Way out there in the blue

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Fitzgerald, Francis. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2000. 592 pages. $30.00.



SUMMARY

--Mlinhart 21:32, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Frances Fitzgerald describes the enormous military buildup of the Reagan administration. Her principal focus is on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile defense program suggested by Ronald Reagan in 1983 and eventually fully supported by conservative hardliners in his administration. During the Reagan years, SDI was always a dream and never a reality. Fitzgerald believes it was a technical impossibility.

Fitzgerald begins with a facetious (maybe) discussion of Reagan’s actions and reactions and their relation to his acting career. Reagan ‘presented himself as a citizen-politician’ trying to ‘restore common sense and common decency.’ (28) He played Mr. Smith, the naive and heroic common man in the Frank Capra movie. (29) Reagan visualized and accepted SDI as a possibility. He believed in the ability of American science and engineering to work miracles. One can not completely fault Reagan. Advocates, like Nobel Prize winner, Edward Teller, who supposedly understood technical possibilities, encouraged this belief.

Fitzgerald portrays Reagan as an administrator manager who let his appointees do their job without much interference and accepted their advice without much skepticism. When advice conflicted, Reagan was unwilling to make decisions. George Schultz, Secretary of State and Casper Weinberger, Secretary of Defense often took opposing views. Shultz leaned toward the center and Weinberger generally took a hard line on defensive and arms treaty issues. Needless to say the issues were enormously complex. It is small wonder that Reagan had a difficult time sorting through options (if he bothered to do so).

Fitzgerald demonstrates Republican concerns about public opinion often affected administration actions. The Reykjavik meeting was proposed by Gorbachev in September of 1984 (an election year) ‘to determine if progress could be made for a Washington summit. The American delegation was not well-prepared when the meeting was held in October. The meeting was to last only one night. Instead of confining discussions to agreed upon points or to general agreement about issues for later discussion, both sides began what one writer called ‘enthusiastic and muddle-headed bargaining.’ (347) George Schultz said immediately after the meeting he was deeply disappointed. Nevertheless administration spin doctors went to work, proclaiming it a success. Their campaign worked and Reagan’s approval rating ‘jumped 6 points’ in 5 days. Confusion followed about what had happened at Reykjavik but in the end nothing was settled because Gorbachev wanted SDI research confined to the laboratory and Reagan would not agree.

The Cold War came to a certain end when the Soviet Union fell apart in the 1990’s. Left behind was a massive American military establishment that could find no country that was near its equal as an enemy.

--Mlinhart 21:32, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)


COMMENTARY

--Mlinhart 21:32, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Fitzgerald does not give Reagan much credit for improving relations with the Soviet Union. Fitzgerald portrays Gorbachev as clever, charming, astute and determined to change his country, improve diplomatic relations with the United States and reduce the Soviet expenditures on weapons. Reagan, ever the professional actor, played his role as peace-seeking but adamant about maintaining United States superiority with the non-existent SDI.

One of the interesting aspects of Reagan’s presidency is that during his second (and final) term his popularity declined sharply. It was affected by the Iran-Contra scandal, the failure of the Bork nomination and the stock market decline in 1987. It appears that second term Presidents, like Nixon, Johnson, Clinton and now Bush have had more than their share of problems. One might tend to agree with Kevin Phillips (The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath.) that as a party gains power and moves toward elitism, they lose the common touch and consequently meet resistance and lose support. Often this resistance shows up in the interim Congressional elections which fortunately tend to curb aggrandizement of power by the incumbents. It would be interesting to look at the possibility that administrations tend to become either more careless or more reckless and less concerned about public opinion during the second term now that the second term is certain to be a final term.

Fitzgerald writes about the executive and legislative branches of government. She occasionally mentions interests groups like the Heritage Foundation. She does not stress the influence of those who benefited directly from military spending. There were billions of dollars at stake. Fitzgerald tends to view ideology as the reason moderate government leaders favored or disfavored taking a hard line rather than profit or pressure from influential potential beneficiaries of government largesse.

Fitzgerald discusses the modus operandi of the Reagan administration which seemed to function on a first principle of ‘muddling through.’ Managing big government is nearly an impossible undertaking. When a President is willing to allow opposing views (as he should and in America, normally must); at best, disarray and confusion can be the result. At worst, stagnation or inertia can occur. Of course, inertia in government is not necessarily a bad thing.

Some have argued that ‘SDI and the US military buildup forced the Soviets to spend more than they could afford on their defenses and/or convinced them of the inherent weaknesses of their system.’ According to Fitzgerald, the ‘evidence for this proposition is wanting.’ (474) Fitzgerald claims SDI alarmed the Soviets because it ‘threatened to reverse a trend to strategic stability and stable costs.’ The Soviets never created their own SDI program and by 1987, ‘no longer regarded SDI as a threat.’ (474) The Soviets stopped trying to keep up with the United States. Fitzgerald believes it was the Soviet economic decline and Gorbachev’s efforts ‘to reverse the decline and to modernize his country that knocked the props out from under the system.’ The end of the Soviet Union was ‘in essence, a series of decisions made by one man, (Gorbachev) and it came as a surprise precisely because it did not follow a systemic breakdown.’ (475)

As the Cold War recedes into history, it appears to be more and more eerie, insane, tragic, and ridiculous. It is remarkable that two nations could arm themselves to the point of mutually assured destruction. It is even more remarkable that the world survived the madness. Despite muddling, inefficiency, carelessness and weak and strong leaders on both sides, the Soviet Union and the United States did not destroy each other.

--Mlinhart 21:32, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)

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