John Patrick Diggins: Reagan Wasn't a Neocon

Roundup: Talking About History

John Patrick Diggins, in the NYT (June 11, 2004):

Almost everywhere in the press one reads that President Bush sounds an awful lot like Ronald Reagan. Commentators and politicians alike have drawn the comparison between Mr. Bush's"muscular" foreign policy and the Reagan doctrine. However macho and aggressive Mr. Bush's foreign policy may be, when it came to the Soviet Union, Mr. Reagan's was anything but.

In 1985, Mr. Reagan sent a long handwritten letter to Mikhail Gorbachev assuring him that he was prepared"to cooperate in any reasonable way to facilitate such a withdrawal" of the Soviets from Afghanistan."Neither of us," he added,"wants to see offensive weapons, particularly weapons of mass destruction, deployed in space." Mr. Reagan eagerly sought to work with Mr. Gorbachev to rid the world of such weapons and to help the Soviet Union effect peaceful change in Eastern Europe.

This offer was far from the position taken by the neoconservative advisers who now serve under Mr. Bush. Twenty years ago in the Reagan White House, they saw no possibility for such change, and indeed many of them subscribed to the theory of"totalitarianism" as unchangeable and irreversible. Mr. Reagan was also informed that the Soviet Union was preparing for a possible pre-emptive attack on the United States. This alarmist position was taken by Team B, formed in response to the more prudently analytical position of the C.I.A. and then composed of several members of the present Bush administration. The team was headed by Richard Pipes, the Russian historian at Harvard, whose stance was summed up in the title of one of his articles:"Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War."

Not only did the neocons oppose Mr. Reagan's efforts at rapprochement, they also argued against engaging in personal diplomacy with Soviet leaders. Advisers like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, now steering our foreign policy, held that America must escalate to achieve"nuclear dominance" and that we could only deal from a"strategy of strength." Mr. Reagan believed in a strong military, but to reassure the Soviet Union that America had no aggressive intentions, he reminded Leonid Brezhnev of just the opposite. From 1945 to 1949, the United States was the sole possessor of the atomic bomb, and yet, Mr. Reagan emphasized to Mr. Brezhnev, no threat was made to use the bomb to win concessions from the Soviet Union....

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