Jan. 24, 2017
Reviewed by Jason Saltoun-Ebin
The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons From Ronald Reagan’s Final Years
By Peggy Grande (Hatchette, 2017)
Ronald Reagan was just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday when he became the 40th president of the United States in 1981. On the day he took the oath of office for the first time he stood before the world with a full set of hair, a naturally childish smile, an athletic frame that hinted at a youth spent in the pool and on the football field, and a contagious optimism that helped him secure the largest victory over a sitting president in U.S. history.
Four years later, now almost 74 years old, after winning 49 states in what was really an unremarkable first term, he looked just as youthful and vibrant as he did during the 1980 campaign. His most remembered line from the 1984 campaign was even his promise not to make his opponents “youth and inexperience” a campaign issue.
We now know Reagan likely wasn’t as healthy as he appeared. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Alzheimer’s disease is “an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest task.” According to the NIA, for most people, “symptoms first appear in their mid-60s”.
Peggy Grande’s forthcoming memoir, The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Final Years, shows what it was like to work for Ronald Reagan in his post-presidential years. Grande served as Ronald Reagan’s executive assistant from 1989 to 1999. She answered his phones, ordered his lunch, opened his mail, and kept him on track for his daily meetings and autograph sessions. For five years she did so without a hitch, and without a hint that the man she spent almost 8 hours a day with had an irreversible brain condition that would eventually destroy his memory. She says she occasionally worried when Reagan couldn’t finish a story he had told countless times, but chalked it up to old-age. Grande, in fact, may have even wondered if the youthful-looking Reagan might just be able to continue his daily routine forever.
Everything changed for Grande in September 1994 when Ronald Reagan announced that he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Grande, like many Americans, was devastated at the news. Five years later, the disease had become so advanced that Reagan had to completely retire from public life. Before he did, Michael Deaver, one of Reagan’s closest advisors since his days as the governor of California, paid one final visit. Deaver walked in and first noticed how quiet the office was for a place that usually had the phone ringing non-stop. He then continued into the president’s office, a man he had known for over 30 years, to find him reading a book so intently he didn’t even look up. Deaver finally walked over to Reagan only to discover the book he was reading was a picture book about Traveler, General Robert E. Lee’s horse. Reagan also showed no signs he recognized one of his most trusted advisors.
Grande’s memoir is important. A quick search on Amazon.com for books related to “Ronald Reagan” returns almost 5,000 results, but hers is only the second to focus on Reagan’s post-presidential years. Admittedly not the most exciting part of Reagan’s life for historians to study, yet an interesting glimpse into the final chapter of one of America’s most endearing presidents.
Dec. 28, 2016
Reviewed by Jason Saltoun-Ebin
Reagan: American Icon
By Iwan Morgan (I.B. Tauris, 2016)
Are we still in the “Age of Reagan”? The election of Barack Obama 20 years after Reagan left office appeared to have closed that chapter in American politics. The American people, and the Electoral College for that matter, in that election put the first African American into the White House and, probably just as significant when looking at the historical arch of American politics, the first true left-of-center politician since perhaps LBJ.
While Reagan embraced conservative values intent on restricting access to abortions and defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, Obama essentially used a wrecking ball to destroy the “family values” conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s through supporting increased access to abortions and later same-sex marriage. But Obama, for all he did for progressive values, just couldn’t close the lid on the Reagan Era, which likely would have required either the subsequent election of another true progressive POTUS or a majority of progressives on the United States Supreme Court. (Click here to continue reading!)
Nov. 9, 2016 –
Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War
Nate Jones. Forward by Tom Blanton.
A National Security Archive Book.
The New Press, (New York) 2016.
I recently got called out for being too nice in my book reviews. That’s a problem when I generally only review books that I actually like. I know I’m supposed to note something the author could have done better or some point of disagreement. But most of the books I review share my same purpose – disseminating government secrets, promoting transparency, and hopefully learning something from the past. Nate Jones’s new book on Able Archer 83 does all those things so well you should go out and buy it right now. Really! Click here and buy it now!
That being said, I’ll pick it a part a bit too because there is just so much good stuff in there screaming for an intellectual discussion. (I hope he reads this and sends me his response so I can post it below.)
For Jones, Able Archer 83 (Google it for the quick overview) represents the most important of the series of events in 1983 that brought about a turn in Ronald Reagan’s thinking from “evil empire” war rhetoric toward respectful engagement with the Soviet Union. Jones was not the first to identify this “turn”. That started with Beth Fischer, as he notes, but he is the first I believe to center the turn around Reagan’s thinking about the Soviet response to Able Archer 83. That event, as Jones notes, scared the crap out of the Soviet leaders who thought the annual NATO exercise in 1983 could be a pretext for a first-strike and thus moved Soviet forces toward an elevated level of readiness. (Click here to continue reading, including a response from the author!)
Nov. 4, 2016 — Simi Valley
So the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library opened its doors 25 years ago today. To mark the occasion, former Attorney General and all-around Ronald Reagan advisor Edwin Meese, former CA governor Pete Wilson, and Reagan’s second and last secretary of state, George P. Shultz, made the trip to Simi Valley along with David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States. (Click here to continue reading.)
Oct. 28, 2016 —Book Review: "The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War,” by H.W. Brands. DoubleDay, 2016.
It might not have been the kind of hand-to-hand combat Teddy Roosevelt preferred, but in The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman At the Brink of Nuclear War, acclaimed historian H.W. Brands argues that Truman wasn’t afraid to get bloody when it mattered.
What mattered to Truman: whether the president of the United States or the commander in the field determined American tactics and policy. General MacArthur, one of the most decorated soldiers in American history, led the American-supported United Nations effort to defend Korea from a Chinese-backed communist takeover. Whereas MacArthur publicly supported the direct bombing of China and hinted at American use of nuclear weapons to end the conflict, Truman believed that containment would ultimately succeed and that the risk of a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union outweighed either the benefits of a direct attack against China or use of nuclear weapons. (Click here to continue reading.)
June 29, 2016 —
SDI anyone?? Finally found a day for a quick visit back to the Reagan Library last week to see if enough documents had been released for a new edition of “The Reagan Files: Inside the National Security Council.” Probably not but I have yet to go through everything and it has just been two years since the last addition.
Back to SDI….scanned through the folder on the March 11, 1987 meeting on SDI. Meeting minutes are still classified but a more extensive briefing package was located than what I found last time and included in the second edition of “Inside the National Security Council.” Just realized I never uploaded those doc’s so here we go — (almost) everything you wanted to know about the White House, Congress and various agencies battling over the future of SDI. Given the various positions identified in the briefing papers it is no surprise this meeting is still classified.
Aug. 15, 2015 — New Doc’s re Kuwaiti Airliner Hijacking on Dec. 1, 1984
On Dec. 1, 1984, a Kuwaiti Airlines flight from London to Karachi was hijacked by two Lebanese Shi’a gunman after refueling in Kuwait. The plane was diverted to Tehran where the standoff lasted six days. Two American UNAID workers were killed. This small release contains messages from President Reagan to the Swiss Ambassador in Iran, President Zia and King Fahd thanking them for their help and reminding them of the task moving forward. The documents were released in 2015 and are part of the Terrorist Incident Working Group (TIWG) files in the Oliver North collection at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Click here to download the documents.
June 10, 2015 — New Docs thanks to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library
In this memo from DCI Casey to Reagan and his senior officials, Casey briefly summarizes “the relative implications of counterterrorism steps taken with respect to each of the major Middle East sponsores of terrorism and different types of targets.” (Uploaded June 10, 2015)
This report, prepared by the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis for the Directorate of Intelligence, reviews the cases of Iran, Lebanon, Syrian and Libya. It concludes: “Policy options aimed at reducing Middle Eastern terrorism that are not country-specific are unlikey to succeed. Aggressive policies designed to discourage the broad phenomenon of international terrorism may reduce the short-term vulnerability of certain diplomatic personnel and installations, but they will not affect the underlying political roots of the problem.” (Uploaded June 10, 2015)
May 12, 2015- “REAGAN: THE LIFE”, by H.W. Brands.
Just when I thought it would be a while before I came across another book as impressive as Rick Perlstein’s recent “The Invisible Bridge,” Brands “Reagan: The Life”, not only competes with Perlstein in terms of readability, he equals if not surpasses “The Invisible Bridge” when it comes to scholarship. Yes, it really isn’t fair to compare the two as Brands and Perlstein really take different approaches to the same subject, but with both bio’s released within a year of each other, there is no way around it for the Reagan community. In short: Brands is a welcome compliment to Reagan scholarship and well worth the read. Highly recommended!
Just as I was about to get to the half-way point of H.W. Brands impressive biography of Reagan (May 12, 2015) I popped into Santa Barbara’s most famous bookstore, Chaucer’s, to pick up “Infamy.” After reading the first page I knew the rest of “Reagan” would have to wait. Reeves doesn’t deviate from form — which works perfectly in his telling of how American hysteria after Pearl Harbor led to the forced incarceration of Japanese, and Japanese Americans, (Yes, U.S. citizens too!) during World War II. To say that lives were ruined does not do justice to the over 100,000 loyal Japanese Americans who dutifully obeyed the U.S. Government’s forced relocation policies.
Run, don’t walk to your neighborhood bookstore to pickup this important book that happens to also be a great read. And if you can’t run, click here to buy from Amazon.com
Feb. 6, 2015 — “Ghosts of East Berlin”
by Eric Friedman and Celeste McConnell-Barber
Imagine you are a 10 year-old American boy living in Santa Barbara, Calif., it is 1988, and your mother tells you that you are moving to East Berlin for six months because your step-Father, an English professor at UCSB, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship. Or, same situation, but you are a wife and mom to a ten-year-old. What to do? Like most 10-year-olds, Eric Friedman got on the plane because his mom forced him to. Unlike most American mothers in 1988, Celeste McConnell (now McConnell-Barber) jumped at the opportunity to give her son a once in a lifetime experience.
She was right.
Twenty-five years later, mother and son published a memoir of their time in East Berlin, one of the few accounts of what it was like for ordinary Americans to live behind enemy lines in communist East Berlin.
“Ghosts of East Berlin” (CreateSpace, 2014), is really two books. The first is the memoir of Eric Friedman, a 10-year-old American boy from Santa Barbara forced to live in East Berlin for six months. His account is exactly that – his 10-year-old impressions of life in East Berlin. From riding the subway to school, to meeting and making friends, and occasional visits to West Berlin, Mr. Friedman, now a public servant in Santa Barbara, brings us into East Berlin at a time when the Berlin Wall was a fixture of the Cold War, which was still very much hot. Recent Communist reforms had allowed for Fulbright scholars to study in East Berlin, but the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany, let alone the end of the Cold War, were still only long-term goals within the highest levels of American government.
The second book is the memoir of Eric’s mother, Celeste McConnell-Barber. More sophisticated, Celeste grapples with questions of practicality: from learning how to feed her family when the supermarkets are practically empty to navigating the subway and border crossings into West Berlin.
Together, Mr. Friedman and Ms. McConnell-Barber deserve our collective thanks. Mixed with humor and heartfelt stories, “Ghosts of East Berlin” should be required reading for those trying to understand what life was like in East Berlin not long before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Highly recommended!
Nov. 17, 2014 — Iran-Contra … Chemical Weapons…SALT 1 & 2 draft options
Some new doc’s….enjoy!
Aug. 5, 2014 – “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan"
I sat down a few weeks ago with Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm and Nixonland, to discuss his latest, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The book, due out today, has already received glowing reviews. My favorite so far: Frank Rich in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. I would add to that the excellent review by George Packer for The New Yorker.
Aug. 3, 2014 — The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cuban Missile Crisis
A special thanks to Dr. Diego Trinidad for his comments on the importance of the November 10, 1981 NSC meeting. It was widely reported in 1962 that as part of the general agreement ending the Cuban Missile Crisis President Kennedy pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba. Dr. Trinidad brought it to my attention that, in his 45 years of research on Cuban-American relations, the Nov. 10, 1981 NSC meeting is the first time he found official confirmation of President Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba. Sec. Haig said in the Nov. 10, 1981 meeting: “The Soviet threshold on Cuba is clear: it is the 1962 Accords – the promise not to invade [Cuba] is the line. Invasion is the trigger for a serious Soviet response. Up to that point, there is a free play area.” Click here to go to the full meeting minutes.
July 28, 2014 --
I’ve been reluctant to write about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 because I have not been very comfortable with the comparison to the 1983 downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007. In my mind the two situations are so different that comparing the two disasters would not be helpful. Here is why:
June 5, 2014 — The Reagan Legacy at 10
The 40th President of the United States, the larger-than-life Ronald Reagan who left office 25 years ago with an impressive 63 percent approval rating among Americans, passed away 10 years ago this week. Amidst the celebrations this week for the man and his presidency, reflecting on the America Reagan left behind in 1989, in particular on the Americans Reagan left behind, should not be left out of the conversation.
May 14, 2014 — New Reviews!
The reviews are coming in! Here are few of the latest for the second edition of “The Reagan Files: Inside the National Security Council”.
“The Reagan Files is … a treasure trove of information for those seeking a much deeper understanding of Reagan’s foreign policy."
April 1, 2014 —
The memo’s indicate that the U.S. Air Force conducted an unsuccessful ASAT test on Nov. 13, 1984 “designed to test the miniature homing vehicle’s ability to acquire and track against a light source in Space.” The Feb. 1, 1985 memo indicates that the Air Force is now recommending a test against a target satellite."
April 1, 2014 —
Congrats to Bob T. (@Tbobx) for the correct guess of former DCI William Casey. The memo is now online and can be found by clicking here: May 24, 1983 memo from William Casey to President Reagan on the budget and the Soviet Union.
March 31, 2014 —
Free signed copy of any one of my books to the first person who correctly identifies the author of this quote from a letter to President Ronald Reagan dated May 24, 1983:
"On an even more fundamental level, I believe that we are at a historic watershed. We may be the last custodians who have a chance to turn back impending bankruptcy and permanent establishment of Soviet power at our front door. If we don't aggressively act on these dangers during the next 12 months we are not likely to have the credibility to get a sufficient mandate to deal with an even greater threat in the next four years."
*One entry per person. Document (and thus the winner) will be posted online tomorrow! Entries must be submited on “The Reagan Files Facebook page”.
March 30, 2014 —
New page! I’ve started a collection of speech drafts, and have uploaded several drafts of President Reagan’s “Evil Empire”, “SDI” and “Ivan & Anya” speech. Check them out under speech drafts, and please email me any drafts you have that you would like to share so that I can add them to this new page. The page can be accessed under “Document Collections” or by clicking here: Selected Speech Drafts.
March 8, 2014 —
Thirty-one years ago today President Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech. Oddly, I couldn’t find the official speech draft online, although it has been released at the Reagan Library for several years. Well, here it is! Enjoy! This link is to the draft President Reagan edited days before this speech.
Feb. 17, 2014 —
Now available!! A second edition of “The Reagan Files: Inside The National Security Council” is now available for purchase. The second edition includes the meeting minutes of several recently declassified NSC/NSPG meetings, as well as new information on over fifity other meetings. The book is an invaluable resource for those studying foreign policy during the Reagan years. The full table of contents can be viewed by clicking here!
Feb. 10, 2014 —
by Jason Saltoun-Ebin
I recently read a piece on Foreign Policy arguing that President Reagan showed courage for his decision to cut-and-run in Beirut, which he made about thirty years ago this month. I have spent way too much time on this subject not to respond.
First, the writer argued that Reagan sent Americans to Beirut as part of a Multi-National Peacekeeping Force. That is of course correct, but there is so much more to it than that: behind the closed doors of the White House Situation Room, Reagan and his team saw an American presence in the Middle East both as an opportunity to keep the Soviets out of Lebanon and as the chance he was looking for to show the world that the United States had moved beyond the "ghosts of Vietnam."
Second, the author argued that Reagan deserves a lot of credit for a "tough decision". I'm not so sure it was a tough decision or that Reagan came to the decision to abandon Beirut for the right reasons. In terms of saving American lives in the short term there is no question that it was the right decision. But why make that decision in January/February 1984? Why not in April 1983 after terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killing over fifty of the best American Middle East analysts? At that point Reagan knew that there were going to be more American casualties - the reality was that the Marines stationed in Beirut just could not be protected, which of course proved out in October when 241 Americans were killed after a suicide truck bomber rammed into the American Barracks at the Beirut International Airport. Why not pull out then?
In my mind the only explanation for why Reagan pulled the Marines out of Beirut when he did was that he did not want to go through 1984, an election year, with the realization that the Marines in Beirut were sitting ducks. Had Reagan's approval ratings for most of 1983 been over fifty percent (they were in the mid forties), I suspect he would have stuck it out in Beirut longer. But with more Americans disapproving of his leadership than approving, Reagan could just not take the chance that American casualties in Beirut would jeopardize his reelection.
Third, and this goes to the heart of this piece, did Reagan really make a courageous decision to cut-and-run? If you believe, as I do, that his decision rested on the fact that it was an election year decision than I don't see how it could have been courageous. It was a safe decision. A courageous decision, in my mind, would have been a determination to let the MNF do their job at least through the 1984 election. Would sticking it out a little longer have changed anything? We know what pulling out led to - and yes, it did lead to emboldening terrorists (think of the hijackings of TWA 847, the Achille Laura, Pan Am Flight 73) - but what if Reagan had made the really hard choice and told his advisers, "I don't care if this is an election year, we have a job to do and we are going to do it!" I'm not arguing for an open-ended commitment, just suggesting that a decision to let the Marines do their job at least through the 1984 election would have set a better precedent while also accomplishing another of Reagan's goals: showing that the U.S. had moved beyond Vietnam.
Last, if reelection did in fact sway Reagan's decision in 1984 to cut-and-run, why then did he not reintroduce troops in 1985? My feeling is that by 1985 Reagan realized that the Middle East was not as "vital" as he thought it was in 1981 and 1982. Reagan also had his hands full with the arms-for-hostages dealings in Iran and the numerous Middle East crises that just seemed to be never-ending. Then, by 1986, after his first one-on-one with Gorbachev, he knew that the cold war could be managed without American troops in the Middle East. So, Reagan may have actually backed into the right decision (though I think the timing did do damage to American prestige), but giving him credit for doing so misses the point that were it not an election year, and had his approval ratings been higher, he very likely would have kept American troops in Beirut for the near future.
In "Dear Mr. President...Reagan/Gorbachev and the Correspondences that Ended the Cold War", historian Jason Saltoun-Ebin sheds new light on the end of the Cold War by presenting, in many cases for the first time, the top-secret correspondence between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Saltoun-Ebin shows, through this private correspondence, that the most important reason for the end of the Cold War was simply the trust that Reagan and Gorbachev built through their letters. Although Reagan and Gorbachev at first found little to agree upon, they started the path towards the end of the Cold War by agreeing that despite their differences, they would continue to correspond. From when Gorbachev took office on March 11, 1985 till Reagan left the presidency in January 1989, the two most powerful leaders in the world exchanged over forty letters. It was this dialogue -- this decision that they could individually make a difference -- more than anything that led to the cooling of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and then the end of the Cold War. Trusting did not come easy for either of them. The letters presented in "Dear Mr. President..." show, once again, that the pen is mightier than the sword.