg Greenfield of The Washington Post observed, that even many Americans who insisted there were places where they would favor military action "never could seem to think of one this side of San Diego," and if American action meant using nuclear weapons, not even anything this side of San Diego would in their view be worth defending.

All this posed—and continues posing, as witness Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's specifications this past November of the six conditions which must be satisfied before American troops can be committed to combat—a formidable obstacle to the resurgence of the American will to use military force under any circumstances, or even, ultimately, to threaten its use as a deterrent. Recognizing the problem, Mr. Reagan worked hard to cultivate and nourish the countervailing spirit of American nationalism (or "the new patriotism," as it came to be called), the earliest political consequence of which had been his own election to the presidency.

In pursuit of this purpose, Mr. Reagan made free and frequent use of patriotic language and engaged in an unembarrassed manipulation of patriotic symbols; he lost no opportunity to praise the armed forces, to heighten their morale, to restore their popular prestige; and he repeatedly announced as an accomplished fact that the United States was "standing tall" again. Although he disclaimed any intention of "sending American combat troops to Central America," or for that matter anywhere else, he said over and over again that the United States could be counted upon to honor its military commitments to its allies. When, finally, he did send American troops into action, in Grenada, he not only succeeded in his stated objective ("to restore order and democracy") there; he also helped to restore confidence here in the utility of military force as an instrument of worthy political purposes.

In offering this analysis, I do not mean to suggest that I agree with those who accused the Reagan Administration of "militarizing" the American conflict with the Soviet Union, and of seeking military rather than political solutions to the problems of Central America. It was simply preposterous to accuse Mr. Reagan of provoking an arms race when, after a decade of cutting its military expenditures as the Soviet Union—having already enjoyed a great advantage in conventional forces—first achieved parity and then began to pull ahead in its nuclear arsenal as well, the United States at last decided on a significant increase in defense spending in order to start catching up. So too with Central America, where under Mr. Reagan only one-quarter of the American aid and a similar proportion of the American personnel were military (the rest of the aid being economic and the rest of the personnel being journalists).

I would, however, concede that these tendentious charges of militarization contained this much truth: that Mr. Reagan and his people were much clearer and more consistent in dealing with the military dimension of American power than they were in defining the strategic objectives toward which American power was to be directed.


In the early days of his Administration, Mr. Reagan and his first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., reaffirmed the commitment made by Jimmy Carter to prevent a Soviet move into the Persian Gulf. They also declared that the United States would not tolerate any further extension of communism in Central America, and they called publicly on the Cubans and the Nicaraguans (and privately on the Soviet Union) to stop the flow of arms to the Marxist-dominated guerrillas in El Salvador. At the same time, going beyond his blunt and unusually harsh verbal attacks on the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and a "focus of evil," Mr. Reagan attempted to seize the offensive in the ideological conflict between East and West.

In proposing this offensive, Mr. Reagan offered a sharp and salient contrast to the three Presidents who came before him. His immediate Republican predecessors, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (both working with Henry Kissinger), had tried to tone down the vivid ideological coloration which had been given to the U.S.-Soviet conflict by their predecessors, and to redefine the conflict in more traditional terms as a great-power rivalry. Jimmy Carter, Mr. Reagan's immediate Democratic predecessor, finding realpolitik in the Kissinger style deficient in the moral fervor he himself favored, sought to supply the lack by assigning to the United States a responsibility for protecting and establishing human rights everywhere in the world. Yet, far from reinvigorating the ideological passions that had once been aroused in the American soul by the struggle with the Soviet Union, the new emphasis on human rights tended to dilute such passions through diffusion and generalization. In practice it also diverted attention away from the Soviet Union itself and toward rightist dictatorships like Iran under the Shah and Somoza's Nicaragua, whose friendly relations with the United States made them all the more vulnerable to American pressures.

This diversionary effect was by no means an accidental or unintended consequence of Mr. Carter's foreign policy. On the contrary, it was entirely congruent with his belief that the struggle between East and West was growing "less intensive" and was being superseded in importance as a threat to peace by a world "one-third rich and two-thirds hungry." The focus, therefore, must now shift from East-West to North-South—away, that is, from the Soviet Union (except as a partner in arms control) and toward the Third World.

As against Mr. Carter's fixation on the Third World, Mr. Reagan tried to bring the East-West conflict back into the center of American consciousness. So far as he was concerned, Soviet expansionism remained the greatest threat to peace, and while he neither believed nor said that the Soviet Union was responsible for all the ills on earth, he did believe and did say that the Soviet Union more often than not was using its new global reach to exacerbate troublesome situations in Africa, the Middle East and Central America. (As for the threat of a world "one-third rich and two-thirds hungry," Mr. Reagan proposed to deal with it not through a program of global redistribution but by encouraging the kind of capitalist enterprise that was generating prosperity in such countries of the "South" as Korea and Taiwan.)

In thus bringing the Soviet threat back to the center of his foreign policy, Mr. Reagan was reestablishing a link with the Nixon-Kissinger view of the world. But there was also a dramatic difference. As against the great-power realpolitik of Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger, Mr. Reagan tried to redefine the East-West conflict once again primarily in ideological terms. Speaking to the British Parliament where, he said, was enshrined "the enduring greatness of the British contribution to mankind, the great civilized ideas: individual liberty, representative government, and the rule of law under God," he deplored "the shyness of some of us in the West about standing for these ideals that have done so much to ease the plight of man and the hardships of our imperfect world." Ronald Reagan had no intention of allowing the United States to remain in so shy a condition. Accordingly he called for a "campaign" to assist and further "the democratic revolution" that, he told the British Parliament, was "gathering new strength" all over the world—and even within the Soviet Union itself, not to mention its East European empire.

Yet, if the Soviets really interpreted all this to mean that the Reagan Administration "was truly and unprecedentedly committed to the goal of doing the Soviet Union in" and of rolling back the Soviet system "right to the gates of the Kremlin itself," they must have been utterly bewildered by the policies the Administration actually followed. Why, for example, would an Administration intent on "doing the Soviet Union in" lift a grain embargo which, while not exactly calculated to topple the communist system, was nevertheless helping to aggravate the very internal economic difficulties that Mr. Reagan cited as a symptom of instability and decline? More pointedly, why would an Administration committed to rollback fail to exploit an event like the Polish crisis of 1981-82?

When Hungary erupted in 1956, the foreign policy of the United States was in the hands of a man supposedly dedicated to the liberation of Eastern Europe, but John Foster Dulles stood by and watched Soviet tanks crush this heroic uprising because the only alternative seemed to be a military response by the United States that might have unleashed a third world war. The same fear restrained Lyndon Johnson when Soviet tanks went into Czechoslovakia in 1968: short of embarking on unacceptably dangerous military measures, there was nothing the United States could do, and so the United States did nothing but register verbal protests. By contrast, when martial law was declared in Poland—a step almost universally understood to have been taken as a substitute for a Soviet invasion to crack down on the Solidarity movement—the United States was in a position to do more than light candles on Christmas and produce a disapproving television program. Thanks to the inability of the Poles to pay the interest on their debts to Western banks, there was an opportunity to keep the crisis at a boil by declaring Poland in default. No risk of war was posed by such a policy, and yet from the haste with which the United States, and even more the West Europeans, shrank from it, one might have thought that they expected the Soviets to launch a nuclear strike if the West refused to roll over the Polish loans.

There were, of course, strictly financial considerations involved in this decision; moreover, the Reagan Administration was acting not alone but under severe pressure from the West Europeans (who carried the bulk of the Polish debt). Even so, the fact remained that, given an opportunity to do something neither imprudent nor reckless to further a process of disintegration within the Soviet empire, the Reagan Administration chose to go in the opposite direction. That is, it cooperated with the Soviets and their Polish surrogates in quieting the situation down instead of stepping aside and letting an internal rebellion against Communist rule (which, in contrast to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the United States had done nothing whatsoever to encourage) take its course and work itself out.

Whatever the merits of this choice of rollover as against rollback, there was simply no way it could be reconciled with the idea that Mr. Reagan was trying "to do the Soviets in." It was, however, entirely consistent with the so-called Sonnenfeldt doctrine, according to which the disintegration of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe would be so dangerous, so pregnant with the risk of a general war, that continued Soviet control over those countries must paradoxically be considered a vital interest of the West.

So far as I know, it has never been suggested that this doctrine should be applied to other areas of Soviet imperial influence or domination like Afghanistan and Angola. Yet despite Mr. Reagan's praise of the "freedom fighters," as he did not hesitate to describe them, struggling against Soviet troops or their Cuban surrogates in those countries, the increase during his first term in the level of American military aid to the anti-Soviet Afghans was clearly not large enough to make a decisive difference; nor, to put it mildly, was there any visible increase in American diplomatic support for the anti-communist guerrillas in Angola.

But if Afghanistan and Angola were to be left more or less to the play of local forces, and there was to be no rollback in Europe, what about Central America, and specifically Nicaragua? Was rollback to be the policy there? Here it must be said that the Reagan Administration would in all probability have openly and proudly supported toppling the Sandinista regime if not for the Boland Amendment and similar congressional measures prohibiting such a policy (as against one merely aimed at preventing the flow of arms from Nicaragua into El Salvador or exerting pressure on the Sandinistas to honor their old promises of democratic reform). Under the circumstances, the Administration had to be content with circumventing these restrictions as best it could.

It is, however, important to recognize that even under the rules of détente the United States would not be required to acquiesce in the takeover of Nicaragua by a communist regime—certainly not one allied to Cuba and the Soviet Union and dedicated to sponsoring a "revolution without frontiers" in this hemisphere. Indeed, when the Reagan Administration attempted to deal with the communist threat to El Salvador and the growing aggressiveness of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua by issuing warnings to the Soviets and by hinting that new pressures would be brought against Cuba, it was acting in a way entirely consistent with détente as defined by no less an authority than Richard Nixon. That is, it was trying to correct a violation by the Soviets of the agreement to restrain third parties whose activities might bring the superpowers into direct conflict. Against this background, the invasion of Grenada assumed a greater significance than the size of that tiny country or the scale of the military operation might suggest. For it showed that the Reagan Administration was serious in serving notice to the Soviets that the United States meant to resume policing the "rules of the game," and that public opinion was no longer the insuperable barrier to the use of military force for this purpose that it had been since 1975.

Mr. Reagan, in short, may have dreamed of a democratic revolution in Eastern Europe, but he had no intention as President of the United States of sponsoring or even encouraging one. By the same token, if he could help it, the Monroe Doctrine, threadbare though it had grown, was not going to be replaced by the Brezhnev Doctrine in the Western hemisphere.


Thus far, in everything but name, we have détente as Mr. Nixon now conceives it: a "hard-headed" détente, involving "strength of arms and strength of will sufficient to blunt the threat of Soviet blackmail." Mr. Nixon stresses the military element in order to distinguish his idea of détente from Mr. Carter's which he, like Mr. Reagan, evidently regards as scarcely distinguishable from appeasement. Yet the enormous irony is that in the economic sphere Ronald Reagan, the great critic of détente, whether of the Nixon or the Carter variety, and the man who as President was accused of trying "to do the Soviets in," did not even measure up to the standards of toughness required by Mr. Nixon's theory.

To be sure, questions have been raised about the degree to which Mr. Nixon himself lived up to his theory as President. But whatever Mr. Nixon's practice in office, his most recent theoretical prescription for hard-headed détente in the non-military sphere brings into play "a mixture of prospective rewards for good behavior and penalties for bad behavior that gives the Soviet Union a positive incentive to keep the peace rather than break it"—in a word, linkage. Mr. Reagan had endorsed this idea in his 1980 campaign and it was reaffirmed in office by Mr. Haig, who later defined it as "the concept that any improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington had to be linked to an improvement of Moscow's behavior in the world." Yet in his 1980 campaign Mr. Reagan had also promised American farmers to lift the grain embargo instituted against the Soviet Union by Mr. Carter in response to the invasion of Afghanistan. The two promises were contradictory, and in choosing to keep the one to the farmers rather than the one to the Soviets, Mr. Reagan demonstrated, as he would do even more unmistakably in the Polish crisis, that the Soviets had little to fear from American "penalties for bad behavior" and little to gain in the way of "prospective rewards for good behavior" that they were not already getting for bad.

With this, among other things, in mind, and friendly though he was to the Reagan Administration, the columnist George Will was moved to describe it as an Administration that loved commerce more than it loathed communism—a jibe that could with even greater justice have been directed at the West Europeans. Mr. Reagan at least tried to stop the Europeans from subsidizing the construction of a gas pipeline which would not only help the Soviet economy but make the Europeans vulnerable to blackmail in some future crisis: this while Soviet troops were still ravaging Afghanistan and while new Soviet missiles aimed at Western Europe were being added almost daily to an already overpowering arsenal. But here even Mr. Haig, the great believer in linkage, was willing to sacrifice it for other objectives—in this case alliance solidarity—and Mr. Reagan was persuaded to back down. Again the Soviets were taught that they had nothing to fear from linkage; and in the virtually inconceivable event that they were too dense or too irrational to absorb the lesson, it was spelled out explicitly by Mr. Haig's successor as secretary of state, George Shultz. Exactly four years after Mr. Reagan had said "I believe in linkage," Mr. Shultz repudiated it: "In the final analysis, linkage is a tactical question," he said. "The strategic reality of leverage comes from creating facts in support of our overall design."

If, then, Mr. Reagan often sounded like John Foster Dulles, he also exhibited the kind of caution which always marked Dulles' policies, for all the latter's liberationist rodomontade. (Dulles, said his French counterpart, Georges Bidault, "was always talking of ‘calculated risks,' which in practice most often meant that he calculated a great deal and risked nothing.") Indeed, if we compare how the Administration in which Dulles served responded to a crisis in Lebanon with how the Reagan Administration reacted to a crisis in the same country, we find that in the use of military power Mr. Reagan was much more restrained than even his cautious predecessor. Under Eisenhower, the marines were landed in Lebanon to prevent a possible takeover by anti-Western Arab radicals tied to Syria and backed by the Soviet Union. Under Mr. Reagan, the United States gave half-hearted support to its Israeli ally in a war aimed at driving anti-Western Arab radicals, also tied to Syria and backed by the Soviet Union, out of Lebanon; and when the marines were sent in, the purpose was to prevent the Israelis from finishing the job. Worse still, in spite of all the talk about retaliation that came from the Reagan Administration, and despite the high priority it had always given to combating international terrorism, when those marines were attacked by terrorists, the United States did nothing.

Nor did the Reagan Administration ever follow through on its early efforts to forge a "strategic consensus" of pro-Western states in the Middle East that would include Israel and that would compensate for the loss of Iran as the "policeman" of Western interests in the region and the main bulwark against a Soviet move to control the Persian Gulf. This new approach—which had been endorsed by Mr. Haig, by the President's first national security adviser, Richard V. Allen, and then by the President himself—also meant the stationing of American ground forces in the region to serve as a "tripwire." But the first breath of Saudi opposition to the idea blew it away.

In allowing the Saudis to kill a bold and original initiative which might just possibly have circumvented the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict while shoring up a dangerously vulnerable vital interest, the Reagan Administration was—in a different set of circumstances but yet again—favoring commercial considerations over its anti-Soviet passions. The dangerous vacuum left by the fall of the Shah in Iran thus remained, and all that was left to address the Arab-Israeli conflict was a new Reagan version of the old Rogers Plan which, because it depended on Jordanian willingness to recognize and negotiate with Israel over the disposition of the West Bank, was doomed to failure as a nonstarter.

There was, finally, one other area in which Mr. Reagan's anti-communist passions were forced to give way, and that was in relations with China. Here, however, the pressures had little or nothing to do with commerce and everything to do with geopolitics. No doubt Mr. Reagan would have been happier to act as President on his old belief that Taiwan was the real China, and he even made a few feints in the direction of increased support for Taiwan after moving into the White House. But, before long, relations with China began to resume the course on which they had been set by another passionately anti-communist Republican President whose anti-communism had yielded to the opportunity presented by the Sino-Soviet split for playing one communist power against another.

If Mr. Reagan had been as great an ideologue as he was often said to be, he might have taken the position that the loss in clarity of ideological purpose entailed by this policy was greater than any advantage that so economically backward and militarily weak a nation as China could bring to the balance of power. But Mr. Reagan, while perhaps more swayed by ideological conviction than most professional politicians, showed in his first term (as he had already demonstrated, when governor of California, to those with eyes to see) that for better or worse he was more politician than ideologue.

As such he would go only so far, and no farther, against the pressures of public opinion, and the resistance of the media and the permanent government; he would wherever possible cut his political losses after doing anything risky or unpopular; and in the face of serious opposition, he would usually back down even from a policy to which he was personally devoted.

This at least partly explains why Mr. Reagan in his first term failed to steer the nation away from the course of détente on which it had been moving since 1972 and toward a new strategy of containment aimed, just as the original conception of containment had been, at a prudent encouragement of the forces of disintegration already operating entirely on their own within the Soviet empire. If Mr. Reagan had seriously tried to effect such a change of direction, he would have run into conflict not only with European opinion, but also with powerful interests in the United States; and this conflict would have entailed greater risks than Mr. Reagan the politician was evidently willing to take in supporting the convictions of Mr. Reagan the ideologue. As President, therefore, he was swept inexorably along by the conceptual momentum and institutional inertia of the recent past.


Campaigning for a second term, Mr. Reagan chose as his slogan "America is Back." The truth was that, as compared with what the country had become under the policies followed by the Carter Administration in its first three years in office, America was back—in at least the sense that it would no longer passively acquiesce in the achievement of an irreversible military superiority by the Soviet Union and that it was no longer prepared (in Mr. Haig's words) to "accommodate [itself] to the inevitable loss of the world to Moscow." Yet neither was the United States under Mr. Reagan prepared, as it had been only 20 years earlier under John F. Kennedy, to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Of course Kennedy's nominal successors in the Democratic Party of the 1980s were even less prepared to undertake this commitment than the Republicans under Mr. Reagan (not to mention the so-called moderate or liberal Republicans who hoped to succeed him). To an unhappy dissident Democrat like myself, this meant that in 1984 Mr. Reagan, for all the deficiencies that showed up in his first term, was preferable to Walter Mondale or any of Mr. Mondale's rivals. As the Democratic Party was now constituted, a Mondale administration would in all likelihood have set out to undo even Mr. Reagan's minimal efforts to prevent the Soviets from consolidating the military superiority they have already all but achieved; it would have reversed even the inhibited attempt by Mr. Reagan to prevent the spread of Soviet-backed communist regimes in Central America; and it would have pushed the United States further in the direction of isolationism and appeasement.

But, if Mr. Reagan was preferable to Mr. Mondale, I see no point in self-deception about the likely course he will take in his second term. Here the earliest clue could be found in some of Mr. Shultz's statements during the campaign about the future of Soviet-American relations. The United States, Mr. Shultz said this past October, having in the last four years "put the building blocks in place" in the form of a restoration of the military balance, was now ready not for a more vigorous policy of containment or an even more forward strategy of victory, but rather for what "could be a most productive period in Soviet-American relations."

That this statement, like similar ones made by the President himself at the United Nations and elsewhere, was something more than an election-year reassurance became clear shortly after Mr. Reagan's great victory in November, when, despite the fact that the military balance had not yet been restored, he resumed arms control talks with the Soviet Union. But I believe that the Reagan Administration's election-year rhetoric also pointed beyond arms control and toward a broader and more ambitious objective.

In his first term Mr. Reagan proved unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy that a real break with the underlying assumptions of détente would have entailed. Finally, however, overwhelmed by the pressures of the political present, and perhaps lured by seductive fantasies of what historians in the future might say of him as a peacemaker, Mr. Reagan seems ready to embrace the course of détente wholeheartedly as his own. Thus, upon being asked by a reporter at a press conference in January whether the Shultz-Gromyko meeting just concluded in Geneva "might lead to the new era of détente that Mr. Chernenko called for last November," Mr. Reagan replied: "Yes, we would welcome such a thing as long as it was a two-way street."

What this means is that we can expect negotiations with the Soviet Union not merely on arms control but toward an agreement along the lines of the Basic Principles of Détente of 1972. As Mr. Reagan himself explicitly put it in his post-Geneva press conference: "we very definitely are trying to arrive at a position in which we can settle some of the other bilateral and regional issues, and trade matters, that are at odds between us."

At the same time, Mr. Reagan seems to be heading toward a deal in Central America broadly modeled on the one that concluded the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. In that settlement, which foreshadowed the weakening and eventual abandonment of the Democratic Party's commitment to containment, the Kennedy Administration accepted a communist Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuban soil. Similarly, Mr. Reagan may well accept a communist Nicaragua in exchange for a promised withdrawal of Cuban and Nicaraguan support for the communist insurgency in El Salvador. Alternatively, the 1962 Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos might serve as the model for an agreement under the Contadora process calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the area.

Yet there is no reason to believe that agreements of this kind will restrain the Soviets or their Latin American clients and surrogates any more effectively the second time around than they did the first. North Vietnamese forces were not withdrawn from Laos after 1962; détente did not prevent the Soviets from forging ahead both militarily and politically; and the missile deal set the stage for an active Cuban role in that very process of Soviet expansion. If, then, Mr. Reagan should move in this direction, he will cruelly disappoint those of us who once hoped that he might lead the Republican Party into assuming the responsibility for resisting Soviet imperialism that he himself had so often and justifiably attacked the Democrats for no longer wishing to carry.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Norman Podhoretz is the Editor of Commentary. His most recent books are The Present Danger and Why We Were in Vietnam. Copyright © 1985 by Norman Podhoretz.
  • More By Norman Podhoretz