A river and a church steeled Reagan for Soviet challenge

COMMENTARY Political Process

A river and a church steeled Reagan for Soviet challenge

Feb 1st, 2007 5 min read
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.

Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.
Paul Kengor, "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism," New York: Regan (Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) $29.95, 402 pages.

Although the Cold War effectively ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall - some two years after President Ronald Reagan publicly challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" - many professional historians can not bring themselves to admit that Reagan played a central role in ending the most protracted conflict of the 20th century.

When Reagan died two years ago, for example, C. Vann Woodward said flatly of the Reagan presidency that he knew of "nothing comparable with this magnitude of irresponsibility and incompetence."

Fortunately, a stream of younger writers interested in assembling facts not in making ideological points have emerged. They are producing first-rate books about the global accomplishments of our 40th president and how he helped bring down an evil empire responsible for the deaths of an estimated 100 million men, women, and children.

One of the most impressive of these young historians is Paul Kengor, author of the best-selling "God and Ronald Reagan," who has now published another important book: "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism."

Sifting through 30 years of Soviet media and other archives, Kengor discovered that the Soviets routinely described Reagan as "The Crusader" because they understood that he was determined to eliminate Soviet communism.

As president, Reagan coordinated a sophisticated global campaign that included aiding freedom fighters in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, blocking the Soviet oil and gas pipeline, supporting the anti-communist Solidarity movement in Poland, building up the U.S. military and launching the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Far from being disengaged from policy-making - as is often charged by liberal critics - Reagan chaired weekly meetings of the National Security Council and met personally with John Paul II at least seven times to discuss Poland and other foreign policy issues. The close collaboration between Washington and the Vatican is but one of many revelations offered by the author.

Kengor argues that it was a river and a church that instilled in young Dutch Reagan the "can-do attitude" that led him as president to challenge the Soviet empire. For seven summers, during the 1920s, Reagan was a lifeguard at the dangerous Rock River in Dixon, Ill., where he rescued 77 people.

"These feats of physical daring," Kengor wrote, did wonders for "Reagan's self-esteem." In the opinion of William Clark, his national security adviser and personal friend, the rescues also gave Reagan a basic respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life.

At the First Christian Church in Dixon, under the guidance of the Rev. Ben Cleaver and his mother Nelle, young Reagan came to believe that God had a plan for his life and guided him daily along "a preordained path that was just and right." This deeply-rooted confidence, said Kengor, led President Reagan to pursue Cold War victory "when few put stock in the possibility."

I have studied and written about Ronald Reagan for 40 years, and yet throughout "The Crusader," I learned something new about Reagan's lifetime crusade against communism, including his belief that Poland could be the wedge to knock apart the Soviet empire.

Why did the Cold War end when it did? It is a fact that the Reagan administration implemented a series of actions, policies and formal security directives that forced the Soviet Union to abandon its imperial designs. And it is a fact that the man in charge of the strategy was Ronald Reagan.

In "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism," Kengor skillfully uses the unusual access he had to documents in the Reagan Presidential Library and the Kremlin archives to make a compelling case that it was Ronald Reagan more than any other world leader who brought down Soviet communism and deposited it on the ash heap of history.

Paul Kengor on the man who was 'The Crusader'

Lee Edwards: You have studied Ronald Reagan in-depth for many years. Did you learn anything in your research for "The Crusader" that surprised you?

Kengor: I found many things that surprised me, beginning with the word "crusade." I learned that Reagan was committed to a "crusade for freedom" to liberate the so-called "captive peoples" of Eastern Europe from Soviet communism, as early as 1950. I was also surprised to find countless examples of the Soviets calling Reagan "the Crusader" in their newspaper articles and official literature throughout the 1980s.

Also, I did not expect some of the things I learned about Nancy Reagan, including her extraordinary reaction to her husband's near assassination in 1981, which was shared with me by the Rev. Louis Evans, their pastor in Washington who kept the moment to himself for 25 years before sharing it with me.

Edwards: Who was the single greatest influence on President Reagan?

Kengor: There were several influences, from his mother, Nelle, to his childhood pastor, Ben Cleaver, to certain authors of certain books, most notably Harold Bell Wright's "That Printer of Udell's," which greatly impacted him as a boy, and Whittaker Chambers' "Witness," which greatly impacted him as an adult.

Edwards: What is there yet to learn about Ronald Reagan?

Kengor: Quite a lot. He has never been given his due for his high level of intelligence and intellectual curiosity. To say that Reagan was dumb is itself a dumb statement, badly misinformed, badly prejudiced, and almost entirely the product of partisanship.

Likewise a victim of partisanship were his views on race. Reagan was racially very tolerant and not at all discriminatory. The mere suggestion that he was in some way intolerant of minorities is an outrage, and merely a product of people on the left disagreeing with certain of his policies and thereby ascribing sinister motives to those policies.

Another victim of partisanship was his film career, which was much more rich and commendable than commonly believed. Also unappreciated was his fierce opposition to abortion, including as governor, when, ironically, he helped legalize it in California. Finally, his skills as a negotiator have not been given their due, a subject I might tackle in a future book.

Edwards: Where would you rank Ronald Reagan among the nation's presidents?

Kengor: Reagan established a clear, unequivocal plan and intention to win the Cold War and to defeat atheistic Soviet communism. The battle of the 20th century began in Russia in October 1917, and ended in 1989, the year that Reagan left the presidency.

After advancing the frontiers of communism every decade since its inception, and especially between 1974 and 1979, the Soviet Union not only quit advancing but reversed and imploded on Reagan's watch.

Few presidents got so much of what they wanted, and so firmly reversed the tide of history, and did so to ridicule and amid naysayers everywhere. Reagan won the big battle of the 20th century. That places him at least in the top two of the 20th century, and easily the top five for all presidents.

Edwards: I understand you are writing a biography of Judge William Clark, who served as President Reagan's national security adviser. Can you give us some idea of what you have learned so far, especially about the Reagan-Clark relationship?

Kengor: There was no other adviser as close to Reagan and as important as Bill Clark. It was under Bill Clark from 1982 to 1983 that the foundation to win the Cold War was laid. He was essential. I'm very much looking forward to publishing this story. Bill Clark's crucial contribution needs to be recognized.

Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of many books, including the just-published " To Preserve and Protect: The Life of Edwin Meese III."

First appeared in Examiner.com