Millennials, now the anchor generation, have no memory of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. A plurality of that generation tells pollsters they prefer socialism to capitalism. And for many of them, unlike their Baby Boomer parents, Ronald Reagan is a distant and irrelevant figure.
Few Millennials appreciate how much they may owe their freedom today – maybe even their very existence – to the 40th President of the United States.
Bret Baier, Fox News chief political analyst and host of Special Report, reminds us how close to disaster we came in the last years of the Cold War, with the two superpowers each wielding arsenals with more than 10,000 nuclear-tipped missiles ready to launch at an instant. In his book, Three Days in Moscow (William Morrow, 2018) Baier recounts the critical diplomacy Ronald Reagan engaged in with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev across summits that ranged from Geneva, Washington and Iceland to Moscow.
Baier’s narrative is powerful, precise and rooted in well-documented facts. This is history told with the riveting power of a page-turning novel.
This book is also brimming with telling insights about Ronald Reagan’s principled approach to diplomacy. For example, on a summer day in Moscow, 1988, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev were on the verge of issuing a joint statement at their fourth summit in Moscow that would have committed both sides to solving all problems peacefully.
This was a breakthrough moment, one that signaled that the most dangerous days of the Cold War were receding. Then everything went sideways.
“I thought Reagan might walk out,” said White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. “Or there might be a fistfight. [Secretary of State] George Shultz, usually so calm, looked like he was ready to turn the table over.”
At issue was an innocuous-sounding phrase the Soviets had inserted into the statement committing both sides to “peaceful coexistence.”
Baier observed that the phrase was a “sneaky way” of overturning Ronald Reagan’s long opposition to treating the Soviet Union as an equal power with manageable differences.
Gorbachev exploded when Reagan rejected the phrase, daring the president to defy his staff. In Baier’s retelling, the Soviet leader said:
“Ron, we’ve got to get rid of these people,” he said. “Let’s you and I go down here to the end of table and have a private talk about this.” They walked to the end of the table, away from their advisors. There they stood, toe to toe, and Gorbachev, who was shorter than Reagan, looked up at him and shook his finger in Reagan’s face … Fitzwater recalled, “President Reagan looked down at him quietly and said, ‘We’re not accepting it. No. The answer is no.’ And Gorbachev’s shoulders just collapsed. He dropped his arms, his head went down, and he took a step away. And then he raised back up again, and put his arm around Reagan, and said, ‘Let’s go to the press conference.’”
It is hard to imagine many other president standing up so firmly and so well at the 11th hour over what many might dismiss as a rhetorical detail. Baier follows the trajectory of Ronald Regan’s life so well that by the time we arrive at this ultimate moment in his career, it is easy to see that the 40th president could not have reacted in any other way.
From his early days as a lifeguard and student athlete, to sports announcer and movie star, Baier captures Reagan’s tireless good humor and optimism. He also traces the origins of Reagan’s principled stand against communism, beginning with bruising confrontations with extremists in Hollywood as head of Screen Actors Guild.
Baier chronicles the political rise of Ronald Reagan, his first appearance on the national stage as a leading light of the Barry Goldwater campaign, his governorship, and his decisive leadership that righted a presidential campaign team riven by internal rivalries.
Some stories of the White House days are humorous. Kathleen Osborne, the president’s personal secretary, responded to a media rumor that Ronald Reagan suffered a heart attack by putting reporters on speaker and asking the president if he’d had a heart attack.
Some of the stories are touching, such as the visit by House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the most powerful Democrat in the country, holding Ronald Reagan’s hand as the president recovered from a would-be assassin’s bullet.
He entered the room, got down on his knees next to the bed, and kissed Reagan. “God bless you, Mr. President, we’re all praying for you,” he said. Together they murmured lines from the Twenty-third Psalm.
Throughout the book, we see Reagan’s consistent determination to confront communism and not compromise with it. We hear him tell evangelicals that the Soviet Union is an “evil empire.” We hear him declare before the British Parliament at Westminster that the Soviet Union was destined for the ash heap of history. And we see the president arrive at the Berlin Wall resisting intense internal pressure from the State Department to discard one of the most famous lines of any speech at any time – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Throughout, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters were in awe of the president’s command of language. White House Chief Speechwriter Tony Dolan would reply, when reporters mentioned his title, “Ronald Reagan is his own chief speechwriter.”
Gorbachev himself emerges as a capable man of considerable vision – a communist leader who saw nuclear weapons as more threatening to his people than any ideological conflict. It chronicles how the last leader of the Soviet Union had to fight rear-guard actions from hardliners in Moscow as he made unprecedented deals with Ronald Reagan to curb nuclear weapons in Europe and set the stage for massive cuts in both arsenals.
The story comes to a stunning conclusion when the next president, George H.W. Bush, approached Gorbachev with considerable skepticism and caution, only to see Reagan’s prophetic words, like the bugles of Jericho, bring down the Berlin Wall. Eventually, the last props of the Soviet system itself would collapse.
Toward the end of his book, Baier asks “is it Reagan or Gorbachev who should get the credit? … Theirs was a rare and surprising partnership.” Baier wonders what would have happened if Gorbachev’s dull and hardline predecessor had lived another three or four years, or if Ronald Reagan had died in the assassination attempt, or been defeated in 1984 by Democratic nominee Walter Mondale.
Any of those circumstances could have changed the course of Cold War history, in the wrong direction. It is more accurate to say their partnership, bolstered by the cries of freedom from across Eastern Europe and around the world, won the Cold War. People can argue that the Soviet system was failing anyway, but thanks to the enduring faith of Reagan, and the determination of Gorbachev, it was a peaceful transition.
Finishing Three Days in Moscow, one cannot but help be struck by the notion that the life and diplomacy of Ronald Reagan was not a lucky accident, but providential. For Baby Boomers, this book is a great recounting of signal events in our lifetimes. For Millennials, it is a critical and necessary story.
If you haven’t yet, you should get this book for yourself, your children or your grandchildren.
By Mark Davis & Vinh Vuong