"Those who are possessed of...deeply rooted convictions...will be in a much better position to deal with the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely taking short views, and indulging their natural impulses as they are evoked by what they read from day to day."
"True wisdom is to cultivate a sense of proportion which may help one pick out the three or four things that govern all the rest and as it were write one's own headlines and not change them very often."
"Expert knowledge is limited knowledge." It "is no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook upon the human story with all its sadness and with all its unquenchable hope."
These are the words of an outspoken man of very strong convictions and a lifetime of experience, a visionary whose warnings about terrible dangers ahead brought down on him torrents of controversy, abuse and even derisionuntil he was proved right by a momentous crisis. Today he is revered as a great statesman of liberty. Taking the long view, we can see that the historical fate of Winston Churchill now beckons that of Ronald Reagan.
The lives of Reagan and Churchill offer a profound lesson in the meaning of political wisdom. Among the things governing the outlook of both men were their understanding that the enduring traits of human nature always trump rationalistic, man-made constructions as an arbiter of human affairs (this may be viewed as the starting point of any conservative philosophy); their faith in the human spirit and its striving for liberty; their impassioned patriotism and confidence in the righteousness of their cause; and their appreciation that superior power in the hands of free peopleand the courageous willingness if necessary to use itis the only true guarantor of peace.
Their broad view led both Reagan and Churchill to demonstrate astonishing prescience in foretelling the collapse of communism, seeing with a clear gaze over the horizon what most intellectuals completely missed. Reagan's "ash heap of history," "evil empire" and "tear down this wall" speeches are well known. But here is Churchill in January 1920, only two years after the Bolshevik "Revolution": Communism, he said, will fail because it is "fundamentally opposed to the needs and dictates of the human heart, and of human nature itself." He denounced Bolshevism as a "rule of men [of] insane vanity and conceit." Their "attempt to carry into practice those wild theories," he declared, will produce only "corruption, disorder, and civil war."
In 1931, in the depths of the Depression, when it was capitalism that seemed to be failing, Churchill wrote that communism would fail because it was at war with "intractable" human nature and would be unable to control "the explosive variations of its phenomena." "We have not much to learn from them, except what to avoid." On New Year's Day 1953, he told his private secretary, John Colville, that if Colville lived his normal life span, he would live to see Eastern Europe free of communism. Colville was born in 1915 and died in 1987, two years before the destruction of the Berlin Wall. And in 1957, when Soviet Russia's economic progress arguably looked bright indeed, Churchill wrote that its
...people experience every day...those complications and palliatives of human life that will render the schemes of Karl Marx more out of date and smaller in relation to world problems than they have ever been before. The natural forces are working with greater freedom and greater opportunity to fertilise and vary the thoughts and the power of individual men and women. They are far bigger and more pliant in the vast structure of a mighty empire than could ever have been conceived by Marx in his hovel."
In comparably dismissive, if even blunter terms, Reagan, in May 1975, at the height of détente, described communism as a "form of insanitya temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature." In his weekly radio addresses in the later 1970s Reagan often noted the economic failure of the "incompetent and ridiculous" Soviet system which, he predicted, would lead to its ultimate collapse. In May 1978 he ridiculed the "idiocy of Karl Marx."
Both men also used the metaphor of disease to describe communism. In The World Crisis, Churchill wrote of Imperial Germany's smuggling Lenin back into Russia in April 1917 as the unleashing of a "plague bacillus." He also described Bolshevism a "loathsome moral disease." Again, likewise, Reagan in May 1975 spoke of communism as one of the "evil diseases and plagues" mankind had survived in the past. He looked forward to the "day when this health threat will be eliminated as we eliminated the black plague."
Words like theseand the passion behind their utterancegreatly contributed to the chattering classes' view of Churchill and Reagan as belligerent, reckless warmongers. But who was proved exactly right and who utterly wrong?
Reagan also fully shared Churchill's appreciation of the brutal requirements of superior power as the only realistic means to the achievement of a noble end. Not for either of these men the liberal view of international politics as a business competition that can be managed by negotiations and "good will." Like Churchill, Reagan saw an unremitting struggle which ultimately would be won by the stronger side. To them, Woodrow Wilson's classic liberal formula"Peace Without Victory"was a total illusion, indeed, an oxymoron. (This is why it is wrong to speak, as is usually done by conservatives and liberals alike, of the Cold War "ending." It ended because our side won.)
Churchill's most famous call for superiority was made in his now renowned "Iron Curtain" speech of March 1946, when he called for an Anglo-American alliance against Russia to give an "overwhelming assurance of security." For this reason, as well as for his account of the menace posed by Stalin, the address was at the time vociferously condemned by some in Congress as "reactionary," in the press as "poisonous" and among the chattering classes as a "catastrophe" (Nobel laureate Pearl Buck). George Bernard Shaw decried the speech as "nothing short of a declaration of war on Russia" and, in private, the country's leading newspaper columnist, Walter Lippmann, described it as an "almost catastrophic blunder." The hostile reaction to this speech, mainly by those who can never, ever, face the truth that the world is a brutal place deaf to sweet reason, was precisely paralleled by the vilification of Reagan for his "ash heap of history" and "evil empire" speeches. (The "tear down this wall" speech was merely dismissed with patronizing chuckles by the American journalists on the official press bus in Berlin, according to what an eyewitness told me in June as we waited for the Reagan funeral cortege to pass on Constitution Avenue.)
In the "Iron Curtain" speech, Churchill felt compelled to use somewhat allusive language for his American audience, but what he really meant can be found in a May 1944 speech to the House of Commons. There he said the planned new world body, which would be led by the U.S. and Britain, should, "within the limits assigned to it," have "overwhelming military power." He later succinctly stated his principle of superiority in a March 1949 speech: "You have not only to convince the Soviet Government that...they are confronted by superior force but that you are not restrained by any moral consideration if the case arose from using that force with complete material ruthlessness."
Ronald Reagan's thinking was identical. In his many speeches throughout the '70s in which he repeatedly critized the SALT I and SALT II strategic nuclear arms agreements, Reagan urged his listeners to have a comparably tough-minded, even ruthless, appreciation of the realities of power. In July 1978 he said, "We can have the strategic superiority we had in 1962 if we have the will." Reagan of course was alluding to our victory in the Cuban missile crisis, in which, he noted, using the same word employed by Churchill, we had "overwhelming nuclear superiority."
Reagan and Churchill wanted overwhelming power for this reason: "We want to avoid a war and that is better achieved by being so strong that a potential enemy is not tempted to go adventuring," as Reagan stated in March 1978. Here is how Churchill put the same point in 1934: "If you want to stop war, you gather such an aggregation of force on one side that the aggressor...will not dare to challenge." And in October 1947, Churchill told the Al Smith dinner in New York: "Great wars come when both sides believe they are more or less equal; when each thinks it has a good chance of victory." He assured his listeners that it would be all right if Russia left the U.N. so long as the West retained atomic superiority. (The U.S. held a monopoly at the time.)
Superiority also was the prerequisite of successful negotiations. As Churchill noted in his March 1949 speech, superiority gives "the greatest chance of peace.... Then the Communists will make a bargain...." In seeing a golden opportunity to win the Cold War through Soviet economic decay and America's rebuilt military, economic and moral might, Reagan was able to apply Churchill's principles in a way Churchill never could have dreamed of. Reagan did so against the usual fierce, often vicious, domestic opposition from the left.
From 1985, Reagan had an opponent, Gorbachev, who understood the Soviet empire's dire internal straits, which were greatly magnified by the military and moral challenge posed by Reagan, including the Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev understood he had to make momentous choices to save his regime. The subsequent negotiations resulted not in managing the old Cold War struggle but, as Reagan wished, ending the Cold War as a U.S. triumph. Gorbachev abandoned Soviet expansionism and aggression (including withdrawal from Afghanistan), loosened the chains shackling Eastern Europe and acquiesced when its people cast them off in the year after Reagan left office. He further agreed to Reagan's agenda of unprecedented nuclear arms reductions, and even abolition of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, all of which Reagan's critics had ridiculed as hopelessly unrealistic. And when Gorbachev instituted domestic reforms to try to save his system, whose seventy year war against human nature had eaten away its vitals like a deadly cancer, it succumbed to the disease and died an astonishingly sudden and quiet death.
On the subject of arms control, it must be remembered that Reagan's predecessors had made this question the supreme focus of U.S.-Soviet relations, largely isolated from political differences, as if the endless negotiations were some sort of technical exercise. Reagan succeeded with unprecedented arms reductions with the START I treaty and abolition of intermediate-range nuclear missiles with the INF treaty, in stark contrast with the dangerous failures of the bipartisan advocates of the 1970's SALT "process." His achievements rested on his understanding of the crucial importance of superior power, including moral superiority, in world politics and strategy, and his willingness to use it. By contrast, readers should recall the panic that consumed Reagan's critics when he refused to resume strategic arms negotiations for a year and a half after taking office, in order first to put in place his program to restore U.S. superiority.
A leading critic of the 1970s SALT negotiations, Reagan's understanding once again paralleled Churchill's. Both men viewed arms control negotiations as the ultimate expression of the liberal desire to rationalize the brutal competition between rival states. "Disarmament has nothing to do with peace," Churchill said. "When you have peace you will have disarmament." In 1931 Churchill denounced the Geneva Disarmament Conference, saying arms would be reduced not by "artificial agreements" but by "the pressure of expense in hard times, the growing confidence which comes from a long peace, and the removal of specific [i.e. political] causes of danger...." Almost half a century later, in September 1979, at the high water mark of the SALT process, Reagan began his radio commentary: "Do arms limitation agreementseven good onesreally bring or preserve peace? History would seem to say 'no.'" Reagan then went on to recount the sad failure of the Washington and London naval treaties of 1922 and 1930, respectively. In so doing, he was treading over the identical ground where Churchill had mined his comparable arguments half a century (and a world war) earlier. As Churchill had advised in 1931, Reagan in office was able to put the political differences first and allow any arms agreements to be a product, and evidence of, changed intentions by our Soviet adversary.
Not only did they possess a political wisdom that still confounds the "experts," both Reagan and Churchill had the faith, courage and moral clarity to proclaim fearlessly their impassioned principles. For this, they endured intense obloquy. (Reagan's rhetoric was dismissed by those profound students of strategy, journalists Lou Cannon and Haynes Johnson, as "gaudy certainties" and "old myths," respectively.) Many still refuse to take Reagan seriously and deny or minimize his role in the earthshaking events of 1989-91.
But this too will pass away in the clouds of history. As can be seen from the pre-presidential Reagan speeches quoted above, he had devised his strategy before ever entering the White House. Reagan's recently published extensive writings on foreign and national security affairs mirror the wisdom and understanding found in the eight published volumes of Churchill's speeches. As a result, we now know Reagan was the most thoughtful, knowledgeable figure in this field to occupy the White House (along with Theodore Roosevelt). So much for the false image the journalists and his political opponents took such glee in promoting. And in the end, what are the now largely forgotten daily nipping of the critics, and the trivial obsessions of the journalists, typically taking short views and indulging their natural impulses, before Ronald Reagan's tomb?