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Ronald Reagan and the Cold War

John Simkin

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Following the death of Ronald Reagan last night I thought it might be a good idea to discuss the role he played in the Cold War. After all, some political commentators have said that he was the man responsible for “winning” the Cold War.

There is no doubt that as president he took a firm stance against communism and went as far as to describe the Soviet Union as the "evil empire". Although he avoided direct conflict with the Soviet Union and China, he did send paratroopers against the Communist regime of Grenada in 1983. Reagan was also unwilling to criticize anti-Communist government and refused to support economic sanctions against the undemocratic government in South Africa.

Reagan argued that the United States needed to increase its military spending in order to prevent Soviet expansion. Although there was a federal deficit of over $100 billion by 1981, Reagan managed to persuade Congress to pass a plan for a three-year reduction in income tax rates. This was followed by cuts in domestic spending. During the 1980s Reagan's policy of reducing income taxes and federal domestic budgets became known as Reaganomics. By the time Reagan left office he had tripled the national debt to $3 trillion.

Reagan had considerable problems trying to balance the budget during his second term in office. This was partly caused by expensive military programs such as the MX missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars). In 1985 he supported the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act that enabled large annual budget cuts to be made but it had little impact before being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1986.

In late 1986 Reagan became embroiled in in what became known as the Irangate Scandal. It was discovered that the Reagan administration had been selling arms to the Islamic fundamentalist government in Iran in order to gain the release of American hostages in the Lebanon. The profits of the deal were then used to supply the ant-Marxist Contra guerrillas fighting in Nicaragua.

The scandal was damaging to Reagan because he had told the American public he would never "yield to terrorist blackmail". As a result of the scandal, the White House chief of staff, Donald Regan and his National Security Adviser, John Poindexter, were forced to resign. Reagan survived but the case damaged his image and gave the impression that he was not in full-control of his administration.

In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev met with Reagan and signed the Immediate Nuclear Forces (INF) abolition treaty. He also made it clear he would no longer interfere in the domestic policies of other countries in Eastern Europe and in 1989 announced the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

Aware that Gorbachev would not send in Soviet tanks there were demonstrations against communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. Over the next few months the communists were ousted from power in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany.

All these events took place while Reagan was president and has therefore got the credit for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe (he was far less successful in destroying it in China and Cuba).

However, it seems to me that it was Gorbachev rather than Reagan who brought an end to the Cold War. This is why the fall of communism only took place in Eastern Europe rather than in other parts of the world.

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My own picture is of the man who personified the decline of US power, strangely enough. His administration changed the USA from being the world's largest creditor to the world's largest debtor, adopting policies which accelerated the trend towards unequal distribution of wealth in the USA at a time when this trend could have been reversed.

I remember the arming and training of anti-Soviet guerillas in Afghanistan, one of them Osama bin Laden, and the illegalities connected with the anti-Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. The Cold War ended at the end of Reagan's 'watch' … but I wonder if the subsequent destruction of Russian society could have been avoided if a slightly more competent US administration had been around to help with its transition.

Am I being too negative?

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I heard Pres. Reagan 3 times when he came to Eureka College (his alma mater ). The first time was in 1982, when he made his famous "START speech", which, I am told, many historians regard as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Many of you are historians, so I suppose you'll weigh in on that opinion. I will tell you that at the time I thought it was a remarkable and uncharacteristic speech.

The second time was in 1984 when he came to give a Time "Man of the Year" speech. I was leading a protest against his central American policies, which was an "interesting" experience in Reagan country. His speech did tick me off, because he laid all the problems our country was facing at the time at the feet of Vietnam. Of course, he may well have been correct, but we had very different perceptions of the nature of that "problem". I viewed Vietnam as an example of the arrogance of American power; he viewed it as a failure of will. It is my sense that he thought "if only the military had been allowed to do what they wanted, we'd have won the war". My sense from my experience there was that there was no way we could have "won".

The third time was in 1990, when he came back to give a nice, essentially non-political speech remembering his years at Eureka College. He was, as many people will tell you, a very nice man.

Unlike John, I do feel he played a major role in the end of the Cold War. Unlike many Reaganites, I'd give equal credit to Gorbachev. I'm not an economist, so I can't contribute much to the discussion of how his policies affected our economic state. I will state that some people who know more about this than I do feel that Pres. Clinton essentailly used "Reaganomics" to lead the economic upturn of the 1990's.

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The one thing everybody agrees about Ronald Reagan was that he had charm. He is not alone in having this. Most people who meet Tony Blair talk about his charm. Until recently Blair used this charm with the electorate. The problem with charm is that people who have it tend to rely on it too much (I have taught several students with this problem). I think that was the problem with Blair and he eventually got caught out and his charm drained away. This never happen with Reagan despite being in power for eight years.

One political commentator recently commented that “whereas Richard Nixon was blamed for everything, Ronald Reagan was blamed for nothing”. Even after he was caught lying over the Iran Contra affair. He was actually allowed to get away with the following comment: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

What is charm? Scott Fitzgerald discusses it in some length in the Great Gatsby. According to Fitzgerald, Gatsby has charm because he helps other people feel good about themselves. As Erich Fromm explained in the Art of Loving, people love you because you help them love themselves. This is what Reagan did.

Like in his western movies, Reagan arrived on the scene at the right time to rescue the American public from the traumas and tragedies of the 1960s and 1970s. After the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc. someone was needed to restore America’s confidence in itself. According to Newsweek Reagan was “America as it imagined itself to be.” Or as Fitzgerald says of Gatsby, he appeared to see you as you wanted to see yourself.

Others have used their charm to good effect (Franklin D. Roosevelt for example). However, I would argue that Reagan used his charm to sell the policies demanded by his rich backers (the Californian arms industry). Lyndon B. Johnson did the same for his backers (the oil and arms industry in Texas) but lacked the charm to carry it off.

Let us look dispassionately at his record:

(1) Reagan was a liberal member of the Democratic Party in his early years. This was partly because his father, who held left-wing views, had been unemployed until Roosevelt’s New Deal. Soon after becoming an actor he became active in the Screen Actors Guild. However, he took advantage of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry during the late 1940s to reposition himself as a staunch Cold War warrior. As president of the Screen Actors Guild he used privileged information against liberal members of the union. He also at this point became a paid informant of the FBI throughout the period that became known as McCarthyism. As a result of the activities of people like Reagan over 300 were blacklisted from the entertainment industry.

(2) Reagan supported the Republican Party after the war but it was not until 1964 that he became a national political figure. This was as a result of a televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater. It did not help Goldwater win the election (seen by most people in America as a dangerous, right-wing extremist). However, it did convince members of the Californian arms industry that here was a man with the charm to sell right-wing extremism. He was approached about becoming the Republican Party candidate as Governor of California. With the help of a smear campaign against Pat Brown and promises of cutting taxes he won an easy victory.

As governor Reagan quickly established himself as one of the country's leading conservative political figures. This included dramatic budget cuts and a hiring freeze for state agencies. He also put up student fees and when they complained he sent state troopers to deal with their protest meetings.

Re-elected with 52 per cent of the vote in 1970, Reagan introduced a series of welfare reforms during his second term in office. This included tightening eligibility requirements for welfare aid and requiring the able to seek work rather than receiving benefits. However, the tax cuts never came, in fact, he presided over the largest tax increase any state had ever demanded in American history.

(3) During his campaign for president he promised a "patriotic crusade" to reduce the size and scope of government, to rebuild American military power and self-respect and to restore traditional values". This campaign was based on the ideas of Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin. His polls showed that events such as Vietnam and Watergate had “shattered traditional confidence in America”. Wirthlin argued that Reagan campaign needed to reflect this problem and to offer ways it could be overcome.

Although there was a federal deficit of over $100 billion, Reagan managed to persuade Congress in 1981 to pass a plan for a three-year reduction in income tax rates (a total of 25%). This was followed by cuts in domestic spending. During the 1980s Reagan's policy of reducing income taxes and federal domestic budgets became known as Reaganomics. These tax changes and the dramatic cuts in the welfare system widened the gap between rich and poor. It also caused a deep recession.

(4) Reagan was elected to power with a promise to reduce public spending and to bring an end to “big government”. He did neither. He increased public spending so much that by the time he left office the United states had a national debt of $3 trillion. Nor did he reduce “big government” he just made sure it worked for the benefit for the Military-Industrial Complex.

(5) Although Reagan made a lot of speeches against the spread of communism in Central America his record of achievement was extremely poor. Castro remained in power in Cuba. He proved incapable of curbing Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista regime. His only tangible success was in invading the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada.

(6) His policies in the Middle East and against terrorism was a disaster. He failed to prevent Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. American forces also became involved until he was forced to retreat after a suicide bomb killed 241 marines. He also funded Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He also provided money for the Islamic fundamentalist government in Iran in order to gain the release of American hostages in the Lebanon. The profits of the deal were then used to supply weapons to the ant-Marxist Contra guerrillas fighting in Nicaragua. This was in defiance of declared government policy and of congressional directives. Reagan deserved to be impeached and only got away with it because the American public were not willing to sack another president after the trauma of getting rid of Richard Nixon.

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The pundits who yesterday claimed a place for Ronald Reagan in the pantheon of great US presidents spoke truer than many of them seemed to realise when they said he had restored America's self-confidence and made the country what it is today.

As he boasted at the time: "It's morning in America." He won two landslide elections off the back of that boast, despite the vast federal deficit and being terror-bombed out of Lebanon, despite the self-deluding gaffes and much skulduggery, including support for what we now call Islamist terrorism.

So Reagan's greatness is a bold claim, but a fair one.

On the big occasion, the Challenger disaster or D-day 1984, he could touch people's hearts. His letter revealing his Alzheimer's condition ("I am one of millions of Americans...") is a model of grace. Foreigners often fail to grasp that an American president is head of state as well as head of government. "He's much better at being the Queen than he is at being Mrs Thatcher," I used to explain, condescendingly, on my visits to Britain. She was so busy, so formidable; he was, well, laid-back.

He made it seem so easy. I was wrong about that too. The old actor was just acting.

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All of the things John says in his "dispassionate examination of the record" are true - and are among the reasons I never voted for the man. However, I don't think John's "dispassionate examination" is truly that - it only tells half the story. Michael White's reply is right on target; the role of the President is bigger than just head of government.

What recent President DIDN'T deserve to be impeached because of some underhanded deal? I always thought the impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton were focused on the wrong thing - what happened to his deals with China? This doesn't mean we have to accept underhanded dealings, but we do have to accept the flaws of a democratic system if we in fact want to be a democracy.

John makes much of charm and its uses. I don't like it, either, but it's what got John Kennedy into office, and it's what ultimately did Richard Nixon in (because of his complete lack of it). What's the solution? The average person has many immediate concerns that outweigh any global vision. There was a recent letter to the local paper castigating some of our representatives because they voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. No mention that we will, in fact, eventually run out of oil and that oil consumption in the US is greater than it was only a few years ago because people "deserve" to drive big gas-guzzling cars. We get the government we want. That is the nature of democracy.

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All of the things John says in his "dispassionate examination of the record" are true - and are among the reasons I never voted for the man. However, I don't think John's "dispassionate examination" is truly that - it only tells half the story. Michael White's reply is right on target; the role of the President is bigger than just head of government.

What recent President DIDN'T deserve to be impeached because of some underhanded deal? I always thought the impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton were focused on the wrong thing - what happened to his deals with China? This doesn't mean we have to accept underhanded dealings, but we do have to accept the flaws of a democratic system if we in fact want to be a democracy.

I agree that both Clinton and Reagan should have been impeached. My view is that any political leader caught lying to the public needs to be sacked (It is why Tony Blair should resign from office).

The main crime committed by Reagan is that he convinced the American people that he could improve the state of the economy by cutting spending on welfare schemes. In reality, all he did was to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. One way he did this was by increasing military spending. As critics at the time pointed out, this was no more than “corporate welfare for the defence industry”. As Dwight Eisenhower predicted in his last speech as president, for democracy to survive, the Military-Industrial Complex has to be controlled.


I rather like Paul Conrad's cartoon of Reagan in 1987 (inspired by Bernard Gillam

and his attacks on James Blaine in 1884).

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Ronald Reagan's presidency collapsed at the precise moment on November 25 1986 when he appeared without notice in the White House briefing room, introduced his attorney general, Edwin Meese, and instantly departed from the stage. Meese announced that funds raised by members of the national security council and others by selling arms to Iran had been used to aid the Nicaraguan contras. Anti-terrorism laws and congressional resolutions had been wilfully violated. Eventually 11 people were convicted of felonies. In less than a week, Reagan's approval rating plunged from 67% to 46%, the greatest and quickest decline ever for a president.

On December 17 1986, William Casey, the director of the CIA, was scheduled to testify before the Senate intelligence committee. But he collapsed into a coma, suffering from brain cancer, never to recover. Lt Col Oliver North, Casey's action officer on the NSC, explained to a select congressional investigation that Casey had been the mastermind in creating an "overseas entity ... self-financing, independent", that would conduct "US foreign policy" as a "stand-alone". Called "the Enterprise", it was the apotheosis of the Reagan doctrine, the waging of a global war for the rollback of communism.

The hardline secretary of defence, Caspar Weinberger, and his neoconservative underlings were summarily dismissed, the NSC purged. "Let Reagan be Reagan," had long been the cry of conservatives. Now they screamed that Reagan was either being held prisoner or had sold out.

In interviews with investigators, Reagan said he couldn't recall what had happened. But he retained his utopianism and idealism that had propelled him from leftwing liberal in Hollywood to rightwing man on horseback, switching ideologies but never his temperament.


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Almost exactly 10 years ago, I wrote in some dismay at the eulogies for the dead former US president (and crook), Richard Nixon. Instead of the day of mourning called for by President Clinton, I suggested a day of rejoicing. I feel very much the same about the oceans of drivel pouring out in honour of the dead former president, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was as corrupt as Nixon, if not more so. The Iran-Contra scandal, which he and his gang orchestrated from the White House, was far worse than Watergate. It caused chaos in Central America, as Nixon's war did in south-east Asia. Reagan specialised in folksy rightwing jokes. He (or his speech writer) once cracked that the difference between democracy and people's democracy was the difference between a jacket and a straitjacket. He loved democracy, in other words, provided it has nothing to do with people.


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Although Saddam was still a junior figure, it is a matter of record that the CIA station in Baghdad aided the coup which first brought the Ba'athists to power in 1963. But it was Reagan who, two decades later, turned US-Iraqi relations into a decisive wartime alliance. He sent a personal letter to Saddam Hussein in December 1983 offering help against Iran. The letter was hand-carried to Baghdad by Reagan's special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld.

Reagan liked several things about Saddam. A firm anti-communist, he had banned the party and executed or imprisoned thousands of its members. The Iraqi leader was also a bulwark against the mullahs in Tehran and a promising point of pressure against Syria and its Hizbullah clients in Lebanon who had just destroyed the US Marine compound in Beirut, killing over 200 Americans.

It is not surprising that the current international manoeuvring over Iraq is treated with suspicion grounded in that history. Iraqis regard their newly appointed government with scepticism. They see the difficulty France had at the United Nations in trying to persuade the Americans to allow Iraqis a veto over US offensives in places like Falluja. They note that Prime Minister Ayad Allawi did not even ask for a major Iraqi role until the French made it an issue. Iraqis remember that Allawi and his exile organisation, the Iraqi National Accord, were paid by the CIA.

Not just in Iraq but around the world, the hallmark of Reagan's presidency was anti-communist cynicism, masked by phoney rhetoric about freedom. In his first press conference as president he used quasi-biblical language to claim that Soviet leaders "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat". It was one of the most extraordinary cases of the pot calling the kettle black. What could Saddam, let alone other Iraqis, have thought when it became known two years after Rumsfeld's first visit to Baghdad that Washington had secretly sold arms to the mullahs Iraq was fighting. Who had been lying and cheating?

In the name of anti-communism everything was possible. Reagan invaded Grenada on the false premise that US students who had been there safely for months were suddenly in danger. Reagan armed thugs to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, even after it won internationally certified free elections in 1984. He made the US an outlaw by rejecting the world court judgments against its blockade of Nicaragua's coast.

Reagan armed and trained Osama bin Laden and his followers in their Afghan jihad, and authorised the CIA to help to pay for the construction of the very tunnels in Tora Bora in which his one-time ally later successfully hid from US planes. On the grounds that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress was pro-communist, Reagan vetoed US congress bills putting sanctions on the apartheid regime the ANC was fighting.


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I suppose we're going to have to read a considerable amount of the re-writing of history in a while about Mrs Thatcher too.

What I find interesting is the lack of self-confidence the neo-conservatives and neo-liberals seem to have about their own ideas and 'achievements' in office, as shown by the sheer lack of reality of many of their comments about what Reagan did in office. There's a very good article in today's New York Times about Reagan's economic policies by Paul Krugman, for example (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/11/opinion/11KRUG.html) which, for me, systematically demolishes all the guff about Reagan's policies being so good for America.

There's a delicious piece of irony in Sweden in a recent government appointment. Bo Lundgren, the former Conservative leader, was Minister of Finance in Carl Bildt's 1991-1994 Conservative-led government, and presided over the usual (for neo-cons) massive increase in government debt to pay for tax cuts for the rich. Lundgren has just been appointed as head of the government department responsible for managing and reducing Sweden's borrowing on the world financial markets …

Would that this happened more often.

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Ronald Reagan actively supported the regimes of the worst people ever to walk the earth. Names like Marcos, Duarte, Rios Mont and Duvalier reek of blood and corruption, yet were embraced by the Reagan administration with passionate intensity. The ground of many nations is salted with the bones of those murdered by brutal rulers who called Reagan a friend. Who can forget his support of those in South Africa who believed apartheid was the proper way to run a civilized society?

One dictator in particular looms large across our landscape. Saddam Hussein was a creation of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan administration supported the Hussein regime despite his incredible record of atrocity. The Reagan administration gave Hussein intelligence information which helped the Iraqi military use their chemical weapons on the battlefield against Iran to great effect. The deadly bacterial agents sent to Iraq during the Reagan administration are a laundry list of horrors.

The Reagan administration sent an emissary named Donald Rumsfeld to Iraq to shake Saddam Hussein's hand and assure him that, despite public American condemnation of the use of those chemical weapons, the Reagan administration still considered him a welcome friend and ally. This happened while the Reagan administration was selling weapons to Iran, a nation notorious for its support of international terrorism, in secret and in violation of scores of laws.

Another name on Ronald Reagan's roll call is that of Osama bin Laden. The Reagan administration believed it a bully idea to organize an army of Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. bin Laden became the spiritual leader of this action. Throughout the entirety of Reagan's term, bin Laden and his people were armed, funded and trained by the United States. Reagan helped teach Osama bin Laden the lesson he lives by today, that it is possible to bring a superpower to its knees. bin Laden believes this because he has done it once before, thanks to the dedicated help of Ronald Reagan.

In 1998, two American embassies in Africa were blasted into rubble by Osama bin Laden, who used the Semtex sent to Afghanistan by the Reagan administration to do the job. In 2001, Osama bin Laden thrust a dagger into the heart of the United States, using men who became skilled at the art of terrorism with the help of Ronald Reagan. Today, there are 827 American soldiers and over 10,000 civilians who have died in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a war that came to be because Reagan helped manufacture both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

How much of this can be truthfully laid at the feet of Ronald Reagan? It depends on who you ask. Those who worship Reagan see him as the man in charge, the man who defeated Soviet communism, the man whose vision and charisma made Americans feel good about themselves after Vietnam and the malaise of the 1970s. Those who despise Reagan see him as nothing more than a pitch-man for corporate raiders, the man who allowed greed to become a virtue, the man who smiled vapidly while allowing his officials to run the government for him.


Edited by William Pitt Rivers
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  • 2 years later...

In 1979 Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote an article for Commentary, entitled Entitled Dictatorships and Double Standards. The article argued that right-wing “authoritarian” governments, such as those in Argentina, Chile and South Africa, suited American interests better than left-wing regimes. She criticized the emphasis placed on human rights by Jimmy Carter and blamed it for undermining right-wing governments in Nicaragua and Iran. She went onto argue that right-wing dictatorships were reliably pro-American. She therefore proposed that the US government should treat authoritarian regimes much more favourably than other governments. Kirkpatrick added: "liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism and need not be incompatible with the defence of freedom and the national interest".

As Bill Van Auken has pointed out (Social Democrat to Champion of Death Squads): "The policy implications of Kirkpatrick’s thesis were unmistakable. Washington should seek to keep in power right-wing dictatorships, so long as they suppressed the threat of revolution and supported “American interests and policies.” Moreover, the limits placed by the Carter administration on relations with regimes that had carried out wholesale political killings and torture, as in Chile and Argentina, for example, should be cast aside."

Richard V. Allen, who was working as chief foreign policy adviser to Ronald Reagan, showed him the article. Reagan wrote to Kirkpatrick, where he told her it was the best article he had ever read on the subject. Soon afterwards, Kirkpatrick became one of Reagan's political advisors.

Here is the beginning of the article that changed Reagan's views on foreign policy:

Jeane Kirkpatrick, Entitled Dictatorships and Double Standards (November, 1979)

The failure of the Carter administration's foreign policy is now clear to everyone except its architects, and even they must entertain private doubts, from time to time, about a policy whose crowning achievement has been to lay the groundwork for a transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to a swaggering Latin dictator of Castroite bent. In the thirty-odd months since the inauguration of Jimmy Carter as President there has occurred a dramatic Soviet military buildup, matched by the stagnation of American armed forces, and a dramatic extension of Soviet influence in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Southern Africa, and the Caribbean, matched by a declining American position in all these areas. The U.S. has never tried so hard and failed so utterly to make and keep friends in the Third World.

As if this were not bad enough, in the current year the United States has suffered two other major blows - in Iran and Nicaragua - of large and strategic significance. In each country, the Carter administration not only failed to prevent the undesired outcome, it actively collaborated in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion. It is too soon to be certain about what kind of regime will ultimately emerge in either Iran or Nicaragua, but accumulating evidence suggests that things are as likely to get worse as to get better in both countries. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua appear to be as skillful in consolidating power as the Ayatollah Khomeini is inept, and leaders of both revolutions display an intolerance and arrogance that do not bode well for the peaceful sharing of power or the establishment of constitutional governments, especially since those leaders have made clear that they have no intention of seeking either.

It is at least possible that the SALT debate may stimulate new scrutiny of the nation's strategic position and defense policy, but there are no signs that anyone is giving serious attention to this nation's role in Iranian and Nicaraguan developments - despite clear warnings that the U.S. is confronted with similar situations and options in El Salvador, Guatemala, Morocco, Zaire, and elsewhere. Yet no problem of American foreign policy is more urgent than that of formulating a morally and strategically acceptable, and politically realistic, program for dealing with non-democratic governments who are threatened by Soviet-sponsored subversion. In the absence of such a policy, we can expect that the same reflexes that guided Washington in Iran and Nicaragua will be permitted to determine American actions from Korea to Mexico - with the same disastrous effects on the U.S. strategic position. (That the administration has not called its policies in Iran and Nicaragua a failure - and probably does not consider them such - complicates the problem without changing its nature.)

There were, of course, significant differences in the relations between the United States and each of these countries during the past two or three decades. Oil, size, and proximity to the Soviet Union gave Iran greater economic and strategic import than any Central American "republic," and closer relations were cultivated with the Shah, his counselors, and family than with President Somoza, his advisers, and family. Relations with the Shah were probably also enhanced by our approval of his manifest determination to modernize Iran regardless of the effects of modernization on traditional social and cultural patterns (including those which enhanced his own authority and legitimacy). And, of course, the Shah was much better looking and altogether more dashing than Somoza; his private life was much more romantic, more interesting to the media, popular and otherwise. Therefore, more Americans were more aware of the Shah than of the equally tenacious Somoza.

But even though Iran was rich, blessed with a product the U.S. and its allies needed badly, and led by a handsome king, while Nicaragua was poor and rocked along under a long-tenure president of less striking aspect, there were many similarities between the two countries and our relations with them. Both these small nations were led by men who had not been selected by free elections, who recognized no duty to submit them selves to searching tests of popular acceptability. Both did tolerate limited apposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties, but both were also confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution. Both rulers, therefore, sometimes invoked martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, and occasionally, it was alleged, torture their opponents. Both relied for public order on police forces whose personnel were said to be too harsh, too arbitrary, and too powerful. Each had what the American press termed "private armies," which is to say, armies pledging their allegiance to the ruler rather than the "constitution" or the "nation" or some other impersonal entity.

In short, both Somoza and the Shah were, in central ways, traditional rulers of semi-traditional societies. Although the Shah very badly wanted to create a technologically modern and powerful nation and Somoza tried hard to introduce modern agricultural methods, neither sought to reform his society in the light of any abstract idea of social justice or political virtue. Neither attempted to alter significantly the distribution of goods, status, or power (though the democratization of education and skills that accompanied modernization in Iran did result in some redistribution of money and power there).

Both Somoza and the Shah enjoyed long tenure, large personal fortunes (much of which were no doubt appropriated from general revenues), and good relations with the United States. The Shah and Somoza were not only anti-Communist, they were positively friendly to the U.S., sending their sons and others to be educated in our universities, voting with us in the United Nations, and regularly supporting American interests and positions even when these entailed personal and political cost. The embassies of both governments were active in Washington social life, and were frequented by powerful Americans who occupied major roles in this nation's diplomatic, military, and political life. And the Shah and Somoza themselves were both welcome in Washington, and had many American friends...

No particular crisis conforms exactly with the sequence of events described above; there are always variations on the theme. In Iran, for example, the Carter administration - and the President himself - offered the ruler support for a longer time, though by December 1978 the President was acknowledging that he did not know if the Shah would survive, adding that the U.S. would not get "directly involved." Neither did the U.S. ever call publicly for the Shah's resignation. However, the President's special emissary, George Ball, "reportedly concluded that the Shah cannot hope to maintain total power and must now bargain with a moderate segment of the opposition . . ." and was "known to have discussed various alternatives that would effectively ease the Shah out of total power" (Washington Post, December 15, 1978). There is, furthermore, not much doubt that the U.S. assisted the Shah's departure and helped arrange the succession of Bakhtiar. In Iran, the Carter administration's commitment to nonintervention proved stronger than strategic considerations or national pride. What the rest of the world regarded as a stinging American defeat, the U.S. government saw as a matter to be settled by Iranians. "We personally prefer that the Shah maintain a major role in the government," the President acknowledged, "but that is a decision for the Iranian people to make."

Events in Nicaragua also departed from the scenario presented above both because the Cuban and Soviet roles were clearer and because U.S. officials were more intensely and publicly working against Somoza. After the Somoza regime had defeated the first wave of Sandinista violence, the U.S. ceased aid, imposed sanctions, and took other steps which undermined the status and the credibility of the government in domestic and foreign affairs. Between the murder of ABC correspondent Bill Stewart by a National Guardsman in early June and the Sandinista victory in late July, the U.S. State Department assigned a new ambassador who refused to submit his credentials to Somoza even though Somoza was still chief of state, and called for replacing the government with a "broadly based provisional government that would include representatives of Sandinista guerillas." Americans were assured by Assistant Secretary of State Viron Vaky that "Nicaraguans and our democratic friends in Latin America have no intention of seeing Nicaragua turned into a second Cuba," even though the State Department knew that the top Sandinista leaders had close personal ties and were in continuing contact with Havana, and, more specifically, that a Cuban secret-police official, Julian Lopez, was frequently present in the Sandinista headquarters and that Cuban military advisers were present in Sandinista ranks....

In a manner uncharacteristic of the Carter administration, which generally seems willing to negotiate anything with anyone anywhere, the U.S. government adopted an oddly uncompromising posture in dealing with Somoza. "No end to the crisis is possible," said Vaky, "that does not start with the departure of Somoza from power and the end of his regime. No negotiation, mediation, or compromise can be achieved any longer with a Somoza government. The solution can only begin with a sharp break from the past." Trying hard, we not only banned all American arms sales to the government of Nicaragua but pressured Israel, Guatemala, and others to do likewise--all in the name of insuring a "democratic" outcome. Finally, as the Sandinista leaders consolidated control over weapons and communications, banned opposition, and took off for Cuba, President Carter warned us against attributing this "evolutionary change" to "Cuban machinations" and assured the world that the U.S. desired only to "let the people of Nicaragua choose their own form of government."

Yet despite all the variations, the Carter administration brought to the crises in Iran and Nicaragua several common assumptions each of which played a major role in hastening the victory of even more repressive dictatorships than had been in place before. These were, first, the belief that there existed at the moment of crisis a democratic alternative to the incumbent government: second, the belief that the continuation of the status quo was not possible; third, the belief that any change, including the establishment of a government headed by self-styled Marxist revolutionaries, was preferable to the present government. Each of these beliefs was (and is) widely shared in the liberal community generally. Not one of them can withstand close scrutiny...

Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain-because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.

Two or three decades ago, when Marxism enjoyed its greatest prestige among American intellectuals, it was the economic prerequisites of democracy that were emphasized by social scientists. Democracy, they argued, could function only in relatively rich societies with an advanced economy, a substantial middle class, and a literate population, but it could be expected to emerge more or less automatically whenever these conditions prevailed. Today, this picture seems grossly over-simplified. While it surely helps to have an economy strong enough to provide decent levels of well-being for all, and "open" enough to provide mobility and encourage achievement, a pluralistic society and the right kind of political culture - and time - are even more essential.

In his essay on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill identified three fundamental conditions which the Carter administration would do well to ponder. These are: "One, that the people should be willing to receive it [representative government]; two, that they should be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation; three, that they should be willing and able to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them."

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