You can’t wish away history

By James Mann First of all, I’d like to say thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments. It’s good to see that nearly everyone liked the book, and that even the one who didn’t, Grover Norquist, also agrees that the book is accurate, well-sourced, and interesting. Since the book is intended to be a history, ...

586639_090417_reagan2.jpg
586639_090417_reagan2.jpg

By James Mann

First of all, I'd like to say thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments. It's good to see that nearly everyone liked the book, and that even the one who didn't, Grover Norquist, also agrees that the book is accurate, well-sourced, and interesting. Since the book is intended to be a history, not a polemic, and is meant to be read, not reduced to sound bites, such praise is gratifying.

By James Mann

First of all, I’d like to say thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments. It’s good to see that nearly everyone liked the book, and that even the one who didn’t, Grover Norquist, also agrees that the book is accurate, well-sourced, and interesting. Since the book is intended to be a history, not a polemic, and is meant to be read, not reduced to sound bites, such praise is gratifying.

I want to reply primarily to Grover Norquist, who offers once again the retrospective conservative view of Reagan and of the end of the Cold War.

Norquist begins by asserting it is now the Republican Party’s “history” and “mantra” that Ronald Reagan “defeated and dismantled the Soviet Empire.” Phrased in this fashion, the statement is literally true: This is certainly what most Republicans now say they believe. But it is in fact the task of a journalist or historian to determine the underlying reality — not what Republicans say, but what relationship their beliefs bear to what actually happened.

There are two fundamental problems with Norquist’s view. First, he wants to ignore, or explain away, what Reagan was doing in his diplomacy with Gorbachev during the three-year period from 1986-88 when (as Norquist wants to forget) the conservative movement was furious at Reagan for abandoning the cause. And second, he doesn’t understand how the Cold War ended.

Norquist focuses almost exclusively on the ways in which the United States, under Reagan’s leadership, increased its strength vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. But this did not mean the end of the Cold War. Rather, it could well have led to a prolonged standoff, in which the Soviet Union, while falling further behind the United States in military and economic power, still continued to play the same role in Eastern Europe and at home that it had played since the 1940s. Yes, the Soviet Union was (or, hypothetically, would have been) in a weaker position than in the past, but this would not have changed the underlying realities in places like Poland or Hungary, much less in Ukraine or Estonia.

Let’s assume, as Norquist, does that the Reagan defense buildup caused the Soviet leadership to decide it had to alter course.  (This is a more complicated question, whether decisions in Moscow were the direct result of American policies, but for purposes of this particular argument, let’s just take it as a given.) Then the next question is: Once the Soviet Union decided to change policies in response to Reagan, which way should it go? In which direction? By abandoning the Cold War, or by regrouping, with an aim to eventually reasserting Soviet power?

And here’s where Norquist strays from history. For it was the argument of many in Washington that Mikhail Gorbachev, after becoming the new Soviet leader in 1985, intended to respond to Reagan’s policies of the early 1980s by rebuilding Soviet power over the long term, not by abandoning the Cold War. The proponents of this view included Norquist’s conservative friends, who argued increasingly and bitterly throughout Reagan’s second term that Reagan was being taken in by Moscow, that he had failed to recognize Gorbachev’s intentions to revive Soviet power. (To take one of many examples cited in the book, consider this quote: Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus wrote in 1987 that Reagan was “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”) Will Inboden’s thoughtful essay concerning my book gives fair and ample recognition to this divide between Reagan and the conservatives; Norquist chooses to ignore the evidence of the split, a continuing theme of my book.

To explain away Reagan’s policies in this period, and his diplomacy with Gorbachev, Norquist makes an argument that has no basis either in history or in my book. He says, “Both Reagan and Bush staffers this author spoke with agreed that Reagan and Bush did things to prop up Gorbachev because by 1987, the Soviet Union was on a road to collapse and Gorbachev was viewed as more likely to let things proceed to further weakness and possible dissolution with less blood on the floor.” As a side matter, my book says nothing like this. More fundamentally, this is a retrospective argument that conservatives didn’t make at the time. The people seeking to “prop up” Gorbachev in Washington in 1987 were Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz. Their opponents were Norquist’s conservatives, plus officials like the CIA’s main Soviet specialist, Robert Gates. During the 1985-88 period, all of them were arguing that Gorbachev represented merely a new face for the same old Soviet policies. None of them were talking at the time about “possible dissolution.”

Finally, we come to the end of the Cold War itself. The decisive factor was Gorbachev’s decision not to intervene with force in 1989 as one Eastern European Communist regime after another abandoned the policies their leaders had maintained, under Soviet domination, for decades. (I agree with Michael Tomasky’s eloquent essay on the importance of Eastern European movements, and their leaders, just as he agrees with me that their success depended ultimately on Gorbachev’s inaction.)

Here again, the question is: Was it inevitable, given the Reagan defense buildup, that the Cold War would end, and would end in this fashion? No, it was not. There could easily have been other outcomes — that is, other Soviet responses to the upheavals of 1989. And indeed, Grover Norquist himself finally recognizes this reality. At the very end of his essay, Norquist writes: “Gorbachev was eventually toppled in a coup by those in the Soviet Union who, had they acted earlier, might have been able to maintain the Empire through violence directed at their own people.”

But if this is true, then the Cold War did not have to end in the way that it did. Gorbachev’s role was crucial. There could have been violence; there could have been a long effort to preserve the status quo; there could have been lots of other responses to the events in Eastern Europe than the one Gorbachev chose. It was the policy of the Reagan administration in 1986-88 to build up Gorbachev, to recognize his importance and to prevent the traditionalist elements in the Soviet leadership from gaining the upper hand against him.  Reagan did this against the continuing, determined resistance of American conservatives.  A few of the conservatives who were criticizing Reagan at the time, such as George Will, have since acknowledged that Reagan was right and they were wrong. Norquist chooses instead to remember an airbrushed Reagan.

Norquist has, indeed, won a victory within the Republican Party, in the sense that today, Republicans now unite around the “mantra” that Reagan “dismantled the Soviet empire.” Whether this “mantra” is good for the Republican Party is an open question. It is certainly not an accurate reading of history.

James Mann is author-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

<p> James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power. </p>

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