Ronald Reagan's last secret

By Robert Parry


November 25, 1999 | There are two ways to write a biography, just as there are two ways to judge a person's life.

One is to examine what the person did: the good left behind and/or the damage inflicted. The other is to search for the why behind the actions, a key that unlocks the inner self.

Dutch, Edmund Morris's controversial "memoir of Ronald Reagan," is an example of the latter approach, a search for Reagan's elusive center, his "Rosebud," like Citizen Kane's treasured memory of a childhood sled that somehow explained what drove that movie's protagonist.

But Dutch cuts some corners in the search. To lead the quest to Reagan's core, Morris invented characters, including a bogus Morris as a Reagan contemporary and an entire family of fake Morrises.

That decision to mix fiction with fact -- along with Morris's fragile analysis of Reagan's psyche -- have dominated criticism of what was supposed to be an "authorized biography" of the 40th president.

But more significant than Morris's pop psychology is what he does and doesn't report about the conservative icon's actions as a political leader.

It is that hard measure of Ronald Reagan -- the man's accomplishments and the man's crimes -- that is neglected while Morris plumbs for Reagan's great personal secret, the elusive insight that will explain it all.

But Reagan's real secret was an open one: how his Cold War obsession led him to coddle an unsavory collection of right-wing psychopaths, including death squad operatives who engaged in genocide, neo-fascists who relished bizarre torture techniques, and drug traffickers who seized a rich geopolitical business opportunity.

Though airy on this evidentiary side, Morris's personal assessment of Dutch, Reagan's nickname as a youth, is still not a flattering one.

Rather than the sterling hero that the former president's fans had hoped for, the Reagan in Dutch comes across as a shallow human being � a man so self-absorbed that he failed to recognize his own son, Michael, at his high school graduation.

Morris also judges Reagan as a one-dimensional leader who himself mixed fantasy with fact in the service of his ideological goals, a man who possessed an "encyclopedic ignorance."

In one sardonic passage, Morris wrote that "the world that rotates inside [Reagan's] cerebellum is, if not beautiful, encouragingly rich and self-renewing. It is washed by seas whose natural 'ozone' produces a healthful brown smog over coastal highways, and rinsed by rivers that purify themselves whenever they flow over gravel. �

"Reagan's world is not entirely without environmental problems. It glows with the 'radioactivity' of coal burners (much more dangerous than nuclear plants), and is plagued by 'deadly diseases spread by insects, because pesticides such as DDT have been prematurely outlawed.' Acid rain, caused by an excess of trees, threatens much of the industrial northeast." Geopolitically, the globe presents many challenges. � North and South Vietnam should never have been permitted to join, having been 'separate nations for centuries.' The Soviet Union [is] bent on invading the United States via Mexico (a stratagem of 'Nikolai' Lenin). � The economy of South America is a mess, particularly in Portuguese-speaking Bolivia."

Morris's sketching of Reagan as an ideologue with a "Daliesque ability to bend reality to his purposes" has infuriated conservatives. For them, of course, the legacy of Ronald Reagan is not simply a matter for academic disagreement. It is political.

The memory of Reagan holds the conservative movement together. It is the one shrine where all the Republican candidates can agree to worship. By bestowing on Reagan a kind of political sainthood, conservatives also have recognized that his legacy has lasting power, consecrating the Right in future ideological wars.

One of the GOP's rallying cries for Campaign 2000 is: "finish the Reagan revolution." By that, Republicans understand that an electoral sweep will solidify conservative control of the courts, allow more "supply-side" tax cuts, continue to slash domestic spending, add more money to the military, and invest billions of dollars in Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.

Indeed, today's political battle for control of the U.S. government in 2000 has been an unspoken backdrop to the controversy swirling around Morris's book. While frequently sympathetic to Reagan -- accepting him as a man of "essential decency" -- Morris balks at genuflection.

But even more galling to some conservatives, Morris also questions whether Reagan deserves credit for "winning the Cold War."

Again, this argument over who gets the Cold War credit is far from an academic exercise. "Winning the Cold War" has become the blanket justification for all that was done during the near half century of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union -- including the millions of people killed in the Third World and the billions of dollars diverted into weapons.

To the consternation of many conservatives, Morris gives respectful treatment to the notion that the Russians were driven to perestroika -- their restructuring -- by the technological revolution that was sweeping the rest of the world and by pent-up consumer demands, not by Reagan's hard-line military strategy.

"Since at least the time of Brezhnev, Soviet realists had been aware that the West was computerizing itself at a rate that threatened to advance the millennium, while Russian shopkeepers in central Moscow were still using the abacus," Morris wrote.

"When one factored in the coefficient that computers improved themselves at a compound rather than a simple rate, the arithmetic grew truly frightening. By the turn of the century, if Soviet sciences continued to lag, Moscow's world power might prove to have been as transitory as that of Manueline Lisbon."

Later in the book, Morris describes a conference that pitted Reagan loyalists who argued that Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative won the Cold War against academics and diplomats who cited the inept Soviet economy and the allure of Western consumer goods.

"A German historian named Ullmann argued that � the USSR collapsed because of its own economic despair, and would have done so anyway, no matter who was President of the United States," Morris wrote.

"[A] former American envoy, Arnold A. Saltzman, said he 'didn't believe that SDI helped the peace process one minute.' Computers not 'imaginary lasers' had won the Cold War: the Soviets had felt themselves increasingly isolated from the Western technological revolution. [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev had personally told him that a generation was growing up there who felt starved of the consumer benefits young Westerners took for granted."

As heretical as these analyses are to Reagan loyalists -- and to official Washington -- the observations do not stand alone. Even former State Department official George F. Kennan, whose seminal analysis of the Soviet system in 1947 helped launch the Cold War, has objected to the Republican claims of "winning" the Cold War.

In his book, At A Century's Ending, Kennan wrote that "the suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic-political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish."

Kennan noted that by the late 1940s and the early 1950s, "it was visible to some of us then living in Russia that the Soviet regime was becoming dangerously remote from the concerns and hopes of the Russian people.

"It was quite clear, even at those early dates, that the Soviet regime as we had known it was not there for all time. We could not know when or how it would be changed. We knew only that the change was inevitable and impending. By the time Stalin died, in 1953, even many members of the Communist Party had come to see his dictatorship as grotesque, dangerous, and unnecessary."

In Kennan's view, U.S. military pressure delayed, rather than accelerated, the demise of the Soviet dictatorship. "The extreme militarization of American discussion and policy, as promoted by hard-line circles in this country over the ensuing 25 years, had the consistent effect of strengthening comparable hard-line elements in the Soviet Union." Kennan argued.

"The more American political leadership was seen in Moscow as committed to an ultimate military, rather than political, resolution of Soviet-American tensions, the greater was the tendency in Moscow to tighten the controls by both party and police, and the greater the braking effect on all liberalizing tendencies within the regime. Thus the general effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook that country at the end of the 1980s.

"What did the greatest damage was ... the unnecessarily belligerent and threatening tone in which many of [the U.S. military strategies] were publicly carried forward. For this, both of our great political parties deserve a share of the blame.

"Nobody 'won' the Cold War. It was a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other side."

Kennan also observed that the final price of the Cold War might still be ahead. Noting the economic dislocation and political chaos sweeping nuclear-armed Russia, he argued that changes "came far too precipitately, upon a population little prepared for them, thus creating new problems of the greatest seriousness for Russia, her neighbors, and rest of us -- problems to which, as yet, none of us have found effective answers."

As much as any American politician, Reagan personified the belligerent rhetoric and international brinkmanship that Kennan saw as counterproductive to the goal of dismantling the Soviet system decades earlier than finally was done.

But discounting the value of hard-line anti-communism in "winning the Cold War" has a consequence in the biographical judgment of Ronald Reagan's life. If Kennan and the other experts are right, conservatives can no longer fall back on the situational ethics of the Cold War when excusing the criminal actions of anticommunist forces.

In the United States, Reagan and other conservatives would be stripped of an important rationale for winking and nodding at right-wing generals imposing "death squad" solutions on their populations.

Without the justification of fighting the "Evil Empire," the Nazi-like brutality applied in Latin America, Asia and other regions would have to be judged as war crimes and their American backers as accomplices.

In the mid-1970s, for instance, right-wing generals seized power in Argentina and "disappeared" some 30,000 Argentines in a "dirty war" against suspected leftists. Many of the victims were subjected to barbaric treatment -- submerged in human waste, tortured in front of loved ones, sexually abused, jolted with electrical charges and monitored by doctors to prolong the agony before execution.

Army doctors also performed Caesarian sections on pregnant women, with the babies distributed to military families while the new mothers were driven to an airfield, shackled naked to other prisoners and then shoved from planes into the ocean.

The Carter administration protested these human rights crimes and managed to save some prominent dissidents, such as Jacobo Timmerman.

But as a political commentator then, Reagan sympathized with the Argentine generals and mocked as naive the U.S. government policy. He urged Carter administration human rights coordinator Patricia Derian to "walk a mile in the moccasins" of the Argentine generals before criticizing them.

[On Nov. 2, a Spanish judge indicted 98 Argentine military leaders and their lieutenants on charges of torture, terrorism and genocide committed during the "dirty war" from 1976-83.]

As president, Reagan had a more direct role in the mini-Holocaust that was sweeping Central America. He rejected detailed evidence from the CIA and other U.S. agencies that implicated his favored paramilitary forces in mass murder.

When the Salvadoran military waged a "dirty war," killing an estimated 70,000 people, including wholesale massacres of peasants, Reagan consistently denied the reality, bending the facts in his "Daliesque" way. "We think we are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador," Reagan told a news conference on March 6, 1981.

In December 1981, a U.S.-trained battalion of the Salvadoran army stormed into the village of El Mozote. The next morning, the army began a systematic slaughter of nearly 1,000 villagers. The massacre started with the men who were beheaded and shot.

Then, came the women -- many of whom were gang-raped before execution. Finally, there were the children who were clubbed to death or burned alive in buildings that were set ablaze.

When American reporters disclosed the massacre, Reagan administration officials falsely denied the facts and Reagan's allies in the press sought to destroy the careers of the journalists who filed the reports.

After the massacre was disclosed, Reagan assured Congress that the Salvadoran government was making a "concerted" effort to respect human rights and was "achieving substantial control over all elements of its own armed forces."

Reagan's State Department then twisted the information coming from the field to conclude that no massacre had occurred and that the reporters were duped. A decade later, after the war in El Salvador had ended, a United Nations forensic team dug up the skeletons, including many tiny ones of little children.

In Guatemala, another U.S.-backed army was engaged in the slaughter of some 200,000 people, including a genocide against Mayan Indians for suspected leftist sympathies.

While the army was eradicating more than 600 Indian villages in the highlands, President Reagan disputed the persistent human rights reports about the atrocities.

On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, Reagan praised the general as "totally dedicated to democracy." Reagan added that Rios Montt's government was "getting a bum rap."

Reagan followed the same pattern in Nicaragua. When the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras were accused of widespread murders and rapes, Reagan attacked the critics for alleged political bias and defended the contras as the "moral equals of our Founding Fathers."

To enforce his version of reality in Central America, Reagan created an aggressive "public diplomacy" bureaucracy that targeted journalists, citizen activists and members of Congress who revealed unwelcome information.

But Reagan's anything-goes ideological warfare was not limited to unfortunate foreign populations and the few domestic critics who wouldn't play along.

The evidence is now overwhelming that Reagan tolerated criminal methods for advancing his anticommunist goals. The evidence indicates that Reagan collaborated with the right-wing chief of French intelligence, Alexandre deMarenches, in a scheme to fix the outcome of the 1980 presidential election and later in a plot to ship illegal drugs to the Middle East.

According to deMarenches's memoirs, entitled The Fourth World War, the French spy chief lectured Reagan in late 1980 about the growing dangers of international communism and Third World terrorism.

DeMarenches is credited with coining the phrase "Evil Empire" -- or "l'empire du mal" in French. But deMarenches also captured Reagan's attention with novel schemes for undermining the Soviet Union.

One plot, dubbed "Operation Mosquito," involved a joint U.S.-French covert action to smuggle drugs into Afghanistan with the goal of addicting Soviet soldiers.

"If this works, you will upset the Russians," deMarenches told Reagan as they sat in the Oval Office in early 1981. "There will be considerable pressure on them to pack up and go home to avoid moral and physical disintegration."

Rather than objecting to a drug-trafficking plot being hatched in the White House, Reagan responded enthusiastically, deMarenches wrote. Reagan immediately called then-CIA director William Casey, who liked the plan.

Casey later asked the French to undertake the covert drug operation with discreet White House backing, according to deMarenches. The French spymaster added, however, that Operation Mosquito ultimately was shelved because of fear that the plan would be disclosed.

Still, drug trafficking clearly was a tolerated feature of Reagan's Cold War. In early 1982, Casey negotiated a special exemption sparing the CIA from a requirement to report to the Justice Department when the spy agency discovered evidence of drug crimes by CIA assets.

The exemption later was implemented to spare the CIA from reporting on cocaine trafficking by figures connected to the Nicaraguan contra war, according to a CIA inspector general's report released in 1998.

That inspector general's report also described how the contra movement was pervaded by traffickers and money launderers, who benefited from the support and protection of the Reagan administration.

The report revealed that major South American cartels cooperated secretly with contra operations, while U.S. criminal investigations into contra-connected cocaine smuggling were curtailed for national security reasons.

The imperious deMarenches figured in another chapter of Reagan's no-holds-barred approach to achieving power -- the October Surprise caper.

According to sworn testimony by David Andelman, deMarenches's biographer and a former New York Times correspondent, the French spy chief explained that the reason for his extraordinary access to Reagan was deMarenches's service in fall 1980 arranging secret meetings in Paris between radical Iranians and leading Republicans, including Casey who was then Reagan's campaign director.

At the time, the Iranians were holding 52 Americans hostage and Casey feared that President Carter might still win re-election by arranging their last-minute release as an "October Surprise."

About two dozen witnesses, including the then-Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat, have corroborated these accounts of secret Republican-Iranian negotiations.

However, in Dutch, Morris avoids any significant discussion of these dark chapters. Morris averts his eyes from the evidence of Reagan's support of Latin American barbarism or of rigged elections.

Morris seemed too fascinated by Reagan's psyche to examine the reality of Reagan's actions. Even the Iran-contra scandal, which finally nailed Reagan for playing fast and loose with the facts, drew only cursory notice from Morris.

"Since I am writing Dutch's personal story, and not correlating the millions of impressions of the hundreds of witnesses whose [Iran-contra] testimony fills more than fifty thousand pages of documents � I will convey his experience of the next few months -- the nadir of his Presidency -- as briefly as possible, in terms of the way he heard and saw and spoke," Morris wrote.

Morris's lone contribution to the Iran-contra history is a one-on-one interview with Reagan on Nov. 18, 1986, as disclosures about secret arms sales to Iran were spilling out and the administration was experiencing an unusual failure to direct the news.

"These last couple of weeks I've had difficulty controlling my temper, which I think is a wise thing to do," Reagan said in a rambling defense of his policy.

"I've never seen such a concerted campaign of dishonesty with results that can be tragic for some people as has been going on here. And I'm just amazed at the lengths that they've gone, and the phony staging, even.

"One network-news broadcast in the evening -- and while Mr. Rather was talking -- it was the pictures they were using. But they weren't even using the pictures about what they were talking about.

"For example, he was talking about weapons and so forth, but they had on the screen F-14s flying and zooming and so forth.

"And then: cut to a man, obviously an Iranian throwing rifles into an open-back truck, piled high with these AK-47s -- the Russian rifle -- but all of this, if pictures speak a thousand words, and people are going to go away with the impression that these were the weapons we were dealing in."

As trivial as Reagan's complaint might seem -- his administration instead was shipping anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles -- it does suggest a leader who is attuned to the details of a complex project, not an elderly man suffering from early stages of senility.

It also revealed a savvy politician trying desperately to shift the blame for a policy disaster onto the news media's selection of stock footage.

Yet, Morris draws a different conclusion. He cites Reagan's "essential decency" in seeking freedom for the hostages though criticizing his "tendency to put a film frame round everything."

A more straightforward analysis might be that Reagan had long mastered the techniques of manipulating information -- deflecting negative news and devising positive arguments -- and knew how to exploit these skills to gain a political edge. In other words, Reagan might have been more cynical about the truth than oblivious to it.

But Morris is unwilling to make such a harsh judgment. Rather than accept Reagan as a calculating ideologue who lies, Morris stretches to see Reagan's sentimental side who simply cared deeply about American hostages.

On the quest for Reagan's mysterious center, Morris ultimately suggests that Reagan's "Rosebud" was his infant daughter, Christine, who was born prematurely to his first wife, Jane Wyman, on June 26, 1947, and died the same day.

Jarringly, Morris dedicates the book "in memorium" to Christine, but he fails to explain how the death made more than a passing impression on Reagan, who was soon busy with his career, rushing off to work on a new movie shortly after the infant's funeral.

Christine's death apparently did deepen his alienation from Wyman. But Morris reports that the accomplished actress already was tired of Reagan because of his frequent rants about communism, his fascination with doing the play-by-play of imaginary baseball games and his habit of reading the newspaper aloud at breakfast.

Christine -- the supposed "Rosebud" -- also disappears from Dutch for 250 pages and nearly four decades, until 1985 when Morris resurrects her memory in connection with Reagan's speech at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in West Germany.

That visit was a public-relations add-on to defuse the controversy over the president's trip to a military cemetery in Bitburg to honor Germany's war dead, including former members of Adolf Hitler's dreaded Waffen SS.

As Reagan neared the end of his speech about the Jewish victims exterminated at Bergen-Belsen, he read, "Here they lie. Never to hope. Never to pray. Never to love. Never to heal. Never to laugh. Never to cry."

Morris observed that Reagan began to choke up. The biographer wondered, "Did the ghost of Christine Reagan hang in that damp air?"

More fittingly, the biographer might have speculated whether the ghosts of the children of El Mozote or from dozens of other Central American villages were hanging in the air.

Or he might have adopted a harder-nosed approach and speculated that perhaps Reagan was just a professional actor turning on the tears and a husky voice at will.

The visit to Bitburg suggested another dark aspect of Reagan's character: that Reagan's tolerance of anticommunist brutality in Latin America was not some historical anomaly.

From his diary and from his remarks, Reagan seemed to equate the fate of Hitler's soldiers with the sacrifice of American troops who had died battling the Nazis in Europe and their Japanese fascist allies in the Pacific.

"There is no way I'll back down and run for cover," Reagan wrote in his diary about his determination to visit Bitburg. "I still think we were right. Yes, the German soldiers were the enemy and part of the whole Nazi hate era. ...Would Helmut [Kohl] be wrong if he visited Arlington Cemetery on one of his U.S. visits?"

In his public remarks, Reagan offered another stunning comparison, morally equating the SS troops with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The SS soldiers "were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camp," Reagan told a group of reporters.

Ultimately, Morris's biography misses the essence of Reagan not because Dutch was too inscrutable. Nor was it that Reagan, the career actor, succeeded in keeping his public mask too firmly in place. The search for Reagan's elusive center was really never that complicated.

Reagan's secret was always in full view, though obscured by Reagan's engaging shrug and crooked smile. The secret was in the facts on the ground, the consequences of his ideology and his actions.

But the quest was clouded by Morris's emphasis on the psychological over the actual. By downplaying Reagan's hand in the bloody reality in Central America, Morris misses one of the most important clues.

In word and deed, Reagan had tolerated unspeakable brutality as long as the acts were committed in the name of anti-communism. He applied his "Daliesque" bending of reality to life-and-death issues just as he did to environmental debates.

The search for Reagan's core simply required following the hard facts -- through the screams of Argentina's "dirty war," through the cries of the children in El Mozote, through the slaughter of the Mayans in the         Guatemalan highlands, through all the rapes and all the torture and all the drug trafficking.

These truths all led to one place, to Reagan's personal heart of darkness.

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