June 5 marks the 10th anniversary of former president Ronald Reagan’s passing. I vaguely remember watching the breaking news reports as a 10-year-old kid. It was the first time I had ever heard the name Ronald Reagan and my second memory regarding politicians; the first was the 2000 election coverage as a 6-year-old. Since then, throughout my teenage years, I was a harsh critic of the Reagan administration — as are a lot of people on this campus.
But now I walk proudly down this campus sporting a Reagan/Bush ‘84 campaign sweatshirt. And, of course, I receive some eye rolls and murmurs in the background. Yet this is the reason I am writing this article: Where I once held the same views on Reagan as the typical UC Berkeley student, seeing Reagan in a negative light, I now regard him as a transformative president in international history. I was able to do so because I approached learning more about this president from an open-minded perspective. What I have noticed as a history major is the lack of this approach from many students. When we have a chance at learning from and discussing with renowned scholars, we often let our already narrow perspectives block any potential for real learning.
I am aware that as Berkeley gets ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, the name Reagan can become more controversial. Indeed, he did begin his term as California governor at the time the FSM ended and ordered the National Guard to suppress the People’s Park rebellion in 1969. Nonetheless, this article is about the foreign policy during his presidency.
In the realm of foreign policy, Ronald Reagan’s presidency is amazing to study. Although I am not going to suggest that he himself ended the Cold War, I do believe he played a radical role in the grand American strategy that led to its end. Along with his transformative counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, he had immense agency worth commending.
For example, in 1983, Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But in his second term, after Gorbachev succeeded his dying predecessor in 1985, Reagan began to approach Soviet-American relations in a way unlike any other Cold War administration before him. He was not satisfied with the status quo of approaching Soviet-American estrangement and worked towards his goal of nuclear abolition — not the freezing of it through detente. After meeting each other at Geneva in 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev embarked on a series of summits that would end the Cold War and foster new relations with the Soviet Union. At the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, they met with the similar aspiration of nuclear abolition. A year later, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by both leaders. Then in 1988, Reagan rescinded his “evil empire” accusation of the Soviet Union by telling reporters at the Moscow Summit that it was “about another time, another era.”
This amazing transformation of Reagan’s grand strategy often goes unsung. I actually didn’t know about this until having taken a few courses with the brilliant Daniel Sargent, an assistant professor in the history department. The pictures of Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev at Governors Island in New York really illustrate a side of the Reagan administration of which I was unaware. He put forth great effort in befriending Gorbachev, visiting Moscow and holding more summits with the Soviets than his predecessors. Recognizing that the two became good friends, it is hard to dismiss Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 assertion that the Cold War was over. In fact, Gorbachev visited his friend’s casket in Washington to pay his respects when the former president died in 2004.
One may argue that the end of the Soviet Union’s command economy was inevitable and that Reagan and Gorbachev were not that transformative, but that is a view of determinism I find hard to hold true. The very idealistic Reagan could have easily continued to refer to the Soviets as an evil empire and could have dismissed not only detente but also any other relations with the Soviet Union. Moreover, he could have continued to increase defense spending after 1985. Instead, he decreased it.
The legacy of the Reagan administration is tainted by the Iran-Contra affair and even the controversy of Reaganomics, but I invite students here at Berkeley to look at Reagan beyond the things we already know. This was not an evil man hell-bent on destroying the Soviet Union or disregarding human rights. Reagan took great thoughtfulness in his actions as president — as both an ideological man and a man of practical compromise.
He believed that the Soviet Union was not the problem; it was communism. He criticized that system for violating human rights, continuing Jimmy Carter’s human rights revolution. Furthermore, he was also hostile to Nixon’s detente and committed his administration to changing the previous strategies of containment that had failed. In foreign policy, his agency as America’s 40th president helped end Soviet-American estrangement and bring forth the ascendance of the new world order in international relations.
So again, I invite the Berkeley community to reflect, with an open mind, upon one of the most impactful presidents in history who left behind lasting legacies.
Reagan, the great communicating Gipper, may you rest in peace.
Kevin is a third year history and political economy major with concentrations in modern international history and the history of modern technology.