Military history

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Ronald Reagan opened 1984 with bold declarations of an American renaissance. “America is back” with “renewed energy and optimism,” he said in the State of the Union address on January 25. He urged the American people to “send away the hand-wringers and doubting Thomases,” and added, “The cynics were wrong—America never was a sick society.” Polls showed Reagan enjoyed high public approval ratings. The mood of the country was upbeat despite the collapsed nuclear arms talks with the Soviets, a misadventure in Lebanon and record budget deficits. Reagan’s optimism had been a tonic for the debilitating years of Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostages and the energy crises of the 1970s. A deep recession had wrung hyperinflation out of the economy, and growth was rebounding. An American high-technology revolution was taking hold. Reagan formally announced he was seeking reelection January 29. His campaign was framed by inspirational television commercials, including one titled “Morning Again in America,” which opened with glimpses of a farmhouse, followed by scenes of a wedding party and of an elderly man raising the American flag while young faces watched in adoration. As the flag filled the screen to the sounds of soft and stirring music, an announcer said, “It’s morning again in America … And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is stronger, and prouder, and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

After the tense months of the previous autumn, Reagan wrote repeatedly in his diary early in 1984 that he had come to realize Soviet leaders might have a genuine fear of the United States, and he yearned to talk them out of it. He acknowledged “my own attitudes toward the Soviets were changing a little.”1 The president of Yugoslavia, Mika Spiljak, visited Reagan at the White House February 1, and the president asked a lot of questions about the Soviet Union. “He believes that coupled with their expansionist philosophy they are also insecure & genuinely frightened of us,” Reagan wrote in his diary. “He also believes that if we opened them up a bit their leading citizens would get braver about proposing changes in their system. I’m going to pursue this.”

At Andropov’s funeral in Moscow, Chernenko had sent a conciliatory signal during a talk with Vice President Bush, saying, “We are not inherently enemies.” Reagan had yet to see a Soviet leader face-to-face and wondered if he should meet Chernenko. “I have a gut feeling I’d like to talk to him about our problems man to man & see if I could convince him there would be material benefit to the Soviets if they’d join in the family of nations, etc.,” he wrote February 22.

When Suzanne Massie, author of several books on Russian culture and history, came by to see Reagan on March 1, after a trip to Moscow, Reagan expressed admiration for her insights and said “she reinforced my gut feeling that it’s time for me to personally meet with Chernenko.”2

The next day, Reagan held a high-level meeting to plan next steps with the Soviets. The secret gathering, kept off Reagan’s public schedule, brought together all of Reagan’s top cabinet and staff advisers on Soviet affairs. Reagan announced at the opening of the meeting he wanted to arrange a summit, to show Chernenko he was not the sort of person who would “eat his own offspring.” But the session wandered off, and ended without a decision.3 “I’m convinced the time has come for me to meet with Chernenko along about July,” Reagan wrote that night.4 On March 5, Reagan met West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Reagan recalled, “He confirmed my belief the Soviets are motivated, at least in part by insecurity & a suspicion that we & our allies mean them harm. They still preserve the tank traps & barbed wire that show how close the Germans got to Moscow before they were stopped. He thinks I should meet Chernenko.”

Reagan concluded that he needed a “more hands-on approach” to the Soviets. He sent a seven-page letter to Chernenko. “I tried to use the old actor’s technique of empathy: to imagine the world as seen through another’s eyes and try to help my audience see it through my eyes,” he said. “I said it was my understanding that some people in the Soviet Union felt a genuine fear of our country.” The letter ended with a handwritten postscript, recalling “Soviet losses in warfare through the ages.” He added, “Surely those losses, which are beyond description, must affect your thinking today. I want you to know that neither I nor the American people hold any offensive intentions toward the Soviet people.”5

But Chernenko didn’t reciprocate, and rejected a summit. Reagan and Chernenko exchanged a half-dozen letters in the spring of 1984, to no effect. After a strategy session on the Soviets March 23, Reagan concluded: “I think they are going to be cold & stiff-necked for a while.”

In Moscow, the KGB director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, opened a conference at headquarters saying that RYAN—spotting preparations for nuclear attack—was still the overwhelming overseas intelligence priority. Kryuchkov declared that the risk of nuclear war had reached “dangerous proportions,” the Pentagon was driven by “the fantastic idea of world domination” and the White House was engaged in “the psychological preparation of the population for nuclear war.” Kryuchkov’s speech text landed on Gordievsky’s desk in London. It said the top priority was to get a copy of the secret war plans of the United States and NATO.6 Another urgent priority for Gordievsky and the London office was to monitor field exercises involving the cruise missiles stationed at the Royal Air Force base at Greenham Common. But according to Gordievsky, the London office had no intelligence sources for this; they sent British press reports to Moscow instead.7

Early in 1984, Reagan had signed an order formally launching the research effort into his Strategic Defense Initiative.8 In the Kremlin, however, Soviet leaders were still worried about the threat from Pershing IIs and the ground-launched cruise missiles. The Pershing IIs were fast, but the cruise missiles more numerous. While 108 Pershing IIs would be deployed in West Germany, the plan was to station 464 cruise missiles in Belgium, Britain, Italy, Netherlands and West Germany. The cruise missile was a modified navy sea-launched Tomahawk, about twenty-one feet long, each carrying a single nuclear warhead. It would fly at 550 miles per hour to a target as far as 1,350 miles away. The ground-launched cruise missile was a wonder of technology. It could soar at high altitudes over hostile territory and then swoop down to fifty feet above ground level and be steered toward its target with a sophisticated, terrain-sensitive and radar-avoiding guidance system. The Soviets had nothing like it.9

In Moscow, Anatoly Chernyaev, deputy director of the International Department of the Central Committee, attended a briefing June 4 given by Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, who was then deputy chief of the Soviet military’s General Staff. “It was amazing,” Chernyaev said, with “missiles homing in on their targets from hundreds and thousands of kilometers away; aircraft carriers, submarines that could do anything; winged missiles that, like in a cartoon, could be guided through a canyon and hit a target 10 meters in diameter from 2,500 kilometers away. An incredible breakthrough in modern technology. And, of course, unthinkably expensive.”10

On June 28, Herbert E. Meyer, vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, a think tank inside the CIA, sent a memo to CIA director William Casey titled “What Should We Do About the Russians?” Meyer noted the war scare of the previous year, and the paralysis in Moscow. He also saw the Soviet system under deep internal strain. “Decades of overemphasis on military production have wrecked the country’s civilian industrial and technological base,” he said.

More precisely, the Soviets have failed miserably to generate the kinds of innovations on which modern economies are increasingly dependent: robotics, micro-electronics, computerized communications and information-processing systems. Even if the Soviets could develop such systems, they could not deploy them without losing the political control on which the Communist Party depends for its very survival. For after 40 years of fear among Western intellectuals that technology would lead inexorably to Big Brother societies throughout the world, it now turns out that technology, in the form of personal computers and the like, has put communications and information processing beyond the control of any central authority. Unwilling and unable to develop and deploy innovations like these—as we in the West are doing with such robust enthusiasm—the Soviet Union can now produce little but weapons.11

Reagan tried a back-channel gambit to reach Chernenko in April. Brent Scowcroft, who had been President Ford’s national security adviser, carried a letter from Reagan to Chernenko on a private trip to Moscow.12 He never got to see Chernenko, however. The letter went undelivered. “He believes the Soviet cold shoulder is due in part at least to their not wanting to help me get re-elected,” Reagan noted after talking to Scowcroft on his return.13 Scowcroft told reporters, “If you compare the political or psychological atmosphere between the two powers, it’s as bad as it’s been in my memory.”14

When the Soviets announced May 8 they would boycott the upcoming Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Reagan concluded that Chernenko wasn’t completely in control, and the lion of the old guard, Gromyko, was running foreign policy.15 In June, the Soviets proposed opening talks on space weapons, but when Reagan asked to include ballistic missiles, Chernenko refused. “They are utterly stonewalling us,” Reagan wrote in his diary. Reagan cared about his reelection campaign, but his horizon was longer than just the vote. If “America was back,” then in his own mind, it was time to engage the Soviet Union. Reagan still did not have a Soviet partner, his first term was almost over and the paralysis in the Soviet elite was even worse than Reagan could have imagined at the time.16

On August 11, 1984, at Rancho del Cielo in California, Reagan prepared for his Saturday radio address. He often made wisecracks in the warm-up, considered off the record by reporters and technicians present. Asked for a microphone check on this day, the president said, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The remark soon leaked, and made headlines around the world, once again reinforcing the caricature of Reagan as a reckless gunslinger. TASS denounced the remark as “unprecedentedly hostile toward the USSR and dangerous to the cause of peace.” The president was chagrined. “Doing a voice level with no thought that anyone other than the few people in the room would hear I ad-libbed jokingly something about the Soviets,” he admitted in his diary. “The networks had a line open & recorded it and of course made it public—hence an international incident.”

On August 13, two days after the radio gaffe, at a lunch in Los Angeles, Shultz suggested, very tentatively, that Reagan invite Gromyko to the White House after the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September. The president quickly agreed. “It’s the right thing to do,” Reagan said. “Try to work it out.”17 The meeting was arranged; it would be Reagan’s first with any member of the Soviet Politburo since becoming president. Reagan wrote in his diary, “I have a feeling we’ll get nowhere with arms reductions while they are suspicious of our motives as we are of theirs. I believe we need a meeting to see if we can’t make them understand we have no designs on them but think they have designs on us. If we could once clear the air maybe reducing arms wouldn’t look so impossible to them.”

Reagan spent most of Saturday, September 22, working on the speech he was to give the following Monday at the United Nations. It was “ticklish,” he acknowledged. “I don’t want to sound as if I’m going soft on Russia but I don’t want to kill off the Gromyko meeting before it takes place.” In his speech, Reagan offered not a word of criticism of the Soviet Union; the “evil empire” was gone. As he spoke from the podium, Reagan was watching the faces of Gromyko and the Soviet representatives, sitting in the front row, right below the microphone. “I tried to catch their eyes several times on particular points affecting them,” he recalled. “They were looking through me & their expressions never changed.”

Reagan finally got his chance to talk to Gromyko eye-to-eye in the Oval Office on September 28. They lectured each other. At one point, Gromyko recalled, Reagan reached into a side drawer and pulled out some charts on nuclear weapons. As the meeting broke for lunch, Reagan asked Gromyko to remain behind in the Oval Office. They spoke alone, in English, without interpreters. Gromyko had said the world was sitting atop a huge mountain of nuclear weapons that should be reduced. “My dream,” Reagan said, “is for a world where there are no nuclear weapons.”18

Reagan escorted his guest down the long colonnade from the West Wing to the main White House mansion for a reception. Gromyko was amazed at the number of “English long-case clocks” in the White House and wondered if Reagan was a collector. A small chamber orchestra played classical music. Reagan introduced Nancy. At the end of the reception, Gromyko took Nancy aside and said, “Does your husband believe in peace?”

“Of course,” she replied.

“Then whisper ‘peace’ in your husband’s ear every night,” he said.

“I will, and I will also whisper it in your ear,” she said. And with that she leaned over with a smile and whispered softly, “Peace.”19

At the end of the visit, the Soviet Embassy called Don Oberdorfer, diplomatic correspondent of the Washington Post, and asked for a photograph of Reagan talking to Gromyko that appeared in the morning paper. It showed Reagan’s hands on both of Gromyko’s arms. The photo was rushed over to Gromyko before his departure. Gromyko had first come to Washington forty-five years earlier. Although no one knew it then, this was his last trip to the White House. Reagan had finally met a member of the Soviet Politburo, but had yet to find one with whom he could do business.20

Although Reagan wanted to talk to the Soviet leadership, he also approved policies to directly challenge the Soviet Union. At the behest of CIA director Casey, he vastly expanded proxy wars against Soviet influence in the Third World. In 1984, covert U.S. support for the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan reached a major turning point. The secret aid pipeline from the United States and Saudi Arabia, through Pakistan, suddenly bulged; by one account the total had tripled to hundreds of millions of dollars, in a matter of weeks.21 At the same time, Reagan wanted to channel money to guerrilla fighters, known as contrarevolucionarios, or contras, who were opposing the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Reagan called the contras the “moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” and he cast Nicaragua’s Sandinista junta, led by Daniel Ortega, as the front line in the war on communism. But Congress had cut off the aid to the contras, and money was running out in 1984. Reagan instructed McFarlane, his national security adviser, to keep the contras alive, “body and soul.” That summer, McFarlane reassured Reagan that Saudi Arabia had pledged $1 million a month into a secret bank account for the contras. The driving force in Afghanistan and Central America was Casey. “By the end of 1984, Casey’s covert war in the Third World against the Soviet Union and its surrogates was in full swing,” recalled Gates, who was then his deputy.

In the summer of 1984, the RYAN operation seemed to expire. Gordievsky said anxiety in Moscow about nuclear war “was visibly declining.”22 Chernenko didn’t share Andropov’s sense of alarm and paranoia about nuclear attack. Although there were no arms control negotiations that year, Soviet officials protested with increasing frequency about what they called “militarization of space.” Shultz said Dobrynin brought up kosmos—the Russian word for outer space—at every meeting.23 This was aimed directly at Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, although the actual program was barely getting started. By one account, that summer the program comprised two dozen people working out of a dilapidated office building in Washington.24

Reagan’s dream got a lucky break that summer. The army, in a program started in the 1970s, was studying rocket interceptors, and created an experiment, using a test interceptor with an infrared homing device and computer. It was called the Homing Overlay Experiment. The first three tests had failed. In the fourth and last test on June 10, 1984, the interceptor was launched from Meck Island in the Kwajalein Islands, and more than one hundred miles high, it locked onto a Minuteman missile carrying a dummy warhead. The interceptor found the Minuteman in part because the dummy warhead was heated up for the test, and the Minuteman turned sideways, to be easier to detect. The missile was destroyed. The Pentagon announced the test was a stunning success. “We do know that we can pick them up and hit them,” a spokesman said. The Kremlin was rattled.25

Reagan’s reelection campaign aired one commercial that hinted at voter fears about the arms race. It was a thirty-second spot written by the same team that created “Morning Again in America.” But this commercial had a darker undertone, one that warned of uncertainty. The goal was to acknowledge the danger but also suggest there might be a way out. The ad shows a grizzly bear wandering in the forest. “There is a bear in the woods,” the announcer says in a tone of seriousness and authority. “For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some say the bear is tame. Some say it’s vicious. Since no one knows, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear, if there is a bear?”26

On November 6, 1984, Reagan was reelected in the largest electoral-vote landslide in U.S. history. He won 59 percent of the popular vote, carried 49 states and received 525 electoral votes to 10 for Walter Mondale.

Between the summer vacation and the election, Shultz had been talking privately to Reagan about the work of a second term. Shultz could not tell if Reagan absorbed what he said, but he kept lecturing. He told Reagan the Soviet Union was caught in an inconclusive leadership struggle, from one generation to another, bound up in a stagnating economy and “extreme distrust verging, in some instances, on paranoia” about the United States. It wasn’t clear how the leadership succession would be resolved, Shultz said, but one of the most promising candidates was a member of the younger generation, a man with a broader view—Mikhail Gorbachev.27

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