Idealism, realpolitik and contentious personalities clash in this second installment of the author’s illuminating documentary history of the 40th president’s controversial foreign policy.
In this volume, historian Saltoun-Ebin (The Reagan Files, Vol. 1, 2010) presents recently declassified minutes and transcripts from Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council meetings, along with transcripts of summit conversations between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and related speeches, letters and press releases. Two great issues dominate the record. The first is the rivalry with the Soviet Union, stretching from efforts early in Reagan’s term to enforce economic sanctions and respond to communist Poland’s crackdown on Solidarity to later preoccupations with nuclear arms control agreements. The second is Central America policy, as the administration manages the counterinsurgency war in El Salvador and obsesses over the perceived threat from Cuba and Nicaragua; attempts to get around push back from a skeptical Congress eventually move the administration down the path toward the Iran-Contra scandal. Saltoun-Ebin’s adroit editing and useful background notes make the record of policy debates—pitting prickly hawks like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Caspar Weinberger against wilier voices like Alexander Haig and George Shultz—both lucid and absorbing; there are even moments of high geopolitical drama when Reagan and Gorbachev’s tense one-on-one wranglings at the Reykjavik summit suddenly give way to breakthrough nuclear compromises. We get an insider’s view of a Reagan administration that’s savvy, calculating and realistic as it crafts covert operations, strategic leaks, publicity campaigns and international arm-twistings, but also prone to ideological fervors and bunker mentalities. (“There is nothing worse than being defeated by this man,” Reagan seethes during the brewing feud with Panamanian pipsqueak Manuel Noriega.) The proceedings reveal just how deep a stamp Reagan, whose statements the author helpfully formats in bold face, put on his foreign policy, particularly with his Strategic Defense Initiative; this radically idealistic departure from coldblooded strategic orthodoxy drove the eternally suspicious Gorbachev (and Reagan’s own advisers) to distraction—and yet it came to dominate, and almost derail, America’s arms control efforts. Researchers will find in these documents a valuable scholarly resource that exposes the human dimension of Cold War policymaking.
A treasure-chest of significant papers that shed light on an important era.