BOOK REVIEW

Maine author’s memoir offers behind-the-scenes look at Reagan, how Cold War ended

Posted Feb. 14, 2014, at 1:15 p.m.

Remember “peace through strength,” former President Ronald Reagan’s strategy to bring down the Iron Curtain?

Well, it turns out that — despite the conservative icon’s penchant for Pentagon spending and “evil empire” rhetoric — Reagan put more emphasis on the peace than the strength. In fact, his quest for peace ended up having far more to do with the Soviet Union’s demise than any hawkish desire to flex U.S. military might.

That’s the premise at the heart of “Trust But Verify: Reagan, Russia and me,” a new personal memoir by Suzanne Massie, who traveled from a home in Deer Isle to Washington and Russia while working quietly as an intermediary between Reagan and Soviet leaders from 1984-88.

Massie was a fellow at the Harvard Russian Research Center (now the Davis Center) from 1985-97, has lectured about U.S-Russian relations in both countries, and for decades, spearheaded important cultural exchanges.

Reagan called her “the greatest student I know of the Russian people.”

In “Trust But Verify,” Massie makes the case that Reagan — motivated by a heightened commitment to Christian values after a March 1981 assassination attempt — placed peace above all else on his foreign-policy agenda. She bases this observation largely on letters she received from Reagan and conversations the two shared during private luncheon meetings at the White House.

Massie offers detailed descriptions of how she warned Soviet leaders that Reagan’s Christian convictions could compel him to be either a peacemaker or a crusader, and her meetings with him revealed a strong preference for the former.

Massie peppers her memoir with accounts of the 21 meetings she had with Reagan and anecdotes he shared with her, the vast majority of which contrast with the media-driven image of our 40th president as a trigger-happy Cold War cowboy.

But while she attempts to unravel that stereotype, Massie — who describes herself as an “independent leaning toward conservative Democrat” — reinforces the notion that Reagan rarely held back when he could use his Hollywood-honed persona to take command of a situation.

“I was awed and listened spellbound, but he went so fast that I couldn’t take it all in,” she wrote of a June 6, 1986, luncheon meeting with the president and first lady, Nancy Reagan. “Suddenly he was not the affable communicator with whom I chatted as if he were an elder uncle, but an entirely different person. I saw the full stature and forcefulness of this President of the United States, the powerful leader of the free world. As he was speaking, a strange thing happened to me — he seemed to be growing bigger and bigger — while I, like Alice in Wonderland was getting smaller and smaller.”

That same vigor took Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his entourage off guard during the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, a fact that the U.S. president used to his advantage, according to Massie

As much as the Soviets misread Reagan, in Massie’s estimation, U.S. diplomats and foreign policy experts also held fast to a flawed and potentially catastrophic perception of public sentiment in the USSR — primarily because they failed to differentiate between Soviet propaganda and Russian culture. The most glaring example she cites is the perception among U.S. policy makers that most Russians were atheists, at a time when her visits to Russia showed the Orthodox Church exerting great authority over everyday life there.

Massie has written or co-authored four books about Russia, including “Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia,” which she says Reagan read as preparation for his Geneva summit meeting with Gorbachev. In the prologue to “Trust But Verify,” she describes how she developed a passion for the Russian people and their culture. That passion enlivens her writing about trips to Russia, the friends she made there and why she made it her mission to educate Americans — starting with Reagan — about the ideological and cultural gulf that separated Russians from their Soviet leaders.

Hardliners in both countries — who preferred to deal in stereotypes of American cowboys and fur-hatted KGB bears — made that task more difficult. Massie never swerves from a polite, diplomatic tone in writing about top U.S. and Soviet officials, but she makes clear her admiration for some over others. A clear favorite was Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser from 1983-85.

“Trust But Verify” is a good read. It mixes the drama and intrigue of a Cold War spy thriller — in sections where Massie describes the constant intimidation that Westerners experienced during the rare times they were allowed into the Soviet Union — with insightful glimpses into Reagan’s foreign policy inner circle.

Policy wonks will likely lose patience with Massie’s detailed descriptions of the anxiety she felt when deciding what to wear and what to eat while meeting with the president. But her description of struggling to wrangle a shelled shrimp into edible condition while trying to make a point to the president adds humor and humanity to the memoir.

Massie writes about people, not doctrines, which makes “Truth But Verify” both an important inside look at how the Cold War ended and an engaging personal narrative.

It’s greatest value, at a time when most political dialogue — and historical assessment of Reagan’s presidency — tilts toward the abstract and ideological is that it reminds us that the best way to avoid crises and make history that benefits humanity is through direct, person-to-person communication.

 

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