President Reagan was holding a meeting in the Cabinet Room on March 25, 1985, when Press Secretary Larry Speakes came over to me, as communications director, with a concern.
The White House was about to issue a statement on the killing of Major Arthur Nicholson, a U.S. army officer serving in East Germany. Maj. Nicholson had been shot in cold blood by a Russian soldier.
Speakes thought the president’s statement, “This violence was unjustified,” was weak. I agreed. We interrupted the president, who reread the statement, then said go ahead with it.
What lay behind this Reagan decision not to express his own and his nation’s disgust and anger at this atrocity?
Since taking office, Reagan had sought to engage Soviet leaders in negotiations, but, as he told me, “they keep dying on me.”
Two weeks earlier, on March 10, 1985, Konstantin Chernenko, the third Soviet premier in Reagan’s term, had died, and the youngest member of the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, had been named to succeed him.
Believing Gorbachev had no role in the murder of Maj. Nicholson, and seeking a summit with the new Soviet leader to ease Cold War tensions, Reagan decided not to express what must have been in his heart.
Which raises a question many Republicans are asking:
What would Reagan do — in Syria, Crimea, Ukraine?
Is Sen. Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, or Gov. Jeb Bush or Chris Christie the candidate most in the Reagan tradition, the gold standard for the GOP?
We cannot know what he would do, as we live in a post-Cold War world. But we do know what Reagan did.
In the battle over the Panama Canal “giveaway,” Reagan stood against Bill Buckley and much of his movement and party. “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re gonna keep it,” he thundered.
The Senate agreed 2-1 with Jimmy Carter to surrender the Canal to Panama’s dictator. Reagan’s consolation prize? The presidency.
Reagan came to office declaring Vietnam “a noble cause” and determined to rebuild U.S. military might and morale, which he did in spades. His defense budgets broke the spine of a Soviet Union that could not compete with the booming America of the Reagan era.
What’s our strategy, his first National Security Council adviser Dick Allen asked him.
Replied Reagan: “We win, they lose.”
Reagan saw clearly the crucial moral dimension of the ideological struggle between communism and freedom. He called the Soviet Bloc “an evil empire.” Yet he never threatened military intervention in Eastern Europe, as some bellicose Republicans do today.
Reagan would not be rattling sabers over Crimea or Ukraine.
When Gen. Jaruzelski’s regime smashed Solidarity on Moscow’s orders, Reagan refused to put Warsaw in default on its debts. But he did deny Moscow the U.S. technology to build its Yamal pipeline to Europe.
Given Europe’s dependency today on Russian gas, a wise decision.
When the Soviets deployed triple-warhead intermediate-range missiles in Eastern Europe, the SS-20, Reagan countered with nuclear-armed Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe.
Only when Gorbachev agreed to take down all the SS-20s, did Reagan agree to bring the Pershings and cruise missiles home.
When Gadhafi blew up a Berlin discotheque full of U.S. soldiers in retaliation for the Sixth Fleet’s downing of two Libyan warplanes, Reagan sent F-111s in a reprisal raid that almost killed Gadhafi.
Ronald Reagan believed in the measured response.
He hated nuclear weapons, “those god-awful things,” he used to say, and seized on the idea of a missile defense, SDI. And while he was ready to trade down offensive missiles, when Gorbachev at Reykjavik demanded he throw the Strategic Defense Initiative into the pot, Reagan got up and walked out.
Would Reagan go into Syria? Almost surely not.
On the last day of his presidency, he told aides the worst mistake he made was putting U.S. Marines into Lebanon, where 241 Americans perished in the terror bombing of the Beirut barracks.
He had no problem working with flawed regimes, as long as they stood with us in the cause that would decide the fate of mankind.
The East-West struggle was the top priority with Ronald Reagan, which is one reason he vetoed sanctions on South Africa.
Whatever her sins, Pretoria was on our side in the main event.
But while Reagan would not challenge Moscow militarily in Central Europe, he provided weapons to anti-Communist guerrillas and freedom fighters in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua to bleed and break the Soviet Empire at its periphery and make them pay the same price we paid in Vietnam.
Reagan was an anti-Communist to his core, having fought them in the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s. But he was never anti-Russian, and wanted always to keep the channels open. He ended his presidency as he had hoped, being cheered while strolling through Red Square with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Ronald Reagan never wanted to be a war president, and there were no wars on Reagan’s watch. None. The Gipper was no neocon.