This is the tenth year I've shared my summer reading with our readers. My reading, of course, goes on all year, but it is somehow different in summer. Knowing it will result in a column means the going is a bit slower; I take more time to appreciate and understand the author's intentions, skills and achievements--or lack thereof. Winter reading, for me, is what in school we used to call "pleasure reading." Here then are reviews of some of the books I read during this summer of 2002.
The first covers a hitherto-neglected aspect of President Ronald Reagan's career. It is Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism, by Peter Schweizer (Doubleday, $26, available Oct. 15). Schweizer is an old friend and is one of the foremost historians of the Reagan era. He begins his work, appropriately, with negative comments about Reagan by such intellectual giants as Clark Clifford. Schweizer traces in great detail Reagan's struggle against the communist infiltration and domination of Hollywood in the 1940s, as well as its effect on Reagan's presidency in the 1980s.
The monumental achievement of Reagan's lonely, lifelong struggle against communism was his final victory in the Cold War. And make no mistake, it was Reagan's victory. Schweizer's summation tells all: "Those virtues that Reagan so admired--courage and character--are what the nearly half-century battle against communism required most of him. Sometimes his strong views brought physical threats against his life and family. More often, they would prompt ridicule or denunciation of him as a dangerous ignoramus. In either case, Reagan unflinchingly pressed on, opposed by old friends,cabinet officers, and sometimes even members of his own family."
As Ronald Reagan said: "We must be guided not by fear, but by courage and moral clarity." This is precisely what we most need today. We are fortunate to have in President Bush a leader who knows and follows the same beck-oning light.
Another Cold War warrior, William F. Buckley Jr., has once again turned his exceptional, indeed Renaissance-like, skills to writing a novel about a pivotal historic event. Nuremberg: The Reckoning (Harcourt, $25) brings to life the complex tale of the victorious Allies' attempts to bring to justice the surviving perpetrators of the Nazi horror. Through his great skills of storytelling and character development, Buckley blends fictional characters and actual his-tory and makes the reader feel he is a participant.
Buckley has used this device before in his books on Joseph McCarthy; James Angleton, the CIA operative; and, oddly enough, Elvis Presley. Nuremberg is Buckley's 15th novel and is one of his best. It is so masterfully written that you are compelled to go back to some of the original source material to verify that such things really hap-pened.
Lady Margaret Thatcher's two-volume memoir was a huge bestseller in Europe and here. In it she wrote of her constant struggle against the conventional wisdom, her determination to change the world and her ultimate successes. She is one of the few people whose strong presence on the stage of history has changed and improved that history. Along with President Reagan, and perhaps one or two others, Lady Thatcher should be given credit for bringing the thrall of communism to an end and for restoring capitalism, freedom and democracy.
Margaret Thatcher's newest book, Statecraft (HarperCollins, $34.95), is about the future, and should be read for what it is: the wise counsel of a supremely successful stateswoman and Britain's greatest peacetime leader. Statecraft relays how the West won the Cold War and "created the basis for today's freedom and prosperity." To give permanency to these achievements, we must remain "vigilant and strong," and Lady Thatcher details how this can and must be done. Her ideas are rightly and persuasively argued--and lead the reader to the famous Thatcher conclusion: "There is no alternative." Those who object to such polemicism should recall how often Margaret Thatcher was right and be grateful for her unambiguous and unnuanced conclusions and advice. Hers is the kind of guidance we urgently need. And the more it is followed, the better off we will all be.
Double Lives: Stories of Extraordinary Achievement, by David Heenan (Davies-Black Publishing, $24.95), tells the story of ten remarkable people who, not satisfied with their own extraordinary "day jobs," carved out second vocations equally, if not more, fulfilling. Winston Churchill is Heenan's prime example. In addition to being a statesman, Churchill was an author, painter and orator--and excelled at all. Theodore Roosevelt was likewise a great statesman, but he was also a historian and scientist. Another example: pediatrician and poet Dr. William Carlos Wil-liams.
Heenan describes the common characteristics of these doubly (and sometimes triply) endowed people as appar-ently boundless energy, firm independence and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. He himself exemplifies the multifaceted qualities he has found in his subjects: He is a university teacher, writer and trustee of the fabulous James Campbell Estate in Hawaii. Double Lives may make some readers envious, but it will stimulate others to do more every day.
The Cold War rhetoric of the subtitle is completely apropos to this hagiography, which gives the Gipper full credit for bringing down the Soviet Union. Schweizer is a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and coauthor, with Caspar Weinberger (Reagan's secretary of defense) of The Next War. Using Reagan's own files and papers, and other newly released material, Schweizer demonstrates Reagan's development as a critic and determined opponent of communism and of the Stalinist Soviet Union. Schweizer depicts Reagan, from the beginning, regarding tactics and realpolitik as more important than ideas; in the process, the author does not carefully distinguish (as Reagan and most others of the era did not) Stalinism and what came after from communism as an ideal. Reflection, study and conviction led Reagan to the belief that steady pressure systematically applied would eventually bring down a Soviet Union whose legitimacy rested ultimately on force. He remained committed to this vision as his status rose in a Republican Party itself increasingly committed to a detente that Reagan argued both weakened the West and prolonged the survival of its rival power. Schweizer takes pains to establish the widespread belief in the West by 1980 that the balance of economic, military, and political forces had irrevocably shifted in favor of the U.S.S.R. On assuming the presidency, Reagan brought about a huge change in U.S. policy, abandoning defensive counterpunching and actively prosecuting a Cold War the U.S.S.R. had never ceased to wage. Schweizer argues that Reagan spent as much time convincing his own lieutenants to abandon the defensive as he did confronting the Russians. It's a story that is clearly and stirringly told, but without seriously entertaining dissenting views on its iconic subject. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Schweizer argues that Ronald Reagan came into the White House determined to implement revolutionary changes in American Cold War policy a shift, as conservatives always had sought, that would move beyond containment to the defeat of the Soviet superpower. Schweizer does a masterful job at tracing the connections between Reagan's policies as president and the beliefs, values, and proposals that marked his 40-year career in the public eye. From his anticommunist struggles in Hollywood to his political career in Sacramento and Washington, Reagan continually returned to a handful of themes and ideas. Schweizer makes a strong case that as president, Reagan consistently acted to implement this anticommunist agenda, overruling the qualms of cautious advisers and persisting unswervingly, despite worldwide criticism and a lack of domestic political support. After Schweizer, even inveterate Reagan-haters will have to abandon the picture of an amiable dunce drifting passively while a handful of advisers set the agenda. What remains open to debate is how important Reagan's foreign policy was to the fall of the Soviet Union. Did Reagan's wholehearted embrace of an arms race force the Soviet leadership to acknowledge their system's bankruptcy and thus embark on reform? Or was the decay of the Soviet system so far advanced that U.S. policy had only limited effects on its internal politics? How much credit goes to 40 years of containment versus 8 years of rollback? Schweizer does not answer these questions definitively, but his book is likely to have a lasting influence on the historiography of the Reagan years.
Ronald Reagan remains a polarizing figure. Critics have dismissed him as an "amiable dunce," while supporters see him as an underappreciated political genius. This book falls squarely into the latter camp, arguing that Ronald Reagan "won the Cold War." The consensus among experts is that credit for our Cold War victory is widely shared by Harry Truman and the policies he developed after World War II; the American people who suffered and died to protect freedom; our allies, who were part of the decades-long effort; Mikhail Gorbachev for his efforts to open up the Soviet Union; and finally Reagan for his policies toward what he called "the evil empire." Few serious analysts, however, would go as far as Schweizer (Disney: The Mouse Betrayed) does in attributing victory almost solely to Reagan. The strength of this book is found in the early chapters, where the author traces the development of Reagan's anticommunism from his days as head of the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild to his entry into politics in California. It demonstrates Reagan's consistent view over time and how his commitment to freedom animated his actions. The book's weakness is in its political bias, which unfairly dismisses the efforts by several generations and other Presidents to stem, then turn, the tide of communism. Suitable for large and university libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/02.]-Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Tendentious and extremely partisan account of how the 40th president, disguised as a mild-mannered former actor, fought a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
In a volume that reads as if it were written by an author genetically engineered with DNA from Tom Clancy, George Will, Nancy Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, and a dollop of Joseph McCarthy, Schweizer (Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1994, etc.) raises hagiography to new heights. With unmatched courage and fierce determination, Saint Ronald brought the Evil Empire to its knees pretty much by himself. The author compares Reagan with Lincoln and Churchill, with unnamed cowboys (they were bold and independent too), and with various additional historical luminaries who saw what others refused to see and had the fortitude to act. Schweizer begins with Reagan’s fierce firefights with Hollywood Commies (though he opposed blacklists, of course), continues with his uneasy relationship with Nixon, and describes how the future president subtly attacked pinkos on General Electric Theater. We follow Reagan from the California governor’s mansion to the White House. And those who opposed Reagan, his military build-up, his confrontational postures with the USSR? Who favored disarmament over SDI? Commie dupes, plain and simple. Sure, many of the protesters were sincere, but they brought comfort to the enemy nonetheless. The Kennedys and Carter were Soft on Communism. So were Humphrey, McGovern, and Mondale. Oddly, Schweizer says nothing about his hero’s response to the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. Nothing about Reagan and the CivilRights movement (no Commie involvement there?). Nothing about Bitburg. Nothing about Reagan’s offer to "share" SDI technology with the Soviets. Nothing about Alzheimer’s. Iran-Contra gets two pages. The guilty party in that one, declares Schweizer boldly, was . . . "someone."
This obsessive effort to fashion a faultless hero will remind readers of an earlier attempt to do the same—by Victor Frankenstein.
"A rousing and compelling case that Reagan's personal and political odyssey...was central to bringing down the 'evil empire.'" —Los Angeles Times Book Review
"On the big picture, Schweizer is correct: Reagan had it right." —Newsweek
"Masterful. . . . After Schweizer, even inveterate Reagan-haters will have to abandon the picture of an amiable dunce drifting passively while a handful of advisers set the agenda." —Foreign Affairs
“A fascinating, well-written, useful and important look at one of the three or four most important American political leaders of the 20th century. No serious assessment of the 40th president of the United States can ignore the central importance of anti-communism in his career; after Schweizer, none will.” —The Washington Post Book World