In "Reagan: Almost Revolutionary," his post below, my friend and hero Victor Davis Hanson proves intentionally and mischievously provocative. Also successfully. The proof? I'm provoked. To take each of Victor's accusations in turn:
Item: "Reagan signed an abortion bill."
True. As governor of California, Reagan did sign what was then one of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation. He agonized beforehand, concluding that fetuses represented human life and that abortions could therefore only be justified in the interest of the mother's medical well-being. He sought--and received--extensive assurances from the medical community that abortions would take place only rarely, and only when truly medically necessary. Very soon after signing the legislation, Reagan realized he'd been duped, and he regretted it for the rest of his life, becoming, and remaining, staunchly pro-life. See for yourself.
Item: Reagan "provided blanket amnesty in disastrous fashion."
Wrong. Completely. The 1986 immigration bill that Reagan signed did indeed grant amnesty to the three million or so aliens then in the country illegally, but--a point often overlooked--the legislation also contained stringent new measures to shut down illegal immigration from that point on. What went wrong? In subsequent years the federal government utterly failed to enforce these new measures. But by the time this breakdown became clear, Reagan had left office. An amnesty for a modest number of immigrants in return for secure borders from then on. There was nothing "disastrous" about that, and if the feds failed to enforce the law, the blame falls on subsequent chief executives, not the Gipper.
Item: Reagan "started withholding taxes in California."
True--although he resisted doing so for a good long time before, under intense pressure from the whole apparatus of the state government, he finally gave him. Care to guess who made the same mistake? Milton Friedman, who, in the Treasury Department during the Roosevelt years, advocated tax withholding. Nobody's perfect.
Item: Reagan "raised them [taxes] while in Washington."
Oh, please. Yes, Reagan raised taxes, but the critical question, surely, is what he did on net. The answer: he cut taxes a lot more than he raised them. After enacting the biggest income tax cuts in history in 1981, Reagan came under intense pressure again, agreeing in 1982 to take back part--but only part--of his tax cuts if Congress would reduce spending. (Does it go without saying that Congress welshed on the deal?) And then, with his 1986 tax reform, Reagan reduced tax rates once again.
Item: After the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Reagan was guilty of "fleeing Lebanon."
True--with important qualifications. As Donald Rumsfeld demonstrates in his new memoir, Known and Unknown--Rumsfeld served as Reagan's Mideast envoy--whereas Reagan's own instincts were to remain in Lebanon, everyone else wanted out. Everyone? Yup. Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher included. You could argue that Reagan should have overridden the counsel even of these tough-minded, courageous advisors. What you can't argue is that Reagan simply cut and ran in some sort of spasm of cowardice.
Which leads to an important question of historical judgment. Rumsfeld gets to it in the title of his book, which of course comes from his remarks during the war in Iraq that there are "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." During the nineteen-eighties, the Reagan administration was focussed on defeating the Soviet Union--and, of course, did so. Terrorism tended to be seen in the government as disconnected acts by separate groups with disparate grievances. The notion that terrorists of all kinds might make common cause under the banner of a radical form of Islam or that they might represent a systematic threat to the United States--this was something new, something that a few figures here and there (George Shultz, for one) seem to have glimpsed, but to which the government as a whole, including Reagan himself, was not awake. It represented, in some basic way, an "unknown unknown."
Should the government have been awake to the terrorist threat? Should Reagan have been? It would have been good, obviously, if they had been. But, again, should they have been? That strikes me as a hard question.
Consider Churchill and FDR. During the Second World War, they devoted all their energies to defeating Hitler. Churchill opposed Bolshevism as a young man, between the wars. And yet during the war, there he is, working hard to ingratiate himself with Stalin. In Moscow in 1944, Churchill connived with Stalin in dividing up Eastern Europe--we have the notes in Churchill's own hand.
Then, at Yalta in 1945, Churchill and FDR cooperated with Stalin in ceding Poland, Czechoslovakia and much else to Stalin entirely. Yes, the Red Army was already in possession of much of Eastern Europe. But you can't read the notes of the Yalta Conference without shaking your head in dismay. Why didn't FDR and Churchill push harder? Why didn't they refuse to permit themselves to become implicated in the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe?
The answer, of course, is that they were still busy fighting Hitler in Europe and Japan in the Pacific--Yalta took place six months before the first test of an atomic bomb. The Soviet overlordship of half of Europe--the whole Communist enterprise that would do so much to blight the second half of the twentieth century--FDR and Churchill simply were not awake to it. Churchill knew better, you could argue--just over a year later he would deliver his "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. But at Yalta? Even Churchill failed to demonstrate the kind of burning moral indignation you might have expected.
Of course it would have been better if Reagan had grasped the terrorist threat, just as it would have been better if Churchill and FDR had at least laid down moral and diplomatic markers at Yalta, refusing to cooperate quite so completely with the Soviets. But should Reagan? Should Churchill and FDR? As I say, this strikes me as a hard question. History is the story of fallible beings. We ourselves prove naive if, in retrospect, we expect too much of them.
My. I can hardly wait for Victor's reply.