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New Book Dissects Reagan's Role In The Cold War

Mar 9, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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What role did former President Ronald Reagan play in ending the Cold War — and how did that role evolve?

In a new book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, journalist James Mann finds that Reagan experienced a major transformation between the time early in his presidency when he called the Soviet Union a force for evil and his talks with leader Mikhail Gorbachev several years later.

In a famous 1983 speech, Reagan said: "I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil."

But by 1988, Reagan had found a Soviet negotiating partner in Gorbachev. At a summit in Moscow, Reagan was asked about his seeming acceptance of what he had called the "Evil Empire."

"I was talking about another time, another era," he replied.

Together, Reagan and Gorbachev wound down the Cold War. In his dealings with the Soviet leader, Reagan was rebelling against his earlier self, his conservative supporters and the Washington foreign policy establishment, Mann tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Realist leaders such as Richard Nixon and Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger criticized Reagan's policies toward the Soviet Union. Nixon argued that Gorbachev was "another Soviet leader, a new face on the same policies," Mann says. Nixon, who visited Moscow in 1986, essentially called Gorbachev an iron fist in a velvet glove.

"Quite a misperception," Mann says, adding, "All of these [analogies] turned out to not be true. But it really showed the images that American leaders lived with at the time."

Mann says several contemporary politicians, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as conservative pundits, were all quite wrong about Gorbachev's leadership.

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