The Magazine

What Ronald Reagan Understood

From the June 21, 2004 issue: He faced down the totalitarians and the appeasers.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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FOLLOWING the long-ago apocalypse of World War I, the world seemed like a shellshocked battle-casualty remolded by surgeons into something new and terrible. For generations afterward, into the Second World War and out the other side, most people were afraid to look; nearly everyone was scared to act. Ronald Reagan was one of the few who looked straight at this pitiful wreck, grasped the big picture, and refused to accept it. He was no genius like Churchill, no all-conquering statesman-politico like Roosevelt, but his depth of vision and sheer courage were comparable to theirs, and he belongs with Roosevelt and Churchill among the world-changers. He was even attacked in the same ways they were: He was supposedly a charming lightweight bubble-brain like FDR and a fanatic warmongering ideologue like Churchill. Today we have another president who aspires to look the world in the eye and change it, and all we can say is God help him and may he prove to be as big a man as Ronald Reagan.

Since 1918, the state of the world has been so fundamentally simple, many people can't grasp it. It has survived in this condition during the German era of 1918-1945, the Soviet or Cold War era of '45 through '89, and the Radical Arab and Islamist era that followed and is still going strong. It is a three-party world consisting (not only but mainly) of pacifist-appeasers, terrorist-totalitarians, and a third group I will call "mystic nationalists." Throughout these years, the United States has been beset on two sides. We picture Reagan standing up to the Soviets; we sometimes forget that he was engaged on two fronts. He stood up to the pacifists also. And meanwhile the world needed him not only as a fighter but as a celebrant, a high priest. His greatness as a world leader lies in his three-part achievement: staring down the Soviets and the pacifists, and leading the Freedom and Democracy choir in his incomparably polished, inspiring way. (At a time when prominent American pacifists of the '80s are generously praising the man, at least sort of, it is ungenerous to point out that they were among his biggest headaches. Ungenerous but true.) Such statesmen as Harry Truman and Margaret Thatcher were brave fighters, but never approached Reagan as a lyrical celebrant of democracy, patriotism, and freedom. John F. Kennedy at his best was an equally lyrical high priest of Americanism, but never approached Reagan's stature as a freedom fighter.

Who are these three great groups whose existence Reagan sensed so sharply and clearly? After the First World War, Britain was (on the whole) appalled at what had happened, blamed herself (unreasonably) for imposing a harsh peace on beaten Germany and for not having prevented war in the first place. And so Britain gave the world modern pacifism. Pacifism is an ancient doctrine firmly rooted in the New Testament. But the modern variety has these characteristics: It is based on guilt ("we are just as bad as our enemies, maybe worse"), tied to defeatism, and propounds a concrete foreign policy of disarmament and appeasement.

In the 1980s, Reagan was confronted with these same elements--Western guilt, defeatism, and the drive to disarm and appease--as he struggled to rebuild America's moribund military, meet the Soviet nuclear challenge in Europe, and develop an antimissile system (the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI) that could prevent world war by protecting America instead of threatening to demolish Russia. When he traveled to Europe in 1982 he faced massive protests in France, Britain, Italy, and especially Germany. Historians and philosophers of history will be faced one day (when they wake up) with a puzzle. Compare Reagan's trip to Europe in '82 with JFK's two decades earlier. Both arrived bearing the same message: America will stand by Europe. America and Europe will face down the Soviet threat together. But Europe loved Kennedy to pieces and did not love Reagan at all. Why? The answer must lie, at least partly, in a sign waved at Reagan by a European peace-marcher in 1982: "I am afraid." As Europe steadily disarmed and her enemies did not, she grew (not surprisingly) steadily less bold and more scared. '63, '82, '03; the deterioration is sad and clear.