Monday, August 26, 2013

Response To "Anonymous" Regarding Reagan and Contemporary Republicans

By Ronald Fox

I received the following comment from "anonymous" on my posting on Reagan and contemporary Republicans:

“I have heard in the past that it was actually Gorbachev who proposed dismantling all nukes (?) Jeb Bush offered some similar thoughts; stating that neither Reagan nor his father could earn the GOP presidential nomination in today's world. Sad. On the other hand, could a moderate Democrat like Bill Clinton get his party's nod in today's world? I have my doubts.”

Below is my response to what he/she had heard about who proposed dismantling all nukes:

Thanks for your response. I’m not surprised you’ve heard that it was actually Gorbachev who proposed the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. Many people continue to believe, including those who like and dislike Reagan, that he was manipulated by Gorbachev when they met in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October of 1986 into agreeing to abolish all nuclear weapons. The naïve, idealist Reagan was simply no match for the knowledgeable and sophisticated Gorbachev, who led him along like a dog on a leash. It has been said that Reagan really didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what he almost agreed to do. The historical record, however, does not support the view that Reagan was an unwitting bystander in the abolition drama, or that Gorbachev was the driving force behind the proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Below is the true story.  (For an in depth account of what occurred in Reykjavik, I strongly recommend Jonathan Shell’s, The Seventh Decade.)

First, it must be pointed out that Ronald Reagan, in the years leading up to his 1986 flirtation with total nuclear disarmament, had on a number of occasions hinted at his vision of a nuclear-free world. He touched on the subject of the dangers of nuclear weapons in his speech at the 1976 Republican National Convention. Although he didn’t call for nuclear abolition, he did reveal antinuclear sentiments at odds with mainstream conservative thinking. Later as President, in March, 1983, he surprised Americans, and many in his inner circle, when in a speech to the nation he proposed construction of a strategic defense system (SDI) to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” and went on to say that the SDI would “pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves.” Taken together with his 1976 convention speech, Reagan appeared to be separating himself from the long-standing, right-wing advocacy of nuclear supremacy. Of course, this doesn’t prove Reagan actually believed in, or even desired, a world free of nuclear weapons. Presidents often use lofty rhetoric about utopian futures. Obama called for a nuclear-free world in Prague in April of 2009, but has proceeded in practice to perpetuate their role as the centerpiece of American security. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, acted out his abolitionist dream when he met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986.

It’s hard to pinpoint when Ronald Reagan started to believe in a world without nuclear weapons, but by accounts of some historians and people who knew him best, the idea was brewing in his mind years before Reykjavik. Some of his closest security advisers, including Caspar Weinberger and Richard Perle, aware of Reagan’s abolition dream, worried that the President might do something rash when he met with Gorbachev in Iceland. They tried to make sure that the talks would amount only to the usual “frank exchanges,” or, at most, a modest agreement on intermediate nuclear forces (INF) in Europe. Their worry was well-founded; Reagan was in fact prepared for something much bolder.

The idea of eliminating all nuclear weapons was not a result of a specific proposal put forth by either Gorbachev or Reagan; rather, it came about after a series of exchanges in which each tried to one-up the other with an increasingly radical disarmament offer. At their first session, both men agreed that their objective was the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Gorbachev made the first formal moves, calling for deep reductions, including a 50-percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons over a 10-year period. He did not mention complete elimination. Reagan responded by claiming the SDI would make the elimination of all nuclear weapons possible. He proposed to eliminate all ballistic missiles, specifying that this would be done before completion of the SDI, which he knew Gorbachev would be sure to require. Gorbachev upped the ante by calling for the inclusion of all strategic delivery vehicles (and shorter-range missiles as well). It was then that Reagan’s abolitionist sentiments came most clearly into focus. He asked Gorbachev if he was saying that “we would be reducing all nuclear weapons—cruise missiles, battlefield weapons, sub-launched and the like,” then said it would be fine with him if all nuclear weapons were eliminated. Gorbachev responded: “We can do that, we can eliminate them,” whereupon George Shultz blurted out, “Let’s do it.”

Thus was born the “proposal” for the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. If one wants to ascribe credit for the total elimination idea, it should go to both men. It was an idea germinating in both their heads. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived at abolition through separate routes and came very close to making history. Only Reagan’s insistence on continuing SDI research outside the laboratory prevented a complete elimination agreement, though it’s likely a formal abolition treaty would have been scuttled by respective pro-nuclear weapon forces in the U.S. and Soviet Union, as well as among their allies. Nevertheless, what almost happened was a significant moment in history. Reagan’s behavior in Reykjavik, along with his anti-nuclear utterances in the years leading up to the summit, lead one to believe his nuclear abolition sentiments were deep-seated and genuine.  He saw a window of opportunity open up in Reykjavik and went for it. He wasn’t lulled or conned by Gorbachev; he knew exactly what he was doing.

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