Burnishing Reagan’s Disarmament Credentials

Reviewed by Paul Boyer

Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World From Nuclear Disaster

By Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson

Crown Publishers, 2009, 450 pp.

The husband-and-wife team of Martin and Annelise Anderson has established a cottage industry of producing works enhancing Ronald Reagan’s image. The truly Herculean labors of the Andersons, who are based at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, have already given us Reagan in His Own Hand (2001), a selection of the future president’s radio talks; Reagan: A Life in Letters (2004); Reagan’s Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan’s Vision (2004); Stories in His Own Hand: The Everyday Wisdom of Ronald Reagan (2007); and Reagan in His Own Voice, a three-CD set of the radio talks.

Their latest effort, Reagan’s Secret War, welcomed with lavish praise by Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Ed Meese (“superb”), and George Shultz (“an immense contribution”), continues in the same admiring vein. For the Andersons, Reagan is a colossus who even in death still dominates America: “His spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.”

Acknowledging Nancy Reagan’s help in giving them access to classified documents, the Andersons quote her plea to them: “I just want people to know who Ronnie is.” They conclude, “We hope this book has helped to accomplish that goal.” One may safely predict that this work will please the former first lady, to whom, along with Shultz, the Andersons dedicate the book. How the broader world of scholars, arms control insiders, and observers of the Reagan years will view it may be more problematic.

Much of the book consists of direct quotes from Reagan’s speeches, letters, pre-presidential radio talks, private communications with Soviet leaders, diaries (as edited and abridged by historian Douglas Brinkley), and comments at meetings of the National Security Council (NSC) and the smaller National Security Planning Group (NSPG). Like Bibles in which Jesus’ words are printed in red, every quote from Reagan is highlighted with an impressive gray background scrim.

The authors range widely over Reagan’s presidency, including the 1981 assassination attempt, the economic program, and the Iran-contra scandal. Yet, as the subtitle promises, the focus is on Reagan’s strategic thinking, particularly the 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The Andersons make a simple point: Above all else, Reagan was a man of peace whose unwavering objective, rooted in his personal history and reinforced by his brush with death in 1981, was a world free of nuclear weapons.

The Andersons quote Reagan’s repeated assertions of his peaceful intentions and wholly endorse his insistence that the massive military buildup and intensified nuclear weapons competition of his first term were only a means to his utopian goal: to force the Soviets to recognize the futility of competition and the inevitability of total nuclear disarmament as their best option.

With equal conviction, they embrace Reagan’s view that the missile defense system envisioned in his SDI proposal would advance the cause of peace. As the United States developed and deployed a foolproof anti-missile system, the Russians would realize that competition in this area too was futile and would gratefully welcome Reagan’s offer to share the new technology. Once the shimmering vision of universal nuclear disarmament was achieved, a global defensive shield would protect all the world’s peoples against any cheaters or rogue states tempted to nuclear adventurism. As the Andersons uncritically quote vast swaths of Reagan’s rhetoric and embrace his own assessment of his motives, they sometimes seem simply to be channeling him rather than offering a critical assessment of the implications, context, and contemporary resonance of his strategic thought.

The book certainly has its merits. The authors convincingly portray Reagan as an active shaper of strategic policy. Those who view him as merely a gifted actor who stumbled into the presidency and amiably occupied the office for eight years as a puppet-like figure manipulated by others will find little reinforcement for their view in this book. Edward Teller, Kenneth Adelman, Richard Perle, the far-right beer baron Joseph Coors, the Harvard Sovietologist Richard Pipes, and other influential figures are mentioned, but the Andersons’ account emphasizes Reagan’s prickly independence of mind, which clearly comes through. Working with Shultz, his secretary of state once the preening Alexander Haig had been dumped, Reagan forcefully pursued his objectives, clinging tenaciously to SDI despite resistance within his own administration. “I will make the decisions,” he informed the NSC after his inauguration, and he lived up to his word. (The hollow bravado of George W. Bush’s similar “I am the decider” comment, as he announced in 2006 that Donald Rumsfeld would remain as secretary of defense, offers yet another example of Bush’s somewhat forlorn effort to emulate Reagan.)

The extensive citations from Reagan’s diary offer convincing evidence that his public avowals of peaceful intentions were not merely boilerplate pieties, but sincere expressions of a firmly held conviction that all his military and strategic policies, however they struck others, would ultimately advance his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Reagan’s Secret War challenges those who have argued that SDI was essentially a bargaining chip to extract arms control concessions from Moscow. Had this been the case, Reagan would have cashed in his chips at the 1986 Reykjavik summit, rather than clinging to SDI despite the breathtaking concessions dangled by the Russians in exchange. He really believed in SDI.

The authors underscore the depth of Reagan’s religious beliefs, contributing to our heightened awareness of the importance of religion in U.S. politics and foreign policy generally, an awareness driven home during the presidency of George W. Bush. In a diary entry after the assassination attempt, Reagan wrote, “Whatever happens now I owe my life to God, and will try to serve him in every way I can.” This sense of divine obligation, they argue, reinforced Reagan’s conviction that the quest for peace should be his guiding principle. (In this connection, the Andersons might profitably have explored Reagan’s well-documented belief that unfolding world events could be correlated with Bible prophecies of the end times.)

Flawed History

Ultimately, however, although Reagan’s Secret War does shed light on some important aspects of Reagan’s tenure, it is rather disappointing as a work of history. Even its principal contribution, the quotes from classified NSC and NSPG documents, exchanges with Soviet leaders, and summit conference transcripts, to which Martin Anderson gained access through the intervention of Nancy Reagan and Karl Rove, raises questions. Which documents were released or withheld, and why? The documents that are quoted contain many ellipses, inevitably raising cautionary flags. For example, here is the Andersons’ version of a key exchange at Reykjavik in which Reagan rejects Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s insistence that the United States limit SDI research to the laboratory only: “I can’t go along with that…. In my country…I have a lot of critics who wield great influence…. They will accuse me of breaking my promise to the people of the United States regarding SDI.” What additional material is represented by the ellipses? Were such deletions made before the documents were shown to the authors or after? As with all historical work based on privileged access to restricted sources, the Andersons’ use of these records, while of interest, involves troubling methodological issues.

Even the heavily redacted quotes that the Andersons provide contain some revelations that complicate their rose-tinted perspective. At a December 1981 NSC discussion of Moscow’s repression of the Polish Solidarity movement, Reagan mused, “Can we afford not to go all out? I’m talking about a total quarantine of the Soviet Union.” This stunning idea dismayed even Haig, not usually given to dovish hesitations. A total economic quarantine would be “a matter of life and death” for Moscow, he warned: “They would go to war over this.” Reagan passed off the incident with a joke. “[E]veryone stock up on vodka,” he advised as the meeting ended.

The Andersons’ narrow range of sources further weakens the book’s scholarly value. They note their access to classified documents and their interviews with some surviving members of Reagan’s inner circle. Beyond this, however, their notes are striking for the total absence of the large body of work by historians, strategic thinkers, scientists, ethicists, public intellectuals, and journalists that bears directly on the book’s topic.[1] The authors draw a chapter epigraph from Paul Lettow’s Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (2005) but do not otherwise cite Lettow’s useful and generally pro-Reagan study.

Deterrence and Defense

Any reader relying solely on Reagan’s Secret War will gain little understanding of strategic thinking as it had evolved by the 1980s. Not only the Russians, but most U.S. strategists, including some of the most hawkish, understood that, in the world of nuclear strategy, even “defensive” moves such as SDI had offensive implications. If the airtight missile defense system envisioned by Reagan actually had proven feasible and been deployed, it would have radically altered the strategic balance. The United States would have been able to launch a nuclear first strike with no fear of a devastating counterblow.

Reagan simply shrugged off such criticism. His goal was peace, and in his fantasy scenario, missile defense technology generously shared with the Russians would go hand in hand with total nuclear disarmament. Yet, Cold War nuclear strategy, as elaborated by game theorists and think-tank intellectuals, did not rely on wishful thinking or protestations of goodwill, but on calculations of different outcomes rendered more or less likely, at least theoretically, by different weapons systems, deployment patterns, and targeting configurations, irrespective of particular leaders temporarily in power or their assurances of peaceful intentions. The radical disconnect between Reagan’s visionary scenario and the foundational principles of deterrence theory contributed significantly to the drumfire of criticism directed at his missile defense proposal.

Reagan’s Secret War does not begin to address the radical way SDI challenged deterrence theory, as formalized in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Under that treaty, the two superpowers pledged not to develop national missile defense systems and allowed themselves only two local missile defense systems each: one for their capitals and the other to protect one offensive launch site apiece. They thereby laid themselves open to nuclear attack, on the principle that the best safeguard against all-out nuclear war was the certainty that any nuclear attack would trigger a devastating retaliatory response.

The Andersons quote Reagan’s ritualistic expressions of revulsion against deterrence theory, a revulsion widely shared by theologians, moral philosophers, and anti-nuclear activists because the theory did assume a capability and willingness to commit mass slaughter if deterrence failed. Nevertheless, for more than 30 years, neither Cold War adversary had exercised the nuclear option despite each side’s ever more lethal strategic arsenals. It seemed plausible to conclude that fear of retaliation, whether or not formulated theoretically or codified by treaty, had played a role in this restraint.

This history suggested that the principle of deterrence and the ABM Treaty embodying it should be abandoned only after the most careful strategic analysis. Yet, nothing in Reagan’s Secret War suggests that Reagan, for all his alleged strategic sophistication, ever engaged SDI’s profound implications at a deep level or really grasped the point the Russians and his domestic critics were making.

The Andersons share Reagan’s puzzlement that Gorbachev and his team proved unwilling to accept the president’s peace-loving protestations at face value and instead treated SDI as a grave escalation of the nuclear arms race, a potentially fatal blow to the concept and reality of deterrence, and an insuperable barrier to the dramatic strategic arms cuts the two leaders were considering. (The Andersons’ blow-by-blow account of Reykjavik, although familiar in outline, is deeply depressing, as Gorbachev repeatedly presses for concessions on SDI in exchange for major strategic arms reductions and Reagan simply digs in his heels ever more stubbornly.) The authors are equally mystified that not only the Russians but also many domestic commentators, including powerful media voices such as Time magazine, blamed Reagan for the Reykjavik failure. Reagan’s hawkish reputation, they insist, was a canard promulgated by “political enemies.”

The book’s tunnel-vision focus on Reagan obscures the intense behind-the-scenes battles that SDI triggered within the administration and precludes attention to the larger political, economic, and cultural factors influencing events—Congress, the media, churches, the popular culture, military contractors profiting from the Reagan military buildup, and universities and think tanks that stood to gain from SDI research appropriations. The deep skepticism about SDI’s technical feasibility that arose within the scientific and technological communities and, more cautiously, in the Pentagon—a skepticism amply borne out by years of failed tests—receives minimal attention.

Apart from an annoyed January 1983 reference by Reagan to “the placard carriers,” one gets little inkling of the groundswell of support for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign that swept America in 1981-1982, a grassroots uprising viewed by many historians as a major factor behind Reagan’s March 1983 SDI speech. (Among the protesters was Columbia University senior Barack Obama, who in 1983 published a plea in a campus newsmagazine for “a nuclear free world” despite the “military-industrial interests” with their “billion-dollar erector sets.”)

Contemporary Resonances

The authors do not reflect much on Reagan’s arms control legacy. A less reverential observer might have noted not only Reagan’s doubtless sincere longing for a nuclear-free world and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty removing intermediate-range missiles from Europe, but also features of the Reagan years such as the continued destabilizing deployment of ICBMs equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles and the bloated military budgets with their dizzying array of weapons systems.

These elements were not unique to the Reagan presidency, but many observers found them particularly worrisome because of other aspects of his time in office. During the Reagan years, there was insistent talk by administration officials about surviving nuclear war through civil defense. In addition, Reagan articulated a particularly Manichaean worldview, famously calling Moscow “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Although the “us versus them” construction was a staple of Cold War rhetoric, Reagan reinforced and escalated it in a way that arguably still colors much U.S. thinking, even though the adversary has changed. Notably, in prosecuting his “global war on terror,” Bush pledged to “rid the world of evil.”

Among the other longer-term impacts, Reagan’s attachment to the concept of missile defense has resulted, in the two decades since he left office, in a multibillion-dollar research program that has produced meager results while leading to continued wrangling with Moscow over installations in eastern Europe.

Complicating any assessment of Reagan’s relevance to the contemporary arms control discourse is the fact that the present situation is both more complex and more promising than that of the early 1980s. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, the hostility of nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, the continued provocation of Israel’s nuclear weapons, cyberthreats to weapons-control systems, risks of nuclear materials falling into terrorists’ hands, the difficulty of distinguishing nuclear power from nuclear weapons programs—all this presents complexities hardly imaginable as Reagan and Gorbachev haggled at Geneva and Reykjavik.

In other ways, however, the situation is more hopeful than it has been in years. Total nuclear disarmament is again being seriously discussed at the highest levels. In his Prague speech last April, President Obama not only called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, but proposed steps toward that goal considerably more concrete than anything in Reagan’s earnest but vague rhetoric. Even more interesting has been the emergence of Shultz, Reagan’s old comrade in arms, now nearing 90, as one of the authors of a proposal outlining a series of specfic steps leading to the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. In a January 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, a Hoover Institution conference, and a follow-up Journal piece in January 2008, the group, which also includes former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), urged redoubled efforts to reduce the nuclear threats confronting humankind, with the long-term aim of eliminating nuclear weapons. The proposal is backed by a larger bipartisan group of politicians, diplomats, scientists, and others, including Martin Anderson.

Although it invokes Reagan’s vision, the four statesmen’s approach is quite different. It proposes a series of immediate and intermediate measures, it avoids the ideological rhetoric that so compromised Reagan’s credibility, and, while recognizing that the United States and Russia still possess 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, it defines the threat as a complex global issue. Above all, Shultz and his colleagues are not hamstrung by having to insist, as Reagan did, that progress toward comprehensive nuclear disarmament must be hostage to U.S. missile defense plans. Their action agenda still speaks of missile defense research as a “cooperative multilateral” effort, pursued through negotiations, not U.S. fiat, and even including a JointDataExchangeCenter based in Moscow.

To what extent this initiative will prevail within a Republican party riven by ideological conflict remains unknown. In a June 30 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan years, and Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) have denounced Obama’s call for further U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons reductions as “dangerous wishful thinking.” Kenneth Adelman, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Reagan years, warns that to envision a world free of nuclear weapons is “to lose all grip on reality.” Reagan’s arms control legacy seems, at best, a mixed one, and it is not yet clear how urgently a Department of State with much on its plate and a Democratic Congress grappling with a recession, health care, and environmental issues will address the goal articulated by Obama in Prague. Nevertheless, the present moment is clearly one of considerable promise for those committed to nuclear abolition, Reagan’s oft-stated goal.

A critical assessment of how Reagan’s strategic views and policies relate to these developments might have added a timely contemporary dimension to Reagan’s Secret War. The authors’ boundless admiration for their hero and their determination to laud his every decision and utterance have resulted in a book that will be welcomed by true believers but contributes less to our historical understanding and, ironically, to Reagan’s reputation than a more objective, comprehensive, and intellectually probing work might have done.

Paul Boyer, professor of history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is author of By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1985) and Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half-Century Encounter With Nuclear Weapons (1998). He edited Reagan as President: Contemporary Views of the Man, His Politics, and His Policies (1990) and is author of the forthcoming “Selling Star Wars: Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative” in Selling War in the Media Age: The Presidency and Public Opinion in the American Century (2010).


1. See, for example, John Tirman, ed., The Fallacy of Star Wars (New York: Vintage Books, 1984); Keith B. Payne, Strategic Defense: “Star Wars” in Perspective (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Press, 1986); Joseph S. Nye Jr., Nuclear Ethics (New York: Free Press, 1986); Michael Charlton, From Deterrence to Defense: The Inside Story of Strategic Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989); Erik K. Pratt, Selling Strategic Defense: Interests, Ideologies, and the Arms Race (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990); William J. Broad, Teller’s War: The Top-Secret Story Behind the Star Wars Deception (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992); Frances FitzGerald, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).