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.
REAGAN FACED DOWN the pacifists and appeasers. And he faced down the totalitarians. Hitler was the biggest terrorist-totalitarian threat of the 1930s; radical Arabs are the biggest today. But in the '80s Reagan confronted the Soviets, who were the most dangerous of all to America and the world at large. The Nazis never had the means to destroy the United States, and Arab radicals don't today; the Soviets did. In Reagan's War, Peter Schweizer describes a fascinating incident during the all-out Soviet war games of the early 1980s. The Russians (just for the hell of it) blipped the orbiting Challenger space shuttle with a high-power laser. Only minor damage resulted, but the message was clear. We are feeling our oats, and we have you in our sights. We can hit where and when we please.
Terrorists and totalitarians have always been two sides of one coin; a totalitarian out of office is a terrorist. The Nazis were terrorists until they took over Germany; in fact they never stopped being terrorists. In the '80s, the Soviets supported Marxist and anarchist terrorists all over the world. In recent years, warm fraternal ties between Saddam Hussein and Arab terrorists, or the totalitarian Taliban and al Qaeda, follow the same pattern.
Reagan faced down the most dangerous totalitarians. With a mighty shove (or a kick in the pants), he sent the Soviets reeling towards the ash heap of history (Trotsky's phrase). But he was acutely aware at the same time that they were doomed anyway, in the long run. Many big-shot thinkers disagreed. They were positive that the Soviets were holding their own or were beating the West. Professor Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University, 1982:
The Soviet Union is not now nor will it be during the next decade in the throes of a true system crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties.
Professor John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard, 1984:
The Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.
Etc. The point is not to ridicule these mistaken profs; rather to underline that, while liberals today like to argue that "Reagan made no difference, the Soviet Union was on the way out anyway," they did not see it that way at the time--but Reagan did.
Nor did Reagan leave the Soviet collapse to chance. His arms buildup and especially his Strategic Defense Initiative were feats the Soviets could not duplicate even if they died trying. For Gorbachev, last ruler of the Soviet Empire, the launching of the SDI project "was the most effective single act to bring that old apparatchik to his senses," according to Professor Genrikh Trofimenko, adviser to the Soviet Foreign Ministry (quoted by Derek Leebaert in The Fifty-Year Wound). I have heard liberals argue that Reagan could not possibly have planned to beat Soviet communism this way, by unleashing the U.S. economy; but how do they think we won World War II? Of course by heroic fighting and--by unleashing the U.S. economy. U.S. economic might crushed the Nazis and Japanese as it crushed the Soviets.
Insufficiently appreciated: Reagan did not merely launch military projects with ambitious technological components; he believed in technology, and in Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. (After all, he was a good Californian.) He believed that technology would help unleash the American economy, which would charge off yelping and yapping into the future and leave the Soviets far behind. When Reagan left office, technology was a Republican issue. It is puzzling and sad that George W. Bush has made so little effort to regain the issue for Republicans.
Finally, Reagan furnished his own camp with inspiring leadership. In one of his favorite, best-remembered phrases, he told the world that America was and must always be the "shining city upon a hill." "The phrase comes from John Winthrop," he explained, "who wrote it to describe the America he imagined." Winthrop wrote those words aboard the Arbella bound for Massachusetts Bay in 1630: "We shall find that the God of Israel is among us," he wrote. "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." The phrase comes from Matthew 5:14 ("Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid"), and indirectly from the prophet Isaiah ("In the end of days it shall come to pass that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and many nations shall flow unto it"). Reagan's use of these words connected late-20th century America to the humane Christian vision, the Puritan vision, that created this nation.
TO GRASP Reagan's achievement, we must understand the striking continuum of pacifism from the 1930s through the 1980s through today--and remember, simultaneously, that Churchill had help changing Britain's mind (namely Hitler's war); Bush had help changing America's mind and his own--9/11. But in 1980 the world was (approximately) at peace. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was the only large-scale exception. Reagan therefore confronted pacifist America and the pacifist world with no leverage, no mechanical advantage. To accomplish his objectives he had to shoulder the whole weight of world pacifism and throw it over. And he did.
Nowadays Swedish demonstrators wave signs reading "USA-murderers" and "War is terrorism." In 1982, Italian demonstrators brandished signs reading "Reagan brings war to Italy" and "Reagan executioner." During the First World War, the British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, "I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal"; in the mid-1930s, British prime minister Stanley Baldwin was reported to be "for peace at any price," and in 1938, the politician Thomas Jones (Baldwin's close friend) wrote that "we have to convince the world that for peace we are prepared to go to absurd lengths." Same theme from World War I through this afternoon: The United States (and Britain) are guilty; war is evil no matter what; peace must be preserved whatever the cost.
Reagan knew it all to be a simple-minded lie, and said so memorably at Pointe du Hoc. "The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge--and pray God we have not lost it--that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest."
A Finnish anti-Iraq-war protester told an interviewer not long ago, "All my life I've been of the opinion that you can't achieve anything with violence and war except evil." In 1982, 59 members of the German Bundestag signed a petition attacking Reagan's "massive arms buildup with mass-destruction weapons such as the ones that your defense minister has enforced." (The defense minister was Caspar Weinberger; with his deceptively Jewish-sounding name, Weinberger was Europe's Wolfowitz during the 1980s.) In the 1920s "we converted ourselves to military impotence," said Sir Warren Fisher, Treasury permanent secretary, describing Britain's disarmament policy. Same theme from 1920 through today: Never mind the enemy, weapons are evil. Weapons are the enemy. Reagan said "to hell with that," and made it stick.
In 2003, a German pacifist planning a trip to Iraq announced, "I hope to ask Saddam Hussein to cooperate with the weapons inspectors and generally work for peace." In 1982, the German Social Democrat Herbert Wehner (who was on the payroll of the East German secret police) explained that the Soviet military was "defensive rather than aggressive." "Germany does not want war," wrote the prominent British statesman Lord Lothian in the Times after a cordial visit to Hitler, "and is prepared to renounce it absolutely as a method of settling her disputes with her neighbors."
Same theme from the 1930s till now--don't be an alarmist warmonger, the enemy's not so bad! A "human shield" who went to Iraq in 2003 to protect Iraqis from Americans wrote afterwards, "I was shocked when I first met a pro-war Iraqi in Baghdad--a taxi driver taking me back to my hotel late at night. I explained that I was American and said, as we shields always did, 'Bush bad, war bad, Iraq good.' He looked at me with an expression of incredulity." ("By the time I left Baghdad five weeks later," he reports, "my views had changed drastically.") MIT economist Lester Thurow, in the early 1980s: "It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable." In 1938 the British pundit and politician Sir Evelyn Wrench was shocked by the Kristallnacht pogrom, but "after a few days I regained my confidence in Germany's good intentions," and after all Hitler "will not go to war unless pushed into it by others," according to the former Labour party leader George Lansbury. Saddam was not so bad, Soviet rule was not so bad, Hitler was not so bad--and left-wing intellectuals call Bush and Reagan simple-minded!
"Simplistic"--France's foreign minister on George W. Bush's foreign policy, 2002. "Simplistic"--New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis on Ronald Reagan, 1983.
At an anti-Iraq war demonstration in March 2004, the actor Woody Harrelson read a poem: "I recognize your face, I recognize your name. Your daddy killed for oil, and you did the same." During Reagan's presidency, America was still reeling from an antiwar movement that had accused American soldiers of grotesque, routine atrocities in Vietnam. In the late 1930s, the British essayist A.L. Rowse, dining at Oxford, "heard a member of the government urging the usual Ribbentrop arguments upon the assembly. In a pause Robert Byron leaned across the table and said loudly, 'Are you paid to make propaganda for your country's enemies?'"
Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, thought patriotism was good in itself. He thought America was beautiful.
Anyway it's impossible, can't be done: Bush opponents all over the world say so with respect to a free, democratic Iraq. Reagan's opponents said exactly the same about bringing down the Soviets: It's impossible, not to mention stupid. During the 1930s, all sorts of Hitler-appeasers pointed out that Hitler was for peace--and the West could never beat him anyhow.
Reagan said "I can; watch me."
We understand the totalitarian's lust for power. We are less familiar with the pacifist's lust for impotence. But if we care to understand the modern world, the "Will to Powerlessness" is just as important as Nietzsche's famous Wille zur Macht.
TO UNDERSTAND modern Conservatives versus modern Liberals, think of Reagan and the president he defeated and replaced, Jimmy Carter. Carter left office with a tight-lipped bitterness that the whole world understood: We watched him lose his Liberal virginity on international TV. The Soviets grabbed for Afghanistan, one more buffer state to shore up the fringes of empire--and Carter was shocked. The Communists were not good guys after all! Inflicting liberalism on the economy was not such a great idea either; Carter left office in 1981 to the grating clatter of economic disintegration. Twelve percent inflation and 21 percent interest rates had Americans well and truly scared. Hence the grim, drawn faces of a Carter, a Kerry, a Gore: They are faithful to the liberalism of their youth, but feel it crumbling beneath their feet. Today's proud leaders of liberalism are stone statues on the portals of medieval churches: rigid, immovable, and somberly decaying.
Reagan (on the other hand) was no mere optimist. He was an optimist who dealt in reality and looked at the world head on. He was a modern Conservative in the great tradition of Benjamin Disraeli, the "Tory Democrat." Conservatives and liberals (in this worldview) are equally progressive, equally interested in the future. They are different insofar as liberals are detached from the past and look to the international community for advice and approval. Conservatives are detached from the international community and look to the past for advice and approval: to their ancestors, their national history, their religious traditions, their cultural patrimony. "What inspired all the men of the armies that met here?" Reagan asked at Pointe du Hoc. "It was faith, and belief; it was loyalty and love."
Reagan was a realist, but a "mystic nationalist" also. He did in fact call himself a "mystic," according to Peter Schweizer; and he was certainly a patriot and a nationalist. But mystic nationalism is more than the sum of parts. It is a religion--but one that translucently overlays (without obscuring or superceding) Judaism or Christianity.
Mystic nationalism is a tradition nobly represented in the 20th century by such statesmen as Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion. Reagan would have recognized himself in a passage by the poet Rupert Brooke, killed at age 28 in the First World War. "He was immensely surprised," Brooke wrote in 1914 about an unnamed friend, "to perceive that the actual earth of England held for him...a quality which, if he'd ever been sentimental enough to use the word, he'd have called 'holiness.' His astonishment grew as the full flood of 'England' swept him on from thought to thought. He felt the triumphant helplessness of a lover."
"There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning," Reagan said in his farewell speech, referring to the White House. "The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that's the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river."
Abraham Lincoln spoke for mystic nationalism. "The mystic chords of memory," Lincoln wrote, "stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." That was Reagan's faith also.
One of the most persistent anti-Reagan accusations is that he failed in detail; he operated at the "executive summary" level. But in Reagan this was a strength. No personality can encompass everything. Most detail specialists approach life bottom-up and never do grasp the big picture. A rabbinic anecdote explains why Moses was a great leader: Moses proclaimed (Exodus 15:1) "I will sing to the Lord for He is greatly exalted," and the people responded, referring to the Egyptian army's convenient disappearance: "Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea." The people saw only details: Egypt's army had lost a battle. Moses saw the big picture--the greatness of God. Reagan was no Moses, but he too was a big picture man; and he did usher a significant portion of mankind from bondage into freedom.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.