February 7, 2002
Illustration by Bob Aul
Not Too Late for a War Crimes Tribunal He turns 91 this week, so it’s possible Ronald Reagan can’t remember. But Jim Washburn can’t forget.
"As time goes by, it becomes clear that President Reagan was not only a great president but also one of our greatest, right up there with FDR, Lincoln and maybe George Washington."
— Dana Rohrabacher, in the Feb. 7, 2001, Daily Pilot
Move over, Lincoln—we’d like to blast Ronald Reagan’s features onto Mount Rushmore. Erect a monument to him in every county. Engrave him on the $10 bill. Make a book extolling his character and achievements mandatory reading for schoolkids.
He saved us from the Red Threat and from Jimmy Carter. He brought back morning in America. He is America. With a flick of his mighty pen, he turned ketchup into a vegetable. All hail Ronald Reagan!
Jesus, can’t we just send him a "Best Wishes" card and leave it at that?
Being president is a tough gig, even for one such as Reagan, who, according to aides, worked two to three hours per day, napped at cabinet and summit meetings, and spent more than a year of his eight years in office kicking back on his California ranch. Living in the White House entails difficult decisions, crises to be dealt with, and the dragging responsibility of being the most powerful person in the world. It ages one unnaturally. Reagan even took a bullet for us on the job. Thank the man for that.
But when you talk about canonizing him, you can go suck a sprinkler head. Ronald Reagan may have been a likable guy—even in the White House, he answered his fan mail, sometimes enclosing a check to a citizen going through hard times—but his administration was also flat-out the most anti-democratic, hoodwinking, lying, Constitution-flouting, despot-coddling, rich-enriching, deficit-building, environment-despoiling, health-endangering, paranoid, cynical and fundamentally corrupt one in our nation’s history. Name a strip mine for it if you must, but no monuments, please.
Chances are you’re reading this for one of two reasons : you agree with me and enjoy getting pissed-off all over again at the perfidies of the 1980s; or, more likely here in Reagan Country, you disagree and enjoy getting pissed-off reading liberal crap.
It’s you latter folk I’d like to talk to here. I’ve enjoyed pissing you off, and I look forward to many more prosperous years of doing so. But even more, I want to convince you I’m right on this one because the nation we allowed ourselves to become in the 1980s was a rank perversion of the freedom and righteousness we all long for. I don’t blame Reagan for that so much as I do the nation that so blindly followed him. And if we don’t now take the hard look that many of us were unwilling to take then, we’ll go sliding right down that phlegmy slope again.
Ronald Reagan was born 91 years ago this Tuesday in Tampico, Illinois, and as a teen growing up in Dixon, Illinois, he worked summers as a lifeguard, reputedly saving 77 swimmers from drowning. In college, he became a student leader and even led a protest against his school’s authoritarian president.
After college, he landed work as a sportscaster in Davenport, Iowa, and though he’d never actually seen a major-league game, he invented vivid color to tart up the bare stats he read off a Morse code ticker tape. Many years later, he loved telling people about the time the wire went dead for six minutes and he kept going, improvising the action and passing it on as fact to his listeners.
(Curiously, Walter Cronkite says that was his story, which he related to then-President Reagan one night and was surprised to later find Reagan telling the story as his own.)
In Hollywood, his rugged looks, honed announcer’s voice and perfect memory landed him parts. Among his other roles, he made four films playing a secret agent named Brass Bancroft. For want of other superlatives, you could say his acting was dependable. In 1942, he went into the Army and spent the duration of the war at Hal Roach studios in Culver City making training films.
Reagan became active in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), eventually becoming its president. In 1952, rather than recuse himself because he was signed with the talent agency MCA, he led SAG in granting MCA a special waiver to go into TV production, greasing the way for it to become a media giant .
Fortune smiles upon the just, and the following year, MCA rewarded Reagan by landing him a gig hosting the General Electric Theater program for the then-amazing sum of $125,000 per year. His duties also entailed becoming a spokesman for GE, traveling the country on their dime as he toured factories and made speeches touting free enterprise and damning "Marx-inspired" programs like Medicare and Social Security. In 1961, when questioned by a grand jury about the special consideration his union had given MCA, Reagan, known then for his near-photographic memory, frequently said under oath that he couldn’t remember.
Once a Roosevelt liberal, Reagan was by now a solid conservative, which some attribute to the influence of his second wife, Nancy. They married when she was one and a half months pregnant, a fact we note only in light of the moral standards Reagan later tried to impose on others.
While his acting career had sputtered by the 1960s, he had become such a popular and well-paid conservative speaker that when he decided to run for office, he didn’t work his way up the political ranks but aimed right for governor of California.
With substantial financial backing from MCA, two oilmen and a car dealer, his campaign presented a near-first in politics: instead of being managed by the party, Reagan hired outside consultants, who in turn employed psychologists at the Behavioral Sciences Corp. to package their candidate and craft position papers that would push the public’s buttons. All this for a man who touted himself as an aw-shucks , common-sense political outsider. Even before Reagan moved into the governor’s mansion, the same team of admen and psychologists went to work on a White House run. Against party wishes, he subsequently ran in presidential primaries against Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
His record as governor is mixed. Despite his tax-cutting cant as a candidate, he gave California the biggest tax increase in its history (a necessary one, granted, because exiting Governor Pat Brown, a Democrat, had left a deficit). Though he later claimed he hadn’t understood it, Reagan signed one of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws. On the other hand, when the legislature annually voted to repeal old laws that made felonies of sex acts most couples engage in, Reagan vetoed them each time, true to the Republican hypocrisy of wanting government out of the boardroom but not the bedroom.
In actual accomplishment, his two terms in Sacramento were notable for their inertia; little action followed the fiery rhetoric Reagan employed on the stump. On that front, at least, he was a firebrand, with his tough-guy talk against hippies, war protesters and campus activists—"If it’s a bloodbath they want, so be it"—creating the "law and order" message his rival Richard Nixon rode to the White House.
Reagan’s growing reputation for ignoring facts when they didn’t conform to his vision—such as his justification of our involvement in Vietnam by claiming it had historically been two countries—accelerated when he set his sights on the White House. Campaigning against Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan asserted Ford was weak on defense and had let the U.S. become No. 2 in the world, neither of which was true. He repeated the same charges four years later against Jimmy Carter, who had merely served as an officer on a nuclear sub as opposed to Reagan’s sterling military record as a movie pretty boy. Carter had backed numerous new weapons programs and increased military spending every year he was in office (just as Bill Clinton did, regardless of George W. Bush’s similar claims).
Running against Carter in 1980, Reagan again campaigned as the quintessential outsider and Everyman, despite having spent his life as a Hollywood movie star, high-paid corporate shill and professional politician with a $3 million home. With ex-CIA director George Bush onboard as his running mate, most Everymen also didn’t have former and active CIA agents providing them with intelligence on the sitting president’s foreign-policy moves. Those connections may also have come in handy in the theft of Carter’s debate notes for Reagan.
We will not dwell here on the controversial allegations of the October Surprise, in which the Reagan camp reputedly negotiated with Iran to deny Carter an election boost by delaying the release of 52 American hostages, beyond saying that former Reagan campaign and White House aide Barbara Honegger makes a compelling case against the man she once revered in her book, October Surprise. That treasonous deal, she asserts, explains why the secret arms shipments to Iran didn’t begin in 1985 but in 1981 and continued, she writes, "regardless of whether American captives were released, tortured, killed or seized anew in Lebanon. It explains why U.S. arms shipments to Iran continued even after Iran’s culpability in the bombing of the U.S. barracks and U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait had been clearly demonstrated." And that raises a good question : Why, unless there was an incriminating debt owed, would a U.S. administration trade arms for any reason to a country that had cold-bloodedly murdered 241 of our Marines, sailors and soldiers in their bunks in a Beirut outpost?
THE WRECKING CREW
I may be wrong, but I’m never in doubt.
— Ronald Reagan
One thing that sets Reagan apart from Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and other lying presidents is that Reagan believed his own lies. Even in the thick of the Iran-contra scandal—when Reagan was caught in one untruth after another and a Los Angeles Times poll showed that only 14 percent of Americans believed he wasn’t lying—he was never contrite. From his perspective, I suspect, he wasn’t lying: his reality was simply too great to be contained by the truth.
Some have argued that Reagan literally couldn’t tell the difference between his role as president and roles he’d played or seen in the make-believe world of movies. When addressing an audience of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, Reagan told them the tear-welling story of one medal winner, a B-17 pilot who had gone down with his plane rather than abandon a trapped, injured gunner. It was a touching story, but it never happened. Rather than recount the story of one of the genuine heroes seated before him, Reagan’s tale was from the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer, fiction recycled as fact.
He once told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had witnessed the suffering of the concentration camps firsthand, filming their liberation with the Signal Corps in World War II. Not unless there were death camps along Santa Monica Boulevard : Reagan was in California for the entire war.
At one point, deep in the mire of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Beirut dispatched an ambassador to the White House. Reagan was awakened to meet with the man, who told the president and his aides a tale of treachery, terror and the apocalypse. The diplomat later noted that Reagan seemed to listen with real appreciation. Then the diplomat paused, and Reagan asked, "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Danny Thomas?"
When he proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, the Star Wars technology he spoke of bore less relation to what scientists thought possible than to an "inertia projector" he had guarded in the 1940 Warner Bros. spy movie Murder in the Air.
His era of movies didn’t deal in ambiguities but clearly defined good guys and bad guys. There’s no drama if the bad guy is a pushover, so in Reagan’s real-time movie, the Soviet Union became the Evil Empire. He claimed they had superiority over us in submarine and missile technology, when the opposite was true. With our multiwarhead missiles, we had a clear atomic superiority, if such a thing even matters once you’re untold megatons beyond mutually assured destruction. Reagan stated the Soviets were engaged in a massive military buildup, while its growth had been essentially flat since 1975, with most of its new resources supporting its war in Afghanistan, which proved to be the Soviets’ Vietnam.
And now, of course, it has become our Afghanistan, with our troops fighting a regime of extremist thugs, some of them "freedom fighters" the Reagan administration trained and armed to fight the Soviets. Osama bin Laden was one of the freedom-hating freedom fighters enjoying the U.S.’s none-too-particular largesse back then.
In Reagan’s world of absolutes, there were no pollution problems and the homeless were that way because they chose to be. Jobless? Reagan would wave a 30-page want-ads section at you, heedless that most of the jobs required a high level of skill. Welfare was to be judged wholly on the evidence of a "Chicago Welfare Queen," who in Reagan Anecdote Land had used 80 names and 30 addresses to bilk the system of $150,000 but in reality was a woman accused of using four names to accrue $8,000.
Recall how Republicans hammered Al Gore as a habitual liar after he uttered a few half-truths? Reagan quite possibly never gave a speech without lying, and it wasn’t dopey stuff about what medications his dog was taking but instead was the material that shaped his administration.
Based on a few skewed anecdotes about wasteful, bureaucratic government, Reagan set about dismantling it. The people he brought in to head the various departments were mostly persons with a noted antipathy for those departments, such as Secretary of the Interior James Watt, whose previous job was running anti-environmentalist Joseph Coors’ Mountain States Legal Foundation. Watt proudly didn’t enforce the Endangered Species Act or strip-mining laws, gave billions of dollars of publicly held coal reserves to private companies, and tried to put another 30 million acres of public land into private hands.
Watt said he saw no need to preserve our environment for future generations because he was convinced the Lord was returning soon to scourge the earth clean anyway. That’s good, solid science for you: the world is just a big cheese wheel, and Reagan’s godly men were privileged to know the expiration date, so forget about having respect or wonder for the magnificent and fragile processes that make the planet work, forget future generations or a sense of responsible stewardship. Just shut up and drink your slurry.
Watt’s counterpart at the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Gorsuch, was similarly lax about enforcing existing laws and allowed the agency’s new policies to be shaped by the same corporations accused of violating pollution laws. When Congress questioned these cozy ties, the Reagan administration initially refused to turn over requested documents (for which Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress), not for national security reasons or a compelling argument of executive privilege, but simply because they didn’t want the people to know the people’s business. You can draw your own parallels to Dick Cheney’s current stonewalling on his secret meetings with Enron officials.
One bit of good environmental action emerged from the Reagan years : Congress passed an extension of the Clean Water Act. Reagan vetoed it, of course, but Congress overrode his veto.
In other areas, antitrust regulations were ignored, workplace safety was compromised, medical research and services were curtailed, understaffing and underfunding of agencies contributed to everything from lax customs inspections to space shuttle explosions, AIDS was a disease Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to mention, and ketchup was almost reclassified as a vegetable for school lunch programs.
Don’t like rap music? Blame Reagan. His administration slashed inner-city programs like Head Start, and his budget cuts forced schools to drop "nonessential" programs such as the arts. Remove the music education and access to instruments from kids who still have an artistic impetus, and you get rap.
As we Californians learned anew in our energy-deregulation woes, a bit of government regulation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In 1982, Reagan signed the law deregulating the savings and loan industry, announcing, "All in all, I think we’ve hit the jackpot," which many wealthy thieves did—leaving the rest of us to pay the casino for the most expensive boondoggle in U.S. history. Though there were plenty of Democrats involved in that mess, don’t forget to thank Reagan as well for costing us hundreds of billions of dollars in freeing us from those fussy regulations.
Nowhere were Reagan’s civic Luddites more cynically effective than at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Programs intended to finance and build low-cost housing for the poor instead became a cash trough for the administration’s cronies. In eight years of unabated corruption that only came to light during the Bush administration, HUD, Congress found, had lost billions of taxpayer dollars to fraud and mismanagement.
As if cutting HUD’s budget 57 percent hadn’t been enough, much of the remaining funding was allocated by ideological appointees with no housing experience, low-cost or otherwise. They awarded contracts to persons with even less experience, such as James Watt, who, after being forced from his Interior job for telling one racist joke too many, was paid $440,000 for making a few phone calls to HUD.
One outraged observer wrote, "It now appears that the taxpayers will take a loss of at least $2 billion [it ultimately was more than $8 billion] on the cozy little, sleazy little, greedy little deals that were made. Let it be said up top : the primary responsibility for this debacle lies squarely in the lap of Ronald Reagan."
The source of this quotation? Conservative columnist James J. Kirkpatrick.
Like Dubya’s call today to let "faith-based" organizations cure society’s ills, Reagan said he believed his budget gouges could be offset by citizens practicing the biblical notion of tithing, as he said, "the giving of a tenth to charity." Reporters’ perusal of Reagan’s tax records found that he was giving more like a hundredth—1.4 percent—of his own earnings to charity.
And the next time someone tries to tell you that Reagan was a fiscal conservative, remind them that he left the country with a financial debt that surpassed the debts accrued under all other U.S. presidents combined and that he never once submitted a balanced budget to Congress. That bit of fiscal restraint was left to a Democrat, Bill Clinton.
Speaking of Bubba, the conservative-bias media went apeshit when he pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich. Imagine the howls if Rich had gone on to kill his ex-wife, dismember her body and burn it. Oregon authorities in December 2000 arrested Robert Wendell Walker Jr. for doing just that to his former bride. Reagan had pardoned the convicted bank robber in 1981. Law-enforcement authorities could not recall another instance in which such a violent criminal had received a presidential pardon. Walker had no political ties, and no one knows to this day why Reagan cut him loose.
YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH
Not every government office suffered under Reagan. He bloated the Pentagon with the largest peacetime military buildup in our history, while the National Security Council, which had a staff of 35 at the height of the Vietnam War under LBJ, swelled to 255 employees under Reagan. Spying on American citizens reached new heights, with numerous examples of government infiltration of labor unions and of organizations opposed to our involvement in Central and South America.
And we were pretty involved, backing the wrong sides in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Argentina and other military dictatorships or oligarchies where citizens were living under hideously worse circumstances than our founding fathers had endured. In many cases, they were virtual slaves, with no vote and no rights in dictatorships that routinely tortured and murdered opposition voices. (Guatemala’s three-decade-old military regime, described by Reagan as "totally committed to democracy," killed more than 200,000 of its own people in the 1980s. In Argentina, it has since been revealed, the babies of murdered political prisoners were given up for adoption to members of the ruling class.) Yet, by Reagan’s measure, the citizens of these countries and others like them—consider the example of Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines—were supposed to be proud that the government torturing and murdering them wasn’t communist.
Shortly after moving into the White House, Reagan told The Wall Street Journal, "Let us not delude ourselves. The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world."
By that world-view, if it weren’t for Russia, South Africa would have been a nation of happily disenfranchised darkies singing in the mines. If Reagan had his way, there might still be a brisk market in "Free Nelson Mandela" T-shirts. It was only by overriding Reagan’s veto that Congress joined the rest of the civilized world in passing sanctions against the brutal, racist South African government.
I know people who met Reagan, and they didn’t think he seemed like the sort of fellow who’d cozy up to murderers or enjoy blighting the environment. Was he evil? I think it was more that he simply didn’t get it. He had his beliefs, and information that didn’t fit those confines was rejected out of hand. As one of his White House aides put it, "Reagan doesn’t have the knack for weighing alternatives."
He kept to his storehouse of hoary anecdotes and invented scenarios that always arrived at the same conclusions: communism was the only threat to our well-being, and big government was too much like communism. You could be a sultan, a generalissimo, a puppet, whatever, just so long as you claimed not to be a communist and let American businessmen do their thing on your soil. At home, you could privatize government functions out to the sleaziest privateers, and that was preferable to effective government programs.
If you didn’t see the world as he did, you were being duped. When, on June 11, 1982, nearly a million people rallied in New York’s Central Park to support a nuclear freeze, Reagan dismissed that huge and historic protest as the work of "foreign agents."
It simplifies life when you never test your beliefs or consider the views of others. Reagan took a similarly simple approach to being the chief executive, essentially working the way that he had for GE: he showed up when required, donned makeup, read a speech well and left the details to others.
"It’s very unusual to have a president who is not interested in policy at all," remarked Henry Kissinger, whose impression was that Reagan knew little of foreign affairs and was uninterested in learning. "He would try to avoid policy discussions. If he couldn’t, he’d resort to his cue cards. ... He was an actor, the quintessential actor. What he said was what he believed."
When Reagan eventually traveled to Russia, he was reportedly astounded to learn that—contrary to his deepest beliefs about America representing truth, justice and blue Superman -like hair — many Soviet citizens lived in fear of the United States. Jeez, just because he had them ringed with nukes, derided them as the Evil Empire, and at times raised serious doubts as to whether Reagan could tell his lunch from a launch code? Him, the man with his finger on the button, who had once erroneously asserted that Trident missiles could be recalled once launched? The president whose staff members spoke in terms of a "winnable" nuclear war "if there are enough shovels to go around" to dig shelters? The leader who had joked over a live radio microphone, "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes."
In his first press conference as president, Reagan said of the Soviets, "They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain their ends." It’s a description that eight years later would sum up the Reagan White House.
Reagan once told a story about agents of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government pulling a freedom-loving newspaper editor from his home and executing him in front of his pleading children. He related this tale with unbridled anger and contempt for cowards who would do such a thing. But like many a Reagan tale told with utter conviction, it was an utter fabrication. When the Great Communicator’s press office was asked for the details of this atrocity, they had to admit it hadn’t happened—or anything like it.
The Sandinistas were not the world’s most democratic government, but they were infinitely more so than the dictator they deposed, Anastasio Somoza. His family had treated Nicaragua like its own private labor camp since a U.S. intervention brought them to power in the 1930s. Perhaps Reagan had his S’s confused : in the 1970s, a Somoza business partner had an opposition newspaper editor murdered. And it was members of Somoza’s feared National Guard who executed American ABC newsman Bill Stewart in the streets of Managua. Unlike Reagan’s fiction, that latter event was captured on film.
Once the Sandinistas ousted Somoza in 1979, in a few short years, they drastically cut their nation’s malnutrition and infant-mortality rate, raised literacy and embarked on other ambitious public programs, without the benefit of the U.S. aid lavished on Somoza (who had fled the country with a fortune believed to be worth between $100 million and $500 million). They could have been more democratic than they were, but it’s hard to be perfect when the world’s most powerful nation is trying to crush you.
More on that soon, but let’s first look at some of the other fronts on which the Reagan administration was staving off the communist menace.
Not content with possessing enough nukes to destroy all human life several times over, the Reagan administration attempted to up the ante through a broad "reinterpreting" of the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty. This effort attracted the ire even of hawkish Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report calling it "the most flagrant abuse of the Constitution’s treaty process in 200 years of American history."
In 1983 Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative, which he posited as "a shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from rain." For the rest of his time in office, Reagan and his camp would routinely claim that "genuine breakthroughs have been made," only to have SDI scientists counter that there were no breakthroughs and that they were upset by the White House hype. Sixteen hundred U.S. scientists sent a letter to Congress asserting that the program was wasteful and only spurred the arms race. By 1987, even the top people in the SDI program were admitting that it might never be able to protect the population and would, at best, only be able to shield some of our missiles from attack.
To counter international fears that SDI could give the U.S. a first-strike advantage, Reagan claimed he would share the technology with the Soviets. Top military officials followed in his wake to say, no, we wouldn’t. The Soviets themselves gave little credence to Reagan’s offer, since, as Mikhail Gorbachev pointed out, the U.S. was unwilling to share even dairy-farming technology with them.
The SDI research money was in addition to our military budget, which, coupled with rich-favoring tax cuts, gave us the multitrillion debt we’ve been saddled with ever since. As if all those resources weren’t enough, the White House also diverted a substantial chunk of Federal Emergency Management Agency monies to build nuke-shielded mobile communications centers, handy only if your emergency happened to be an atomic war. That left the agency shortchanged for the workaday disasters—floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and the like—that didn’t stir Reagan’s fancy the way armageddon did.
Two decades and $100 billion later, we are not one whit safer, which is what happens when you sell wishful thinking as science.
After Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the White House never noticed things were changing and didn’t notice until the Bush administration was blindsided by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Reagan always enjoyed recounting his first private meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva, which he made sound like a movie scene: he coaxed the Soviet leader aside to a private room where, he said, the two of them could get to know each other man-to-man. Unless they did it by kissing, it’s hard to see how, since neither spoke the other’s language.
They might as well have done without interpreters at the summits, for all the attention Reagan paid. Members of his administration have since said they went to the Reykjavik summit mainly because they saw it as a meet ’n’ greet that could give their man a boost in the polls. They arrived unprepared and were caught off-guard by the sweeping arms-reduction proposals the Soviets made, including an offer to reduce even conventional forces. Reagan countered by telling jokes with anti-Soviet punch lines and relating a story he’d read in People magazine about a 1,200-pound man. Even Reagan fan Colin Powell found the president’s lack of preparation offensive. After that first day of meetings, Reagan told an aide, "I’d better go do my homework. Mikhail has all those details."
The sticking point in the summits was always Reagan’s cherished if chimeral Star Wars plans. Gorbachev, whose scientists told him the same things about its feasibility that American scientists were saying, ultimately told Reagan, "Go ahead and deploy it. Who am I to tell you what to do? I think you’re wasting money. I don’t think it will work."
When the two sides did eventually forge an INF treaty, it was signed at precisely 1:45 p.m. on Dec. 8, 1987, because that’s when Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, Joan Quigley, said to sign. Quigley, it transpired, made several decisions for the White House. I know a Christian Republican who told me last year that he could never vote for John McCain because the war-hero senator had once been involved with a New Age organization. This same man adores Reagan and is unbothered by the notion of a president who paid more attention to arcane mumbo jumbo than he did to the "details" of waging a nuclear war.
While America continued to build guns and missiles, Gorbachev acted unilaterally to reduce Soviet conventional and nuclear forces. The tremendous political and social changes rippling through the USSR, Reagan boosters will tell you, were due to the Gipper standing tall.
Bullpucky. What happened is what the grand old Republican Harold Stassen had predicted : the Soviet Union collapsed under its own dead weight. Gorbachev was a realist who recognized the system had failed. He didn’t need a fantasist like Reagan to tell him change was needed. Russians wanted what the West had, and it wasn’t missiles or Reagan’s hair dye. They wanted Levi’s and rock & roll, the very music James Watt had tried to ban from America’s Fourth of July celebration in D.C.
While Reagan had little effect on the Soviet Union, he had a devastating one on Central America, where a popular revolution and a subsequent election had brought the Sandinistas to power in Nicaragua, and another revolution was raging in El Salvador.
Within two months of taking office, the White House and the CIA covertly created an insurgent force to wage war on Nicaragua. Some who joined Reagan’s fight were patriots who had fought against Somoza but felt betrayed by the new regime’s move to the left. Most, though, and the ones Reagan’s CIA backed, were the same ex-National Guard totalitarian thugs the country had just rid itself of. Their anointed leader, Enrique Bermudez, had headed the National Guard and been Somoza’s military attaché in Washington. Reagan called these goons "the moral equivalent of the founding fathers" struggling at Valley Forge.
U.S. support for the contras, as they were dubbed, was originally sold to Congress as a limited operation to staunch the flow of arms to rebels in El Salvador. When it became clear the White House was instead orchestrating the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government, congressmen weren’t happy. On Dec. 8, 1982, they passed the Boland Amendment prohibiting funding for the contras. The amendment carried in the House 411 to 0.
The White House later got Congress to approve limited funding for food and medical supplies. What they didn’t mention was that they were still secretly funding the contras against the wishes—and outside the knowledge—of the American public.
In January 1984, Reagan secretly approved the CIA’s covert mining of Nicaraguan harbors, intended to block shipping and destroy the country’s feeble economy. Ships from several nations were subsequently damaged, including a Soviet oil tanker. When the CIA’s role was revealed by The Wall Street Journal that April, there was a new uproar, leading to a second funds-stopping Boland Amendment passed in October.
By law, the White House was required to inform the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence of the covert operation. It hadn’t, and committee chairman Barry Goldwater (a shining example of what a Republican can stand for) was incensed, writing to CIA director Bill Casey, "I am pissed-off. ... This is an act violating international law. It is an act of war. For the life of me, I don’t see how we are going to explain it.
The International Court of Justice agreed when Nicaragua brought the case to the Hague. While the U.S. had frequently used the same court to enforce international agreements, Reagan chose to ignore its ruling this time, making us a rogue state in the eyes of much of the world.
The covert, illegal funding of the contras continued, with Colonel Oliver North and others soliciting secret contributions from foreign states, making us beholden to them in ways we were never meant to know about. Among the nations entrusted with this potential blackmail material were Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and the Sultanate of Brunei, who sent millions to numbered Swiss bank accounts administered from the White House. One bit of comic relief : the Sultanate was given the wrong account number and deposited $10 million into some lucky stranger’s account.
Other strange bedfellows were enlisted, such as Panamanian leader, CIA employee and No. 1 drug runner Manuel Noriega. Clandestine flights delivered arms to the contras and came back loaded with cocaine destined for the U.S. That several top contras were smuggling coke into the States is established fact. If you have doubts that the CIA or White House knew of this, read the literature and make up your own mind. Such allegations would be harder to believe, though, if known truths weren’t barely more conscionable.
These elaborate steps—Swiss accounts, dummy corporations, secret flights, etc.—were taken not to deceive the Nicaraguans, who could pretty well figure out where the bullets were coming from, but to deceive the American Congress and public.
It is a grand irony that the White House’s free-market attitude and penchant for secrecy crippled even the efforts closest to Reagan’s heart: our military buildup was matched by gigantic procurement corruption scandals, and—in the only way the contras were similar to the troops at Valley Forge—the mercenaries in the field were often underfed and ill-equipped because everyone on down the line was grabbing a cut of the action for themselves.
In trying to win overt support for the contras, Reagan sank to the lowest level of fearmongering and hucksterism when he made speeches citing the number of miles between Nicaragua and Harlingen, Texas, as if the besieged Sandinistas were going to hop on a Greyhound bus and wage war on us. This while we were mining their harbors, violating their airspace, sabotaging their economy and secretly funding a war of terror against them—burning crops; bombing power stations; and massacring men, women and children.
Reagan’s scare tactics were all the more cynical given that the only Americans killed in Nicaragua had been murdered by the contras. It was a similar story across the border in El Salvador , where Reagan wholeheartedly supported the military government, despite the fact that U.S.-supplied soldiers raped and murdered three American nuns, along with killing an archbishop and anyone else they felt like. Confronted with the evidence, Reagan aides argued (until even they were shamed into silence) that the nuns were rebel gunrunners.
Our American tax dollars used to kill Americans, even nuns, in the name of defeating godless communism : if I had to live with a contradiction like that rattling around inside my head, I’d pray to get Alzheimer’s.
In 1981, Reagan, who had criticized Carter for negotiating with Iran, declared, "America will never make concessions to terrorists" and said, "Let terrorists beware: when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution."
We could almost imagine the missiles flying toward our avowed foes. What we couldn’t imagine was that those missiles would be flying aboard cargo jets, delivered to those enemies to use at their pleasure. Reagan also sent them a cake and a Bible.
The nagging October Surprise question aside, by 1985, the administration was shipping arms to Iran, ostensibly in exchange for American hostages, and arranging for intermediary countries such as Israel to do so as well, in violation of the Arms Control Export Act, an embargo on Iran the U.S. had arranged—and in violation of the president’s own tough talk. The president is required to make a finding to Congress of covert acts, informing select members of the acts and justifying how the nation would be served by them. Reagan didn’t, another violation of the law.
In October 1986, CIA recruit Eugene Hasenfus was shot down over Nicaragua while on an arms run to the contras , and the truth came oozing out in the following weeks: the White House had been arming our enemies in secret and using the profits to fund a covert war to kill people who were not our enemy.
While the White House paper shredders were working overtime, Reagan addressed the nation on Nov. 13, 1986. Even more emphatically than our dear Bill Clinton later intoned, "I did not have sex with that woman," Reagan faced the familiar cameras and said, "These charges are utterly false." He proceeded to lie about trading arms for hostages, about the amount of arms traded, and about having kept U.S. officials in the dark.
Six days later, he was back on TV, repeating some of those lies and adding new ones. Though a presidential aide issued corrections within the hour and Reagan’s own diaries showed he was in the arms-for-hostages loop, he could never bring himself to admit what he’d done. Rather, he told conflicting stories to the press and three irreconcilable versions of events to Congress.
Others took the fall while staffers raised the shield of "plausible deniability" high around Reagan—raised it so high that, if Bill Clinton had taken a similar tack, he might just as reasonably have argued that he didn’t know his own dick was being Hoovered.
During the congressional hearings on the scandal, Senator John Kerry said of the Reagan White House, "They were willing to literally put the Constitution at risk because they believed there was somehow a higher order of things, that the ends do in fact justify the means. That’s the most Marxist, totalitarian doctrine I’ve ever heard of in my life. ... You’ve done the very thing that James Madison and others feared when they were struggling to put the Constitution together, which was to create an unaccountable system with runaway power ... running off against the will of the American people."
BEDTIME FOR DEMOCRACY
At the last Reagan/Gorbachev summit—by which time the changes in the Soviet Union were evident to everyone except Reagan—the Russian leader asked Colin Powell, "What are you going to do now that you’ve lost your best enemy?"
A good question because, under Reagan, America had ceased being America. It no longer stood for anything, only against some other thing. While Reagan lectured Russian college students about freedom, he had debased the word beyond meaning by his actions in Central America, where we lay abed with tyrants and murderers, and at home, where his government conspired to act in secret for the selfish advantage of a few.
The core values of Reagan’s governance lay not in a representative republic or, as Kerry suggested, a communist state, but instead hearkened all the way back to feudalism. Your feudal lord didn’t have to heed your wishes or act in your interests. For your allegiance, he only had to offer to protect you from the lord on the next hill, who was pointing your way and telling his vassals the same thing : that a dark woods lay between, where dark things must happen so that you might sleep secure, things you had best not ask about, children.
Who better than a movie star, America’s royalty, to convey the message that God shone his grace on some more than others? These chosen ones, your leaders and captains of industry, were more equal than others, capable of handling the secrets and backroom deals, and if they benefited from that, it’s because they deserved to. It’s no wonder that such men felt a kinship with the despots and satraps of the world, who stood for everything America supposedly didn’t.
But what about Reagan’s popularity? Those who have recently been rouging Reagan’s image like to remind us that he won re-election with the largest total vote count in U.S. history. They are less keen on telling how by 1987, polls showed that Gorbachev was more popular with Americans than their own president was. Nor do they note that the candidate with the second-greatest vote count in our history, Al Gore, wound up teaching college instead of being president.
Still, there’s no ignoring that Reagan was—and remains—a very popular American figure. One explanation to me is that when our founding fathers were rebelling against the British monarchy, a lot of Americans didn’t share their fervor but preferred to go on clinging to a monarch’s hem. I doubt the percentages have changed much since then. There are still many folks who would rather have a daddy figure or lord up on the hill to tell them simple lies, rather than to be accountable themselves for the responsibilities of freedom.
Oliver North and his ilk were only able to work in the dark because so few Americans were willing to shine a light there. To some, it never occurred that unchecked power might be misused. To entirely too many others, a cynical world-view prevailed that it’s a compromised, dog-eat-dog world where corruption and injustice are the accepted coin of the realm. And a lot of people simply watched TV.
Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, so listen to the voices in Washington now : the ones using the fight against "evildoers" instead of the "Evil Empire" as a reason to trample our civil rights; the ones willing to stifle a worker’s right to strike but not a power consortium’s right to imperil our state’s economy and public safety; the ones anxious to risk a new Cold War and higher deficits with their unworkable Star Wars sequel; the ones sacrificing the environment to an ideology that confuses freedom with boundless exploitation; the ones who have named Iran-contra figure John Negroponte—accused of covering up U.S.-sponsored death squad activities in Honduras (including the murder of an American priest; spot a trend here?)—to represent our nation’s ideals and aspirations in the United Nations. All this under the aegis of another fumbling, nice-guy president.
Goddamn it! This is not the nation we envisioned when we were kids, proud to see our flag flying, proud of the just, kind, freedom-loving people we believed ourselves to be. This is not the reality we want our own kids to have to wake up to.
Everyone says they love their country. But love is action, and the American Dream is nothing more than a dream if people don’t act on it.
At a 1985 White House reception at which Elie Wiesel was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the famed Holocaust expert attempted to dissuade Reagan, unsuccessfully, from participating in a ceremony at Bitburg, a German cemetery where elite SS troops were interred. Having witnessed the Holocaust, Wiesel said, "I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of indifference. For the opposite of love, I have learned, is not hate, but indifference."