The Magazine

The Ronald Reagan I Knew

From the November 24, 2003 issue: A behind the scenes look at a consummate politician and statesman.

Nov 24, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 11 • By MAX M. KAMPELMAN
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THE RECENT DECISION by CBS to cancel a television program about President Ronald Reagan because it was "not balanced" revealed that those who had created the program reflected a belief held by the left in American politics that Reagan was not capable of governing in a responsible manner. Although I am a longtime liberal Democrat in the Hubert Humphrey tradition, I feel compelled to share my personal experiences with President Reagan, which led me to a contrary conclusion.

My first meeting with Ronald Reagan took place in Palm Beach, Florida, in the winter of 1978. The occasion was a large fundraising dinner sponsored by the American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was the national chairman of the organization, and Governor Reagan was our speaker of the evening. We sat next to each other during the dinner, and as we began talking, he mentioned to me that he owned Israel Bonds.

When I told him of my former association with Humphrey, it was as if a bond suddenly formed between us. "Hubert was my good friend," he said, adding that Humphrey had on occasion spent the night at his executive mansion when in California. He told me that Humphrey had been very helpful to him when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. "Hubert helped me a great deal as we fought the Communists," he said, and he told me that he and Humphrey had been among the organizers of the liberal anti-Communist Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). "Hubert would have made a great president," Reagan said. My wife and I now recall that shortly after we came to Washington in 1949, we were at the home of James Loeb, the national director of ADA. Our dinner was interrupted by a phone call from Ronald Reagan, then an actor. It was clear Jim considered him an ally.

In 1980, President Carter asked me to leave my law practice and accept a temporary diplomatic assignment at a 35-country meeting in Madrid of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. With the defeat of Carter and the election of Reagan in November, I properly submitted my resignation and happily prepared to return to private life. Much to my surprise, General Al Haig, whom I knew and who was designated as Reagan's secretary of state, telephoned me to say that both he and the president wanted me to remain in Madrid. I agreed. When I met with President Reagan shortly thereafter, he obviously recalled our earlier meeting in Florida.

DURING THE MORE THAN TWO YEARS in Madrid that followed my reappointment, I had a number of occasions to discuss with President Reagan the human rights issues that were on our Madrid agenda. The most significant of those occasions came toward the end of our negotiations. In late 1982, I reported to Secretary of State George Shultz that I saw signs the Soviets were eager to end the conference and were probably prepared to give us most of what we and our NATO colleagues were proposing for the final agreement and declaration. They had lost their battle to kill NATO's deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles, partly because of the severe criticisms of the Soviet Union coming out of the Madrid meeting. I told Secretary Shultz, however, that I was no longer satisfied with our demands, which primarily entailed verbal commitments. I felt we should demand the release of victims of Soviet repression, many of whom were in prison or unable to obtain visas to leave the country. Secretary Shultz understood my concerns, but was surprised by my suggestions and pointed out that they would change the rules in the middle of the contest. As we talked further, his interest increased and he said that my proposal required a decision to be made above his pay grade. He called the president, and in a few minutes we were driving to the White House.

The president listened to my proposal carefully. I pointed out to him that our NATO partners as well as the Soviet Union would oppose the serious change I was proposing. Shultz predicted that all of NATO, particularly Germany, would oppose this change in our objectives for the Madrid meeting. The president listened carefully and then said, "George, you take care of [German foreign minister] Genscher should he call, and I will take care of the chancellor should he call me. I like Max's proposal."

The president then asked me how I would proceed, and I acknowledged that I had not arrived at a plan of action. But I explained that I knew it was important for me to talk to the KGB general who was in charge of the Soviet delegation. It was also very important that I not consult with our allies, primarily because our new demand would appear to be unattainable and likely to prolong the sessions, but also because publicity would make it much more difficult for the Soviets to accept my proposal.

The president interjected that he would like for me to make sure that the seven Russian Pentecostals who were in hiding in the American Embassy in Moscow were among those whose release we would insist upon. He informed me that he had told Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the release of the Pentecostals was essential if the Soviet government wanted to have better relations with the United States, but he had heard nothing more from the Russians on that subject.

As the secretary and I were leaving the president's office, the president went to his desk, opened a drawer, and took out some sheets of paper, which he gave me saying, "See what you can do about these people, Max." The list consisted of Soviet Jewish refuseniks, most of whom were in prison.

I now had my authority from the president. It took effort, but the KGB in Moscow finally accepted our proposal on the condition that we inform nobody, not even the Soviet ambassador in Washington. Hundreds of human rights victims, including the Pentecostals in the embassy and their Siberian relatives, were released from Soviet jails and permitted to leave the country. We did not inform our allies of the private negotiations. Neither the president nor the secretary of state publicized the arrangements, and the Madrid meeting came to a fruitful end after three years of talks.

FOLLOWING MY RETURN TO PRIVATE LIFE, the president became concerned by the fact that the American embassy was the only embassy in Moscow to station observers outside the Moscow synagogue every Friday night to discourage KGB hostility. He wrote personal letters to a number of European heads of state asking them to send an embassy official to join us outside the synagogue every Friday evening. He asked me to deliver those letters, and to add my urgings at sessions with the heads of state. He provided me with Air Force transportation. This, too, was never publicized.

There is one other event of interest that took place during the Madrid meeting, as I now think about Ronald Reagan the human being. On one of my return visits to Washington, I used the occasion of a meeting with George Shultz to make a proposal relating to the change of leadership that was taking place in Moscow. I sensed from dealings with my KGB colleague that the changes were potentially significant. The secretary listened carefully to my proposal, and then informed me that he had made a contrary recommendation to the president on the previous day. The idea was not a vital or strongly held one by me, but Shultz continued to think about it and said that he felt that the president should hear my thoughts. He phoned the president's secretary and told me I had an appointment with the president the next morning at 9, a meeting he himself could not attend because of a scheduled breakfast with a number of congressmen.

At 9 the next morning I was escorted into the president's office. It was apparent that I was interrupting a staff meeting. The president explained that Shultz had suggested he listen to an idea from me. I presented it in summary form. White House chief of staff Jim Baker, saying that Shultz had made a contrary suggestion earlier in the week, said he agreed with Shultz and did not support my proposal. Ed Meese spoke up, as did two or three others in the room, all agreeing with Baker. I did not take this as a personal affront in any way, and had not expected to get even this far with my idea. But the president, sensing disappointment I did not feel, spoke up. "Don't pay any attention to these fellows, Max," he said. "Not a single one of them was ever a Democrat!"

Following my return to private life I learned from the press that I was being considered to serve as the head of the American delegation in negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear missile reductions and on missile defenses. I did not want the assignment and saw to it that my feelings were made known to Secretary Shultz. Nevertheless, in the midst of a talk I was making in Aspen, Colorado, to a Young Presidents' Organization meeting, I was interrupted to take a telephone call from the White House. On the phone were George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, both of whom informed me that the president would be calling me in about ten minutes and that it was essential I accept the appointment to Geneva. The president called, and I reluctantly accepted. The next day, I was in Washington with the president, who informed me that I was the only person whom Shultz and Weinberger could agree upon to head the delegation to the Geneva talks. He also informed me I should be present at all National Security Council sessions whenever I was in Washington.

The first NSC meeting to which I was invited took place before the Geneva talks began. Weinberger informed the president that he had heard a disturbing report to the effect that Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate leader, was planning to introduce a resolution that would create a Senate Observer Group, which Weinberger felt would in effect take control of the Geneva negotiations. He asked the president to stop this interference with the president's constitutional powers. Others around the table agreed. At the end, the president asked me to comment, and I said that during my three years in Madrid I had found the Congress to be extremely helpful. The president expressed no opinion but directed me to meet with Senator Byrd.

During my meeting with the senator, he pointed out to me that any treaty arrived at would require ratification by the Senate. We proceeded to agree upon a set of rules that would govern my relationship with the Senate group. I welcomed their presence in Geneva as often as they could make it, though I could not permit them to sit in on any of the negotiations. I would, however, whenever the senators arrived, arrange for them to meet members of the Soviet delegation. The formula we agreed upon was reasonable and in no way interfered with my negotiating responsibilities. At the end of our constructive talk, the senator, believing that I was aware of the fact, mentioned that before he had introduced the resolution, he had telephoned President Reagan, who had encouraged him to proceed. The formula we worked on proved indispensable both during the negotiations and at the time the treaties were ratified by the Senate. The president never mentioned his discussion with Senator Byrd at the NSC meeting.

ONE OTHER INCIDENT relating to the president's relationship with the Congress now comes to mind. On the morning of our departure for Geneva to begin the negotiations, the president arranged a large "send off" breakfast at the White House, to which he invited the bipartisan leadership of both houses of Congress. It was a pleasant and exciting event for me and my negotiating colleagues. The president good-humoredly noted my being a Democrat.

About a week later, I received a telephone call from Kenneth Dam, the deputy secretary of state, alerting me that I might be asked to return to Washington to lobby in favor of a proposal in Congress to acquire 23 MX missiles, a deeply controversial issue. I explained that this would undercut the bipartisan spirit that the president had expressed during our breakfast. Ken said that he and George Shultz agreed, but that Max Friedersdorf, the White House legislative director, felt that they were short of the necessary votes and my presence might be helpful. That Friday evening, Friedersdorf called me to say that the president would like for me to be at the White House at 7:30 on the following Monday morning.

When I arrived at the White House, the staff gave me a schedule of visits in the House of Representatives. Tip O'Neill, the speaker of the House, was not on the list, apparently because he was the source of the opposition to the MX. I said I would not set foot in the House until I could first talk to O'Neill. Staffers furiously looked for the speaker and found him at breakfast. He agreed to meet me. I had known him for a long time, and our conversation was excellent. He acknowledged his opposition to the proposal and indicated that he had the votes to kill it, as the White House believed. I explained that I opposed unilateral U.S. action that was not met by reciprocal Soviet action. Why give up our MX missiles without receiving any missile reductions from the Soviets? This was the purpose of our negotiation in Geneva. O'Neill and I then talked in good fellowship about other broader matters, and I proceeded with the schedule provided to me by the White House staff.

I went back to the White House and met with the president. I told him that by the end of the day, I had indications that O'Neill had shifted some votes in our direction. The president immediately picked up the phone and called the speaker. What followed was totally surprising. I could hear only one side of the telephone conversation, but what I heard was two Irish friends cussing each other out and insulting each other freely and good-naturedly. The president thanked the speaker for greeting me and said that I had spoken well of O'Neill, which he said was a lapse in my good judgment. I recall him saying that I was demonstrating how a Democrat could be a patriot, and it was time for O'Neill to follow that example. He then thanked O'Neill for his assistance and winked at me, as we both proceeded to another meeting elsewhere in the White House. During that brief walk, the president made a point of identifying O'Neill with Democrats like Walter Reuther, David Dubinsky, and Hubert Humphrey. In the vote the next day, the 23 MX missiles were approved by a very narrow margin. O'Neill voted no.

THE FIRST REAGAN-GORBACHEV SUMMIT took place in Geneva in November 1985, shortly after our missile negotiations began. I was not present at the summit, but I was present at the National Security Council meeting shortly thereafter where the president summarized his conversations. His theme was, "Maggie Thatcher was correct. We can do business with Gorbachev."

Following the Christmas break, when I returned to Geneva, Viktor Karpov, the head of the Soviet negotiating team, took me aside before we entered the negotiating room to say, "I want you to know that I have an instruction from our highest authority not to criticize your president." This was obviously a byproduct of the summit. He then smiled and said, "This does not include your secretary of defense."

Some years later I had the occasion to meet with Gorbachev and his capable interpreter. They explained to me that Soviet intelligence had informed Gorbachev before that first summit meeting that the president was old, not sophisticated in foreign affairs, and in fact a simple actor and cowboy. With that in mind, they prepared for the Geneva session. The weather was freezing cold. Gorbachev and his interpreter wore heavy winter coats and Russian fur hats, and drove to the meeting place. As their automobile arrived at the door, out came Reagan with a big smile and no coat or hat, energetically running out of the open door and down the steps to greet Gorbachev with obvious vitality. Instead of formalities, Reagan suggested a private one-on-one conversation at a small cottage near the lake, with no others present except interpreters. This apparently produced a successful initial exchange of views and objectives that impressed Gorbachev and laid a good foundation for the agreements arrived at later.

The nuclear negotiations that followed were, of course, complicated and detailed, but the atmosphere remained a constructive one over the years. The negotiations produced two treaties, the first ever reducing missiles in both countries. One treaty totally eliminated intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and the other provided for a reduction of approximately 50 percent in long-range strategic missiles.

It should be said here that in spite of strong concerns and opposition by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and among experts in and out of government, a continued theme in Reagan's mind was the desirability of totally eliminating all nuclear missiles. To the best of my recollection, no member of his cabinet agreed with him, and I can think of no congressional leader who agreed with him. He came close to such an agreement, however, at the Iceland summit, but much to the relief of his cabinet and the congressional leaders of both parties, other differences at Reykjavik stood in the way.

The Ronald Reagan I knew and worked with had my respect and admiration. No American did more to undermine the brutalities of the Soviet Union and destroy the dictatorships of Eastern Europe. No American did more to spread the gift of democracy and respect for human dignity to people who had not enjoyed them. And no American did more to persuade our country that the spread of democracy and human rights to all peoples is the proper goal of the United States. That reality is not likely to be revealed or understood in the television program that CBS still plans to distribute next year. But the American people know who broke down the Berlin wall.

Max M. Kampelman was counselor of the State Department; U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe; ambassador and U.S. negotiator with the Soviet Union on Nuclear and Space Arms; and vice-chairman of the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is chairman emeritus of Freedom House; the American Academy of Diplomacy; and the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.