On a pleasant October day in 1982 the Theodore Roosevelt Association was in Washington, DC to place on permanent display in the White House the medal for the Nobel Peace Prize that TR was awarded in 1906 for mediating the Russo-Japanese War. Welcoming a commemorative luncheon group to the Roosevelt Room, President Ronald Reagan quipped that as he had earlier reviewed his schedule for the day and come to his luncheon appointment, “I was thrilled when I saw the notation, ‘You are to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.'”
Fifteen years later–now 50 years after the beginning of the Cold War and eight years after its conclusion–it is clear that President Reagan contributed greatly to ending the Cold War and delivering the dividends of peace and prosperity we enjoy today. He has earned his own Nobel Prize and the Nobel Committee should do the right thing and award it. Congress, meanwhile, should pass a resolution urging the Committee to do so.
Reagan deserves the Nobel Prize, first, because he showed again the benefits of promoting “Peace through strength.” That hard-headed approach by our oldest president, incidentally, was the same one advanced by Theodore Roosevelt, our youngest president, when he brought the United States to its initial standing as a world power.
We are in danger of forgetting how demoralized the West had become by 1981 when Reagan took office. The wise, but costly, approach of “containment” that informed American defense and foreign policy since the Truman Administration–when the expansionist designs of the Soviet Union first were widely recognized–had deteriorated into a truly frightening nuclear strategy of “Mutual Assured Destruction,” with the appropriate acronym of “MAD.” That strategy meant that the main reason a hot war did not break out between NATO and the Soviets was the threat of nuclear annihilation of both sides.
Meanwhile, the Soviets supported terrorism and civil war in the third world and anti-American propaganda campaigns in the West. Some of the most influential political and media voices in the US claimed to see communism as a worthy economic model and argued that our real challenge as a society was to accomodate ourselves to the USSR and to manage our own decline.
Reagan’s view was more optimistic, more determined and–it turned out–more far-sighted. Against unremitting leftist opposition at home, he persevered on every front, as a number of historians and film-makers are now recording. Writes one, Jay Winik, in On the Brink, “Under Ronald Reagan, everywhere the Soviets had turned, their pressure was met by US counterpressure. Where the Soviets had supported Marxist-guerrilla movements, their imperial gains were checked and reversed by US-backed anti-Communist groups; where they had blustered that ‘History is on our side,’ the US rocked the very conceptual foundations of their empire with robust ideological warfare in defense of democracy; and where the Soviets had deployed their missiles, the US refused to back down and firmly put its missiles into place…”
It is the fashion among some who bitterly contested Reagan’s administration in the ’80s to belittle its triumph by asserting–contrary to what many were saying at the time–that the USSR already was in such a state of decay that it eventually would have crumbled on its own. Reagan, they claim, simply wasted a lot of money pushing them.
Happily, those expressions of sour grapes can be contrasted with the informed view of many of the Soviet leaders interviewed for the PBS series, “Messengers from Moscow,” produced a couple of years ago by a group led by Dr. Herbert Ellison of the University of Washington’s Jackson School. The US critics also are contradicted by Eastern European democrats, such as Lech Walesa of Poland, who report that their causes were greatly emboldened by Reagan’s strategic and moral support.
The policy of peace through strength prevailed. The “Evil Empire,” which really was evil and was an empire, collapsed. One reason it did so was the force of courageous American leadership.
The price was high, but the miracle is that it wasn’t higher. Said our staunchest ally of the day, Margaret Thatcher, “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.”
That relates to the second reason why Ronald Reagan deserves the Nobel Peace Prize: As President, he successfully conducted himself as a man of peace. If the crucial point in assertion of American resolve was the positioning of intermediate missiles in Europe, the crucial point in offering America’s generosity came after the 1986 Reykjavik, Iceland summit meeting. The media and the left counted the apparent stalemate at that meeting as a defeat for Reagan, but the Soviets knew better. In the period following Reykjavik, moreover, Reagan let Mikhail Gorbachev understand that while we would not desist from building the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), we were prepared to share the technology of nuclear protection with them in the interests of preventing nuclear exchanges of any kind, from any quarter (including our own); and that, on those grounds, we also were prepared for sharp arms-reductions right away.
When it became clear that a victorious West would not pursue the conquest or destruction of the East, but peaceful cooperation, this diplomatic “carrot” had almost as much influence on Soviet thinking as the “stick” of superior American arms technology.
The Soviets had excellent spies and they effectively exploited the beliefs of peace groups in the West. They were willing to sacrifice their civilian economy to promote their military prowess. Yet, even with such advantages, they realized that they still couldn’t compete. When they also saw that their adversary was prepared to be their friend, their morale dissolved and they decided to join us in making peace.
The Berlin Wall came down ten months after Reagan left the White House, but the President who two years earlier had the effrontery to call for its demolition plainly deserves much of the credit.
Ronald Reagan, sadly stricken now with Alzheimer’s, might not appreciate the Nobel Prize. But all the people who stood with and behind him, sometimes at great personal cost, will savor it on his behalf. Its award also might help America and the world to consider how the lessons of the Cold War can help us assure a peaceful future–a future we otherwise foolishly seem to take for granted.