Review by Jeff Merrit, M.A.
James Mann, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, New York: Viking Adult, 2009; 416 pages, ISBN 978-0-670-02054-6; hardback, $27.95.
James Mann’s The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan is a refreshingly balanced look at President Reagan’s role in the events leading to the end of the Cold War. Through interviews, dissection of declassified documents and Reagan’s public papers, Mann skillfully details the public and behind-the-scenes nuances that shaped U.S. Soviet and Eastern European policy in the years leading to Communism’s fall.
Mann has written an outstanding book, and his experience as Washington reporter, columnist and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times creates a presentation that reads like a newspaper feature piece enjoyed over successive Sunday mornings. Divided into four sections, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan first portrays a fascinating account of Reagan’s dealings with Richard Nixon.
Nixon, who won significant praise for opening relations with China in the 1970s, argued against changing the U.S. policy of détente, enlisting the help of Henry Kissinger to make public and private suggestions to Reagan that he was wrong to try and work with the Soviets and ultimately Mikhail Gorbachev.
The second part details a special relationship Reagan had with Suzanne Massie, a student of Russian history and culture, but whose credentials placed her far from the foreign policy intellectual establishment. Massie is credited with helping shape Reagan’s views on the Soviet Union by relaying what life was like for common Russians.
Mann suggests Reagan’s own proclivity for “homespun” stories helped him come to understand the Russians in a personal sense and not merely as subjects in an “evil empire.” Mann couples this realization with Reagan’s growing fear of all-out nuclear war and suggestions from some in the Pentagon that such a confrontation was “winnable.”
The book’s third section chronicles how in a speech near the Berlin Wall in 1987, Reagan defied practically every advisor by declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The fear in the administration was that by making such a call, Reagan would damage already fragile relations with Gorbachev and empower those within the USSR opposed to glasnost.
Finally, the book examines the series of events during Reagan’s last two years in office, an era where despite growing detachment, Reagan along with Gorbachev continued to push for glasnost, and convinced the world (and critics within Congress) that the Cold War was not permanent.
Much like Lincoln’s battles with opinion leaders in the North and his own cabinet in shaping post-Civil War policy (see April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik) and Kennedy (see One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs), whose inner circle contained those who wanted him to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis by unleashing forces to “ultimately” deal with the Soviets, Reagan was pressured to go against his intuition about how to deal with an eroding Soviet Union. Thankfully Reagan, like Lincoln and Kennedy, acted based on his own intuition and faith in the better nature of his adversaries.
Jeff Merritt is a 2007 American Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 1992 Fellow of the North Carolina Institute for Political Leadership. He received a bachelor’s in political science from Appalachian State University in 1989 and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (concentration in Recent American History) from North Carolina State University in 2005. He is currently Director of Business Development for Clancy & Theys Construction Company in Raleigh, North Carolina.