Ronald Reagan: The Crusader

by Paul Kengor
Regan/HarperCollins, 412 pp, $29.95
The complicated business of understanding how Ronald Reagan led the Free World to victory in the Cold War has just become much easier.  Run to your nearest bookstore and buy a copy of The Crusader.  In one beautifully-written volume, Grove City College Professor Paul Kengor's got the whole story - completely, accurately, and with more fascinating and never-before-reported details about how Ronald Reagan succeeded -- than any other Cold War historian, including "official biographer" Edmund Morris.

While the details in The Crusader are eye-opening - Kengor somehow got his hands on more secret documents than the KGB - it's the insights that leap off the page.  For instance, while it's true that Reagan was the first actor ever elected President, Kengor reminds us that Reagan was also the first union president ever elected to the US presidency.  And Kengor shows how Reagan's work for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) formed his political philosophy and, perhaps more importantly, gave Reagan the practical experience both of industrial negotiations and fighting communism on the ground.

The Toughest Negotiator

Reagan was elected president of SAG seven times - which makes him among the most successful union bosses in American history, by the way - and as a result he probably engaged in more negotiating sessions with hard-headed corporate CEOs and egomaniacal prima donnas within the union itself than anyone ever elected to the White House.  No wonder that, years later, Reagan ran circles around the Kremlin - and around a Democratic-controlled Congress. (Someone once asked the President if it was tough negotiating with the Russians.  Reagan replied, "No, it was tough negotiating with Jack Warner.") 

Moreover, in the late 1940s and early 1950s SAG was among the communists' top takeover targets.  The communists wanted control of all our country's unions, of course, but SAG topped their list simply because it was "Hollywood" and so its influence on American culture was enormous.  As Kengor shows, it was Reagan who led the fight to stop the communists.  It's an astonishing thought, but Reagan was the only American politician who had blocked a communist takeover of anything before reaching the White House.  Thirty years later, had Fidel Castro and the Kremlin's leaders remembered this, perhaps they wouldn't have been so surprised when President Reagan kicked them out of Grenada.

Kengor provides a brief but riveting summary of Reagan's public utterances during the decades between the end of his Hollywood career and his White House years.  What emerges from the long-forgotten quotes that Kengor has found is not only Reagan's deep interest in and detailed grasp of world affairs - and remember, in these years he had no staffers to brief him or do his research -- but his focus on key symbolic issues long before he held the world stage.  For instance, in a 1967 CBS-TV debate with Senator Robert Kennedy - it was later conceded by everyone, including RFK himself, that Reagan had won the debate handily -- Reagan got onto the subject of US-Soviet relations:
"When we signed the Consular Treaty with the Soviet Union, I think there were things we could've asked for in return.  I think it would be very admirable if the Berlin Wall, which was built in direct contravention to a treaty, should disappear.  I think this would be a step toward peace and toward self-determination for all people, if it were."
In early June 1987, when the draft of President Reagan's forthcoming speech at the Brandenburg Gate circulated through the National Security Council and the State Department, those officials who tried to edit out the President's now-famous line -- "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" - had no idea how strongly the President felt about this, or even that he had been calling for the Wall's destruction for more than 20 years.

Hitting the Kremlin Hard

Of course, most of The Crusader deals with the White House years, and Kengor's account of how the Reagan team ended the Cold War peacefully is a masterpiece of geo-strategic reporting.  Kengor has gotten his hands on just about the entire series of "NSDDs" - National Security Decision Directives - produced by the Reagan team.  And he uses excerpts from these NSDDs to explain, more clearly than any previous historian, that the President's policy initiatives were the result of a carefully thought-through, meticulously detailed strategy based on identification of the Soviet Union's key weaknesses - chief among them its imploding economy - followed by the execution of specific policies designed to take advantage of these weaknesses by putting more pressure on the Kremlin than it could withstand.

These included policies to limit Soviet energy exports, thus blocking the Soviet Union's access to desperately needed hard currency, funding and otherwise supporting anti-communist insurgencies, and of course publicly declaring the Soviet Union to be "the focus of evil in the world" - which rallied oppressed citizens from Poland to Vladivostok and which, even more importantly, terrified the Kremlin's ageing leaders because, unlike the President's domestic foes, they knew it was true.

Kengor correctly gives the bulk of the credit to the President himself, and he shows again and again how it was Reagan personally who called the shots in Washington.  But Kengor also shows how the varsity team that Reagan brought with him to Washington - including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, CIA Director William Casey, and National Security Adviser Judge William Clark - played key roles.  And he generously gives credit to the various aides of these officials who labored long, hard and usually anonymously to get the job done.

What emerges from Kengor's reporting, and with a stunning clarity, is the sheer executive competence of Reagan and his team.  They started with a goal - ending the Cold War with victory for the Free World -- developed a strategy to achieve that goal, worked out tactics to fulfill their strategy, then executed their plan while making whatever course corrections were required as events unfolded.  In short, even though the President couldn't name all 15 members of the Politburo - in truth, he couldn't name all 10 members of his own Cabinet - he was a superb CEO.  (Actually, Reagan was a superb CEO precisely because he didn't waste his time and energy on details; he focused on setting an objective, bringing on-board a team capable of achieving that objective, then leading the charge.)

The Crusader should be read by any politician who wants to understand the difference between conveying the illusion of success, and succeeding.  And centuries from now, The Crusader will be read by anyone who wants to know how the Cold War really ended.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council.
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