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My Blog: Rethinking Reagan

Rethinking Reagan is intended to engage the way historians think about the Reagan administration. The blog is written by Jason Saltoun-Ebin. Guest blogs about new research on the Reagan administration will gladly be posted. Jason Saltoun-Ebin can be reached at

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. 

Meese charmed, as usual, the not-so-small crowd gathered at the Reagan Library. Summing up how he viewed Reagan’s most important contributions: “Reagan changed how we view the constitution,” Meese proudly declared. 

Honestly, it was a little hot and I tuned out for Governor Wilson and Ferriero. Shultz was brief, and used his few minutes to talk about arms control and how Reagan really did separate himself from the Carter years by delinking arms control negotiations from other events. Whereas Carter had cut off all negotiations with the Soviets after their invasion of Afghanistan, Shultz credits Reagan for bringing the Soviets back to the table in arms control by publicly calling for intermediate range arms control negotiations while letting the Soviets know that if they didn’t negotiate the U.S. would have no choice but to deploy their own intermediate range weapons. Reagan was able to keep the high ground by offering to negotiate, while also staying strong by deploying when needed. The strategy worked, and by 1987 the U.S. and Soviet Union had agreed to the elimination of all intermediate range nuclear weapons. 

A little cake… a nice new bronze statute of Ronald Reagan…and a very successful 25 year anniversary. 

This December will mark my 15-year anniversary of researching at the Reagan Library. Much has changed, but not enough. The Air Force One Pavilion is great, as is the new cafe and the way the grounds are being maintained. The chili is as good, if not better, than ever. Inside the archive the room is smaller than it used to be, the chairs and tables are better, as is the wifi. The staff, with many changes, is as friendly and eager to help as they have always been. And most importantly, they are working hard to get documents out and released. Today I saw numerous files released in 2015 and 2016 and within a few months I know I’ll be seeing others with 2017 stamps. The research room is also busy! Four other researchers today — I remember months when I wouldn’t see four researchers. 

But it is still taking an enormous amount of time to get responses to FOIA and MDR requests. Three years... five years... today I came in to look at KAL 007 files which I FOIAd over 10 years ago. This makes no sense. I’m in the unusual position of living close to the library and not having to rely on my publishing to make a living, so the wait is more annoying than anything. But for the professional historian, those who rely on these documents for their work, the wait just doesn’t make sense. And though we see a lot of work on the Reagan years, like H.W. Brands new book, we are seeing more of a synthesis of the existing literature than a ground-breaking new interpretation based on the actual documents from the Reagan White House. I see this as an institutional problem and until we as a society prioritize the release of government records these documents are only going to trickle out as they have been. My feeling is that the Reagan Library has the staff to handle this — the hold up is mostly on the other side when it comes to classified documents. We need the State Department, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the White House, etc., all to take these requests in a timely manner. 

Of course the documents only tell a small part of the story, but they are in my opinion the closest we have to knowing what the president and his advisors were thinking at specific moments in time. And so in 15 years the conversation about Ronald Reagan hasn’t really changed. In 2001 and in 2016 he is mostly credited for winning the cold war, reducing taxes, and restoring the spirit of the United States from the depressing late 1970s following Vietnam, Watergate, and out of control inflation and interest rates. 

 But for the document hounds, like me, the questions remain. How involved was Reagan really in the arms-for-hostages scandal and what precedent did trading arms-for-hostages set for future administrations? How much credit should Reagan really get for ending the cold war? Didn’t he know, for example, in 1981 that the Soviet Union had already bankrupted itself and was now spinning out-of-control and that all he had to do was keep his foot on the gas a little longer? What about the enormous debt the United States racked up under his watch and the out-of-control defense spending, like for the Strategic Defense Initiative? Was it really necessary to keep us safe or even to win the cold war? Was there really something else going on there, like a covert U.S. program to develop next generation nuclear weapons?  Later in the administration the questions remain over Reagan’s health. Who was governing the country in 1987 and 1988? Was Reagan so afflicted at that time with Alzheimer’s that he had to delegate even the most important decisions to his staff? Oddly, Nationals Security Planning Group meetings for 1988 are missing from the National Security Planning Group meetings files and those were the meetings where the most important foreign policy decisions were made. What happened to the 1988 files and why after all this time can’t they be recreated?  

I hope I’m around in another 25 years for the 50th anniversary and that we will at that time have a lot of these answers. But I suspect many of these questions, and still most of the documents in the Reagan Library that could help us better understand what really went on in the Reagan white house, will still be locked up, underground, in a vault, protected from the elements while they could be shedding light on the inner-workings of the white house and the importance of transparency to a healthy democracy.

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.

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July 28, 2014  Reagan, KAL 007, the MA Flight 17

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:

1. The KAL 007 disaster is still a big unknown in the sense that we don’t know why the plane was shot down. There are several plausible theories, which I will get into, but I have never heard a theory – as seems to be the consensus regarding MA 17 – that that doomed flight was mistaken for a cargo plane. In 1983, the Soviets did claim they mistook KAL 007 for a spy plane. That claim, however, was quickly proven false thanks to President Reagan’s willingness to release the intercepted communications from the Soviet pilot who was ordered to destroy the plane even though he told his superior the plane appeared to be a commercial airliner. Considering the downing of cargo planes in that same area, and the use of a surface-to-air missile, the cargo plane explanation, though still horrifying, will probably stand. The cover up, if there is one, will be over the role Russia played in providing the Ukrainian separatists with surface-to-air missiles capable of destroying a commercial flight at 30,000 plus feet.

2. Cold War tensions, in 1983, were the highest they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 2014, though the U.S. and Russia are moving back to a time of heightened tensions, the pervasive fear that permeated throughout both governments in 1983 just does not exist in 2014. President’s Obama and Putin may have different goals and ideas about the future, but neither one is calling the other “an evil empire” while planning to send the other to “the ash heap of history.”

 Given some time, however, I do see a similarity developing. The Soviet’s exacerbated the KAL disaster by immediately denying they had anything to do with the shoot down. Thanks to American technology, President Reagan knew otherwise. Days later he made the decision to release the intercepted transcripts which both blew-up the Soviet cover up and the American intelligence operation that gave him that information. President Obama may be dealing with a similar dilemma. He may have more information than he wishes to divulge, or even can considering the precarious position of American intelligence on the heels of the recent NSA spying revelations.

For those interested, here is what I wrote about the emergency NSC meeting called on Sept. 1, 1983:

Today’s meeting is an emergency meeting called to formulate a response to the destruction of Korean Airlines Flight 007, which was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet after accidentally crossing into Soviet airspace while flying to Seoul from New York. All 269 aboard KAL 007 were killed, including 53 Americans. Reagan learned of the tragedy while vacationing at his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he expected to spend the Labor Day weekend. The President immediately returned to Washington for the emergency NSC meeting. No official meeting minutes were created according to an archivist at the Reagan Library.

“The Soviet attack on an unarmed civilian aircraft … was a callous and brutal act that is certain to have far-reaching international impact,” Shultz wrote to the President on September 1. It is obvious that our own bilateral relations with the Soviet Union cannot remain unaffected by a fresh and particularly irresponsible Soviet resort to force and violence. Indeed, we have already taken some unilateral punitive steps, and we will need to consider other possibilities in the days and weeks ahead. At the same time, we must also make sure the Soviets pay the full political costs of their actions in ways which go well beyond the U.S.-Soviet bilateral relationship. Thus, it is essential that we work to build and sustain the broadest possible international response to this appalling act.”

In addition to Secretary Shultz’s memo, White House National Security Adviser Clark prepared a draft memo and talking points for President Reagan to use at tonight’s meeting. “Your personal statement and early return have already set the tone of our concern. We must now ensure that follow on actions are directed and structured to achieve recognizable and coherent objectives. These objectives must be shared by the American people, the Congress, our major allies and reflect our status as leader of the free world,” Clark advised the President. 

Three days later, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 102, “U.S. Response To Soviet Destruction of KAL Airliner”. “This Soviet attack underscores once again the refusal of the USSR to abide by normal standards of civilized behavior and thus confirms the basis of our existing policy of realism and strength,” the NSDD starts. Objectives, like seeking justice, and actions, like conducting investigations, were also incorporated into the secret NSDD.

Although most evidence for the disaster points to an accident resulting from a combination of heightened-tensions, faulty Soviet radar, and an undertrained air force pilot, a top-secret message from a senior Yugoslav official thought otherwise. “The Soviet military may have acted independently in downing the KAL 747 in order to poison the East-West atmosphere on the eve of the next INF round,” the message delivered at the US Embassy in Belgrade started. “In this view, which the official called ‘the most plausible,’ the Soviet military is unhappy with several of Andropov's latest moves, including: his August 27 INF proposal which considers destroying expensive and modern military equipment; his anticorruption campaign which includes the military among its targets; and his efforts at economic reform which implicitly question the military's dominant position in the Soviet economy.”

The message has a point: The week before the tragedy Andropov made his most significant arms control proposal by proposing that the Soviet Union would reduce their intermediate range nuclear forces in Europe to whatever level the British and French maintain, even if that meant a total elimination of intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe.

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.

October 20, 2011-- The Death of Gaddafi and the Reagan Legacy

Almost 30 years ago, in February 1982, inside the White House a very top-secret paper was being circulated with the title, "Next Steps On Libya." The short paper, a National Security Council staff summary of a Department of State paper prepared for the February 4, 1982 NSC meeting on Oil and Gas Equipment Controls, argued that the U.S. objectives were to…

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October 18, 2011-- 25 Years After Reykjavik: What We Now Know

In the summer of 1984, as President Reagan was moving forward with his intention to research and deploy the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Soviets called for bilateral meetings on the "militarization of space" to be connected with intermediate range nuclear weapons and strategic arms negotiations. The NST (Nuclear and Space Talks) negotiations, however, quickly stalled as the Soviet's were undergoing a leadership crisis: three General Secretaries of the Soviet Union died between 1982 and 1985 giving Reagan the opportunity to famously say that he had been trying to negotiate with the Soviets since he took office in 1981 but that it was impossible because they all kept dying on him. With the ascendency of Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of general secretary, the Soviet Union was now led by a youthful reformer who would test Reagan's sincerity by proposing to not only eliminate intermediate range nuclear weapons, but all nuclear weapons.

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Oct. 14, 2010- Six Lessons Mr. Donilon Could Learn from Reagan’s Six National Security Advisers: -- Having spent the last decade studying the Reagan Administration, and the last few years focusing on Reagan’s National Security Council, I thought it could be useful for Mr. Donilon to get a quick review (and a few lessons) of where some of his contemporaries failed in what is one of the most difficult jobs in Washington.

Oct. 3, 2010 -- Who Was Ronald Reagan? -- “I admire the way he stood up for causes he believed were right, no matter what.” That was Nick Jonas of the Jonas brothers, talking about why he admires President Reagan.... Click here to read more 

May 17, 2010 -- Did Reagan Favor Abolishing Nuclear Weapons? 

March 15, 2010 -- Rethinking Reagan: Conversation with David E. Hoffman, author of “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy.” 

Conversation with David E. Hoffman (author of "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy,") on what it was like to revisit the Reagan years over twenty years after covering the Reagan Administration; nuclear weapons negotiations then and now; why the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved; and how Reagan failed to understand that the Soviet military was just as dysfunctional as the Soviet economy.

February 4th, 2010
Pacific Palisades, CA

JSE: Mr. Hoffman, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me to discuss your latest book, "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy."

DH: Let me start off by telling you a little bit about who I am. I started with Reagan by covering the 1980 campaign at a time when no one thought Reagan had a chance of winning. In 1982 I came to The Washington Post to help Lou Cannon cover the White House. During that time I got to cover U.S.-Soviet relations, including both the Geneva and then the Reykjavik Summits. I later went on to become the Moscow Bureau Chief for The Washington Post, foreign editor and then assistant managing editor for foreign news.

I wrote The Dead Hand to create a history in stereo by using both White House documents and Soviet documents showing what Reagan and Gorbachev were both thinking at the same time.

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© Jason Saltoun-Ebin 2016