A Lesson in Backbone

Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

When Ronald Reagan became president I was a liberal; by the time he left office I was conservative. A visit to the Soviet Union in 1979, about a year before Reagan took office, set me up for the change. The trip proved that everything my sixth-grade teacher had taught me about Communism was true. The Soviets did a few mass-scale projects, like subways, very well. But I could see with my own eyes the pathetic food supply and the shoddy wares and services produced by a system bereft of competition. Most of all, from the moment I arrived at Moscow's airport, where a book was confiscated from my bag (Hedrick Smith's, The Russians), I got a taste of life under a dictatorship. In my interactions with individual Russians, I saw (and felt) the fear and the cramped spiritual conditions of life in a police state. Never was I so relieved as when I landed back in Germany and laid eyes on an American soldier.

After this Soviet interlude, and just around the time Ronald Reagan took office, I moved to Berkeley, where I began to question the direction of contemporary liberalism. I remember the fabulous daily scene on campus, with rock bands blasting, students feasting on fare from an incredible variety of restaurants, and Marxists leafleting on the plaza. Having just encountered a living socialist state with a shamefully poor food supply, and having seen the dangers individual Russians courted in their attempts to get hold of forbidden rock music, I wondered if these Berkeley radicals understood the implications of the ideas they were playing with.


It wasn't just the crazies in Berkeley. Back then, Tom Wicker, James Reston, and the other liberal voices at the New York Times seemed obsessed with the supposed irrationality and danger of Ronald Reagan's anti-Communism. I scanned their writings for any substantive discussion of the character of the Soviet regime. But somehow op-eds about the Soviets always turned into pieces about Ronald Reagan, about the madness of a man who dared to call our foes an evil empire. And what did liberals really think of the Soviet Union? They didn't want to know.

Reagan was never the out-of-control cowboy of liberal imagination. He was strong enough to take steps toward peace. For example, he unilaterally lifted Jimmy Carter's post-Afghanistan embargo on American gain sales to the Soviet Union. Yet Reagan would not forget — or allow us to forget — the harsh reality of the Soviet regime. Jimmy Carter famously changed his view of the Soviets after their invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan would not have been surprised.

When Reagan was shot, I remember being on campus and hearing people cheer. That disturbed me deeply. A couple years later, Communists staged a coup in Grenada. Soon they were building an airport that could accommodate military transports ferrying Cuban arms to Marxist insurgents throughout the hemisphere. When Reagan invaded, I cheered. But Berkeley was the site of the largest American demonstration against Reagan's intervention.

I've already written about the famous fracas over the visit of Reagan's U.N. ambassador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, to the Berkeley campus. It wasn't surprising that radicals tried to shout her down. What shocked was that even faculty members started arguing that "oppressors" have no free-speech rights (this, in the birthplace of the free-speech movement). That was the beginning of campus "political correctness," before the phenomenon even had a name. Obviously, some terrible deformation had developed within liberalism — a rejection, in the name of freedom, of the very principles of liberty, along with a mental migration from America itself. Meanwhile, the real victims of oppression, the brave dissidents within the Soviet Union, saw Reagan and Kirkpatrick as heroes.


The big anti-Reagan cause during my time in Berkeley was the so-called nuclear-freeze movement, which was far more powerful in Germany and Western Europe than in the United States. Reagan's willingness to defy the movement and deploy Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe was a critical step in containing, and eventually ending, Soviet power. After Reagan successfully deployed the missiles and won reelection, the freeze movement died.

But as Reagan's last secretary of state, George Shultz, once said, the most important foreign-policy decision Ronald Reagan ever made was to fire the striking air-traffic controllers. (For a wonderful account of the PATCO strike, see Peggy Noonan's biography of Reagan, When Character Was King.) That incident, early in Reagan's first term, embodied his character, had an enormous and unanticipated effect on his foreign policy, and even foreshadowed the challenge we face right now.

Reagan had cut his political teeth as president of the Screen Actors Guild. As a union man, he had genuine sympathy for strikers — and for the right to strike. And PATCO (the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) was one of the few unions that supported Reagan's presidential bid. No one denied that the controllers had an unusually stressful job, and one that was absolutely essential to the economy. So Reagan had every reason to work with PATCO when it asked for a raise.

Reagan offered an 11-percent wage increase — significant during a period of budget cuts — but PATCO would settle for nothing less than a 100-percent raise. The union knew Reagan's sympathies, knew it had endorsed his presidential bid, and knew that a strike would likely paralyze the economy. National security was also at stake, since the network of American bombers ready to head for the Soviet Union at the hint of a nuclear attack depended on the controllers.


Of course, that's why critical federal employees like air-traffic controllers aren't allowed to strike. Every PATCO member had signed a sworn affidavit agreeing not to strike, and Reagan had made it clear to the controllers that under no circumstances would he accept an illegal strike. PATCO thought he was bluffing, so with the economy hanging in the balance, 70 percent of the controllers walked out.

Reagan scrambled to put together a working air-traffic-control system. Between the Federal Aviation Administration, the Defense Department, private controllers, and the non-striking PATCO employees, a system was created that kept military and civilian aircraft aloft. When Canadian controllers shut down Gander Airport in sympathy with PATCO, the president authorized Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis to tell them to open the airport, or the United States would never land there again. The Canadians folded. The French made threatening noises, but the British stuck by the United States. In the meantime, Reagan worked behind the scenes, with Ted Kennedy and AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, to make sure the Democrats didn't turn the strike into a partisan issue. Both Kirkland and Kennedy thought that PATCO's demand for a 100 percent raise was out of line. They agreed not to go beyond a bit of public grumbling.

So the president bit the bullet and fired the striking controllers. That set the tone for labor negotiations with national, and even municipal, governments for years to come. More important, the whole world was watching Regan's conduct during the strike. This was obviously a man who would hang tough under pressure, and risk serious costs to back up a decision he believed to be necessary and right. The Soviet's took note.


How little has changed in 23 years time! The Soviet Union is no more. Yet the New York Times still rings with fearful doubts about a supposedly out-of-control cowboy who dares to call our foes evil. Before Iraq, I scanned antiwar opinion pieces for some hint of what liberals really thought of Saddam Hussein's vicious regime. They still didn't want to know. Our campuses are now firmly under the control of the sort of graduate students and faculty members who shouted down, or excused the shouting down, of Jeanne Kirkpatrick. The pacifists and Green-party activists who led the nuclear-freeze movement have completed their long march through the continent's institutions and are now calling the tune in much of Europe. Britain is more or less with us, while Canada and France stand nervously aside. The Democrats and organized labor still tend to divide on issues of war. How extraordinary, yet how utterly unsurprising, that so much of the past should carry through to today.

Ronald Reagan led the way. He showed what could be done, not only in the face of Soviet belligerence, but against the more profound threat of the West's own weakness and blindness. When the children of '68 made their bid for cultural control of Germany, the resistance of their elders melted away. Those who had lived under Hitler felt too discredited to stand against the moral self-righteousness of the new generation. But in America, it was Ronald Reagan, during his time as governor of California, who stood fast for his generation against the deformations in the liberal spirit that had their home in Berkeley. That, in part, is why he was elected president. That is also why the Left has always hated him.

Ronald Reagan stood boldly against a cultural and political tide that threatened — and still threatens — to turn the West against itself. Amazingly, he succeeded. Ronald Reagan stood down the Soviet Union, despite Europe's fears, despite America's wobbly liberal elite, and despite the rise of an increasingly totalitarian campus Left. And Reagan's victory was our victory. In the narrow sense, that means Reagan's triumph signaled the ascent of America's conservatives. Yet in a larger sense, Reagan stood for the classic liberal values at the heart of the American tradition. That is why his broader coalition succeeded — and that is why I joined.

Ronald Reagan is gone now, although we have never needed him more. His enemies could not defeat him. Even that bullet couldn't cut him down. This tower of a man finally yielded to the ravages of age and disease, which defeat us all in the end. Yet, with a storm in the Middle East, and clouds on the horizon in Korea, if we take Ronald Reagan's brave life as a much-needed lesson in backbone, the final victory will have been his.

This article originally appeared on National Review Online on June 7, 2004.