In August 1984 I was a Fulbright scholar to the Federal Republic of Germany. Ronald Reagan was about to be elected to his second term as president and I was no fan of the Hollywood actor-turned-politician.
The first week I arrived in Germany, Reagan made his infamous joke during a microphone check. He quipped, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve just signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The irreverent German magazine Der Spiegel ran a picture of Reagan with a clown nose and headline, “Der Spinnt.” (He’s Crazy)
I had protested Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy agenda as a political science student at Clemson University. I joined the Clemson Peace Club and we met in protest of Reagan administration policies, including missile build-up in Europe and U.S. policy toward Central America.
I was appalled at Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars, and shared the sentiment of many of my European friends that Reagan was more than a bit mad. I even hated holding the same given name as Reagan’s wife.
Reagan’s Evil Empire March 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals about U.S. and Soviet motives made me reel:
In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
It was all so black and white, no Technicolor, like a voiceover from Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. I worried that the world would see all Americans as harboring the same us versus them mentality that Reagan represented.
My brother Steve disagreed with me. He loved the fact that Reagan made America feel strong and proud again after four years of malaise under Jimmy Carter. He wrote me during my stay in Germany and said that I should feel proud to be an American. I’m sure he hoped that I would defend the American president. I did not.
So why my change of heart today? Well, I’m older now, maybe even a little wiser. I do see Reagan in a different light. After twenty years of studying persuasion and public diplomacy, I have to credit Reagan with his disciplined approach to challenging his Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union.
A recent column by Malte Lehming in Der Tagesspiegel made me take notice. Lehming notes that as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall is about to be celebrated, it is former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who is credited the most with uniting the two Germanys, not Reagan. “Gorbymania” is out of control, according to Lehming. Reagan is derided.
How can the German people not acknowledge that Reagan’s arm race helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union? And we shouldn’t forget that it took the Communist-hating president to sit down and negotiate with Gorbachev.
Gorby and Reagan needed each other for the USSR and USA to meet as two competitors willing to pull each other back from the brink of MADness (Mutually Assured Destruction).
I can understand that Reagan will never have the Rock Star status in Germany of Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan is just too square for the Europeans. His American awe-shucks humor and sentimental devotion to wife Nancy doesn’t compute.
Nevertheless, he understood the power of American persuasion in the world. Reagan wrote that his administration was “determined to stop losing the propaganda war.” As Nicholas Cull points out in his eloquent historical book, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency (Cambridge University Press), the CIA estimated that at the time of Carter's leaving and Reagan’s ascent to office, the Soviet Union was on foreign propaganda overdrive, spending $2.2 billion to USIA's $480 million.
Reagan was as ideologically confident about America’s role in the world, according to Cull, as was Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Reagan shared a devotion to counter-offensives that merged propaganda with disinformation. We may not always like these tactics, but they do get results.
In his second term, Ronald Reagan said, “I believe that our public diplomacy represents a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful force at our disposal, for shaping the history of the world.” With that confidence, Reagan would sit down across the table from Gorbachev and later challenge him at the Brandenburg Gate: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” By 1988, Reagan was seen by the Russian public as sincere, even likable.
Twenty years later Reagan deserves credit, along with his ideological sparring partner Gorbachev, for getting the Soviet Union to loosen its iron grip on Europe and allow the reunification of East and West Germany.
Dr. Nancy Snow teaches courses on war, media and propaganda and advanced public diplomacy at the Newhouse School, Syracuse University, New York. Reach her at www.nancysnow.com