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The real legacy of Ronald Reagan

U.S. Department of Defense Newt Gingrich is a big tease. I attended a talk by the former House speaker and FP contributor at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday titled, “What if Reagan Had Not Run and the Soviet Union Still Existed?” Given Gringich’s penchant for alternative history, I was anticipating apocalyptic scenarios of President ...

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U.S. Department of Defense

Newt Gingrich is a big tease. I attended a talk by the former House speaker and FP contributor at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday titled, “What if Reagan Had Not Run and the Soviet Union Still Existed?” Given Gringich’s penchant for alternative history, I was anticipating apocalyptic scenarios of President Ted Kennedy ceding Alaska to the Soviets while American schoolchildren were memorizing passages from Das Kapital.

Instead, Gingrich’s presentation was largely a discussion of the power of political rehetoric. This month marks the 25th anniversary of two of Reagan’s key speeches, the March 8th “Evil Empire” speech and the March 23rd speech announcing the creation of the Strategic Defense Inititiative. Gingrich feels that these two speeches set the stage for the Soviets’ collapse:

Here he is, simultaneously in the same month […] boldly setting out two great principles of dismantling the Soviet empire. First we’re going to boldly take it on by delegitimizing its authority because it’s evil. And why should something that’s evil have authority. Second, we’re going to start a race involving science and technology that the Soviet Union cannot possibly win. As a bold set of insights, they’re remarkable. The fact that they worked, I would argue, is indisputable. Yet, at the time, they were so radical that almost no one could have accepted them.

Gingrich’s larger point was that “none of the people who were wrong in the 1980s have learned anything.” He feels that liberal elites in the U.S. media, state department, and academia still favor appeasement and relativism toward America’s enemies over Reagan’s aggressive moral clarity, which is why they avoid giving Reagan credit for winning the Cold War. I would argue that this isn’t as radical an opinion as Gingrich thinks. (Even the dreaded New York Times grudgingly included it in Reagan’s obituary.)

But leaving aside the multitude of reasons for the Soviet collapse and the strong evidence that decades of containment weakened the USSR more than Reagan’s confrontation, it’s clear that the Gipper played a crucial role in hastening events. If anything, Gingrich’s analysis actually sells him short. Gingrich focuses only on the bellicose rhetoric of Reagan’s first term, not the more conciliatory actions of his second. He doeesn’t mention Reagan’s many meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, including the 1986 negotiations in Iceland where the U.S. president nearly agreed to abolish his nuclear-missile force. Reagan clearly respected Gorbachev and felt that negotiation with such a rival was not an act of moral compromise. In doing so, he spurned the neoconservatives in his administration who viewed these overtures as tantamount to appeasement.

If aggressiveness and moral clarity were all that it took to defeat tyranny, democracy would have flowered in Cuba decades ago. The real takeaway lesson of Reagan’s Soviet strategy is that confrontation only works if combined with constructive engagement. It’s a lesson that many of those who idolize him have yet to learn.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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