Book Review: The Reagan Reversal

ReaganReversalby Steve Lancaster11/16/15
The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War, Beth A. Fischer University of Missouri Press Columbia and London, Fischer, Beth A. (2013-10-10) University of Missouri Press. Kindle Edition.

The standard liberal/progressive/academic meme since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 is that Reagan was a sort of dunce meandering through history scarcely able to contain yearnings to lash out at the Soviets with everything in the US military inventory. Beth Fischer appears to repudiate this idea, “In fact, the Reagan administration began seeking a rapprochement with the Kremlin before the Soviets began to reform” (p.2). Fischer asks what happened. How did an administration elected in no small measure because of hostility to the Soviet Union reverse course and suddenly begin seeking lessening of tensions and better communications?

In October of 1983 the stated policy of the US claimed that east-west relations were a zero sum game in which the primary goal of US policy was to keep the Soviet Union contained and according to Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam, “We should be wary of illusions about the possibility of quick or dramatic breakthroughs.”(p. 3). Less than three months later President Reagan delivered a speech revising that policy and offering a transformation of superpower relations.  Fischer begins by explaining aspects of Reagan’s policy shift in three areas:

  1. Explain the catalyst for the policy change, was it an event, person or development.
  2. Explain the timing of the change, why that timing is important.
  3. Explain the nature of the change.

Fischer features in three chapters the possible explanations for policy changes. Chapter 3 considers the possibility that domestic politics focused on the upcoming elections and the concern that moderate voters might be fearful of the Administrations hard line approach. Chapter 4 reflects on bureaucratic politics as an explanation for policy change, specifically the influence of George Shultz and Robert McFarlane as moderates in the administration. Chapter 5 examines the possibility of leader-driven change, “a change in that leader’s personal views can lead to a change in official policy “(p. 13).

This last theory, Fischer presents is the most likely possibility. Fischer references Reagan’s belief in the immorality of nuclear weapons as the strategic doctrine driving policy, “Reagan was also morally opposed to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), which had been the foundation of arms control thinking for nearly forty years.” (p. 104) Fischer focuses on three events in the fall of 1983 that influenced Reagan’s view and made a change in US policy imperative.

The downing of KAL flight 007 by the Soviet Union, a television movie, The Day After, dealing with the effects of nuclear war and a briefing on the Single Intergraded Operations Program, (SIOP) in conjunction with the successful conclusion of a combined US-NATO annual war drill, REFORGER of which one element was called ABLE ARCHER.

Fischer asserts that Reagan was influenced in her words, “primed” that, “prior experiences can lead to certain ideas being “on one’s mind.” These ideas can then influence one’s interpretation of subsequent events” (p. 110).  Fischer concludes that in the fall of 1983; Reagan was primed to think of nuclear war and that this priming had two effects, “First, it led him to conclude that the likelihood of nuclear war was greater than he had thought earlier. The scenario of nuclear war was mentally “available,” and therefore, judged more probable. And second, priming affected the way the president interpreted subsequent events that fall, particularly the events surrounding Able Archer.”(p. 112) Thus, in Fischer’s view Reagan was compelled to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war by pursuing a policy diminishing tensions. Because of priming, “Reagan “mentally rehearsed” the scenario of a nuclear war through viewing “The Day After” and by participating in the Pentagon briefing. “Consequently, he also increased the mental availability of that scenario. According to the availability heuristic, the more easily one can recall a scenario, the more one believes that scenario is likely to occur” (p. 122)

After 177 pages, starting with perhaps Reagan did not bumble so much after all Fischer concludes that Reagan was primed to seek rapprochement by external events. In effect, Fischer does not challenge the conventional liberal/progressive/academic opinion of Reagan. Fischer fails to convince this reviewer that the events she considers of so much consequence actually significantly influenced Reagan.

Fischer’s book published in 1997 should deserve a revised edition to advance Fischer’s view of Reagan. Although, Fischer uses substantial notes and references dealing with the Cold War and Reagan including an autobiography, published in 1990 she does not reference, The Reagan Diaries, an edited version published in 2007 and a full unedited version published in 2009.  Offering a new edition might expand Fischer’s view of Reagan and his ability to devise a complex strategy for Cold War victory without the dubious theory of priming.

As a made for television movie Reagan would have understood the propaganda aspects of, The Day After, and made allowances in his thinking, as an influence on international nuclear policy Reagan would have disregarded it.

This reviewer did not participate in REFORGER 83 or ABLE ARCHER 83; however, I did participate in REFORGER III and IV in October of 72 and January of 73. The SIOP was standard reading in intelligence circles and although technically listed as Top Secret. CIA, and DIA assumed that the basic details were well known to Moscow Center and to the decision makers in the Kremlin. The United States had a plan to bring all of its assets to, DEFCON 1, nuclear war standing in the space of a few hours based on evidence that the Soviets, or any other nuclear power, were preparing for a first strike was in fact a deterrent to Soviet misbehavior.

ABLE ARCHER 83 was a part of the annual REFORGER 83 exercise. The Soviets were well aware of its intent and scope. It was nothing new as Fischer contends. It was Soviet miscalculation and incompetence that increased the DEFCOM levels not American adventurism as Fischer implies. Europe wide exercises had been going on since the 60s. The SIOP dates to the late 50s and conveys continuous planning and updating considering human and electronic intelligence gathering. SIOP is a plan that takes the worst possible nuclear possibility, that of a nuclear Pearl Harbor, and replaces it with an American first strike, intended to overwhelm an enemy preparing for their own first strike. Although, the names have changed the US continues to plan for nuclear war. From Eisenhower on every Administration updates and reviews operations plans, even administrations that have sworn off the first use of nuclear weapons.

Fischer focuses on the priming theory and gives no indication that Reagan may have originated a policy dealing from a position of strength with the Soviets; a theme common in many speeches by Reagan from the 70s on. By late 1983 the rebuilding of US military was approved by Congress, and in progress. The Pershing II missile system was being installed in Europe, with 1/3 of the systems stationed in Germany under nominal German control. The disastrous results of the Vietnam War and the malaise of the military during the Ford and Carter years had been overcome. American combat maneuver battalions were training with realistic goals. The fleet would reach 600 ships by the time Reagan left office. Intelligence sources confirmed that the Soviets Afghanistan escapade not only cost more hard currency than the Soviets could afford, but the expenditure of lives seriously affected the morale of Soviet forces, specifically those traditionally stationed in Europe.

During the Cold War, the “realist” position accepted the Soviet Union as a permanent feature of the world scene and sought a long-term accommodation with its interests, while Ronald Reagan was regarded as an wild visionary for his dangerously “unrealistic” belief that the Soviets could be defeated. Yet the Soviet economy turned out to be a Potemkin village worth less than its scrap value after the fall of Communism. The Soviets were unable to support their military power when forced to compete with an American build-up. The Soviets could not compete and that made them weaker than anyone, except Reagan and his allies, could see. Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II were the authentic realists.

Reagan took to heart the words of Sun Tzu in the, Art of War, the best generals win wars by not fighting. Reagan defeated the Soviets in similar manner. In the fall of 83 and into 84 Reagan not only understood that he was dealing from a position of strength, but so did Brezhnev and later Gorbachev. Reagan could afford to be conciliatory and the Soviets would be fools to not respond in kind.

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4 Responses to Book Review: The Reagan Reversal

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I see no indication that the book mentions anti-missile defense, even though Reagan strongly supported such efforts precisely to get away from MAD. I will also note that Reagan (like Thatcher) was quick to assess Gorbachev as someone who (unlike the previous Soviet tsars) they could deal with, and the book apparently makes no mention of this.

  2. Steve Lancaster says:

    You are correct in both points, the sole basis is the author belief in a questionable theory of priming. The book is nothing more than a back door attack on Reagan’s intelligence after all how could a mere actor know more than all those Ph.d’s?

  3. Anniel says:

    Thank you for standing up for Reagan. I have been distressed about the revisionism of history going on. The lies are so blatant and no one seems to refute them. The swamis look into some crystal ball, press their hands to their temples, and divine what someone in the past thought, not what they said or actually did. Of course their crystal balls are never wrong. And the oracles sell their wares to unsuspecting fools who know no history.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Anyone who has read the diaries will understand that Reagan was a complex man who understood the nuance of statecraft and had no problem sticking pins in the liberal mantra, “its not that our foes are bad people, its just that everything they believe is wrong.”

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