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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » ON THE BRINK: The Dramatic Behind the Scenes Saga of the Reagan Era and the Men and Women Who Won the Cold War » User review

Winning the unwinnable

  • Jun 25, 2011
As journalism becomes history, the events of the 1980's when Soviet Russia collapsed and the symbolic Iron Curtain (the very real Berlin Wall) was torn open, are both easily forgotten and more easily viewed from the perspective of distance.  And from this distance, Ronald Reagan accomplished two amazing feats--he won the Cold War, and he made it possible to even think of winning such an unwinnable struggle.  While the ridicule, disdain, distaste, and outright hatred of contemporary journalism attempted to tear down the accomplishments of Reagan's presidency, Jay Winik's history can now objectively document its greatest feats.

Winik, now better known for his insightful look at the last fateful month of the Civil War (April 1865), conducted hundreds of interviews and mined contemporary government sources to tell the story of just how the US won the Cold War.  It was a war won on parallel fronts:
  • A willingness to arm.  In the early 1980's, Russia had over 1,000 multi-warhead rockets aimed at western Europe, while the NATO nations had none on the ground aimed back.  While liberal governments and popular peace movements demanded that the US keep out of Europe, Ronald Reagan insisted that the US could and would provide intermediate nuclear weapons to the UK, Germany and other NATO allies to answer the Soviet threat.  Winik tells the story of the brinkmanship of placing US missiles in Europe.
  • A "zero option" approach to intermediate nuclear weapons control.  At the same time as the US military moved forward with deployment plans, at the negotiating table the negotiators offered a stunning "zero option"--the US would deploy zero intermediate nuclear weapons, but only if the Soviets would disarm all lof their weapons as well.  It was a brilliant stroke of negotiating tactics, forcing the Soviets to show their hand:  did they really want to eliminate nuclear weapons and make the world a safer place--or did they want to encode their intermediate nuclear superiority into arms control treaties that they knew the US would respect?  Despite the vehement outcry by the media, liberals in both American political parties, and the Soviets, that the zero option was a unenforceable and a transparent ploy by the Reagan negotiators to derail arms reduction talks, the Reagan team (supported by the President at every turn) stuck to its guns and insisted on the zero option, even when the Russians left the table and talks stalled for years at a time.
  • An insistence on verifiable arms control treaties.  Again, this front was decried as an intransigent and partisan effort to derail negotiations, but was in fact a sign that the US did and would continue to take its treaty obligations seriously, a seriousness that was in fact not observed in previous US government leadership. 
  • A willingness to do battle for democracy against Communism in the proxy states that Russia was funding and attempting to establish and spread around the globe.  In a massive military occupation of Afghanistan, and in support for Communist regimes in Central America, Soviet Russia attempted to extend its reach, while the United States assisted counterrevolutionaries to fight back.  In fact, as Winik does a great job of documenting in a way I don't remember contemporary news accounts providing, how the Iran-Contra scandal was actually a logical and necessary (regardless of its political, moral, ethical, and legal failings) front in the war to contain Soviet aggression and finally end the expansion of the "evil empire."

Winik weaves together the tale of how these four fronts together won the Cold War, with leadership from the top down through the strong leadership teams that President Reagan appointed and trusted to fulfill his mission.  Winik focuses on a few key participants as the heroes in this battle:  Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the UN, Richard Perle providing policy leadership for the arms control negotiations, Elliot Abrahms leading Central American policy (and taking much of the heat for Iran-Contra), Max Kampelman leading the arms control negotiators, and Senators Scoop Jackson and Les Aspin providing bipartisan leadership from the Democratic Party in Congress.  In fact, one of Winik's important historical findings is documenting the number of conservative Democrats who were willing to buck their party to assist the Reagan administration in achieving its goal--and the willingness of the Republican administration to accept and use the principled leaders of the opposition party.

Winik has both the advantage and the disadvantage of writing his history before the events of September 11 and the subsequent new permanent war on terror which seems to have replace the Cold War with perhaps even more persistent fear and required vigilance.  The advantage:  he is able to tell the story of winning one war (the Cold) without the complications of explaining how the same tactics and leadership styles may not work in fighting the second.  The disadvantage:  He finished his work without being able to help us understand the tactics and styles (and specific leaders) that might be able to help us in this new war.   Perhaps a new edition could answer these questions, should Winik wish to revisit this ground.

So the Cold War could be won.  Ronald Reagan proved it by winning it, but more important than the tactics, the people, and the events that accomplished the victory, was the leadership of Ronald Reagan to even see the possibility of fighting such a grand battle to defend, strengthen, and extend democracy and peace at home and around the world.  That philosophy continues to guide the administrations of George W. Bush and even President Obama as we work to defend and extend democracy in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, China, and around the world.   

I'll pull back from giving Winik +5 stars on this mainly because as a young writer his style can be a bit stilted at times, and I suspect he relied a bit more than he should have on his main characters, in an attempt to give the account a readable framework.  Also, while the bibliography is extensive and detailed, there are no foot or end notes to document specific sources for quotes and facts that readers may want to verify or followup on.

Still, this is a very readable and believable account, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand how the Cold War was fought--and won!

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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


The thesis that President Ronald Reagan's administration, through its embrace of military confrontation and brinksmanship, hastened the breakup of the Soviet Union and decisively won the Cold War for the U.S. receives a fresh twist in Winik's intensely dramatic, personal narrative history. He credits four members of the Reagan team, all renegade Democrats, with translating the President's hard-line policy into effective diplomacy. The four are Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, arms control negotiator, supporter of Star Wars and of the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe; Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; human rights advocate Max Kampelman; and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Drawing on more than 200 interviews with key participants, private papers, classified documents and memos of conversations, Winik, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs, also provides close-ups of Carter, Mondale, Kissinger, Caspar Weinberger, George Schultz, Paul Nitze and others. His engrossing book is certain to fuel debate.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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ISBN-10: 0684809826
ISBN-13: 978-0684809823
Author: Jay Winik
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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