Historian William Inboden considers the Cold War’s lessons for today’s Republican Party.
Inflation has been running at its highest rate in decades. American society is restive and divided. There’s a public perception that the country’s glory days are over, that democratic capitalism is a spent force. U.S. standing and influence abroad are in decline. America not long ago withdrew in disgrace from one of the longest wars in its history. A communist superpower appears ascendant and is building up military force at a ferocious pace.
William Inboden could be talking about today, but he’s describing the world in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. “If you were to do an overall scoreboard in the Cold War at the time,” he says, “it would have looked to most objective observers like the Soviets were winning and the United States was losing. At best it’s a tie, but the previous decade had been by most standards a good one for the Soviet bloc and a bad one for the free world.”
He ticks off a list: “The Soviets had a more formidable, capable military than we did when Reagan takes office.” Beginning in the early 1970s, “on every continent in the global south of the developing world—Asia, Latin America and Africa—Soviet-sponsored communist insurgencies and revolutions are winning.” Communism “seems to be the wave of the future.”
The U.S., meanwhile, “has a really rough run of stagflation. And it’s not just a bad economic cycle. There’s a growing sense—maybe free-market economies just don’t work. Maybe this entire system is broken.” On top of all that, “we have radically underinvested in defense” and are weathering the “demoralization” of Vietnam and Watergate.
A decade later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Mr. Inboden, 50, a Yale-educated historian, runs the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He recently published “The Peacemaker,” a history of President Reagan’s foreign policy. When we meet for a fireside interview in the lobby of a countryside hotel where he’s come for a conference, I ask him about the Cold War lessons for today’s precarious world, in which China and Russia are working in tandem to displace the West.
It’s a particularly pertinent question given today’s divisions in the Republican Party, a prominent faction of which argues that America is in inexorable decline and should pull back from shaping world events. Reagan was, in Mr. Inboden’s words, the last “unequivocally successful two-term Republican president, especially on foreign policy.” Yet he is no longer universally admired in his party. “None of us are expecting another Reagan to come galloping to rescue us,” Mr. Inboden says, “but if we’re going to learn anything from history, let’s at least start with the last time that we seemed to get something significant right.”
Reagan was the first Cold War president to “imagine a world without the Soviet Union,” Mr. Inboden says. He “fundamentally rejected much of the conventional wisdom, or what seemed to be Cold War realities. One of those was that the Soviet Union is a permanent part of the geopolitical landscape.”
He took office nearly six decades after the Soviet Union’s establishment. “So it seems to be a given—countries don’t just up and disappear,” Mr. Inboden says. But Reagan had the “strategic imagination” to reject a prevailing view that the best the U.S. could do was to lose the Cold War “as slowly as possible.”
Reagan didn’t naively believe America always comes out on top. He saw the Cold War as a contest of ideas and had a new theory about how to advance American principles and interests. He called communism a “barbarous assault on the human spirit” and the Berlin Wall “as ugly as the idea behind it.” He didn’t flinch from arming unsavory enemies of communism such as the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
The 40th president abandoned what Mr. Inboden calls the playbook of “meetings for meetings’ sake.” He “waited to start doing that diplomacy until he felt like he had the hard power of the United States” backing him up. He built a 600-ship Navy and deployed Pershing II missiles in Europe expecting it would strengthen America’s hand in future diplomatic negotiations to pare back nuclear weapons. It worked. Not long after he left office in 1989, the standoff ended peacefully.
But so what? Reagan is dead and the times are different. China is building a military force in the Pacific while Russia seeks to conquer Ukraine and stalks Europe. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin clinked champagne glasses at a March meeting in Moscow.
Here’s where the analogies begin: “The first Cold War was a global standoff against a nuclear-armed superpower on the Eurasian landmass,” Mr. Inboden says. So is the current competition with China. “It’s a military contest. It’s an economic one. It’s a political one. It’s even an ideological one—I do think this is fundamentally a battle of ideas.” America’s adversaries again think they have a better way of organizing the world.
Meanwhile, America’s social divisions are deeper, and today publishing a long dispatch about how Reagan was a good president will inspire angry letters from some on the Trumpian right. A growing left-right populist condominium thinks America is a failed project and should have the humility to reduce its footprint around the world.
The proxy debate is over U.S. lethal aid for Ukraine, which Mr. Inboden anchors in the Reagan doctrine of supporting enemies of communism and part of a “great American tradition” that “if you want to fight for your freedom, we will support you” and it’s “better for us if you prevail.”
Some Republicans have said the U.S. should stop sending weapons to Kyiv and focus on China, particularly the threat to Taiwan. By contrast, Reagan understood the Cold War as a global contest, and Mr. Inboden says this is another one.
Mr. Inboden, a self-described “China hawk,” says the U.S. can’t focus only on Beijing “and exclude the rest of the world, because China is playing in the rest of the world. And you cannot hermetically seal off one region from another.”
If “we’re going to ask our allies in Asia to stand fast with us on a more confrontational, assertive posture toward China, a lot of their trust in us, commitment to us, or even our credibility, will depend on how they see us acting in other parts of the world. Do they see us cut and run and abandon the Ukrainians?” Will Europe help the U.S. check China if the U.S. leaves “the festering wound of a defeated Ukraine in their backyard”?
Another line of argument is that the U.S. needs to stop supporting Ukraine and focus on cultural scourges at home—a false dilemma. Mr. Inboden says Reagan’s conservative critics sometimes underrate the extent to which the Gipper was a “Tocquevillian social conservative.” His famous “Morning in America” re-election ad includes a vignette that “this afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married.”
Reagan saw cultural renewal as essential to restoring America’s standing in the world as a free society built on “the eternal values of family, of community, of faith,” Mr. Inboden says.
Some on both the left and right think the U.S. is at bottom no better than its adversaries. “Reagan emphatically rejected moral equivalence in the Cold War,” Mr. Inboden says. “That was deeply offensive to him.” The 1983 “evil empire” speech acknowledged America’s own “legacy of evil,” namely slavery and racism. But Reagan said: “The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past.”
These ideas helped re-elect Reagan in a landslide and elect George H.W. Bush in 1988. How can a Republican aiming for the White House in 2024 tap in to the same winning themes? Mr. Inboden lets out a small sigh. “I’ve wrestled with this a lot,” he says. “It will start with an honest net assessment of the challenges we face.”
Reagan’s optimism about America didn’t preclude him from admitting that “we’ve got some big problems right now” and they will “not be easy to overcome,” Mr. Inboden says. Reagan frequently “reminded the American people of our own history”—that 1979 wasn’t the first time the country’s condition looked grim. Take Reagan’s 1984 speech in Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day: The U.S. had learned “bitter lessons” from two world wars, Reagan said. “It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost.”
What about Ukraine, where polls suggest some 40% of Republicans think the U.S. is doing “too much”? Donald Trump has said that he could end the war in Ukraine “in 24 hours,” details still to come. Ron DeSantis earlier this spring said the U.S. shouldn’t get involved in a “territorial dispute,” though he later hedged his remarks. Mr. Inboden sees an opening for a case for U.S. support rooted in American national interest. President Biden “hasn’t given a single memorable speech on Ukraine,” he says. That has left a vacuum.
More broadly, perhaps the electorate would reward “a convictional politician” like Reagan. “He knew that he was asking the American people to support him and join him on a fairly radical new change of direction—on economic policy, on defense policy, on his new Cold War strategy,” Mr. Inboden says. “He knew he couldn’t just expect them to come along—that he needed to explain to them what he was trying to do, diagnose the problem, and invite or welcome their support. He took that education and persuasion part of self-government very seriously.”
Reagan made a “sustained, sophisticated set of arguments” on “the virtues of a free society, the illegitimacy of communism” and kept pressing that case even as his approval rating dipped during the 1982 recession. Later he accepted “real political risks in his own right flank” by working with Mikhail Gorbachev. “If your policies are going to work, and you can communicate that to the American people, the political favor will follow.”
There are differences between today’s challenges and the Cold War’s. The U.S. is “much more economically interdependent with China” than it was with the Soviet Union, Mr. Inboden notes. He worries that the Chinese Communist Party has “taken a page” from Reagan’s defense buildup by focusing not only on military mass but on weapons systems that offer an asymmetric advantage—for example, a long-range missile arsenal designed to push U.S. aircraft carriers out of the Pacific.
Still, Reagan understood that authoritarian societies are inherently vulnerable and can be far more precarious than they appear. “I’ve never met Xi Jinping,” Mr. Inboden says. “But I will speculate here that when he puts his head on his pillow at night, his first worry is not necessarily the United States. It’s his people: ‘How do I make sure they don’t turn against me?’ ”
The U.S. has “a lot of catching up to do” rebuilding its military deterrent after decades of neglect. So far the political will isn’t in evidence. But if Washington starts to take that task seriously, Beijing’s rulers may find, as Reagan suggested of the Soviets, that they liked the arms race better when they were the only ones running it.
Perhaps the most important Cold War lesson: There is nothing inevitable about the current moment. “I’m not trying to be at all sanguine,” Mr. Inboden says. But it would “be a mistake to lock ourselves into thinking the present trend line will continue.” Don’t assume “that geopolitical and national security trend lines are linear” or that China “will always be this economic dynamo.”
Mr. Inboden notes that his students, born long after the Berlin Wall fell, can slip into thinking that a peaceful end to that contest was foreordained. “Anyone can look back now,” see “what a decrepit colossus” the Soviet Union was, and think the U.S. triumph was inevitable. But it didn’t look that way in 1981. Mr. Inboden says his book aims to capture the Cold War’s “radical uncertainty.”
“There’s an argument embedded in that about the contingency of history, the importance of leadership—that presidents matter.” They “have choices. They can go this way or they can go that way. And the fate of the world can rest on that.”
Mrs. Odell is a member of the Journal’s editorial board and a 2022 Robert Novak fellow.
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Appeared in the May 20, 2023, print edition as ‘The Reagan Lesson for the Trumpian Right’.