Notes on the Atrocities
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Tuesday, June 15, 2004  

More on Reagan and Poker

I missed the orgy of Reaganalia last week, and my mind keeps turning back to it. Last night PBS repeated the 1998 American Experience documentary about Reagan. Having missed all the odes, eulogies, hagiographic capsules, and teary rememberances, I enjoyed playing a little catch-up. Of course, the film wasn't colored by Reagan's death, and so I suppose it was a little harsher (read: more accurate) than the bilge you were forced to endure last week.

I will not rehash the bilge. But there's one thing that continues to grate on me, so I'll mention it here (knowing, of course, that someone must already have said it, somewhere). Reagan's Really Big Accomplishment, the one that everyone has now solidified as fact, is that he Ended the Cold War and Destroyed Communism Forever. All that other business--deficits, AIDS, Iran-Contra, Star Wars, the mental lapses--that can be forgiven because he Ended the Cold War and Destroyed Communism Forever.

But the Reagan legacy, even on this point, is not so clear. When Reagan was elected, I was twelve. The sense of doom he ushered in was so profound that I and most of my peers accepted as fact the idea that the globe would be annihilated by nuclear war. (My central concern at the time was that this would happen before I had a chance to learn how to drive.) But in retrofitting the hagiography, Reagan is seen as a moralist who uniquely understood the psychology of the Soviets and won a diplomatic gunfight. Where we plebes (and children) saw madness, the right saw canny brinksmanship. He wasn't a lunatic according to this view, he was crazy like a fox.

To clarify the interpretation, let's go back to yesterday's poker analogy. A successful gamble depends on the willingness to put a lot of money on the table. You don't win by suggesting you may have a better hand. According to the revisionists, Reagan wasn't a nut who would blow up the world. Ah, but you see--you can't have it both ways. We forget that at the time, everyone knew he'd blow the world up--that's what got the Soviets to capitulate. We weren't wrong, we were just saved by the wisdom of the Soviet leadership (bizarre as that may sound).

With the Reagan hammer doctrine, all foreign policy problems look like nails. In the case of the Soviet Union, he got lucky. But look how that doctrine has fared under Bush. If the revisionists want to give credit to Reagan for single-handedly ending the cold war, they must accept that the reason he was successful was because he was a trigger-happy nut who was willing to blow up the world. It worked, so some credit is due (I think Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, and a few others might deserve some of that credit, though). But there's no getting around the fact that to End the Cold War and Destroyed Communism Forever, he had to be a trigger-happy nut. He was.

posted by Jeff | 8:53 AM |
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