Tuesday 12 March 2019

Ronald Reagan would not have used the bomb even had Russia bombed the USA

I was wrong about Ronald Reagan. I agreed with him that Communist Russia was an 'evil empire' but thought that detente was the best way to handle an evil empire with nuclear arms. I was right in thinking that Communist Russia was not a threat to Western Europe but he was completely right that the Soviet regime was not only illegitimate (no argument from me there) but could be defeated.  

People of my generation (born in the 1960s) thought the Soviet Union would be there forever. Compare the assumption of Lenin and his Bolshevik colleagues that their government could not last long unless it inspired revolution in the West.

In many ways Ronald Reagan remained in foreign policy the Democrat he had been in early life. It is Democrats who want to use foreign policy to make the world a better place. George Bush the Younger was basically a Wilsonian Democrat abroad, though his policy at home was the antithesis of Wilson's racism. Wilson introduced segregation to Washington DC whereas Bush 2 went out of his way to appoint non whites to high places and got no credit for it from the professional anti-racists.

Reagan was a true peace president. I hope and think Donald Trump is too, unlike the utterly disastrous George W Bush and unlike Hillary Clinton. 

It is so interesting to learn from the letter below that Reagan would never have pressed the nuclear button. I assumed that nobody would, until I asked Lord Home, who had had his finger on the British nuclear trigger for twelve months. He horrified me when he replied that, had Russia invaded England, he would have used the bomb. 
'In that situation emotion takes over.'

This letter is by one of my favourite analysts, Edward Luttwak, with whom I agree on most things, though not so much on Israel, to just about my least favorite left-wing magazine: the London Review of Books. (Only the Tablet is more annoying.)

I was surprised by Seymour Hersh’s account of Ronald Reagan which, in the course of making the case that George H.W. Bush was really in charge (‘Unlike the president, he knew what was going on and how to get things done’), echoes contemporary accusations that he was lazy, ignorant, unwilling to learn (LRB, 24 January). The reason I am surprised is that Reagan’s diaries have been published, and in them he often comments on the way people like Hersh, State Department officials and many in Congress thought of him as ignorant and ineffectual, and how very useful that was in providing cover for his hugely ambitious agenda.

As it happens, I was in the room when Reagan was given his very first State Department briefing on the need to ‘work up’ to a meeting with Gromyko, the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, at the September ‘ministerials’ in New York, in preparation for his first summit with Brezhnev, as co-existence required. Reagan cut them off, telling them very pleasantly to relax: there was no need for a September meeting with Gromyko because he had no intention of meeting Brezhnev; he did not want to coexist with the USSR, which had no right to exist. Even his own newly installed secretary of state, Alexander Haig, was sure that once the election vapours had dissipated Reagan would go down the same path as his predecessors and arrange the summit. All but Reagan and a handful of others, myself included, accepted coexistence as the basic axiom of world politics, rooted in the certainty that nuclear war was unwinnable and that the USSR was the other superpower that would endure into the future.
But Reagan was in charge, not Bush or the likes of Vice Admiral Arthur Moreau, and Reagan held no summits with Brezhnev, or his successors Andropov and Chernenko. He was happy to meet Gorbachev, already at work to dismantle the USSR.

It was the same with El Salvador. Reagan didn’t want another Vietnam, he wanted victory, and relied heavily on his CIA director, William Casey, because he didn’t want the military chiefs involved – for them the allocation of roles for every branch of every service would be the first order of business. Instead, the army was confined to training Salvadorean soldiers in the US, while a civilian at the Pentagon, Fred Iklé, under-secretary for policy, used Pentagon funds for a brilliantly effective programme using contractors to arm and train Salvadorean villagers to protect the lands they had just acquired under land reform. Reagan gave the programme his full support, and even the ever incompetent CIA helped out by digging up the ideal weapon in one of its forgotten warehouses: M2 carbines, ‘too light’ for the army, just right for the campesinos. (I too did a bit of training down in Morazán.) According to Hersh, Moreau ridiculed Casey. But Casey, who had been in charge of OSS operations out of London in the Second World War, knew the difference between uniformed popinjays in the Pentagon and individuals who would go out there (on TACA airlines) and get things done. The guerrillas were defeated and gave up war to enter politics.

Hersh contrives not to mention what horrified Bush, the Joint Chiefs and no doubt Moreau: Reagan did not believe in Mutual Assured Destruction. He would not press the button, period, not even if they bombed Washington DC (‘What’s the point ?’). When first briefed on Nato plans, according to which nuclear weapons would have to be used when the ammo ran out, he said: ‘Buy more ammo.’ He promised – and delivered – a huge increase in the defence budget, but made it clear that he would not press the button. Instead he embraced ballistic missile defence, with new technology: the Strategic Defence Initiative. The likes of Hersh and Moreau called it ‘Star Wars’. It did divert Pentagon funds from the further embellishment of the usual tanks, fighters and carriers, and much of the new technology failed. But much succeeded too, and is now in use. What terrified Bush and the Joint Chiefs was the prospect of the Soviets finding out that the US president had given up even on a Second Strike option, thereby ruining the principle of nuclear deterrence. I can’t blame them: who, by the same token, could have imagined the KGB was so far gone it accepted the Washington Post view, according to which Reagan was a John Birch Society fanatic intent on a First Strike policy? For more than two years, KGB officers were tasked with watching USAF airfields everywhere day and night, ready to report the feared mass take-off of nuclear-armed bombers.

Edward Luttwak, Chevy Chase, Maryland

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