The Reagan Files

After all the memoirs and diaries are published, after the myths are created and exploded, there is something quite bracing about the transcripts and official minutes of once-secret White House meetings. People often have imperfect memories of what was said at a meeting, which makes it all the more important and interesting to read the ...

CARLOS SCHIEBECK/AFP/Getty Images

After all the memoirs and diaries are published, after the myths are created and exploded, there is something quite bracing about the transcripts and official minutes of once-secret White House meetings. People often have imperfect memories of what was said at a meeting, which makes it all the more important and interesting to read the official record of a dialogue as it actually unfolded.

A fresh cache of declassified and original materials on President Reagan and the Cold War is coming to light with the publication of The Reagan Files: The Untold Story of Reagan’s Top-Secret Efforts to Win the Cold War, edited by Jason Saltoun-Ebin. The documents contained in the volume are raw, genuine and illuminating.

Here’s a gem: a White House meeting Sept. 8, 1987, Reagan and his cabinet members were debating negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan confides, cheerfully:

I have a friend who tells me that in the Soviet Union their right-wingers are starting to call Gorbachev ‘Mr. Yes’ because he agrees with everything that I propose.”

 

The documents are the official minutes of National Security Council and National Security Planning Group meetings, where policy battles often played out. Saltoun-Ebin has included the declassified texts of more than 100 of these meetings that deal with the Soviet Union, as well as Reagan’s letters to Soviet leaders and their letters to him, and he plans a second volume on other topics.

The documents are not verbatim transcripts. They are minutes, recording in dialogue form. Some of these meetings are mini-dramas, with conflict, wisdom and banality. In the 1987 session, for example, Reagan repeats his hope of sharing technology from the Strategic Defense Initiative with the Soviet Union. None of the cabinet members or other advisers in the room seem very enthusiastic. You can practically hear the sighs and groans.

Reagan says:

Why can’t we agree now that if we get to a point where we want to deploy we will simply make all the information available about each other’s systems so that we can both have defenses. So that if either side is ready to deploy, both agree to make available to the other all the results of their research.”

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger responds:

I don’t believe that we could ever do that.

Then, a few minutes later, Reagan returns to the subject:

Once we deploy something, won’t they know about the system? So won’t they try to counter it anyway, so what difference does it make if they get the information and counter it their way or if we simply provide it to them.”

To which Weinberger again says no:

The key here is the price that they are asking for is too high. We ought to just hold tough.”

Fragments of these documents were published earlier by Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson in Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save The World From Nuclear Disaster, Crown, 2009. The Anderson book makes an argument about Reagan’s central role in the events, and largely focuses on what Reagan had to say. Saltoun-Ebin is reproducing the broader record, including the remarks of almost everyone around the table. Saltoun-Ebin provides some context notes, but most of the book is comprised of the documents.

Saltoun-Ebin was hired by Richard Reeves in 2001 to help with the research on his book, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (Simon & Schuster, 2005.) They filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests at the Reagan Presidential Library. Most of those requests were not answered before the book went to press.

When Saltoun-Ebin graduated from law school in 2007, he returned to the library and found minutes of meetings of the National Security Council and National Security Planning Group had recently been released. The book is drawn from these documents, as well as others, and Saltoun-Ebin has also posted many of them on a website, TheReaganFiles.com

Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for this book, which was self-published by Saltoun-Ebin through CreateSpace. There’s a Kindle version now, and it will soon be available as a softcover on Amazon.com.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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