Logo: University of Southern California

The Real Ronald Reagan

A discussion with alumnus and former Ronald Reagan campaign manager Thomas C. Reed.

March 16, 2015 —

Thomas C. Reed has had a bird’s-eye view of American defense and foreign policy for more than a half century. The former Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Reed holds a master’s in electrical engineering from USC Viterbi, and began his career working on thermonuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He later served as the Northern California campaign manager for Ronald Reagan’s successful 1966 gubernatorial campaign and co-chair of his 1970 reelection campaign. He was also campaign director for Reagan’s ill-fated 1968 presidential run. In 1982 Reed joined Reagan in Washington, D.C., serving as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Policy. The author of three books, Reed is currently working on a tome about Reagan’s 1968 presidential campaign. He spoke recently to Managing Editor Marc Ballon in a wide-ranging discussion.

Former Ronald Reagan campaign manager Thomas C. Reed with the late president

What was Reagan’s strategy for ending the Cold War?

Reagan peered over his glasses to me one morning at the Pentagon. And he says, “Tom, we’ve got a problem.” And the tone was like, “We’ve got a problem. The air conditioner won’t work.” I said, “What’s the problem?” “Tom, the Soviet Union is the problem.” He commissioned [NSC Advisor William] Clark and me to put together a plan on how we would win the Cold War. He entrusted me to pull together the guys from State and Defense on how we were going to end the Cold War. We did that, and there was a presidential memorandum that was signed in May 1982—National Security Decision Directive 32.

We defined victory not as burning down Berlin or tanks in Red Square but as “forcing the Soviet government to seek the consent of the governed.” That’s Thomas Jefferson. Once they started having elections, we thought things would change. And sure enough they did. The plan was we’re going to push on five fronts. Economic—yeah, we’ll sell you wheat, but pay for it in cash. Well, that was really a blow. The Poles were borrowing money to fill their shelves with food to keep the people off the street. In international affairs, we decided to turn Afghanistan into Russia’s Vietnam. We decided to push on technology and uncork everything from B-1 bombers to Star Wars, where the Soviets couldn’t compete. The Voice of America—we’re going to talk to the people behind the Iron Curtain. That’s what the “Evil Empire” speech was all about. That really inspired the younger generation in ’83 and ’84 behind the Iron Curtain.

We pushed on all those fronts, so that if the Russians want something, yes, that’s wonderful, but we asked when’s your next election. Pretty soon [Boris] Yeltsin is mayor of Moscow. Pretty soon Yeltsin is president of Russia. Pretty soon there are elections in the Ukraine. Then, in December of 1991, you have all these guys meeting in Belarus deciding to end the Soviet Union. So our plan played on our strengths. We’re going to push, but we aren’t going to do military confrontation or occupy the capital. The point was to make the Soviets seek a legitimate government.

Thomas C. Reed (center) with former presidents, Dwight E. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan

Tell me about Ronald Reagan the politician.

What people don’t understand is that he had one of the most unique minds in politics that ever came along—fast and retentive in a way you can’t believe. His mind worked not twice as fast but 10 times as fast as us mortals. You would see this over and over again if you knew him. Let’s say he was at a press conference and he got a question. Click, the light goes on. He would sort out all the cards in his mind,, putting the humorous kicker at the end. Finally, after 15 endless seconds, out would come this performance you couldn’t believe, over and over again.

Ronald Reagan had a reputation as being congenial but a bit aloof.

When I came to Washington and joined the NSC staff in 1981, I hadn’t seen Reagan in more than 10 years. It was really strange. I went to a meeting with Bill [Clark] to meet the president. I was as if I had just gone out for coffee for a few minutes. Reagan looked at me: “How’s the wife? How’s the kids?” He had a very retentive mind. So now I was part of the new NSC. So there I am with the very unique posture of knowing Ronald Reagan better than anyone in town. Therefore, I know how to read him, and he trusts me. He has no friends, folks he simply hangs out with. [Former Reagan Press Secretary] Lyn Nofziger said, “He’d make a perfect hermit.” He has a lot of compartmented associates. He has a minister. Bill Clark was his horse-riding friend. He trusted me to run his political campaigns, absolutely with his life. And his wife, who was his lover, protector but not friend—even she says that in her memoirs.

What was Reagan’s political philosophy on domestic issues?

He had a well-thought-through belief system. The government is the problem. Given the chance, the city councils and the planning boards and the Feds will all screw it up. And freedom equaled getting the government off people’s backs. Reagan had thought it through.

How do you respond to critics who say Reagan didn’t win the Cold War, but rather Soviet internal politics, including Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power, ended it?

The short answer is bunk. But the longer answer is that Reagan had sense enough to wait for the right guy. He understood that he wasn’t going to make any deal with [Leonid] Brezhnev. With [Yuri] Andropov, Reagan developed a writing relationship. Andropov was a strong communist and wanted to win, but he understood he didn’t have a strong hand. They were beginning to communicate with handwritten letters [when Andropov died in 1984]. [Konstantin] Chernenko was just a body. Reagan understood that. He didn’t have any summits until there was a guy he could talk to, and he just waited. He understood that sooner or later the process is going to percolate somebody to the top. Really, though, it took two sides. Reagan said he was going to win, and he waited until there was a guy on the other side of the table who realized he couldn’t win. That was Gorbachev, who lived in the real world. The Soviet system was falling apart, but if we hadn’t pushed on it, who knows? 

What inspired you to write a book about Reagan’s 1968 presidential run?

In 1968, I suggested that Reagan run for president. He agreed, did it, and I ran it. Being a USC-bred engineer, I’m a pack rat. I had all these files about 1968. I have cans full of 16-millimeter film from TV appearances. I have all these schedules. I’ve got the vote count. As I wrote in At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War, you just don’t wake up one day and say, “Gee, it’s Thursday. I think I’ll run for president.” You’ve got to learn how to do it. He didn’t win in ’76 because he didn’t pay attention to all the lessons. He got it right in 1980. What he learned in ’68 is that running for president isn’t like running for governor of California—you don’t just do it over the television and the airwaves, of which he was master. No, you’ve got to get nominated. You’ve got to work the machinery and work with delegates and delegation chairmen. You’ve got to sit there one-on-one in coffee shops, in windowless trailers. You’ve got to listen, find out what this guy wants, and convince him you can win and can help him. Reagan learned that you had to have a good speechwriter. In California, you can give a rah-rah speech, but in the national arena you really can’t rely on just that. And you need to know what you’re talking about. You can screw up, just a little, and have it blow up. In 1976, Reagan didn’t have a really good speechwriter, which is one of the reasons why he lost. He had great ones in 1980.

What role do you think engineers and other technologists played in ending the Cold War?

I’m biased, being an engineer. It took will to win it. But technology is basically where it was fought, rather than on the battlefield. We built Trident submarines. We built the B-1 [bomber]. We authorized the deployment of the MX missile. We proceeded with Star Wars. We build the F-117 Stealth aircraft that you can’t see. We did all that stuff. Reagan really understood the Soviets couldn’t play in that game, especially with Star Wars. It’s interesting to talk to the Soviets as I did for my book At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War. They realized they couldn’t compete and told their government that.

A review of Thomas C. Reed's latest book was featured in the Wall Street Journal.