A few weeks ago I noted Jonah Goldberg's puzzlement over the lack of reaction among neoconservatives to John Patrick Diggins's new biography of Ronald Reagan (which I still haven't read yet). The point was that Diggins, a liberal, apparently makes the case that Reagan was a great president - but, on the foreign policy front, this was very much in spite of, rather than thanks to, the efforts of the Gipper's neoconservative advisors. Goldberg took this thesis as an attack on the current neocon resurgence, arguing that much of the Diggins book was preoccupied with "tendentious, odd or as ill-advised attempts to find the roots of the Iraq war in the Reagan Administration." And he wondered at the silence from neocon organs like Commentary and the Weekly Standard.
Diggins’s main point is that Reagan’s neoconservative advisers were unrealistically fearful of Soviet military might, and darkly suspicious of any efforts to negotiate with the Russians. In the story line that follows from this, Reagan became a peacemaker only because in his second term he finally chose to break away from the “neocon hard-liners” on his staff who counseled “victory, not peace,” and instead decided to negotiate with the Russians.Seligman argues that Reagan's $2 trillion military buildup - and the fact that he appointed all those neocons in the first place - make a mockery of the notion that the president was ever trying to avoid confrontation.
In his introduction, Diggins squarely rejects the common view that Reagan was a lucky bystander, that the USSR was crumbling anyway, and the President just “happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Yet as the book progresses, he takes a completely different tack. “The process of liberalization that Gorbachev introduced in Moscow,” Diggins writes at one juncture, “eventually brought down the entire edifice of the Communist state.” At another junction, he declares that “It was not Western policy that caused the breakup of the Soviet Union but the failure of the political process within the Soviet Union.”Diggins's thesis, implies Seligman, refuses to acknowledge Reagan's "key contribution" to the USSR's downfall. But even if one accepts that Reagan played a role in that collapse, how is that admission betrayed by the recognition that many - indeed, most - of the immediate and underlying factors leading to fall of the Soviet Union were internal? Must we now give Reagan all the credit? This is great-man historicizing taken to a ludicrous extreme: let's just go ahead and erase every other actor and factor from the history books.
Reagan’s reputation will undoubtedly survive these wobbles. Diggins’s reputation as an intellectual historian may not fare so well.