(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A Pulitzer-Prize winner for her book on Vietnam, Fire in the Lake (1972), and author of other books on critical issues, Frances FitzGerald examines one of the most controversial military programs of the last two decades of the twentieth century, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that United States president Ronald Reagan announced in March, 1983. Although it remained a concept rather than an actual program, seventeen years later the antimissile defense proposal was an issue between Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., as part of the 2000 presidential campaign. The Clinton administration was also discussing deployment of a limited system against potential adversaries such as North Korea and Iraq as its time in office wound down in 2000. SDI is both a historical issue of the Reagan years and a modern subject of political debate. FitzGerald’s well-documented and detailed narrative is a penetrating and often very funny look at Ronald Reagan’s presidency from the perspective of his pet military project.

Although the documentary record of the Reagan years had not yet been opened to researchers to anywhere near completeness at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, FitzGerald mined the extensive memoir literature produced by the men and women who worked for Reagan in the White House. She also effectively used the government reports and documents that emerged as the controversies over SDI raged on in the 1980’s. Although the primary sources for the Reagan presidency will no doubt modify some of her particular conclusions, her work stands as an impressive example of contemporary history.

FitzGerald shows how SDI arose from Reagan’s fascination with science fiction and technology as a way of defending the United States against a Soviet missile attack. The doctrine of nuclear deterrence was something that Reagan disliked as an idea and did not understand as a military policy. It is sobering to read that the president was uncertain about the exact nature of the various elements of the nation’s nuclear forces, particularly the role of submarines. FitzGerald traces the ideas of space defense enthusiasts who sold Reagan on the idea that a shield against incoming missiles could be made into a practical reality. Since very few reputable scientists believed that a missile defense could safeguard the American people as a whole, there was a high degree of wishful thinking and hyperbole about how SDI was presented in the mid-1980’s. One aide told Reagan, for example, that the concept would surely be popular with the American people because the crowds at professional football games enthusiastically shouted, “Defense, defense.”

The portrait of Reagan that emerges from FitzGerald’s book is a devastating one. She does not patronize him or take cheap shots at the former president, but tries instead to understand his inscrutable leadership style that so often baffled those closest to him. Aloof and detached, moving through each day like an actor on a sound stage, Reagan treated the presidency as a star turn and dutifully hit the chalk marks that his staff placed on the floor when he spoke. Sometimes he even looked for directorial guidance he had received in Hollywood and did not see himself as the ultimate decision maker for the government he headed.

Her portrait of Reagan is not a negative caricature. She recognizes the president’s genuine concern about a nuclear holocaust and his reservations about the strategy of deterrence. He also grasped, earlier than many of his advisers, that a confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union was not a political winner. FitzGerald might have done more to emphasize the role of First Lady Nancy Reagan in making the second Reagan term a period of arms control and better relations between East and West.

Some of the most hilarious episodes in the book occur, however, when Reagan trots out in summit negotiations the anecdotes from popular magazines that he loved so much. At the Washington summit in 1987, Reagan informed Mikhail Gorbachev about an article in Peoplemagazine regarding “a twelve-hundred-pound man who never left his bedroom.” As an incredulous Vice President George Bush and Treasury Secretary James Baker looked on, a puzzled Gorbachev asked his interpreter: “Is this real fact?” The reader sympathizes with the Soviet leader’s bewilderment. In the end, Reagan remains as indecipherable to FitzGerald and the reader as he was to his contemporaries. Even more than Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Reagan comes across as one of the most self-contained and enigmatic presidents in American history. Perhaps the closest comparison might be with Andrew...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)