Book review of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink by William Inboden


Did President Ronald Reagan win the Cold War, or did the war end because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned it? William Inboden’s “The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink” is a powerful brief for the former interpretation, known as the Reagan Victory School. Inboden concludes that even while Reagan cooperated with the Kremlin to curtail the arms race and reduce tensions between the superpowers, over the course of the 1980s he pursued “a comprehensive Cold War strategy” that “brought the Soviet Union to the brink of a negotiated surrender.”

It’s plausible. As early as 1964, Reagan had called for intensifying Cold War competition so that the Soviets’ economy would “come unhinged” and they would give up the struggle “as a hopeless cause,” at which point the United States would extend “the hand of friendship” and declare that “there is room in the world for both of us.” As president, Reagan approached the conflict along similar lines by reviving the U.S. economy, restoring American self-confidence, rebuilding and modernizing the military, and forming close personal partnerships with allied leaders.

At the same time, he imposed serious costs on the Soviets by forcing them into “an arms race that they could neither afford nor win,” supporting anti-communist insurgencies abroad, and relentlessly propagandizing the political, religious and economic liberties of the “free world” against the coercion and tyranny of the “evil empire.” And national security directives from 1982 to 1983 outlined a conscious strategy of not only containing Soviet expansion but also forcing the adversary “to bear the brunt of its economic shortcomings” in order to “encourage long-term liberalizing and nationalist tendencies within the Soviet Union.”

But it’s a stretch to imply, as Inboden does, that Reagan’s strategy was directly responsible for pressuring the U.S.S.R. into producing Gorbachev. The Soviet Union was faltering and stagnating on account of internal factors only tangentially related to U.S. policies, and Gorbachev’s comrades turned to him in the desperate hope that his radical program could make Leninism great again. Gorbachev’s actions unintentionally brought about the Soviet Union’s collapse, but for reasons that had little to do with Reagan’s policies. Further, few of Reagan’s advisers agreed at the time that the administration’s goal was to spend the Soviets into the ground or topple their empire. And, for that matter, most of the events that brought the Cold War to an end, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the breakup of the Soviet Union, came after Reagan left office.

However, even readers who are not students of the Reagan Victory School will appreciate Inboden’s deeply informed and gracefully written account. By proceeding chronologically, he makes vividly clear how Reagan conducted the Cold War while contending with a host of other harrowing foreign policy issues, including terrorism and wars in the Middle East, political upheaval in Central and South America, and economic transformations in Asia. And he superbly invokes the peril and uncertainty of the era.

Although many participants in the nuclear freeze movement of the time feared that Reagan would bring about the apocalypse, in fact the president had such a dread of nuclear weapons that he sought to abolish them entirely — and almost persuaded Gorbachev to agree at the chaotic 1986 Reykjavik summit. Inboden notes that at a time when many Westerners regarded Reagan as a warmongering cowboy, one of Gorbachev’s assistants more accurately perceived that he dreamed of becoming a “great peace-maker president.”

Inboden, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin who previously held senior positions with the State Department and the National Security Council, combines historical insight with a practitioner’s wisdom, particularly in his gimlet-eyed assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of Reagan’s principal foreign policy advisers. He brings both sides of his background to bear on small but significant episodes, such as Reagan’s efforts to secure exit visas for the Siberian Seven (a persecuted group of Russian Pentecostal Christians), as well as world-stage events such as the president’s negotiations with Gorbachev, where he demonstrated “an essential attribute of statecraft — the ability to see through the eyes of your counterparts.”

Inboden doesn’t whitewash Reagan’s shortcomings. He notes that the president was “a dreadful manager” whose aversion to conflict meant he presided over an administration plagued by vicious infighting and rogue actors. In his view, some of Reagan’s positive qualities — including his ability to envision a post-Cold War future and to hold boldly to that belief despite the opposition of most experts and advisers — could also be negatives. The Iran-contra scandal, in particular, “revealed him at his worst: stubborn, naïve, prone to self-delusion.” But while Inboden acknowledges “the carnage and suffering wrought by many authoritarian regimes and insurgencies supported by the Reagan White House in the name of anticommunism,” readers may not be fully persuaded that in such instances Reagan faced only tragic choices between bad and worse, “where no matter what action — or inaction — was taken, terrible costs awaited.”

Inboden’s history closes to the sound of trumpets. He compares Reagan’s legacy to the best of his 20th-century predecessors: “Like Franklin Roosevelt, he led his nation and its allies in vanquishing a totalitarian empire. Like Eisenhower, he left his nation stronger, more secure, more hopeful and united. Like Kennedy, he inspired America and summoned it to a higher purpose.”

But histories meet readers who live in the present. While many will appreciate Inboden’s overwhelmingly positive assessment of Reagan, they also will notice that the Republican Party of 2023 has emphatically rejected Reagan’s most dearly held principles. How to assess his legacy now that his warnings against isolationism, nativism and protectionism are no longer heeded by most of his fellow conservatives? What to make of him in a time when many of his political heirs do not share his devotion to international cooperation, human rights or democracy itself? Inboden doesn’t say, but he does conclude with Reagan’s observation from one of his last public addresses: “The work of freedom is never done, and the task of the peacemaker is never complete.”

Geoffrey Kabaservice is vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center and the author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”

Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink

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