If the Reagan administration’s approach to arms control were ever assessed by a panel of psychiatrists, the final diagnosis might well be schizophrenia. Indeed, Ronald Reagan’s first 18 months in office have been characterized by a curious duality: firm, even tough, rhetoric consistently undercut by tame actions. Reagan used one of his first news conferences to call Soviet leaders liars and cheaters. Then he declared that the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II)—seven years in the making—was fatally flawed. He insisted that future arms control talks would hinge on Moscow’s willingness to restrain its military appetite. And he said that his own unprecedented military spending program was politically sacrosanct.
Disciples of Ronald Reagan in his initial incarnation would have trouble recognizing the figure now presiding in the Oval Office. Since last November the administration has seized every opportunity to display the president as peacemaker. The rhetorical flourishes have been toned down. The SALT II treaty, while still not a candidate for formal ratification, is being officially observed. One set of U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations—on theatre nuclear weapons— has already been convened in Geneva. A second—on strategic arms reductions —is scheduled to begin there on June 29. And the once inviolable military budget has been pared down by Congress to levels not much higher than those recommended by Jimmy Carter, whom no one ever accused of being a hawk.
Still, accounting for the president’s
transformation is not especially difficult. Given Reagan’s innocence in foreign affairs, any policy statement automatically reflects the winner in the continuing internecine rivalry for Reagan’s mind. That battle has been fought vigorously, and often publicly, by Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and by Haig and UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. After a series of humiliating setbacks last year, Haig has finally emerged triumphant, putting the state department’s mark on arms control and other crucial areas of foreign policy.
At the same time, Washington has faced the gathering crescendo of demonstrative peace movements in Europe and at home. Since the East-West conflict is essentially a competition for the troubled soul of Europe, no U.S. president could afford to ignore the rising disarmament fever. To dismiss it would have handed the Kremlin a decisive propaganda victory. Moreover, if the administration failed to act, the peace virus would sooner or later infect the national consensus for higher defence appropriations.
To respond to the movement, Washington first designed a strategy for theatre nuclear weapons talks. These negotiations had been part of the 1979 NATO bargain to match the Soviet Union’s 300 mobile SS-20 missiles by installing Pershing II and cruise missiles in Italy, Britain and West Germany beginning next year.
Reagan’s opening manoeuvre—the so-called zero option—was an offer to abandon the planned NATO deployment
if Moscow agreed to dismantle its SS-20 arsenal. That the Soviets quickly and totally rejected the proposal neither surprised nor concerned U.S. policymakers. The point of the exercise was to put a negotiating position on the table, with heavy public exposure, that would instantly deflate the disarmament balloon. The president’s Nov. 18 statement was even delivered in the morning in order to assure coverage on Europe’s evening newscasts.
The same attention to image and audience has marked the administration’s strategic arms initiatives. Rejecting the ostensible goal of the peace coalitions —a mutual, verifiable freeze on production, testing and deployment of new nuclear weapons—Washington packaged its criticisms carefully. A freeze, White House officials said repeatedly, was not bad. Rather it was not good enough, because it would lock in existing Soviet advantages and give the Kremlin no incentive for negotiating real arms reductions.
The reductions proposed in the president’s commencement address last month at Eureka, 111., were conceived as a remedy for the United States’ nuclear weak point—its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. Well known to Moscow’s spy satellites, ICBM sites are now deemed vulnerable to increasingly accurate Soviet warheads. Reagan’s proposal to trim land-based arsenals by one-third would allow the Pentagon to develop the new MX and cruise missiles but force the Soviets to whittle away at their area of greatest advantage.
The Kremlin’s reaction—a deliberate rejection—was again anticipated by Washington. But the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) proposal was aimed as much at Europe as at Moscow. Whether or not the U.S. tactics will succeed in co-opting the disarmament campaign is still in doubt. But some obvious problems remain. For one thing, the president’s pledge to honor the SALT II treaty “so long as the Soviet Union shows restraint” might jeopardize the currently favored plan for deploying the MX missile—basing it in densely packed underground silos. SALT II prohibits new silo construction.
The question of who the real Ronald Reagan is remains open-ended. Many observers suggest that the early version has been subsumed by the second under the tempering exigencies of power. For their part, cynics add that both sides of the president are part of a performance-adjustments to the shifting needs of his audience. Meanwhile, the third act curtain is about to rise.
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