Monday, June 07, 2004

The Three Musketeers

John Fund argues that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II won the Cold War. Until Reagan the twilight struggle between America and Soviet Communism seemed destined to last indefinitely. A generation of American attack submarines, strategic bombers and high-intensity combat systems built to outmatch Soviet weapons that were never built is mute testimony to the conventional belief that it would. For forty years the struggle continued. Then came came an extraordinary confluence.

Ronald Reagan died just one day after President Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on Pope John Paul II for his heroic efforts to topple communism. Those two men, together with Margaret Thatcher, deserve much of the credit for the West's success in the Cold War. As the nation mourns Ronald Reagan we should also pause to reflect that in the space of 27 months between 1978 and 1981 three such extraordinary leaders--each with the belief that evil must be confronted--should have come to power. Together they changed the world. Containment had been the cornerstone of U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union since George Kennan articulated it in 1947. Reagan decided to add an active effort to undermine the props supporting the Soviet empire. Former CIA director Robert Gates says that "Reagan, nearly alone, truly believed in 1981 that the Soviet system was vulnerable . . . right then."

Paul Reynolds of the BBC disagrees. In his view, Reagan was a limited, but fortunate man who simply happened to be there when it happened.

He was not one of the greats like Lincoln or Roosevelt. They were presidents on whom the fate of the nation and the world depended. The Reagan presidency mostly made its mark by being inspirational. The battles of his day were battles of ideas and his ideas prevailed. One problem was that he saw communism everywhere.  Shortly after he came to power, he and his Secretary of State Al Haig decided that the front line ran through Central America, in particular the small country of El Salvador then in the middle of a revolution. They really believed that a thread ran from El Salvador to Nicaragua to Cuba to Moscow. This obsession led to the "contra scandal" which did Ronald Reagan great harm later on. Central America was really a sideshow, and the Berlin Wall would have fallen anyway, but at the time, President Reagan gave the impression that the fate of the western world depended on what happened among the mountains of those until-then forgotten lands. ...

History will probably record Ronald Reagan as a fortunate president, lucky to be on watch when the Soviet Union began to crumble. It will argue over how far he and his soulmate Margaret Thatcher contributed to that collapse. But it will not argue over their supreme confidence that they were right.

Paradoxically, both Reynolds and Fund suggest that an element of what might be called 'destiny' was involved: though one is thankful and the other rails at it. Certainly the time seemed to bring forth extraordinary men. If the first tier was occupied by Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul, there was a remarkable second tier consisting of Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Corazon Aquino, to mention a few, who supported the leading players. Reynolds would be hard pressed to dismiss them all as limited and rabid anti-Communists who just happened to luck out. But Fund in justice would have to admit that the 1980s were a special time and that Ronald Reagan's triumph rested if not in his stars then at least in his ability to read the sky aright: to feel the first fair wind toward his "shining city" when others had accommodated themselves to the doldrums. That Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul came together was no accident, yet neither was it foreordained.

Ex-Presidents Ford, Carter, George H. Bush and Clinton -- all able men in their own way -- might ask themselves if it was 'fate' and not some fault in themselves that bestowed a greatness on Ronald Reagan that will almost certainly elude them; though fortune is a two-edged sword as Ronald Reagan's long illness reminds us. It is especially poignant for Bill Clinton, still young and possessed of a restless intelligence, to ask himself if he could have done better, but it is ultimately a futile question. Maybe the moment came to him and maybe it didn't, yet it passed before he knew it.