When President Reagan, on the eve of his summit with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, rejected the inevitability of war between the superpowers, he was bearing witness to a remarkable transformation in his longstanding view of the world. Reagan, by some process not yet fully understood, put behind him the belief that his mission was to prepare for the ultimate conflict that would usher in the Millennium.
The President had not only been given to denouncing the Soviet Union as "the evil empire," but had long been interested in the concept advanced by the religious right--a preordained nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union, sparked by an incident in the Middle East.
Reagan had indicated his absorption with the Armageddon vision in conversations going back to 1971. In that year, recalls James Mills, former president pro tempore of the California Senate, Gov. Reagan told him in a dinner conversation in Sacramento, "For the first time ever, everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ."
Mills, in a 1985 magazine article, said that Reagan, his voice rising in pitch, continued, "It can't be long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God's people. That must mean that they'll be destroyed by nuclear weapons. They exist now, and they never did in the past."
Such an apocalyptic view would hardly be consistent with a vigorous arms-control policy, and Reagan continued talking that way into his first presidential campaign. In a 1980 interview on Jim Bakker's PTL television network, he said, "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon."
As he began looking forward to a second term, there appeared signs of a change in the Reagan view of an inexorable descent into global war. They were hard to detect amid the continued barrage of anti-Soviet rhetoric. Thus not many paid attention when then-Sen. Paul Laxalt, a Reagan confidante, said in 1984: "I've seen the look in our President's eye when he has spoken to me privately, quietly, about his yearnings for peace . . . . From the very depths of his soul Ronald Reagan wants us to reach an accord with the Soviets that will allow us to share this planet peacefully."
Later, asked during his debate with Walter Mondale in Kansas City about the Armageddon prophecy, the President appeared to be backing away. He said:
"A number of theologians, for the last decade, have believed that this was true, that the prophecies are coming together to portend that. But no one knows whether Armageddon--those prophecies mean that Armageddon is a thousand years away or the day after tomorrow. So I have never seriously warned and said that we must plan according to Armageddon."
In his victory statement after his landslide reelection in 1984, the President talked of reducing nuclear weapons and ultimately banishing them from the Earth. Laxalt said that high on the second-term agenda was seeking ways to negotiate with Moscow and roll back the arms race. Such assertions did not stand out amid slogans like "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"
But, unnoticed by many, Reagan was changing. According to Michael Deaver, Reagan friend and former White House aide, in his unpublished book quoted by the Washington Times, Nancy Reagan had been trying since 1981 to get her husband to broaden his base from his traditional right-wing constituency.
Deaver wrote, "She lobbied the President to soften his line on the Soviet Union . . . . It was Nancy who pushed everybody on the Geneva summit (of 1985). She felt strongly that it was not only in the interest of peace, but the correct move politically."
It may be overly simple to attribute a profound change in philosophy to the influence of one person, even one so influential as the First Lady. Yet the President appeared to be turning his back on much of his past when he repudiated the idea of inevitable war during his pre-summit interview with four television network anchormen in December. While saying that he had not changed his mind about "the evil empire," he broke with the religious right in this statement:
"I think that some of the people who are objecting the most and just refusing even to accede to the idea of ever getting any understanding, whether they realize it or not, these people basically, down in their deepest thoughts, have accepted that war is inevitable and that there must come to be a war between the two superpowers. Well, I think as long as you've got a chance to strive for peace, you strive for peace."
"These people," whose champion he had been, reacted with understandable outrage. But for Reagan, Armageddon seemed far away and long ago when he welcomed Gorbachev to the White House, saying, "It's up to us, with hard work, commitment and a heavy dose of realism, to change the poor peace that has existed between our two countries and make it a good one."
Speculation that the President's pursuit of summitry, expected to take him to Moscow next June, represents no more than an effort to salvage a reputation tarnished by the Iran-Contra affair and other setbacks does not do justice to what now appears to have been a longer and deeper process of change. It is perhaps akin to the character actor, while still playing his old role of anti-Soviet crusader, trying out the exciting new role of peacemaker.
Thus, support for "freedom fighters" in Third World confrontations with Soviet clients, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, co-exist in his mind with pursuit of better relations with the perceived central headquarters for these confrontations in the Kremlin. No longer does Reagan believe that, with fatal inevitability, an incident in the Middle East will lead to a nuclear collision. Otherwise how could one think of reducing the stockpile of nuclear weapons?