By David Henderson
My favorite paragraph I’ve read all week (on the aftermath of the Abel Archer exercise) is from then President Ronald Reagan, writing in his diary at the time:
He wrote in his diary on Nov. 18, 1983: “I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that. What the h–l have they got that anyone would want.”
What’s striking from this WaPost piece is that Reagan learned:
Reagan later recalled in his memoir, “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. In fact, I had difficulty accepting my own conclusion at first.”
He said he felt that “it must be clear to anyone” that Americans were a moral people who, since the founding of the nation, “had always used our power only as a force for good in the world.”
“During my first years in Washington,” Reagan said, “I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike; because of this, and perhaps because of a sense of insecurity and paranoia with roots reaching back to the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Hitler, they had aimed a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons at us.”
It takes some real independence of thought to get from one’s view that Americans, by which Reagan meant the U.S. government, “had always used our power only as a force for good in the world” to the view that not everyone in the world sees the U.S. government that way.
A lot of conservatives claim Reagan as their hero and role model. They also credit him, somewhat plausibly, for helping end the Soviet Union. But it’s good to remember that many conservatives attacked Reagan in the mid-1980s for reaching out to Mikhail Gorbachev. My own gut feel is that if Reagan were in office today in his mid-70s, he would be negotiating with the Iranian government in a way similar to what Obama has done.