By Matt Purple, March 9, 2016
There has arisen in recent years a myth that Ronald Reagan was some sort of reflexive hawk. This has been propagated by neoconservatives who have created a touchstone they call the “Reagan foreign policy,” encompassing military adventurism, deposed dictators, Middle East meddling, and various other things the fortieth president never did.
Reagan’s approach to the Cold War was much more nuanced than either his leftist detractors or conservative cheerleaders care to admit. That’s thanks in part to his wife Nancy, who shuffled off this mortal coil on Sunday to be reunited at last with her beloved Ronnie. Nancy Reagan’s reputation is that of a drug warrior and concerned spouse, but she was also a savvy operator who made her presence known in many of her husband’s policy decisions. As the Washington Post reported in its obituary:
Mrs. Reagan saw early on in her husband’s term that he could have a profound impact on his legacy by working to thaw U.S.-Soviet relations, and she quietly conspired with the pragmatists in the administration to make it happen. Reagan credited his wife with “lowering the temperature of my rhetoric.”
Perhaps Nancy Reagan’s greatest pragmatic triumph was when she got Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin invited to the White House. This came over the strenuous objections of many Cold War idealists close to the president. As former deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver later recalled, “many of the people around Reagan were a good deal more ideological than he was. For them, the Evil Empire business was a daily mantra. For Reagan it was a tactic.” Those hawks clung to the White House’s official position that a summit between the United States and the Soviet Union wouldn’t be allowed until the USSR rectified its human rights record.
Nancy Reagan quietly collaborated with Secretary of State George Shultz to subvert that rule. Against the objections of (and, by some accounts, entirely unknown to) National Security Advisor Bill Clark, Reagan and Shultz helped sneak Dobrynin into the White House for a two-hour meeting with the president. Clark was reportedly furious, though he found no sympathy with the first lady. By the summer of 1983, his hawkishness had so annoyed Nancy that she recommended to Shultz that he be fired.
The pragmatists prevailed in this internecine White House conflict, and Nancy was soon attending further meetings with the Soviets and ultimately Gorbachev himself. She wasn’t always impressed with her adversaries: she initially clashed with Raisa Gorbachev, wife of Mikhail, and her wonderfully straightforward memoir features complaints about Russian tardiness and violations of decorum. But through it all, she stayed focused on her husband’s ultimate objective: a peaceful end to communist oppression.
Achieving that meant taking a realistic and sometimes compromising approach to foreign policy. President Reagan sat down with Gorbachev, struck arms control agreements with the Soviet Union (they even had expiration dates!), traded a guilty-as-sin Soviet spy to bring home an innocent American journalist, refused military intervention when the Polish military imposed martial law, and pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon after the civil war there proved a needless distraction. His military interventions, in Grenada and Libya, were swift sideshows. He fought the Soviet Union primarily through diplomatic and economic measures, and he won.
In 1985, Newt Gingrich declared Reagan’s upcoming summit with Gorbachev to be “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.” They’re still leveling that hoary charge today and they’re still just as wrong. As we remember Nancy Reagan, let’s be grateful Ronnie had the good sense to listen to his wife, and not the chorus of hawks around him.
Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and the deputy editor at Rare Politics.