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Reagan at Westminster
Foreshadowing the End of the Cold War
By Robert C. Rowland, John M. Jones
Texas A&M University Press Copyright © 2010 Robert C. Rowland and John M. Jones
All rights reserved.
Ronald Reagan and the Evolution of Cold War Rhetoric and Policies
Ronald Reagan's address to the British Parliament can be understood only when situated within the larger context of the cold war and Reagan's rhetorical response to it. In this chapter we trace U.S. policy in the cold war through three periods: genesis, stasis, and détente. It is not our intention to provide a detailed history of the cold war but rather to lay out a brief historical background drawing upon widely recognized sources. We also trace the development of the anticommunist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. Finally, we discuss the events and rhetoric from the first eighteen months of the Reagan presidency, which set the stage for the Westminster address.
Genesis of the Cold War, 1945–1949
U.S. cold war policy in the late 1940s was one of containment, the genesis of which came from an eight-thousand-word telegram from George Kennan, a U.S. Foreign Service officer serving in Moscow in 1946. In what became known as the "Long Telegram," Kennan told the State Department that "Soviet hostility toward the capitalist world was inevitable and immutable because it provided the justification for the oppressive totalitarian system the communists had imposed upon the Soviet people." He opposed any efforts to accommodate the Soviet Union and insisted that the proper U.S. policy for the time was a "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of communism." This telegram set the stage for President Harry Truman's cold war policy and the actions that followed.
The first major action took place in 1947, when the British, facing an economic crisis, were no longer able to provide aid to Greece, which was in the midst of a civil war involving communist insurgents. In response, Truman persuaded Congress to approve $300 million in aid for Greece and $100 million for Turkey, taking "the first step in a global ideological crusade against communism." This action marked the birth of the Truman Doctrine, committing the United States to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" and assisting these nations as they endeavored to "work out their own destinies in their own way." Elizabeth Edwards Spalding has called the doctrine "the primary building block of containment and postwar liberal internationalism." According to historian Howard Jones, the Truman Doctrine "signaled the administration's willingness to engage the struggle against communism on all fronts—social, political, and economic as well as military." Out of this policy came such actions as the Berlin Airlift, the creation of NATO, military involvement in Korea, and a massive effort to rebuild Western Europe.
In June 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall unveiled the European Recovery Program, dedicating the United States "to nothing less than the reconstruction of Europe." Marshall was concerned that conditions of "hunger, poverty, and despair" would likely "cause Europeans to vote their own communists into office, who then would obediently serve Moscow's wishes." To prevent this from occurring, the United States over the next five years spent more than $12 billion to rebuild Europe. The plan "help[ed] to ensure that Western Europe remained politically stable, sufficiently conservative to protect America's European economic investments, and, as a result less susceptible to Soviet pressure."
In the early 1950s containment remained the primary cold war policy of the United States. In June 1950 the Korean War began as Kim Il-sung launched an invasion of South Korea, having received the support of Joseph Stalin. Because the invasion had been so "blatant" and "appeared to challenge the entire structure of postwar collective security," Truman very quickly made the decision to send troops. The conflict lasted until July 1953, a few months after Stalin's death.
By that time, a new president, Dwight Eisenhower, had been elected. Eisenhower was determined to avoid "Korea-like limited wars" in the future, believing that such conflicts allowed the communists to have control over when and where the United States would deploy its forces. In 1954 Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, unveiled a new policy for dealing with the Soviets. The United States would "react massively, with nuclear weapons, in the event of communist aggression at any level, strategic or tactical." Eisenhower and Dulles believed that the threat of a massive nuclear retaliation would ensure that "no war at all would take place." Nuclear forces also were less expensive than conventional ones. Accordingly, during Eisenhower's presidency the air force was expanded while the army and navy were reduced in size. This "New Look" for the military also included increased production of ballistic missiles.
Eisenhower also was willing to use covert action. He used the CIA to overthrow the Iranian government in 1953 and to depose the Guatemalan president in 1954. As Ronald Powaski observes, "Covert operations in the Third World mushroomed during his tenure." But the primary focus of the 1950s was a shift from reliance on conventional forces to a focus on nuclear armaments. By 1960, the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union clearly was under way.
After the 1960 election, President John F. Kennedy was astonished to learn that "the only war plan Eisenhower had left behind would have required the simultaneous use of well over 3,000 nuclear weapons against all communist countries." In response, Kennedy charged Defense Secretary Robert McNamara with expanding the options for fighting a nuclear war and also sought to "get the Soviets to agree on what the rules for such combat might be." McNamara concluded that "each side should target the other's cities, with a view to causing the maximum number of casualties possible," a strategy known as mutually assured destruction or MAD. As John Lewis Gaddis observes, "What kept war from breaking out in the fall of 1962 [the Cuban missile crisis] was the irrationality, on both sides, of sheer terror. That is what Churchill had foreseen when he saw hope in an 'equality of annihilation.' It is what Eisenhower had understood when he ruled out fighting limited nuclear wars." What Churchill and Eisenhower had understood was simply "that the advent of nuclear weapons meant that war could no longer be an instrument of statecraft—rather the survival of the states required that there be no war at all." This policy essentially remained in place until the 1980s.
In addition to instituting the MAD policy, the Kennedy administration became the first to engage in serious negotiation to produce nuclear arms control agreements. In 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed, with the United States and the Soviet Union both agreeing not to test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. This treaty was the first in a series of agreements that would be signed by the two nations in the years that followed. Like the policy of mutually assured destruction, the pursuit of arms limitation agreements became a focus of U.S. foreign policy.
Containment also continued to be an integral part of U.S. policy during these years. Kennedy increased the number of military advisors in South Vietnam from 700 to 16,700. He allowed the advisors to participate in combat and also approved a coup led by the CIA that overthrew South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem. After the Kennedy assassination, President Lyndon Johnson inherited the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam and "transformed Kennedy's program of limited U.S. assistance into an open-ended commitment to defend that country."
The period between 1950 and 1963 saw not only a commitment to containing communism but also a shift from a strategy based largely on conventional forces to one that included the possible use of nuclear weapons. During these years, the seeds of détente were sown.
In 1964 containment was still a dominant part of American foreign policy, but over the next four years containment would "experience its first significant failures in the Third World." Even the massive commitment of troops to Southeast Asia could not hold off the communist insurgency, and the United States found itself in a no-win situation. Ironically, it was during a time of war that serious efforts at détente with the Soviet Union began.
Concerned about the increase in Soviet nuclear weaponry and hoping warmer relations would prompt the Soviets to help bring North Vietnam to the negotiating table, President Johnson began to pursue improved relations. This effort culminated in the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968, which opened the door for future discussion with the Soviets. Johnson also pushed for an antiballistic missile ban at a time when a program to create a missile defense system was under way, and he made an effort to begin Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Although he left office without accomplishing these objectives, his successor would continue to move toward détente.
Several factors motivated President Richard Nixon to continue what his predecessor had begun. He also hoped that détente with the Soviets would motivate North Vietnam to negotiate peace. Nixon also sought the swift conclusion of a SALT agreement to cap the growth of Soviet nuclear weaponry, which by that time was roughly equal to that of the United States. Furthermore, Nixon hoped that détente might "blunt Soviet interest in attempting to confront the United States and its core allies" and "minimize confrontation in marginal areas and provide, at least, alternative possibilities in the major ones." Nixon's efforts at détente were not limited to the Soviet Union, and he made a ground-breaking trip to China in February 1972. This trip was followed by a summit meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in May 1972. At the latter meeting, Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement. It would prove to be détente's finest hour and one of the most significant accomplishments of the Nixon presidency.
After Nixon resigned in 1974, President Gerald Ford kept Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and continued to pursue détente. When Ronald Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, détente became one of the most salient issues of the campaign. Under attack from Reagan, Ford stopped using the word détente, but the policy remained in place.
From 1977 through 1979, Jimmy Carter continued to support détente, though, as Raymond Garthoff reports, his policy was really "an erratic mix, predominantly détente in 1977 and predominantly competitive coexistence in 1978 and 1979." By that time, détente was in decline. Efforts at negotiating a SALT II treaty had proven unsuccessful. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had shown aggressive tendencies by invading Afghanistan in December 1979. In response, Carter imposed a grain embargo against the Soviet Union and announced that the United States would not send a team to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He also increased defense spending, and the United States began to assist anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. By 1980 Carter's policy was "a sharp move to containment, although with the avowed aim of returning to détente if Soviet behavior permitted it." The decline of détente, increased Soviet aggression, and the beginning of a military buildup by the Carter administration set the stage for Reagan's approach to the Soviet Union.
Development of Reagan's Rhetoric
The 1940s were transformational years for Ronald Reagan. Through personal experiences in Hollywood, he became convinced that the threat of communism should be taken as seriously as fascism. As biographer Paul Kengor points out, "It was during this time that he was hammered into an iron-clad anti-communist." The transformation began shortly after the end of World War II. Reagan strongly suspected that communists maintained a presence in Hollywood, a view now supported by some, but not all, observers. The actor became convinced of communist influence in the industry during the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) strike, which began in September 1946. According to Reagan, the walkout, which ostensibly was for the purpose of improving wages and working conditions, was an attempt to help CSU leader Herb Sorrell gain jurisdictional control "over a group of workers within the IATSE [International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees] called Set Erectors." Reagan, along with other actors, fought successfully against this effort, and the strike ended in the spring of 1947.
During the strike, Reagan was approached by the FBI and asked to become an informant. He agreed to do so and met with agents from time to time to "discuss things that were going on in Hollywood." At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its investigations with the goal of declaring the Communist Party illegal. On October 25, 1947, Reagan appeared before the committee. His testimony contained three rhetorical patterns—a strong denunciation of communism, his story of the battle against communists in Hollywood, and Reagan's personal conviction that democracy was strong enough to stand on its own.
As he answered questions, Reagan made clear his disdain for communism, saying, "I detest, I abhor their philosophy, but I detest more than that their tactics, which are those of the fifth column and are dishonest." He also recalled the battle against communists in Hollywood and testified that the industry as a whole had "exposed their lies" and "prevented them from, with their usual tactics, trying to run a majority of an organization with a well organized minority."
Evident as his opposition to communism was, however, it was equally clear that Reagan did not believe that the party should be outlawed: "So that fundamentally I would say that in opposing those people that the best thing to do is to make democracy work. In the Screen Actors Guild we made it work by insuring [sic] everyone a vote and by keeping everyone informed. I believe that as Thomas Jefferson put it, if all the American people know all of the facts they will never make a mistake." Reagan believed that the most important weapon in the battle against communism was democracy itself, which, if allowed to flourish, would make outlawing the Communist Party unnecessary. He told the committee, "We have spent 170 years in this country on the basis that democracy is strong enough to stand up and fight against the inroads of any ideology." For that reason, he opposed the idea of outlawing "any political party on the basis of its ideology."
Although Reagan's HUAC testimony itself was, for the time, quite moderate, Reagan's actions and words in the late 1940s have been sharply criticized. Some have argued strongly that his claim of a communist threat to Hollywood was grossly exaggerated. Moreover, becoming an informant for the FBI and associating himself with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which gave rise to "witch hunts" and destroyed the careers of hundreds of artists, created no small amount of controversy. It is understandable why liberals both then and in the early 1980s were critical of his actions.
Whether one supports or opposes Reagan's actions in the 1940s, this much is clear: Reagan rhetorically defined the cold war as an ideological battle and opposed any effort to suppress free expression in the marketplace of ideas. Years later at Westminster, he echoed the theme that democracy inevitably would prevail in an ideological struggle with communism.
The 1950s and early 1960s witnessed a hardening of Reagan's anticommunist discourse. His rhetoric in this period can be defined by three themes: the moral battle between good and evil, the concept of "encroaching control," and his belief that the United States could win the cold war. During this period, Reagan made some of his most extreme statements about communism and the cold war. While his opposition to communism would not waver as the years passed, he eventually dropped the most inflammatory elements of his rhetoric as he began appealing to a broader audience beyond the conservative movement.
But for the time being, Reagan clearly saw the struggle against communism as an ongoing fight between good and evil. In Reagan's estimation, those who championed freedom were inherently good while freedom's opponents were evil. America, he proclaimed, was the epitome of good and had been divinely set apart to be the "last best hope of man on earth." In a commencement address delivered at William Woods College while American and NATO forces were defending the 38th parallel in Korea, Reagan defined the nature of the struggle: "It's the same old battle. We met it under the name of Hitlerism; we met it under the name of Kaiserism; and we've met it back through the ages in the name of every conqueror that has ever set upon a course of establishing his rule over mankind."
Excerpted from Reagan at Westminster by Robert C. Rowland, John M. Jones. Copyright © 2010 Robert C. Rowland and John M. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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