A cold warrior who knew how to hunt bear
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 December 2003)


By Richard Pipes Yale University Press 255 pp., $44.95

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When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he brought to Washington one crazy idea about the Soviet empire: He thought it might not last forever, and that America could help to change or dismantle it.

This was heresy. Even Richard Nixon, initially famous as an enemy of communism, had lived by detente, a policy that accepted the permanence of the USSR. Most professionals, including the U.S. State Department, considered Reagan's views dangerous. But at least one academic, Richard Pipes of Harvard, a renowned historian of Russia, saw things roughly as Reagan did. He spent two years in the White House as the Soviet affairs expert and helped create the Reagan administration's approach. His thinking also laid the foundation for the confrontational style of George W. Bush's administration.

Washington journalists of the 1980s always called Pipes "hard-line" (as he recalls in his memoirs, Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger), although, strangely, no one was ever called "soft-line." Those opposing Pipes's position were instead called "moderate." As often happens, ideology expressed itself through innocent-sounding language. Russian newspapers labelled Pipes and Reagan satanic figures. Curiously, state propaganda in the USSR and free journalism in the United States took similar views. As Pipes says, both worked from the same assumptions: "(1) the Soviet Union is here to stay, and one could not hope from the outside to alter its system, let alone destroy it, and (2) any attempts in this direction hardened Soviet attitudes as well as risked a confrontation that could lead to a nuclear war." Repetition made these notions sound like truth.

Pipes explains that vixi is Latin for "I have lived," and his marvellous, intensely readable book justifies his title. He was born in Poland to an assimilated Jewish family that owned a chocolate business. They escaped from Europe just in time, right after the 16-year-old Richard heard the German bombs falling on Warsaw, in 1939. When they reached America, Pipes served in the U.S. Army Air Corps (which helpfully assigned him to learn Russian) and spent some spare time reading Francois Guizot's History of Civilization in Europe, originally published in 1828. That book made him want to write history, specifically the kind of history that links the past to the issues of the present. Pipes has spent most of his career as a Harvard professor and so far has produced 20 books.

He writes a calm, clear prose that appears effortless, and in retirement from academe, he's achieved admirable serenity. Even so, he doesn't hesitate to identify those who smugly expressed confidence in wrong-headed views. The long-time Canadian ambassador to Moscow, R.A.D. Ford, unfortunately falls into this category. In 1982, he visited Pipes in the White House and said the Soviets needed to feel secure before they could improve their behaviour; therefore, the Americans should demonstrate that they had no interest in the breakdown of the Soviet regime or its empire. Pipes, on the other hand, believed that security made the Soviets more bellicose, and they softened only when they felt weak. He writes that every word of Ford's advice turned out to be wrong.

There was more serious opposition closer to home. Nancy Reagan fretted about her husband being considered a primitive cold warrior and encouraged the efforts of Michael Deaver (who shaped Reagan's image) to neutralize the effect of Pipes' advice. Meanwhile, vicious jurisdictional disputes were raging. Pipes observed Alexander Haig when he started as Reagan's first secretary of state. He thought Haig wore a sardonically pugnacious expression, as if saying, "I know what you are up to: don't try to pull anything." And, according to Pipes, "He retained this expression until his resignation a year and a half later." Apparently, Haig cared little about the substance of foreign policy, so long as he could control it: "He fought, like a harried animal, for every inch of what he claimed to be his territory." His obsession about turf "acquired manic dimensions, verging on paranoia."

As for Reagan himself, Pipes found him amiable but distant, and rather simple; even so, he "instinctively understood, as all great statesmen do, what matters and what does not." And since the USSR was a crude system, maybe a simple approach was precisely what was required.

Pipes came to agree with Malcolm Muggeridge's view that the most encouraging thing about the Soviet regime was its failure. Had it succeeded, we would have had to accept that there is no limit to the degree to which humans can be successfully enslaved. But it failed, and Pipes contributed as much as any scholar to this historic failure. When he entered policymaking, he was one of the few who thought that the United States, by exerting pressure, might actually bring the evil empire down. And that was how it worked out.

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