It is a feature of many modern-day academics to claim neutrality in the fervid political debates that have divided left and right over the past decades. They say they are committed to “objective scholarship” and are above the partisan affiliations, often assuming a middle-ground position. This is evident in two recent books on Ronald Reagan and the 1980s, Gil Troy’s Morning in America and Robert Collins's Transforming America.
Both authors assert that their books are neither an attack nor a defense of Reagan but rather an attempt to understand his political appeal and assess his place in history. In both cases, however, especially when it comes to foreign policy, the authors provide extensive praise for Reagan’s actions. They herald his role in ending the Cold War, which a growing number of Soviet scholars (and Americans) now attribute to social developments within Russia. They minimize further the political violence and brutality that resulted from his sponsorship of proxy wars in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, his bombing of Grenada and Libya and his support for dictators world-wide, including Suharto in Indonesia and Mobutu in Congo. They also ignore much recent scholarship linking Reagan’s policies to the rise of a bitter anti-American backlash in the Middle East, in part because of his training of mujahadin guerillas in Afghanistan, support for Saddam Hussein’s murderous invasion of Iran and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. 1 In the face of these omissions and the positions that they take, are Collins and Troy truly objective analysts, charting a proper middle course between Reagan bashers and supporters? Or does their scholarship serve as an apology for a shortsighted Western leader who was responsible for major human rights violations and suffering, and was a bane to world peace?
Of the two, Collins is at the very least more thorough in his analysis. He recognizes flaws in Reagan’s strategy and his cozying up to unsavory governments – including apartheid South Africa while its armies were in the process of invading Angola and Mozambique. Collins also recognizes the ravages of the Contra war in Nicaragua – though ignores, like Troy, the carnage caused by U.S. support for vicious right-wing paramilitaries in Guatemala and El Salvador, which razed hundreds of villages and killed tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of civilians according to U.N. Truth Commission reports. 2 In Troy’s brief discussion of Latin American policy, he claims moral equivalency for the Nicaraguan Contras and Sandanistas. Is this a balanced assessment? Is Troy aware that the Contras were recruited from remnants of the hated Somoza dictatorship’s National Guard, which tyrannized the country for six decades prior to the 1979 revolution and ruled it as a personal fief?3 Is he aware, that without any base of popular support, the Contras resorted to terrorist tactics with U.S. support (including the mining of national harbors in explicit violation of international law), while adopting the main goal of destabilizing the country in order to undermine popular support for Sandanista reforms? Or that the Sandanistas, while abusive in ordering the forced relocation of Miskito Indians, melded progressive Christianity (liberation theology) with democratic socialism and allowed for free elections in 1984 (which they won) in a break from the Cuban precedent?
There are many other levels in which both Collins and Troy can be criticized. Most disconcertingly, neither show any concern with the civilian toll of the political violence caused by Reagan’s policies in the developing world, which they justify as necessary to winning the Cold War, or go outside U.S. governmental sources to provide any kind of international perspective. Instead, they adopt the same parochial position shaping political debates over U.S. intervention in the 1980s. They fail to shed light on the indigenous appeal of left-wing social movements in impoverished countries subject to long-standing foreign exploitation, or to understand the independence of these movements from a weakening Moscow. Both authors in addition make no effort to analyze the long-term implication of Reagan’s foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, where the effects have been profound. Nor do they discuss in any depth the waste in human resources associated with his massive domestic arms build-up and missile defense system. 4
This is too bad because both scholars are skilled writers and provide a sophisticated lens for analyzing Reagan’s domestic policy and political appeal. Both correctly emphasize the resonance of Reagan’s message of limited government interference following the breakdown of Great Society programs and root his ideology in shifting intellectual currents. They also recognize the spread of corporate greed and the polarization of economic wealth due to his tax cuts for the rich and cutback in social services – though they minimize the impact of the War on Drugs in contributing to the burgeoning prison-industrial complex (Ignoring volumes of critical scholarship, Troy actually praises Reagan’s drug war – a dubious policy linked to major violations of individual civil liberties at home, the arming of repressive policing agents internationally and environmental destruction caused by the use of chemical defoliants). 5
To their credit, both Collins and Troy highlight Reagan’s influence in transforming American society and culture in his image. They stress his persona as a great communicator and ability to capitalize on the demoralization that set in following the Vietnam War era to his political advantage by playing on patriotic themes. Here their work builds on an already rich literature, including Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation and Michael Paul Rogin’s, Ronald Reagan - The Movie, to show Reagan’s political skill in tapping into deeply engrained nationalist sentiments. 6 Unlike Slotkin and Rogin, however, both Collins and Troy fail to grapple in any depth with the flip side of this process – how it entailed recasting the Vietnam War (which led to the deaths of some 2-5 million people) as a “noble crusade” and promoting parochial clichés about American national greatness and destiny, which bred support for foreign imperialism and condescension towards peoples of different social backgrounds and ideological outlook. This is a serious shortcoming in considering the long-term ramifications.
In terms of cultural analysis, both works could also be broadened. They fail to consider the crucial question of how the recreation of Reagan’s mythical vision of American innocence in Hollywood films like Rambo promoted the revival of a militaristic foreign policy and culture (a theme explored in works by Susan Jeffords and Bruce Franklin). 7 This omission underscores the most glaring flaw in both works – the failure to see through the Reagan mystique, which still takes hold over much of America. Consequently, their scholarship not only fails to meet the standard of objectivity that the authors claim for themselves – it also fails to advance on previous works that are more perceptive in understanding the complex paradoxes of Reaganism and its impact.
1 See in particular, Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: The U.S., the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (New York: Random House, 2004).
2 See Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), ch.2.
3 See Richard Grossman, “The Blood of the People: The Guardia Nacional’s Fifty Year War Against the People of Nicaragua, 1927-1979” In When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S. and Technologies of Terror, ed. Menjivar & Rodriguez (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2005), p. 66-7.
4 On this point, see Frances Fitzgerald, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
5 See for example, as an indicative title, Christina J. Johns, Power, Ideology and the War on Drugs: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure (New York: Praeger, 1992), Ted G. Carpenter, Bad Neighbor Policy (Washington, CATO, 2004).
6 Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century American History (New York: Atheneum, 1992), Michael P. Rogin, Ronald Reagan – The Movie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
7 H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), Susan Jeffords, The Remasculanization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).