Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency | The Nation


Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency

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Old Two-China Hand

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Ronnie Dugger
Ronnie Dugger is the author of The Politician, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and other books and articles, the...

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The fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Johnson’s Great Society agenda should not overlook the travesties of the war. 

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The recent flap about Reagan's position on Taiwan, which angered the Communist Chinese, was treated in the American press as another Reagan fumble. Yet the incident is much like his remark that Vietnam was a noble cause--the surprise is the surprise. Taiwan and the Nationalist Chinese have been a recurring preoccupation of his. On radio in 1978 and 1979, Reagan raged as the Carter Administra- tion moved to establish diplomatic relations with Mainland China and abrogate the U.S. defense treaty with Taiwan. The proposed relationship with Red China, Reagan said, was "based on betrayal of the Free Chinese on Taiwan"; in the new arrangement, the world's nations "have seen us cold-bloodedly betray a friend for political expediency"; "haven't we also betrayed millions and millions of Chinese on the mainland who lived with a dream of one day regaining freedom?" He urged that Congress provide Taiwan advanced weaponry so it would not "fall to the Communists." In one broadcast in the spring of 1978, Reagan said he had the complete text of a 42,000-word speech by Peking's Foreign Minister, Huang Hua, delivered the preceding July. "He...asked," Reagan said, "If the American people have the will to share the fate of Taiwan if and when Peking sets out to conquer the Republic of China." The Minister answered his own question: "The United States is a paper tiger.... We can paint not only its skin but also its bones." Reagan then described examples from recent history that Huang cited in support of this view: "The firing of MacArthur because he wanted to win the Korean War and our failure to be decisive in Vietnam," as Reagan summarized them. Given the martial cast of Reagan's mind on the subject of China, it is easy to see why his advisers have sought to tone him down. After the fiasco of Bush's trip to China, when Reagan called for "official" relations with Taiwan, Reagan and his camp have been reassuring everyone that as President he would not change U.S. relations with Taiwan or maintain a "two-China" policy.

Darkness on Africa

Continuing our round-the-world trip with Ronald Reagan, we next stop in Angola. After President Gerald Ford had ordered covert military aid to anti-Soviet factions in that African country's civil war in January 1976, Reagan, vying with Ford in the New Hampshire primary and apparently needing to outdo him, said, "I think it's time for us to straighten up and eyeball them [the Russians]." On Angola he would tell them, he said, "Out. We'll let them fight it out themselves, or you're going to have to deal with us." He declined to say what retaliatory moves he had in mind. Last May he called for the United States to send weapons to the Savimbi guerrillas in Angola.

Later in 1976, Reagan suggested he would consider sending U.S. troops to Rhodesia. He had been saying, at the Sacramento Press Club, that the United States and Britain should try to mediate a transition to democratic majority rule and prevent bloodshed. How prevent bloodshed, he was asked. In a rambling answer he said perhaps the agreement would do It, or "Whether it will be enough to have simply a show of strength, a promise that we would [supply] troops, or whether you'd have to go in with occupation forces or not, I don't know." In a not quite grammatical sentence, he seemed to say, send troops: "But I believe in the interests of peace and avoiding bloodshed, and to achieve a democratic majority rule which we all, I think, subscribe to, I think would be worth this for us to do it."

Later, Reagan said his remarks had been hypothetical, but got himself into water still hotter with a candid discussion of sending troops to Lebanon, to Cyprus and elsewhere in the world. It will be best to reproduce reporter Robert Lindsey's account in The New York Times of Reagan's remarks four years ago:

Mr. Reagan said there had been "many instances" where the United States had sent a "token military force," such as to Lebanon during the Eisenhower Administration, and suggested that it would not be inappropriate for the United States to do so if it could achieve a transition in Rhodesia He suggested that the United States should have done this during the recent Cyprus crisis that also involved Turkey and Greece, and during the current Lebanese civil war, and said that he would favor such troop actions as President.

Cuban Blockade

During October Reagan said, "The Caribbean is being made--by way of Cuba, the Soviets' proxy--into a Red lake." He attributes the turmoil in Nicaragua, El Salvador and other Central American countries to Russia's ally Cuba. His readiness to send the Marines or the fleet down that way and his pat invocations of the memory of Teddy Roosevelt must warm the old Rough Rider in his grave.

Concerning Reagan's suggestion that the United States blockade Cuba because Russia has invaded Afghanistan, Reagan's underlying views provide an answer to Bush's question at the time, ''Why Cuba?" Reagan is looking for, or at least seizes on, reasons to blockade Cuba. "[Russia's] satellite state is ninety miles off our coast," he says. "Suppose we put a blockade around that island and said, Now, buster, we'll lift it when you take your forces out of Afghanistan'?" The blockade, he says, would be "a grave logistical problem" for Russia, and Cuba "could not afford that blockade." One of Reagan's top advisers in foreign policy, William Van Cleave, who is a defense analyst at the University of Southern California, thinks a blockade may be a good way to stem Cuban revolutionary activities.

Would not a blockade of Cuba lead to a confrontation with Russia similar to the 1962 missile crisis? The fact that the 1962 crisis brought the world as close as we have come to nuclear holocaust does not seem to be what stuck in Reagan's mind. In fact, he seems to believe President John Kennedy failed in the crisis. "We have seen," he said in 1972, "an American President walk all the way to the barricade in the Cuban missile crisis, and lack the will to take the final step to make it successful." (On the other hand, Reagan knows the United States "won" this showdown. As he has said, "In 1962...our superiority was so great that Khrushchev had no choice but to back down.") Since, in achieving the Russian turn-back, Kennedy pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba, perhaps such an invasion is "the final step" Reagan was referring to.

The most treacherous question of postwar U.S. foreign policy--what to do when left-wing revolutionary forces seek to overthrow corrupt but pro-United States dictators--was succinctly raised by the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Reagan conceded in a radio talk in 1979 that some Nicaraguans had justified grievances, but "most of the rebels are Cuban-trained." Their revolt was creating "another Communist country in this hemisphere." He charged that the Administration "arm-twisted the Nicaraguan Government as much as it could...to force Somoza to step down." Clearly, Reagan favored putting the rebels down and keeping the dictator in power.

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