Ronald Reagan was elected president at a time when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their most precarious since the early ’60s. Newspaper headlines were dominated by reports of new missile deployments and covert actions in Third World countries, and Reagan came into office as a tough-talking Cold Warrior, determined to set aside Henry Kissinger’s theory of détente and take an aggressive posture in the fight against communism. But according to James Mann’s insightful, well-researched book The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan, the president softened the longer he was in office. By the start of his second term, Reagan began talking about the dream of a world with no nuclear weapons, and made such dramatic overtures to new Soviet chairman Mikhail Gorbachev that conservative columnists and congressmen (including George Will and Dan Quayle) began suggesting that maybe the president shouldn’t be allowed to hold anymore one-to-one sit-downs with the enemy.
Mann breaks The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan into four parts. The first details the thorny relationship between Reagan and former president Richard Nixon, who believed disarmament was tantamount to suicide; the second describes Reagan’s reliance on a citizen historian for the inside scoop on life inside the U.S.S.R.; the third covers the behind-the-scenes battle leading up to Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin; and the fourth gives a blow-by-blow of all the Reagan/Gorbachev summits. Because Mann writes each section as a stand-alone essay, he tends to repeat himself too often, rehashing events and opinions from section to section. But he builds a compelling case, arguing that the man hailed by his fellow Republicans today for ending the Cold War by standing up to the Soviets actually accomplished his goals better by offering to back down.
At the least, The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan is a testament to the short memory of political pundits. Mann digs up the pointed criticism that writers like Will and Charles Krauthammer aimed at Reagan during his second term, when they were calling him naïve for thinking that the U.S. wouldn’t be facing off against the Russians for generations to come. Mann’s book is a welcome reminder that times change, and that what seemed hopeless at the time can appear significantly different in hindsight. The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan may even inspire a twinge of nostalgia for a time when opposing world leaders were expected to meet periodically to draft treaties and agreements, not mocked for even daring to suggest it.