Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

    In perceiving the Soviet Union as permanent, orderly, and legitimate, [Henry] Kissinger shared a
    failure of analysis with the rest of the foreign-policy elite--notably excepting the scholar and former
    head of the State Department's policy-planning staff George Kennan, the Harvard historian Richard
    Pipes, the British scholar and journalist Bernard Levin, and the Eureka College graduate Ronald
        -Robert D. Kaplan, Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism (Atlantic Monthly, June 1999)

February 6, 1999 was Ronald Reagan's 88th birthday and given his illness, it may well be his last. With his authorized biography due out any day--Dutch : A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Edmund Morris (see Orrin's review)--it seems likely that this year will see an extensive re-examination of the Gipper's role in History. There is no better place to begin that process than with Jay Winik's terrific book.

Winik begins his tale with the disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. This event, combined with the rise of the mullahs in Iran and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, marked the nadir of US foreign policy during the Cold War. America seemed ineffectual and inconsistent and the Soviet Union seemed to be on the verge of winning the Cold War. Meanwhile, the US foreign policy establishment, embodied by men like Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, Warren Christopher, etc. continued to insist on the value of detente and arms negotiations with the Soviets.

Against this tide, a small band of Scoop Jackson disciples began the fight to arrest America's dangerous slide into oblivion. These neo-conservatives-Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, etc.--grew increasingly alienated from a Democratic Party which was rapidly abandoning resistance to Soviet hegemony and supporting groups like the Nuclear Freeze Movement and the Sandinistas. As these disaffected Democrats looked around for a viable presidential candidate in
1980, they gradually recognized that Ronald Reagan, a Republican, was the candidate who was closest to them ideologically. They gradually began to speak out in his favor and when he won, future National Security Advisor Richard Allen found jobs in the administration for many of them.

Over the next several years, this intrepid band, lead now by Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger and George Schultz, would fight to rebuild the American military, install Intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe, develop SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative), supply the Contras, restore America's preeminent position at the UN and negotiate a sweeping arms reduction treaty with the
Soviet Union. In Winik's virtually novelistic approach to his material, these are our heroes & the fights they face. Arrayed against them are the Soviets, Congressional Democrats, the Press, Government bureaucracies and two bureaucrats in particular--Richard Burt and James Baker.

This structure, with heroes and villains and set piece battles, makes the book lively and exciting. But Winik's great contribution is his demonstration of how the Cold War was won and that it was, in fact, won. Several important points emerge in his tale:

    Ronald Reagan--personal-style:

    The most important point that Winik makes about Reagan concerns his faith in his own instincts.
    Reagan almost always lead from in front. His insistence on military build-up, missile deployment,
    SDI development, Contra aid, etc., all ran against establishment opinion. He faced virulent attacks,
    but remained steadfast & eventually dragged public opinion to his side. In one of the many great
    anecdotes that populate the book, Lyn Nofziger recounts rushing to warn Reagan that the John
    Birch Society had just endorsed his first run for Governor & to urge him to renounce the
    endorsement, but Reagan calmly explained that if they were endorsing him it meant they accepted
    his views not that he accepted their views. This inner certainty, about the rightness of his political &
    moral vision, served Reagan well.

Winik also demonstrates that while Reagan did not mire himself in the details of governance, it was he who made the decisions. Time and again it is Reagan who has the final say, from protecting SDI to keeping unpopular aides. This enabled him to keep Weinberger and Schultz on the same team, despite their frequent differences; he simply listened to both sides & then he decided the administration's direction.

    Ronald Reagan's policies:

    It's hard to imagine that anyone who reads the book could ever again argue that the Soviet Union
    simply collapsed on it's own. The decisions to challenge the Soviet's wherever possible: the UN,
    Afghanistan, Nicaragua, etc. and to develop an SDI system that the Soviet's couldn't possibly
    match, seem, pretty inarguably, to have put such pressure on the Russians that they ultimately
    couldn't sustain the "evil empire".

    Ronald Reagan's governing style:

    We are accustomed by now to the media image of Reagan as a doddering fool who let his
    administration go on around him without taking much interest in what it was actually doing. What
    emerges in Winik's account is a much more balanced portrait. He does not claim that Reagan
    immersed himself in details or even sought to influence the initial stages of debate; instead he
    allowed a high degree of tension between competing camps, but when decision time came, he
    stepped in personally & made the final decision. This is especially evident in his Iceland Summit
    with Gorbachev, when he refused to abandon Star Wars, a moment which in retrospect seems to be
    the precise moment when we won the Cold War.


    As much as 1984 (see Orrin's review), Brave New World (see Orrin's review), or One Flew Over
    the Cuckoo's Nest (see Orrin's review), this is a cautionary tale about bureaucracy & bureaucrats.
    The lasting lesson that is imparted is that a bureaucracy can not be lead from without. No President
    can bend a bureaucracy to his will. Bureaucrats run the bureaucracy for it's own sake--the mission is
    to preserve & protect the bureaucracy, not to serve a President, or constituents, or a vision.


    Two men emerge as evil masters of the bureaucratic game--Jim Baker & Richard Burt. Between
    them they manage to use the machinery of the bureaucracy to thwart the Cold Warriors again and
    again. Jim Baker would, of course, go on to destroy the Bush presidency.


    I just happened to be reading this during the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton. Two of
    the talking heads who popped up frequently were Chris Dodd and Tom Harkin, sharing their moral
    vision with us. Well, as Winik recounts, these two Senators conducted their own pro-Sandinista
    foreign policy during the '80's, often on Nicaraguan soil.

    Meanwhile, leaders like Tip O'Neill & Jim Wright worked overtime to torpedo administration
    policy in Central America, leading to the vile Constitution-offending Bolland Amendment &
    precipitating the Iran-Contra scandal.

    Even those Democrats who knew in their hearts that Reagan was right--Dave McCurdy, Steve
    Solarz, Bill Bradley, Les Aspin--were forced time and again by internal party politics to retreat
    from positions of principle. In the end, we're left wondering what had become of the party of
    Truman and Scoop Jackson.

    The Cabinet:

    One can't help comparing the Reagan Cabinet to the Clinton Cabinet. As you read about them, you
    can imagine Schultz or Weinberger or Kirkpatrick taking over the Presidency & you feel that the
    Nation would be in good hands. Can anyone imagine any Clinton Cabinet member becoming
    President?--certainly not without trepidation.

    The Cold War as War:

    The most significant weapon that has been wielded against Ronald Reagan and his administration
    has been the chronic budget deficit and the National debt that accrued on his watch. This debt is
    always portrayed as unnecessary and irresponsible.

    On the Brink demonstrates that the US was at war with the Soviet Union during these years, as it
    had been since 1945. In this context, the debt seems like a reasonable price to have paid to win the
    Cold War.

    Did We Win the Cold War?:

    One of the remaining myths of the Left is that the Soviet Union simply imploded or else Gorbachev
    blew it up & Reagan just happened to be President at the time. No person of conscience could hold
    to that opinion after reading this book. It becomes clear in Winik's account that Ronald Reagan's
    conscious decision to turn up the torque on the Soviet Union--verbally, in the Evil Empire style
    speeches; militarily, by deploying the IMF missile & supporting the Afghan Mujahadeen; &
    financially, by developing Star Wars--created such pressure on the Soviet system that it could not
    maintain itself. Gorbachev's obsession with stopping Star Wars makes it clear that the upper
    echelons of Soviet leadership knew that they could not compete in this high-tech weapons race.
    Ronald Reagan's decision to abandon d*tente and pursue a policy of confrontation must be given the
    lion's share of credit for the demise of the Soviet Union.

This is just a great book and should be required reading for anyone who cares about recent American history.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Jay Winik (2 books reviewed)
Presidents (Reagan)
Jay Winik Links:
    -University of Maryland School of Public Affairs (bio & email)
    -ESSAY: A Brief History of the Resistance> (JAY WINIK, 12/16/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Security Before Liberty : Today's curbs on freedom are nothing compared with earlier wars. (JAY WINIK, October 23, 2001, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Mississippi's Cross : A flag, a state, and a republic.  (Jay Winik, April 20, 2001, National Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : Who Won the Cold War ? (Jacob Heilbrunn, The American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of On the Brink (Bill S. Mikhail, SAIS Review)
    -REVIEW : of On the Brink (Doug Bandow, World)
    -REVIEW : of On the Brink (John W. Sloan, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of April 1865 : The Month that Saved America by Jay Winik (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of April 1865: The Month That Saved America By Jay Winik (David M. Shribman, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of April 1865 by Jay Winik (Terry Eastland, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of April 1865 (Chris Patsilelis, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of April 1865: The Month That Saved America, Jay Winik (Kim Phillips-Fein, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : April 1865 : The Month That Saved America By Jay Winik (Edward Colimore, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ARTICLE: Raze Berlin Wall, Reagan Urges Soviet (GERALD M. BOYD, June 12, 1987, NY Times)

    -ESSAY : Who Got Weinberger? (ELLIOTT ABRAMS, The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 1992)
    -ESSAY : American Power—For What? (Elliott Abrams, Commentary January 2000)
    -REVIEW : of Robert G. Kaufman, Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics The Last Good Democrat : The life and times of Scoop Jackson (Elliott Abrams, Weekly Standard)
    -ARCHIVES : Articles by Elliott Abrams (Ethics and Public Policy Center)
    -PROFILE : Elliott Abrams: It's Back! (David Corn, July 2, 2001, The Nation)

    -ESSAY : The U.S. Must Strike at Saddam Hussein : The war against terrorism cannot be won if Saddam Hussein continues to rule Iraq (RICHARD PERLE, 12/28/01, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Next stop, Iraq : There has to be a second phase in the war against terrorism, and there are several reasons why Iraq should be targeted. (Richard Perle, Israeli Insider)
    -INTERVIEW : with Richard Perle (James K. Glassman, 10/09/01, Tech Central Station
    -ESSAY : The moral imperative of missile defence :  It will end the Cold War practice of threatening to destroy civilians (Richard Perle, AEI)