Review of “The Rebllion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the Cold War” by James Mann

Recently I finished The Rebllion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the Cold War by James Mann.

The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan is a history of Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev. As such, it is largely confined to Reagan’s second term, those incidents from late in Reagan’s first term — as well as some in the first Bush Administration, are mentioned. The book is not a chronological narrative, but rather four of them. The four sections of The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan focus on Reagan’s relationship with former President Richard Nixon, Regan’s relationship with author Suzanne Massie, the context of Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, and Reagan’s summits with Gorbachev.

Reagan and Nixon were contemporaries, though Reagan’s early life as a politician meant that he started behind Nixon’s position. Nonetheless, both men were deeply affected by early battles against American Communists. While Nixon worked on the House Unamerican Affairs Committee, Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild, and faced much more open Communist agitation and troublemaking. Both ultimately made peace with Communist governments in ways that were unexpected to the world, but consistent with long-held beliefs. Nixon was concerned about Soviet imperialism and the role of the Soviet Union as a large Eurasian land-power, and so was willing to support non-Soviet (but still totalitarian) forces on the rim of Eurasia, such as Maoist China. Reagan was hostile to totalitarianism, but not concerned about the mere presence of a large landpower that spanned Europe and Asia. Thus, Nixon would have been unlikely to make peace with the Soviet Union to the extent that Reagan did (and, together with Henry Kissinger, was highly critical of Reagan’s moves at the time). Likewise, Reagan’s concern with average human beings and hostility toward

totalitarianism would have made him more sympathetic to Breshnev’s Soviet Union than Mao’s China in the early 1970s.

Suzanne Massie wrote Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia. She is also an active writer and speaker — indeed, she has a website. She served as an unofficial intermediary between Reagan and the Soviet leadership. James Mann does not mention if there were other such intermediaries. Massie’s main contribution was to personalize and humanize the situation of average Russians for President Reagan. Many of Regan’s senior aids were concerned of the extent to which Massie may have been influenced by the KGB. Eventually, they succeeded in limiting her access to the President.

The most important words of the famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!,” where the first two. The United States had consistently criticized the Berlin Wall,

and regularly called for its demolition. However, the social context of Reagan’s 1987 speech was a rise in German nationalism. At the time of the speech, the United States had used its role as one of Four / Quadruple powers to assert sovereignty of Berlin, and prevent West Berlin’s mayor from visiting the east. At the same time, Soviet and American introduction of intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe lead to efforts by East Germany to work with West Germany to get rid of both sets of weapons. The German people and the East German government (though not the West German government) feared that the Soviet Union and NATO would be willing to wage a nuclear war if it could be limited to Germany.

Many American analysts felt that Soviet introduction of intermediate nuclear weapons was a mistake. When America introduced intermediate weapons as a response, these were much more tactically useful than soviet weapons. While any Soviet invasion of Europe that resorted to nuclear force would require missiles that would be launched from Soviet territory anyway, NATO intermediate weapons could be launched from Europe and hit the Soviet Union. Such weapons afforded America the possibility of maintaining territorial neutrality during a nuclear exchange between Western Europe and the Soviet Union, which would destroy both forces while leaving the United States the undisputed hegemon. In the Administration Reagan was relatively alone in viewing this outcome as unacceptable, and his diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev proceeded in spite of governmental hostility.

Mann argues that Reagan did not win the Cold War, but that he was not merely a lucky President, either. Rather, Reagan allowed Gorbachev to lose the Cold War in ways that other administrations would have been unable to. Reagan was the first President since Franklin Roosevelt who was not hostile to Soviet imperialism. Gorbachev was able to convince the Soviet power establishment not that the Union was economical disastrous (Which they knew before electing him), or that Moscow was on its way to being a third-rate power (which the Soviets realized organically as comparisons even war-torn Vietnam was somehow less “war torn” than Russia), but that the Party had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn things around without facing an American attack.

Unfortunately for Gorbachev, the only person who seemed to see the situation clearly was… Suzanne Massie. Massie emphasized to nearly everyone that there was no Soviet people, no Soviet society, and no Soviet sense of us-versus-them. There were only Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Kazakhs, and others, all hostile to the foreign Internationalist occupation of their countries. On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev resigned. The Soviet Union would not see 1992.

After reading The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, the President reminded me of Mao Zedong. Like Mao, Reagan was able to brilliantly read his people, more comfortable in the poetics of politics than the details of policy, and deeply suspicious of formal structures. Also like Mao, Reagan disliked the formalities of the Presidency. Unlike Mao, of course, Reagan was not paranoid, and was not afflicted with totalitarian powers.

I have read every book James Mann has written. The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan reads as something of a prequel to Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet. However, Mann has also written two excellent books on American policy toward China: About Face and The China Fantasy. However, little reference is made to China, even in areas (geopolitics, the events of 1989) where it would would make sense of the narrative.

I enjoyed The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan. It gave me a three-dimensional view of President Reagan and Gorbachev, who existed more as shadows in my historical imagination. Highly recommended.