Paul Lettow was born in 1977, so he wasn’t even a teenager when Ronald Reagan finished his second term in the White House. “I only remember the most spectacular moments—the bombing of Libya, the Iran-Contra affair, the election of 1984,” he says. His youth left him with little vested emotion in the late president—which Lettow says has benefited to his career as a Reagan scholar.
Lettow, a 27-year-old native of McLean, Va., who’s now finishing up a law degree at Harvard, has recently published a book that’s causing Reagan fans and foes alike to reassess the president’s record. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons grew out of Lettow’s undergraduate thesis at Princeton and his doctoral work at Oxford University.
The book asserts that the man often derided by his critics as a warmongering cowboy was actually passionately opposed to nuclear weapons—and made it his personal mission to save the world from their threat. The book is already winning attention for its strikingly revisionist interpretation.
Over roughly four years of research, Lettow studied documents at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and interviewed the president’s former confidantes, including Defense Secretaries Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci and four of Reagan’s national security advisers. Lettow was able to assemble bits of evidence—speech passages, staff discussions, off-the-cuff remarks—that suggest how significant Reagan’s anti-nuclear sentiments were.
In an interview with Lettow, Carlucci recalled a conversation in which the president asked him, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could design a system that would protect everybody from wars?” Reflecting on it years later, Carlucci mused to Lettow, “I thought it was a little Utopian.”
Yet Reagan, in Lettow’s telling, endeavored to make the Utopian real. The “Star Wars” missile-defense system was intended to protect America from nuclear attack and also bring the Soviets to the bargaining table.
Reagan was “so different than the stereotype,” says Lettow. “People assumed he was a figurehead, but he was almost exactly the opposite. On the issues he cared about, he was in control.” Lettow finds a grain of truth in the old Saturday Night Live portrayal of Reagan—a fumbly old granddad when Girl Scouts are in the Oval Office for a photo-op, but a tough-as-nails boss once they leave.
Even Reagan critics acknowledge that part of his plan worked beautifully, bankrupting the Soviet regime and hastening its economic and political demise. But after Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, to abolish their nuclear arsenals, the grander goal of making the world nuclear-weapon-free was downsized by the administration.
Lettow isn’t entirely sure why Reagan was so spooked by the specter of nukes, but he has some ideas: Reagan’s mother was a Protestant evangelical who believed that people were destined to fulfill God’s plan. As an adolescent in Illinois, the future president worked as a lifeguard for several years and became skilled at rescuing people in dire straits. These early experiences may have colored Reagan’s reaction to the United States’ use of atomic bombs on Japan, which happened when the future president was still an actor (and a liberal) in Hollywood.
“It affected him,” Lettow says. “It affected everyone, but for him it was very personalized. He took it as a personal calling to do away with evil. His need for a mission in life, his experience as a rescuer, and his loathing of nuclear weapons came together. Later, though I don’t know when and neither do his other biographers, Reagan came to see nuclear weapons and nuclear war as literally Armageddon—not just as a sign of the apocalypse but as the apocalypse itself.”
Few if any members of the public connected the dots about Reagan’s views at the time. Reagan’s loathing of nuclear weapons was largely kept under wraps by his advisers. And journalists seem to have found the notion of an anti-nuclear Reagan so out of kilter with his prevailing image that they barely reported whatever evidence of his views did filter out.
Talking about nuclear abolition “served neither the left nor the right,” Lettow says. For the right, such views were considered naive, even batty, and were best swept under the rug. In retrospect, the left and its vigorous, broad-based nuclear-freeze movement might actually have been in tune with Reagan’s personal views. But those groups could hardly envision finding common ground with a man they so disliked, and Reagan never attempted to reach out to freeze advocates.
“It’s one of the great ironies of the age,” Lettow concludes. —Louis Jacobson