By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
He kept to his storehouse of hoary anecdotes and invented scenarios that always arrived at the same conclusions: communism was the only threat to our well-being, and big government was too much like communism. You could be a sultan, a generalissimo, a puppet, whatever, just so long as you claimed not to be a communist and let American businessmen do their thing on your soil. At home, you could privatize government functions out to the sleaziest privateers, and that was preferable to effective government programs.
If you didn't see the world as he did, you were being duped. When, on June 11, 1982, nearly a million people rallied in New York's Central Park to support a nuclear freeze, Reagan dismissed that huge and historic protest as the work of "foreign agents."
It simplifies life when you never test your beliefs or consider the views of others. Reagan took a similarly simple approach to being the chief executive, essentially working the way that he had for GE: he showed up when required, donned makeup, read a speech well and left the details to others.
"It's very unusual to have a president who is not interested in policy at all," remarked Henry Kissinger, whose impression was that Reagan knew little of foreign affairs and was uninterested in learning. "He would try to avoid policy discussions. If he couldn't, he'd resort to his cue cards. . . . He was an actor, the quintessential actor. What he said was what he believed."
When Reagan eventually traveled to Russia, he was reportedly astounded to learn that—contrary to his deepest beliefs about America representing truth, justice and blue Superman-like hair—many Soviet citizens lived in fear of the United States. Jeez, just because he had them ringed with nukes, derided them as the Evil Empire, and at times raised serious doubts as to whether Reagan could tell his lunch from a launch code? Him, the man with his finger on the button, who had once erroneously asserted that Trident missiles could be recalled once launched? The president whose staff members spoke in terms of a "winnable" nuclear war "if there are enough shovels to go around" to dig shelters? The leader who had joked over a live radio microphone, "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes."
In his first press conference as president, Reagan said of the Soviets, "They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain their ends." It's a description that eight years later would sum up the Reagan White House.
Reagan once told a story about agents of Nicaragua's Sandinista government pulling a freedom-loving newspaper editor from his home and executing him in front of his pleading children. He related this tale with unbridled anger and contempt for cowards who would do such a thing. But like many a Reagan tale told with utter conviction, it was an utter fabrication. When the Great Communicator's press office was asked for the details of this atrocity, they had to admit it hadn't happened—or anything like it.
The Sandinistas were not the world's most democratic government, but they were infinitely more so than the dictator they deposed, Anastasio Somoza. His family had treated Nicaragua like its own private labor camp since a U.S. intervention brought them to power in the 1930s. Perhaps Reagan had his S's confused: in the 1970s, a Somoza business partner had an opposition newspaper editor murdered. And it was members of Somoza's feared National Guard who executed American ABC newsman Bill Stewart in the streets of Managua. Unlike Reagan's fiction, that latter event was captured on film.
Once the Sandinistas ousted Somoza in 1979, in a few short years, they drastically cut their nation's malnutrition and infant-mortality rate, raised literacy and embarked on other ambitious public programs, without the benefit of the U.S. aid lavished on Somoza (who had fled the country with a fortune believed to be worth between $100 million and $500 million). They could have been more democratic than they were, but it's hard to be perfect when the world's most powerful nation is trying to crush you.
More on that soon, but let's first look at some of the other fronts on which the Reagan administration was staving off the communist menace.
Not content with possessing enough nukes to destroy all human life several times over, the Reagan administration attempted to up the ante through a broad "reinterpreting" of the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty. This effort attracted the ire even of hawkish Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report calling it "the most flagrant abuse of the Constitution's treaty process in 200 years of American history."
In 1983 Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative, which he posited as "a shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from rain." For the rest of his time in office, Reagan and his camp would routinely claim that "genuine breakthroughs have been made," only to have SDI scientists counter that there were no breakthroughs and that they were upset by the White House hype. Sixteen hundred U.S. scientists sent a letter to Congress asserting that the program was wasteful and only spurred the arms race. By 1987, even the top people in the SDI program were admitting that it might never be able to protect the population and would, at best, only be able to shield some of our missiles from attack.