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Book Reviews

Reagan: American Icon

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.

Iwan Morgan, Professor of U.S. Studies and Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History at University College London, has been teaching and writing about American politics from across the pond for over 40 years. His just released book, “Reagan: American Icon”, argues that “Reagan would probably not have felt at home in the polarized partisan environment of the twenty-first century” and that although “both Reagan and Trump ran against government and promised to return America to greatness … Reagan grounded his appeal in his long-espoused ideas about freedom” while “Trump lacks a philosophical core.”

“The two also differed diametrically in their appreciation of how demography was reshaping the electorate,” Morgan writes. “Just before winning a respectable 34 percent share of their votes in 1984, Reagan remarked: ‘Hispanics are already Republican. They just don’t know it yet.’ … Trump, by contrast, seemed intent on causing Latinos offense with his tough stance against renewed amnesty and deterring illegals from entering the United States.”

Morgan, like many who took on Reagan before him, struggled with where he stands not so much on the Reagan presidency (which he calls “consequential”), but on his own opinion of Ronald Reagan. “More often than not, biographers develop a more positive view of their subject as a consequence of engaging in detailed study of a life,” Morgan admits. “Accordingly, this volume comes to conclusions that once would have surprised the author, who shared the conventional left-liberal suspicion of Reagan’s competence and conservatism in the 1980s.” Morgan continued, "The Reagan this biography portrays is complex rather than one-dimensional; someone who benefited from having a variety of careers before entering politics; a deep thinker if not an original one; a conservative but also a pragmatist; a committed anti-communist who was dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons; a passionate advocate of freedom who aligned the United States with repressive regimes for Cold War advantage in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; and an eternal optimist about his country’s future who could not empathize with disadvantaged groups needing the assistance of government to get by in 1980s America."

Morgan acknowledges that there were areas that Reagan came up short, his response to the AIDS crisis and out-of-control defense spending to name just two, but spends so little time on those subjects that readers without a fine-tooth comb are likely to completely overlook the critiques. Morgan, for example, notes that Reagan “did not always live up to the ideals he espoused” but quickly lets him off the hook because, he writes, “perfection is not a human quality.” Perfection may not be a human quality, but it is precisely the willingness to excuse imperfection from our leaders, whether they are presidents or prime ministers, that opens the door for imperfections to fester into bigger problems, like sending American Marines into Beirut in the early 1980s without a clear mission.  

Historians looking at the 2016 American election may very well determine that the election turned on values. Reagan, for Morgan, became an American icon by “giving voice to his nation’s best values … the fundamental qualities of decency, optimism, and belief in individual potential inculcated in the small-town Midwest of the early twentieth century to the White House of the late twentieth century.”  If that’s the case, the values that won out in 2016 surely were not those of Reagan’s childhood or even likely the values of traditional conservatives. In fact, it’s not even clear what values Trump supporters share which may explain why Trump’s election could end up keeping Reagan-era conservatism alive just long enough for Trump to be at the center of the last chapter in the Age of Reagan. 

Highly recommended, “Reagan: American Icon” turns a complex subject into a readable narrative suitable for anyone interested in the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Naturally I wanted to pick Morgan’s brain a little more and he graciously agreed to respond to a few questions.

Five questions for Iwan Morgan about his work on the life and times of Ronald Reagan.

 1. You titled the book “American Icon” but isn’t it true that in much of Europe Ronald Reagan has really also become a European Icon for his efforts to defeat communism, unite Germany and remove the iron curtain that had blanketed Europe since the end of World War II?

I suggest in the book that insofar as Europe was concerned Reagan was one of the two great 'presidential liberators' of the twentieth century.  Franklin D. Roosevelt had helped to free Western Europe from the grip of Nazism in World War II; Reagan helped to free Eastern Europe from Communism.  I still see him as an American icon rather than a European icon, however.  Reagan's belief in the quintessential American ideal of freedom endowed him with certainty that Soviet Communism would eventually collapse because it could not stifle forever the basic human desire to be free.  Other Western leaders in the 1980s were so-called foreign policy realists who believed that Soviet military power would preserve Communism in Eastern Europe far into the future.  In contrast to them, Reagan was convinced that stepping up political, economic and psychological pressure on the Soviet Empire would bring about its demise.  Critical to this belief was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland which continued to operate underground after a military regime took power in that country in late 1981 with orders from Moscow to crack down on dissent.  Reagan's thoughts on this score are outlined in the fascinating exchanges in his working lunch with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Casaroli on December 15, 1981 (a document posted on The Reagan Files)

2. You took on not just the Reagan presidency but also his whole life and did so in just over 300 pages. A remarkable achievement in many ways considering historians have spent over 1,000 pages on the same subject. How were you able to do so? Was there some area you wish you could have explored more?

I wanted to write about Reagan's entire life because it encompassed so many aspects of America's twentieth century: a youth spent in the small-town Midwest, once the backbone of the nation; careers in three forms of cultural media - radio, movies and television - in their golden eras; a supporter of FDR when liberalism was ascendant, he then journeyed rightward with the emergent conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s; he becomes governor of California shortly after the Golden State replaced New York as the most populous state, thereby heralding the growth of what political historians would label the Sunbelt region of the Southwest and South; and finally, of course, a consequential president who did much to move American politics to the right, promote the Republican party to parity with the Democrats, and lay the foundations for ending the Cold War on American terms. How to put all that into some 340 pages of text (and a total word length of 150,000 when notes are included) was the greatest challenge I have faced in a forty-year career of writing history.  If I managed to do so successfully, it was only by keeping it clear in my mind that I was not primarily writing for fellow academics but doing so mainly to capture the interest of lay readers who may not have the time or the inclination to read massive tomes. Of course, I want other scholars to think well of the book, but I believe that historians have an obligation to sometimes write for a wider audience, rather than just each other, in order to spread understanding about the relevance and significance of their discipline.  That said, there were subjects that I wished I could have explored in greater length than I was able to in my biography.  Chief among them were Reagan's momentous governorship of California, which only receives one chapter, his very significant de-regulatory policies as president, and his response to the AIDS crisis.  

 3. You called President Reagan’s ability to negotiate the 1987 INF Treaty, which eliminated intermediate range nuclear weapons from Europe, not only his greatest achievement but the greatest achievement of any American president since 1945. Yet many Americans at the time thought President Reagan was wrong to negotiate at all with the Soviet Union on arms reductions.  What was the mood in Europe and particularly G.B. during these negotiations? Wasn’t Prime Minister Thatcher reluctant to lose so much deterrence?

I think Reagan's role in securing the INF treaty of 1987 was a remarkable one.  He had to battle opposition from three groups at home.  With help from Secretary of State George Shultz and other supportive officials, he faced down internal opposition within his own administration from hawks in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the CIA.  He also held firm against critics in the broader foreign policy establishment who accused him of surrendering America's military superiority to negotiate with a  powerful adversary - chief among them were Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, both of  whom conducted public campaigns against the INF.  The third source of opposition were the conservative organizations tied to the New Right, who had once regarded Reagan as their champion but now thought he had gone soft on  communism. Meanwhile some of America's staunchest allies worried that he was abandoning the strategic doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which in their eyes had underpinned peace in Europe since 1945.  Chief among them was Margaret Thatcher.  She was outraged to discover that Reagan had been willing to eliminate all classes of nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit of 1986 - agreement on this had only foundered over Soviet insistence that the Strategic Defense Initiative should also be terminated as part of any deal. To win Thatcher's support for INF, Reagan guaranteed he would support US sale of Trident submarine-based anti-ballistic weaponry to modernize the UK's independent deterrent.

 4. In terms of Reagan’s presidency, you note that he left a complex legacy yet you rank him as a “consequential president” along with Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, up there with the best of the American presidents. No president, or prime minister for that matter, can be perfect, and Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan certainly made their mistakes. But shouldn’t they be judged on the consequences of their achievements? Other than the 1987 INF Treaty, what do you see as Reagan’s greatest achievements? Where do you think he came up short?

 I intentionally used the label 'consequential president' because I did not want to assess Reagan in terms of conventional presidential rankings like 'great' 'near great,' and so forth that tend to rely on subjective score-carding. Reagan was consequential because he did much to change America's course in the 1980s and beyond.  It is not claiming too much to say that US history would have been very different with another president at the helm in this period.  Reagan was very consequential in a host of ways, not all of them beneficial to America.  On the plus side were: his reduction of Cold War tensions and nuclear-arms reduction negotiations; his renewal of the presidency after the decline of its leadership effectiveness in the 1970s; the restoration of national confidence in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation; his role in revitalizing the Republican party; his commitment to tax reform  in 1986; and his eschewal of political polarization through willingness to compromise with the opposition Democrats on a range of legislative issues.   On the negative side were: the massive 1980s budget deficits that did much to distort the American economy, indirectly hasten the decline of US manufacturing, and create a legacy of huge public indebtedness;  the free-market economic policies that were instrumental in spurring the growth of   income inequality, which had hitherto been in steady  decline throughout the twentieth century; his incapacity to reach out to African Americans because he did not understand the need for a benevolent state to combat racism; and his revival of the imperial presidency in the Iran-Contra imbroglio.   All this leads me to conclude in my book that Reagan's presidency was highly consequential in terms of how it changed America.  It depends on one's point of view, however, whether the changes he instituted are in sum considered to have changed America for the better or not. 

 5. Last, as an outsider having studied and written about American politics for lets just say a few decades, and as a Brit going through your own political turmoil, do you want to offer any thoughts on what the American Founding Father’s got right and what could be improved on? Is there anything like an Electoral College in the British system? Could Great Britain be in the position of having someone come to power that did not reflect a majority of the popular vote? 

America has been a central part of my life since 1973 - the year I was first appointed to a teaching position in the UK.  It is for me a country of endless fascination in terms of its history, politics and culture.  Throughout my time in the academy I have told cohorts of undergraduates that the American Constitution is a remarkable document given that it is only 3000 words long in original format (about the size of a student essay) plus another 4000 for its 26 amendments. It has survived so long because it is definite in principle but flexible in detail, which allows for significant reinterpretation over time.  The most obvious shortcoming in the original had to do with its silence on racial equality, an issue dealt with in Amendments 14 and 15 that were not interpreted in an egalitarian manner from the 1890s to the 1960s - and are now threatened with renewed erosion of voting rights. On the issue of the Electoral College, the inability of the candidate winning the popular-vote majority to gain an Electoral College majority in two of the last four presidential elections is worrying, but its constitutional abolition any time soon is unlikely.  It might be salutary to note that the UK system is undemocratic by comparison to the US system.  A government conventionally comes to power in the UK by winning a majority of the country's 650 parliamentary constituencies, but this has not translated into a popular-vote majority in any election since World War II.  Because we have a first-past-the-post system and usually have 5 or more parties competing with each other, a plurality rather than a majority vote suffices to come to power.  The Conservatives won a parliamentary majority in the 2015 general election with just 37 percent of the vote - and there is only a limited system of checks and balances to correct such a democratic deficit.  So if America is going to change its electoral system, it not should look over here for guidance on how to do so! 

Planning Reagan’s War

Planning Reagan's War: Conservative Strategists and America's Cold War Victory

by Francis H. Marlo (Potomac Books: 2012)

A must read for any serious student of the Reagan administration!

Dr. Marlo's first book is an important contribution to scholarship on the Reagan administration for two very important reasons. First, his use of the holdings of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in particular the files of the National Security Council, led him to conclude that President Reagan personally developed a "Grand Strategy" to defeat the Soviet Union. Based on these NSC documents, Marlo identifies five parts to Reagan's strategy: (1) rejection of containment and detente; (2) importance of communist ideology; (3) centrality of superior power in dealing with the Soviet threat; (4) the importance of Soviet weakness; and (5) the superiority of democracy and capitalism. Although historians and journalists writing about the Reagan administration have come to many of these same conclusions, Marlo is one of the first to have based these conclusions on the holdings of the Reagan Library, thus verifying what many have argued before anyone had access to the holdings of the Reagan Library.

Second, Marlo brings to his study his background in strategic studies as well as his graduate training at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His background gives him the tools to successfully blend the fields of history, political science and strategic studies. The result is an analytical narrative that helps to explain not only the foriegn policy of the Reagan administration, but every administration since Reagan left office. 

Highly recommended!

The Triumph of Improvisation

The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War.

By: James Graham Wilson (Cornell University Press, 2014)

Review by Scott Whitmore

Feb. 18, 2014 

Highly readable and illuminating, in The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War author James Graham Wilson (@jamesgramwilson) rejects current theories explaining the Cold War’(Click the text above to continue reading)

The General v. The President

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.

These different approaches, Brands shows, played out before American eyes thanks to eager reporters looking for any discrepancy in tactics or policy to come out of the White House and General MacArthur’s own public statements. The two obliged.

Not surprisingly, 15 years after 9/11 and a continued American presence in the middle east, the next white house will no doubt be faced with tough decisions that will likely conflict with the advice of American military leaders.

The case of Truman and MacArthur and the Korean conflict, Brands demonstrates, could have better guided these decisions. Yes, the cold war is over, but containing terrorism, much like containing communism, seems to have been the better approach. Why invade China, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, when keeping the Soviet’s or the Libyan’s or even the Chinese contained would have saved American lives and been more cost-effective? Improved intelligence gathering and analysis was to be the key to taking out Osama Bin Laden and preventing another 9/11, while a war in Afghanistan and Iraq has allowed once marginalized groups to fill the vacuum. Crossing into China may have prevented the split of the Korean peninsula and the small headache that North Korea has so far been for the United States, but at what cost? Truman wasn’t about to find out.  Choosing between a communist North Korea or World War III didn’t seem to keep him up at night. Better a wall than a war, perhaps Representative John F. Kennedy observed at the time.

Truman’s cool head and conviction proved correct with the fall of the Soviet Union and thus the de facto end of the communist threat. Doing so knowing that it could cost him his job and possibly usher in a new era of Republican leadership demonstrated true grit – those long-lost Midwestern values that come with doing what is right no matter the consequences.

MacArthur, a World War II hero in the pacific theater and then head of the American effort to transition Japan to a constitutional democracy, was not one to back down from a fight. Whether demanding Truman fly half-way across the world if he wanted a meeting or ordering the bombing of North Korea without presidential approval, Brands shows us that the early stages of the Cold War could have quickly gone in a more violent direction. Nuclear weapons, with a different finger on the button, may have been used, while an American attack on China seemed all but inevitable.  Cooler heads in the Oval Office – those able to take a longer view of history – proved better suited to the enormous responsibility that comes with balancing both American foreign and national interests against the perceived immediate dangers of a worldwide communist movement.

So where does that leave us? “The celebration that greeted MacArthur on his return from Asia,” Brands writes after Truman’s public firing, “was unlike anything ever seen in America, and unlike anything ever imagined almost anywhere.

Rome had lavished public triumphs on its victorious generals, and America had done the same after the Civil War and the two world wars, but to save the greatest celebration for a general who had just been fired, amid a war that was far from won, suggested that something larger was afoot. The parades for MacArthur were celebrations, but they were also protests: against the president who fired him, against the ambiguous policies the president pursued, against the constraining circumstances that kept America from smiting its enemies as decisively as it had done in those earlier, more satisfying wars. The millions of Americans cheering and shouting for MacArthur wanted the general to lead them, like a modern Moses, out of the wilderness of uncertainty that seemed to be Americans’ lot in the contemporary struggle against communism. MacArthur was the last general to return home after World War II; if anyone could restore the certainty – the moral certainty, the civic certainty, the political certainty – that had characterized the American life during the earlier struggle against facism, MacArthur could.

But it wasn’t MacArthur, or Joe McCarthy, or Kennedy or Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan who all stared communism in the eye and called out evil when it was popular to do so. It was patience, adherence to a well thought-out policy of containment, and most importantly a willingness to sacrifice self for country when it mattered most. Truman did just that and lost his job and reputation, while Brands reminds us how with a different finger in the oval office we now might be arguing over whether World War III had started with a communist invasion of Korea or the American decision to attack China.

An important contribution and a must-read for military historians, presidential historians and those interested in the Korean War.

AbleArcher 83

Nov. 9, 2016 –


Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War

Edited by 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. 


Jones argues that the NATO exercise could have actually been the closest the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That may be true, but the problem I see is that in the Cuban Missile Crisis both American and Soviet leaders had their fingers on the button making it an actual crisis. During Able Archer 83, President Reagan barely paid attention to the exercise and had no idea the Kremlin was actually freaking out. Without both fingers on the button, I don’t see how the exercise can be elevated to the status of crisis. In fact, it wasn’t until the next year, thanks to some deft espionage, that Reagan first learned that Soviet force had actually been put on high alert and prepared for an American first-strike. 


Fortunately, Able Archer 83 is really just a lesson in poor communication brought about by heightened tensions following President Reagan’s decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 just two months before, and growing tensions in the middle east after the bombing of the marine barracks on Oct. 23, 1983 left almost three hundred Americans dead. Albeit, a very important lesson in what can happen when lines of communication fail during periods of heightened tension. In this case, but for cool heads in the Kremlin nuclear Armageddon may have become a reality. 


Going back to the big picture here, and this is where I think historians of the end of the cold war are in need of some help, I’m not convinced, as Jones is, that Reagan’s turn had in fact anything to do with the war scare events of 1983. Henry Maar may still convince me with his forthcoming work on the nuclear freeze movement, but for the moment I’m still of the camp that the pivot Reagan made in 1984 toward engagement with the Soviet Union was exactly inline with his campaign promises and policies when he first came into office. “We are going to negotiate from a position of strength,” he promised in the campaign. That’s exactly what he did. 


The events of 1983, including Able Archer 83, may have had an impact on his decision to engage the Soviet Union, but in my mind his turn was entirely consistent with what he had said all along. The United States was “armed to the teeth,” Pat Buchanan advised Reagan in 1985, and there was nowhere left to go but negotiate. 


Bravo Nate Jones. Thanks for fighting for these documents, twelve years alone for the February 15, 1990 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Report, “ The Soviet ‘War Scare.’” Don’t. Ever. Stop.

© Jason Saltoun-Ebin 2016