Ronald Reagan made the point, in his first inaugural address as president, that it was inappropriate to presume that military might alone made a country great–or secure.
"Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women," Reagan declared in 1981. "It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have."
Reagan believed in a strong national defense.
But the 40th president sought to express the traditional Republican value that said the point of a strong defense was to defend — not to offend.
A nation built defenses to avoid having to use them, not to flaunt them or to abuse their awesome power.
The Reagan premise was "peace through strength" and prodded by a muscular Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in the United States and anti-nuclear campaigners in Europe, Reagan moved from sloganeering to actual disarmament negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was Reagan who told Gorbachev: "Our people would cheer if we got rid of the missiles."
When the two men began negotiating toward that end, the then-influential Conservative Caucus (think of it as a Tea Party movement without the facade of populism) bought full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines that accused Reagan of "appeasement."
"The administration hasn’t co-opted the peace movement," complained an embittered Terry Dolan, the chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. "The peace movement has co-opted the administration."
For those who followed Reagan’s career, that may sound like a strange statement coming from an self-avowed conservative.
But no stranger than former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s surreal statement about President Obama’s observation that the United States is a military superpower "whether we like it or not."
Palin, who can see Russia from her house (just about), pronounced herself to have been duly "taken aback" by Obama’s choice of words.
"I would hope that our leaders in Washington, D.C., understand we like to be a dominant superpower," she announced. "I don’t understand a world view where we have to question whether we like it or not that America is powerful."
Palin was, of course, deliberately mischaracterizing Obama.
The president was making a case for the United States using its power–perhaps more aggressively than some liberals and anti-interventionist conservatives would prefer.
"It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them," said the president. "And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."
In that, Obama sounded quite a bit like Ronald Reagan — and Dwight Eisenhower and a host of other Republicans presidents, secretaries of state and senators.
After all, there is nothing conservative about seeking power for the sake of power–and spending accordingly.
Nor is there anything un "American" about wanting to build an empire like the one against which this country’s founders fought a revolution.
The permanent warmaking of empires–the superpowers of their day–was, James Madison warned, the greatest threat to domestic liberty. "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare," the essential framer of the Constitution observed.
Washington, Madison and their compatriots recognized that the point of defense was defense.
Reagan was not quite so inclined. And his times were different.
But Reagan still recognized that, the point of being powerful was to use that power in a manner that prevents small conflicts from growing into big wars and occupations–and that tries to guard against the excesses of permanent warmaking.
Reagan’s record was never that of a pacifist or peacemaker. Too frequently, it was the opposite.
But Reagan was a rational being. He knew Americans did not want a "Dr. Strangelove" future, and he recognized there were political pitfalls for presidents who seemed to want power merely for the sake of power, and especially for those who did not understand the primary point of claiming superpower status was to be able to negotiate–not fight–with other superpowers.
Indeed, historian Lawrence S. Wittner argues, well and wisely, that: " "Although Reagan was more amenable to disarmament than many persons realized, he and other US officials made nuclear disarmament a top priority in response to pressure from antinuclear groups and public opinion. This pressure was both direct and, at times, indirect, as when Congress, anxious NATO allies, and Gorbachev–all influenced by the antinuclear movement– threw their weight behind a nuclear disarmament agreement."
Wittner’s argument, expressed in his fine book, The Struggle Against the Bomb is a convincing one.
But even those who might disagree with it must accept that Reagan’s premise was "peace through strength," not "superpower’s rock."
There are still heirs to Reagan’s rationalism in the modern Republican Party, men and women like Indiana Senator Richard Lugar and Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri.
But not many of them.
A once Grand Old Party now seems to be in the thrall of lesser lights, including Palin, who still struggles to pronounce the word "nuclear" but who seems to be convinced–against all evidence from history and recent developments — that arrogance is an appealing attribute of superpowers.
Ronald Reagan was smarter than that.
Reagan outlined a "peace through strength" standard, which might have been flawed, and which he might have failed to follow at times.
But when Reagan spoke of it, he did not do so in Palinspeak.
Rather, he did so in terms not so very different than those chosen by Barack Obama.