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Ending the Cold War: the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush

When he entered office, Ronald Reagan was alone among his national security advisors in believing the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. To those in the know, Reagan’s opinion seemed pure fantasy. As it turned out, he was right. When he left office eight years later, Reagan proudly announced that the Cold War was over. Yet, it hadn’t quite come to pass. Under his successor, George H. W. Bush, it did. Below is an account of both presidencies.

RONALD REAGAN (1981 - 1989) - Ronald Reagan was something of an enigma. People close to him admitted they never really knew him, including his four children to whom he was emotionally distant. He was a conservative who as governor of California and as president of the United States proved to be more moderate than conservative. A fierce anti-communist, he was nearly alone in believing the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Such thinking led him to an improbable alliance with Mikhail Gorbachev that would end the cold war. A fiscal conservative he may been but the national debt tripled under his administration. In point of fact, Ronald Reagan was a decided optimist who was more pragmatist than conservative, whose uncanny insight into human nature changed the course of history.

Entering office, Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union was that the Soviet system was vulnerable, not in some vague, long-range historical sense, but right then, right now. It was a gut feeling he had that no one else shared at the time. Indeed, the Republican hardliners—Al Haig, Richard Pipes, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney—thought him naive. “Communism is neither an economic or political system—it is a form of insanity—a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature,” Reagan wrote in 1962. Now, as president, he believed the time had come. What he needed was someone in the Kremlin and someone in the White House to share his view. The someone in the Kremlin turned out to be Mikhail Gorbachev, and the someone on his staff was Secretary of State George Shultz.

There to encourage him was a writer familiar with the Soviet Union, named Suzanne Massie, whom he invited to the White House 17 times after their initial meeting. Says one historian: “Massie humanized the enemy for him, teaching him always to distinguish between the great-souled Russians and the dingy Soviets.” The rest, as they say, is history. Reagan met with Gorbachev several times developing a bond of trust and friendship between the two that resulted in a number of break-though agreements.

“Thus did the Cold War pivot from one of mutually assured self-destruction to one of mutually supported magical thinking,” writes the same historian. At the same time, the Soviet Union began to unravel. The tipping point came in 1987, when Reagan spoke at the Berlin Wall, where the Soviets had divided the East from the West. In words Reagan himself had written—words he had to resist pressure to remove from his speech—he said: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” By the end of his presidency Reagan was able to announce that the Cold War was over. The Berlin Wall came down after he left office, in late1989.

The recession Reagan inherited upon entering office yielded to a number of economic stimuluses, including tax cuts and funding the revitalization of the military. Years of economic growth and prosperity followed as the national economy grew by one third—but at a cost. Running for president, Reagan had accused the Democrats of a seemingly mindless policy of “tax and spend.” Reagan’s answer, termed supply-side economics, was to “borrow and spend” which by the time he left office had tripled the national debt. During his tenure, he raised taxes four times.

Reagan entered office with the expressed purpose of shrinking government. In fact, he didn’t succeed in eliminating a single major program. Americans may have wanted less government as Reagan had insisted, but they also wanted national security to protect against terrorism, generous social security benefits at an early retirement age, medicare, federal highways, a vast system of national parks, subsidized mortgages and college student loans. The time for turning back the clock to the simpler time Reagan envisioned, had long since passed by the time he entered the White House. While a conservative, Reagan was not above reaching compromise agreements with liberal Democrats in Congress to achieve his legislative agenda. Two of his three Supreme Court appointments were moderates.

The one blot on the Reagan presidency was the Iran-contra affair, in which Reagan’s lieutenants sought to evade a law forbidding U.S. aid to contras, the anti-communist fighters in Nicaragua. The result hoped for was the release of hostages being held by Iran. The affair went public, with Reagan having to go on TV to deny he had any prior knowledge of an arms-for-hostages deal being negotiated by members of his own administrations. A congressional investigation concluded that Oliver North and others had acted as a secret cabal following what they believed to be Reagan’s wishes. “When exposure was threatened, they destroyed official documents, lied to Cabinet officials, to the public, and to elected representatives in Congress,” the report said. Left unanswered was the question of Reagan’s culpability.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH (1989 - 1993) - George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, is our most under-rated of recent presidents. In a recent poll of historians, Bush 41 was placed 21st—middling rank. His accomplishments, particularly in foreign affairs, would suggest a higher ranking. He skillfully judged the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and bucked the advice of his foreign policy hard-liners by not interfering, believing (correctly) the failed Soviet system would collapse under the weight of its massed ineptitude, and release Eastern Bloc countries from its iron grip.

He forged a coalition of some 30 nations to halt and repel the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And he intervened successfully in the arrest of Manuel Noriega, drug trafficker and corrupt dictator of Panama.

Where Bush comes up short is with his management of the U.S. economy, which cost him a second term as president. In fact, the economy was recovering at the time, but Bush failed to get this message across to voters. If he had a failing, it was his modesty—an unwillingness to blow his own horn.

Bush was tagged as being a wimp, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In fact, he was a bonafide war hero. In World War II, as the youngest Air Force pilot stationed in the Pacific, he flew 58 missions and made 126 carrier landings. On his 50th mission his plane was severely damaged by shrapnel. Displaying true grit under fire, he completed his bombing run before having to bail out. After his discharge from service in 1945, he attended Yale, then moved to Texas where he became a self-made millionaire in the oil business before the age of 40. After that, he focused on politics. He served two terms in the House of Representatives but lost twice running for the U.S. Senate. All the while he made friends with people in high places. President Richard Nixon appointed him Ambassador to the United Nations and then chairman of the Republican National Committee. President Gerald Ford appointed him Envoy to China and then Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. However, these were merely consolation prizes, after having been turned down by both Nixon and Ford as a potential running mates. In 1980, at long last, he got the nod, as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. He served under Reagan for two terms, before turning his attention to the prize he had wanted all along—the presidency. He was elected in 1988, as the Cold War was coming to end.

Bush exhibited what his biographer calls “unexpected greatness” in keeping the drama of Eastern Europe’s Revolution from cascading into a broader East-West crisis. Bush kept his head and refrained from inflammatory rhetoric. He avoided rubbing Moscow’s nose in the reality of its collapsing Soviet Empire and went out of his way to engage America’s former enemy in the responsible management of the Cold War’s end; masterfully so in negotiating German reunification and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from central Europe. In the Middle East, meanwhile, Bush was masterful in building a coalition of nations against Saddam Hussein’s hostile invasion of Kuwait. Military action was swift, well-coordinated, and stunningly effective in driving out Iraq’s famed Republic Guard. Thanks to broad world support, the U.S. military actually had a cash surplus at the close of the war. Also, it was the U.S. military’s first victory since World War II.

Where Bush had trouble was in dealing with the slumping economy, and with a growing faction of Republican doctrinaire conservatives who couldn’t see the forest for the trees by refusing to compromise with the leader of their own party. Led by Newt Gingrich, rather than supporting the president’s economic policies and thereby helping him get re-elected, they fought him and in doing so helped elect Bill Clinton instead. Writes an historian: “Bush’s problem was that while he was held responsible for the financial mess left by Reagan, no one seemed to give him credit for trying to fix it.” The growing conservative movement led to the candidacy of Patrick Buchanan— who tried and failed to take the Republican Party’s nomination away from Bush—and to the candidacy of quirky independent candidate Ross Perot. As a result an impression was created that the nation lacked genuine leadership under President Bush. Partly to blame was his lack of charisma as a public speaker, and a voter base that had never been strong. According to his biographer, Bush’s support among voters “was as shallow as it was wide.” As a leader, his effectiveness was in one-to-one conversations in the perennial “smoke-filled rooms” where decisions are made and consensus reached. On the campaign stump, however, his speeches lacked the passion that drives voters to the polls on election day. By the Fall of 1992, the economy was in recovery but Bush failed to get this message across. His campaign rhetoric was measured, reasonable, and calm, but out of touch with voter sentiments, while Clinton empathized with unhappy voters (“I feel your pain”), striking again and again at where Bush was weakest. “It’s the economy, stupid,” Clinton reminded his staffers. When it counted most, Bush would not get down and dirty as politicians so often do when elections are closely contested, and it cost him dearly--a second term as president.

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