Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

by Paul Lettow

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Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has puzzled scholars and commentators. Some have claimed that it was a purely political maneuver, while others have explained it as a ruse conjured up by presidential advisers to weaken Soviet resolve.

These assumptions, however, fail to acknowledge the depth of Reagan’s involvement in nuclear


Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has puzzled scholars and commentators. Some have claimed that it was a purely political maneuver, while others have explained it as a ruse conjured up by presidential advisers to weaken Soviet resolve.

These assumptions, however, fail to acknowledge the depth of Reagan’s involvement in nuclear abolition, and how passionately committed Reagan was to the pursuit of this goal. In Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Paul Lettow renders untenable the persistent belief that Reagan was an ideologically shallow figurehead.

Reagan’s wish to ban nuclear armament first came to light in 1945, just months after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. While sidestepping political partisanship, Lettow demonstrates that scholars and historians have largely neglected to assess properly the influence of Reagan’s ideal and how it led to one of the most important, if the least understood, of Reagan’s accomplishments.

In a narrative that covers the start of Reagan’s presidency and the 1986 Reykjavík summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during which SDI was a defining issue, we see SDI for what it was: a full-on assault against nuclear weapons waged as much through policy as through ideology. While cabinet members and advisers–Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger among them–played significant roles, it was Ronald Reagan, himself who presided over every element, large and small, of this paradigm shift in U.S. diplomacy.

Lettow conducted interviews with former Reagan officials–four of his six national security advisers, both of his ambassadors to the USSR, and both of his defense secretaries. He also draws upon the vast body of declassified security documents from the Reagan presidency; much of what he quotes from these documents appears publicly here for the first time.

The result is the first major work to apply such evidence to the study of SDI and superpower diplomacy. In Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Paul Lettow does not simply add nuance to the existing record; he revises our very understanding of the Reagan presidency.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Rich Lowry
Working off newly declassified documents and extensive interviews with the key players, Lettow conveys this extraordinary story crisply and convincingly. Although his sympathy for Reagan is obvious, he gives a straightforward historical account that will challenge the assumptions of Reagan admirers and detractors alike. He has made a significant addition to our understanding of Reagan and the endgame of the Cold War. Score one for dreamers.
— The Washington Post
Jacob Heilbrunn
Lettow is a young scholar who has drawn extensively on newly declassified documents and interviews with numerous Reagan administration officials. He seeks to show that far from being Silly Putty in the hands of his advisers, Reagan was a thoughtful leader who manipulated them. Throughout, Lettow maintains that Reagan championed the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ballistic missile defense program, not to ensure American military superiority but -- to the consternation of administration hawks -- in the utopian conviction that it would eventually make nuclear weapons obsolete.

The result is a provocative, informative and largely persuasive account.
— The New York Times

Publishers Weekly
The growing body of affirmative revisionist scholarship on Ronald Reagan and his presidency is enhanced by this comprehensively researched, well-crafted monograph. Independent scholar Lettow uses recently declassified archival material to establish Reagan's determination to abolish nuclear weapons as a focal point of his presidency. Reagan believed that the U.S. should use the arms race to bankrupt the Soviet Union, and that the development of an effective defense against ballistic missiles would then render all nuclear weapons negotiable and foster discussion of their abolition; the U.S. would then share the system with the U.S.S.R. and other countries, ensuring the safety of an eventually nuclear-free world. Lettow presents Reagan as a thoughtful leader, who developed his radical challenge to both liberal and conservative conventional wisdom on the Cold War independently. His unwavering belief that missile defense was possible reflected his intellectual conviction that the U.S. could solve the technical challenges involved. Lettow shows Reagan's advisers were on the whole significantly skeptical at the prospect of actually abolishing nuclear weapons. Reagan, meanwhile, successfully negotiated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty and established the matrix for the START treaty. The U.S. and Russia have made additional drastic cuts in their nuclear arsenals; plans for a ballistic missile defense continue in the U.S.; Reagan's ideas and methods, in short, continue to shape the world. (On sale Feb. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Lettow has made a major and thoroughly researched contribution to the study of Ronald Reagan's presidency. He demonstrates the consistency of Reagan's approach and that Reagan's strong antinuclear views were one of the few legacies of his liberalism of the early postwar period (although these views were also linked to fundamentalist Christian beliefs). These views on nuclear abolition came through clearly in the launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and in the Geneva and Reykjavik summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, and were held doggedly and indeed dogmatically against the skepticism of Reagan's top advisers, who did not share his expectations of radical change in the Soviet Union. Lettow provides evidence of the clarity of Reagan's vision and challenges any suggestion that he lacked input into his own policies. Reagan's inattention to practicalities, however, remains; the trouble with SDI was that it required a repeal of the law of physics. In the end, Reagan's key insight was not the possibility of nuclear abolition, either through defense or disarmament, but that a system as rotten as the Soviets' could not endure.
Kirkus Reviews
Was Ronald Reagan, intrepid wager of wars hot and cold, a secret peacenik? Young scholar Lettow argues in the affirmative. Much as he presumed that tax cuts for the wealthy would stimulate the lower levels of the economy, Reagan apparently believed that his government could launch a massive arms buildup and thereby "attain deep cuts in nuclear weapons"; the trick was simply to outspend the Soviets until they quit. Historians and economists will argue over the relative merits of both approaches, but Lettow traces Reagan's willingness to take such daring moves to his longstanding dislike of nuclear weapons and of those who encouraged such follies as Mutually Assured Destruction and preemptive first strikes: Robert McNamara, for instance, whom Reagan "publicly derided as 'that efficient disaster,' " and even Henry Kissinger, who encouraged detente rather than reheated competition between the American and Soviet systems. Reagan, writes Lettow, had been active in antinuclear politics in his liberal Hollywood period, and he held to his commitment to abolish nuclear weapons even after his swing to the right. Reagan's antinuclearism now took curious though internally consistent forms, the outgrowth of his view that only if the US had more nuclear weapons than anyone else-and, later, the protective Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) "Star Wars" shield-could nuclear war ever be averted. His views courted controversy: many ordinary citizens, of course, failed to see the merit of a new and improved arms race in the 1980s, while Reagan's own Joint Chiefs of Staff pointedly failed to endorse Reagan's vaunted MX missile initiative. Yet Reagan and his circle were convinced (as, it seems, is Lettow) thatthe Kremlin's fears about SDI "were a principal factor driving the Soviets' increased willingness to negotiate deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces"-though Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power may have had something to do with the change, too. Reagan emerges in strong and flattering light here, one of several scholarly books to take a favorably revisionist view of his presidency in recent history. Reagan admirers will likely concur, though critics may wonder why his long-harbored plans were never really put in motion. Agents: Lynn Chu, Glen Hartley/Writers Representatives
From the Publisher
“Lettow conveys this extraordinary story crisply and convincingly. . . . A significant addition to our understanding of Reagan and the endgame of the Cold War.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“Paul Lettow’s sharp and succinct book makes the best case yet for why Ronald Reagan deserves to be remembered as one of the most visionary grand strategists of the twentieth century.”
–John Lewis Gaddis

“Paul Lettow is lucid and dispassionate. His willingness to go far back, to the very birth of the nuclear age (which coincided with the very birth of Reagan’s anticommunism), and then to trace the story forward as Reagan’s ideology slowly matured, pays triumphant dividends.”
–Edmund Morris

“Provocative, informative . . . Lettow’s achievement is to show that both Reagan’s detractors and votaries misread him.”
–The New York Times Book Review

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Chapter 1


In december 1945, Ronald Reagan almost helped lead a mass antinuclear rally in Hollywood, California. The rally was entitled “Atomic Power and Foreign Policy,” and the notice bills included the subcaption “Atomic Energy—Slave or Master?” It was sponsored by the awkwardly named Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP).1 HICCASP had been founded during the Second World War to provide high-profile liberal support for the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but by late 1945 it lacked a raison d’être and shifted to the left.2 The thirty-four-year-old Ronald Reagan, recently discharged from U.S. Army service and an established film star, then considered himself to be a liberal Democrat and was an earnest, if “naïve,” member of HICCASP.

The basic theme of the December rally in Hollywood was to argue for international control over atomic energy and for the abolition of atomic weapons (on which the United States then had a monopoly).At the time, such ideas were being widely debated. Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued within the U.S. government for an international system of controls that would eliminate atomic weapons and regulate the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Secretary of War Henry Stimson advocated international control of atomic power along similar lines. On October 3, 1945, President Harry S Truman told the U.S. Congress that the hope of civilization lies in international arrangements looking, if possible, to the renunciation of the use and development of the atomic bomb, and directing and encouraging the use of atomic energy and all future scientific information toward peaceful and humanitarian ends.

The Truman administration set forth a blueprint for the internationalization of atomic energy in its ill-fated “Baruch Plan,” unveiled in June 1946. Even Edward Teller, the Hungarian-born American physicist, veteran of the Manhattan Project, and eventual bête noire of the Cold War Left, gave his support to the internationalization of atomic energy, writing an article in early 1946 that endorsed what would become the Baruch Plan.

Ronald Reagan, the actor, was an early and ardent proponent of the abolition of atomic weapons and the internationalization of atomic energy. The United States dropped atomic bombs over Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945, to end World War II. By August 25, 1945, Reagan had signed on as an officer of the Hollywood chapter of the American Veterans Committee (AVC), a liberal political group. Among the causes that the AVC endorsed was the “cession of American nuclear power to the United Nations.” The founder of the AVC later recalled that Reagan was particularly drawn to the “idea of expanding the Committee into an international lobby under the aegis of the United Nations, working to contain the A-bomb.”

Reagan intended to appear at HICCASP’s “Atomic Power and Foreign Policy” rally on December 12, 1945, at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Scheduled to speak at the rally alongside Reagan were U.S. Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-Calif.), Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, and a U.S. Marine Corps colonel. Reagan was supposed to read an antinuclear poem, “Set Your Clock at U-235,” authored by the then-famous radio dramatist Norman Corwin.8 Corwin’s poem went so far in the direction of international control of atomic energy that it veered toward one-worldism:

The secrets of the earth have been peeled, one by one, until the core is bare: The latest recipe is private, in a guarded book, but the stink of death is public on the wind from Nagasaki: The nations have heard of the fission of the atom and have seen the photographs: skies aboil with interlocking fury, mushrooms of uranium smoke ascending to where angels patrol uneasily./ . . . Unless we work at it together, at a single earth,/ . . . [T]here will be others out of the just-born and the not-yet-contracted-for who will die for our invisible daily mistakes.

Corwin’s boiling skies and single earth proved too much for Warner Bros., the studio to which Reagan was contracted as a film actor. After the program for the HICCASP rally was advertised in the press on December 6, a Warner Bros. official sent a telegram to Reagan’s talent agent stating that Reagan’s participation in the rally “as a dramatic performer” would violate his contract with the studio. Chastened, Reagan replied to Warner Bros. through his agent that he would not, in fact, appear. (Reagan did get one, less public, opportunity to declaim “Set Your Clock at U-235,” at a dinner for Shapley on December 10.)

The fervor during the immediate post–World War II years for the international control of atomic power and the abolition of nuclear weapons slipped out of mainstream American politics as tensions between the United States and the USSR rose in the mid- to late 1940s. The notion that international cooperation could bring about the abolition of nuclear arms and administer peaceful uses of atomic energy was seen to be unrealistic long before Truman declared in a July 1949 meeting that

[W]e have made every effort to obtain international control of atomic energy. We have failed to get that control—due to the . . . contrariness of the Soviets. I am of the opinion we’ll never obtain international control. Since we can’t obtain international control we must be strongest in atomic weapons.

Throughout his political career, Reagan wistfully cited the Baruch Plan and similar U.S. government efforts to internationalize nuclear energy. He eventually retrieved the notion of internationalizing nuclear energy—in his mind, redeemed it—when he announced, in 1983, that he intended to internationalize any missile defense system that resulted from SDI by sharing it with the Soviet Union and other countries.

Many views that Reagan held in the mid-1940s changed as he evolved from liberal to conservative. Reagan’s experiences with Communists and Communist sympathizers in HICCASP and the AVC during 1946 and 1947 would catalyze the development of his fervent anticommunism.He shed the vestiges of his immediate postwar liberalism and by the late 1950s had adopted a political outlook compatible with his later worldview and ideology—what international relations scholar Alexander George has called an individual’s “belief system.”

Yet it will be shown that Reagan never abandoned his hatred of nuclear weapons and his desire to eliminate them. Reagan’s “dream”—as he himself described it—was “a world free of nuclear weapons.” “[F]or the eight years I was president,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I never let my dream of a nuclear-free world fade from my mind.”Reagan pursued that dream as a personal religious mission.

Despite overwhelming primary and interview-based evidence, historians and international relations scholars have thus far neglected to investigate the impact of Reagan’s nuclear abolitionism on his presidency. In fact, the impact of that “dream” was direct and significant. For example, Reagan’s nuclear abolitionism contributed greatly to his determination to engage in a U.S. arms buildup that he believed the USSR could neither afford economically nor keep up with technologically; he intended that the Soviets would thus be forced to agree to vast reductions in the two countries’ stockpiles of nuclear arms. It led to SDI, one of the most important and least understood of Reagan’s Cold War policies. To Reagan, SDI served as a catalyst for—the enabler of—his “world free of nuclear weapons.” Reagan’s nuclear abolitionism also pervaded his administration’s approach to arms control, and his interactions with Soviet leaders.


Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911 in Tampico, a tiny farming town in western Illinois. He was the second and last child of John Edward “Jack” Reagan, an Irish Catholic shoe salesman, raconteur par excellence, and partisan Democrat, and Nelle Wilson Reagan, a seamstress, amateur actress, and devoted member of the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant evangelical denomination.15 Ronald Reagan’s early childhood was an itinerant one. His family moved constantly, first to Chicago and then to a succession of small Illinois towns—Galesburg, Monmouth, and back to Tampico—whenever Jack Reagan’s ambition, or chronic alcoholism, made it seem best to do so.

In 1920, the Reagan family finally settled in Dixon, Illinois, a midsized town on the Rock River. A slight and myopic young boy, Ronald Reagan was pleasant and made friends, yet he displayed an early tendency toward a peculiar inwardness.He found delight and reward in an inner world of thought and imagination to which others were not often privy.As he later wrote, “I was a little introverted. . . . I’ve been inclined to hold back a little of myself.” He added that “[i]n some ways I think this reluctance to get close to people never left me completely.”

Reagan’s nonscholastic pursuits focused on the outdoors and on reading. Recalling the later effect of his childhood reading, Reagan stated in 1977 that he had been, and remained, “a sucker for hero worship.” “All in all,” he noted, “as I look back I realize that my reading left an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil.”

Nelle Reagan’s religiousness deeply permeated both her youngest son’s upbringing and his later life. Ronald Reagan went to prayer meetings on Wednesday nights, church services on Sunday morning, Sunday school, Sunday-evening youth prayer meetings, and then evening services following that. Ronald’s older brother, Neil, a less resolute worshiper, later declared that the boys had “had religion up to our ears.”As a politician, Reagan was famously reticent regarding his own religious beliefs. (Interviewer: “You have a deep religious faith?” Reagan: “Yes.”) He briefly overcame that reticence during a 1980 interview, however, when he allowed that “[m]y mother left me with a faith that as the years go on I realized was deeper and stronger than I ever thought it would be.”In particular, Reagan absorbed a central message from his mother’s faith and carried it over into his own: “I was raised to believe that God has a plan for everyone.”

As he moved through adolescence, Reagan grew rapidly and developed a genial personality that made him popular with his peers. He became a capable athlete, actor, and student. Midway through his high school years, he took on a summer job as a lifeguard at a local Rock River beach. He returned to take up the job each summer for the ensuing five years.

Reagan’s experience as a lifeguard was a formative one. He relished his responsibility of saving lives (and had plenty of opportunity to exercise it; the stretch of Rock River that he oversaw was treacherous). Initially frustrated that few of those he saved thanked him for it, Reagan began to mark a notch in a log for each person he rescued.While reconciling himself to public ingratitude—“I got to recognize that people hate to be saved”—he felt an increasing sense of accomplishment as the notches, eventually seventy-seven in all, spread over the log.

Reagan’s lifesaving left an indelible sense of purpose and satisfaction in the young man. According to William Clark, Reagan’s friend and national security adviser, and “the only man who ever got within a furlong of intimacy” with Reagan, in Edmund Morris’s phrase,Reagan’s lifesaving instilled in him the “value of each person’s life as well as the power of one man’s actions.”Lou Cannon, who as a journalist covered President Reagan and has written several biographies of him, has said that Reagan “loved being a lifeguard, a job perfectly suited to his personality. Lifeguards are solitary objects of adoration who intervene in moments of crisis and perform heroic acts without becoming involved in the lives of those they rescue.”

Close aides and observers from his political life recall that the theme of lifeguarding underpinned Reagan’s aims and instincts as a political leader. Edmund Morris, Reagan’s authorized biographer, stated that “Reagan’s subsequent career, his political career, was devoted to the general theme of rescue.”Michael Deaver, who served under Reagan from 1967 to 1985, noted that Reagan’s lifeguarding days “were a parable of his larger life as he saw it.” After Alzheimer’s disease had rendered even Reagan’s family and friends unrecognizable to him, the former president would lead his visitors to a picture, either of himself as lifeguard or of the Rock River, and recall the exact number of people he had pulled from the river waters.

Beginning with his adolescent experience as a lifeguard, Reagan harbored a fundamental impulse to intervene in the course of events in order to rescue others from peril. In time, that impulse would fuse both with his belief that he had a mission to fulfill in life and with his abhorrence of nuclear weapons. From the confluence came Reagan the determined nuclear abolitionist, and Reagan the father of SDI.

As an undergraduate at Eureka College, a small Disciples of Christ–sponsored school in Illinois, Reagan was a campus political leader, athlete, and actor. His academic career as an economics and sociology major, while above average, did not rank as his top priority.His awakening interest in becoming an actor during this period coincided with his seeing, and performing in, antiwar plays.In a production of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo, Reagan played one of two shepherd friends who construct a wall to separate themselves, proceed to fight over the distribution of resources on each side of the wall, and finally—in a vivid portrayal of mutual destruction—kill each other in a frenzy of mistrust and fear.

Many years afterward, Reagan recalled that his experience watching a professional production of the World War I antiwar trench drama Journey’s End convinced him that he wanted to become a professional actor (he later performed the lead role when Eureka students put on the same play).Perhaps inspired by Journey’s End, Reagan authored two unpublished antiwar short stories in 1931 that center on World War I trench life.Around that time he also flirted with outright pacifism, although he soon retreated from that conviction (he volunteered for the U.S. Army Cavalry Reserves in 1935).

After finishing his undergraduate degree in 1932 and spending one last summer as a lifeguard on the Rock River, Reagan found employment as a radio announcer in Davenport, Iowa. He was promptly transferred to the larger city of Des Moines, where he spent the next five years as a popular sportscaster and regional celebrity. During a 1937 trip to California to cover a baseball team’s spring training, Reagan managed to arrange a screen test with Warner Bros. The studio signed him on as a film actor.

In 1940 and 1941, Reagan acted in a number of well-received films that elevated him to the status of Hollywood star.A reservist, he entered active duty in the U.S. Army in 1942 and served for the duration of World War II. Reagan never left the United States during the war (poor eyesight disqualified him from combat duty); he narrated training films for the U.S. Army Air Corps and then served as the adjutant for the base in California that produced the films.

The war intensified Reagan’s political interests. Known before the war to read extensively and expound at length on current events, he did so with fervor as the conflict progressed.In keeping with his inherited loyalty to the Democratic Party, Reagan strongly supported President Roosevelt and identified himself as a liberal in terms of domestic politics.Through the end of the war, Reagan’s views on foreign affairs remained, in Lou Cannon’s later description, “patriotic, idealistic and unformed.”As we have seen, however, there was one aspect of world affairs on which Reagan’s views had formed instantly and deeply—and, as it turned out, permanently: he loathed nuclear weapons.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Paul Lettow received an A.B. in history, summa cum laude, from Princeton University and a D.Phil. in international relations from Oxford University. He has taught American history at Oxford University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Washington, D.C., area.

From the Hardcover edition.

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