Ronald Reagan: The Anti-Nixon/Kissinger

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Sunday, February 6, marked the birth centennial of Ronald Reagan. As a Reagan biographer, I’m often asked how Reagan was different from his predecessors, Republican and Democrat, and especially in the area of foreign policy. There were many ways, but here are two of the most fundamental:

First, Reagan actually believed he could win the Cold War. He committed himself to that goal early and unequivocally. To cite just one example, Richard V. Allen, his first national security adviser, recalls a discussion in January 1977, four years before the presidency, when Reagan told him flatly: “Dick, my idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.”

In this, Reagan stood apart from not only Democrats like Jimmy Carter but Republicans like Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and their chief foreign-policy adviser, Henry Kissinger.

But there’s another way Reagan was so different from the likes of Nixon and Kissinger in particular. It’s a poignant example involving long-persecuted Soviet Jews. It was recently driven home to me, yet again, when I heard newly released comments by Nixon and Kissinger.

Kissinger and Nixon placed détente with the Soviets above all else. Their approach was pure Machiavellian realpolitik. They did not frame the U.S.-Soviet confrontation as good vs. evil, as Reagan did. Their goal wasn’t to defeat the Soviet Union. Their prevailing priority was getting along with the Soviets. They pursued that objective at almost any expense, whether keeping Eastern Europeans captive behind the Iron Curtain or keeping Russian Jews from emigrating.

In the early 1970s, pressure had been building on the Nixon administration to lobby the Soviets to ease up on restrictions on Jews. Both Kissinger and Nixon were dismissive. How dismissive? The latest round of released tapes shows Kissinger offering an awful assessment to his White House boss on March 1, 1973.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger stated coldly. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Nixon responded: “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Alas, here is a painfully instructive example of how Ronald Reagan so differed even from intensely anti-communist Republicans of his era. Reagan would have been aghast at these comments. In fact, Reagan was willing to “blow up” negotiations with the Soviets over matters like Jewish emigration.

Reagan hounded Mikhail Gorbachev on this issue. About 10 years ago, the official “MemCons,” or Memoranda of Conversation, from the various Reagan-Gorbachev one-on-ones were declassified, from the Geneva to Moscow summits. In these, Reagan repeatedly dug at Gorbachev on emigration of Jews, to the point where Gorbachev snapped at the president.

Such persecuted Russians (Jews and non-Jews) were constantly on Reagan’s mind. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci recalled that the president “would walk around with lists in his pocket of people who were in prison in the Soviet Union.” Each time Secretary of State George Shultz prepared to meet with a Soviet official, Reagan pulled out the names—“some of whom we’d heard of but most of whom we hadn’t,” said Carlucci—and say, “I want you to raise these names with the Soviets.” And sure enough, said Carlucci, “George would raise them and one by one they would be released or allowed to leave.”

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  • Rifleman

    It didn't matter that the 'smart' people on the left and right thought Reagan was a simplistic Rube, a person could tell from his speeches and statements he had a better understanding of communism and how to defeat it than any of them. Reagan didn't negotiate with communists to make treaties or agreements, he negotiated to advance freedom and US interests. He got more than the democrats and some Republicans thought possible without giving up SDI. human rights, or our allies.

    He also had a better understanding America, of what was wrong with our economy, and how to correct it, than the 'smart' people.

  • Jim C.

    Ronald Reagan was the most interesting phenomenom we're likely to see hold office in our lifetimes. A born leader with unshakeable views of right and wrong, he was nevertheless nowhere near as doctrinaire as his right wing heirs turned out to be. He was simply interested in effectiveness, which is why he gravitated toward those who got things done in the corporate boardroom. And this was not unusual for a man of his generation with moderate politics and no particular interest in social justice.

    But it's the devil in the details, and Reagan was not interested in those. We're now paying for the ascendancy and enshrinement of the corporate boardroom in our politics. For Reagan, this was liberty. For us, it has turned to a sort of soft tyranny that for some reason, the Right has no interest in exposing. Maybe it's because they know where their bread gets buttered, and don't care.

    • USMCSniper

      The greatest danger in the so called government-corporate business partnership is that it cannot never be honest. Whenever government controls or favors are introduced into a free economy, they create economic dislocations, hardships, and problems which, if the controls and favors are not repealed, necessitate still further controls and favors, which necessitate still further controls and favors, etc. Thus a chain reaction is set up: the victimized groups seek redress by demanding favors and imposing controls on the profiteering groups, who retaliate in the same manner, on an ever widening scale. Such a mixed economy can never be honest,

  • WildJew

    Reagan may have been one of America's better leaders in the twentieth century. I voted for him twice. On matters of the economy and foreign policy in Europe, Russia, etc., he was a strong / resolute leader. On the Middle East, he stumbled badly like many other twentieth century US presidents – particularly after Israel became a modern nation-state – with the exception of Carter and Obama whose Mideast policies were and are deplorable.