In 1984 I traveled to Berlin. Walking past Checkpoint Charlie, the famous American outpost on the border between East and West, made the Cold War tangible. Yet at the same time, having seen so many pictures and movies that focused on Berlin made me feel that I was playing the role of extra on the set of yet another espionage thriller. One thing I felt sure about was this: The Cold War would continue into the foreseeable future. Five years later, the Berlin Wall fell. Two years after that, on Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was out of power in the Soviet Union.
State communism was dead. I did not see it coming. Neither did many other people who make it their business to think about international affairs. (It is not simple coincidence that political scientists became enamored of chaos theory during the early 1990s.) We have all been trying to make sense of what happened ever since.
Now comes Frances FitzGerald's contribution, Way Out There in the Blue. FitzGerald is a thoughtful and gifted writer who specializes in current American political issues. Her first book, Fire in the Lake, brought home to the chattering classes the horror that the Vietnam War had caused. Her America Revised focuses on the changing texture of American history as depicted in textbooks. Way Out There in the Blue, her account of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and the end of the Cold War, is her most ambitious book. It is really three books in one: Two succeed brilliantly, and one almost hits the mark.
FitzGerald goes back to early American history to find context for Ronald Reagan. Her evocation of American exceptionalism and its connection with civic religion and millenarian Christianity is excellent. From the seventeenth century, when John Winthrop evoked the image of a "city on a hill," Americans have taken comfort in the notion that the United States would serve as a shining example to the unenlightened not by doing as much as by being. FitzGerald traces the connection between this belief and the growth of American isolationism and explains its connection with the amorphous civic Christianity affirmed by most American politicians. (Indeed, the phrase "a city set on a hill" is from the Book of Matthew.)
Weak neighbors and generous borders allowed the "city on a hill" mind-set to continue unchallenged for a century and a half. Moreover, the conviction that America's God-given role was to illustrate by example allowed leaders to avoid unpleasant or unwieldy foreign encounters. But at the end of World War II, two developments destroyed what was left of the American preference for going it alone. The first was the invention of long-range bombers and missile technology. No longer could the United States hide between its shining seas. At the same time, the strength of the Soviet Union, wrapped in the ideology of godless communism, and the existence of a competing world order posed a unique ideological and geopolitical challenge to American leaders.
As FitzGerald points out, Reagan's phrase "the evil empire" was not just a line from the Star Wars movie; it reflected a host of theological ideas. In fact, FitzGerald might have gone further and explored the ways in which many Americans railed against the evils of communism and imbued its leaders with all the characteristics of the antichrist made flesh before they really knew what the Soviet Union was about. (There is a great deal to the notion that if the Soviet Union hadn't existed, it would have had to be invented.) The United States, for all its lack of an established church, is a profoundly Christian country in a manner that no other Western democracy rivals. Not suprisingly, anticommunism in this country took a religious tone, made easier by the fact that communists disavowed and discriminated against religious observance.
Having set the stage on which Ronald Reagan would strut his political stuff, FitzGerald gives us an excellent biography of the man. In his Horatio Alger success story and his absorption of Protestant fundamentalism, Reagan reflected the national myth: white, rural impoverished lad who made good in the city without forsaking his native roots. Reagan rose from lower-middle-class genteel poverty to become a Hollywood star and darling of the right wing of the Republican Party. That his serious money came from advertising (shilling for General Electric) is quintessentially American. Indeed, it was an advertising man turned politician, Bruce Barton, who made the best-seller list in the 1920s with The Man Nobody Knows, which explained that Jesus was the progenitor of the Madison Avenue man.
As FitzGerald notes, Reagan, with few serious ideas of his own, was perfect at script reading. Moreover, his traditional good looks and regal bearing, as well as his years as an actor on a TV Western, evoked a simpler time and provided a tonic to a nation that feared it had lost its unique redemptive position. The stars were in the right constellation for a Reagan national triumph in 1980: Nixon had destroyed the moderate wing of the Republican Party while Jimmy Carter's misjudgments had left the nation willing to elect a president who promised Americans they could ride tall in the saddle once again without paying an onerous price. What was said of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman could be said of Reagan: "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."
And so Reagan took office. And like the Robert Redford character in The Candidate, he was left with the question "What do we do now?" Here begins FitzGerald's second book, an intricate explication of how SDI, the "Star Wars" missile shield, became reality. Why SDI? What made Reagan fascinating was "the direct connection he made to the national imagination." As FitzGerald points out, "Star Wars ... was surely his greatest rhetorical triumph. What other President, after all, could persuade the country of something that did not, and could not for the forseeable future, exist?"
Because it was Reagan's "rhetoric and political persona" that lay at the core of his popularity, Way Out There in the Blue uses the SDI program as a study in miniature, through which the larger appeal of the president would become comprehensible. The resulting explication, the meat of Way Out There in the Blue, should become a standard text for political science classes--there is probably no better depiction of the interconnection of process and policy. Given the proliferation of memoirs offered by Reagan officials as well as various other accounts, one might think that FitzGerald could add little to the record. But rather than accept the explanations proffered by the insiders at face value, FitzGerald has traced events back to their sources, from the genesis of the idea itself to the creation of proposals, to their transformation into funded programs. Her description of White House politics provides a trenchant portrait of backstabbing, dissension, and disagreement that rivals anything a novelist could invent. As FitzGerald observes, "Americans have always been skeptical of politicians and experts, but during the Cold War they trusted their government with national life and death. When it came to the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons and the balance of terror, they assumed their officials knew what they were doing and told them the truth."
The public believed that grown-ups were running the White House and that petty politics and personal ambition would play only a small role, if any, in the formation of Cold War policy. Yet the Star Wars program proved that the opposite was the case. The president's 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative, literally a bolt from the blue, upset decades of arms-control talks. The ritualized process of East-West nuclear limitation negotiations may have baffled all but a few. Still, it had kept the world from nuclear holocaust. In company with most of his compatriots, Reagan grasped virtually nothing about these discussions. So he simply ignored them and instead opted to push for a phantom umbrella to be constructed above the United States that would shield the nation against missiles. Reagan's dream was derived from his own imagination and a mélange of motion picture images, but he plunged ahead anyway and launched this program, which, as FitzGerald proves, allowed "discourse about strategic issues [to be] lifted off from reality altogether."
Scientific testimony condemned the utility of the SDI program; academics scorned it when they weren't laughing. Time magazine talked of the president's "video game vision," while The New York Times lambasted the proposal as "projection of fantasy in policy." Nevertheless, Congress proved willing to provide funds for a program that former defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Harold Brown estimated would need $1 trillion just to have a hope of becoming effective. Even stranger, in the decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Congress has continued appropriating money for SDI, including an additional $6.6 billion last year. This tale would be funny were the subject matter not so serious.
On to the third part of FitzGerald's tale. Instead of presiding over an America fighting the same old Cold War, Reagan had the unanticipated good fortune to be in office when Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev took office. Ironically, it was the very qualities of millenarian Christianity that had handicapped him in his dealings with Soviet apparatchiks early in the 1980s that equipped Reagan to grasp the opportunity that Gorbachev offered during the president's second term.
Dissident Alexander Sol-zhenitsyn had proclaimed on the BBC's Russian Service in February 1979 that "for us in Russia, communism is a dead dog, while for many people in the West it is still a living lion." This is the dichotomy that separated the Reagan approach from that later adopted by the far more diplomatically experienced George Bush. Reagan accepted with relative alacrity the reality of Gorbachev's break with the past. For all the unreality of events after 1985, the collapse of communism comported with Reagan's ideology and was explained by his religious framework. In contrast, when Bush took office he proved extremely skeptical of Gorbachev's revolution. During the spring of 1988, when Reagan had clearly accepted the genuineness of Gorbachev's conversion, Bush told the press that Gorbachev was "stylistically different" but, as for his intentions, "my view is that the jury is still out." On taking office, Bush backed away from embracing Reagan's enthusiasm for the new Russia while his press secretary Marlin Fitzwater labeled Gorbachev a "drugstore cowboy" and accused him of not matching "words with deeds."
The record clearly reveals that Reagan, more quickly than Bush and the foreign policy talking heads, grasped the transformation of the Soviet Union. And good reporter that she is, FitzGerald fairly relays the difference. But because FitzGerald cannot bring herself to give Reagan the credit he deserves, this portion of the book is disappointing. Her account of Reagan's visit to Moscow in May 1988 is particularly uncharitable. She states that Reagan found it difficult to believe he was actually in Moscow having open news conferences and meeting Russian citizens freely. "There is no way I can really explain how I came to be here," she quotes Reagan saying to reporter Hugh Sidey. In actual fact, the rapid transformation both in the nature of the Soviet Union and the tenor of Soviet-American relations was almost universally unfathomable. It was precisely because they couldn't believe that Gorbachev was for real that the American foreign policy establishment, exemplified by but not limited to President Bush and his officials, took so long to credit his bona fides. As FitzGerald points out, Bush longed for the Soviet Union to regress to a carbon copy of the Brezhnev schlerlocracy. Bush could then engineer the Nixonian form of détente that he had long hoped to resuscitate.
FitzGerald has written an account that focuses primarily on American policies and personalities. For that reason, it necessarily misses the real story of the end of the Cold War--that story was in the Soviet Union. It was Gorbachev who made the decision to radically reform communism. He did not come to bury the Soviet system, but to save it. But the result was the same. It was the American president's responsibility to accept the gift that was given. This Reagan did. What seems an easy task in hindsight was more difficult at the time. FitzGerald provides proof, quot-ing the barrage of criticism levied by such establishment figures as Henry Kissinger, William Safire, and George Will against the president for his supposed appeasement of the Soviet Union.
FitzGerald's book will long be the standard against which other accounts of the Reagan presidency are measured. Her difficulty coming to terms with the extraordinary denouement of the Reagan presidency is not a singular one. No one yet has explained the events of the second half of the 1980s quite satisfactorily. Perhaps the best explanation is found in the essay "Of Boldness," written by Sir Francis Bacon almost half a millennium ago: "In civil business; what first? Boldness; what second and third? Boldness; and yet boldness is a child of ignorance and baseness." The baseness is debatable, Reagan's ignorance clearly shown by FitzGerald. And his boldness, which led to the calamity of Star Wars, contributed, ironically enough, to the peaceful end of the Cold War.