Chapter 4

Fighting on the Streets of Berlin

This essay is a review of:

Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

by Paul Lettow

Ronald Reagan's Flawed Vision
by Praneeth Depur

           While many historians accept the view that the United States started to create ballistic missiles to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table, others believe that the creation of these missiles was Ronald Reagan’s attempt at a nuclear-free world. In Paul Lettow's book Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the latter of these ideas was addressed. Lettow divided the book into seven chronological chapters in which the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was conceptualized, formulated, and executed. A critic even said, “In this taut and lucid account of Reagan’s quest, historian Paul Lettow sheds valuable light on the fortieth president’s anti-nuclearism and its consequences”.1. Throughout the book, Lettow explains how a very powerful man misused his power to create a program that many were skeptical of.

           Lettow planned the first quarter of the book to speak of Reagan’s early political views and how he developed strong anti-nuclearism. Many people didn’t think this, but “Reagan’s subsequent career, his political career, was devoted to the general theme of rescue.”2 Arguably, these values were formed because Reagan once said “‘I was raised to believe that God has a plan for everyone.’”3. As the years passed, Reagan flipped from being liberal to conservative; however, his policy of anti-nuclearism never changed. Eventually, he went so far right that even Republicans started to criticize his views. Historians often say, “Some of Reagan’s political beliefs were most compatible with those of Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona…”4 in the 1964 presidential primary. Little did people know that Goldwater’s ideas would pave the way for the neoconservative movement of the 1980s. Throughout this time, Reagan developed a very specific foreign policy that ridiculed the actions of Nixon, “‘détente’s a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims.’”. He also ridiculed the actions of McNamara’s MAD (Mutually assured destruction), and called for a drastic increase of weapons systems against the Soviet Union. In the late 1970s, the Iranian hostage crisis turned the “silent majority” to the right and Reagan overwhelmingly won the 1980 election. He wanted to ensure that if there were a ballistic missile attack, the United States would endure no harm.

           Reagan went on to meet with his Joint Chiefs on December 22, 1982 to instigate the bureaucratic process that led to SDI. He sought to seek clarity after his MX missile program sputtered and doubled down due to the lack of help from Congress. Others among the staff such as McFarlane thought, “the U.S nuclear deterrent force at that time ‘was badly out of balance with the Soviet force.’”6. McFarlane “saw ‘a better way to compete’ with the Soviets…,” that did not involve ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) in SDI. When Reagan made his speech, he drew fierce opposition, and many said, “Reagan’s ambitions for missile defense are overlofty, unwarranted, and irresponsible.”8. On the other hand, many people also commended his speech for vocalizing his approach to a “safer” world and condemning the idea of MAD. A famous quote that he made was, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” to appeal to people’s emotions9. Appeals like this led to substantial support of SDI throughout both of Reagan’s terms and an enormous amount of funds and donations for the cause. As a result of SDI, Reagan changed U.S foreign policy and said, “For too long, our foreign policy had been a pattern of reaction to crisis, reaction to the political agendas of others…”10. The creation of the SDIO in 1984 eventually led to greater Soviet fear of the program and premier Andropov deciding to come to the negotiating table.

           As SDI was still in its early stages, McFarlane worried about overall support for the program itself. He was afraid that the weight of criticism from allies, effectiveness of Soviet propaganda, and leftist peace-keepers would sink Reagan’s vision. When asked about the purpose of SDI, Reagan stated “an agreement could be reached by which all nuclear weapons would be eliminated and by which the defensive system would then be ‘internationalized’”11. Eventually, the United States brought the Soviet Union to the negotiating table when premier Gorbachev decided to attend a summit in Geneva. At this summit, Reagan desperately tried to convince Gorbachev that SDI was for a righteous cause. However, Gorbachev was forceful when he “implied that Moscow would be forced to ‘rethink’ its approach to the entire U.S. - Soviet relationship if no agreement could be reached to stop SDI.”12. Lettow wrote that this force was an attempt to mask the fear that the Soviets had of the U.S.’s capabilities. Nevertheless, both leaders had arguable stances in the points that they were making. As time drew on, Gorbachev saw the tottering Soviet economy’s reliance on defense spending and wars unnecessary and he sought to move more funds from the military to domestic life.

           In 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev planned to meet in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, to discuss drastic reduction of nuclear missiles and SDI. Before that, Reagan and his joint chiefs staff pondered the idea of simply abolishing ballistic missiles in general. Reagan was “... saw the abolition of ballistic missiles as ‘a mighty step toward his personal penchant for a nuclear-free world.’”13. At the Reykjavik conference, Reagan’s plan was simple; he “proposed that he would agree to share SDI with the Soviets and that it would be deployed after the ‘complete elimination of nuclear weapons.’”14. Though the two superpowers were extremely close to abolishing all nuclear weapons in the world, Reagan did not want to see his precious defense initiative destroyed. After the Reykjavik conference, SDI started to become unnecessary as the Soviet’s power started to fail. Furthermore, the democrats regained control of Capitol Hill and decided to start cutting funding for the program.

           In this book, Paul Lettow was critical of Reagan misusing his power and using his own characteristics to shape United States foreign policy in his own image and dream. Evidence throughout the book qualifies the above statement such as Reagan’s appointment of the SDI staff to help him create the program. His joint chiefs staff were set up as virtual “yes-men” to Reagan’s ideas. No one else was told about the idea and “There was no ‘bottom-up impetus from within the national security bureaucracy--the Defense Department, the State Department, and NSC staff-- to pursue a missile defense program.”15. To further cement this idea, Reagan obsessed himself over the idea of being a “lifeguard” and did not choose to take any outside advice on the idea of the defense initiative after he made his announcement speech in 1983. Elsewhere in the book, the idea of Reagan’s possessiveness over SDI was solidified when the author said, “...Reagan almost never demanded or took sole credit for anything. The exception was SDI. Reagan’s possessiveness with respect to SDI illustrated not just the importance that he attached to it but also the importance that he attached to his particular purpose for it.”16.

           The credentials of the author grant him the right and knowledge to write this book. As a young scholar, Lettow showed exquisite prominence as he attended Princeton University for an A.B. and then Oxford University for his PhD. The author “served as the senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff” before joining Jones Day as a litigator17. His work experience in the white house might have reflected annoyance with Republicans as he quit soon after he joined. Paul also wrote another book on a topic similar to this, Strengthening the Nuclear Non-proliferation Regime, and went over the modern world and how we are moving away from nuclear based weapons and towards nuclear based energy programs.

           The time period that this book was written in was 2005, when George W. Bush was president. The book might be critical of Reagan’s abuse of his power because it was written to protest the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. General attitudes during this time were extremely pro-government and draw parallels towards Reagan’s time where many U.S citizens embraced the evangelical Christian movement. Outside factors that support Lettow’s conclusion could have been Bush’s acute obsession and purpose of the war in the Middle East. The war was caused out of anger against terrorism that caused the September eleventh attacks and suspicion of nuclear warheads, but both were never found. Similarly, Reagan believed in a nuclear free world even though his plan was unlikely to come to fruition. To support this, the book says “Those who knew Reagan well were aware that he had held that vision all along and that it had strongly influenced his desire to undertake SDI... In his view, missile defense would be the catalyst for the realization of that goal”18.

           Many reviewers of the modern day side with Lettow on his approach towards the Reagan administration and its abuse of presidential powers. One critic stated, “Throughout, Lettow maintains that Reagan championed the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ballistic missile defense program, not to ensure American military superiority but … in the utopian conviction that it would eventually make nuclear weapons obsolete.” and later said “The result is a provocative, informative and largely persuasive account.”19. However, the critic also gives Lettow some flak for talking too much about Reagan and not including other important factors that caused Reagan to formulate his views like the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s, and the overall cost of the program. Overall, the reviews of this book seem to agree with Lettow and his critical analysis of Reagan.

           Lettow also got good responses on a review of his second book Strengthening the Nuclear Non-proliferation Regime. Keeping to the theme of a nuclear-free world, this book analyzes the world patterns of moving away from nuclear weapons. A critic of the book reviewed it and said, “With its thoughtful analysis and comprehensive recommendations, it makes a strong contribution on a subject of vital importance.”20. One different thing that Lettow did in this book than the other book was his proposal of a solution to end the problems discovered.

           The reflections of the book itself are well qualified and are completely backed up and supported by evidence that vindicates the author’s point. Reagan might not have been a fanatic on many things, but he was a true maniac when it came to the furthering of SDI and a nuclear free world. Reagan was primarily thinking about America, but was also thinking about the world. Poindexter stated “the president’s goal with SDI was first and foremost to provide a defense, not only to the United States but to all civilization. He was very sincere in his offer to the Soviets to share the technology with them…”21. Furthermore, Lettow also stated, “…he had excluded much of the bureaucracy from the policy-making process, and at first the initiative did not have particularly broad or deep support within the administration”, to describe how Reagan took matters into his own hands without consulting any of the commanding officers of the military22.

           The common question that this book contributes to the overall topic of the class’s book is SDI’s effect on the swing of conservatism in the 1980s. After the disaster of the Carter administration, America wanted to have a “hardballing” president who would be able to enforce international law. SDI was the major confidence boost that he got to enforce U.S policy. The same recurring pattern was seen with both of the Bush presidents as they controlled huge militaries to promote their world influence. The SDI also relates to the collapse of the Soviet Union because of the overextended economy that defense spending had created. Paul Lettow also drew on the fact that, “Reagan had long believed and expressed his views that the Soviet system was weak and vulnerable, and that U.S pressure, particularly in the military competition, could encourage fundamental change within it”23.

           The Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s was an unimaginably important part of key U.S foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. In the book, Ronald Reagan and His quest to Abolish nuclear weapons, Paul Lettow goes over the crucial history of SDI, but also forms his own unique perspective on Reagan’s personality in this field and his “over-involvement”. “Over-involvement” is but a mere understatement of the fanaticism that drove Reagan to create the program out of his own image and use it to scare the Soviets into cooperating. The author ends the book by saying, “We live in a world that Ronald Reagan did much to bring about. There is a great deal to be gained by exploring what it was that he actually sought to do, and why”24.

1. Cannon, Lou. Back Cover.

2. Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York : Random House. 2005. 9

3. Lettow, Paul. 7.

4. Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York : Random House. 2005. 16.

5. Lettow, Paul. 53.

6. Lettow, Paul. 89.

7. Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York : Random House. 2005. 90.

8. Lettow, Paul. 109.

9. Lettow, Paul. 111.

10. Lettow, Paul. 122.

11. Lettow, Paul. 157.

12. Lettow, Paul. 181.

13. Lettow, Paul. 211.

14. Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York : Random House. 2005. 219.

15. Lettow, Paul. 57.

16. Lettow, Paul. 118.

17. Lettow, Paul. “Paul V. Lettow: Profile” Jones Day. Web. 22 May 2016.

18. Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York : Random House. 2005. 119.

19. Heilbrunn, Jacob. “’Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons’: In a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” Council on Foreign Relations. New York Times, 13 Feb. 2005. Web. 22 May 2016.

20. Lettow, Paul. “Strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime.” Council on Foreign Relations, 4 Apr. 2010. Web. 23 May 2016.

21. Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York : Random House. 2005. 120.

22. Lettow, Paul. 120.

23. Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York : Random House. 2005. 121.

24. Lettow, Paul. 248.