Monday, October 4, 1999

His Faith in U.S. Altered the World:
Reagan: He conceived of the end of the Cold War and convinced the skeptics.

By ROBERT C. MCFARLANE
 

 

For a nation so in need of political heroes--people with the combined intellect, integrity, courage and media skills to inspire followers and to establish their ideas in effective law and public policy--it is curious and dispiriting that we don't seem to recognize one when we see one. At least that is the conclusion one would draw from Edmund Morris' biography of President Reagan and even from the post-publication comments of the former president's closest aides.
     I had the honor of serving three presidents during nine years in the White House. In addition, I have read all that I can find of our two centuries of political history. From that perspective, it seems clear that when one considers the scale of the challenges he faced, the stakes at risk for Americans--indeed for all humankind--and the circumstances that he inherited, Reagan's stewardship as our president must rank with those of Lincoln and the Roosevelts. Look back for a moment.
     Any historian asked to name the salient factors affecting the course of human history--perhaps our very survival--during the last half of the 20th century would cite the Cold War, the 40-year struggle in which the risk of global annihilation was a reality we could not escape. It affected us all, whether as schoolchildren seeking shelter under desks during nuclear attack drills or as officials in office seeking to cope with the surreal burden of resolving nuclear standoffs with the Soviet Union. Twice in the past 40 years, we and the Soviet Union prepared to go to nuclear war. All Americans shared the desperate anxiety of those days and weeks when human destiny seemed hostage to a very unpredictable balance of terror.
     And yet for 40 years, our best minds could not conceive the means to alter this grim reality. It was accepted wisdom that however dysfunctional Marxist-Leninist doctrine was, the Soviets possessed such enormous natural wealth that they could afford forever to build sophisticated nuclear systems sufficient to underwrite their ambition for global empire, and the best we in the West could hope for was to limit the pace of their expansion.
     The unspoken implication was that someday we would lose, and either surrender, be conquered or leave a legacy measured in megadeaths.
     Such was the best our best minds could conceive--until Ronald Reagan became president.
     To portray Reagan as a lucky optimist is to trivialize the profundity of his vision and the power of his confidence in the American people. Reagan believed that we could compete with any nation and win and that when it came to the Soviet Union, we just hadn't tried hard enough.
     To be fair, it is true that few of his predecessors had the benefit of both popular support for a more assertive foreign policy and the fiscal means to pay for it. Still, those assets would have gone wasting for a president captive of conventional thinking.
     It took more, however, than an original idea to end the Cold War. Reagan had to persuade a powerful trilogy of skeptics. These included our European allies led by worthy critics such as Margaret Thatcher, a Democrat-controlled Congress that leveled defensible criticism of the financial, technological and political risk of departing from a strategy that, however surreal, had worked and a corps of reporters and pundits who denigrated the sweep of Reagan's strategic defense initiative as starry-eyed, risky and infeasible. Reagan's commitment to challenge the Soviet Union and to take it on bilaterally, regionally, militarily and with an insistent human rights agenda was viewed as beyond heresy.
     In short, Reagan not only conceived a concept for ending the Cold War and reducing nuclear weapons that no predecessor had the wit or courage to imagine, but he took on the unanimous opposition of four great political forces--the Russians, the allies, Congress and the American people--won their support, brought down Marxism in the Soviet Union and removed the specter of Soviet-launched nuclear holocaust for all of us. Can anyone name a contemporary figure in American political life with the brains and courage to conceive such a strategy and take on those risks--and more's the point--prevail?
     From my early experience on the National Security Council staffs of presidents Nixon and Ford, I formed the opinion that the most essential quality for a president to possess was high intellect--the capacity to conceive sound solutions to national problems. During those five years, which included the searing crucible of Watergate and defeat in Vietnam, I began to change my mind. By the time I had served in the Reagan Cabinet, I had a very different view.
     Leading our country is an almost--but not quite--impossible calling. The president must be a person who understands and believes passionately in the historic importance of the American idea of freedom and democracy and of the power of free people to prevail in any struggle. The president must be able to inspire the confidence of Americans that he will do the right thing.
     Reagan believed those very important things and pledged his unwavering commitment to vindicating the precious trust we gave him. Edmund Morris and all of us ought to understand and honor that.

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Robert C. Mcfarlane Served as President Reagan's National Security Advisor From 1983 to 1985
   

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