|President Ronald Reagan|
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Reagan had the reputation of being a genial, likeable man in person, but of making policy decisions with little regard for how they would be accepted by Washington power brokers or the press. Especially, the press.
Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, had been hailed as the living symbols of the new and improved Soviet leadership. They were featured on the covers of celebrity magazines in the US. Raisa’s shopping trips in Paris were covered on television. Even Britain’s great “Iron Lady”, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, said she could “work with” Gorbachev.
Many liberals openly wished that the US had such an open-minded, intelligent and worldly leader. Instead we were stuck with a “cowboy”, a talentless B-movie actor, an undoubted simpleton who used his acting ability to appeal to an ignorant American public. For nearly a decade, the Soviet Union had been on the rise, the US and its western allies were in a tailspin. It didn’t look good for “truth, justice, and the American way” – and Reagan was certainly no Superman. In fact, according to the Washington intelligentsia, Reagan didn’t even make a decent Clark Kent.
During the 1980 Presidential campaign, Reagan had promised the American people that the US would pursue the development of a “shield” against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that were the method of delivering nuclear warheads by both the Soviets and the US. If ICBMs could be stopped, then the threat of all-out nuclear war was erased. For the first time since the late 1940s, the world would have no fear of nuclear war and a possible, catastrophic “nuclear winter” to follow. To Reagan, using peaceful technology to reduce the threat of destructive technology was an obvious solution.
In Reykjavík, Iceland, during treaty negotiations, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev demanded that the US stop the “Star Wars” program or there would be no further treaty negotiations. Reagan refused. “Nyet," he stated in Russian.
Reagan said he would not halt a technological breakthrough that might put a practical end to nuclear warfare. This advance would forever remove the nuclear arms threat from American and Soviet children. Gorbachev responded that “Star Wars” would give the US a strategic advantage that would put the Soviet Union at its mercy, so its plans must be scrapped. There could be no treaty with the US unless the space-based missile interceptor program was discontinued immediately. Again, Reagan said, “Nyet” – and added that “Star Wars” was a program of peace, not war. The US would gladly share the “Star Wars” program with its Soviet friends. It was a brilliant strategy by Reagan.
In the US, it seemed everyone was outraged. The left was angry because Reagan didn’t capitulate and do as the Soviets demanded. The right, Reagan’s base, was stunned that we would even consider sharing technology that could assure America of space and military dominance for generations. Reagan was content to continue negotiations under his own terms.
When Reagan called the Soviet bluff, all over Manhattan and Boston, weak-kneed, weak-willed and weak-bladdered liberals had to change their suddenly damp undies. They were certain the world had come to an end. Reagan knew better.
In the Soviet Union, Reagan’s statement was taken much differently. Reagan was the little boy who said, “The emperor has no clothes!”
The Soviets were in dire economic straits. Soviet scientists did not have the resources - computing power or financial – to match the US commitment to “Star Wars.” Despite the Soviet Union’s wealth of natural resources, centrally planned economies are always far less efficient than free enterprise. The Soviet Union was crumbling from within and only continued concessions from the west would have secured its survival as a superpower. Ronald Reagan’s firm “Nyet” was vastly different than the acquiescence of Gerald Ford or the eager agreement of an ingratiating Jimmy Carter.
In effect, Reagan’s offer to share “Star Wars” told the Soviets that not only did the US not fear the Soviets, but that the Soviets were irrelevant to the future of the United States or of the free world. The Soviets yielded.
Reagan’s belief in the ability of the American people to out-think, out-innovate and out-perform a people enslaved by communist dictators seems obvious now. It wasn’t back then. For years the left tried to give Gorbachev credit for the eventual peace accord that was exactly what Reagan wanted: “Trust, but verify.”
Ronald Reagan wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes; but he was never mistaken in what he believed and in what he knew to be true. Reagan believed in an America that, given the opportunity, could do anything. In this year marking the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, let’s strive to see our country through his eyes; the eyes of a believer.