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The Gipper's long run to end communism

Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His 40-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism, Peter Schweizer, Doubleday: 288 pp., $26

October 20, 2002|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for The Times.

The president has largely discredited the United States with his wild rhetoric about an evil foreign enemy. Bombing raids in the Middle East have incurred the ire of the Arab world. When he visits Italy, demonstrators throng the streets with placards calling him a warmonger and an executioner. At home, the country is embroiled in a debate about whether the White House's recklessly provocative unilateralism is going to lead to world war.

This might sound like George W. Bush on the eve of war with Iraq, but it also describes the popular view of Ronald Reagan during the Cold War. The parallels are anything but accidental. Bush has staffed his foreign policy team with former Reagan officials, ranging from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz to the hawkish Richard Perle. Their conviction is simple: The Cold War provides the model for American foreign policy. Just as Reagan's confrontational policies destroyed the Soviet empire, so Bush's tough-minded actions will defeat terrorism and permanently ensure American global dominance.

But will they? In drawing on the Reagan era, are Bush administration officials following a sure-fire guideline for success or a roadmap to disaster? Was Reagan really a visionary or merely a bumbling dunderhead who happened to be president when the Soviet Union imploded simply because of its own weaknesses? Or are the doves opposed to the Bush administration the true fossils of the Cold War era? The end of the Cold War has not stilled the debates about the merits of militancy abroad but rather given them a new lease on life.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 589 words Type of Material: Correction
War status -- The review of "Reagan's War" in the Oct. 20 Book Review stated that Lew Ayres was a conscientious objector in Oregon during World War II. In fact, Ayres, in addition to being a conscientious objector in Oregon, served as an Army medic and chaplain's assistant in the Pacific during WWII. Also, the review incorrectly stated that Jane Wyman was married to Lew Ayres. Wyman was never married to Ayres.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 10, 2002 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
War status -- The review of "Reagan's War" in the Oct. 20 Book Review stated that Lew Ayres was a conscientious objector in Oregon during World War II. In fact, Ayres, in addition to being a conscientious objector in Oregon, served as an Army medic and chaplain's assistant in the Pacific during WWII. Also, the review incorrectly stated that Jane Wyman was married to Lew Ayres. Wyman was never married to Ayres.

Peter Schweizer's "Reagan's War" thus arrives at an opportune moment. Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, makes a rousing and compelling case that Reagan's personal and political odyssey, beginning with his days in Hollywood and concluding with his presidency, was central to bringing down the "evil empire." Indeed, Schweizer argues that Reagan had it right from the beginning. He broke with the passivity of his predecessors to change America's goal from containment to the outright overthrow of the Soviet Union.

Schweizer has conducted numerous interviews with former Soviet and American officials and drawn on archives in the former Warsaw Pact countries. He confines himself to Reagan's role in the Cold War, which makes for a coherent and gripping narrative. But he may have stumbled upon an even bigger story: the transformation of the GOP from being dominated by Wall Street internationalists to being taken over by hawkish Sunbelt conservatives.

As Schweizer reminds us, Reagan cut his anti-Communist teeth in Hollywood after World War II. As an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Reagan was a Cold War liberal who saw Stalinist aggression as a fundamental threat to the United States and Western Europe. Confronted in 1946 with the specter of Communists trying to take over Hollywood's major labor unions, including the Screen Actors Guild, Schweizer says, Reagan began what would be a lifetime crusade against the "Red Menace": "He was passionate about it, attending meetings, reading up on the subject of communism, talking endlessly about it with friends." His wife, Jane Wyman, thought he had lost it. She divorced Reagan and married pacifist movie actor Lew Ayres, who had sat out World War II in a conscientious objectors' camp in Oregon.

Reagan was undaunted. He became president of the Screen Actors Guild and campaigned full time against Communist influence. But Schweizer takes pains to show that Reagan was not a Red-baiter: He opposed Truman's loyalty oath program for all federal employees and viewed Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) as a loose cannon, although he never attacked him publicly. Reagan's belief was that communism was weak and would crumble as long as the West confronted it and did not become fearful.

As Schweizer tells it, Reagan became progressively dismayed with U.S. presidents for their timidity in confronting the Soviet bear. President Eisenhower's caution left him cold: Reagan delivered a stream of speeches in the 1950s declaring that the U.S. was economically superior to the USSR and needed to grind it into the dust by spending the Soviet Union into the ground militarily. In October 1964, Reagan's message hit the big time: He delivered a nationally televised speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that sounded his uncompromising theme -- victory or defeat -- and $8 million poured into the beleaguered campaign. "The GOP," says Schweizer, "which had for so long been a liberal party, was now being reborn as a conservative party ...."

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