The Magazine

One of a Kind

From the June 21, 2004 issue: Nine reasons the world would have been different if someone else had won the 1980 election.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

* Missile defense. This was the greatest bargaining chip of all time. The Soviets were deathly afraid that their entire offensive missile force would be neutralized by what Reagan called his Strategic Defense Initiative and critics called Star Wars. American doubters said missile defense was a fantasy, but Reagan believed missile defense could provide a shield over the entire United States. He was adamant about pursuing it.

A moment of truth occurred at the Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Gorbachev was prepared to eliminate all nuclear weapons--his own and Reagan's--if Reagan would give up the development of missile defense. Reagan refused. Instantly the Soviets, especially Soviet generals, realized they'd lost the Cold War. They couldn't keep up an arms race. Reagan had broken their will, and undermined their faith in their system. Reagan alone could have done this.

* Communism. For more than three decades, the bipartisan policy toward Soviet communism consisted of containment and détente. The idea was to keep the Soviets from expanding the Communist empire and coexist peacefully with them. As Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said, America was Athens, the Soviet Union was Sparta. The only hope for America was to work out a deal with the Soviets.

Reagan thought otherwise. He stood the policy on its head, tossing aside the postwar consensus and seeking to defeat the Communists and roll back their "evil empire." Few Americans felt this was possible, but Reagan said in 1982 that communism would wind up on the "ash heap of history." He did everything short of war to ensure that result. Reagan, the boldest of hard-liners, succeeded where others wouldn't have tried. He said he simply "began applying conservatism to foreign policy."

* Wars of national liberation. These had been the chief means of enlarging the Soviet empire. It was one thing to oppose this type of expansion, as the United States had. It was quite another to seek the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites. And it was a still bolder leap to support anti-Communist wars of liberation to take back countries lost to Communist takeovers. It was beyond the imagination, much less the inclination, of the State Department and the political establishment.

Carter had aided Afghan rebels against Soviet occupiers, sending them pre-World War II rifles. Reagan stepped up the support many times over, sending Stinger missiles. In Nicaragua, he backed the contras, a coalition of peasants and remnants of the old Somoza regime. Liberals and much of the world fumed at the policy, but Reagan didn't flinch. The Soviet empire shrank before collapsing altogether in 1991. Reagan alone had foreseen this.

* Tax reform. Who thought this would happen? Practically nobody. The standard practice was for presidents to talk up tax reform, then abandon the idea. That's what Carter did. The conventional wisdom in Washington was that there was no constituency for cutting rates, repealing special interest loopholes, and broadening the tax base. Reagan comprised a constituency of one, which turned out to be sufficient.

*National spirit. That Reagan, more than anyone else, drove away the gloomy, defeatist mood of the 1970s is a fact. We have this on the authority of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who praised Reagan last week for leading "the great cause of cheering us all up." Given his optimism and eloquence and storehouse of upbeat anecdotes, this now seems like no big deal. But who else could have done it? John Connally perhaps? John Anderson maybe? Howard Baker? A reelected Jimmy Carter? These questions answer themselves.

A half century ago, philosopher Sidney Hook drew a distinction between an eventful man and an event-making man. The key difference is that while both may arrive at a fork in the historical road, the event-making man helped to create the fork. The event-making man also "leaves the positive imprint of his personality upon history--an imprint that is still observable after he has disappeared from the scene." That's Reagan exactly. He not only seized opportunities successfully, he created them. This puts him in a class by himself among postwar presidents. And it reflects well on the wisdom of the American voters who chose him in 1980 over eight rivals for the presidency.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.