The Clear-Headed Ronald Reagan

REVIEW: ‘The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink’

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan / Getty Images
November 27, 2022

Is there a need for another full-length treatment of what is universally acknowledged to be the most significant triumph of Ronald Reagan’s presidency—the peaceful unwinding of the Cold War? Even specialists will find William Inboden’s new telling of the story answers with an emphatic Yes, and anyone who hasn’t previously taken in any of the several fine accounts of those late great years should run, not walk, to pick up this new book.

To be sure, Inboden trods familiar ground of Reagan’s foreign policy, but both the lengthening of time that is opening up more documents and evidence, along with new perspectives that current conditions inspire, enable Inboden to fill in some fresh details to key episodes, emphasize parts of Reagan’s strategy and actions that have eluded other authors, and reach new conclusions about several contested aspects of the story. Above all, The Peacemaker provides a case study of how an administration, despite its mistakes, internal disputes, and confusion, can nonetheless be consistently purposive and competent—a welcome reminder just now of the capacities of genuine leaders.

The Peacemaker succeeds because its narrative style allows Inboden’s judicious understatement to advance bold perceptions of Reagan as a statesman of the highest order, as a person who combined remarkable strategic vision with tactical reflexes that none of his friends, staff aides, or critics perceived clearly. By sticking with a strict chronological approach (following Churchill’s advice that "chronology is the soul of narrative"), Inboden’s narrative demonstrates by accumulating force Reagan’s remarkable capacities rather than telling us in a didactic way as many other books do.

Inboden goes one step further than most previous accounts of Reagan’s grand strategy for the Cold War, which highlight his famous private comment before becoming president that his idea of the Cold War was "we win, they lose." But what did that mean in practical and political terms? Inboden’s striking central argument: Reagan consciously sought the negotiated surrender of the Soviet Union (his italics). This did not mean a military defeat in armed conflict; in fact, that is the outcome Reagan most wished to avoid for obvious reasons. Neither did he want to humiliate the Soviet Union. Inboden makes clear that "though Reagan wanted to bring the Soviet Union to a negotiated surrender, he did not seek a public surrender ceremony." In another passage late in the story, after many pieces of Reagan’s grand strategy were in motion and bearing fruit, Inboden’s view might be described as Reagan issuing a "do not resuscitate" order to a terminal patient if not attempting euthanasia (Inboden’s actual words are that Reagan wanted "to bring Soviet communism to a peaceful death").

Reagan’s multi-part strategy involving an arms buildup ("because strength is the only thing [the Soviets] understand," Reagan said), deliberate economic pressure, ideological competition, and support for armed anti-communist insurgencies around the world, is well known. Inboden weaves in this existing story line with additional dimensions that bear on the story itself, but have special relevance for our current moment.

Inboden argues in his conclusion that "no president before or since has been more devoted to allies than Reagan," and his book includes copious details to back this up. To an extent not noted in most accounts of Reagan’s presidency, Inboden brings out how Reagan made a special point of focusing on building up Asia as a bastion of the Western alliance, with Japan as the linchpin. This was a tricky problem, as the country’s domestic politics and World War II legacy inhibited it from increasing its military spending and posture as another forward participant in the anti-Soviet alliance. More difficult were Japan’s protectionist trade policies, which were a serious sore point in bilateral relations. Reagan needed to be both friendly and confrontational with Japan, and Inboden explains how Reagan managed both parts of this problem skillfully.

The importance of Japan looms large today in the growing concern with how to confront China, and this is another important part of the Reagan Asia policy story Inboden illuminates well. As a longtime supporter of Taiwan and critic of communist China, Reagan had to face reality in office. Reagan’s relations with Beijing ended up being surprisingly good, but Inboden goes through how the president threaded the needle of fending off China’s demands that the United States cut off Taiwan while bringing the Chinese further into the anti-Soviet alliance. With the China-Taiwan question once again front and center, today’s policymakers would do well to study how Reagan handled China.

Latin America was a similar area of focus presenting multiple problems. Liberals downplayed the threat of communist agitations in Central and South America as a relic of McCarthy-era paranoia, but Reagan and his team believed the threat from Cuba and Nicaragua was serious, as did many leaders of neighboring countries in the region. One difficulty is that many of these regimes had dismal human-rights records, and Inboden finds troubling the Reagan administration’s tolerance of some of our allies out of the necessity to keep the anti-Soviet alliance together, along with the fear of worse human-rights conditions if these nations succumbed to revolution as Iran and Nicaragua did. He draws back from a categorical condemnation, however, noting that "for Reagan and his team, the quickest way to end human rights abuses was to defeat communism," and that Reagan or any other leader is often faced with a choice between bad and worse. Inboden also chronicles the many successful efforts Reagan’s foreign policy team had in bringing about a transition to democratic rule in several Latin American and Asian nations in the 1980s.

The most interesting aspect of Inboden’s narrative is bringing out in greater detail Reagan’s great strategic insight into the Cold War and, moreover, his intense focus on the details of policy formation and serious study of information bearing on what was confronting him. Some of Reagan’s behind-the-scenes activities have been known for a while now, but Inboden shares new details that belie the persistent image that Reagan was a lazy or detached lightweight who depended on his staff for major decisions and policymaking. To the contrary, it is clear that Reagan’s staff, albeit with internal conflicts Reagan managed poorly at times, depended on him for direction and coherence. To a larger degree than many previous accounts, Inboden shows that Reagan did his homework and personally presided over key deliberations.

Inboden brings out another aspect of the Reagan story better than many other accounts—the importance of religion to Reagan personally, but more so to his understanding of the Cold War. For the president, the East-West conflict was about more than an arms race and ideological competition—he saw it as a spiritual struggle, and also understood that religion, and especially communist persecution of religious belief, was the Achilles’ heel of the Soviet empire. Hence his closeness to Pope John Paul II.

Inboden corrects the record on a few key details of the period. While thinking that Reagan’s only close friend William Clark was "ill qualified" to be national security adviser, he builds a case that Clark was arguably Reagan’s best NSA. In 1983 Reagan had a famous meeting in the White House private quarters with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and it has been reported that this meeting was arranged without or against Clark’s wishes. In fact, Clark had suggested such a meeting. Inboden also downplays the severity of the tensions of the 1983 Able Archer exercises, a murky affair in which the Soviet disposition remains unclear but was thought to be possibly near the brink of war. Working from new information, Inboden believes the Soviets knew all along that the United States was not preparing a first strike but wanted to shake up their own military establishment.

From this careful work Inboden dissents from a popular "two Reagans" hypothesis, first and most powerfully argued by political scientist Beth Fischer. Inboden: "Many scholars and journalists contend that the multiple Cold War crises of 1983 prompted a ‘Reagan reversal.’ … He did not. Rather, from the beginning Reagan pursued a dual track of pressure on the Soviet Union combined with diplomatic outreach." It is better to understand Reagan as "rebalancing" his two-pronged strategy.

There is much more to this rich and superbly crafted narrative. The Peacemaker deserves to take its place among the canon of preeminent Reagan literature.

The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink
by William Inboden
Dutton, 608 pp., $35

Steven F. Hayward is a fellow and lecturer at the Public Law and Policy Program at UC Berkeley, and author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.