Ronald Reagan, the Election of 1980, and Foreign Affairs: What You See Isn’t Always What You Get

“I had an agenda I wanted to get done,” Ronald Reagan explained after the end of his presidency. “I came with a script.” Thirty years ago, after trouncing Jimmy Carter in the election of 1980, Reagan brought that script to the White House. Its main elements are now familiar. Reagan wanted to diminish the power of “big government” and reduce “high taxes.” He also was determined to increase U.S. military strength, which he believed had declined during the 1970s while the Soviets had conducted the “biggest military buildup in the history of mankind” and aggressively expanded their influence in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Reagan achieved much of what he set out to do. He secured a major tax cut in 1981, albeit one that led to record budget deficits; his administration scaled back federal regulation of business, for better, and often, for worse; he boosted defense spending tremendously; and he aggressively challenged Communist influence in many areas of the world.

The bigger defense budgets, harsh denunciations of Kremlin policies, increases in U.S. assistance to anti-Communist governments in Latin America and to the Contras in Nicaragua were hardly surprises; Reagan had promised as much during the campaign of 1980. Yet Reagan’s greatest achievement in foreign policy–helping to end the Cold War–was something that no one–including Reagan himself–anticipated on election night in1980.

Reagan had long believed that communism was a doomed ideology. In 1975, he wrote that communism was “a form of insanity–a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature.” He said something similar in his famous “Evil Empire” speech in March 1983, when he declared, “I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.”

Reagan and his advisors tried to exploit vulnerabilities in the Soviet economy and the Soviet empire, but they doubted that their pressure would change the fundamentals of the Cold War any time soon. Even the administration’s hardline policy statements, such as National Security Decision Directive 75 of January 1983, concluded that it was “unlikely” that there would be any “rapid breakthrough” in Soviet-American relations and that it was doubtful that there would be “dramatic, near-term victories in the U.S. effort to moderate Soviet behavior.”

Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric during his first years in office was usually uncompromising and sometimes alarming, but the president was more pragmatic than many of his critics–or supporters–believed. Even as he talked tough, Reagan looked for opportunities to negotiate with the Soviets, although mainly on his own terms. His efforts accelerated in 1983, when hardliners Richard Pipes and William Clark both left the NSC and Secretary of State George Shultz became Reagan’s most influential advisor on Soviet affairs–next to Nancy Reagan whose counsel to the president was always most important.

There’s little doubt that Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet leader in March 1985, was responsible for the critical changes that led to the waning of the Cold War. But Reagan was Gorbachev’s indispensable partner–the costar as he had been in his Hollywood days to a Russian Errol Flynn. Reagan was willing to engage his Soviet counterpart at a time when many conservative Republicans thought that Gorbachev was just another Communist in a better-looking suit. Reagan, however, relied on his intuitive understanding and interpersonal skills. “He was altogether incapable of thinking abstractly: his mind worked either emotionally or in reaction to individuals whom he could visualize,” Pipes asserted. Reagan used that understanding to recognize that Gorbachev was a different kind of Communist–someone who looked you in the eye, had a sense of humor, and was willing to engage in serious talks. Reagan had confidence in his own judgment even if other leading Republicans didn’t. Richard Nixon, for example, visited Reagan in April 1987 and was so taken aback by what he thought was Reagan’s unfamiliarity with basic issues and lack of concentration that he wrote, “There is no way he can ever be allowed to participate in a private meeting with Gorbachev.” But Reagan had believed in his own ability as a negotiator since his days as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s. His willingness to engage Gorbachev was absolutely essential to the improvement of Soviet-American relations beginning in 1985.

It’s worth remembering that Reagan faced fierce criticism for doing so. Nixon and Henry Kissinger publicly opposed reducing U.S. nuclear strength in Europe because of the Soviet advantage in conventional forces. Intelligence authorities told Reagan that Gorbachev was just another Soviet leader with the same ideology and the same expansionist goals. Conservative columnist George Will thought Reagan was being snookered by Gorbachev. Evangelical conservatives decried what they saw as Reagan’s increasingly close relationship with the leader of the Evil Empire. And the real amiable dunce of the Republican Party in the 1980s, Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, denounced the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as only he could. “The thing that worried me most about it,” Quayle said, “is that we now have in momentum a potentially [sic] denuclearization of Western Europe, and therefore war would in fact be more of a possibility than now.”

Reagan withstood all of this criticism. He also understood the power of symbolic acts. When he visited Moscow in 1988 and said that the evil empire was part of “another time, another era,” he did much to persuade the public that the Cold War was becoming a part of history rather than a frightening reality of daily life. No one in 1980 could have imagined Reagan and a Soviet general secretary as old friends strolling through Red Square.

From the perspective of thirty years, we should remember that the presidents we elect–at least in some ways–can surprise us. In this case, unlike in a more recent election, the surprise was pleasant.