How Ronald Reagan confounded critics and baffled even his supporters to help end the Cold War.
Admirers of the 40th president credit his “evil empire” rhetoric and his military build-up for backing the Soviet Union into an inescapable corner; critics describe him as a merely passive observer who happened to hold office while the Soviet system imploded. Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Mann (The China Fantasy, 2007, etc.) focuses on what was uniquely Reagan about the ending of the Cold War, a task complicated by the president’s opacity, even to those who knew him best. The author masterfully traces the nearly parallel career of Richard Nixon, the only cold warrior whose anticommunist credentials rivaled Reagan’s and who cemented a balance of power relationship with the Soviet Union, continued under Ford and Carter. On the campaign trail, Reagan roundly criticized detente. Viewing the Cold War as a struggle of ideas and economic systems, he sought not merely to accommodate the Soviet system but to change it. During his second term, abetted by the unlikely Suzanne Massie, an author who tutored him on the Russian “soul,” Reagan understood that Gorbachev was a new kind of Russian leader, one who understood the degree to which the communist system had ossified. Through diplomatic channels both formal and informal, and with a seemingly unerring sense of when to apply pressure and when to ease up, Reagan matched Gorbachev move for move, as both leaders deflected relentless criticism from hardliners within their own countries. Mann enlivens his account with telling anecdotes—Gorbachev’s impatience with Reagan’s incessant joking, Reagan’s erroneous suspicion that Gorbachev might secretly believe in God—and with a brilliant exposition of the tug of war within the administration over Reagan’s famous Berlin Wall speech.
An incisive illustration of the often underrated role a leader’s personality plays in shaping world events.