Ronald Reagan: Decisions of Greatness

Ronald Reagan: Decisions of Greatness

Ronald Reagan: Decisions of Greatness

Ronald Reagan: Decisions of Greatness


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Ronald Reagan's Cold War strategy was well established in his first year in office and did not change throughout his presidency. It was to make absolutely sure in the minds of the Soviets that they too would be destroyed in a nuclear war—even as Reagan sought an alternative through strategic defense to make nuclear missiles obsolete and thus eliminate the possibility of an all-out nuclear war. This book offers new perspectives on Ronald Reagan’s primary accomplishment as president—persuading the Soviets to reduce their nuclear arsenals and end the Cold War. It details how he achieved this success and in the process explains why Americans consider Reagan one of our greatest presidents. The authors examine the decisions Reagan made during his presidency that made his success possible and review Reagan’s critical negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—ending with the 1988 Moscow Summit that effectively ended the Cold War. They present Gorbachev’s thoughts on Reagan as a great man and a great president 20 years after he left office. But ultimately, they reveal the depth of Reagan’s vision of a world safe from nuclear weapons, painting a clear portrait of a Cold Warrior who saw the possibility of moving beyond that war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817918354
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 03/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 209
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson are recognized experts on the writing and speeches of Ronald Reagan. They have written several bestselling books highlighting the thousands of handwritten radio commentaries, letters, speeches, and notes that document Reagan’s personal and professional journey in his own words. Their most recent book Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster. Annelise Anderson lives in Stanford, California.

Read an Excerpt

Ronald Reagan

Decisions of Greatness

By Martin Anderson, Annelise Anderson

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1835-4


Ronald Reagan: The View of Americans

On February 18, 2011, the headline on the Gallup Poll's news release read: Americans Say Reagan Is the Greatest US President. Ronald Reagan came in ahead of even Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Gallup, the most highly respected polling organization in the country, has often polled US residents about whom they consider the greatest president in the nation's history. Gallup has asked this "Who was the greatest president" question eight times since 1999. Reagan finished first not only in 2011, the most recent poll, but also in 2001 and 2005.

Lincoln came in first in 1999, in two polls in 2003, and in 2007. Kennedy made it into first place in 2000 and tied with Lincoln in November 2003. Besides those listed in Table 1, a few other presidents get occasional mentions — but none by more than 5 percent of respondents.

Gallup's 2011 poll, the most recent because Gallup did not ask this question in the succeeding two years, was conducted February 2 — 5 and randomly sampled 1,015 adults, 18 years and older, living in the continental United States, a far broader selection — and one much more similar to eligible voters — than the narrow group of academic historians and political scientists who are often asked to rank US presidents. Those are the people who will be casting their ballots and deciding who will become president in the future.

As we might expect, political party preferences show up in their "greatest president" choices. Republicans, Independents, and Democrats make different judgments. What's remarkable — as Table 2 shows — is that many Independents as well as Republicans name Reagan the greatest US president. In 2011, he was the choice of 38 percent of Republicans and second only to Lincoln among Independents.

In an article about the 2011 poll results, Gallup's Frank Newport pointed out that the greatest president question — always asked the same way — is open ended: respondents have to name a president rather than select from a list. They are more likely to choose recent presidents who've been in the news rather than those lost in the history books.

In 2009, however, Gallup gave respondents an opportunity to select the greatest US president from a list. Reagan was selected by 24 percent, slightly edging out Kennedy and Lincoln, who each garnered 22 percent of the "votes" and came in well ahead of Franklin Roosevelt (18 percent) and even George Washington (9 percent).

Gallup periodically asks another question about presidents: how people think a president will "go down in history." The choices are Outstanding, Above Average, Average, Below Average, or Poor. This was the question Gallup asked in a survey on February 2 — 5, 2012 (Table 3). The presidents on the list have been those who held office from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama. The question does not require a strict ranking; a respondent can predict that more than one president, or even several of them, will go down in history as outstanding. And the question focuses on "history" rather than the personal views of the responder. The result of the poll: more people thought that, in this respect, Reagan would be ranked as Outstanding or Above Average than any of his counterparts.

By large margins, Reagan and Clinton lead the list. When the results are broken down by political party, Reagan is predicted to go down in history as Outstanding or Above Average by not only 90 percent of Republicans but also 70 percent of Independents and almost half of Democrats, illustrating that political party isn't the only criterion people consider. His appeal is broader than Clinton's. Eighty percent of Democrats think that history will judge Clinton as Outstanding or Above Average, as 61 percent of Independents have done (but only 36 percent of Republicans).

Gallup has asked this question on occasion for decades, and Reagan's ranking has increased steadily since the early 1990s. In 1993, fewer than 40 percent of respondents thought Reagan would go down in history as an Outstanding or Above Average president. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, over 60 percent thought so, and by 2012, almost 70 percent — more than any of the presidents who came after him.

Another question Gallup includes on surveys involves retrospective approval ratings: whether, in retrospect, people approve or disapprove of the way previous presidents handled the job. Reagan's ratings in this category have also increased since the 1990s, from 50 percent approval to almost 75 percent, higher than any president from John Fitzgerald Kennedy onward except Kennedy himself.

Gallup is not the only pollster who finds the public rating Reagan highly. Twenty-eight percent of respondents in a 2006 Quinnipiac University poll said they considered him the "best president" we've had since World War II, better than Clinton (25 percent) or JFK (18 percent).

In a December 2011 "60 Minutes"/Vanity Fair poll, respondents were asked to pick the previous president they'd most like to have running the country today. Reagan came in first overall as well as first among Republicans and Independents; Democrats chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt first and Reagan second.

All polls are of course, snapshots, but a series of snapshots makes a motion picture. What we see in the Gallup polls over the years is an increasing regard for Ronald Reagan and his performance as president. Respondents across the political spectrum consider him a great president. An increasing number judge that he will go down in history as outstanding, and an increasing number approve, in retrospect, of his performance in office.

Why Recognition Took So Long

It was not until 2001 that Reagan was chosen by more people than any other president as the greatest US president. He was also their choice in 2005, 2009, and, most recently, in 2011. Yet he left office in the opening days of 1989.

For more than a decade after his two presidential terms, Reagan's reputation was primarily that of a "great communicator." From the press to the public, people wondered whether he was reading someone else's lines. Who was pulling his strings? Reagan gave a few substantial speeches — often not very different from his farewell address — and did not crow about his accomplishments in office. Like other former presidents, he commented little on current affairs, not wishing to upstage his successor. And in 1994, six years after he left office, he retired from public life.

Reagan's presidential memoir, An American Life, came out in 1990. He told us a great deal, and the book is a basic source on his presidency. Nevertheless, reviewers criticized it for an absence of personal revelations.

The first full biography of Reagan that covered his presidency was Lou Cannon's book, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, published in 1992. Cannon concluded then that "Reagan rarely sought to focus on higher goals. He ... took his role too lightly. In the end, it proved too big for his talents." But these words do not appear in the revised 2000 edition. Cannon had changed his mind.

Meanwhile, President Reagan's authorized biographer, Edmund Morris, was hard at work on what was expected to become one of the definitive works on the Reagan presidency. But the book, Dutch, was not published until 1999. Other historians had backed off, given that Morris had the inside track, making the 1990s the lost decade of Reagan scholarship. Morris introduced fictional characters and stories into the account; it was impossible to tell what was history and what was imagined.

People were still wondering who pulled Reagan's strings. Lee Edwards, journalist, public relations specialist, author of an early biography (Reagan: A Political Biography), and currently a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, didn't wonder. "Reagan is an open book," Edwards said, "and he's been reading it to us for years." Indeed he was; virtually everything Reagan wanted to accomplish — his strategy, his vision, his ultimate goals — all are there in his writings and extemporaneous statements.

Part of the problem was that many of us weren't paying enough attention. Another part was that Reagan didn't remind people that he had, in fact, written — in his own hand — a great deal about many of the policy issues of the day. And the view persisted that whatever he was saying, he might be reading other people's lines. As it turned out, his speechwriters were carefully re-crafting Reagan's own words.

Reagan's Writings

It was not until after the turn of the century that Reagan's own extensive writings — radio commentaries, speeches, letters — began to be discovered and published. They were extensive, and they changed our view of him.

From 1975 to 1979, the years between his governorship and his presidency, Reagan had a syndicated radio-commentary program. The commentaries were about three minutes each, aired five days a week. Reagan's handwritten drafts of 686 of them were discovered in his personal collection, which is held in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He wrote, by hand on yellow pads, about domestic, economic, foreign policy, and defense issues. A collection of the commentaries was published in Reagan, In His Own Hand on February 6, 2001. Previewed by William Safire in The New York Times Magazine, the book quickly became a bestseller.

That Reagan could write, and had written, about so many issues on the minds of Americans was news. "How come I and my colleagues never discovered these Reagan depths?" Godfrey Sperling wrote in his Christian Science Monitor review. A second book, Reagan's Path to Victory, included all the hand-written essays not included in the first volume.

Reagan: A Life in Letters, published in September 2003 and featured on the cover of Time, again made news: Reagan was a letter writer, writing not only to family and friends but also to Soviet leaders, US politicians like Richard Nixon, members of the press, and citizens who disagreed (or agreed) with his policies but didn't know him personally. The sheer quantity and diversity of the letters was stunning. And few had been seen before except by recipients and a few friends. The book included 1,100 letters, a selection from six thousand available at the time. The total grew: as we write now, we've found close to ten thousand letters Reagan wrote by hand or dictated on tape.

And then there was the personal diary. Almost every night during his presidency, Reagan wrote about the day's events in his diary. An excerpted, one-volume book edited by Douglas Brinkley, The Reagan Diaries, was not published until 2007. The unabridged version, transcribing the five leather-bound books in which Reagan wrote throughout his presidency, appeared in 2009 in two long volumes.

During his presidency, Reagan held more than 40 formal news conferences, broadcast live on television and radio and covered in detail in news media. But only 15 percent of his remarks to and exchanges with the press occurred in these formal settings. All the rest were less formal and structured, occurring two or three times a week with a few interviewers or a group of, say, radio broadcasters or other groups of media who weren't official White House correspondents. These interactions with the press are part of the Public Papers of the President, but the reporting on what he said was often selective and incomplete, and reached fewer people than the formal events. They are a valuable source of his extemporaneous remarks.

There was more to come. What did Reagan tell the members of his National Security Council (NSC) or the even-more-selective National Security Planning Group in meetings where everything was classified — secret, top-secret, or even higher? Here was the president wrestling with the options and making the decisions, setting out the strategy, expressing the goals and objectives that he intended the members of the NSC and its staff to develop into detailed policies and plans of action. What each person — including the president — said in these meetings was usually carefully recorded by a scribe and became the official minutes.

Not until Martin Anderson, armed with security clearances from the Department of Defense, received permission from both the Reagans and the Bush White House to read the NSC minutes and other classified documents — memoranda of conversations, transcripts of telephone conversations with foreign leaders, and correspondence with heads of state — could all these documents, unavailable for so long, be requested for clearance and made available to those seeking to understand what Reagan was doing and how. The NSC minutes cover a wide range of issues, the most important being those on which the authors of this work focused in their 2009 book, Reagan's Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster.

Ronald Reagan was a writer, and we cannot really know him without delving into what he himself wrote over the years. His written work encompassed serious school essays and stories, a sports column in the Des Moines Ledger, and feature articles for The Des Moines Register on becoming a Hollywood actor. He wrote his own speeches and an autobiography published in 1965, in addition to the radio commentaries, letters, and diary plus his extensive remarks and statements in NSC meetings. Many of these writings did not become available until a dozen or more years after he left the presidency, and thus were not available to his earlier biographers.

If the 1990s was the lost decade of Reagan scholarship, the first decade of the twenty-first century was the high water mark of that scholarship, the period when we came to know him through his own writings. It was only then that people began to realize that his thinking and decision making drove the events of his presidency and that he is, therefore, a great president.


Reagan's Unique Accomplishment

Of all Ronald Reagan's accomplishments, the most important — and unique — was persuading the Soviets to reverse their nuclear buildup and end the Cold War. He finally convinced Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, that an arms race was a contest the Soviets could not win and that a nuclear attack would be a disaster for the Soviet Union as well as the United States and Europe. The chart in Chapter 4 illustrates the systematic buildup of the Soviet nuclear arsenal in comparison to the US arsenal and the dramatic decline Reagan persuaded Soviet leaders to undertake.

Reagan accomplished many things during his presidency. He greatly improved the economy, implementing an economic policy challenged by his opponents and even those in his own administration. The success of his economic policies made it possible for him to carry out his strategy in dealing with the Soviet Union.

Well before he took office, Reagan was deeply concerned about the capability of the United States to deter a Soviet attack. He was convinced that nuclear war meant mutually assured destruction, but he did not think the Soviets were convinced that nuclear war meant destruction for them.

While the country was concentrating on reviving the US economy, Reagan was also taking the steps to strengthen US military morale, manpower, training, and equipment — all prerequisites to convincing the Soviets that they could not win a nuclear war. In April 1982, Reagan made his first definitive statement that "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

From the time the Soviets acquired, in 1949, the capability to build nuclear weapons, they built steadily. Whether the United States was or was not adding to its own arsenals, the Soviets continued to build — at first five hundred a year, then one thousand, then two thousand a year — right through the first year of Gorbachev's leadership of the Soviet Union.

The total count of Soviet nuclear warheads exceeded that of the United States for the first time in 1978, during the Carter administration. When Reagan took office in 1981, the Soviets had 25 percent more nuclear warheads than did the United States: 30,665 to 24,104. The Soviet total reached an astounding 38,582 at its peak in 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party and therefore leader of the Soviet Union.

By contrast, Reagan did not increase the US stockpile; he actually decreased it by almost one thousand warheads. He did, however, improve it. Reagan got the MX missile, the improved Trident D-5 missile for submarines, and the B-1 and Stealth bombers in his budget and at least partially funded by the end of 1981. In March 1983, he started the Strategic Defense Initiative — a program of unknown outcome at the time but also one that the Soviets had no way to counter. In late 1983, following persistent efforts to work with US allies in NATO, the Pershing II and cruise missiles were introduced into Western Europe to counter the threat of Soviet missiles aimed at cities there. The Pershing IIs frightened the Soviets. "They are a gun to our temple," Gorbachev would tell his advisors.

With all that in place, Reagan persuaded the Soviet leaders that a nuclear war would be a disaster for them as well as the United States and Europe. Once they were convinced, the decline in the Soviet arsenals was as systematic as the buildup had been.


Excerpted from Ronald Reagan by Martin Anderson, Annelise Anderson. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


FOREWORD by John Raisian,
CHAPTER ONE Ronald Reagan: The View of Americans,
CHAPTER TWO Reagan's Unique Accomplishment,
CHAPTER THREE If the Soviets Attacked,
CHAPTER FOUR Development of the Nuclear Arsenals,
CHAPTER FIVE Reagan's Decisions,
CHAPTER SIX Negotiating to End the Cold War,
CHAPTER SEVEN The Moscow Summit and the End of the Cold War, 1988,
CHAPTER NINE Reagan and Gorbachev,
CHAPTER TEN Nuclear Arsenals After Reagan, 1989-2012,
CHAPTER ELEVEN The Reagan Legacy,
APPENDIX A Martin Anderson's Interview with Ronald Reagan, Angeles, July 25, 1989 — The Transcript,
APPENDIX B The Strategic Military Situation When President Reagan Took Office, by Lowell Wood,
Illustrations follow Chapter 4 and Chapter 9.,

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