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Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History Hardcover – February 6, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, Diggins (The Rise and Fall of the American Left) provides an original reappraisal of Ronald Reagan from the conservative perspective. Throughout, Diggins discovers nuances that have heretofore escaped notice by most other Reagan scholars. For example: in appraising Reagan's reaction as California governor to '60s radicals, Diggins is the first writer to acknowledge the extent to which the onetime movie star shared common ground with rebels on campuses nationwide. Reagan, with his reverence for Thomas Paine and passion for limiting the reach of government, was—on at least one level—more than sympathetic when Berkeley protesters chanted, "Two, Four, Six, Eight, Organize to Smash the State!" Although a fan of Reagan's, Diggins doesn't hesitate to be critical—as when he discusses Reagan's attitude as president toward environmental issues, which Diggins characterizes as "puzzling" and "disastrous." (Diggins notes that Reagan's record as governor of California, where he allied himself with old guard Republican conservationists, was far more environmentally-friendly.) Overall, Diggins does a superb job of tracing Reagan's intellectual development from old school New Dealer to thoughtful, Emersonian libertarian, and also firmly establishes Reagan's credentials as a major architect of communism's final collapse. 13 photos. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Because Reagan has been misinterpreted by both the Right and the Left, his legacy in American political history has been distorted and undervalued, according to Diggins, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Left (1992). Contrary to liberal opinions, Reagan was no philosophical lightweight, nor was he the moral absolutist lauded by conservatives. He was a man of consistent beliefs, forged during the cold war. In his efforts to end the cold war, he was closer to liberals who always thought it possible than to conservatives who didn't believe it could ever be done. Reagan was "the only president in American history to have resolved a sustained, deadly international confrontation without going to war," defying liberal expectations of him personally and conservative expectations of the value of diplomacy. Reagan rejected the authority of religion as much as government. By convincing Americans to believe in themselves, Reagan demonstrated the duality of American political culture, that it is both liberal and conservative. This is a thoughtful book for both Reagan admirers and critics. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
The key question is how Reagan, for the most part, succeeded without paying much attention to detail, when others, like his utterly failed predecessor, Jimmy Carter, created domestic and foreign policy disasters. Principally, he had faith in the overall goodness of the individual, who sought to please God by doing well.
The only President since George Washington to literally avoid war with a threatening major power, Diggins claims it was his fear of a nuclear confrontation, rather than a desire to win the Cold War,that drove Reagan to push for, and ultimately win, a nuclear arms reduction treaty. What this fine historian missed I think, is that Reagan knew the Cold War was soon to end if he enforced an arms buildup, gave circuitous aid to the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets, and broke government's tight hold on the U.S. economy,giving it room to bloom. All of this crippled the Soviet mindset. He did not abandon anti-Communist conservative thinking, as the author claims. It was necesary he knew, to remain tough and resolute. Only when Gorbachev emerged as Communist Party Secretary and Premier, and was greatly stunned by Chernobyl, did Reagan feel the time was right to negotiate. And after one failure over Reagan's insistence that the Stategic Defense Initiative not be scrapped, arms reduction was achieved when Gorbachev collapsed like a folding chair, giving in on every point of the eventual Treaty.
Reagan was personally unconcerned about his legacy. He was too modest a man to take credit. 18 million new jobs. Spurring millions upon millions to freedom from the Evil Empire. If you asked him about it, he might say what he did days before he left office. "On the whole, not bad." And think of what more he could have done if the Republicans had gained control of the House of Representatives. The Frankenstein Monster that is the federal government today might actually function within its proper constitutional limits.
This is a thought provoking book, which ought to be read in conjunction with Lou Cannon's fine biography, Ronald Reagan: Role of a Lifetime.
Reagan's singular achievement, Diggins argues, was the role he played in bringing a peaceful end to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Though he came into the White House with a promise to rebuild the American military and confronted what his advisers contended were Soviet-sponsored regimes in nations ranging from Nicaragua to Angola, it's clear that, very early in his Administration, if not before then, Reagan became committed to the idea of drastically reducing, if not eliminating, nuclear weapons.
Much to the consternation of his neo-conservative foreign policy team, Reagan made overtures to the Soviets as early as April 1981, when he wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev while recovering from an assassination attempt. The Brezhnev dialog never went anywhere, largely because Brezhnev was apparently too stubborn and too ill to actually pursue serious negotiations. Similarly, the short-lived reigns of his two immediate successors made pursuing peace impossible. As Reagan himself once quipped, "They keep dying on me."
It was only with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, who required reduced tensions with the U.S. to pursue his ultimately doomed strategy of reforming Communism, that Reagan was able to pursue his desire to bring both countries out of the horrifying doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.
One interesting thing that Diggins' book brings out is the extent to which many of Reagan's conservative supporters became convinced in the late 1980s that their leader had sold America down the river. Many of the same people who, on the occasion of his funeral in 2004, lionized him as the man who had "won" the Cold War. Among the critics were William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, and Henry Kissinger, all of whom seemed convinced at the time that the Cold War and the tensions with the USSR were a permanent and irreversible fact (Jeane Kirkpatrick had in fact said as much in her writings prior to being named U.N. Ambassador).
Reagan, Diggins, argued, never accepted the neo-conservative view of history and rejected the idea that the Cold War was a permanent fact of life that could only end with an exchange of nuclear missiles that would destroy both nations, if not most of the civilized world. In fact, rather than being a true conservative, Diggins persuasively argues that Reagan was really more of a traditional old-style liberal, what we would today call a libertarian, and that his ideas were influenced more by the libertarianism of Thomas Paine and the romanticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson than conservative hero Edmund Burke. While Reagan courted social conservatives and neo-cons, he did not share their views on the inherent sinfulness and fallibility of man.
Diggins goes criticize some aspects of Reagan's record, most notably, in the domestic sphere, and he rightly criticizes him for the mis-handling of the Iran Contra affair. But, like I said, this is a biography not a hagiography. On the whole, though, Diggins does an excellent job of rescuing our 40th President from his detractors and his worshipers. Hopefully, other historians will follow suit.
Diggins seems to understand that it's hard to understand the man, so he takes a slightly different approach in this book. First, he studies Reagan's years in Hollywood and as Governor of California, looking at his stance and action on issues (especially Communism) and interpreting their meaning. Once Diggins' narrative reaches the White House years, he really leans heavily on the thoughts and actions of Reagan's advisers, especially the group Diggins calls Neo-Cons (new conservatives).
All in all, Diggins does a very nice job of taking a truly objective look at Reagan's Presidency - one of the first books that has enough temporal distance from the event to do it. That is a worthy achievement and wins this book four stars, but ultimately you are left with the sense that you missed the core of what made Reagan's Presidency what it was - both good and bad - Reagan.
Diggins often uses ideas from Michael Deaver's book about his years with Reagan, "A Different Drummer" to try to give perspective on the President. Despite being a close adviser, friend and fan of Reagan, Deaver does give a fairly objective look at the man. I recommend that book first, or maybe together with this one.