Reagan Misremembered

A Hawk? No, Ray Gun

The US President most invoked by the conservatives in this day of Barack Obama in the White House and the embers of George W Bush’s terrible 2 terms still smoldering away all over the place, is of course ol’ Ronald Reagan. I tell you, growing up in the Reagan 1980s, particularly in his first term was a nightmare because he ratcheted up the Cold War rhetoric sky high. And this is the Reagan that seems to be remembered the most.

Here’s an article worth checking up as it goes back and does a forensic analysis of Reagan’s actual hawkish credentials. You’ll find he wasn’t as crazy as the people who are touting him today as some kind of macho, confrontational President.

Anyway, on the third page I came across this bit that made me laugh:

Reagan’s role in winning the Cold War lies at the core of the American right’s mythology. The legend goes like this: Reagan came into office, dramatically hiked defense spending, unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative (his “Star Wars” missile shield), and aided anti-communist rebels in the Third World. Unable to keep pace, the Kremlin chose Gorbachev, who threw in the towel.

The problem with this story is that Reagan began abandoning his hard-line anti-Soviet stance in late 1983, 18 months before Gorbachev took power. One reason was domestic politics. Today, commentators tend to believe that Reagan’s hawkish reputation was always a political asset. But in 1983, after more than two years of epic defense spending, virulent Cold War rhetoric, and no arms-control talks, Americans were demanding détente. Public support for defense spending fell, and the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons. Fearful that these dovish trends could threaten Reagan’s re-election, White House chief of staff James Baker pushed Reagan to make an overture to the Soviets, a suggestion backed by Shultz, who was eager to restart arms talks.

Their effort coincided with a change in Reagan, who had long harbored a genuine terror of nuclear war reflected in his decades-old belief — often ignored by backers on the right — that nuclear weapons should eventually be abolished. The terror had its roots, as did many of Reagan’s inclinations, in movies. According to Colin Powell, national security advisor from 1987 to 1989, Reagan had been deeply affected by the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which space aliens warn earthlings that unless they stop settling their conflicts through war, the powers that be in the galaxy will destroy their planet. (During his presidency, Reagan repeatedly invoked the prospect of an alien invasion as a reason for the United States and the Soviet Union to overcome their differences. Whenever he did, Powell would mutter, “Here come the little green men.”)

The really strange infantile nature of Reagan’s desire for world peace lest space aliens might come and adjudicate on the human race sort of dovetails with Nancy Reagan’s consultation with an astrologer – an episode that strangely dovetails with Robert Heinlein’s description of a politician and his wife’s reliance on astrology in ‘Stranger In A Strange Land‘.

I guess the fear was no so much the nuclear holocaust he might have committed us to, but the sheer idiocy of his framework for going to war with Grenada or going for arms limitations with the Soviets. I wonder how Mikhail Grobachev feels today knowing that the other guy was worried about little green men and was taking advice from astrologers via his wife.

This all adds a layer of meaning to the Reaganite adage that came out of the Iran-Contra affair: “maintain the fiction”. It seems it was a piece of fiction that Reagan had an itchy trigger finger with nukes. Had I known this, I might have rested more easily at nights as a kid. I guess all of this reflects how awful Jimmy Carter was, and by turn, how destructive Nixon and Watergate were to the fabric of American politics.

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Filed under Cinema, Film, General, Movies

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