Like many Americans, I watched the PBS series on Ronald Reagan, rebroadcast last weekend, with fascination. I wasn't surprised to see him receive credit for winning the cold war, but I was surprised at the reasons given for his success.
The film makes it clear, for instance, that President Reagan lacked any knowledge of US history or of the details of policy, but assures us repeatedly that he possessed a great understanding of a few big matters. He loved his country, believed in negotiating with the Russians from strength, abhorred nuclear weapons, believed he could spend the Russians into bankruptcy, thought he should distinguish between the morality of freedom and the evil of communism, and was convinced that the United States could win the cold war.
Only Robert Dallek, of all the " experts," noted that Mr. Reagan's ideas would have been regarded as conventional in the 1940s and '50s. No one said the "bankruptcy" of the Soviet Union might have occurred because of internal economic disasters that had nothing to do with the US or because of the need to match US military spending, which had been high since 1950, not only since 1981. Defense expenditures increased much more sharply under President Truman, and overall military costs represented a larger percentage of gross domestic product in the '50s and '60s than in the '80s.
The filmmakers also thought Reagan deserves major credit for believing that Solidarity's survival in Poland put real pressure on the USSR's empire in Eastern Europe. Is this an original idea that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union? And does Reagan really get credit for finally agreeing to talk with the Soviets? Every president since World War II spoke with Soviet leaders.
Even more peculiar was the treatment of Reagan's first meeting with President Gorbachev. According to Edmund Morris, Reagan's mastery of the occasion was assured by the fact that he towered over Mr. Gorbachev and appeared on a cold day without an overcoat. A Russian witness concurred that Reagan's height and sartorial elegance doomed Gorbachev to defeat in the negotiations. Clearly, the press at the time loved the president's appearance and insouciance, but someone, somewhere, might question whether negotiating is entirely about appearance on TV.
If this were all that was required to defeat the Soviets, then we made a mistake not electing Wilt Chamberlain president and hiring Ralph Lauren to dress him. Imagine how intimidating President Chamberlain would have appeared greeting Gorbachev. No, I seriously doubt that Gorbachev was surprised by Reagan's height or felt disadvantaged in the negotiations because he was wearing an overcoat, even if there was a momentary awareness that the actor-president looked (surprise, surprise) smashing on television.
Conservatives can stop worrying about Reagan's reputation. He will get credit in most history books for the demise of the USSR. That's the way we do things. Presidents receive credit for the good things that happen in terms of office and blame for the bad. Then professional historians devote careers to pointing out that life is not that simple.
Reagan deserves the same amount of credit for the ending of the cold war that Herbert Hoover deserves for causing the Great Depression. While that may not be fair, it's the way life is.
Biography necessarily concentrates on an individual, but it need not ignore context. Some of us, therefore, will disagree with the conclusion that Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union because he was charmed so thoroughly by Reagan, even if we recognize that Reagan could be very charming indeed.
* John Perry Leavell is chairman of the history department at Drew University in Madison, N.J.