"Consider the way things were when he came into office and the way things were when he left -- totally different," Gaddis added. "The Berlin Wall came down less than a year after he left. That fact alone means we have to get over our preconceptions about this guy and acknowledge that something substantive occurred."
For years, Reagan-watchers -- including some of the president's own aides -- described him as an essentially passive leader, a man who had strong convictions but paid little attention to the details of his own policies.
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.
But that simplistic portrait was complicated in 2001 when Kiron K. Skinner, a young historian at Carnegie Mellon University, published the texts of many of the hundreds of radio talks Reagan delivered -- mostly written without speechwriters -- in the late 1970s.
"They were very impressive," LaFeber said. "I wasn't ready for something like this." The radio scripts "surprised a lot of people," Gaddis said. "Whatever you think of the level of sophistication of the ideas, it's a remarkable performance for someone who was thought to rely heavily on speechwriters." In the radio scripts and other speeches, Reagan laid out a vision of the fall of communism that sounded, at the time, utopian and naive.
"Communism ... is a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the Earth because it is contrary to human nature," he said.
In Reagan's view, an arms race with the Soviet Union was a good thing -- because it would strain the inefficient Soviet economy and prompt the Russians to negotiate for arms reductions.
It "would be of great benefit to the United States if we started a buildup" of nuclear weapons, he told the Washington Post during the 1980 campaign.
Some Reaganites, such as former arms-control agency director Kenneth L. Adelman, have argued that Reagan's massive defense buildup -- especially his Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), or SDI, the project to build weapons that could block an attacker's nuclear missiles -- was key to the Soviet Union's collapse.
Liberals such as LaFeber disagree. They contend that economic competition was a more important factor, and give Gorbachev credit for recognizing that the Soviet Union could not compete with the West without sweeping political reforms.
They argue that Reagan's most important move was not his defense buildup, but his decision in 1984 to offer Soviet leaders economic cooperation in place of military competition.
The liberal view is endorsed by Anatoly F. Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador in Washington during most of the Reagan years, who wrote in his memoirs: "If the president had not abandoned his hostile stance for a more constructive one during his second term, Gorbachev would not have been able to launch his reforms.... Quite the contrary. Gorbachev would have been forced to continue the conservative foreign and domestic policies of his predecessors in defense of the nation against America."
But most historians have come to believe that it was the combination of the two -- Reagan's initial toughness toward Moscow, followed by his willingness to ease up -- that made the end of the Cold War possible.
"Obviously, it was some combination of both," Gaddis said. "The defense buildup and SDI certainly had a profound psychological impact on the Russians, who just could not see how they were going to compete.... .
"The hard line paid off. But equally important was the extended hand as soon as there was someone on the other side to grasp it. There was no one to grasp it until Gorbachev. Reagan deserves credit for recognizing that Gorbachev was a different kind of leader."
In fact, Reagan was seeking arms reduction talks with the Soviets even before Gorbachev came to power in 1985. In early 1983, Reagan authorized Secretary of State George P. Shultz to open talks with Moscow to reduce tensions between the two superpowers.
Reagan himself met secretly with Dobrynin in February 1983 to confirm that he was interested in rapprochement, only three weeks before the famous "evil empire" speech. The meeting was kept secret in part to avoid arousing hawks in Reagan's own administration, journalist Don Oberdorfer reported in a 1991 book on Reagan's U.S.-Soviet diplomacy, "The Turn."
Even then, Reagan and Shultz believed -- correctly, as it turned out -- that Soviet leaders might be searching for a path toward major change. In 1983, they addressed their secret messages to then-Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov, but Andropov was ailing and died in 1984. His successor, Konstantin U. Chernenko, ruled for only 13 months before dying in 1985.
Reagan's record includes another paradox. Conservatives such as Adelman credit SDI with frightening the Soviets into making concessions. But Reagan himself never conceived of SDI as a bludgeon to stampede the Soviets, aides and scholars have concluded. Instead, they believe, he was sincere in offering to share the technology with Moscow -- as part of his own utopian desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons entirely.