East of California
On Tuesday, November 13, 1979, an eager audience gathered in the ballroom of the New York City Hilton to hear the worst-kept secret in politics revealed. Former governor of California Ronald Reagan was going to announce his third attempt at the presidency. His first campaign, in 1968, had been a half-hearted effort soon stymied by his California rival Richard Nixon. His second effort, in 1976, a primary challenge against the incumbent Gerald Ford, had come within a heartbreak of victory, ending only on a sweltering summer night in Kansas City at the Republican convention when Ford's delegate count barely beat Reagan's. It was the last time in American presidential politics when a political convention determined a major party's nominee. Many also expected it was the last time Reagan would seek the White House.
But the ensuing years of the Jimmy Carter presidency also witnessed Reagan's new incarnation as a conservative speaker and broadcaster who stayed in the public eye-and kept his own eager eyes on the White House. Now aged sixty-eight, Reagan stood at once as a conservative icon and an old man. His campaign aimed to persuade Republican primary voters to focus on the former and disregard the latter.
Perhaps seeking to recapture the enchantment of his political debut, 1964's "A Time for Choosing," the television speech that launched his political career, Reagan forsook the traditional campaign announcement before a hometown crowd and instead returned to a nationwide broadcast. His campaign purchased airtime on some eighty television stations across the nation to reintroduce viewers to the man who would be president.
Arriving inside the Hilton from Gotham's chill fall air, the two thousand guests encountered the singular blend of Hollywood and Washington, DC, that would define the Reagan presidency. His good friend and fellow actor Jimmy Stewart welcomed the audience and introduced Reagan, who took the stage and began to speak to the gathered crowd-and to a curious nation.
For the man who would devote much of his presidency to waging the Cold War, Ronald Reagan gave but a perfunctory mention to the Soviet Union. Instead, he spent most of his foreign policy attention on North America. Proclaiming, "We live on a continent whose three countries possess the assets to make it the strongest, most prosperous and self-sufficient area on earth," he called for "a developing closeness among Canada, Mexico, and the United States-a North American accord."
Why this focus on North America? Because for Reagan, defeating Soviet communism began with restoring national strength at home. He believed that a free and prosperous North America held the key to the United States' power projection in the world. In contrast to the Soviet Union's position on the Eurasian landmass-a decrepit empire surrounded by coerced vassal states to its west and impoverished and wary neighbors to its south and east-Reagan held that these "three countries with such long-standing heritages of free government" could forge a new hemispheric partnership committed to liberty and prosperity.
Yet before he could get to the White House, Reagan had to win the election. And before he could win the election, he had to win the Republican nomination, which meant winning over many skeptics in his own party. In what would be a recurring theme over the next decade, prominent conservative voices lambasted Reagan's announcement speech for being too soft on Moscow. The weekly magazine Human Events, at the time perhaps the nation's most influential conservative periodical, pulled no punches: "Considering the grave peril to this country because of the Soviet worldwide challenge, the foreign policy portion of the Reagan speech had a rather pathetic quality to it." The Wall Street Journal editorial page voiced similar displeasure at the speech's anemic foreign policy content, noting caustically, "Perhaps Mr. Reagan will offer more as time goes by. For his own sake, he will have to."
Considering the multiple security crises facing the nation, such caviling was understandable. Just one week earlier, Iranian revolutionaries had stormed the United States embassy in Tehran and seized the American staff-an ordeal that would continue for 444 days with 52 Americans held hostage and the United States subjected to unrelenting global humiliation. The next month the Red Army would pour across the Friendship Bridge in the Soviet Union's surprise invasion of Afghanistan. These two blows to America's already battered national psyche and international credibility reinforced the sense among many voters that the Carter presidency was weak, and put the United States at more risk in a dangerous world.
It was also a different world than the one Reagan had faced fifteen years earlier when he had made his national political debut. His "A Time for Choosing" speech, aired nationwide in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign on October 27, 1964, catapulted Reagan from a forgotten Hollywood actor and corporate pitchman to a conservative political luminary. One abiding concern connected Reagan then with Reagan now: a hatred of communism, and the conviction that the Cold War must not be lost and could be won. He declared in the speech,
We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, "Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave masters." . . . There is no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can have peace-and you can have it in the next second-surrender.
Reagan had long worried that the United States' Cold War strategy failed to exploit America's strengths and Soviet communism's weaknesses. In a 1963 speech he complained that American policy was "based on pure conjecture that maybe communism will mellow and recognize that our way is better." Instead, he asked,
If we truly believe that our way of life is best aren't the Russians more likely to recognize that fact and modify their stand if we let their economy come unhinged so that the contrast is apparent? . . . In an all out race our system is stronger, and eventually the enemy gives up the race as a hopeless cause. Then a noble nation believing in peace extends the hand of friendship and says there is room in the world for both of us.
Reagan envisioned how the Cold War would end-more than a quarter century before his presidency would help bring it about.
Among the many Americans who took note of Reagan's speech for Goldwater was former president Dwight Eisenhower. While splitting time between his Gettysburg farm and a winter home in Palm Desert, California, Eisenhower also worked to shape and steer the Republican Party. This mission became an even more critical rebuilding project after Goldwater's landslide loss in 1964. Captivated by Reagan's communication skills, Eisenhower reached out and urged him to register as a Republican (Reagan had only left the Democratic Party two years earlier) and consider running for office. Over the ensuing four years, particularly after Reagan won the California governorship in 1966, Eisenhower became Reagan's first foreign policy mentor, conducting a series of discussions on statecraft, world affairs, and lessons of World War II and Korea. In one meeting Eisenhower told Reagan that the most successful use of military force was to win a victory without firing a shot. If an enemy battalion controls a hill, the aging general said, "give me a division and I will take it without a fight." Eisenhower's message shaped Reagan's emerging worldview on force and statecraft: Be cautious about going to war, but if you do, then go all in. And be sure the employment of military power is connected to a strategic policy goal.
Their final meeting on March 9, 1968, a round of golf in Palm Desert followed by lunch, covered the relationship between the economy and national power. Reflecting on his generalship during World War II, Eisenhower declaimed, "It was the American economy, the arsenal of democracy, that really won the war." Mindful of the need for a strategic focus in Pentagon spending, the former president, who had balanced several budgets while maintaining a strong military, also admonished Reagan to "limit defense spending" and "expand the economy," saying, "Sooner or later, that's how we'll win [the Cold War]." The next month Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, and he died less than a year later. Even in death he left his mark, and he would become the single most influential of Reagan's predecessors in shaping the fortieth president's time in office.
Interestingly, in this mentorship Eisenhower also revealed his preference for Reagan over another prominent California Republican, Richard Nixon. This was all the more remarkable because Nixon had served as Eisenhower's vice president for eight years, and Eisenhower knew him much better than he knew Reagan. Yet perhaps it was knowing Nixon so well that led to Eisenhower's disdain. During their White House years, Eisenhower had held his vice president in low regard, cutting him out of major policy decisions, and he had done little to help Nixon's 1960 presidential campaign.
As perspicacious as Eisenhower was in spotting Reagan's talent, he misjudged Nixon, who would soon mount one of the singular comebacks in American political history and twice win election to the presidency. Along the way, Nixon and Reagan developed a relationship of tortured complexity. Both bitter rivals and uneasy allies, the two Californians alternately worked against each other and with each other, while together dominating Republican presidential politics for nearly a half century.
Nixon and Reagan shared much in common. Both had family roots in the Midwest. Both had survived troubled, sometimes abusive fathers; both in turn had found comfort in their pious, nurturing mothers. Both came from families of little means and low social standing. Both found California a land of opportunity and upward mobility, for Nixon first in the practice of law and then in politics, for Reagan in the movie industry, then as corporate pitchman for General Electric, and finally also in politics.
Yet they could not have been more different in outlook, temperament, character, and convictions.
They differed especially over foreign policy. For example, in Asia the two Californians envisioned different priorities. Nixon saw China as the strategic key to the region; Reagan believed instead that Japan was the strategic cornerstone of America's Asia posture. Nixon used international economic policy as a mere instrument subordinate to geopolitics, whereas Reagan believed open trade to be a fundamental principle in its own right and a key pillar of the free societies he sought to promote. Nixon disdained promotion of human rights and democracy as distractions from America's core interests, while Reagan put political and religious liberty at the center of his strategic priorities. In short, Nixon saw the world as it was and tried to align American policy with the way things were. Reagan envisioned the world as it could be and directed American policy toward creating that new reality.
Their biggest difference came over America's main enemy, the USSR. When Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger took office in 1969, they beheld an ascendant Soviet Union and a weakened United States mired in the Vietnam War. They developed the policy of dŽtente to reduce tensions with Moscow through arms control agreements and other conciliatory measures, while pursuing a negotiated exit from Vietnam. They also expanded the global chessboard by bringing China into alignment with the United States as a counterweight to the USSR. For a time dŽtente worked. But then it mutated from a temporary tactic that had advanced American interests in a particular geopolitical moment into a permanent posture that advantaged the Kremlin. It rested on several assumptions: that the Soviet Union was motivated by rational interests rather than communist ideology; that its government and economy were strong and durable; that moderated American policies could change Moscow's international conduct; and that the Kremlin's torment of its own citizens could not be changed. As historian John Lewis Gaddis notes, dŽtente invited the critique "that Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger . . . acquiesced in the emergence, for the first time since World War II, of a serious rival to the United States in virtually all categories of military competition."
DŽtente also conceded Soviet-sponsored gains in the developing world. In the 1970s alone, communists seized power in South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Yemen, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Grenada. In the pungent summary of Tom Reed, a senior Pentagon official in the Nixon and Ford administrations who later joined the Reagan NSC staff, dŽtente meant "losing as slowly as possible." And losing at any rate was still losing. DŽtente was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of Soviet strength and American weakness.
Reagan emerged as dŽtente's most prominent critic. He rejected its assumptions and prescriptions, and in 1976 tried to defeat its main proponents, Ford and Kissinger, in the Republican primary. Reagan did not believe American decline was inexorable, or that the Soviet Union would surrender its ambitions. He lamented that dŽtente only fueled Moscow's malign intentions, dismissing it as "a one-way street that simply gives the Soviets what they want with nothing in return." He frequently described dŽtente as "what a farmer has with his turkey-until Thanksgiving Day." This line was pithy, simplistic, even corny. But it exposed dŽtente's pretensions in a way that any American could understand-and that Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger found hard to rebut.
Reagan's sustained campaign against the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger foreign policy became a defining moment in the history of the Republican Party, and in Reagan's own political career. The national security debate marked Reagan as a new kind of Republican who simultaneously sought to bring his party back to the principles of Eisenhower while updating them for a new era and adding a few unique elements of his own. Yet for those who assumed that a Reagan presidency would make a clean break with Nixon, some surprises lurked-as Nixon would later resurface as a quiet but influential voice in the Reagan White House.
Copyright © 2022 by William Inboden. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.