Ash Heap of History: Reagan’s Westminster Address 20 Years Later by Charles Krauthammer

Whenever I hear my checkered past recalled to me, I can’t decide whether I’m a retired physician or ex-psychiatrist. I’ve decided I’m a psychiatrist in remission and I’ve been doing extremely well — and haven’t had a relapse in 20 years.

I’m sometimes asked what the difference is between what I do today and what I did in my psychiatric days, and I tell people that in both professions I deal all the time with people who suffer from delusions of grandeur with the exception that the people I deal with have access to nuclear weapons. It makes the stakes a little higher and the work a lot more interesting.

I’ve been asked to talk to you a little bit about the reaction in the journalistic world to the Westminster Address and also to relate it to the Reagan Doctrine. As I recall, the response to the Westminster address was fairly restrained. There was the usual flurry of activity in the press in Washington — it did not last terribly long.

The general flavor was the usual left-right split with the left rather apoplectic about the President’s aggressiveness, with a tone of “there he goes again.” And there were the more alarmist commentators who said he really does believe it and that, of course, really was alarming for people living in Washington who found it very hard, particularly in the early years of Reagan, to believe that there were politicians and leaders who truly did have a belief system that they would act upon and not skip to the political necessities of the day.

I agree with Dr. Spalding that the Westminster speech may have received less reaction than the evil empire speech, “evil empire,” as she indicated, being the phrase that stuck rather than “ash heap of history.” And my explanation for why “evil empire” stuck more in the journalistic world is that it’s shorter, and this is, by the way, a rule that you can apply to all slogans. The shorter last because they’re easier to put in headlines. Which is, incidentally, why “axis of evil” is a brilliant turn of phrase, ten letters to encompass a lot of bad people, extremely economical.

As to what was important about the Westminster speech, many reasons have been elaborated, but I think the one thing that was so stunning about it was its optimism. It’s hard for us living 10 years after the utter eradication of communism to put ourselves back 20 years ago and to think about what it was like, particularly in the early ’80s.

Some of us think of 1975 as the nadir of the United States in the Cold War era with the collapse of Saigon. I think that’s wrong. I think it was 1979. 1979 really was the annus mirabilis. It was the lowest point of the Cold War. It was the year in which Nicaragua fell, Afghanistan was invaded, Cambodia was invaded by the Vietnamese, Iran collapsed, and just as a kind of footnote, which was entirely unnoted at the time, Grenada was taken over by Bishop and Company, something that we didn’t really notice until a little bit later. But it was all part of this pattern in which it appeared as if the policy of containment itself was in collapse.

That’s where we were starting from psychologically in the late 1970s. And here was a president who not only said this was not the way that things would have to be — we would not always be in retreat — but was confidently predicting what none of us imagined, that this rock of the Soviet Union and of communism that we had always imagined and still imagined at the time would always be with us in our lifetime would actually be destroyed and would disappear.

That I think was shocking — that psychological optimism. The idea that communism was a passing phase was the truly revolutionary idea. It took us from containment and at a time when it was a question of whether containment itself could be sustained and began speaking about rollback. That was revolutionary, that was shocking, and it spoke not only of rollback in the periphery, not only of rollback as understood in the Dulles years, meaning Eastern Europe, but Reagan essentially was saying that the rollback would go all the way to Moscow and it would end in Moscow itself.

Interestingly, however, his optimism did have a limit. It was somewhat projected into the future. There is a line in the speech where he says, “The task I have set forth will long outlive our own generation.” In fact it didn’t. It came shockingly early.

Part of the reason it came early is because of a policy that was articulated officially a few years later but that on the ground was begun to be implemented and that is the Reagan Doctrine. It was revolutionary in the sense that Reagan would not accept the premises of the past in the same way that he went from SALT to START in negotiations, from Strategic Arms Limitation to Strategic Arms Reduction, which was, again, revolutionary, in the same way that he went from Mutual Assured Destruction to SDI in nuclear theology, believing we can go beyond deterrents to defenses.

In the same way he brought this revolutionary idea that we could implement a policy that brought us from containment to rollback — but not rollback as we had imagined it in the ’50s in Eastern Europe. We would not only support Solidarity and try to assist the indigenous forces there in a peaceful revolution, but provide actual military aid to indigenous revolutionaries in the Communist outposts of the empire, that is in the Third World.

This was articulated officially in his State of the Union Address on the 6th of February 1985, almost three years after the Westminster Speech, in which he said, “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives in every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours since birth. Support of freedom fighters is self-defense.”

Now, I must admit that in the history of doctrines they’re generally rolled out with more fanfare. Truman delivered his in the famous address to a special session of Congress, in which he outlined the policy of containment. Nixon didn’t make a speech, but he was very interested in having the idea of the Nixon Doctrine understood and elaborated and propagated. The Reagan Doctrine was something that was, one might say, mischievously invented. I had a part in that. I saw that brazen speech and decided that it was, whether they meant it or not, an articulation of a very important principle of the foreign policy of the Reagan Administration, and that something new in the world had happened.

For 50 years, had been used to seeing pro-Western regimes under assault from communist guerillas in China, in Vietnam, Malaysia, in El Salvador, in Cuba. Just about everywhere our entire experience had been that. And here all of a sudden and rather unnoticed was a new phenomenon. There were guerillas fighting against communist regimes in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. They hadn’t been connected and here they came together in the idea of the Reagan Doctrine, which was that we would support these guerillas in the fight to overthrow proxy Soviets regimes or in the case of Afghanistan an actual Soviet-imposed regime.

What was important about the Reagan Doctrine is until then we had done it quietly and clandestinely. The Reagan Doctrine said overtly we are doing this, we are proud of this, and we’re not going to hide this. What Reagan began was the vigorous defense of the idea of democratic revolution, not just in theory, not just as a spiritual or a political movement, but an actual revolution by democrats against the Soviet empire.

And he argued, first of all, in the justice of the cause, which I think is self-evident but at the time was revolutionary. Because we had this notion of state sovereignty, that somehow we were not permitted to overthrow the regimes that had a seat in the UN or other official status. Reagan argued that that was not a correct criterion. The correct criteria were justice, human rights, democracy, and if they were regimes that were oppressing their people, acting in the name of a tyranny, we had the right and the moral duty to support those who were going to overthrow it.

The other part of this strategy which went more unstated was that it served our larger purposes of engaging in the fight against the Soviet empire by bleeding it at the periphery, and bleed it did. The fact that the Soviets had almost without cost was an important factor in their expansion. Yes, it cost them to subsidize basket cases like Cuba, but in terms of their geopolitical position, the deployment of the military, and also the prestige of an expanding communism, it was worth it.

But with the Reagan Doctrine they ran up not just against a wall, but against opposition. They ran up against real armies supported by the United States that made them spend blood and treasure in defense of these outposts and it led to a radical reconsideration in Moscow about the cost of empire.

Statements were made in the late ’80s by high members of the Soviet foreign ministry in which they explicitly questioned whether the empire which was costing them so much was more a burden than a benefit. I think the Reagan Doctrine had a very important effect in helping change the mind of the Soviets as to whether acting as an empire was really in their interest.

Now, it is true that the Reagan Doctrine and support for some of these insurgencies did not begin with the Reagan Administration. It’s true that Carter sent arms to the Afghan rebels and Congress concurred. Congress also went along with economic aid to communist resistance in Cambodia. But since the Clark Amendment in 1976, aid was prohibited to the anti-Marxist guerillas in Angola, and Congress refused to support the war against indigenous communist dictatorships no matter how heavily supported by the Soviet Union.

Reagan’s program of CIA support for the Contras, who were fighting indigenous and not overtly foreign occupation, as were the Afghans, broke post-Vietnam precedent. Interestingly, at first and for the first three years of the Reagan Administration, the policy received the flimsiest of justifications. It was officially defended as a way to interdict supplies to the Salvadoran guerillas. What was interesting and important about the State of the Union Address in 1985 was that Reagan dropped the fig leaf and made an overt statement that we would now unashamedly and, without resort to some kind of cover, support a revolution against communist regimes. What the doctrine did was to establish a new, firmer doctrinal foundation for such support by declaring equally worthy armed resistance to communism whether imposed by foreign or indigenous tyrants.

Now, at the time many tried to interpret the Reagan Doctrine as a puffed-up rationale for the support of the Contras, but I believe that that is a lot like justifying the Truman Doctrine as a puffed-up reason to support the Greeks and the Turks in the late 1940s. It was in fact much more, and in the same way that the Truman Doctrine established the basis for containment, the Reagan Doctrine established the basis for a rollback.

In a sense it was a successor to earlier doctrines. The Truman Doctrine was a doctrine of containment that had its internal political collapse in the United States as a result of the Vietnam War and the divisions over Vietnam. The first attempt to patch it up was the Nixon Doctrine, which would rely on foreign, local powers to defend our interests.

The Carter Doctrine set forth that we would intervene unilaterally by means of a rapid deployment force in defense of our interests rather than relying on proxies as the Nixon Doctrine did. But that was never a serious attempt. It was a theoretical idea. There was never, I think, any attempt either to build a military force or to actually employ it.

The Reagan Doctrine relied not on friendly regimes but on guerillas. I’m not sure in the long view of history how decisive it was. I think it was a part of several other revolutionary policies, some of which have been mentioned here, being steadfast on the deployment of the Euro missiles, the insistence on SDI, the huge buildup in defenses, that added to the pressure that we placed on the Soviet periphery, particularly in Afghanistan that I think had a decisive effect in convincing the Soviets they could not continue in the Cold War.

There’s one interesting corollary to the Reagan Doctrine, which I think ought to be mentioned. It was originally intended to justify supporting anti-communist revolutions, but it was a deeper idea than that. It really was a proclamation of democratic revolution and it saw a corollary in two events which occurred later in the 1980s.

The first was in the Philippines and the second was in Chile. The Reagan Doctrine was not invoked, but you might call it a corollary, for in both cases — particularly in the Philippines — we supported indigenous democrats overthrowing non-communist dictators as a way to bring democracy to their countries. In that sense I think it was a glorious vindication of the Reagan Doctrine because it refuted the critics who said we had a double standard. In fact, Reagan — and the Reagan — idea was dedicated to universal application of democracy and freedom.

I think it was most effective in fighting the Communist regimes, but it helped remove Marcos in the Philippines and helped bring about the ultimate change in power in Chile. Under pressure for the Reagan Administration, and later the Bush Administration, there was a democratic transition that I think spoke to a much wider and deeper idea — our support for democratic revolution.

Let me end by mentioning an incident which I think was indicative of the radicalism of what Reagan did. A few months before the Reagan Doctrine was proposed, I was speaking with a Nicaraguan friend who had been an ex-Sandinista and was here in Washington in exile. He was supporting the Contras and rather in despair for the lack of progress and support that he saw in Washington. He was saying that the struggle of democrats around the world was doomed because of an absence in the West of what he called democratic militance, speaking in the terms of the man of the left he once was.

The Reagan Doctrine was the first step in the restoration of the democratic militance. The Westminster Address was the great herald of that idea. The Reagan Doctrine was one of the many policies implemented to bring it to a reality. All of us are blessed by having lived to see it vindicate itself and win the great victory on behalf of democracy that even Reagan in Westminster never imagined would have happened in our lifetime.

Remarks at panel discussion held at The Heritage Foundation
June 3, 2002
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