Readers old enough to remember the Soviet Union will recall the shock and disbelief that came with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) flag being lowered for the last time on December 25, 1991. The “Cold War” had come to an end, but a long road lay ahead between the United States and Russia in coming to terms with each other’s way of life. On May 29, 1988, United States President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and First Lady Nancy Reagan (1921-2016) arrived in Moscow for a three-day summit with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa (1932-1999). It has been held as a triumph in American foreign policy and as an example of strong leadership. In less than three years, the Soviet Union dissolved, and Reagan was vindicated in his predictions of its demise. During the summit, Reagan spoke to the people of the Soviet Union at Moscow University and to this day it stands as a breathtaking moment in world history. But as always, there is more than meets the eye. Fox News host Bret Baier revisits the summit in this book about three days that impacted world history.
Before I continue, I do have to acknowledge that the book may be viewed with skepticism depending on the reader’s political beliefs. Further, it is no secret that Reagan has long been the icon for conservatives. Ironically, he was once a liberal Democrat and as Baier explains, Regan’s parents had no tolerance for ignorance or bigotry. Exactly how Reagan became a conservative is not the point of the book and a full biography of him will better suit readers searching for that information. Baier does provide a short biography of Reagan tracing his roots in Tampico, Illinois, and the path he took to become Governor of California and the Republican candidate who unseated President James “Jimmy” Carter. The story picks up in pace once Reagan is sworn into office and moves into the White House. The chill in the air between the Carters and Reagans is evident in the book but a small part of the bigger picture. To anyone paying close attention, it was evident that all was not well within the Soviet Union. In fact, Baier correctly points out that:
“By the time of the Moscow summit, that fact was evident to everyone, including the Soviets themselves. Yes, they remained a world power. Yes, their arsenal of weapons was still great. But beneath the surface, the economy was in free fall, its citizenry was restless; the architect of perestroika was breaking down the remaining barriers. Reagan’s prediction was coming true, as he, if not others, had always known it would.”
Reagan did believe that the Soviet Union would fall but it should be noted that problems within the U.S.S.R. had been mounting for years, even before Reagan took office. Further, the fall of the Soviet empire is far more extensive and complicated than presented on the surface here. I vividly recall Reagan’s statement telling Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. The Berlin Wall did fall, and it was a significant turning point in both German and world history. But even that goodwill gesture caused in part by weakening Soviet influence was not enough to stave off the inevitable. Gorbachev knew that trouble was brewing but also faced opposition within his own ranks. However, he had developed a strong relationship with Reagan and that is the crux of the book.
The visit by the Reagans had a profound effect on the Soviet Union and it was an extraordinary act by a U.S. President. Baier takes us deep behind the scenes as the two leaders seek to come to an understanding of key issues. As I read the book, I could see their relationship developing slowly but surely. It is a prime example of how people from diverse backgrounds can find common ground. That is not to say that all went well. In fact, in the book, we see more than one situation where the two leaders remain on opposite ends of a rope with each refusing to give ground. And the first ladies did not have a warm or jovial relationship themselves. Reagan and Gorbachev were leaders of the two most powerful governments on earth and needless to say the stakes were high. Before the book’s conclusion, Reagan leaves office and is succeeded by George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) who developed his own relationship and different relationship with Gorbachev. When Reagan leaves the White House for the last time, the sadness in Washington and in Moscow can be felt through the author’s words. Reagan emerges as a leader that is hard not to like. Of course, the Soviet story was far from over and Gorbachev had to defend himself from party members determined to see his downfall. Baier discusses how close the Soviet General Secretary came to being removed from office and the roles of Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) and a young intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin who currently has the world watching his every move.
Undoubtedly, Reagan comes across beautifully in the book and I did notice that the darker moments of his president are discussed briefly. The Iran Contra scandal and Sandinista affair in Nicaragua are mentioned but Baier touches only the surface of those matters. The seriousness of each is not felt in the story at hand but I do implore readers to further research those topics to get a full understanding of Reagan’s presidency. To be fair, no administration is perfect, but the people of Central America will surely give you an interesting opinion of the Reagan era. His policies had a profound impact on Latin America that continues to be felt to this day. In the United States, the legacy of the jovial actor turned politician is permanently embedded in the Republican party’s core and he remains an icon of conservative values. If her were alive today, I am not sure if he would recognize what the GOP has become and I believe he would be both shocked and dismayed at world events. The world is a far different place today but the importance of this time in world history captured by Baier cannot be understated. In three days, Ronald Reagan accomplished what decades of U.S. foreign policy failed to do, he captured the attention and minds of the Soviet people. Readers with a thirst for historical information on U.S. and Russian relations will appreciate this book.