In 1980, both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed the means and the will to bring about the end of the world. The world’s only superpowers were locked in an arms race fueled by an immoral and ignoble strategy to preserve a tenuous, often tumultuous peace by threatening the annihilation of the citizens of each nation—the madness of Mutual Assured Destruction. The year marked the beginning of the fourth decade of the Cold War.
The flawed diplomacy of détente had done little more than maintain a stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union, even as Moscow increased its nuclear warfare capabilities to some 40,000 warheads, fielded the largest conventional military in Europe, continued to hold Eastern Europe captive, and offered ongoing support to armed rebels and communist insurgencies on three continents. Foreign policy experts and senior government officials in Washington saw the Cold War as a permanent fixture of the geopolitical landscape.
The newly elected President of the United States did not.
William Inboden’s new book, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink is a masterful account of the most significant American foreign policy success of the 20th century—the orchestrated demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In this crisply written appraisal of Reagan’s singular role in crafting and implementing grand strategy, Inboden details Reagan’s determination to address both the scourge of Soviet communism and the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war.
The author has the experience and first-hand knowledge needed to assess national security strategy. Inboden is the executive director and William Powers, Jr. Chair of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously he had served as a staff member in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. From 2005 to 2007, Inboden served as the senior director for Strategic Planning and Institutional Reform at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
The Peacemaker is also a fine work of solid research and scholarship that uncovers new information about this transformative period in geopolitics. Readers will enjoy it not only as a history of the ending of the Cold War, but as an interpretive history of U.S. foreign policy under Reagan. Inboden draws repeatedly on primary sources to create an unfolding narrative of Reagan’s White House years, a chronological approach that gives “the reader the vantage point of seeing history as it happened and as it appeared to Reagan and the senior members of his administration.” Those sources include the vast collection in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Reagan’s diary, hundreds of unclassified documents, and first-hand accounts from Inboden’s interviews with dozens of senior Reagan administration officials. The author also provides a complete bibliography and seventy pages of notes of attribution and welcome elaboration and explanation.
What emerges from this able scholarship is a comprehensive review of the implementation of a security strategy Inboden describes as negotiated surrender. Reagan “perceived the Soviet Union’s frailty and illegitimacy and developed a strategy to exploit its weaknesses while also partnering with it to reduce the risk of nuclear apocalypse.” As president, he would lead the effort to negotiate for reduced tensions, arms reductions, and ultimately to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Reagan was a champion of the liberal democratic order. “He believed in a trinity of religious freedom, political freedom, and economic freedom,” with an almost religious fervor and loathed Soviet communism for its denial of these freedoms. Reagan’s strategy was not “merely to delegitimize Soviet communism, but to show a positive alternative of democratic capitalism” and put extreme pressure on the ideological, economic, and military fault lines in the Soviet system.
He sought to break this system apart by finding fissures and driving wedges into every crack. He pursued policies to free the Warsaw Pact satellite nations from Moscow’s control, to liberate the Soviet people from the police state, to isolate the Kremlin from the rest of the world, and to impose such unsustainable costs on Soviet communism that it would collapse.
Reagan pursued a comprehensive Cold War strategy that sought to rebuild America’s strengths and pose them against the Soviet Union across virtually every dimension.
Inboden acknowledges that the two prongs of Reagan’s strategy—negotiation and pressure—“can, and often did, exist in tension with each other throughout the Reagan presidency.” That elemental tension would bedevil staff who sought to implement policy—Secretary of State Schultz viewed the policy as more of a hawk than did the dovish Secretary of State Weinberger—cause turmoil in the White House, provide ammunition for the president’s critics, and alternately enrage and befuddle Moscow.
Peace Through Strength
Imboden argues the keystone of Reagan’s strategy was the ability to negotiate from a position of strength. That strength would come from a restored and robust American economy and a rebuilt military capability. Reagan proposed and Congress approved a $1 trillion defense budget for 1982-86, but the program did not consist only of massive budget increases: “At its core were cutting-edge weapons systems based on unique technologies that could outmatch anything the Kremlin wielded no matter how much more the Soviets spent and built.” In addition to rebuilding the nation’s military might, Reagan restored its morale and returned military service to a place of honor in the hearts of Americans.
Even as the United States embarked on an accelerated program to upgrade its nuclear capabilities and build precision-guided munitions, stealth aircraft, and the world’s largest carrier navy, Reagan committed to reframing the strategic balance between the superpowers. Reagan proposed to build a massive, space-based, missile defense system to shield America from nuclear attack.
The Peacemaker recounts how the “process of creating what would become the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was interagency malpractice.” In one of the most startling revelations in the book, Inboden describes how Reagan worked in secret to draft an address to the nation to propose a “comprehensive and intensive effort” to render “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete,” writing the most important parts of the speech himself. Knowing that Schultz and Weinberger would oppose it, Reagan simply left them out of the loop.
Schultz and Weinberger only learned that Reagan would be announcing one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency two days before the speech. Then, as NSC official John Poindexter recalls, “all hell broke loose.” Though the secretaries of state and defense rarely aligned on policy questions, both agreed that the SDI announcement would overturn decades of strategic doctrine, rattle the allies with fears that America was retracting its nuclear umbrella, and violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Schultz importuned Reagan to amend the speech. . . Pentagon officials. . . scrambled to kill the proposal outright. . . and warned that SDI would “create a furor from which we would never recover.”
Reagan incorporated some of Schultz’s edits, aiming to mollify the allies and comply with the ABM treaty, but otherwise disregarded the caterwauling of his staff.
Reagan and Gorbachev
Throughout The Peacemaker, the author credits Reagan with both an intuitive and a personal approach to the conduct of foreign policy. Despite what Pentagon and CIA analysts were telling him, for example, Reagan believed the Soviet Union was nearing an economic crisis. Moscow simply could not sustain its military spending and then “SDI sent tremors through the Kremlin” once officials understood they had neither the money nor the technological capabilities to keep pace with the newest American initiative.
Reagan developed genuine personal relationships with foreign heads of state, not merely as statecraft, but as Inboden claims, because he genuinely empathized with other people. His rapport with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, is of course, well documented. Inboden also explores the importance of Reagan’s relations with world leaders that included Japan’s Yasuhiro Nakasone, West Germany’s Helmut Kohl, and Canada’s Brian Mulroney. No relationship would prove more pivotal, however, than the one Reagan forged with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Inboden understands that the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union—despite revisionist claims of structural factors and trends in the international system that argue inevitability—was neither foreordained nor without risk of catastrophe. The author credits much of the result to the personal relationship developed by Reagan and Gorbachev as together, “their actions would lead to the slashing of nuclear arsenals, the liberation of Eastern Europe, the dismantling of the Soviet Empire and the Cold War’s peaceful end.”
The author explains how Reagan came to understand Gorbachev was a reformer, how Gorbachev realized Reagan’s desire for a nuclear-free world was genuine, and how the two weathered diplomatic exchanges that would otherwise have scotched any chance at future rapprochement. Inboden, for example, explains how the desultory outcome of the first meeting between the two leaders at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland still “showed both sides just how far each was willing to go in taking dramatic steps to transform the Cold War.” As Gorbachev and Reagan came away from that meeting “their momentary frustration turned to grudging, then open admiration—and trust.”
That trust would bear fruit more than a year later. At a White House ceremony, Reagan and Gorbachev would sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, “a document unprecedented in the annals of the Cold War.” For the first time in history arms control had been replaced by a negotiated agreement for arms reduction and an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles was eliminated. It was a treaty six years in the making since Reagan first proposed the INF and the first sign that real change was coming to the Soviet Union, and even that the Cold War was thawing.
For Reagan, it was the final vindication of his once-ridiculed strategy of negotiating peace from a position of strength. In years to come, this lesson in superpower strategy and diplomacy seems to have been discarded as future presidents embraced America’s unchallenged military strength as their object of first resort—in Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and in flailing attempts at nation-building. Reagan “was in fact extremely reluctant to deploy the military in combat.” During his presidency, he only ordered ground forces into combat, once, in Grenada. Reagan’s was a strategy not only for the Cold War, but for careful consideration framing strategy in future superpower confrontations.
Reagan once summarized his approach to ending the Cold War in five words: “We win and they lose.” The Peacemaker explains in studied detail that Reagan signaled with that phrase a complete departure from decades of American diplomacy and policy. For him, it summarized both a strategy and resolve to negotiate with Moscow, reduce the nuclear arms threat, end the Cold War, and dissolve the Soviet Union.
And it worked.