Reagan Shmeagan: reviewing Beth A. Fischer’s The Myth of Triumphalism3 min read
In The Myth of Triumphalism: Rethinking President Reagan’s Cold War Legacy, Beth A. Fischer aims to set the record straight on triumphalism, the notion, as she defines it, that “President Reagan won the Cold War by building up US military power and threatening the Soviet Union.” Fischer doesn’t hesitate to call this idea dangerous, as it provides a fallacious basis for the United States to invest in its military while rejecting diplomacy. Thus, the mission of her book: to quash the myth of triumphalism.
I will admit to being surprised by this, as most academic histories that I’ve read attribute the end of the Cold War to a variety of factors, including both domestic reform in the Soviet Union and external pressures from the United States and Europe (the works of Ronald E. Powaski and Archie Brown immediately come to mind). Fischer, in her end-notes, provides a short list of triumphalists including Reagan associate Francis Fukuyama (who famously predicted, then unpredicted, the end of history) and conservative columnist Ann Coulter (“I’m more of a man than any liberal“). It is clear that triumphalism is closely tied to conservative political thinking and, moreover, that triumphalism as an historical interpretation was developed not by scholars but by pundits. I don’t see why Fischer, who has been a prolific contributor to academic journals, would choose to raise her voice against the din of pop history. Her decision to engage with triumphalism is comparable to a theoretical physicist publishing a book on the inefficiency of prayer.
Fischer’s argument is twofold: she contends firstly that Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union was more diplomatic than many realise, and also that the Soviet Union largely led their own reformation.
Fischer’s writing on Reagan is fascinating; she describes how, in 1984, his administration abruptly shifted tone from domination to cooperation. Reagan “abhorred nuclear weapons”, according to Fischer, and his lack of faith in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction led him to prioritise nuclear arms reduction. He put all his weight behind the Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed missile defense system which, despite being little more than a technological fantasy at the time, created space for further dialogue with the Soviets and signaled that Reagan’s intentions were more defensive than offensive.
Fischer’s treatment of the Soviet side, however, is perfunctory. She depicts Gorbachev as a bold and brilliant reformer who, together with a band of like-minded allies within the Soviet Union, pursued political reform and pushed through a peace-oriented paradigm shift in Soviet ways of thinking. In actuality, Gorbachev’s attempts to reform his country were messy and inconsistent. Like Reagan, he backtracked on some of his core policies. Unlike Reagan, who eventually gained support from Congress, Gorbachev spent much of the 1980s negotiating dissent within the Soviet Union. The fact that the Cold War ended as peacefully as it did was, for lack of a more academic term, pretty damn lucky.
The story of the end of the Cold War could fill shelves of books, and, indeed, it has. Fischer’s attempt to summarise a pivotal turning point in human history in one slim volume does little service to the field. Although she largely succeeds in rebuking the triumphalists, chances are low that any of them will even hear of The Myth of Triumphalism. The best-case scenario is a slam from @AnnCoulter.
Beth A. Fischer’s The Myth of Triumphalism: Rethinking President Reagan’s Cold War Legacy was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2019. It is available on Amazon.