Victory in the Cold War was neither inevitable, nor simply a collapse from within the “Evil Empire.” The late-1970s saw freedom in retreat. Expatriate writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned that the West’s illusions would be broken by “the pitiless crowbar of events.” Shortly after, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
Ronald Reagan assembled his divisions—and not just the armed forces. He knew the answer to Joseph Stalin’s 1944 wartime taunt to Winston Churchill—The Pope, how many divisions does he have?” Joined by Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, Reagan enlisted more than one hundred million people as “divisions” behind the Iron Curtain. He backed the forces of freedom worldwide—with arms and money, not rhetoric alone.
Six qualities made Reagan one of America’s greatest presidents: (1) clear, morally sound principles—freedom, equality of opportunity and limited government under a sovereign people; (2) strategic vision—never lose the forest for the trees; (3) tactical dexterity—compromise and timing; (4) character—steely resolve versus tyranny and domestic blackmail as well (firing the air controllers), and courage when facing personal adversity; (5) peerless communication skills—clarity and focus, leavened with humor and grace; and (6) an optimism that personified a country that opened a frontier “from sea to shining sea” in its first century and reached the moon to open the vast space frontier in its second.
Alone among Presidential timber of his time Reagan believed that Cold War stalemate was not enough. Asked by his first National Security Adviser, Richard Allen, what his Cold War strategy was, Reagan replied: “We win, they lose.” Yet while Jimmy Carter’s defeatism was widespread on the political left, there was despair on the right, and not just from Solzhenitsyn. The great French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel lamented that the people of the West blamed themselves for troubles in fact caused by the Soviet Union and communism.
The pessimists were astute about surrender—we nearly did lose the Cold War; but they erred in thinking surrender inevitable. Jimmy Carter, if re-elected in 1980, would have made their nightmares come true. Would the man who once said that he and Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev “shared similar dreams and aspirations” have galvanized dissidents inside the Soviet Empire by calling it evil? Would the man who unilaterally cancelled the neutron warhead and the B-1 bomber have persevered in deploying intermediate-range “Euro-missiles,” over strident global opposition from his leftist brethren? Would the signer of the SALT II arms limitation treaty have proposed strategic missile defense? Would he have tightened trade in dual-use goods to deny the Soviets critical military and civilian technologies? Would the President who urged Americans to abandon “inordinate fear of communism” have dared a Soviet leader to tear down the Berlin Wall? Reagan did all these things Carter surely would have spurned, and he did more.
Reagan made a difference on the home front, too. The Reagan tax cuts kicked off an economic boom that yielded a $17 trillion growth in asset values, easily covering a $3 trillion rise in the national debt. Tax relief enabled America to transform its late-industrial age economy into an information age powerhouse. Deficits do indeed matter, but assets, sound money and economic growth matter far more. While Europe and Japan stagnated, America soared.
Many tributes from Democrats have damned the Gipper with faint praise, calling him a Great Communicator while implying he nothing to communicate. We will know that the Democratic Party has come home when they can view Ronald Reagan as Republicans came to view FDR: a great president from the opposition party who rallied his country to triumph over the twin terrors of economic collapse and totalitarian conquest.
Above all, Reagan restored faith in America’s future, its essential goodness and historic mission. He understood, as did Abraham Lincoln, that only by ultimately freeing all can freedom be safe for those already free. Now George W. Bush must rally the nation in the latest fight to the finish between imperfect civilization and perfect barbarism, that of free countries versus mega-death terror from both “WMD states” and groups like al-Qai’da. The Gipper’s testamentary gift to us is what should be our goal in a long war that strategist Eliot Cohen calls World War IV: “We win, they lose.” One more coalition of the willing to win one more for the Gipper, and for civilization.
John C. Wohlstetter is a Senior Fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.