The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink
By William Inboden.
Dutton, 2022.
Hardcover, 608 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Jason C. Phillips.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent death has led to a renewed interest in the Cold War, making the recent publication of William Inboden’s The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, The Cold War, and the World on the Brink a timely tome. Though Reagan left office with a 68% Gallup Approval and an even more impressive 81% approval for his handling of US-Soviet relations, his image in the popular imagination unfortunately remains a cowboy warmonger hopelessly out of touch, clinging to his sci-fi moviesque dream of “Star Wars” (SDI). Inboden’s work should do much to counter this view of Reagan.

The Peacemaker begins with Reagan’s June 8, 1982, Westminster Speech in London—the famous “ash-heap of history” speech. As Reagan took the stage, his popularity was low due to continued economic turmoil and a lack of foreign policy success. Yet, as Inboden noted of the speech, “his words begin to echo not just through the hall but into the coming decades . . . To those with ears to hear, he distills what the next six and a half years of his foreign policy will entail.”

The Westminster Speech is still quite stirring. One of its more memorable lines comes from Reagan’s description of the Berlin Wall: “Well, from here I will go to Bonn and then Berlin, where there stands a grim symbol of power untamed. The Berlin Wall, that dreadful gray gash across the city, is in its third decade. It is a fitting signature of the regime that built it.” It is apt that the Berlin Wall, against which Reagan’s anti-communism would become synonymous, should lend itself to one of the Westminster Speech’s greatest lines. Other key episodes from Reagan’s handling of the Cold War find their way into the speech, including multiple mentions of El Salvador, arms reduction, and the eventual triumph of democracy over tyranny. Reagan noted of the moment, 

We’re approaching the end of a bloody century plagued by a terrible political invention—totalitarianism. Optimism comes less easily today, not because democracy is less vigorous, but because democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression. Yet optimism is in order, because day by day democracy is proving itself to be a not-at-all-fragile flower . . . the regimes planted by totalitarianism have had more than 30 years to establish their legitimacy. But none—not one regime—has yet been able to risk free elections. Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”

This contrast between freedom and totalitarianism would guide not only Reagan’s Westminster Speech, but also his larger view of the Cold War. As Reagan further illustrated, “the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.” Inboden’s take on the Westminster Speech is fairly straightforward: “[Reagan’s] Westminster oration unveils a new offensive that in seven short years will bring the Cold War to a victorious, peaceful end.” Over the course of nearly 500 pages, Inboden explains in painstaking detail how Reagan’s Cold War strategy was formulated, implemented, and laid the foundation for the end of the Cold War.

In The Peacemaker, Inboden argues that President Reagan’s Cold War strategy rested on eight pillars:

  1. Restoring the American Economy
  2. Delegitimizing Soviet communism
  3. American military buildup and modernization
  4. Supporting anticommunist insurgencies across the globe
  5. Replacing Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)
  6. The promotion of human rights and freedom across the globe
  7. Pressuring the Soviets to produce a reformist leader with whom Reagan could negotiate
  8. Nuclear arms reduction—with the ultimate hope of full abolition of nuclear weapons

These pillars would define Reagan’s approach to the Cold War and illustrate his vision of how to leave the Soviet Union on the “ash-heap of history.” A quick glance at these eight pillars reveals quite a bit of tension between them. This has long been a problem in understanding Reagan’s Cold War strategy. As Bradley Lynn Coleman and Kyle Longley recently noted in their introduction to Reagan and the World: Leadership and National Security, 1981-1989

…there were two Ronald Reagans making national security policy during his presidency. One Reagan pushed a massive military buildup, supported the overthrow of totalitarian regimes, and advocated for the expansion of democracy and capitalism. The other Reagan worked to abolish nuclear weapons, engage adversaries, and promote human rights . . . The gap between his rhetoric and actions often leaves students searching for the real Reagan.”

Inboden’s work does a lot to explain this dichotomy as part of Reagan’s larger vision: to exploit the weaknesses in the Soviet system while building up American strength with the goal of causing a collapse in the Soviet system. Once this occurred, the road would be open to negotiating an end to the peril of nuclear warfare. All the while, Inboden emphasizes that this strategy built on the themes Reagan articulated in the Westminster Speech: 

In sum, Reagan pursued a comprehensive Cold War strategy that sought to rebuild America’s strengths and pose them against the Soviet Union across virtually every dimension. An alliance system built on choice versus the coerced colonies of the Warsaw Pact. Weapons systems that outmatched their Soviet counterparts. An open society against a closed one. Self-government versus dictatorship. Religious faith against atheism. Prosperity versus penury. Freedom over tyranny.”

Remember Reagan’s line in the Westminster Speech noting how after 30 years no totalitarian state could dare risk elections?

On the whole, The Peacemaker is a well-written account that emphasizes the grand strategy of Reagan’s approach to the Cold War. Inboden follows a traditional arc of Reagan’s presidency, touching on key events like the “Evil Empire” Speech, the Westminster Speech, SDI, the “Tear Down This Wall” Speech, Geneva, Reykjavik, and Reagan’s visit to the Soviet Union, which Inboden calls the culmination of his presidency. One significant aspect of Reagan’s strategy is the importance of SDI in turning the tide against the Soviet Union. Reagan introduced the idea before a national television audience on March 23, 1983. In the address Reagan argued that even if the Soviets agreed to arms reduction, the threat of nuclear war would still remain. Reagan was seeking a better solution, posing the question, “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” While Reagan continues to receive ridicule for this proposal, Inboden shows repeatedly in The Peacemaker that SDI was integral to Reagan’s success because the Soviets believed it could work and had to account for it. Inboden even cites a GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) report that concluded SDI could destroy 90% of Soviet strategic missiles and posed a significant threat to the Soviet Union.

An important addition to the historiography on Reagan and the Cold War is the weight Inboden places upon Reagan’s alliance with Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Much has been made of Reagan’s alliance with Margaret Thatcher. Less prominent, but still fairly known, is the importance of West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Yet, considering how much tension existed in the 1980s between the United States and Japan, it is striking how close Nakasone and Reagan became, both diplomatically and personally. Inboden shows how consistent Nakasone was in his support of Reagan, even being the only major ally to come out in support of SDI. It is this reviewer’s hope that The Peacemaker inspires more research and writing on this overlooked alliance.

The Peacemaker is an outstanding work of scholarship that provides a clear vision of Reagan’s Cold War strategy and offers many new roads for future exploration. This work deserves to be held in high esteem and will continue to be the go-to work on Reagan’s Cold War strategy for the foreseeable future.  

Jason C. Phillips is an Assistant Professor of History at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska.

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