Did U.S. President Ronald Reagan end the Cold War? Or did the war end because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned it? William Inboden argues forcefully for the former interpretation in his new book, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink. Reagan’s strategy in dealing with the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War involved reviving the U.S. economy, restoring American self-confidence, rebuilding American military might, and working closely with our democratic allies. He then pressured the Soviet Union into an economically unsustainable arms race, engaged in proxy battles with them around the globe, and waged a successful propaganda war that pitted the political, religious, and economic liberties of the “free world” against the bankruptcy and tyranny of the “evil empire.” But when liberalizing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1985, Reagan saw sooner than most of his advisors that here was a reformer with whom he could work to bring peace.
William Inboden is the Executive Director and William Powers Jr. Chair of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously held senior positions with the State Department and in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. In this podcast, Inboden describes his work on Capitol Hill, his graduate study that focused on both U.S. diplomatic history and American religious history, his service in the Bush White House as well as with the Legatum Institute in London, and his return to academia. He details the factors that inspired him to write The Peacemaker, the declassification of Reagan-era documents that enabled him to arrive at new historical insights into the Reagan presidency, and his own change in perspective that led him from being intensely critical of Reagan (particularly with regard to his support of authoritarian anti-communist regimes and insurgencies in Central and South America) to holding a more favorable assessment of his legacy.
Inboden also discusses how former Republican president Dwight Eisenhower exerted a more significant influence on Reagan than most historians have recognized, how Reagan’s conception of the Cold War differed profoundly from that shared by his predecessors, how the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) was at the heart of his strategic vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and why he is confident that the Reaganite tradition in the Republican Party can be revived. Inboden also argues for the value and relevance of history for policymakers, as well as why he believes that public universities need to uphold their end of the implicit social contract they have long maintained with American society.
Will Inboden: Ronald Reagan inherited a certain Cold War script, this containment doctrine of: “We will manage relations with the Soviet Union, we will stop them from expanding any further, but we need to accept that they are a permanent part of the geopolitical landscape.” Reagan did not like that script. He wanted to imagine and then write a different ending to it.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m really happy to be joined today by William Inboden. He is the Executive Director and William Powers, Jr. Chair of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as an Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs (also at the University of Texas) and as Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law (likewise). He’s also the author, most recently, of the recent and riveting book The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink. Welcome, Will!
Will Inboden: Thank you, Geoff. It’s great to be with you.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: It’s great to have you. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention at the outset that I reviewed your book for the Washington Post several weeks ago, and I deemed it excellent. I wrote in part that “even readers who are not students of the Reagan Victory School will appreciate Inboden’s deeply informed and gracefully written account. By proceeding chronologically, he makes vividly clear how Reagan conducted the Cold War while contending with a host of other harrowing foreign policy issues, including terrorism and wars in the Middle East, political upheaval in Central and South America and economic transformations in Asia. He superbly invokes the peril and uncertainty of the era.” And I stand by that!
Will Inboden: I accept those charges, thank you very much. It was a terrific review.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Congratulations again on the book. Before we delve into it, I wonder if you could just tell me something about yourself in terms of where you grew up, where you went to school, and what your professional experiences were before you ended up at UT?
Will Inboden: Sure. It was a somewhat winding and circuitous path to my current role and reentry into academia. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona in the ’70s and ’80s, so a child of the late Cold War years. I did my undergraduate studies at Stanford University. I was a history major there and, as a freshman in a Stanford U.S. history seminar, that’s where I met our mutual friend, Jeremi Suri. That’s turned into a decades-long — we’ve had intersecting lives and friendship for decades. My undergraduate mentor there was David Kennedy, who remains a valued mentor and friend.
After Stanford, I moved to DC and did a few years working on Capitol Hill in the 1990s. My first job was with Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat, when he was chairing the Senate Armed Services Committee, in his last couple of years in the Senate. Then when he retired I moved over… In college, I’d migrated from being more of a moderate Democrat to more of a moderate-to-conservative Republican. The Nunn office was a very comfortable fit, but when he retired, I moved over and worked for Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas, who was the majority whip at the time. This was part of the aftermath of the Republican takeover of Congress and the Gingrich Revolution years, so that was also an interesting time.
I tired of Washington, I tired of politics, and so I escaped up to New Haven to do my Ph.D. in history at Yale. That’s where we first crossed paths — I think you were finishing up when I was just arriving there or something like that.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: That’s right.
Will Inboden: I went to Yale with every intention of being a history professor, ideally somewhere back out West where I’m from, and never returning to DC. But as often happens when you leave something, you start to miss it more than you thought you would. So after a few years in graduate school, while I was enjoying the graduate school experience I decided I did not want to be an academic. At this point, George W. Bush had been elected and I was given a chance to work in his administration. So I returned to DC after finishing my Ph.D. and spent several years at the State Department and the National Security Council in the Bush administration.
When that ended, I did a detour overseas for a few years in Dubai and London in the private sector. And then about 12 years ago, a chance came up to join the faculty here at UT Austin and re-enter academia. At that point I thought, all right, I’m ready to give academia another try, having done my sojourn in the policy world and some other things. I’ve now been here at UT as a faculty member and running the Clements Center for 12 years.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: To rewind slightly, your Acknowledgements are actually a great way of retracing your academic and political career as well as some of your social networks. I noticed that in the Acknowledgements you thank not only our eminent diplomatic historian friends Paul Kennedy and John Lewis Gaddis at Yale, but also the religious historians Jon Butler and Skip Stout. You studied religion as much as diplomatic history, or you sort of blended the two, is that right?
Will Inboden: Yes. This was an interest that went back to my undergraduate years. When I was being mentored by David Kennedy at Stanford, I was focusing more on American domestic religious history. One reason why I had chosen to enroll at Yale for my doctoral work is because Yale had considerable strengths, of course in diplomatic history with Gaddis and Kennedy but also in American religious history with Stout and Butler.
I was I think the first student, they all said, the first PhD student they’d ever had who was trying to blend or combine both fields. It was a little bit of intellectual entrepreneurship involved. But for me, some of it drew on my experience working in Congress before graduate school, where I had seen religious interest groups working to try to shape American foreign policy. I’d seen how the personal religious convictions of a number of senators and members of Congress had shaped some of their approach to public life and foreign policy. I had a sense that “If this is going on now in the 1990s, perhaps it has also been there in America’s past.” It really started with that open-ended set of questions that had been shaped by my policy work.
That’s why for my dissertation at Yale, which became my first book, I looked at the religious influences on early American Cold War policy, in the Truman and Eisenhower era, exploring both how early Cold War tensions caused some fractures and fissures and debates within American religious communities, both Protestantism and Catholicism. Then also in turn how religious beliefs really shaped Truman and Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, a number of early American Cold Warriors. My argument in short is that they developed a theology of containment and that they conceived of the Cold War as in part a spiritual conflict, a religious war. I’m very grateful to Jon Butler and Skip Stout for having encouraged and supported me in that exploration back at Yale, and also to John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy for allowing me to experiment with that too.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I should add that your first book was published by Cambridge University Press as Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment.
Will Inboden: Yes.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Just a random question, but did your time in Congress bring you together with somebody who I knew slightly: Congressman Frank Wolf from Virginia’s 10th Congressional District?
Will Inboden: Oh yes, quite a bit. I worked a lot with Congressman Wolf’s office. He was a leading voice on human rights and international religious freedom, and a very effective advocate on that. I got to know him fairly well and worked quite a bit with his staff. I got crosswise with him a few times. As you know, he was and remains — he’s still alive — very impassioned and felt very strongly… There were a couple of specific international religious freedom policy questions where I was supporting or the author of one particular piece of legislation, he was supporting another one, and he was quite upset that we were on different sides on that. But we were both working towards the same goals of helping to promote religious freedom and alleviate religious persecution abroad. I’m just curious. How did you work with or get to know Mr. Wolf?
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I used to work for an organization that supported moderate Republicans in Congress, and Frank Wolf was succeeded in Virginia’s 10th by Barbara Comstock…
Will Inboden: Oh, sure, yeah.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: …who was a pretty well-known moderate who got washed out in the blue tide of the 2018 election. That district now is so blue that it’s almost impossible to imagine it going back. It’s part of this overall realignment of the college-educated suburbs against the Republican Party.
Likewise, Frank Wolf was co-chair of what had been the Human Rights Caucus and is now the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. That was very firmly in this religious, human rights-oriented, Reaganite internationalist tradition that you are writing about. And yet that seems almost gone. It’s almost as if that district encapsulates these two major trends of just the past eight years.
Will Inboden: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it: how one congressional district can be a microcosm for these larger national realignments and trends. I do have certainly some wistfulness for that era. Even when I was working in Tom DeLay’s office — who obviously was an aggressive arch-conservative-movement Republican — we worked quite a bit with Tony Hall, a Democrat of Ohio; with Bob Clement, a Democrat of Tennessee; and of course with Tom Lantos. There was some great cross-party, across-the-aisle cooperation on religious freedom and human rights.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I should add that when you were at the State Department you were a member of the Policy Planning Staff and also a special advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom.
Will Inboden: Yes.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: When you moved over to George W. Bush’s White House, you served as Senior Director for Strategic Planning and Institutional Reform at the National Security Council. I’ve read a story that in 2007, you attended a planning session at Camp David and President Bush asked all of the high-level national security officials in attendance what book was on their nightstand. And nearly all of them were reading history books.
Will Inboden: Yes. I know we’re doing this as an audio podcast, but if this was a video one, I could point to you over on my office wall that I have a photo of that lunch session where this conversation took place. Because for me, it continues to encapsulate the importance of applied history, of policy-relevant history, of scholars connecting with policymakers on this. It was a remarkable moment. The whole day was devoted to strategic planning. I think the morning had been on the future of the Middle East and the afternoon was the future of Asia. But then when we broke for lunch… There were about 25 of us around the table. I was very much the junior guy there. I was what you might call the back-bencher, except for in this case they let the back-bencher sit at the table. But it was Condi Rice, the Secretary of State; Bob Gates, the Secretary of Defense; Pete Pace was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Vice President Cheney; Josh Bolton, who was the White House Chief of Staff — all the top “principals,” as they’re known.
Before we started the discussion, Bush just said, “All right. Let’s hear the one book everyone’s reading right now.” I was keeping careful track of all this. Of the 25 people at the table, all but two were reading history books of some sort. Bush was reading Bob Beisner’s biography of Dean Acheson, a great biography of Acheson. I happened to be reading Jeremi Suri’s very good biography of Kissinger — it’s nice for me to be able to give a plug for that.
For me, I’d already seen in all sorts of ways how senior policymakers were hungry for historical insights, who would like to hear lessons of history for any number of specific policy challenges. But this was still a revelation that these very busy people with very little time, and usually exhausted, that in the spare moments they do have for reading — for leisure reading — that they’re wanting to turn to history. And very few of them, I think, had been history majors.
Of course, you and your listeners are probably wondering what were the other two non-history books? I will not mention names here, but one person claimed — I say claimed — to be reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the time. None of us believed that. What Cabinet secretary has time to read Dostoevsky? The other one, to my everlasting acclaim, was reading a Harry Potter novel. I thought, “Good for you for reading a Harry Potter novel and admitting you’re reading a Harry Potter novel when there’s so much temptation to posture otherwise.”
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Thank you for anticipating my question on that score. This is the Vital Center podcast, so can I invoke Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and ask you what is the value of having trained as a historian to someone serving in the White House? And conversely, what is the value to a historian of serving in government at such a high level?
Will Inboden: Sure. I have a lot of thoughts on this and it’s a real passion of mine and one of the animating missions of the Clements Center that I’m running here now at UT of this applied history project. I often start off these discussions about policy relevance, the role of historians, by saying that history is too important to be left only to the historians. I don’t want this to be too much of an inside-the-guild discussion. But of course, if we don’t have trained, serious historians doing this sort of work, then history is also not very accessible to anyone else.
First, for me, the value of having been trained historically before entering into these government jobs — some of it is the obvious stuff. I think historians take good writing seriously, and if you’re not a good writer, you will not succeed as a policymaker. Of course, there are the research and analytical skills that come with it. But even more — and I want to be very careful here not to be seen as taking cheap shots at our brothers and sisters in political science or other more social science-y disciplines — one reason why policymakers gravitate so much more to history than, say, IR theory or economics or anything like that, is that policymakers know and feel intuitively that policymaking is about dealing with real people. It’s also about dealing with complexity.
Of course, one of the great insights of political science is parsimony. When political science can come up with that perfectly parsimonious unified field theory which explains so much — sure, if such a thing exists, that’s helpful. But for policymakers, they’re dealing with not just the abstract policy questions but the personalities around it, the personalities of the foreign leaders, of members of Congress, of interest groups, the internecine squabbling and fighting of the interagency, all of that. And so history for policymakers just feels intuitively so much more real, because it is about what has really happened before with all of that complexity and all of those different factors.
Second — and this is related to that that — is that history is just very relatable for them. I mean, these senior policy positions are very lonely jobs. I’ve never been president of the United States and never will be president of the United States, but I’ve worked for one, I’ve studied them. It is an intensely lonely job. The only people on Planet Earth who understand what it’s like to be president of the United States are the, what, 45 or so people we’ve had — and very few of them are still alive. Presidents themselves are often drawn to reading presidential biography because there’s almost an existential connection they feel with their predecessors of whatever parties.
What’s all this mean for younger staff, like I was at the time? If you are trained in history, if you have a grasp with history, if you have a knowledge of history, you’re going to have a real advantage. Because you will be more equipped to ask the questions that the people at the top, the secretaries of state and defense are asking the National Security Advisor, and you’ll be hopefully more equipped to help answer them as well.
Another takeaway that I had, which is very intuitive once you hear it, but I kind of stumbled into is that as it says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Or as Condi said — we had her out for our Clements Center anniversary dinner the other day — if you don’t know history, everything is unprecedented. Where I’m going with this is that history is a laboratory of policy experimentation. Anytime any president, any secretary of state or national security advisor, is wrestling with a new policy challenge — What do we do about Iran’s nuclear program? What do we do about continuing to support the Ukrainians? What about the rise of China? Any number of the current ones — when they’re looking for new policy ideas, they’re first naturally going to turn to what we tried before, maybe in another context. Where can we find some creative thinking on policies that we need to develop today?
Every now and then, someone may come up with a completely new and novel policy which has never in any incarnation been tried before. That’s quite rare. Usually instead the new policies being developed are going to be derivations of previous policies. This is not quite as simple as, “Oh, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past.” Yeah, there’s something to that. But rather, like I said, the past is a laboratory for policy experimentation.
A lot of other things I could say… I’ve written quite a bit on this. But it is my apologia for the policy relevance of history. In some ways it’s my appeal to more university history departments to not embrace the cult of the irrelevant with too much fervor. I support studying all sorts of types of history; not everything has to be policy-relevant. But for public-mindedness, for equipping our history students for potential policy careers, political history, diplomatic history, military history, intellectual history — these things are still really helpful and really important.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: This is a subject to which we will return.
Will Inboden: I’m sorry about the long-winded discourse, but I feel passionately about it.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I agree passionately with you — although I must say that I feel more kindly toward political science now than I did when I was myself a graduate student in history.
Will Inboden: Yes. I don’t want to be too uncharitable there. I mean this literally: some of my best friends are political scientists.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: In 2007, you left the White House to join the Legatum Institute in London. What is that and what were your responsibilities there?
Will Inboden: That was a startup think tank, and it was an interesting amalgam of globalization, if you will. It was sponsored by a New Zealand billionaire, a philanthropist from New Zealand who was running an investment firm in Dubai and had made most of his fortune in emerging markets. Along the way, in investing in emerging markets in Latin America and South Asia and Africa and Eastern Europe after the Cold War, he had from a commercial vantage point just developed a basic set of questions about what makes a well-functioning, good society. What are the ingredients of a prosperous and growing economy, and rule of law and good governance, and flourishing social capital, happy and successful citizens? And why do some countries seem to be able to get on that path and others not?
Based on those sets of questions, he thought, “I’d like to start a think tank that might be able to study and answer those questions.” As a philanthropic project, he started the Legatum Institute and headquartered it in London. He asked me to be the founding director of it. I was the first hire and then went out and built a team of other scholars and research assistants. I did that for a few years, and it was a great adventure. It was my first time doing a real startup like that, in a new city for me — I’d visited London before but I had never lived and worked there. And, especially relevant to our earlier discussion about history, I ended up working quite a bit with some very good political scientists and economists at that think tank, and it certainly gave me a deeper firsthand appreciation for the more quantitative social sciences.
The think tank, the Legatum Institute, is still there. One of the signature products that we started, which is still being produced, is called the Prosperity Index. It’s an annual survey of all the countries in the world (or all the ones that we can get data from) on both hard quantifiable metrics, if you will, such as economic growth and some governance indicators — but it also does in-depth surveys of citizens on subjective well-being, on how happy are they, what levels of social trust do they have, things like that. It tries to bring all those factors together into this sense of holistic prosperity, which is not just material wealth but rather a sense of flourishing and well-being. That was a really interesting project to be a part of in its nativity, and I’m glad to see that it’s still continuing.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I couldn’t help but notice that the United States ranks 19th on the most recent Legatum Prosperity Index — ahead of Taiwan but behind Belgium. What accounts for our relatively unimpressive performance?
Will Inboden: I cannot speak to the most recent Index — I mean, I’ve read through the press release — only because I haven’t studied the data in depth. I’m not a part of making it anymore. But I will say that over time, if you look at the last 15 years or so, there’s been a fairly consistent clustering — it’s almost always the Scandinavian countries who are at the top. This is fairly intuitive. We had a running joke for a while: “All right, is it Denmark or Sweden or Finland this year?” Australia was number one for one year, okay. But it’s usually been northern European countries.
And then in the next band, the United States has usually, I think, been somewhere between 10 and 20. I’m doing this from memory, so please don’t fact-check me on that. The United States being 19 this year is not too much of an aberration. It’s not like it would’ve fallen from number 2 to 19. But some of the reasons why the United States would be, say, in that second band, that second tier of 10 to 20 as opposed to the top, is that usually large population countries are almost never at the top. For large-population countries, you will have a broader range of responses. But more particularly, in the last few years the United States has seen declining social capital, declining optimism about the future, stagnation of our economic growth, some very well-advertised and widely known governance failures.
Knowing in general that those factors go into the Index… Education’s also a pretty big one — both education availability and education outcomes. Again, I don’t know the particulars of how it’s being used. The United States does better than North Korea, and there’s usually a pretty consistent cluster of countries at the bottom too. All things considered, the United States is still relatively speaking in a decent spot. But tools like that help show areas for improvement for the United States also.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: We’re talking just a few days after the Wall Street Journal-NORC polls came out, which have a whole bunch of really depressing statistics.
Will Inboden: Oh yeah.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: How far we’ve fallen in terms of the percentage of the population that thinks patriotism is a very important value, who even think that participating to better their community is important. The importance of religion, family, all declining — although the importance of money going up considerably.
Will Inboden: Yeah.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: But in a way it’s worth remembering in looking at that that we’ve been in this place before at several times in our history. In fact, you start The Peacemaker with one of those moments. Because you opened the book with the vignette from June 1982 when Ronald Reagan visited London, becoming the first U.S. president to address both houses of Parliament. You pointed out that at that time, he was just 18 months into his presidency and he was underwater in U.S. opinion polls. He was loathed and feared in much of the world. And the U.S. at that time, according to your text, “appeared to much of the world as a crippled giant in inexorable decline from economic stagnation, military weakness, political dysfunction, and international ineptitude.” Many Americans and more than a few allied leaders worried that the presidency was broken. We have been in unpleasant situations like this before.
Will Inboden: Yeah, we have. This is where… I appreciate the segue to my book, but also I’ll tie this back to our earlier discussion about the insights of history. One reason why I have some hope for our future now, and optimism even amidst our very difficult present moment, is we have been as a country in similar difficult straits before. The 1970s were overall just not a great decade for the United States, by almost any number of metrics — and not just foreign policy failures similar to the difficulties we’re in now. Knowing that history gives me the hope for the possibility of some national renewal, recovery of national unity, our national spirit, increases in those social trust indicators — I took notice of that same Wall Street Journal poll.
But that said, it is not inevitable. Just the fact that we’ve maybe come through hard times before doesn’t mean we will get through this current one. I don’t want to overstate that either. But that is one reason why, as you described very eloquently in your review of my book, it is overall a very favorable assessment of Reagan. One reason why I came out with such a favorable assessment is in studying the history of what he inherited, it became all the more remarkable to me that when he left office, by almost every indicator — and not just White House press releases, but what ordinary Americans would say — the country had experienced a pretty considerable renewal on the foreign policy front, but also on the domestic front. My book only does the foreign policy side. But that occurs against… Some of that wouldn’t have been possible without a domestic renewal too.
Ronald Reagan, the man, does not single-handedly engineer all that. I give much more emphasis to individual leadership and agency in my book. He is the central character there. But I try to also point out — and our mutual friends Frank Gavin and Hal Brands have done some good writing on this — there were some cyclical and structural factors in American history and world history that played to Reagan’s favor too. He came along at the right moment, I think, to inherit some of those (we now know) pretty good trends, even if they weren’t visible at the time.
But all that is to say, yeah, he inherited a very difficult hand: a stagnant economy; a demoralized, divided public; the Iran hostage crisis; the energy crisis; the sense of the presidency itself as an institution that was broken. I was struck by realizing that the previous five presidents before Reagan had failed to complete two full terms. Eisenhower had been the last one to do that. Without commenting on any particular recent president, it’s notable that after Reagan successfully completes two terms, three of his successors successfully complete two terms. Clinton does, Bush does, Obama does. Again, not to get into the pros and cons of either of those presidencies — and I’m not saying because of Reagan, they therefore did this. But Reagan’s successes as president I do think gave a new sense of the art of the possible, the possibilities of that institution functioning reasonably well or at least better than before, and not being horribly, permanently crippled.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: That’s terrific. What was the genesis for your writing The Peacemaker?
Will Inboden: There were a number of different strands that go into this book. I wish I could say there was one single “aha” moment, but I’ll tell you a few of them. The origins of this book are also similar to how we make sense of our lives, where history is lived forward and understood backwards. I can look back now and explain a little more. It’s a few different strands.
The book started as what was going to be a history of the National Security Council as an institution. I was going to write about the NSC from its pre-origins under FDR on up to the present day. I was going to do it as a series of case studies on each president’s National Security Council. To start the research for that, I was trying to read all the best secondary literature on each Cold War president’s foreign policy before going out to that presidential library to research it.
When I approached what was going to be the Reagan chapter, while there have been many, many good books written on Reagan — Reagan biographies, Reagan’s foreign policy — I couldn’t find a single book that was a synthetic comprehensive treatment of his foreign policy, not just the Cold War but Asia, the Middle East, everything else. Then when I went out to the Reagan Library, I realized that just in the previous few years, there had been a deluge of recently declassified Reagan-era documents which previous scholars hadn’t been able to see. For me, it was just a fortunate bit of timing: transcripts of NSC meetings, transcripts of Reagan’s meetings with heads of state, CIA assessments, all of the archival material that is catnip for historians like you and me.
So it was a combination of realizing, “Okay, there seems to be a gap in the literature, and there’s now a new wave of historical material. So I’ve got some stuff to work with.” Then I also realized the Reagan presidency was recent enough that quite a few people who worked for him were still alive, so I could do interviews. I hadn’t really done scholarly interviews before. When I was writing on Truman, there weren’t many people from the Truman administration still alive.
So those are some of the intellectual origins. Then a couple of other things — and this is where I was also being shaped by current events. I had a growing sense that too many of the current generation were seeing the peaceful end of the Cold War as merely inevitable — that of course the Soviet Union was going to collapse, of course the world would be spared nuclear destruction. “How could that be conceivable?” Again, we know that plenty of structural factors played a role. But no, I think a fresh argument needs to be made for contingency in history, for the role of individual leadership, that a president can move the tides of history and nudge them in a perhaps different direction than they might have been. I wanted to make that argument too.
Then finally, there was this… I’d started noodling on the research for the book in, gosh, 2012, 2013, a long time ago. But I was doing some other projects, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be. I want to hedge a little bit on how I say this, but at the same time, this was the one unique moment. A couple of my graduate students were doing really good dissertations on Reagan. Simon Miles was one of them, Jonathan Hunt another. They had wanted to do an academic conference on Reagan’s foreign policy, and they wanted the Clements Center to sponsor it and host it at UT Austin. I said, “Sure. I’d be happy to.” I hadn’t even decided fully to do this book yet. We scheduled a conference, and by pure fluke of timing — we’d scheduled this thing a year ahead of time — it happened to be on January 20th, 2017, which your mind is quickly thinking, “Yes, that was Inauguration Day for Donald J. Trump.” None of us expected that at the time.
I have a vivid memory of sitting there at the conference. We’d taken a break to watch, as a matter of history, the “American carnage” inaugural address. I’d been thinking for a while about maybe turning this project into a book on Reagan. And when I saw the Trump inauguration and saw this very different type of Republican than Reagan and the Reagan tradition, that crystallized it for me. I thought, “Damn it, I’m going to write that book.” Anyway, I don’t want to take it too far. This is not just “Trump’s elected, I write a book.” But it was a final confirming moment when everything else had been moving in that direction too, but I had not fully pulled the trigger.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Well, that is interesting because I thought you were very careful not to refer in the book to the Trump administration or present-day realities — which has both its positives and its negatives, of course.
Will Inboden: Yes, and you picked up on that in your review. That was a deliberate decision. I think I may have shared with you that I had toyed with, in the conclusion, making some of this more explicit in the introduction. But I’ll tell you why I didn’t in the book, and yet I’ll tell you also why I’m willing to talk about that now. I want the book to be able to stand on its own as a pure history, so that 10 or 20 years from now — I hope this doesn’t sound presumptuous — readers will still pick it up and read it as an interesting history of the 1980s, full stop. Neither you or I or anyone else has any idea what American politics or the world will look like 10 or 20 years from now. I did that partly because I’ve seen other historians do this, to their detriments, and I’ve been tempted at it before too. It is hard to write a pure work of history and also connect it to current events or a political polemic. You have to do one or the other. I’ve done both before, but you have to pick your genre.
I worried that if I used this book as too much of a polemic about Trump and Trumpism, even if the rest of the history in the book could stand its own, that would just… It would be mixing genres too much and it would be kind of antiquarian. It might just make it feel dated, so that readers 10 or 20 years from now would say, “What’s he talking about? We just want to understand the Reagan era.” So that was a deliberate decision I made.
But why am I talking about this now? Why have I referenced this in some op-eds done before? Because, separate from the book, I think, drawing on the insights to the book or some of my own personal opinions as a non-Trump Republican, I do think there are some insights. I do think Reagan is a very favorable contrast on both as a leader and then on his key policies with Trumpism. I’m happy to say I’m an opponent of Trumpism. In other venues such as podcasts or articles, I will make some of these connections more explicit. But I doubt listeners 10 or 20 years from now will be listening to — nothing against your podcast or any of the other podcasts I’ve done. But hopefully they’ll still be finding in the book on some dusty university library shelves.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: That’s well put. I actually reviewed your colleague Hal Brands’ Reagan biography whenever that came out, seven, eight years ago…
Will Inboden: Actually you mean Bill Brands, Hal’s dad, right?
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Bill Brands, that was it.
Will Inboden: Hal Brands, our friend at SAIS, has done a very good book on the unipolar moment on Reagan’s foreign policy. His dad wrote the biography.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Right. Bill Brands’ book was written at a time when… There are 50 million official documents in the Reagan Library, and my understanding was that only a relatively tiny fraction of them had been declassified at that time. That has changed since then, is what you’re telling me?
Will Inboden: Yeah. There really has. Bill was a valued friend and colleague and was a great help to me over the course of working on this book. But I think he did most of the work on his book in 2011, 2012, 2013. I think it came out in 2015. I was getting some of the documents in 2013, 2014, but there was a big tranche that came out right after his book. They’re still coming out. There’s still a lot that haven’t come out. For any aspiring Ph.D. students who are listening to this, I filed thousands of MDRs and FOIAs that did not come out for my book yet, but I did it trying to pay it forward, hoping that they will be of use to you. There should be another tranche of new Reagan documents coming online in the next few years.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Some future graduate student is in your debt.
Will Inboden: I hope so!
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Here’s how I began my review of your book in the Post: “Did President Ronald Reagan win the Cold War or did the war end because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned it? William Inboden’s ‘The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink’ is a powerful brief for the former interpretation, known as the Reagan Victory School. Inboden concludes that even while Reagan cooperated with the Kremlin to curtail the arms race and reduce tensions between the superpowers, over the course of the 1980s, he pursued ‘a comprehensive Cold War strategy’ that ‘brought the Soviet Union to the brink of a negotiated surrender.’” I should ask at the outset, do you identify with that term “the Reagan Victory School”? Or is this something imposed on people who adhere to that view by people who might not even agree with it?
Will Inboden: I would not say I quite identify with that term per se, “the Reagan Victory School.” But my interpretation would certainly align with that, I would say. I only say that I’d never used that term for myself until I saw it in your review before. That’s all I’m saying. But yes, as you know from the book, I do argue that not the sole — we need to be very clear here; I do believe in complexity — but the predominant factor in the peaceful end of the Cold War on very favorable terms to the United States was Reagan’s policies. I think it was a victory for the United States, and I think that he was a primary architect of that.
I have to hedge the language a little bit there. I don’t want to be seen as doing monocausal history. But we historians, we have to pick and choose. We have to decide what we’re going to emphasize. We have to identify primary and secondary causes. And I shift certainly the burden of the locus of action there to Reagan and his policies.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Okay. I should add that neither the neoconservatives nor the Impressionists came up with the label for what defined them, but eventually they adopted it.
Will Inboden: Yes.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: So in broadest outline, what were some of the most important elements of Reagan’s Cold War strategy?
Will Inboden: I think it starts with he had a different theory of the case of the entire conflict than most of his predecessors. Our mutual friend and mentor John Gaddis has done the great book on the history, Strategies of Containment, showing the continuities of the containment doctrine through the Cold War. Reagan does inherit that. But where Reagan, I think, deviates some from previous presidencies on containment is… Just about every previous Cold War president had seen the Soviet Union as a rival to be contained and had seen the Cold War as primarily a great power contest that happened to have an ideological component, that happened to be a battle of ideas. Reagan reverses that. He doesn’t jettison it entirely, but he sees the Cold War primarily as a battle of ideas that happens to have a great power component, or be laid on top of a great power competition. And therefore he sees Soviet communism as a vile idea to be defeated rather than just a rival system to be contained.
To understand anything else with his Cold War strategy, you have to start with that different theory of the case, even the nature of the conflict. His famous aphorism is, “My theory of the Cold War is we win, they lose.” Of course, that’s very effective punch in the gut of communications. But I actually think there’s more sophisticated analysis behind that, which is predicated on a belief that the Soviet Union is not a permanent fixture of the geopolitical landscape, but that it is more fragile and vulnerable, and that with a new mixture of policies, or a more assertive set of policies, that those vulnerabilities can be exploited and the system can potentially even be collapsed.
Understand Reagan’s strategy starts with that. But then following from that, he devised a much broader whole array of tools on just about every front — a “whole of government approach” is the term — military pressure, economic pressure, ideological pressure, diplomatic pressure. But at the same time, he paired those from the outset with diplomatic outreach. It was pressure and outreach, it was force and diplomacy, because he did want to keep the Cold War cold, and he wanted to give the Soviets an off-ramp. There are, of course, some internal tensions within that. Sometimes he gets caught up in those tensions, and sometimes he emphasizes one more than the other.
Related to this, I think that the final thing I’ll say, because of course there’s an ongoing, endless debate about who deserves more credit, Reagan or Gorbachev? The answer is both. Both of them would tell you that, too. Reagan would say, “I couldn’t have done this without Gorbachev.” Gorbachev would say, “We couldn’t have done this without Reagan.” Again, I’m not being monocausal here. But I also will pick and choose at times.
I think it’s pretty notable that even as early as 1981, as Reagan is devising and implementing his anti-Soviet Cold War strategy, part of that is strengthening reformist impulses within the Soviet system. He and Dick Pipes have some really interesting exchanges on this. Some of this was in those recently declassified documents, an exchange of memos where Pipes writes Reagan a long memo and Reagan writes his thoughts back. They’re very explicit that part of our goal is not just to pressure and weaken the Soviet system but is to induce it to produce a reformer, to induce it to produce a reformist leader, because Reagan wants a diplomatic negotiating partner.
No, I’m not saying that Reagan dictates to the Politburo, “Thou shalt select Mikhail Gorbachev.” Gorbachev is selected largely because of internal Soviet dynamics and et cetera. There’s a whole another story there. Bill Taubman’s biography on him is excellent. But I think that the environment the Politburo was operating in March of ’85 when they selected Gorbachev — the unfavorable geopolitical system they found themselves in, the urgency they were feeling to turn toward reform — was shaped in part (and significant part) by Reagan’s policies. They choose Gorbachev for their own reasons, but Reagan helps shape the decision-making environment.
That’s also why Reagan embraces Gorbachev more quickly than a lot of his advisors would’ve recommended and why he takes a lot of heat from the hard right, who think he’s going soft. My argument is if you are looking for something, you’re more apt to find it. He’d been looking for a Soviet reformer, and that made him more inclined to spot one when a genuine Soviet reformer like Gorbachev had emerged.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I know you’re familiar with Thomas Mallon’s novel Finale…
Will Inboden: Yeah, it’s such a great book. He’s a friend too.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: He makes the point in there that although Reagan does not at all have Richard Nixon’s dazzling brilliance, and in so many ways is just a much less complicated and more sentimental figure, Reagan can imagine a world without the Soviet Union in a way that Richard Nixon cannot.
Will Inboden: Yes.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: By the same token, Reagan understands the significance of the Strategic Defense Initiative, “Star Wars,” as a way of driving the Soviet Union toward bankruptcy in a way that even his own advisors don’t understand.
Will Inboden: Yes, exactly. This is where one of Reagan’s speechwriters, Tony Dolan… I read an interview with Tony where he brought out a really important insight in this strategic imagination question. He said, “Listen, Reagan’s critics would often deride him as a B-movie actor. Yes, his Hollywood background is a key to understanding him.” But in the interview Dolan said, “Let me give you a different way” — I’m paraphrasing here — “of understanding how Reagan’s thespian background shaped his presidency. Every actor knows that you can rewrite the script of whatever drama you are given, and you can envision and rewrite a different ending.”
In some ways, Reagan inherited a certain Cold War script, this containment doctrine of “We will manage relations with the Soviet Union, and we’ll stop them from expanding any further. But we need to accept that they’re a permanent part of the geopolitical landscape. They’ve been around for 70 years, they’re going to be around for another 70 years. Oh, and by the way, part of this managing relations with the Soviet Union is each side will be one itchy trigger-finger away from annihilating the entire world, or massacring hundreds of millions of innocent civilians in a nuclear exchange in that balance of terror.” Reagan did not like that script. He wanted to imagine and then write a different ending to it. There’s a little bit of artistic license here, but this is where imagining a world beyond the Cold War, imagining the possibility of the demise of the Soviet Union, I think it almost took some of that idiosyncratic actor’s background to be able to do that.
You asked about SDI… Again, an entire dissertation needs to be written on this too. I’m dispensing all sorts of dissertation topic suggestions here. But just very briefly, part of Reagan’s strategic imagination was wanting to imagine a world without nuclear weapons. He was terrified of them. He thought it was an ethical monstrosity as well as just strategic lunacy that this strategic balance in the Cold War depended on these threats to annihilate each other. He said, “Well, what if instead of this arms race to find more and more ways to kill each other, we get into a defensive arms race to look for different ways to outcompete each other to save lives, to defend lives?” That was the core insight he started with.
But he also realized that in the strategic balance of the Cold War, the Soviets had a real edge in ICBMs over the United States. We had edges with boomers and with our bomber force, but that’s where the Soviet advantage was. He also, the Cold War strategist in him thought, “Well, maybe if I can find a way to neutralize that Soviet advantage, that we have a system that can shoot down their missiles, that will also induce them to sue for peace.”
That’s why he, without consulting most of his advisors, surprises the nation almost 40 years ago to the day from when we’re recording — March 23rd or 24th of ’83, maybe I’m off by a day or two. He surprises his country and the world by announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative. Of course, the expert community is dismissive of it. Most scientists say, “This is inconceivable. It will never work.” The arms control community worried it would work, and they didn’t like it either because it would upset the strategic balance.
Reagan was not so deluded to think that it was going to become operational during his presidency. But again, he’s a visionary. He believes in American ingenuity. Remember, he’d been the governor of California in the ’60s and ’70s when Silicon Valley was having its first real boom. Even though he’s not a technical expert himself, he believes in American technology and innovation. He’s looking for different ways to just fundamentally reshape the strategic stalemate of the Cold War.
Of course, the other person in the world who thought SDI might actually work was the other one who mattered, which is Mikhail Gorbachev, who was terrified of it and so desperate to stop it. When Reagan would see Gorbachev’s fears of it, Reagan realized, “Okay. I’ve found a vulnerability here. I’m going to use this to keep pressing on the Soviets for significant reductions in nuclear arms and a way out of this conflict.” And so SDI is profoundly important to Reagan’s strategy and to the end of the Cold War.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Your mention of Tony Dolan points out that there were a lot of fascinating characters floating around the Reagan White House. Those aficionados of conservative folk singers should seek out Tony Dolan’s early work.
Will Inboden: Yes.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And of course, his brother was Terry Dolan, who formed the National Conservative PAC, which was a really an innovative funding organization in politics, and who also died of AIDS.
Will Inboden: Yeah.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: You really do paint these tremendous, fleshed-out portraits of the people around Reagan, and also the ways in which he didn’t manage them well and in which they clashed with each other and formed differing kind of alliances. I can’t help but think that your ability to draw such insightful characterizations of these advisors derives in some measure from your own background in politics and in government.
Will Inboden: I hadn’t made that particular connection before. But I think there’s something to it, because I’d spent, what, 10-12 years in Washington and overseas doing some policy and stuff, so a reasonable amount of policy experience before taking up this book. As you know from being there in DC, politics attracts a disproportionate share of characters — left, right, and center — across the aisle, at staff levels, and then the elected levels. There are just some very colorful personalities.
And then foreign policy, especially Cold War foreign policy when the stakes are really high, also attracts a disproportionate share. These are some very bright, capable, accomplished, driven people with very strong convictions. And knowing that the stakes are really high and they’ve got their own colorful backgrounds, that just makes a very combustible mix. Even if you are the most expert manager in the world, it’s going to be hard to manage those. And then if you’re Reagan, who was not a very good manager and was very averse to conflict, he had even an even harder time with it.
But again, going back to our first comments about how history is about real human beings and our passions and our peccadillos and our feuds and our loyalties — that I think is essential to understanding the policy debates and the policy outcomes in the Reagan White House, or any other White House for that matter. But it’s particularly accentuated with all those different factors in the 1980s.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Something else that I’ve really found very interesting about your book is that you, more than anyone else I can think of, point out Dwight Eisenhower as an important influence on Reagan’s thinking. You point out that he was Reagan’s first foreign policy mentor and was the single most influential of Reagan’s predecessors in shaping his time in office. And elsewhere, you call him “Reagan’s favorite predecessor.” How did you find that and what kind of influence was that that you traced?
Will Inboden: Yes. I need to give credit here to two other authors who first highlighted this for me. One is Tom Reed, who shows up in the book. He was an NSC staff member for Reagan. He had helped manage Reagan’s first gubernatorial campaign, so Tom goes way back with Reagan. He wrote a book called The Reagan Enigma, which talks about … Tom was actually in some of these first meetings between Eisenhower and Reagan, so it’s almost more of a Tom memoir.
The other one is a retired physician turned amateur historian named Gene Kopelson, who wrote a whole book on Reagan’s short-lived 1968 presidential campaign, but it has a lot of good background on the Reagan-Eisenhower relationship. Those two first clued me into it, and then of course I did some more of my own research.
Yeah, it’s fascinating. In an earlier draft of the book — which was much longer and a lot of which didn’t make the final version to keep it to a reasonable length — I had a lot more material on Eisenhower and Reagan. But really what it came down to is after Reagan gave his iconic “Time for Choosing” speech in 1964, supporting the Goldwater campaign, Eisenhower was at that time retired in Palm Springs, California. He watches the speech and he thinks, “Wow, this Reagan guy. I’ve never met him before, but he’s got some real talent. I want to get to know him.” And so Eisenhower reaches out and says, “Hey, I’m now retired living just down the highway from you here in California. Let’s get together.” That starts this really interesting friendship. They meet quite a few times in Palm Springs. Then also in summers, Reagan would sometimes visit Eisenhower at his summer home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Eisenhower urges him to run for governor of California, which he does.
Eisenhower does a series of what you might call tutorials for him on the lessons of World War II, the lessons from the early Cold War, how to align a strong military threat with diplomatic outcomes, how to threaten the use of force so that you don’t actually have to use force. He also talks a lot about the importance of maintaining a strong domestic economy and keeping both guns and butter, which was one of the great accomplishments of the Eisenhower era. And then pragmatism: Eisenhower was about getting things done and was willing to make compromises here and there. Of course, Reagan has his firm convictions, but he was a very adept negotiator and was willing to make those compromises too.
When Reagan is first elected, he puts a portrait of Eisenhower up in the Roosevelt Room. He puts a bust of Eisenhower in the Oval Office. If you go look through Reagan’s public utterances, Eisenhower is the predecessor that he cites most often by far. He’ll quote Roosevelt, he’ll quote Washington, he’ll quote Lincoln. He quotes Eisenhower more. I can’t give you the exact numbers; I added them up at one point. Eisenhower’s influence on him and Reagan’s appreciation and reverence, if you will, for Eisenhower is deep and abiding. Again, another dissertation to be written on that.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Our nearish-contemporary at Yale, William Hitchcock, wrote a magisterial biography of Eisenhower a few years ago. He had a largely favorable assessment of Ike with the exception of the kind of covert CIA-sponsored interventions and coups in the less developed world that Ike gave his approval to.
You also acknowledged that what you call “the carnage and suffering wrought by many authoritarian regimes and insurgencies supported by the Reagan White House in the name of anti-communism” was something that still besmirches the administration’s record. Yet you’re also concerned that Reagan’s critics should not gloss over the very hard choices that he faced. This seems to be a balanced assessment, but one that opens you up to fire from both the left and the right.
Will Inboden: Yeah. I will call them as I see them; obviously critics can respond as they will. But to give a more substantive response to you there… I appreciate you bringing this up. This was one of the things that I did know at the outset of the book was going to be a difficult issue to wrestle with. I also knew that wherever I came out on it, after having done my own assessment of it, you’re not going to please everybody. There’s going to be critics.
Here I will speak on a biographical note. I mentioned having grown up in Tucson, Arizona in the ’70s and ’80s. And as a junior higher and high-schooler — and obviously not terribly sophisticated in my knowledge of world affairs — I was a Reagan hater. You might recall from the photo section I even included a very anti-Reagan nuclear poster that was on my bedroom while in high school.
Tucson, of course, is one hour from the Mexican border. I had become friends with a local Tucson Presbyterian pastor — he was actually our baccalaureate speaker for my high school graduation — who was active with the sanctuary movement of providing sanctuary to Central American refugees from the horrible civil wars besetting Central America in the 1980s, with of course a number of the repressive regimes being supported by the Reagan administration. Growing up, I had a fierce opposition to the Reagan administration and criticism of them for the nuclear policies and for what I thought were these terribly wrong-headed Central America policies.
I put that out there because whatever else readers may make of my book, I do know what it feels like to be a strong Reagan critic on those policies because I was one once in my younger years. I know what that feels like.
Why did I somewhat change my assessment on those? I’ll give you two or three reasons here; again, readers can go into more depth. The first is trying to put it in context. When Reagan takes office in January of ’81, almost all the democracies in the world are either in Western Europe or North America (U.S. and Canada) or Japan. With one or two exceptions, there just are no other electoral democracies in the world.
For most of the rest of the world, the only other two real options for a government you’re living under is a communist dictatorship or a military dictatorship. I’m oversimplifying somewhat here, but those are the two dominant paradigms. For every other American president in the Cold War, you’d kind of had to make a choice when you’re thinking about your relations with the developing world/the Third World/the Global South — pick your shorthand. Are you going to support the communist governments or are you going to support the military dictatorship? Sure, you’d like to see some sort of change there, but that is the hand you’re being dealt. Most previous presidents had largely gone along with supporting the military dictatorships. Carter had started to change that. I have a lot of appreciation for how Carter had started to change that, however imperfectly and however flawed in implementation.
That’s the paradigm that Reagan inherits. Furthermore, Reagan is also very much shaped by the recent history of the difficult year of 1979, when a couple of those military dictatorships backed by the United States — the Shah in Iran, and then the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua — have been toppled by revolutionary movements, Islamist revolutionaries and communist ones, and have become arguably even worse. I have no nostalgia for the Shah or Somoza, let me be clear. But I will say — and look at or Ortega even today — the alternatives were worse.
Reagan starts off by saying, “All right, well, we’re just going to give unconditional support to these military dictatorships because communism is worse.” On that narrow calculation, I do think that the record’s pretty clear that in almost every case communist governments were worse. But one should not allow that to therefore mean we give unconditional support to some of these brutal thug regimes. In Reagan’s first year and a half, I’m pretty critical of him on that. He does give unconditional support, and the blood of many innocent victims is on the United States there.
The other caveat though I will give is I do think that starting in 1982 with a number of complicated factors here — the Falklands War, the El Salvadorian elections, firing Al Haig and hiring George Schultz — Reagan starts to shift to a more consistent support for democracy. This is not always going to be implemented perfectly, but he develops a new vision: “Maybe there is a third way. Maybe we’re not stuck in that paradigm of only communist dictatorship or right-wing military dictatorship. Maybe democracy is possible for non-white peoples.” Because other than Japan, that’s largely what we were looking at.
If you look at the next six years of his administration, especially in the second term, you do see active American support from Reagan and Schultz for easing out these military dictators — Chun in South Korea, Marcos in Philippines, the Chiang dictatorship in Taiwan, Pinochet in Chile, we could go on — and supporting peaceful transitions to democracy. Those mostly come because of local actors, because of courageous Chilean and Korean and Filipino activists. I want to be clear: the United States does not dictate these outcomes. But it’s really the first presidential administration in the Cold War to adopt a pretty clear policy of supporting peaceful democratic transitions. And it largely works. I think it brings more of an alignment of America’s moral and strategic interest, whereas previously they’d been misaligned. That’s also part of the context, which I think is an important part of the story to tell.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Obviously there’s much more that could be said. But I wanted to conclude with two broad questions. The first is what we’ve already alluded to, which is that the Republican Party of the present day has really rejected an awful lot of Reagan’s most dearly held principles. It embraces isolationism and nativism and protectionism. It rejects Reagan’s support for immigration and diversity. It rejects his belief in international cooperation, the importance of alliances and human rights, democracy abroad and also at home in some cases. I’m mindful of Niki Hemmer’s book Partisans, where she concludes that Reagan’s influence in the Republican Party barely outlasted his presidency. I guess the question is, given this turn that the Republican Party has made away from one of its former greatest heroes’ ideals, how should we evaluate Reagan’s legacy?
Will Inboden: I will take partial exception to how you framed that question. You’ll see where I’m going in a minute. I would not treat the Republican Party as a monolith when you’re describing that. I think what you’re describing there was the party of Donald Trump, and everything you said there is true of the party of Donald Trump. And Donald Trump, of course, was the most recent Republican president and still is the dominant Republican figure in the United States. To that extent, I would share your analysis and share your lamentations.
However, I think that the Republican Party as an institution, whatever we would want to describe it as now, is still very contested. I think that there are elements of Reaganism within the Republican Party. Some current Republican officials would still exemplify that, others are calling for a return to it. And there are other elements that are very antithetical to it. I’m not a disinterested observer in this. I’m a partisan. I still identify, I’m still a Republican, and I will continue to be working to support the Reagan tradition within the Republican Party. That’s a matter of public record.
But what is interesting and something of a disconnect is for almost all Republicans today, including ones who are born after Reagan died (let alone after Reagan’s presidency), Reagan is still a totem in some ways. Reagan is still an icon. I say this with great affection for the president I worked for, George W. Bush, but Reagan is the last unambiguously successful two-term Republican president. Not flawless, but like I said, unambiguously successful. Bush has some successes; Bush has Iraq.
And so that record of success as well as just his charisma, his dynamism — almost every Republican out there will speak with a respect and say, “Yeah, Reagan, we need another Reagan.” However, when you drill down on some of the issues, quite a few of them would not embrace Reagan’s stance on the issues. One reason why I hope that my book continues to get some readership among average Republicans, Republican political leaders, is it’s an effort to connect with their affection and esteem for Reagan and then show them what he actually believed in and what he did, and why those were successful. No, I have no delusions that one book will change the party by any means. But I hope in a small way it can be a helpful contributor to the debate.
This is not at all to downplay some of the real concerns I have about segments of the party, the election denialism, the anti-democratic impulses, the protectionism, the isolationism. Like said, I would share your wariness there. But I’m still a Republican myself and still working for the issues that I care about because I still believe that a possibility of a rejuvenation and return to those values and convictions is possible. It’s not at all foreordained. This is a fight going on within the party. I do think that every American — Democrat, independent, Republican, but including every American who’s not a Republican — has a stake in the outcome of this fight. Because every mature, stable democracy needs a mature, healthy center-right party. Political scientists have observed that before. It’s just better for democracy. It’s better for our country if both parties are committed to a certain basic set of small-d democratic values.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I agree with everything you’ve said. You can certainly see some of this factional division in the Republican Party even today with, for example, Mitch McConnell’s support for the U.S. effort to support Ukraine in its subjection to Russia, which it’s resisting, versus Donald Trump calling for the United States to come out of NATO and tend to our own garden, so to speak. Then you have Ron DeSantis in the middle going back and forth.
Will Inboden: Yeah. Then it’s notable that someone like Mike Pence, who… Of course I’m pretty unhappy with his Trump record overall, but he did show courage on January 6th. And listening to him now, I mean, this is a latter-day Reaganite now. He’s also been very principled on Ukraine support too. Who knows how his not yet announced campaign will go. But this is why I’m encouraged that a Nikki Haley, a Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott, some of the other potential candidates, Glenn Youngkin… A lot of these are unannounced, some of them may not even run. But all of them, certainly in foreign policy, are going to be more within the Reaganite camp than the Trump camp. That tells you something about possibilities for the future of the party. What actually will happen remains to be seen.
As a last question… Your time in graduate school closely overlapped with that of Ben Sasse, who also was a student of Jon Butler and Skip Stout.
Will Inboden: Yeah.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: He left the Senate and became president of the University of Florida. That may be going from frying pan to fire, because of course Ron DeSantis has made such a name for himself using the power of government to take on the left in their cultural domains, which absolutely includes higher education.
Will Inboden: Yeah.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I have a certain amount of sympathy for Ben Sasse. I liked a lot of what he said in his first communication to the students, particularly where he asked, “How will we champion pluralism, curiosity, viewpoint diversity, open debate and intellectual rigor for our students and faculty such that our graduates will be prepared to live and work with people of many points of view?” But there’s no doubt that the dynamic generally is between a right that’s going towards populism and philistinism and a propagandistic view of American history, and a left that has largely been captured by Critical Social Justice theories and the like.
How do you find yourself — as a registered Republican, as someone who’s right-of-center, as someone who’s written a book that’s largely favorable toward Ronald Reagan — looking at this prospect of a culture war that might take place even in your own university?
Will Inboden: Boy, there’s a lot there. I know we can’t do an entire episode just on that, so I’ll have to keep this brief. First, I will say Ben is one of my closest friends. We’ve known each other since actually we first met in our undergraduate days, and of course we were at Yale together. I actually have his old faculty line here at UT at the LBJ School. When he left to go back to Nebraska, that’s one reason why I was hired here. We continue to be close friends. I would just say I’m cheering on his success at University of Florida, but I won’t go into any details on that.
The larger issue you raise is a big one. What I’m worried about, and I’m spending a lot of time thinking about it… I think I’ll try to frame it this way just to give our listeners one or two top-line closing provocations. The American higher education system, the American research university system, is at once simultaneously the finest in the world, the envy of the world for all the right reasons, and deeply troubled — deeply, internally troubled.
The way I sometimes frame the challenge is this: The success of American universities has depended on an implicit social contract — this has never been fully written out — between universities and the rest of the American society, which is that American society will give universities tremendous privileges. We get tax exemptions on our endowments. We get the ability to hire faculty with tenure, meaning we have — I’m a tenured professor — we have lifetime employment. Very few sectors, professional sectors, have that anymore. We have the almost unique credentialing authority of providing the credentials that give one entrance into elite society, and higher echelons of power, and so on and so forth. That is what the American people have provided us. They’ve also given us largely academic freedom, freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought to call it as we see it, to take our research wherever it goes, even if it leads to some uncomfortable or critical conclusions about the rest of the country.
In return, however, the American people have a right to expect that universities will take seriously that credentialing function, will take seriously and responsibly training and equipping our students not just for professional careers but for citizenship; that we will have that balance between being critical of where our country goes wrong, but also still have some affirmation of American values. I use that term without irony and with appreciation for it. I could go on on this on the university responsibility.
It chagrins me to say this, but by and large, as institutions, with some exceptions, universities have been abdicating that set of responsibilities and have been wanting to reserve for ourselves all the resources and privileges that we are given by the broader society without in turn having a sense of the obligations on the research and teaching that we do, or the credentialing that we do, or even that our faculty will in some way mirror the broader range of opinion in American society. That is my frustration.
And so without affirming every last legislative measure out there that is going after universities, especially for public universities, I understand a lot of it. I will even agree with some of it. Part of my internal plea here to my colleagues at University of Texas and elsewhere is: We need to get our own house in order. We have not been doing that. We should not be surprised when people outside our house, including taxpayers and regents and so on, start asking hard questions and start taking tougher measures.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Very well said. Well, thank you so much, Will Inboden, for joining me today. Congratulations again on your publication of this great book, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
Will Inboden: Well, thank you so much, Geoff. I really enjoyed being with you.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.