Tom Wicker Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Presidency, the Press, and
the Cold War: Conversation with Tom Wicker; 11/3/83 by Harry Kreisler

Page 4 of 6

Reagan, Political Coalitions, and Ideology

How much discontinuity is there in Reagan's policies from these previous administrations? You suggested earlier that we were still in the toddler stage. So is Reagan just a re-run of the same show? Some out there have the expectation that it's time for a new show because the world has changed and what we can do in the world has changed.

Well, it's hard to say exactly what Reagan represents in that sense. I hope, I would like to think, that Reagan represents a kind of last gasp of the old Cold War rhetoric, Cold War ethic, and the idea you can solve complex problems with force and the conviction that the United States, in some messianic way, has a role to play in the world where we can invade Granada and that's morally superior to their (the Soviets) invading Afghanistan. I hope, at least, that we are in the last gasps of that kind of attitude toward to world; that Reagan represented, after a bleak period in American life, a reassertion of that. After all, you have to stop and think. Just taking President Kennedy's death in 1963 as a date, as benchmark: since then, we've had Vietnam, which showed that our power was not universal, that we couldn't do anything we wanted to. We've had Watergate, which showed that the integrity of the government could be besmirched. We've had the loss of the Panama Canal, probably the greatest symbol of American power in the world, one of the best symbols. We've had failure to rescue the hostages in Iran, which was humiliating in a real sense. As you pointed out in your opening question, we're not even necessarily the premier industrial power in the world anymore, or at least we have many challenges to that.

So I think Americans have taken a lot of hard knocks to their self-esteem, their pride in the last twenty years. And along came Ronald Reagan, after the particularly humiliating episode of the Iranian hostages, and the general feeling that President Carter was soft and not tough enough. Along comes Ronald Reagan and says, "I'm going to regain military superiority. They're not going to push us around anymore when I'm President. We're going to do this, we're going to do that." And I think people were enthusiastic about that. And as a matter of fact, in that sense, President Reagan has tried to do just what he said he was going to do. Now I believe that people are becoming disillusioned with that. They're seeing not only that it won't work, but that it's pretty dangerous even to try. And so maybe after having had this adventure in Reaganism, we'll come along to a more rational approach to the world. I don't make that as a prediction, I just rather hope that.

Isn't the problem, though, that different important groups learn different lessons from the events that you listed just now, and that what we have is a very intense struggle over imposing the meaning of those events on our consciousness? One thinks here of Norman Podhoretz, for example, in Commentary, and those journals and publications that articulate very strongly a very different view of the lessons to be learned from Vietnam -- that we didn't do enough -- and from the Iranian hostage crisis, and on and on?

They do articulate a very different view. While I don't agree on most things with Podhoretz and Commentary, I think at least they are thinking about those matters and coming to conclusions, whether or not they can sustain them with me or with someone else. What's deplorable in the world of communications and the press is how frequently we've seen major institutions of communication, the weekly news magazines, big newspapers, and so on, sort of flip-flop with the times. Reagan is elected, and gosh, the tide is running with President Reagan: we'd better get on that tide. Don't stop to think about it, or what it actually means, or whether it's sensible or what, but the tide is running with Reagan, let's go. You could see that very clearly in the news magazines in 1980 and 1981. They'd like you to forget that now. All the people who were, for example, big on supply-side economics when that looked like the tide in 1981 are now looking at the deficit and they don't want you to remember that. So there tends to be too much going with the crowd, I think, in communications, and whatever else may be said about Commentary, the Commentary writers, one might say the Commentary group, think for themselves and I honor them for that, whether or not I agree with them.

But I think they have an extreme difficulty to work through, and I don't think anybody can work through it intellectually. And that is, if you actually follow out the Commentary ethic, and I'm speaking very broadly now of course, if you follow that out to its logical conclusion, you come always and without fail to confrontation with the Soviet Union, and ultimately, confrontation between two superpowers which depose of something like 50,000 nuclear weapons between them. That is something to be avoided rather than to be cultivated, and I think that the Commentary approach to world affairs, while it has much to recommend it, and it's not just an empty reaction, ultimately they can't get around that fact and what they come down to is a policy that will bring us at point after point after point, time after time after time, into confrontation with the Soviet Union.

So it would be a string of failures in the effort to implement an alternative view that might veer us back to new directions in our relations with the Soviet Union, or problems in the Third World, or problems in the Middle East?

So it seems to me. So it seems to me. And I think this is, no doubt, the central question of our time -- not that I can necessarily define that question, but I've seen we keep coming back to it: Do we attempt to manage a world in which we can live peacefully, in which most peoples can live peacefully and prosperously? Can that only be done by confrontation with the Soviet Union? Or is there some other way, in which, however gingerly and at whatever arm's length we do it, we can somehow cooperate with the Soviet Union at least to the extent of avoiding all these confrontations, these dangers, and to the extent of doing what I believe both superpowers would find in their interest, which is to lower the level of the nuclear capacity they have to destroy each other?

Next page: Carter, Reagan, and the Search for New Coalitions

© Copyright 1998, Regents of the University of California