Steve August 14, 2020
the-secret
history-of-ronald-reagan’s-letters

Ronald Reagan began laying the
groundwork for his 1980 presidential run almost immediately after his defeat in
his campaign for the 1976 Republican nomination. The work consisted primarily
of hundreds of speeches in hotel ballrooms across the country. The most
important addressed high-minded fora like the Foreign Policy Association in New
York and the Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C., from texts carefully
worked over by many hands in order to present the former governor as a dignified
statesman in the broad center of respectable opinion.  

The vast majority, however, were stops
on what Reagan termed the “mashed potato circuit.” It was there that, for a
$5,000 fee, Reagan presented the same sort of fantastical anti-big government
parables he’d been offering up to gatherings of trade organizations, civic
clubs, conservative groups, and (for a discount) Republican organizations since
the early 1960s—with plenty of loony Cold War panic stirred in for good
measure. For instance, the time in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1977, when he fantastically
claimed that the Soviet Union had sent 20 million young people into the
countryside to practice reconstructing their society in the event of nuclear
war. The Soviets had supposedly also “dispersed their industry” in preparation
for an ultimatum the Kremlin intended to issue to the United States “as early as next year and at
least by 1981”: Surrender, or face Armageddon. According to Reagan, the Soviets
believed “that if there was such a nuclear exchange, they could destroy us and
we couldn’t destroy them.”

He sounded like Dr. Strangelove.
Which presented quite the dilemma for the Reagan aides who wrote those
statesmanlike speeches, like Peter Hannaford and Michael Deaver—who hoped to
reassure establishment elites that, despite what you might have heard about
Ronald Reagan being a dangerous extremist, he actually was one of them. 

By 1978, any number of initiatives
were underway to advance that crucial political goal. One went by the acronym
PTWWT. That stood for “People to Whom We Talk”: a continually updated list distributed
to reporters to reassure them of Reagan’s association with distinguished
foreign policy personages like Henry Kissinger, NATO commander Alexander Haig, and
Harry Rowen of the RAND Corporation.

A related effort was the “SP
Program”: a formal process for staffers to draft letters to opinion leaders for
the governor to “sign personally.”

You can find them filed away in the
papers of Hannaford and Deaver at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
They frequently praised books and articles the recipient had written. On
December 14, 1978, for example, an SP letter went out to The New York Times’s
most liberal columnist Anthony Lewis, responding to his piece about famous
Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. “It is probably safe to
say that over the years, had we compared notes, we would have found ourselves
in disagreement on many issues,” the letter ran. “But when your column ‘The
Mark of Zorro’ caught up with me on my return from Europe the other day, I
found myself in agreement with every paragraph. Perhaps we can become
co-chairmen of the Ad Hoc Committee to Tune Out Mark Lane.… Thanks for saying
what needed saying.… Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.”

Reagan’s famous letter to Jeane Kirkpatrick, often cited by historians as a window into Reagan’s evolution on foreign policy, was likely not written by him personally. He didn’t even sign it: A hand-scrawled note asks a secretary to “sign it Ronald Reagan.”

The rightward-tending Democratic
Party intellectuals of the 1960s and ’70s—the “neoconservatives”—were a special
focus. For instance, an SP letter went out to “Norman and Midge”: Norman
Podhoretz, editor of
Commentary, and his wife Midge Decter, of Harper’s.
It had Reagan claiming to have “finally caught up with the Sunday
New York
Times
of June 11 and your article ‘The Cold War Again.’ I think you made an
excellent point about the semantic differential in the U.S. and Soviet
interpretations of agreements such as SALT I and SALT II.”

Another special focus was moderate
Republican elected officials. “Dear Pete,” a letter ran to Delaware’s Governor du Pont. “I saw an item the other day about your signing into law a bill which
allows Delaware motorcyclists to ride without helmets. I agree with your remark
that anyone who does so is ‘damn foolish,’ but I agree wholeheartedly with your
action. We went through the same thing in Sacramento, with the same conclusion—it
just wasn’t any of government’s business.”

The more naïve among these
correspondents would have been mightily disillusioned if they saw the sausage
being made. One SP letter thanked a think tank intellectual for sending along an
“absorbing but sobering” book. It went to Reagan for his signature with a cover
note: “Please do not feel obligated to read the attached book.” Another was to
the Catholic intellectual Michael Novak, praising him in a way that suggested
Reagan had just newly encountered his work—even though the standard speech
Reagan was then delivering included a line about how liberalism these days was
a creed that only the rich could afford, quoting one Michael Novak. A
missive to Harper’s Washington editor Tom Bethel on his “interesting,
informative” piece, “The Liberal Carter” was forwarded for Reagan’s signature on
August 3, 1978—along with a thoughtful request, apparently to a secretary, to “send
article along to RR to read.”  

Another went to the author of an
article in Commentary magazine: “Your approach is so different from
ordinary analyses of policy matters that I found myself reexamining a number of
the premises and views which have governed my thinking in recent years.” The article,
by a neoconservative Georgetown professor named Jeane Kirkpatrick, was called
“Dictatorships and Double Standards” and later became famous for outlining the
Cold War rationale for supporting friendly authoritarian regimes in the name of
countering the red menace—in other words, for maintaining a single standard
against communism. The SP response was almost comical because the supposedly
novel argument that had hit Reagan with the force of a ton of bricks was
identical to one he had been repeating for years—for instance, telling an
audience of 2,000 at the Waldorf Astoria in a speech quoted in The New York
Times
that human rights policy must follow “a single, not a double standard.”

A note to Reagan assures him that he should “not feel obliged to read the attached book”—a book that his aides praise in his name in a letter to its author.

Richard V. Allen—Reagan’s
self-promoting chief foreign policy adviser, responsible for the letter Reagan
signed—spun an elaborate tale that Kirkpatrick recounted for an oral historian:
He claimed he had passed her article to Reagan before he boarded a plane from
Washington to California. Reagan supposedly breathlessly called Allen during a
stopover in Chicago:

“Who is he?”

“Who is who?”

‘Who is this Jeane Kirkpatrick?”

“Well, first, he’s a she.” 

Reagan wrote to Kirkpatrick in
December
”: That’s how one Reagan scholar, Steven F. Hayward, puts it, despite
the fact that Reagan had not only probably not written it but didn’t even sign
it personally.
A note from Reagan on a draft read: “Elaine put this on
stationary & sign it Ronald Reagan.” 

Be that as it may: Flattery worked.
Kirkpatrick, in an earlier Commentary article, had criticized the “strain
of nativist populism” represented by the New Right, who had called for
conservatives to expand their base by attracting what one called “millions of working- and middle-class
Americans [who] feel betrayed by a system which they see as ever more alien” by
using the most emotional and anti-intellectual appeals possible. Kirkpatrick
and her neocon confreres overcame their embarrassment at their down-market coalition
partners and made the leap to Reagan nonetheless; Kirkpatrick ended up his
United Nations ambassador. 


Recipients frequently responded to the SP letters in effusive, highly personal terms. So it was that several rounds
of animated correspondence with “Nat”—neoconservative Harvard sociologist
Nathan Glazer—followed an SP on the subject of subway graffiti and urban
disorder as well as “the relative attractiveness of welfare to work.” It’s
possible
that Reagan was involved in composing his own side of the exchange, but it’s
likely that he was not. It’s almost like a 1970s Turing test—one that every
Reagan scholar I’ve read fails. Letters like the one to Kirkpatrick pulled from
the “SP File” at Hoover are quoted as if crystalline portraits of the interior
of Ronald Reagan’s mind.

Meanwhile, no one seems to ever
have noticed—or if they have, they have bent over backward to repress—another entirely separate file of Reagan correspondence. This one is 350 miles south as
the crow flies at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, and it depicts
a very different sort of fellow indeed. I refer to the letters Ronald Reagan dictated. 

The true Reagan shines forth in his dictated letters. Here, he assures his interlocutor that “I am not changing my positions one bit.”

These missives go to a very
different cast of characters, with not a single overlap with the Hoover cache of
which I’m aware: a high proportion are to friends from his Hollywood days and Iowa and
Illinois pals to whom he reminisced about past sports glories. They aren’t
addressed to liberal New York Times columnists but far-right newspaper
publisher William Loeb, just the sort of “nativist populist” against which
Kirkpatrick set her sights in Commentary. (One of the signed front-page
editorials in his Manchester Union Leader, the only statewide newspaper
in New Hampshire, concluded, “When the Russian Communists lead hordes of black
terrorists to slaughter whites in South Africa on a large scale, the American
white population will have been so brainwashed that instead of reacting to
support their fellow whites in South Africa they will sit by and do nothing.… RUSSIANS
ARE PREPARING THE AMERICAN MIND TO ACCEPT THE RUSSIAN BLACK CONQUEST OF SOUTH
AFRICA. IT IS AS SIMPLE AND DIRECT AS THAT.”) Or another Jeane, an old Reagan
friend—newspaper psychic Jeane Dixon.

In one dictation, he muses how “the
Old Testament prophesies that would foretell Armageddon” related to recent
events in the Middle East. Another went to Dr. George S. Benson, a McCarthyite
fundamentalist minister who in the 1950s had turned his tiny segregated Bible
college in Searcy, Arkansas, into a factory for hysteric propaganda pamphlets
and films about communist infiltration of the U.S.; Reagan concurs with his worry
about liberal textbooks subverting young, impressionable minds. It was
dictated, as it happened, the same day a Kissingerian telegram drafted by Richard
Allen went out under his name, congratulating the newly elected prime minister
of Japan and proposing a back-channel political alliance.

Many dictated letters also went to
apparent strangers. These tended to concern the exact same subject: the notion—more
and more abroad in the land thanks to his statesmanlike speeches to audiences
like the Foreign Policy Association in New York and the Public Affairs Council
in Washington, the assurances to media elites concerning “People to Whom We
Talk” and all the carefully manufactured SP letters—that he was moderating
his ideology. No accusation apparently vexed him more. 

In a typical one, Reagan dictated
defenses against a series of alleged apostasies. The correspondent had been baffled
that he had come out against a 1978 initiative to bar gays from teaching in
California schools; Reagan reassures him that “if it ever becomes
necessary to have an additional law denying homosexuals the right to advocate
their lifestyle, I’ll be the first in line to support it” and also that “I
always have been unalterably opposed to gun control.” (This was not true: he
signed a strict gun-control law in 1967 after armed Black Panthers visited the
Capitol building in Sacramento.) Finally, he said that the only action he had
ever taken concerning school integration in California was “a law giving
authority over schools to the local school boards in an effort to keep the
decisions from being made by judges in our courts.” 

He reserved his most defensive
language for those accusing him again and again of endorsing Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, a liberal
Republican, in the closing days of the 1978 Congressional election. “I realize there were some who thought it was
betraying the faith to do that,” he wrote to an old friend. To another, he
detailed that he had only spoken for Percy at one single event because he had
been veritably ambushed by political friends to do so. “This was the extent of
my campaigning for Senator Percy,” Reagan huffed. “I’d be very interested, if you
don’t mind, in finding out where you received this erroneous information.”
 

He had actually spoken for Percy at
least four times. The lie was a small one but also quite telling. For, six
weeks after that particular dication, he embarked on the most important trip of
his 1980 efforts thus far to Washington D.C. His agenda was winning over the
likes of Chuck Percy that he should be the party’s consensus pick for the
nomination and convincing them that he was no kind of extremist at all. One of
his stops was a luncheon hosted by Percy ally, Illinois Governor James Thompson,
who had previously said that if Reagan were the nominee, “We wouldn’t recover
politically for a generation.”

He was wrong—in part because once
he was in the White House, the same people did such a good job hiding the guy
who dictated those letters from the people who received the ones he merely
signed. It will take a guy whose lunacy it is impossible to hide to
accomplish that trick 40 years later, God be willing. 

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