The Magazine

Reagan in Opposition

The lessons of 1977.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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"The personal campaign machine that Reagan built and ran from 1975 to 1979 was his pathway to the presidency," wrote two of his editors. "His speeches and columns were important and necessary, but his radio commentaries were the driving force." "His radio talks were ways of both keeping himself before the voters and developing the arguments that he would later put before the American people," said John O'Sullivan. "He later remarked that he developed his political views .  .  . mainly by writing and so having to think his way through problems. Several aides testify that they could recall him losing his temper only when he was interrupted while trying to finish a column or speech." In these years, he would think his way through nearly 1,400 addresses as he refined his philosophy, while establishing himself as the country's leading Republican. In late 1980, a broadcasting magazine wrote that if Reagan won, he should "give a low bow in the direction of Harry O'Connor."

On January 19, 1977, Reagan gave his first talk of the new Carter era, warning about the growing strength of the Soviet Union, which he felt that the outgoing Ford administration had not done enough to address. From his point of view, Carter would not be an improvement: For three years, Reagan would produce a running critique of the Carter administration's foreign policy, and the administration would give him a great deal about which to complain. In the first year alone, he protested when Carter proposed to withdraw all U.S. ground forces and nuclear weapons from South Korea without trying to force North Korean concessions; complained when Carter planned to cut $57 billion from the seven-year defense spending plan, complained when Carter suspended the development of the neutron bomb, planned to cancel the Trident nuclear submarine, and canceled the B-1 bomber in June. He protested when Carter declared that the Cold War was over (without concurrence from the Soviet Union), he opposed the SALT II treaties limiting weapons on the grounds that the arms race was the symptom, not the cause, of the Cold War and its problems, and he opposed the treaties to turn over the Panama Canal to Panama as compromising the defense perimeter of the United States. Above all, he opposed the idea of détente.

"Détente" was the policy first instituted by President Richard M. Nixon, under the tutelage of Henry Kissinger. Bearing in mind the scars of the Vietnam debacle, détente held that (1) America's power was limited; (2) America's moral authority had been compromised (by Vietnam, and resistance to civil rights measures); (3) that the Communist powers were permanent fixtures; and (4) that the United States therefore had neither the right nor the might to impose its will upon others, and must lower its sights. -Hayward quotes a 1970 assessment of Kissinger: He "feels that the United States has passed its historic high point .  .  . is on the downhill and cannot be roused by political challenge .  .  . [and] his job is to give us the best deal we can get."

Reagan dissented from all these perceptions. He thought the aim of American foreign policy should be not to get along with the Communist powers but to hasten their end. He opposed the Helsinki accords because he thought they codified the captive status of Moscow's East European satellites. He believed détente conferred a false legitimacy upon states whose governments were not installed by the consent of the governed. He opposed arms control negotiations for their own sake because he thought the arms race was the symptom, not the cause of international tensions, that the cause was the Communists' expansionist tendencies, and that in these agreements the United States always gave up more than it gained. He agreed with Churchill and with the Democrats' mid-century presidents that the best way to avoid a war was to be ready to fight one, and he quoted in one of his radio addresses the phrase "No nation ever saved its freedom by disarming itself in the hope of placating an enemy," from NSC-68, one of the Cold War founding documents of the Truman administration. Thirty years earlier, these beliefs were the views of politicians of both major parties, but by the mid-1970s they were considered eccentric and dangerous, not only by the Democratic party of McGovern and Carter, but by the Republican party of Nixon and Ford. Reagan's aim was to restore these views to the national dialogue, and in time he did.