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Keep your enemies closer

In public Reagan reviled them, but in private he sought to talk to our foes.

April 06, 2008|Melvyn P. Leffler | Melvyn P. Leffler is the co-chairman of the Governing America in a Global Era program at the University of Virginia and the author of "For the Soul of Mankind: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War."

Should the next president talk to the country's enemies?

Barack Obama stresses that he would. Hillary Rodham Clinton equivocates but basically would be averse to premature talks with our adversaries.

John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, did not address the issue in his recent speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. But the Bush administration has been clear about its approach: Rather than engage our enemies, it has preferred to revile and isolate them. That's what it did to Iraq before invading it and to North Korea before joining six-party talks to rid it of nuclear warheads, and what it still does to Iran. And there has been no effort to engage Raul Castro, Cuba's new leader.

One former president, whose name has frequently come up in the presidential campaign as an object of near-veneration, talked to the country's enemies. He was Ronald Reagan, and we can learn much from his approach.

Reagan enjoyed publicly denouncing the Soviet Union. At his first news conference as president, he railed against that country's communist leaders, who reserved "the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat" and believed in "treachery, deceit, destruction and bloodshed." On another occasion -- in one of his most famous speeches -- he said they were "the focus of evil in the modern world."

During his eight years in the White House, Reagan dramatically raised U.S. military spending, invaded Grenada, deployed a new generation of missiles to our allies in Europe and aided the mujahedin in Afghanistan and the Contras in Nicaragua. In March 1983, he announced a new strategic defense initiative -- Star Wars.

All this is well known. What is not as well known is the other Ronald Reagan, the one who persistently sought to negotiate with the men who ran the evil empire. Housed in the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is a trove of evidence concerning his efforts to talk to the nation's enemies, including a series of letters that he wrote to Soviet leaders, often in his own hand to underscore their authenticity.

What did Reagan say to Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko? He told each of them that, notwithstanding the differences between the United States and the U.S.S.R., there was much to talk about. Common problems could be discussed across the ideological chasm. The "fact that neither of us likes the other," he said in a January 1984 speech, "is no reason to refuse to talk. Living in this nuclear age makes it imperative that we do talk."

To Brezhnev, Reagan wrote in April 1981 that he was lifting the grain embargo on the Soviet Union and seeking dialogue. "The peoples of the world, despite differences in racial and ethnic origins, have very much in common. ... Should we not be concerned with eliminating the obstacles which prevent our people from achieving their most cherished goals?"

And when Andropov, Brezhnev's successor, died in February 1984, Reagan quickly wrote to the new Soviet leader, Chernenko, "I have no higher goal than the establishment of a relationship between our two great nations characterized by constructive cooperation." In another letter, Reagan said the two nations should look "for specific areas in which we can move our relationship in a more positive direction."

Within his administration, Reagan's desire to talk to the enemy encountered bitter opposition. The president's close friend, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, hated the idea. But Reagan pressed forward. The U.S. had to be strong, Reagan insisted, but the purpose of its strength was to talk.

As Reagan's determination to talk to the country's main adversary grew, he came to understand the evil empire in ways that surprised him. The Soviets, he learned, were frightened of his actions. Indeed, we now know from British and U.S. intelligence reports that the autumn of 1983 was the second-scariest time in the Cold War. That's when the U.S. military exercise Able Archer tested command and communications procedures for firing nuclear weapons in wartime, raising fears in the Kremlin that Reagan might be preparing a surprise attack.

Reagan was astonished. He wrote in his autobiography: "Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians. Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn't have surprised me, but it did."

Was his new insight correct? He began asking visiting emissaries: Were the Soviets really afraid of U.S. power? Again and again, he was told that they were.

He had heard, Reagan wrote Chernenko in March 1984, that the Soviet leader hoped history would recall "us as leaders known to be good, wise and kind. Nothing is more important to me, and we should take steps to bring this about."

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