The Triumph of Improvisation analyzes the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union by revisiting the strategic legacy of the Reagan-Gorbachev era.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan, right, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchange pens during the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signing ceremony in the White House East Room in Washington, D.C on December 8, 1987. Photo: AP
One of the more questionable judgments of the so-called “dean” of Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis, is that the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, was one of America’s “sharpest grand strategists ever.”
Gaddis’s thesis, which he has promoted extensively over the course of a four-decade long career, that a specific and identifiable American grand strategy “won” the Cold War, is still ascendant in Washington policy circles and in the popular media.
This triumphalist narrative has had serious consequences for American policy, in particular towards post-Soviet Russia, in the decades following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in December 1991. Attempts at formulating an alternative and, more to the point, accurate narrative with which to describe the end of the Cold War have not, alas, done all that much to derail the Gaddis juggernaut. Perhaps, that is, until now.
With The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War, an estimable young State Department historian, James Graham Wilson, has crisply countered the triumphalist narrative by offering a cogent, parsimonious, and well-written account of the final decade of the Cold War.
His thesis is straightforward: Four men - Milkhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, and George H.W. Bush - acted not according to some pre-agreed upon grand plan, but rather as human beings actually behave when faced with new and amorphous situations.
And, for the most part, these men in positions of great power acted wisely, though of course not without a fair share of missteps and false starts. In Wilson’s telling, it wasn’t so much the policy that counted, it was the personnel.
In no presidential administration was this truer than in Ronald Reagan’s, which went through six National Security Advisors over the course of eight years. Wilson’s depiction of the first two years of the Reagan presidency makes for alarming reading.
Reagan, as readers of his published diaries are all too familiar, had a somewhat troubling preoccupation with the Book of Revelations, taking it not as a biblical story, but rather as one would treat a car manual or blueprint.
His Millenarianism manifested itself in musings like, “I swear I believe Armageddon is near” and, during a period of heightened Israeli-Syrian tensions, “Armageddon in the prophecies begins with the gates of Damascus being assailed.”
Worse, Reagan seemed to believe some of the more outlandish rumors with regard to the Soviet Union, believing it possessed a “laser beam capable of blasting our missiles from the sky” and that it had deployed a “hunter-killer” satellite in outer space. Reagan’s third National Security Advisor, Robert MacFarlane, was once moved to note: “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.”
Some of his advisors, who, unlike the president they served, were highly educated men, were all too eager to play to Reagan’s naiveté in order to advance their hawkish agenda. Thankfully a lot of that (though, as witness the Iran-Contra scandal, not nearly enough of it) ended with George Shultz’s appointment as Reagan’s second Secretary of State in July 1983.
Shultz cut an impressive figure. A veteran of the Pacific campaign in World War II, he went on to earn a doctorate in industrial economics from MIT before holding three cabinet-level positions in the Nixon administration.
Henry Kissinger, who, probably because he couldn’t help himself, spent the 1980s ridiculing Shultz as a rank amateur behind his back, had previously written that, “There was no position in government for which George Shultz would not be my first choice. No other public figure has held so many positions of trust.”
About Gorbachev, Wilson is unequivocal: He was “the indispensable agent of change.” Yet, he presents a balanced view of the man. Like his American counterpart, he was not averse to vacant sloganeering, often speaking of “spiritualization,” “a common European home,” and “a revolution in consciousness.” Yet, unlike Reagan, he knew how to manage (and oftentimes jettison) underlings who were working at cross-purposes.
As Wilson’s account comes to a close with an examination of the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, the dramatic import of the 1992 U.S. Presidential election becomes painfully clear. A foreign policy helmed by men of experience and wisdom was replaced by a policy of men who, for the most part, had neither; and thus, the ensuing debacle of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy began in earnest.
Wilson’s account has many virtues, not least of which is that it quite successfully challenges some of Washington’s most treasured myths, like Robert Gates’ reputation and the neoconservative myth of Reagan the hardliner. Here’s to hoping his book is accorded the reception and recognition it richly deserves.