Warren Throckmorton, PhDÂ
February 9, 2007
History buffs know that February 6 is the birth date of late President Ronald Reagan. Love him or hate him, Reagan is widely credited with successfully shepherding us through one of the most dangerous periods of our nationâ€™s existence â€“ the Cold War. It is tempting to draw parallels from that era to our own. Then, as now, we are at war on multiple fronts with an â€œismâ€â€”this time a jihadist ideology held by people who seek to remake the world by force in their image.
Can we learn anything from how President Reagan conducted the Cold War? Historian and presidential biographer, Paul Kengor, believes we can. In his new book, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006), Dr. Kengor meticulously chronicles Mr. Reaganâ€™s moves, public and private, actual and contemplated. One such critical episode revealed in detail for the first time is President Reaganâ€™s contemplation of a military invasion of Poland. No, Reagan did not go into Poland militarily, but he did intervene decisively. In an interview, Dr. Kengor provides a glimpse into the deliberations of Reagan and his advisors as well as how this episode might inform our current situation.Â
Throckmorton: You write that President Reagan considered a Poland invasion. When did this happen?Â How did you learn about it?Â
Kengor: I learned about it in the course ofÂ the research for myÂ new book on Reagan. It was indeed a stunning revelation.Â
First off, it is crucial to understand that Reagan merely considered this option, but in no way did he intend to follow through. It was too dangerous. He rejected the option for all the right reasons. As his top Polish adviser, Richard Pipes, told me years later, such a maneuver could have led to World War III.
Our presidents and their close advisers often contemplate all kinds of things but never pursue them. So, I would emphasize the word â€œconsideredâ€ using U.S. military force.
That said, the mere fact thatÂ Reagan had these discussions, that he considered the option, is historically very significant, and needs to become a part of the historical narrative of this very hot period in the Cold War.
Reagan had discussions on this option more than once, but only with advisers that he trusted completely. One such adviser was [Defense Secretary] Cap Weinberger, with whom Reagan discussed the option in December 1980, even before Reagan was inaugurated. Weinberger shared details of these discussions with me in interviews before he died.
Reagan again discussed the option after December 1981, when he was president and when the communists declared martial law in Poland. He spoke with Bill Clark, his most trusted aide and confidante. Clark is still alive. Iâ€™m writing his biography and know him well.
Throckmorton: Was this Reaganâ€™s idea or was it pitched to him by advisors?
Kengor: It was Reagan who raised theÂ idea with his advisers. Rather than the contemporary caricature of him as this puppet whose strings were tugged by manipulating advisers, he was in fact an idea man and a creative and obviously bold thinker. Speaking of those caricatures, his detractors on the left also portrayed him as a dangerous man with his finger near the nuclear button, who could not be trusted. In fact, as this Poland decision shows, he was prudent, careful; he reasoned on his own that using military force was too dangerous of an option.
Throckmorton: What intelligence led Reagan to consider invading Poland?
Kengor: Our security officialsÂ were receiving some very alarming intelligence on Soviet troop movements, which suggested that the Red Army might invade. Some Reagan advisers, like Richard Pipes, reached a point where they judged that a Soviet invasion was imminent.
The degree to which the Soviets almost crossed the line has only recently been revealed in declassified memos, which I also share inÂ The Crusader.
Throckmorton: What did Reagan do instead of an invasion?Â
Kengor: He sought non-militaristic means for, as he put it, â€œkeeping hope alive in Poland.â€ HeÂ saw Poland as the edge that could crack theÂ Communist Bloc from top to bottom. There was no country more important to him than Poland. As he said in a speech roughly 25 years ago this month, the Soviets rightly feared the â€œinfectiousnessâ€ of freedom in Poland.
Instead of using U.S. troops or firing American weapons, he launched an extraordinary covert campaign to secretly aided LechÂ Walesaâ€™s Solidarity movement. He resolved that if Solidarity could be saved and sustained in Poland, it could be that wedge.
In that thinking, he was joined by a prominent Pole named Karol Wojtyla,Â also known as Pope John Paul II. The alliance and friendship that they forged wasÂ personal and historical. They became close friends and changedÂ history together, inÂ degrees to which I cannot do justice in this interview.Â
Throckmorton: In theÂ context of the times then, why does this matter now?Â Is there a lesson in this for President Bush today?Â
Kengor: President Bush is fighting aÂ War onÂ Terror. Like Ronald Reagan, he will need to fight the enemy on multiple fronts and in multiple ways, beyond merely militaristic means. In Poland, Reagan rejected the military option as too dangerous. Instead, he used creativity, ingenuity, to find another way to defeat the enemy,Â which in his case was Soviet communism inside Poland. This is notÂ to say that Reagan would necessarily be against President Bushâ€™s decision to invade Iraq. This is, of course, impossible to know. However, there are other â€œPolandsâ€ out thereâ€”possibly in Iranâ€”that require strategic policies beyond the military option. A lesson from Reagan is that the current PresidentÂ should seek similar means to win the battle against the global â€œismâ€ that he faces today. Â
Paul Kengor, PhD, is director of the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College. He is the author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life and the new book, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, both published by HarperCollins.
Warren Throckmorton, PhD, is a Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy in the Center for Vision and Values and the producer of the documentary, I Do Exist, about sexual identity. Dr. Throckmorton maintains an active blog at http://www.wthrockmorton.com and can contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.