SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s
In this class, we will examine themes such as the new Cold War and military reconstruction, and ideas of “nuclearism” and “exterminism”
President Reagan’s nuclear policies were bitterly criticized, especially on the grounds of his (allegedly) stark apocalyptic vision of good and evil, and charges that he failed to understand the complexities of international affairs. In retrospect, how do such charges hold up? In the long run, was Reagan right?
Did Reagan take too many risks to achieve his goals?
Why is Grenada so significant, politically if not militarily? How did it help end “Vietnam syndrome”?
What was at issue during the disarmament talks of the 1980s? Should parity have been a goal?
How did the US succeed in preserving its European alliances through the 1980s? Why do we see such an obvious contrast between the strong Atlantic alliance of the mid-1980s and the recent crisis atmosphere of the past few years? What changed between Reagan and Bush 43?
In 1991, George Bush (41) made his famous “chicken Kiev” speech, drafted incidentally by Condoleeza Rice, which seemed to urge the preservation of the Soviet Union as a force for global stability, and warned against disintegration. In retrospect, was Bush right? Should the US have striven NOT to destroy the Soviet Union? Was the Soviet collapse a benefit or a loss for the West?
If we’d known then what we know now, would we have done things differently?
Reagan and his allies often drew analogies between the Soviets and the Nazis. How did such analogies condition their thinking? What were the practical consequences? And the same question in another perspective: The Soviets often drew analogies between the Reaganauts and the Nazis. How did such analogies condition their thinking? What were the practical consequences?
Why did the “nuclear winter theory have such an appeal? Did it represent a kind of secular apocalyptic?
What were the different policy options towards the Soviet Union? Why were so many experts so wrong about the Soviets, especially within the US diplomatic and intelligence establishment?
Does the absolute focus on the Evil Empire cause the US to disregard other menaces, or even to bolster them, eg radical Islam?
How did the media respond to Reagan era politics? Did he get a free ride from a press “on bended knee”? Why were sections of the press so nervous about confronting Reagan?
In the long run, was Reagan right? In retrospect, can we tell if the Reagan response to Communism worked? Did the collapse of the USSR result from a combination of Afghanistan, Star Wars, and nuclear confrontation?
What role did oil play in the superpower conflicts of the 1980s? Why did fluctuations in the global oil price favor one side or the other? What effects did the mid-decade decline in oil prices have on various states and powers, not just the US and the East Bloc?
For this class, I want everyone to read Schweizer, Reagan's War. Like Chain Reaction, this is a partisan account, though from the right rather than the left. In approaching it, I want you to consider the following questions:
What does Schweizer seek to prove? How does his argument differ from the received or standard accounts of the Reagan era?
Is the book well-written and well-argued? (the two points are not necessarily the same!) If not, why not?
THE NATION called Schweizer’s book a “threadbare, tendentious and dubious hagiography.” Why? Is that a fair analysis?
What do you think about Reagan’s assessment of Communism? Was he right (as opposed to Right?) What were the roots of his anti-Communism? Who are his major influences and role-models? How far do his ideas retain the divisions and controversies of an earlier generation?
Tell me about Reagan’s historical vision?
Was Reagan’s anti-Communism religiously inspired? What was its moral content? How far did it employ the language of evil?
What do you think of the personalization of the conflict, ie “Reagan’s War”? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? How far can such an analysis ever be applied, eg “Hitler’s War”, Churchill’s War”, or whatever? Could we write a history of 1980s international affairs that offered a far less central role to Reagan?
Is Schweizer right to neglect domestic US affairs? What does this emphasis lead us to ignore or understate in the overall story?
Does he give fair treatment to the foreign policies of other US administrations, especially in the Ford and Carter years?
What do you think of his assessment of the roles played by Pope John Paul II? Margaret Thatcher? Mikhail Gorbachev? Is Schweizer fair? Is he a Reagan cheerleader?
How far do you think Schweizer understands the internal dynamics of the Soviet Union? Did the Soviet Union fall or was it pushed?
Tell me about his analysis of Star Wars, SDI?
The fact that the book was published indicates that somebody thought it made an important and innovative point – there’s no point in just rehashing old familiar arguments. What’s new about this book? Is it a controversial study?
How might someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum have recounted the same events?
What did the book tell us that was not previously known? What can we learn about how the book fits into the existing literature, yet advances beyond previous knowledge? What earlier or established position is it arguing against?
Does the author push the evidence to make it fit into contemporary concerns and obsessions? How?
Are there questions that you would like to ask that Schweizer does not deal with, or covers poorly?
What can we learn from the footnotes and acknowledgments about how he went about his research?
Does he engage in special pleading to smooth over issues or controversies on which he is weak? Which? How?
This is a question you can ask about almost any book. Assume you were an academic reviewer for this book, prior to publication. Would you support publication or not? Why? What if any changes might you suggest or demand?
Does he prove his case?
Do check out some reviews of the book: as a starting point, see:
Also look at Schweizer’s article on terrorism at