Reagan's letters

Ronald Reagan’s son Ron once told an interviewer: “Don’t think you’re ever going to figure out my Dad. You won’t.”

A recently published collection of handwritten letters penned by Reagan during his eight years in office only adds to the confusion. Any facile, easy explanation of Reagan’s personality and leadership style seems doomed by whatever new evidence leaks out.

To me, Reagan is one of the most fascinating 20th century American political figures. I have been intrigued by the man ever since I first heard his voice on the radio in the summer of 1975 or so. My politics have bounced all over the map in the intervening three decades, but I have always admired Reagan’s abilities, and still find any book about the man to be irresistible.

Reagan wrote 3500 handwritten letters during his time in office. They were later typed up by secretaries, but were not altered by staff as were the letters in his official correspondence. They were written to anyone from heads-of-state to his friend Rudolph, an inner city black child.

Reagan kept up with Rudolph throughout his term. He encouraged him on science projects. They exchanged books. Reagan visited Rudolph’s home, and Rudolph and his mother visited the White House more than once.

Several of Reagan’s letters went to the conservative activists who supported him, many of whom became disaffected by Reagan’s apparent abandoment of conservative principles once he attained office. Reagan patiently reminded him of the realities of power, realities which required frequent compromise.

In one letter, however, Reagan lost his patience and blasted a conservative editor for writing what he thought was the most unfair piece of journalism he had ever read.

Reagan was dumb like a fox. His apparent aloofness from details was, I am convinced, a ruse. His letters reveal that he knew what was going on, in great detail. But he, like Eisenhower before him, also knew the value of appearing detached, even a little lost. As Ike said to his aides before heading out to a press conference, “Don’t worry, I’ll confuse ‘em.”

An example: during Reagan’s term, the Soviets shot down a civilian airliner, flight KAL 007. It was an atrocity unprecedented in the Cold War. There were immediate cries for retaliation from all corners.

When the airliner went down, Reagan was at his ranch in California. His staff insisted he get back to Washington to deal with the “crisis.” Reagan seemed irritated. He got on Air Force 1 reluctantly, and was in a bad mood the whole flight, a bit edgy with his staff as they briefed him about all the possible methods of retaliation. They assumed he was angry because his vacation was interrupted.

Back in Washington, Reagan met with his national security staff. The meeting stretched on for hours as each official proposed a method of retaliating against the Soviets. The Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed military action. Others proposed sanctions.

When everyone had expended their air, Reagan, who hadn’t asked a single question or made a single statement during the meeting, got up from his chair and said, “Gentlemen, we aren’t going to do a damn thing.”

In fact, Reagan probably knew his response when he first heard the news back at the ranch. Shooting down a commercial airliner was such an outrage that Reagan knew the loss of credibility to the Soviets throughout the world would be ample punishment. He also knew he couldn’t say that out loud, so he didn’t. He knew he had to march through the hoops, and that is what irritated him.

So, even after the national security meeting, he allowed his aides, including his Secretary of State George Shultz, to fulminate and threaten in public. They did so quite convincingly because they really didn’t believe Reagan meant what he said. He couldn’t have!

In the end, nothing was done. The damage to Soviet credibility was severe. And the threat of what Reagan might do was far worse than anything he actually could do. It’s easier to keep the peace when the world is convinced you are a warmonger. It helped that Reagan’s own aides were convinced that his response would be severe, and Reagan knew that, too. So he let them carry on, even though he knew he would do nothing from the first moment.

Reagan’s command of the entire scene escaped even his closest aides. George Shultz in particular, as well as Alexander Haig, both very experienced in foreign affairs, didn’t really understand Reagan’s approach until after they left office, at which time, if their subsequent books are any indication, their bafflement was replaced by admiration.

Well, this story is peripheral to the book in question. If you get a chance, Reagan’s letters make for fascinating reading. I read the whole thing in a day, before giving the book away for Christmas.