search by author or title

Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons


Paul Lettow (View Bio)
Hardcover: Random House, 2005.

Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Paul Lettow explores the depth and sophistication of President Ronald Reagan’s commitment to ridding humankind permanently of the threat of nuclear war.

Lettow’s narrative spans the start of Reagan’s presidency and the 1986 Reykjavík summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during which America’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a defining issue. Lettow reveals SDI for what it was: a full-on assault against nuclear weapons waged as much through policy as through ideology. While cabinet members and advisers played significant roles in guiding American defense policy, it was Reagan himself who presided over every element, large and small, of this paradigm shift in U.S. diplomacy.

Lettow conducted interviews with several former Reagan administration officials, and he draws upon the vast body of declassified security documents from the Reagan presidency; much of what he quotes from these documents appears publicly here for the first time. The result is the first major work to apply such evidence to the study of SDI and superpower diplomacy. This is a survey that doesn’t merely add nuance to the existing record, but revises our very understanding of the Reagan presidency.

"Lettow conveys this extraordinary story crisply and convincingly.... A significant addition to our understanding of Reagan and the endgame of the Cold War." — The Washington Post Book World

"Offers a startling perspective on Reagan, the quintessential Cold Warrior. As Lettow tells it, Reagan was in fact a dove in hawk's feathers.... Lettow takes pains to show that Reagan's hard-nosed rhetoric was a purposive, practical foreign policy position intended to achieve his idealistic end. Lettow further claims that Reagan's anti-nuclearism culminated in his adamant support of the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars. Again, we are left with a counterintuitive proposal: In order to reduce nuclear weapons we should spend untold billions to show our enemies they will have to build more of them to keep up? Reagan never intended to bomb the Soviets back to the Stone Age; he wanted to spend them into an economic tailspin, according to Lettow." — The Washington Post

"Lettow offers a revisionist history with a vengeance.... The result is a provocative, informative, and largely persuasive account.... [Lettow] skillfully and exhaustively...chronicles internal administration disputes.... Lettow's achievement is to show that both Reagean's detractors and votaries misread him." — The New York Times Book Review

"Lettow has made a major and thoroughly researched contribution to the study of Reagan's presidency.... Lettow provides evidence of the clarity of Reagan's vision and challenges any suggestion that he lacked input into his own policies." — Foreign Affairs

"In Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Paul Lettow tells how President Reagan made strategic missile defense a national policy. He shows how Reagan brought a clear vision for missile defense to the White House. Lettow has examined presidential documents never before accessed by scholars and has interviewed almost all the leading defense and foreign policy officials of the Reagan administration. But he shows that the man who made the real difference on missile defense was Reagan himself." — Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report

"A fascinating new book.... [It] suggest[s] that [Reagan] was a complex man who wasn't afraid of being a free thinker.... Paul Lettow has written a remarkable book that is lucid and succinct. It explains how Reagan dealt with the Soviet Union, not with threats but rather with patient diplomacy backed by both economic and military strength." — Tucson Citizen

"Lettow has found the purloined letter of the Reagan presidency: the fact that much of his Cold War policy was driven by a desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons. This aspect of Reagan is part of the public record but has so far been hidden in plain view because it doesn't seem to fit his conservatism and seems so otherwise outlandish.... Lettow's book gives the reader an odd appreciation for impracticality. It was Reagan's utopian belief in the possibility of eliminating nuclear arms that spurred his creativity. That belief prompted his policy to cross ideological boundaries, making for a yeasty, original mix. But the most important ingredients to his success were the most intangible: intuition and imagination.... Although his sympathy for Reagan is obvious, he gives a straightforward historical account that will challenge the assumptions of Reagan admirers and detractors alike. He has made a significant addition to our understanding of Reagan and the endgame of the Cold War." — The Washington Post

"The growing body of affirmative revisionist scholarship on Ronald Reagan and his presidency is enhanced by this comprehensively researched, well-crafted monograph. Independent scholar Lettow uses recently declassified archival material to establish Reagan's determination to abolish nuclear weapons as a focal point of his presidency. Reagan believed that the U.S. should use the arms race to bankrupt the Soviet Union, and that the development of an effective defense against ballistic missiles would then render all nuclear weapons negotiable and foster discussion of their abolition; the U.S. would then share the system with the U.S.S.R. and other countries, ensuring the safety of an eventually nuclear-free world. Lettow presents Reagan as a thoughtful leader, who developed his radical challenge to both liberal and conservative conventional wisdom on the Cold War independently. His unwavering belief that missile defense was possible reflected his intellectual conviction that the U.S. could solve the technical challenges involved. Lettow shows Reagan's advisers were on the whole significantly skeptical at the prospect of actually abolishing nuclear weapons. Reagan, meanwhile, successfully negotiated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty and established the matrix for the START treaty. The U.S. and Russia have made additional drastic cuts in their nuclear arsenals; plans for a ballistic missile defense continue in the U.S.; Reagan's ideas and methods, in short, continue to shape the world." — Publishers Weekly

"About much more than Ronald Reagan and nuclear weapons. The author's initial focus on these issues steadily but inexorably broadens into a much more fundamental assessment of Reagan's presidency and accomplishments. In an understated and detached manner and through the use of primary sources and interviews, Paul Lettow presents a portrait of a Mr. Reagan as a practical idealist and an out-of-the-box strategic thinker who wisely ignored the common wisdom of his time.... Very informative.... Mr. Lettow's book presents Mr. Reagan as an original thinker who knew where he wanted to go and how to get there, and who often was a step or two ahead of his advisers and indeed most strategic thinkers of the time. As the author puts it, 'Reagan followed the advice of his various advisors when that advice seemed to him to further his goals, and did not when it did not.'... This chronicle of Mr. Reagan's political leadership reminds us that political leaders who reject common wisdom and follow their instincts can achieve historically important results; a useful lesson as another president who pursues his own path occupies the Oval Office today." — The Washington Times

"Lettow's sharp and succinct book makes the best case yet for why Ronald Reagan deserves to be remembered as one of the most visionary grand strategists of the 20th century." — John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University

"Lettow is lucid and dispassionate. His willingness to go far back, to the very birth of the nuclear age (which coincided with the very birth of Reagan's anti-Communism), and then to trace the story forward as Reagan's ideology slowly matured, pays triumphant dividends." — Edmund Morris

"Soon after the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Ronald Reagan became convinced that world peace required the elimination of nuclear weapons. It was a view he carried with him in 1981 to the White House, where he battled against opposition in his own cabinet to advance his abolitionist vision. In this taut and lucid account of Reagan's quest, historian Paul Lettow sheds valuable light on the 40th president's anti-nuclear mission and its consequences." — Lou Cannon

"A well-done, informative study, which adds to the still-evolving understanding of Reagan and his presidency." — Booklist

Up Back to Top