Paul Lettow at Heritage

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I attended a panel session at the Heritage Foundation yesterday featuring Paul Lettow, author of Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, published in hardcover last year and now out in paperback. Paul is a recent graduate of Princeton who earned a Ph.D. at Oxford and a J.D. at Harvard. Several years ago, he worked for me as a research assistant — a classic case of hiring someone who's smarter than you. His book is an expanded version of his Ph.D. thesis, but it doesn't read like one. Paul interviewed almost all the living veterans of the Reagan foreign policy team and did original research in the documents — including the speeches Reagan delivered for General Electric and a speech draft Reagan prepared in the 1940s but was prevented from delivering by Warner Bros.

It turns out that Reagan was horrified by nuclear weapons and the destruction they could cause, starting with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in August 1945. Consistently, from the time he was a liberal Democratic actor through his service as a conservative Republican president, he wanted to abolish nuclear weapons — remember that he and Gorbachev agreed to do so at the Reykjavik, Iceland, summit in 1986 but that the agreement was vetoed when Reagan refused to stop beyond-the-laboratory research on the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI, Lettow confirms, was a pure Reagan project, shepherded skillfully through a reluctant and/or skeptical bureaucracy and past leading officials by a shrewd and determined president. This isn't, of course, the picture we have been given of Reagan by most journalists and authors at the time of Reagan's presidency or later. Paul Lettow has the documents to prove it.

One of the interesting points Paul made at lunch is that while he was doing his research at the Reagan Library, from 1998 to 2001, he found that no one had previously looked at many of the national security documents of his administration. Some had only been recently declassified, but others had been available for some time. Yet no one in the 10 or more years after the Reagan presidency had looked at them. Contrast that with the period after World War II. Robert Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins, which contains lengthy excerpts from many documents and papers, was published in 1948, just three years after Roosevelt's death and the end of the war. So was The Gathering Storm, the first volume of Winston Churchill's six-volume history of the war, which also included long excerpts of documents and papers. I gather that since Lettow did his research other scholars have been going through the Reagan papers. Still, it strikes me as interesting that for a decade or so very few scholars seemed to take the Reagan administration seriously. Paul Lettow and others are now helping us to understand how this politically shrewd autodidact made such a huge difference in history.

One other point: Paul notes that Reagan consistently believed that the Soviet Union was an economic and spiritual failure on the brink of collapse. That was not, to say the least, the conventional wisdom of the time. But Reagan believed it and based his policy on it, and he turned out to be right. Where did that belief come from? I can't help thinking that Reagan was influenced by reading Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944. Hayek argued that centrally planned economies simply couldn't work. He drew most of his examples from Nazi Germany; he was living in London and purposely refrained from citing the Soviet Union, which of course was an ally of Britain and the United States at the time.

In researching this post, I was leafing through Reagan in His Own Hand, the book edited by Kiron Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson that reprints Reagan's 1977-79 radio commentaries and some of his other writings. I came on the following passage from a radio commentary dated June 15, 1977. Here's part of it, with spelling and punctuation unedited:

The Sen. Select Comm. on Intelligence has published a report that makes one wonder if they know who really is the enemy. I'll be right back.

In both houses of the U.S. Congress the committees and sub-committees which used to concern themselves with threats to national security by alien & subversive groups have been closed down. There is however a Senate Committee to ride herd on our intelligence gathering agencies to see that they no. 1 operate lawfully and no. 2 effectively. So far they've only concerned themselves with no. 1.

In the committees annual report 38 of its 40 pages are devoted to what the committee has done to make sure our agencies operate lawfully.

Sen. Daniel Moynihan wrote a dissent to the report in which he said the committee made it sound as if the chief threat to our liberties was our own intelligence apparatus rather than the enemies that apparatus was supposed to protect us from. . . .

When I served on the presidential commission looking into the C.I.A. we learned the Soviet U. had quadrupled it's espionage efforts in the U.S. Can we hope that in the next annual report the Sen. Comm. will let us know how the enemy is doing now that they are so proud of having brought our own intelligence agencies under control — which means hand cuffed?

This all seems part & parcel of an attitude in Wash. that our liberties will be safe if we can just keep the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. from doing what they are supposed to do. . . . Isn't it time for someone to ask if we aren't threatened more by the people the F.B.I. & CIA are watching than we are by the FBI & the CIA?

I write this on a day when the Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating NSA surveillance of telephone calls between suspected al Qaeda terrorists abroad and numbers in the United States. Some things don't change much, do they?