(This is an ongoing series appearing in BigLeaguePolitics taken from the forthcoming book Reagan: The American President by Larry Schweikart)
“An amiable dunce” is the way one Fake News writer of the day described Ronald Reagan. “Sleepwalking through history,” said another. The last thing anyone said about Ronald Reagan—including most of his sympathetic biographers—was the truest thing: Ronald Reagan was an intellectual.
This term usually applies to people who “make their living with ideas,” and as such often excludes politicians. But obviously Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt were intellectuals, and certainly the uneducated Abraham Lincoln was. And so was Ronald Reagan.
He took his college education lightly by his own admission. When he received an honorary degree from Eureka College, he quipped “I always thought my first degree was honorary.” Reagan studied economics. His real majors were football and drama, in that order. But he kept his ears open in class. Not only was he receiving an economic education at Eureka but he also picked up a great deal from Rev. Cleaver, his girlfriend’s father. Dutch also learned economics first hand from his father, a New Deal low-level administrator who dealt with public works and employment (such as it existed in the Great Depression). Jack Reagan had the task of finding work for the unemployed—but learned that once they were on welfare, it was difficult to get them off, only because once the left getting back on was a complicated and difficult process.
Dutch learned that welfare had a detrimental effect on people’s lives.
Indeed, Ronald Reagan was a reader who absorbed everything. By the time he got to Hollywood, he drove his fellow actors crazy by constantly discussing ideas—especially political and economic ideas. It’s fair to say, though, that Reagan’s intellectual life did not bloom until he got to the General Electric factory circuit. There he developed the famous 3″ x 5″ index cards as a means to address the most important topics, while leaving ample time for the Q&A. It was in the Q&A that Reagan found he needed the most research and thought.
When Reagan ran for governor of California, according to this advisors, he had well-developed national policies, but lacked specificity to California’s problems. As others would, at first they thought he was an intellectual lightweight—until they saw him quickly read and digest everything there was to know about California. His advisors were stunned.
Probably the greatest testament to Reagan’s intellectual powers comes from the research he engaged in to draft the comments for his five-minute radio commentaries after he left the California governorship. As just one example, in a single radio commentary on energy, Dutch had seven separate pieces of research: the U.S. Bureau of Mines Report from 1914, the Department of Interior reports from 1939-1949, a book by futurist Herman Kahn, material from the Council on International Economic Policy, an article from the Wall Street Journal, a special report from the Executive Office of the President on critical materials, and an piece by Neil Jacoby on multinational oil. It is worth noting that for one single five-minute commentary, provided more sources than Howard Zinn did in his infamous People’s History of the United States.
In his intellectual development, Reagan arrived at some conclusions that would take others a decade to come to—and some never admitted reality. For example, long before Reagan made his famous visit to Lawrence Livermore, where supposedly he first came up with the idea for “Star Wars,” Reagan had been concerned about nuclear weapons for years and concluded they had to be abolished. Virtually all other politicians at the time were still obsessed with controlling them.
When it came to Islamic terror, Reagan made an important transformation. He began, as did virtually all politicians, pundits, and leaders of the day, with the assumption that violence in the Middle East was linked to traditional state politics and/or as elements of the Cold War. He maintained that perspective until the attack on the Marine barracks, whereupon he finally began to reassess the very nature of Islam and Islamic radicalism. While Reagan never used the term “Islamic radicals, he clearly shifted his thinking. “I still believe,” he wrote after the bombing, “that it was essential to continue working with moderate Arabs to find a solution to the Middle East’s problems,” but added “I was beginning to have doubts whether the Arab world, with its ancient tribal rivalries, centuries of internecine strife, and almost pathological hatred of Israel” could ever support genuine peace efforts. In December 1983, he developed the term “state-sponsored terrorism” to refer to Iran.
The March 1984 National Security Decision Directive 138 (“Combatting Terrorism”), which was the highest statement of the nation’s strategic aims, did not use the term Islam, Islamic, or Islamic radicals. But a paper called “Middle East Terrorism: and Possible U.S. Responses” provided to the Directorate of Intelligence stated flatly that “Iranian-sponsored terrorism is the greatest threat to U.S. personnel . . . in the Middle East. A subsequent analysis in 1985 stated that “Middle Eastern terrorists do not see themselves [in traditional political ways but] “the community of Muslims always had [a] resort to terrorism as a vehicle of religio-political change.” The Islamic terrorist, the report noted, “sees himself as the defender of right against evil and thinks of himself as a . . . kind of soldier in a just war, not as a criminal.” This astounding report naturally fostered some internal backlash, including former ambassador Edward Peck, who called it “a piece of . . . fecal material” and another unidentified commentator on the report called it “less-than-helpful sociobabble.” But Dutch had already moved toward an understanding of radical Islam, noting “ we can’t afford another Beirut. Most likely, we will get another terrorism attack.”
Most of all, Reagan’s intellect was on display in his holistic approach to the Cold War, where he viewed America’s success—economically, politically, and militarily—as having exactly the opposite impact on the USSR. When our inflation fell, boosting purchasing power here, Soviet gold sales fell (tenfold in Reagan’s first term). That in turn crushed the Soviets’ ability to generate hard cash. When the American economy soared, that reduced the absolute burden of defense expenditures, making it harder for the Russians to keep up. Reagan understood the value of rock and roll in spreading freedom among young people, boosting Voice of America and Radio Free Europe; he knew the moral compass of many Russians was still God-focused, despite years of “godless communism” leading him to ally with Pope John Paul II. To the Gipper, everything that was good that happened to America had a negative impact on the USSR. A great America (and Reagan used the phrase “Make America Great Again” in one of his speeches, but apparently didn’t like the line) meant a weakened and collapsing Soviet Union. It all fit in Reagan’s comprehensive world view. As an intellectual, Reagan understood all aspects of America’s struggle with the Soviets.
Larry Schweikart is the co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States with Michael Allen and the author of Reagan: The American President (Post Hill Press, May 2019)
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