This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with University of Texas at Austin professor William Inboden about his widely regarded new book, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
They discuss how Ronald Reagan worked to avoid armed conflict with the Soviets, his quest for nuclear abolition, and the importance of his friendship and alliance with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honored to be joined today by William Inboden, the executive director of the Clement Center for National Security, and an associate professor of public affairs and history at the LBJ School, both at the University of Texas at Austin.
He’s also the author of the widely regarded new book, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink, which makes the case that the former president actually had something of a grand strategy to ultimately win the Cold War. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, its insights into the past, and its lessons for the future. Will, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.
WILLIAM INBODEN: Thanks very much, Sean. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
SEAN SPEER: There’s long been a narrative about Ronald Reagan’s presidency that he wasn’t a details guy, that he operated at the level of intuition and communications. Your book challenges this idea with respect to the Cold War. You show in several places, for instance, that the president was actively involved in key details of America’s Cold War policy in this crucial period. Will, why do you think that narrative took shape during his presidency and has since persisted to this day?
WILLIAM INBODEN: It’s a great question, Sean. I think part of the reason why that image was out there is Reagan knew that there were some advantages to being underestimated. Even though he was confident in himself and in his strategy, he also didn’t take himself too seriously, and he didn’t mind if people thought that he was somewhat more detached or less involved in the details. This goes back to his old days as a Hollywood labour negotiator and knows that it can be to your advantage in a negotiation or in public if you’re underestimated.
Another part of it is, as you know from the book, when he came into office, he was challenging the prevailing expert opinion and strategic consensus on the nature of the Cold War, the nature of the Soviet Union, and what American policy should be. Oftentimes, it’s human nature, especially among expert circles in which you and I run in in different ways to think, “Well, if someone disagrees with me or challenges the consensus, they must be wrong.” By doing that, Reagan immediately put a lot of the expert class on the defensive. And rather than taking his ideas that challenged the status quo seriously, they were a little more inclined to dismiss him.
As you know from the book, it’s overall a very favourable assessment of Reagan, and I think that’s warranted by the record. On some issues where they were less of a priority, he wasn’t attentive, he didn’t get into the details. Being president of the United States is one of the hardest jobs in the world. You can’t be involved in everything. That was one of the things that had crippled Jimmy Carter, his predecessor. Carter was too much of a micromanager.
Reagan would make strategic choices about which issues he was going to become involved in, which ones he was going to care more deeply about, and devoted his time, attention, and political capital. Of course, the standoff with the Soviets was one of those.
SEAN SPEER: I mentioned Reagan’s intuition. One thing that is clear in the book and in your first answer, is just how Reagan’s personal view that the Cold War was indeed winnable put him offside the establishment view. Do you want to talk a bit about the prevailing view about the Cold War when he was elected, and what caused Reagan to see a scenario where that outcome could be, as it was famously put, “We win, they lose”?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Sure. Again, I want to speak with some sympathy here for the prevailing consensus that he was challenging. I think it’s clear in hindsight that Reagan was more correct and that consensus was wrong, but one task for the historian is to go back and try to recreate what the world looked like to people at the time. Even though I’m critical of this consensus, I want to be fair about it.
Just about every previous American Cold War president, going back to Harry Truman and on up through Carter, had seen the Soviet Union as primarily a status quo power something that the United States needed to contain and coexist with, but it was more of a problem to be managed rather than a rival to actually be defeated. This notion that Soviet communism could actually be defeated was just almost unthinkable.
There were good reasons for that. They had arguably the strongest military on the planet, they had a large economy. We know now in hindsight that its economy was very decrepit and rotting and vulnerable, but that was not fully evident at the time. Sure, it was slowing down, it was not terribly productive, but it’s one thing for an economy to be stagnant and another thing for it to be completely in collapse.
Reagan inherits this strategic framework and a lot of expert opinion that the Soviet Union will be a permanent part of the geopolitical landscape. They’ve been with us for the last 60 years, they’ll be with us for another 60 years. It doesn’t mean we like them, it doesn’t mean we surrender to them, but the notion of actually defeating them, especially defeating them peacefully, was just fantastical.
Reagan challenges that partly because he sees the Cold War as a battle of ideas rather than just a geopolitical standoff. He elevates that notion of the battle of ideas much more than any previous president, partly because of his own convictions about the superiority of democracy and free markets and free societies, and partly from some of his discussions with former Soviet dissidents and prisoners of conscience who had given him firsthand testimonials about how awful life was there, about the poverty, the destitution, the long lines for food, the oppressiveness and that so many of the Soviet people hated their government, had no confidence in it.
Reagan just had almost this philosophical conviction: “This cannot stand. This is not a sustainable system.” He also had a real belief in the virtues of free societies and thought in a contest between the two, in a battle of ideas between those two models, he thinks that the free society, the American model, the Canadian model if you will, as well, will prevail. That was the situation he inherited, and those are some of the new convictions he brought in to challenge that.
SEAN SPEER: Another related insight in the book is that Reagan came to personally see the Cold War as more than a geopolitical or even an ideological conflict. He saw it in spiritual terms and understood that the Soviet’s persecution of religious beliefs represented one of its biggest vulnerabilities. Do you want to elaborate on this point, Will? What did Reagan understand about the religious dimension of the conflict that others did not?
WILLIAM INBODEN: This is a very important part of the Reagan story, so thanks for highlighting it. Reagan himself was a man of very deep Christian faith. His critics sometimes derided him as an indifferent churchgoer. He could be somewhat idiosyncratic in areas, but it’s very clear now from his diaries, from his letters, from people who knew him, that there was a very deep Christian faith there.
Similar to that, what he saw as one of the most iniquitous things about communism was its atheism. That it could not abide any independent religious worship. It could not abide the belief of any of its people in a higher power than the state. That’s why every communist society that’s ever existed has been very intolerant of religion. The Soviet Union was one of the worst in imprisoning Jews and Christians, any religious believers, who weren’t even necessarily acting as political dissidents but just wanted to practice their faith freely.
Of course, this was a situation in central and eastern Europe with persecution of Catholics and Protestants there as well, and even some of the Soviet Union’s torment of Afghanistan and its persecution of Islam. This was just anathema to Reagan. It just violated all of his core principles about religious freedom, of human dignity, about the right to freedom of worship and conscience.
He also saw this as a real vulnerability. You cannot be a strong, confident, healthy society if you are persecuting and tormenting peaceful religious believers. He made a real focus, both in his public campaign to de-legitimize Soviet communism by highlighting its religious intolerance, but also his personal advocacy. And he devoted tremendous time to negotiating with the Soviets to release religious prisoners.
I tell the story in my book about the “Siberian seven.” The seven Siberian Pentecostals who were held up in the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for, I think, five years under threat of being thrown back into the Gulag. Of course, his advocacy for Jewish dissidents like Natan Sharansky, who spent several years in prison just because they had wanted to immigrate to Israel. Reagan would often say when his staff or others would ask him why he believed in the vulnerability of Soviet communism, he’d say, “Because of people’s desire to believe in God, you just cannot quench that forever, and that is so much stronger and more resilient.”
The final thing I want to say on what a personal commitment this was for Reagan is, as you know from the book, he built a partnership with Gorbachev, and even a friendship with Gorbachev, working to reduce the threat of nuclear war, working to reduce tensions in the Cold War. Reagan was personally grieved that Gorbachev was an atheist. Reagan worried about Gorbachev’s soul and so in their final summit meeting, Reagan spent a lot of time trying to persuade Gorbachev to believe in God.
Whatever else you may think of this, it is very unusual. Most superpower summits do not involve evangelistic talks or efforts to persuade an atheistic leader to believe in God, but Reagan was not doing this for any political gain. It was just his very genuine personal commitment and so that was also a really remarkable part of the story to me.
SEAN SPEER: What a great answer, Will. We’ll come back to Reagan’s relationship with Gorbachev later in the conversation, but I want to take up your description and analysis of the multi-pronged strategy that manifests itself out of the convictions that we’ve already talked about. The book outlines a strategy including military buildup, deliberate economic pressure, ideological competition, and support for armed anti-communist movements around the world. Some of these different elements would be familiar to Reagan enthusiasts or Cold War observers, but you bring them together in such an insightful way, and in particular, they form the basis of your argument that Reagan’s strategy was ultimately designed to achieve the Soviet’s “negotiated surrender.”
Let me ask a two-part question. First, how did Reagan pull the levers of policy-making across the U.S. government in such a coherent direction? Second, can you talk a bit about his conception of a negotiated surrender?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Okay, sure thing. That was a great summary you just gave there of his overall strategy. First, on how he pulled the levers of the U.S. government to get all these different elements moving in the same direction, this was a real challenge for him. I make the case that he was a strategic visionary, but he was not a very good manager. That was one of his liabilities or weaknesses. Even though he hired a lot of very capable people as his cabinet secretaries and main aides, they often didn’t get along very well with each other. Those were two challenges that Reagan had: these strong, capable people with big egos and sometimes different visions.
Part of the secret was where he cared about an issue—and he certainly did on the strategy with the Soviets—he would get more personally involved. And so he pushed the State Department to make sure that they were carrying out his vision of diplomatic outreach to the Soviets, but also advocating for human rights and for the release of peaceful dissidents, prisoners of conscience. He put a lot of his political capital into increasing the defence budget and supported military modernization. There was certainly some resistance in Congress to that but he devoted a lot of time to that. He gave the CIA tremendous support, including even when it came at a political cost to him for, in turn, supporting anti-communist insurgents and fighters around the world.
One symbolic, one that my friend and colleague, Mark Pomar, pointed out to me is because Reagan took the battle of ideas so seriously, he put a lot of resources into broadcasting efforts, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to break through the information monopoly behind the Iron Curtain. Reagan personally visited the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, one of only two presidents along with John F. Kennedy to have ever done so, as well as tripling their budget.
That was part of it: he put personal energy into these things. But also by hiring and empowering very capable people. Caspar Weinberger was a very capable, energetic secretary of defence. George Schultz, of course, was a formidable secretary of state, I think one of our greatest ever. Bill Casey, again, a very energetic, effective CIA director. He would put really capable people in charge and empower them and say, “All right, here’s the mission, go out and execute it” and they would. Now they would often, as I said, bicker with each other, and so that slowed things down some.
Regarding your second question about negotiated a surrender, I’ll put this one a little more briefly. I try to make clear in the book that throughout his two terms as president, Reagan was very consistently pursuing two prongs of pressure on the Soviet Union. We talked about that, and diplomatic outreach to the Soviet Union. From the very beginning, he wanted to extend the hand of diplomacy and say, “Let’s negotiate.”
Now, the Soviets did not reciprocate that much at all in his first term, but then once Gorbachev comes to power in 1985, they do reciprocate. Negotiated surrender is my summation of how Reagan wanted to collapse that system but wanted to do it peacefully. He wanted to keep the Cold War cold. He did not want to let it turn hot and into a nuclear exchange that would destroy the world.
SEAN SPEER: Let me take up, Will, one part of that two-prong approach. Canadian listeners will be familiar with the controversy of the so-called Star Wars program. You make the case though that Reagan’s emphasis on developing an anti-ballistic capacity further put the Soviets on the technological defensive. What’s its significance in your broader story?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Yes, the Star Wars program, or the technical name for it is the Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI. More of a mouthful. It was profoundly important to the peaceful end of the Cold War and to Reagan’s strategy. As you point out, it was widely criticized at the time. So he announces it in March of 1983, this vision of a defensive shield of an anti-missile system that would protect the United States, will protect North America—would’ve protected Canada too—from any incoming Soviet ballistic missiles. It was a very elaborate proposal, very expensive.
Reagan himself, when he announced it, knew that this was a generation-long effort. He didn’t expect that it would be, you know, invented and then become operational during his presidency in the next few years. But as part of his vision, he wanted to get away from this doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Which again for your listeners, it may not be familiar, was the doctrine that had emerged during the Cold War where the Soviets had their massive nuclear arsenal and the United States had ours. The way that we ensured that they wouldn’t attack us was we threatened, “If you launch against us, we’ll launch against you and we’ll wipe out your entire country and kill all your people.”
In a perverse way, for a few decades, it had worked. There was not a nuclear exchange between the two societies. But Reagan looked closer at that and he said, “This is insanity. Our whole strategy to protect our people depends on a threat to incinerate the entire planet? And then what about the risk? What if there is a misperception, a misunderstanding, an accidental launch, or a Soviet leader who comes to power who’s willing to take a risk on this?” That’s why with SDI, Reagan wanted to break out of that entire framework and say, “How about instead of threatening to kill everybody, we work more on protecting people, protecting innocent lives?”
Now, the critics were very opposed to SDI for two reasons. One, a lot of scientists said, “This is a waste of money. It just won’t work, certainly not in the near term.” And the other is of the more traditional arms control and foreign policy establishment worried that it could be destabilizing. We can talk later about some of the reasons why.
Reagan held to it, not that he was unaware of those criticisms or concerns, but he thought that this could be a way to change that strategic equation in the Cold War.
I’m convinced from the research for my book that it worked for a very key reason. Gorbachev and the Soviets were terrified of it. When you read the transcripts of Reagan’s meetings with Gorbachev, Gorbachev is just obsessed with SDI and wants to do anything he can to get the United States to end it or withdraw it. Reagan, as a good negotiator, realized that as well. Not to be overly simplistic but one of my conclusions is, it doesn’t really matter whether SDI was going to work or not. All that matters is that Gorbachev thought it could work. [chuckles] There may have been an elaborate bluff going on.
Now, to fast forward to today, not to get into too much current events, but when you look at the Ukrainians and their defences against Russian missile attacks and how, I don’t know the exact numbers, but something like four out of five Russian missiles being launched against Ukraine are being shot down now. That is a direct result of Reagan’s SDI, that the missile defences that we are supplying the Ukrainians with now were really birthed out of Reagan’s initial SDI research program. So his vision for it later did come to fruition, of course, a few decades after the old Cold War. Anyway, it’s a very important part of the story.
SEAN SPEER: A foundational part of the story related to SDI is how Reagan thought about the threat of nuclear weapons. It’s a subject where he finds himself both antagonizing Cold War hawks and the anti-nuclear lobby to his left. Do you want to talk about the way in which Reagan thought about nuclear weapons and the extent to which it really, at a fundamental level, was a moral issue for him?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Yes, and I can’t stress this enough. Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist. He wanted to eliminate and abolish all nuclear weapons. That was something that he had believed for decades before he even became president. This is not as widely known about him as it should be, but he was terrified of nuclear war. He thought these weapons were just a ghastly affront to human existence.
This is partly why he had tried to develop the SDI system we mentioned earlier. But where he parted ways with a lot of the peace protestors of the day and the nuclear freeze movement is it wasn’t just nuclear weapons alone that terrified Reagan. What he was really worried about was nuclear weapons in the hands of the Kremlin, in the hands of a malevolent government that meant harm and wished ill on the free world.
His strategy in putting pressure on the Soviet Union for that negotiated surrender was to crack apart Soviet communism, but also to have a negotiating partner to reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons. Gorbachev eventually comes to have the same vision as Reagan, and in a couple of their summits, they come very close to agreeing to abolish all nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, they do agree to the INF treaty, eliminating some of the most dangerous nuclear weapons, intermediate-range nuclear missiles. That, to this day, remains the only treaty in history abolishing an entire class of nuclear weapons. That’s a very important part of his legacy. As you mentioned, he took a lot of heat and criticism from his own more hard-right base for that, and then from some of the realists. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger thought Reagan was crazy to be pursuing this vision of a nuclear-free world. We need to remember that equation: he wanted to eliminate Soviet communism and then eliminate nuclear weapons. He worried if you only eliminate nukes but you still have Soviet communism, it still leaves Eastern Europe vulnerable to invasion by a conventional army.
SEAN SPEER: You write that Reagan came to see Mikhail Gorbachev as a “partner for peace.” Why don’t you talk a bit about their relationship and Gorbachev’s role in your story?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Sure. Gorbachev is the other lead character in the book along with Reagan, of course. It’s a remarkable relationship that the two developed. Gorbachev is the first Soviet leader that Reagan actually meets with while he was president. As his famous line, he’d wanted to meet with the three prior ones, “But they kept dying on me.”
Interestingly, for our Canadian listeners, your former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney plays a key role in this, too because in March of ’85, when Chernenko dies and Gorbachev comes to power, Mulroney, a relatively new prime minister of Canada at the time, he travels to the funeral and he meets Gorbachev, this new leader. Then a few days later, Mulroney meets with Reagan, hosts him in Ottawa for the Shamrock Summit. Mulroney gives Reagan a really interesting briefing on Gorbachev because Reagan hadn’t met him yet.
Mulroney’s one of the first leaders to tell Reagan, “You’re going to be interested in this guy, Gorbachev. I think there is a potential real reformer and partner there.” Of course, Reagan held Mulroney in such high regard and certainly paid heed to his council. There are other people encouraging Reagan to get to know Gorbachev too, but I think that it’s an important indicator of the importance of the U.S.-Canada relationship and the Reagan-Mulroney relationship.
Anyway, at the same time, Reagan, from when he first took office four years earlier, part of his strategy towards the Soviets was pressuring them to produce a reformist leader. Reagan himself had been looking for someone like Gorbachev to come along. Another reason why he was a little more willing to embrace him. Then over the next four years, they start as wary rivals, they have fierce differences. Even though Gorbachev is reform-minded, he still wants to preserve Soviet communism. Reagan wants to eliminate Soviet communism, but they are both committed to reducing the threat of nuclear war, of reducing tensions in the Cold War. They end up building, like I said, a very moving friendship even while having some significant political differences.
As you probably recall from the book, Sean, part of where I get the title, The Peacemaker, comes from Gorbachev. That’s the tribute he pays to Reagan at Reagan’s death. He said, “This man decided at the right time to be a peacemaker.” It’s a relationship really unique in the annals of world history, I think.
SEAN SPEER: I want to take up Reagan’s broader relationships with American allies. You write in the book quote, “No President before since has been more devoted to allies than Reagan.” How did this manifest itself, Will, and why was this so important in the context of the Cold War?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Again, hugely important. Part of it comes from Reagan’s own background. Remember he’s a child of the Great Depression of the 1930s and then, of course, the World War II generation, even though he didn’t see combat himself. World War II is very formative for him. That’s when he first appreciated the importance of the Grand Alliance, the Allies, in defeating totalitarianism, especially Churchill’s partnership with FDR.
From the beginning, Reagan saw allies as a unique source of American strength. He knew that America’s allies are voluntary. Our allies choose to be with us. No one forces you to join NATO or no one forces you to have an alliance with Japan or South Korea or Australia, some of our others. In contrast, he knew that the Warsaw Pact, those were not voluntary allies. Those were countries occupied by the Soviet Union and victims of Soviet imperialism.
Because Reagan saw the Cold War as a battle of ideas and suffused with values, he wanted allies who shared those values: a commitment to open societies, to pluralism, to tolerance, to democracy, to free markets. Finally, he just devoted a ton of personal attention to building relationships with allied leaders.
By his second term, there’s this wonderful quintet that emerges. Of course, it’s Reagan, it’s Prime Minister Mulroney in Canada, it’s Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., it’s Helmut Kohl in West Germany, and it’s Yasuhiro Nakasone in Japan. Those five leaders, again, all committed to market economies at home and a strong stance against communism abroad, build a deep friendship, and are able to overcome some political and diplomatic differences between their countries out of that deep personal commitment to each other into the alliance. This is why Reagan was able to forge only the second bilateral free trade agreement in American history with Canada, because of his commitment to Mulroney and to Canada as an ally.
Even though allies can be nettlesome and frustrating and there are going to be differences and frictions all the time, for Reagan, at the end of the day, it’s almost like a marriage. You’re not going to get along all the time. You’re not going to agree on everything, but it starts with that foundational permanent commitment and knowing that you are better together than better apart.
SEAN SPEER: As we get close to wrapping up, Will, if I could turn the conversation looking forward a bit, drawing on the profound experiences and lessons that you outlined in the book. There’s a lot of debate right now about whether the Cold War frame fits America’s growing geopolitical and technological rivalry with China. What’s your view, and either way, what lessons can contemporary policymakers derive from Reagan’s strategy?
WILLIAM INBODEN: I’ve been given this question a lot, and it’s a very good one. I’ve given it a lot of thought. I’ll try to give a couple of top lines since I know our time is limited and I could go on forever with this.
The first is I have to issue the disclaimer that there are some important differences between the free world’s contest with China now and the first Cold War. I won’t rattle them off, but the most fundamental one, of course, is the deep economic interdependence between the United States and China, between Canada and China. We never had that with the Soviet Union. That creates all sorts of complications, whether it’s supply chain vulnerabilities or just the vulnerabilities for our economic system or reliance on collaborative research projects and production lines.
That said, I have in the last year or two decided that I am comfortable saying we are in a new Cold War. I think there are more similarities than differences. As a shorthand, however imperfect, that is a good paradigm to think about our contest with China because as with the previous Cold War, it’s a competition and rivalry among multiple fronts. There’s the military dimension, the diplomatic dimension, the economic dimension, and the battle of ideas dimension.
China is defined by the one-party rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Even though they’ve done some market reforms, they are still Leninist. They are still repressive of independent religious belief. They’re still dogmatic ideologues. We’ve seen this with Xi Jinping trying to resurrect Maoist thoughts. It’s taking place all over the globe. It’s not just a competition in the Western Pacific, but it’s taking place as a competition for influence on every continent.
My advice for policymakers today and lessons to take from the Reagan playbook is you’ve got to start with getting the theory of the case right, the overall strategic theory of the case. Reagan got that right. He understood it was a battle of ideas that involve all elements of national power and a whole of society’s efforts. I think that’s the same case today. We need to have a similar theory of the case with the competition with China. But I should also stress, one of Reagan’s great successes in the first Cold War was, as I mentioned, keeping it cold and bringing it to a peaceful victory.
We certainly want that to be the case with China. None of us want to see an absolutely disastrous hot war between our countries and China, and so escalating the competition, bringing a lot more pressure to bear on them needs to happen. But there also needs to be some of those diplomatic outlets and a commitment to not letting it turn into a hot war. It’s a very difficult path ahead.
SEAN SPEER: As I read the book, Will, I was struck by the way that Reagan’s view about the role of American power in the world contrasts with a lot of the energy and fervour in Republican politics and even parts of the American conservative movement. What do you think is behind the tendency towards global withdrawal, and how can the party and the movement rediscover Reagan’s confident global orientation?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Yes. Sean, as you know from reading the book, I wrote it as pure history. I don’t conclude with 10 lessons from Reagan for today or anything. I say that by way of a preface. I do hope readers reading it today, especially Republicans in the United States, will see that this is a better model for Republican foreign policy, for American foreign policy, for America’s engagement in the world.
Looking over the last century, there are these recurring cycles in American history of isolationist impulses. I won’t give a lengthy history lesson on it, but let’s just suffice to say, we see it in the 1930s, we see it again in the 1950s with Robert Taft trying to keep the United States out of NATO and out of the Marshall Plan and out of our other alliances. We saw some of it in the 1970s, especially in the wake of the Vietnam War. We saw frankly, some of it in the 1990s with the Pat Buchanan movement after the end of the Cold War and even saying we shouldn’t have fought World War II.
It’s not a surprise that it would’ve returned today. Obviously, we’ve had the very difficult experiences with Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis. One can point to different failures by the United States on the world scene, but I think Reagan shows us, well, two things. One, we have to consider the alternative, and sometimes the only thing worse than being internationally engaged and leading in the world is not being involved in the world, because if you cede the playing field to China and Russia, we see what happens there.
Reagan shows that it’s possible for the United States to renew itself, to believe in itself again, to grow its economy again, to revitalize its alliances, especially with our most important hemispheric partner in Canada, and to help push back against totalitarian aggression, whether it was of Nazi Germany in the 1940s or the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s or communist China and imperialist Russia today.
SEAN SPEER: Let me just slide one final question in because this has just been such an engaging conversation. I have all of these ideas swirling in my mind, Will. Maybe I can try to piece them together. One is the power of individuals and the importance of agency in history. There’s been a backlash against so-called whiggish history in a lot of academic circles, but it’s not an accident that it’s Reagan who enters the political arena in this crucial moment with this core set of convictions about the winnability of the Cold War.
There’s also the power of being a happy warrior, both domestically and globally, in terms of that alliance building and so on. I don’t want to sound negative, but it just seems like, for a set of social and cultural and political reasons, there seems to be an impediment to someone like Reagan emerging in today’s political environment.
I don’t know if you want to respond to that set of disparate ideas, but I guess fundamentally, how can we rediscover not a nostalgia for Reagan, but Reagan had that famous line about how he didn’t want to go back to the past, he wanted to go back to the past way of seeing the future. How do we create the conditions for someone like that to reemerge in light of today’s domestic and geopolitical challenges?
WILLIAM INBODEN: Yes, this question’s been coming up a lot, Sean, the last few weeks as I’ve been getting different responses to my book. Two thoughts there.
First is, thank you for highlighting the importance of individual leadership. That is, as you know, a clear message of the book. I want to disabuse readers of what I call the “inevitability fallacy”, the sense of, “Well, we know now, of course, the Cold War would end peacefully. Of course, the Soviet Union was going to collapse.” That was not apparent at the time, and I don’t think it was inevitable at the time. I think there’s a complicated array of factors going into this. Look, I don’t want to be overly simplistic here, but I do think Reagan shows how individual leadership can be a really decisive factor in changing the direction of world events.
That brings me to the second point which is he is a rather unique figure. I don’t know that another one like him would emerge today. I wish it were so, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean that some of his attributes or models or characteristics can’t be emulated today. Not being afraid to challenge the status quo but seeing politics as the art of persuasion and inspiration more than the art of division and subtraction. Even though he would plant a clear flag about where he stood, he wanted to invite and persuade as many of the American people and global audiences to come along behind him as possible.
This is why he put so much effort into his 1984 reelection and wins 49 states, including lots and lots of Democrats voting for him, because even if people didn’t agree with him on all policies, they thought “This guy’s operating a more hopeful vision for the future. I’ve seen some early returns on those policies, and I want to continue to give him a chance.” A politics of hope and optimism will almost always trump a politics of fear and division.
Not that Reagan was blind to the real challenges in America or whether it was on restoring the economy or the severity of the Soviet threat, or our nation’s past wounds of racial discrimination, any number of issues we could talk about there, at the end of the day, he still believed in the American experiment, the value of the American system, the value of the free world overall. Again going back to his commitment to important allies like Canada.
Those are timeless principles. Those are not ones that were only unique to the 1980s and I think that they certainly bear looking back and perhaps drawing some inspiration from today.
SEAN SPEER: Hear, hear. William Inboden, executive director of the Clement Center for National Security and associate professor of public affairs and history at the LBJ School, both at the University of Texas, Austin, and the author of the wonderful new book, a must read, a must buy, The Peacemaker, Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink. Thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
WILLIAM INBODEN: Thank you, Sean. I really enjoyed it.