The Indianapolis News
February 5, 1999
Alan W. Dowd
Ronald Wilson Reagan turns 88 this month. The fortieth president lives in what he calls his "sunset years," a perfect metaphor for this eternal optimist's final days.
He brought that spirit of optimism to a weary world in 1981. It is easy to forget just how different things were before Reagan: decline and uncertainty at home; armies on the march overseas; a world teetering at the brink of surrender or war.
Today, as the White House fights for little else than itself, I am struck not by its smallness, but by the sweeping reach of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. That the nation is even able to devote so much attention inwardly is a tribute to Reagan. Without his spadework, the world would not accord us such a luxury.
To understand Reagan’s reach, consider the world he inherited and the one he left us. The contours of his bold but timeless design are everywhere apparent.
Central America blooms with free and stable governments. The Middle East staggers away from terror and war, its villains increasingly isolated. Free trade, popular government, and open communications link the globe ever closer in a village that is learning to speak the language of opportunity, competition, and mutual respect—America's language.
Europe is undivided, its eastern half no longer cordoned off. Germany is united. The Soviet Union is gone. Its former satellites clamor to join the West. Its weapons are rusting away in the silos and hangars that once threatened to unleash Armageddon.
The globe has not looked so new since before the First World War. And because a benevolent America stands without peer on the global stage, the future has never looked so bright.
This is what Reagan left us.
But on Election Day in 1980, the world was far colder and darker. The Red Army was training in Cuba, and on the march in Afghanistan and Africa. Soviet proxies had taken governments throughout Central America.
After a decade of unilateral detente, Moscow could smell victory and was racing to secure it before the United States rallied. Our allies began signing accords and aid agreements with Moscow, and Americans began to openly doubt their role in this draining conflict between East and West.
Some said America was in the midst of an irreversible decline, which history had already predetermined. But Reagan didn’t buy into that myth. He believed that men shape history, not the other way around. And he believed—stubbornly and tenaciously— that America’s greatest days lay ahead.
Reagan outlined a foreign policy worthy of that vision, basing his blueprint for victory on a doctrine of peace through strength. He ultimately pushed through Congress a massive increase in defense spending—$1 trillion over six years—to put muscle behind the words. And he instilled a new sense of purpose and pride in the men and women of our armed forces, who had been disowned by Washington after Vietnam.
The new president’s foreign policy came to be called the "Reagan Doctrine." It pledged American support to democratic movements around the globe, and announced to Moscow that the battle had been rejoined.
Best remembered for its military victories in Central America and Afghanistan, the Doctrine’s greatest achievement was the intangible moral support it extended to those behind the Iron Curtain. Forgotten by the disciples of detente, the people of Europe’s eastern half finally had a voice in the West. And that voice spoke the truth about Stalin’s empire: It was evil.
Reagan convinced us that victory over the Soviet Empire was ours for the taking. "The West will not contain communism," he predicted in 1982. "We will transcend it."
Because of Reagan, the West would do exactly that, and Moscow would soon surrender.
Never forget that it was an unconditional surrender. Reagan’s first summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, held in 1985, laid the groundwork for that surrender. It was in Geneva that the American statesman explained to his young Soviet counterpart the realities of the day: You cannot—and will not—win the arms race you have inherited.
But Gorbachev tried, seeking to save his crumbling empire with a grab bag of promises and deal-making. One of those deals had to do with Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.
Lambasted by American pundits, SDI struck fear in the hearts of the Soviets because they knew it could work. Once deployed, it would render Moscow’s nuclear arsenal useless. Gorbachev knew that a Soviet equivalent to SDI would be astronomically expensive. Drained by a paranoid quest for empire, it was something the aging Soviet state could never produce.
With that in mind, Gorbachev made a last-ditch overture that could have salvaged the bankrupt empire he inherited. At the close of the Reykjavik Summit, held just eleven months after Geneva, Gorbachev offered to drastically reduce the number of Soviet tanks, bombers, tactical nuclear weapons, and troops in Central Europe. Gorbachev's lone condition was that Reagan promise to scrap SDI.
Reagan, his lifelong hopes for a nuclear-free world raised and then dashed in a matter of minutes, rose from the table and dispatched of Gorbachev with two simple sentences: "SDI is not a bargaining chip. The meeting is over."
Gorbachev’s last gasp failed, and the summit ended. Perhaps only he and Reagan knew that so too had our longest war ended.
Others will say this struggle with Soviet communism ended in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, or even 1991, when the Soviet Union expired. But those were only after-shocks of what happened in Reykjavik in 1986.
In the rush to honor our fortieth president, we name warships, buildings, and airports after Reagan. But Reagan’s monuments cannot be captured in steel, limestone, or bronze. They aren’t frozen in time or place.
Reagan’s monuments are the dismantled walls of a fallen empire, the winds of freedom he unleashed on nearly every continent, the renewed confidence we have in ourselves, and perhaps most of all, a world no longer at the brink.