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A Cold War Hawk Who Set the Stage for Peace

June 06, 2004|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, the United States faced two major foreign policy challenges: the generation-long Cold War with the Soviet Union, and an unfamiliar new threat from militant Islamic movements, which had seized power in Iran and sought to end American influence in the Middle East.

To critics' surprise, Reagan made major progress toward ending the Cold War; the Berlin Wall, the stark symbol of Europe's division between communism and democracy, came down less than a year after he left office.

But in the struggle against Islamic militants who launched terrorist attacks against Americans, Reagan's accomplishments were more ambiguous. In 1986, Reagan sent military aircraft to attack Libya after concluding that its leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, had ordered a terrorist attack against American troops in Germany. But another military intervention, in Lebanon in 1983, ended in ignominy after a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. service personnel in Beirut.

Reagan's presidency reached its low point as a byproduct of terrorism, when he approved an abortive attempt to ransom American hostages in Lebanon through secret weapons sales to Islamic fundamentalist Iran -- a scheme that led to the Iran-Contra scandal over the arms deals and secret payments to right-wing Nicaraguan rebels with the proceeds.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Branch Rickey -- An article in Sunday's Section A about former President Reagan's foreign policy included bracketed material that characterized Branch Rickey as a legendary baseball manager. Although Rickey was at one time a manager, he is best known for his later front office career as an executive with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Still, to his admirers and to an increasing consensus of historians, Reagan will be remembered less for his failings in what would later be called a "war on terrorism," and more for his success in bringing the Cold War to an end.

At the beginning of his presidency, the hawkish Reagan, who two years later declared the Soviet Union an "evil empire," announced a massive buildup of U.S. nuclear weapons and vowed to roll back communism around the world. But when he left office eight years later, communism was beginning to collapse, the superpower conflict was heading toward an improbably peaceful end and the new, little-understood threat from Islamic militants was only beginning to emerge.

Reagan didn't "win" the Cold War single-handedly; he was only one of nine presidents who led the United States during the long east-west conflict from 1947 to 1989, from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush.

But Reagan did play a central role in ending the Cold War, and by the time of his death 15 years after he left the Oval Office, even some of his most dogged critics were willing to grant him credit.

"Reagan's contribution to ending the Cold War was comparable to [President] Nixon's contribution to opening up China," said Walter LaFeber, a historian at Cornell University who has long been critical of Reagan. "Politically, to have somebody of Reagan's ideology do this was very important. It would have been very difficult for [a Democrat] to do it."

Reagan's presidency, fiercely controversial in its day, can still start arguments. But at least among scholars, the debate on Reagan is no longer over whether the conservative president had a serious foreign policy strategy or if he contributed to the end of the Cold War.

Instead, they now debate a list of more subtle questions: How much credit does Reagan deserve compared with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet reformer? Did Gorbachev change communism's course because he feared Reagan's military buildup, or because he yearned for Western technology and economic growth? And which Reagan was more important in ending the Cold War, the grim missile-builder of the first term or the genial peacemaker of the second?

Those questions may long remain unanswered. But most historians now concede that Reagan played a central role in directing the epochal events of the 1980s, and that is a significant shift in scholarly opinion.

Even Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Democratic Party's unofficial historian-laureate, acknowledges that Reagan deserves "considerable credit" for the end of the Cold War, although he still thinks the man's domestic policies were "a disaster."

"It is probably true that Reagan's intensification of the arms race ... hastened the collapse of the Soviet economy," Schlesinger wrote in a magazine piece several years after Reagan left office. "In a reversal that did him enormous credit, he ... outdistanced his own national security bureaucracy in taking Mikhail Gorbachev seriously and in moving to end the Cold War."

"There really has been a discernible change," said John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University. "Historians are taking Reagan much more seriously.... There are very few who would still say what most were saying when he left office, which is that he was a cipher when it came to foreign policy. He was much more of a force than people gave him credit for at the time.

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