It is a powerful endorsement when a politically liberal and proudly lesbian friend recommends a visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. We knew right away that we’d find more there than mere political legacy polishing. And while there is no shortage of that at the Reagan Library, its collection also contains enough impressive artifacts of universal appeal to make it a compelling stop for political agnostics and Reagan critics too. It goes without saying that ardent fans of the late president will find lots to like in the Library, but history buffs may find some gems hidden within its halls as well.
Set on a hilltop above California’s Simi Valley, the Library’s sweeping views alone warrant a trip up Presidential Drive. Inside, the 243,000 square foot complex is a modern historical museum that leads visitors through Reagan’s life with a blend of placards, personal items and interactive exhibits. Some are trivial (green screen technology allows you to act out a scene from Knute Rockne alongside Ronald Reagan). Several are experientially awesome (entering a life-sized Oval Office replica and walking through Reagan’s actual Airforce One). Some are weighty (a short film chronicles the several-decade rise of communism near a barbed-wire clad replica of the Berlin Wall). While others are deeply fascinating.
On March 30, 1981, just two short months into his first presidential term, John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan in the chest and nearly killed him. While much has been written about the assassination attempt and Reagan’s indomitable jolly spirit afterwards (“I forgot to duck,” he said to his wife Nancy in the emergency room; “I hope you’re all Republicans” to his surgeons), how this near-death experience changed him and potentially the trajectory of world affairs is a revelation.
Reagan, who came to power as a long-time detractor of nuclear arms control and detente with the Soviet Union, was having a change of heart. He later wrote in his memoir An American Life: “Perhaps having come so close to death made me feel I should do whatever I could in the years God had given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war . . . Finally, I decided to write a personal letter to [then Soviet leader] Brezhnev.”
The second draft of that four-page, hand-written, letter sits in the Reagan Library alongside a blue pinstripe suit and the 22 caliber pistol that punched a visible hole through it. In his scrawling script, President Reagan makes a heartfelt appeal for each man to put aside “government objectives which have little to do with the real needs and desires of our people” in order to “fulfill our obligations to find a lasting peace.” By some accounts, Reagan’s original draft went even further in striking a conciliatory tone; one that was at odds with the President’s previous confrontational rhetoric.
Of the letter, one former administration official said, “I think history will mark this as the start of all that has happened in the [U.S.-Soviet] relationship since.” The eventual thaw in relations was not immediate, though. Reagan continued to be an outspoken Soviet critic and pressed forward with an American military expansion and modernization that some feared was so provocative it risked open war.
It took another six years and four different Soviet leaders for the United States and the U.S.S.R. to sign a nuclear arms control treaty. But after finally reaching agreement with his adversaries in Moscow, Reagan found himself fighting old allies in Washington. A 1988 New York Times Magazine article recounts the struggle:
The anti-Communist right (is) now mobilizing forces in the Senate and around the country for a battle against the new treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) – a treaty signed and promoted by their old champion, Ronald Reagan.”
Upending the political adage that “only Nixon can go to China,” Reagan’s history of aggressively confronting communism failed to protect him from charges of appeasement. The Conservative Caucus lobby even ran full-page advertisements making that case in the most inflammatory way imaginable.
Under the headline, ”Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938,” photos of Reagan and Gorbachev were paired with photos of Neville Chamberlain and Hitler, followed by the appeal: ”Help Us Defeat the Reagan-Gorbachev INF Treaty.”
While his erstwhile allies tried to portray the old cold warrior as a peacenik, Reagan complained of warmongering among his conservative detractors; echoing earlier charges so often levied against him. The whole episode took on a “through the looking glass” quality that no one could have predicted at the beginning of Reagan’s presidency.
Reagan eventually prevailed, overcoming his critics and several of his advisors too, in implementing some of the most sweeping arms control proposals in history after one of the world’s largest military expansions. The conventional wisdom today is that the entire intention of the latter was to achieve the former. Peace through strength, as they say, worked. Perhaps. But that version of history ignores the ferocity with which the military hawks of the time, of which Reagan was originally one, resisted de-escalation opportunities once they arose. For many, switching gears from belligerence to conciliation was so hard to do it calls into question whether doing so was ever really part of the plan. Reagan, meanwhile, somehow managed to make that transition when so many of his ideological compatriots could not.
Always in the background of history are the counterfactuals; the things that might have happened but didn’t. Staring at Reagan’s bullet-ridden suit and the letter it spawned left me wondering how the world would have evolved from those dangerous times had Hinckley never pulled the trigger.