Opening Up the Reagan Files

The Reagan Files: Inside the National Security Council (2nd Edition) is a highly satisfying fix for even the most avid Reagan addict.  Jason Saltoun-Ebin’s written documentary is an exhaustive compilation, provided with help from staffers at the Reagan Presidential Library, of recently declassified conversations between President Reagan and  his National Security team.  The conversations, which begin just days after his 1981 inauguration and conclude with a final conversation between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December of 1988, make The Regan Files a time machine that transports the reader back to a prescient era of hair-trigger dangers in a ramped up nuclear world.

Many related transcripts remain classified to this date.  Nevertheless, Saltoun-Ebin, the abridging editor and author, offers the reader a navigable journey into the inner workings of Reagan’s National Security Council (NSC) by adding section introductions to provide context as well as annotations to support the book’s chronological flow.

Saulton-Ebin allows the conversations to speak for themselves.  The reader’s experience is a “fly-on-the-wall” sense of being immersed in the truisms that “past is prologue” and “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  The overriding theme of the book is that both the substance and style of Ronald Reagan’s leadership were deeply rooted in the man himself – in his personal faith in God and  in his belief in American exceptionalism.

Tasked with rebuilding, both in image and in fact, the foreign policy wreckage left by Jimmy Carter – who was at heart averse to the appearance and use of strength – Reagan’s role in the NSC was one of unequivocal leadership.  Though well-studied, Reagan took no presumptions into his sessions, and he allowed his advisors, such as heavy hitters Caspar Weinberger (defense secretary), William Casey (CIA), Alexander Haig (secretary of state), Edwin Meese (attorney general), Jeane Kirkpatrick (U.N. ambassador), Lawrence Eagleburger (undersecretary of state),and George H. W. Bush, among many others, to bring their knowledge and perspectives to the table before formulating a presidential plan of action.  The conversations, sometimes contentious, sometimes eloquent, rarely closed without Reagan’s final say.

The Reagan Files is a window into the 40th president’s grasp of the fluid nature of geopolitical relationships of the time, and the potential impact of new technologies and new threats as they emerged in the volatile ‘80s.  Despite the rapidly changing conditions during his terms, Reagan never projected wishful thinking onto the mural of world events, unlike his modern counterpart.  The NSC transcripts testify to Reagan’s scientific mind and deliberative style, which he used to process ever-flowing streams of data and evidence upon which he would ultimately base his actions – or inaction.  His ability to formulate a plan and act decisively once a case was made was a unique aspect of Reagan’s leadership style.  Reagan’s confidence was based partly in his ability to identify evil, name it, and never give it the benefit of the doubt, standing in stark contrast to President Obama, who always gives America’s enemies the benefit of the doubt, while clinging to fantastical notions about the effects of own his appeasing charm.

However decisive Reagan was, he treated other world leaders, friends and foes alike, as figures who took the well-being of  their own nations seriously.  Reagan, at times, attached  hand-written messages to the ends of more formal policy letters as a way to communicate that his intentions were not belligerent, but rather to see every citizen of every nation enjoy the blessings of freedom and prosperity available to Americans.  One such postscript, written to Konstantin Chernenko at the end of a letter addressing Soviet deployment of SS-20 ballistic missiles (p. 292), contained the reassurance, “Our common and urgent purpose must be the translation of this reality into a lasting reduction of tensions between us. I pledge to you my profound commitment to that goal.”

Members of the NSC, including Reagan, were aware that the actions formulated during their meetings had a number of interested audiences, including the American people, Congress, NATO allies, and global enemies.  Weighted toward United States interests, the rhetoric crafted during the meetings always supported Reagan’s Peace through Strength image.  Appeasement took a back seat to the projection of strength.  The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was an example of such an effective crafting of words.  Though still in its technologically formative stages, Reagan’s projection of certainty took SDI out of the realm of science fiction and “Star Wars,” as it was labeled in the media, and created the perception of a defense strategy that the Soviets could neither equal nor defy.  SDI is often credited with prompting Soviet defense spending that eventually led to the bankruptcy and breakup of the USSR.

Congress, a sometimes adversarial audience, was often at odds with Reagan’s vision of military supremacy, and Reagan had to remind his national security team of the budgetary constraints on defense spending.  Nevertheless, during the mid-'80s uptick in East-West tensions, Reagan never relented in his advocacy of strategies that ensured United States dominance.  In a session dated January 13, 1984, addressing Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR), Reagan is quoted thus: “I don’t want the West to be in a position of constantly backtracking or adopting a new posture in the absence of Soviet movement. I don’t want to be in a position of shifting if they give nothing in return” (p.280).  One cannot help but wonder if the present escalation of tensions in Russian and the Middle-Eastern nations might have been avoided had the current administration also remained immovable in its foreign policy goals and strategies.

As past is prologue, many of the recorded conversations in The Reagan Files centered on the illegal activities by the Soviets, including non-compliance with treaties such as SALT I.  Putin’s recent illegal actions in the Crimean region of Ukraine add a startling depth of context for the reader.  Some of the national security themes in the book, such as the global spread of Islamic terrorism, progress on a continuum of growing threats.  Concurrently, the assertion of Communist dominance has traced a circular path from dissolution under the strong leadership of Reagan to a pseudo-democratic mob-state during the Clinton and Bush years and back to a full-blown thrust toward restoring the Soviet bloc under the nearly non-existent leadership of Barack Obama.

From its beginnings in early 1981 to its closing sessions in December of 1988, the conversations depicted in The Reagan Files signify Reagan’s acute awareness of history and human nature.  Above all, Ronald Reagan understood his own nature, which was deeply motivated by his personal faith and fervent patriotism.

Speculation still abounds regarding what some believe were Reagan’s biggest mistakes, such as the withdrawal of American troops following the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.  There are those who say the decision constituted a retreat that signaled American weakness, leading eventually to increasing  terror attacks on American soil.  Others believe that Reagan was correct in sending the Marines back home instead of escalating tensions in a country ambivalent about our presence.  The path of history, however, has varying slopes of national strength and diminishment.  Regan knew that evil is an ever-present factor in global politics and that when one form of evil, such as the Soviet “Evil Empire,” wanes, another, such as Islamic terrorism, will wax in its stead.

Peace through Strength was President Reagan’s guiding principle in foreign policy.  Because he understood the world and its ugly realities, and because he applied his personal devotion to American exceptionalism and the belief that the country he led was the “Last Best Hope of man on earth, ” he left office in 1989 having rebuilt American influence and military might.  The Reagan Files: Inside the National Security Council (2nd Edition) is a personal window into the arduous effort by Reagan and his National Security team to leave the world a much safer, more hopeful place for all mankind than he found it in post-Carter 1981.

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