October 8, 2003
Let's finally close the door on some pesky myths.
According to many of our friends on the left, Ronald Reagan was nothing more than a B-grade actor playing the part of president. For years they've said he had no original ideas-that he merely read lines prepared for him by political pros. They've told us he was such a mental lightweight, there's no way he could have conceived of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and anyway, he was just using it as a bargaining chip.
These myths can all be retired, again and forevermore, by anyone willing to thumb through the new book "Reagan: A Life in Letters," edited by Kiron Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson. It provides a fascinating view of the man who would become the most important person in the second half of the 20th century-after he renounced liberalism.
"My first four votes were cast for FDR, my fifth for Harry Truman," Reagan wrote to Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner in 1960. But his experience in the actor's union changed his mind. "It took seven months of meeting communists and communist-influenced people across a table in almost daily sessions" during an actors strike to convince Reagan that communism was a very real threat.
Soon, the former Roosevelt Democrat was crusading against big government. "I am convinced there is a groundswell of economic conservatism building up which could reverse the entire tide of present day 'statism,'" Reagan wrote to Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959.
Those pillars-anti-communism and small-government conservatism-guided the rest of Reagan's life. One reason he became so popular is that he could find clear and gentle ways to express his powerful political beliefs.
"Is it possible that we have let ideology, political and economical philosophy and governmental policies keep us from considering the very real, everyday problems of the people we represent?" Reagan asked Leonid Brezhnev in a 1981 letter.
His note was a friendly response to a bellicose letter from the Soviet leader. "[People] want the dignity of having some control over their individual destiny," Reagan continued. "Government exists for their convenience, not the other way around."
This letter sent a clear signal: The United States would not threaten the Soviet Union militarily, although we would work for free markets and a democratic world. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the international growth of democracy are direct results of the policies Reagan outlined here.
Finally, Reagan's critics claim he wasn't a big thinker. But a letter to his old friend Laurence Beilenson disproves that. "When I finally decided to move on what has become S.D.I., I called a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," he wrote in 1986. "I asked them if in their thinking it was possible to devise a weapon that could destroy missiles as they came out of their silos. They were unanimous in their belief that such a defensive system could be developed. I gave the go-ahead that very day."
Reagan knew missile defense could protect us from the Soviets, and from future threats, and he didn't intend to give it away. "I have never entertained a thought that SDI could be a bargaining chip," he told Beilenson.
The Reagan legacy is all around us. We've won the Cold War, exported freedom and democracy to dozens of countries and are moving ahead with a missile-defense system that will help protect us from future terrorist threats.
As his letters make clear, Ronald Reagan saw a bright future and charted a course to get us there. It's time for everyone, even those who opposed him politically, to give him the full credit he deserves.
Ed Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation.