Best Defense

Edgar on Strategy (Part VIII): Reagan, Reykjavik, and strategic imagination

Imagination and fiction are essential elements of strategy.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan speaks at a rally for Senator Durenberger Feb. 8, 1982.  (Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan speaks at a rally for Senator Durenberger Feb. 8, 1982. (Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images)

From the series editor: Today’s article addresses creative thinking and nukes. Creative strategic thinking has been popular for a while now (almost too popular, in my experience); entire blogs are dedicated to it. Nukes are less frequently a popular topic, but public conversations between the Dotard and Rocketman have brought nukes to the forefront. Ben reminds us that there may be an elegant solution that we simply haven’t thought of yet. — Paul Edgar

By Maj. Benjamin Griffin, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Just over thirty years ago, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came tantalizingly close to eliminating nuclear weapons. Only Reagan’s unwillingness to confine the research of his Strategic Defense Initiative to the laboratory prevented agreement on a sweeping, and unexpected, scale. Reagan’s embrace of nuclear abolition surprised and worried the American national security elite and European allies alike. Over the next month, they attacked what they perceived as Reagan’s recklessness and a policy that many believed would lead to disaster.

They centered their opposition to Reagan’s proposal on their understanding of the conventional capabilities of NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe. John Poindexter, Reagan’s national security adviser, wrote to the president rescinding his previous support of the elimination of ballistic missiles less than a week after the summit. After discussing the issue with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he now believed the loss of ballistic missiles would return the United States to the situation it “faced in the 1950s,” with “only a chance” to stop a concerted attack by the Soviet Union. Former President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, agreed with Poindexter.

Breaking with the political tradition of past administrations avoiding direct commentary on sitting presidents, they penned a joint article for the National Review.  In it, they stated that the Reykjavik proposal would reopen the “gap in deterrence of conventional attack.” In the same issue, Rep. Les Aspin, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, demonstrated bipartisan opposition to the president on the issue. Despite breaking with Democrats to support Reagan on defense in the past, he strongly opposed the Reykjavik framework and argued it would take another ten divisions in Europe to make it feasible.

European reaction to the proposal was equally critical. The U.S. Information Agency noted that many European broadcasters expressed amazement at the near agreement.

The sweeping nature of the proposals left many asking if the United States was now “strategically decoupled from Europe.”

The amazement extended to the United Kingdom, and Reagan’s most reliable Cold War partner, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Speaking with Reagan on the phone after the summit, Thatcher noted that abolition “seriously worried” her, and made her “political position here very difficult.” Like Reagan’s domestic critics, Thatcher also pointed to “the great imbalance in conventional forces in Europe” and argued that nuclear weapons were therefore “essential to [their] defense.” To Thatcher and many other Europeans, Reagan’s efforts at Reykjavik detracted to what they previously viewed as his unshakeable commitment to the continent.

The virulence of domestic and foreign opposition to the proposals did not catch Reagan off guard. He actually attempted to use the expected resistance to extract additional concessions from Gorbachev. During negotiations, Reagan noted that the “most outspoken critics of the Soviet Union over the years, the so-called right-wing, and esteemed journalists” would come out strongly against the framework. Though this tactic proved unsuccessful, it showed Reagan’s keen understanding of how radical the proposal was, and the political risk involved in pursuing it. Reagan was willing to break with many of his core supporters because of his supreme confidence in his vision of the strategic situation in Europe. In contrast to his critics, Reagan felt that the United States and NATO already enjoyed conventional parity with the Soviets in 1986 and could defend the continent without the need to resort to nuclear weapons. In an environment of parity, and rising NATO superiority, nuclear weapons would no longer stabilize and protect Western Europe. Instead, they represented a destabilizing and apocalyptic tool, controlled by a failing and desperate ideology.

Reagan arrived at a starkly different understanding of Europe than many of his closest advisors because he approached strategy formulation as a creative process rather than a procedural one. After Reykjavik, Secretary of State George Shultz told Anthony Acland, the British ambassador to the United States, that Reagan “had an instinctive vision of the future.” One reason that Reagan’s vision was “instinctive” was because he developed it with fiction. He used stories to develop a creative space in which he thought about his desired goal and how to achieve it. This type of thinking is evident in his approach to Reykjavik, where his reading of the Tom Clancy and Larry Bond thriller Red Storm Rising directly impacted his understanding of the relative strength of the United States and Soviet Union in Europe.

Released in August of 1986, just two months before the summit, Red Storm Rising was an immediate best seller. Similar in concept to John Hackett’s The Third World War, another Reagan favorite, it offered a fictional, but realistic, view of what war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would look like. In its review of the book, the New York Times noted that it was “good news … for Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger,” as “American technology works” to blunt the Soviet numerical edge.  It then detailed the list of recently developed weapons that perform their function flawlessly. Importantly, Red Storm Rising ends in a NATO victory without the use of nuclear weapons. This is a departure from Hackett’s book, which featured a limited nuclear exchange. The seven-year gap in publication of the books is important, as they depict the contrast between the pre-Reagan defense posture, and the post-Reagan one.

Reagan used both books to develop his view of NATO’s strength in Europe. Paired with the increasingly positive assessments of the National Security Council and Joint Chiefs on U.S. military capability, Reagan used them to inform his sense that NATO was on par conventionally with the Soviets in 1986. He also used Red Storm Rising to imagine a near-future environment, where NATO would have an overwhelming advantage thanks to favorable technological, economic, and demographic trends. Such an advantage would allow for the elimination of nuclear weapons in ten years.

In Reagan’s imagined 1996, NATO would be capable of not only deterring the Soviet Union, but also pressuring the Soviets to loosen their grip on Eastern Europe. Agreeing to eliminate nuclear weapons would also reduce the chances that a desperate group of hardliners in the Soviet Union would attempt to employ the weapons to shore up their position, a scenario that occurs in both books.

That Red Storm Rising was at the forefront of Reagan’s mind during Reykjavik is evident. As he flew to the summit on Air Force One, he ventured to the back of the plane to speak with his staff. Rather than go over technical details of the upcoming negotiations, he spoke about the book and termed it as research for the upcoming summit. Similarly, the book became a topic of discussion in Reagan’s post-summit conversation with Thatcher. He responded to her concerns about the conventional balance by recommending she read it, as “it gave an excellent picture of the Soviet Union’s intentions and strategy.” In a memorandum summarizing the conversation, Charles Powell, Thatcher’s private secretary, noted that the president “had clearly been much impressed by the book.”

While it seems unusual to draw inspiration for policy from fictional works, the works of Hackett and Clancy both provided realistic portrayals of the fictional conflict. Hackett drew upon his long military career and NATO experience. Clancy conducted extensive research with his coauthor, Larry Bond, and drew upon Bond’s war-gaming experience to ensure that the events in Red Storm Rising were feasible. Both books also mirrored the increased confidence of the defense establishment in U.S. military capabilities. However, they had a greater influence on Reagan than more formal assessments because of their narrative structure. Stories helped the president imagine and form an original strategic vision.

Imagination and fiction are essential elements of strategy. Openness and fluidity allow for greater range of thought and the consideration of a broader range of outcomes. Fiction allowed Reagan to perceive the weakness of the Soviet Union in a way that eluded many of his critics and more traditional strategic thinkers. Although Reagan curtailed his vision in the wake of the criticism, the boldness of the initial proposals forced the reconsideration of bedrock principles of U.S. strategic policy. The pairing of creating and procedural strategic thinking led to a more accurate understanding of the world, and a policy better designed to achieve the major strategic objectives of the United States.

Major Benjamin Griffin served two tours in Iraq. He recently completed a PhD in history at the University of Texas and is currently teaching at West Point. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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