Getting Reagan Right

Marcus Witcher’s Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for Conservatism, 1980-2016 is an impressive work but also one that at times frustrates and confuses. To be sure, I would recommend it to students of the subject—Ronald Reagan’s political legacy and the broader sweep of modern conservatism. And yet, there are a few things (and one major thing) that Witcher doesn’t quite get right with Reagan.

The book makes several arguments. The first and main argument is that there were “significant,” yet unappreciated differences between Reagan and conservatives in the 1980s. Second, the book argues that in post-Cold War America, it was the legacy of Ronald Reagan rather than anticommunism that has served as “the glue” holding the conservative movement together. Third, Witcher lays out that the way in which conservatives view Reagan has not only shaped the conservative movement and the Republican Party but has moved both significantly to the right over the past three decades. And yet, argues Witcher, “In reality, Reagan was a pragmatic conservative who understood that building coalitions across party lines was essential to effective governance.” This is a central premise of the book. As Witcher states, his book “recasts Reagan as a shrewd political operator who often moderated his conservative positions—much to the vexation of conservatives during the 1980s.” Importantly, Witcher does not argue nor wish to imply that Reagan was not a conservative. “Indeed,” writes Witcher in an endnote, “he believed deeply in conservative principles and policies. Reagan should not be recast as a moderate or liberal Republican despite the fact that he was often pragmatic in implementing policy.”

Most of this I believe Witcher portrays correctly. Relatedly, he details how an overwhelming part of the Reagan legacy has been one in which other Republicans or conservatives seek to “get right with Reagan,” even sometimes asking themselves “What Would Reagan Do?” He is also spot-on in demonstrating certain “significant differences” between Reagan and some conservatives during the 1980s. He quotes hostile assessments of the Reagan record by conservatives like Howard Phillips—who called Reagan “a very weak man” and “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda”—Richard Viguerie, and George Will, among others. (“I’m really upset with George Will,” Reagan wrote in his diary. “He has become very bitter and personal in his attacks.”) This is the strength of the book.

As for the major weakness of the book, in chapters seven through nine and again later in his concluding sections, Witcher sticks to an old argument about Reagan that appears to have staying power among liberal Reagan scholars who will not let go despite indisputable evidence to the contrary. Witcher states it this way:

Indeed, it was Reagan’s evolving understanding of the Soviet Union in late 1983 and 1984 that enabled him to transition toward a more conciliatory foreign policy to pull the two rival nations back from the brink of conflict. If any speech could be labeled the most important of Reagan’s presidency, it has to be the January 1984 address in which he signaled a shift in US foreign policy and embraced a cooling of tensions with the Soviet Union. Far from pursuing a continuous policy from the start, Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union developed over the course of his presidency, and he was deeply influenced by the events of the fall of 1983.

Witcher says that “Reagan’s greatest achievements” were thus “his open-mindedness and willingness to change his views when presented with new information.” He also here hails “Reagan’s willingness to negotiate with Gorbachev.”

At the start of chapter seven, Witcher puts it this way: “On January 16, 1984, Reagan went out of his way to announce his commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. For Reagan to get to this point, however, the world had to endure a year of fear.”

For Reagan to get to that point? The reality is that Reagan was at that point in 1981, when he went out of his way in November 1981 to announce his commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. In fact, he did so on other previous occasions as well. And as for Reagan’s willingness to negotiate with Gorbachev, it is utterly essential to remember that Gorbachev did not become the leader of the USSR until March 1985. Reagan had shown a willingness to negotiate with every Soviet leader prior to Gorbachev.

Indeed, Witcher himself elsewhere carefully notes that Reagan had wanted to negotiate with the Soviets all along, since his first year. “Reagan was an ardent anticommunist, but he also sincerely believed in reducing, and potentially eliminating, nuclear weapons,” states Witcher, correctly:

During his first year in office he proposed a ‘zero option’ with regard to intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Reagan suggested that the United States would not deploy its Pershing II and cruise missiles if the Soviets withdrew their intermediate-range missiles targeting Western Europe. The Soviet Union rejected this proposal.

Precisely! Witcher continues, listing more such examples of Reagan’s early olive branch to Moscow, proposing Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in the spring of 1982, and making several subsequent overtures to Soviet leaders on handwritten notes to Leonid Brezhnev (1981-82), Yuri Andropov (1982-83), and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85), “but all three Soviet leaders rebuffed him.”

Yes, precisely.

Witcher states this again later, noting that when Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987 signed the INF Treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the terms of the agreement (here Witcher correctly quotes George Shultz) “were almost exactly what Ronald Reagan, to the scoffing of arms control experts, had proposed back in 1981: reductions to the point of elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons!”

Again, precisely.

Thus, this being the case, how is it that Ronald Reagan supposedly only became interested in a more conciliatory approach to negotiate with the Soviets in January 1984? How did Reagan suddenly evolve in 1984 after the allegedly colossal failures of 1983? The answer is that he didn’t. This had been Reagan’s intent all along. Certain more liberal scholars have nonetheless advanced that thesis, and it apparently still sticks in the minds of some—even being advanced by Witcher as his book contains information to the contrary.

The contradiction rears itself several times. Later in the book, Witcher notes that after the assassination attempt against Reagan in March 1981, Reagan moved more intently “toward this goal” of “reducing the number of nuclear weapons,” which Witcher notes Reagan already had desired prior to the assassination attempt (he was inaugurated in January 1981). He rightly quotes Reagan on this point: “Perhaps having come so close to death made me feel I should do whatever I could in the years God had given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war.” Reagan wrote that in his diary in April 1981. Then, in the next line, Witcher also notes that Reagan very publicly expressed his “commitment to reducing the risk of nuclear war” in his major November 1981 speech to the National Press Club. In the very next paragraph, Witcher notes that critics on the left and the right “failed, in Reagan’s view, to realize that his anticommunist rhetoric was not an end in itself but rather a means to achieve his ultimate goal of reducing, and potentially eliminating, the threat of nuclear war.”

Again, precisely.

Yet, two paragraphs later, Witcher is back to the perplexing claim about a supposed January 1984 change in Reagan’s thinking on the issue: “Reagan announced a more conciliatory policy toward the Soviet Union in January 1984.”

But how can that be? Haven’t we just seen that Reagan was thinking and offering something more conciliatory throughout 1981, the first year of his presidency, and on and on all prior to January 1984? Why do Witcher and others in this tradition argue as if Reagan had somehow been struck by lightning and altered course in January 1984?

This is a frustration and major shortcoming in certain circles of Reagan scholarship. Kiron Skinner has written against it, as well as presenting the evidence to the contrary in her 2001 book with Martin and Annelise Anderson, Reagan, In His Own Hand, which made clear Reagan’s willingness to negotiate long before not only in 1984 but before 1981. I have personally written against it, particularly in chapter eight of my Harvard University Press edited volume, Reagan’s Legacy in a World Transformed. That chapter, titled, “A World of Fewer Nuclear Weapons: Ronald Reagan’s Willingness to Negotiate,” comes right before chapters from Beth Fischer and Julian Zelizer, who Witcher cites throughout his book (mainly Fischer). I showed there that what Reagan offered in January 1984 was hardly new. It went back to not only 1981 but well before Reagan was president. I cite numerous sources to that effect, including Kiron Skinner’s primary sources. Skinner and I are hardly alone.

What’s more, Witcher devotes significant time to this argument, from the middle chapters of the work to returning to it again and again in the concluding sections.

Aside from this matter, Witcher also disputes the reality that Reagan had (in Witcher’s words) “a coherent strategy to win the Cold War from the outset of his presidency.” He says that “Far from being a coherent and prescient strategy to end the Cold War, Reagan’s foreign policy—like that of all presidents—was largely determined by eternal factors, the give and take of policy making, and the pragmatic application of principles to changing circumstances.”

Here again, I vigorously disagree. Ronald Reagan, in truth, absolutely had a coherent strategy to win the Cold War from the outset of his presidency. Peter Schweizer’s two books, Victory (published in 1994) and Reagan’s War (published in 2002), were two of the first to delineate that strategy, as did Skinner’s Reagan, In His Own Hand. My own works The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand demonstrate this.

Clark was the Reagan national security adviser and architect of that coherent strategy via 100-plus carefully conceived National Security Decision Directives through 1982 and 1983, all of which are posted online by the Reagan Library. Regrettably, I could not find my two books or Schweizer’s cited anywhere in Witcher’s endnotes. Most confusing and frustrating to me is that The Crusader is the first of no less than seven Reagan books of mine listed by Witcher in his bibliography. And yet, I never saw any of these seven books cited even once in the endnotes.

In sum, I wish I could be thoroughly positive about this book. The author seems commendably fair-minded. The flaws could and should be addressed in a second edition. Nonetheless, as to the book’s central thesis—namely, how Ronald Reagan and his legacy shaped the conservative movement and Republican Party—Marcus Witcher does a solid job. His case has real value, even as some of the lapses hurt the overall work.