Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency | The Nation


Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency

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Nuclear Reductions

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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. 

A landslide of letters overwhelmed our mailbox in response to Ronnie Dugger's August 16/23 Our Readers and Ronnie Dugger

What would be the prospects for a renegotiated SALT II treaty under Reagan as President? The first thing to be noted about Reagan as chief American arms-control negotiator is that he would not countenance a mutual phasing-out of the two superpowers' weapons systems to keep each side reasonably reassured that the other has not gotten too far ahead. "I would say to the Soviet Union," Reagan told The Wall Street Journal, "we aren't going to sit down at the table unless we're discussing the reduction of nuclear weapons."

The catch, if it is that, may be found in a phrase Reagan first used on radio last fall. "Let's assure the Soviet Union," he said, "we will join in any arms limitation agreement that legitimately reduces nuclear armaments to the point that neither country represents a threat to the other." In Reagan's statement issued on October 10, he says, "The United States should he prepared to discuss an arms limitation agreement which legitimately reduces nuclear weapons on both sides to the point where neither country represents a threat to the other."

A situation in which the superpowers are denuclearized to the point where neither is a threat to the other would require all but total nuclear disarmament--a near impossibility in one round of negotiations. As schoolmarms and Russian specialists in English know, the omission of a comma before the word "which" in the last formulation quoted above means that the qualifying phrase restricts what it qualifies, and this means that Reagan was saying the only arms agreement the United States should be willing to sit down and talk about is one that will achieve a near impossibility.

Reagan's attitude toward nuclear weapons casts further doubt on his dedication to arms control. His enthusiasm for the neutron bomb approaches an epiphany. "By greatly limiting the local damage from an attack on enemy troops, the warhead would help preserve the homeland of Western Europeans from the devastation of war," he said recently. And on radio in 1978, he was even more enthusiastic:

Very simply it is the dreamed-of death-ray weapon of science fiction. It kills enemy soldiers but doesn't blow up the surrounding countryside or destroy villages, towns and cities. It won't even destroy an enemy tank--just kill the tank crew.
    Now some express horror at this and, charging immorality, portray those who would use such a weapon as placing a higher value on property than human life. This is sheer unadulterated nonsense. It is harsh sounding, but all war weapons back to the club, the sling and the arrow are designed to kill the soldiers of the enemy. With gunpowder and artillery and later bombs and bombers, war could not be continued to the battlefield. And so came total war with noncombatants outnumbering soldiers in casualties.
    Here is a deterrent weapon available to us at much lower cost than trying to match the enemy gun for gun, tank for tank, plane for plane.... Indeed the neutron bomb represents a moral improvement in the horror that is modern war.

About the cruise missile, too, Reagan is similarly ecstatic: "You can shoot it down a pickle barrel at 2,000 miles."

What will all the new arms Reagan claims we need cost? Reagan says Carter's 3 percent rise in the military budget is not nearly enough; according to The Wall Street Journal, Reagan's advisers agree that defense expenditures must rise at least $30 billion a year during Reagan's first term, and Reagan has told his advisers he is prepared to delay a balanced budget, if necessary, to spend more on defense. This could knock Reagan's rhetoric against inflation into a cocked hat, of course.

"I have never gone by the figures.... No, go by the weapons," Reagan said this year. "Just ask these men who would have to fight the war what are the essential weapons.'' (As Murray Rothbard remarks in Inquiry, "Sure. Just ask the Pentagon.")

"No, I'm not going to get us into war," Reagan told Hearst's Kingsbury Smith this year. Reagan's recurrent theme is peace through power: "I've always believed that if you have strong enough means of defense, you don't have to use them."

And what about President Eisenhower's historic warning to the American people as he left office that they should beware of the growth and sway of the military-industrial complex? Reagan remembers that too, although he did not refer to Eisenhower as he said last February: "There is only one military-industrial complex whose operations should concern us and it is not located in Arlington, Virginia, but in Moscow in the Soviet Union."

In the nineteenth or early twentieth century Ronald Reagan would be just another Republican President, another McKinley, another Hoover, distinctly on the backward-looking side, but the nation would survive him. He is like the nice old-fashioned Dad, unaccountably mean and brutal when things strike him the wrong way, whom everybody obeys but nobody really pays much attention to.

In the nuclear era, however, based on the record from which we must make educated guesses before we can vote, he is the most dangerous person ever to come this close to the Presidency, and if elected he would be the most dangerous leader so far in history. Reagan would have to decide whether to send weapons, planes or troops, electronically equipped covert-action teams or the Rapid Deployment Force, and Reagan would have to decide whether to "mash the button." In foreign policy, he would be little different, really, from Theodore Roosevelt, except for the means at his disposal--biological weapons, nuclear warheads we can "shoot down a pickle barrel at 2,000 miles," submarines that can kill whole clusters of cities and all the people in them. At Reagan's age, with his ideas and his advisers, in this era, he is a menace to the human race. That 1s my honest view, and as a citizen in my country still free, I say it.

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