Norman Podhoretz

Reagan and Soviet Appeasement

VTR Date: February 9, 1985

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “Reagan and Soviet Appeasement”
VTR: 2/9/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. In the 1960s, when he wrote his now famous, Making It, with its refreshing admission that American intellectuals’ dirty little secret is that they grub for fame and power and money and status as much as the rest of us…I wonder about our guest, Norman Podhoretz, whether even he dreamed then that in 1985 his 25th anniversary as editor of the now vastly influential Commentary magazine would be celebrated by quite so many luminaries as gathered in January to toast with great enthusiasm his eminence as neoconservative spokesman. Secretary of State Schultz was there. So was Jean Kirkpatrick. And, of course, Irving Crystal. And in tribute to Mr. Podhoretz’ long-time anti-Soviet position, Henry Kissinger announced that when President Reagan’s second inauguration was moved indoors because of the bitter cold, rumor had it that Norman Podhoretz objected that this was unnecessary appeasement of the weather.

So, with you here today, Norman, once again, I want to ask whether, looking at this question of appeasement, whether you do feel any more comfortable about the level of appeasement in the American presidential posture now than you did four years ago?

PODHORETZ: Yes, I certainly feel better about the president’s rhetoric and even some of his policies. But I think that the issue is deeper than presidential rhetoric and presidential actions. If we talk about appeasement, or the lack of it, we’re talking about the response of the nation and the entire political culture to the threat in this case of Soviet totalitarianism and its expansionist tendencies. And although I think the situation has improved considerably certainly since the mid-seventies, we still haven’t reached a point in this country of realistically and courageously facing the real danger that confronts us and that we’re going to have to either deal with in a forthright and honest manner, or we’re going to find ourselves in very, very deep trouble.

HEFFNER: But you know, you’ve sat at this table before a number of times over the years. You’ve said very much the same thing. I would have wondered four or five years ago whether, as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for a second term in office, whether you wouldn’t have to face this with a much larger smile and say, “With the right man in office, we’ve really found the leadership that will take us to a more realistic posture as a nation”.

PODHORETZ: Yeah. Well, the great paradox is that Ronald Reagan, of all the active political figures in this country, certainly as of 1980, was the one who held out the most hope of reversing some of the tendencies toward appeasement that had been particularly vivid in the first three years of the Carter administration. But, in office, Reagan’s policies have not matched his rhetoric for the most part. What he has done that has matched his rhetoric has been to remain very steadfast and against enormous pressures coming from both parties, including his own, in his determination to rebuild America’s military capability. And he understands what without a refurbished and modernized military capability that will restore the deteriorated balance between us and the Soviet Union, nothing else is possible. Military power is not the be-all and end-all of foreign policy, but it is the necessary foundation for anything else you do. Reagan understands that, and he’s been very courageous in maintaining his determination, up until including right now, to allocate, get Congress to allocate the necessary funds. But the strategy, the political strategy toward which this refurbished military power is directed has not been as clear, and I would say, as realistic as I would have hoped. I only recently wrote an article which is appearing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs called “The Reagan Road to Détente”, which is an attempt to analyze the record of the first term of the Reagan administration. And what I try to show there is that Reagan failed on the whole to do in foreign policy what he did in domestic policy. In domestic policy he invested an enormous amount of political capital and political energy in trying to turn the country around. Whether you like it or you don’t like it, you have to recognize that he made this effort. And to a considerable extend he succeeded. He has not done this in foreign policy. He has not invested the energy and the capital that were necessary to push the country into a different direction. The country had been moving along the track of détente through three administrations from both parties, Republican and Democratic. Reagan, by failing to do the necessary job, Reagan allowed the institutional momentum and the conceptual inertia of the past ten years to flow into the vacuum. And the consequence is that we are still fundamentally on the same track. I would not call it appeasement; but I would call it détente, which can easily degenerate into appeasement, as I think it has done on occasion in the past, but needn’t be as bad as all that. Nevertheless, it’s bad enough in itself, because it’s based on false premises about the nature of the Soviet Union.

HEFFNER: At the beginning of this new administration, the president seemed to be saying that he had set the economy aright, and now that he had done that, he would turn to foreign affairs, but from a different perspective: turn to foreign affairs from the perspective of perhaps achieving détente once more.


HEFFNER: How do you explain that?

PODHORETZ: Well, it’s not easy development to account for definitively. My own explanation, as I just tried to indicate, is that when the president is operating within a political culture that has been formed by a good many assumptions and institutional interest for quite a long time, he either has to challenge it very firmly or else it will engulf him and his policies. And I think the “permanent government”, as they call it, the media, and the regnant assumptions that have become almost axiomatic in the thinking of a lot of people in this country and in Europe over the last 10 or 15 years simply came pouring in to what was essentially a vacuum of policy after Reagan’s first few months in office.

HEFFNER: Norman, do you believe that in 1985 the president has either the will or the power to challenge those regnant assumptions better than he did in the past?

PODHORETZ: Well, I think he has the power if he wants to use it, but I don’t see the will to do so at all. What I see shaping up in the early months of the second term is something like a decision to embrace wholeheartedly what was forced upon him in his first term. And that’s how I interpret the rush into arms-control negotiations wit the Soviet Union virtually the day after he was elected. And not just arms-control negotiations, but trade relations, he’s hinted at that he’s looking for agreements along a broad front, including the nonmilitary aspects of the relationship. And at a press conference early in the second term he didn’t even shy away from the word “détente” which was anathema to him a few years earlier.

HEFFNER: How did you feel then late in January when you celebrated the 25th anniversary of Commentary? How did you feel in terms of achievement or, if I may use the word, “failure”, knowing what your objectives were 25 years ago in terms of putting us in a way that you would consider aright in foreign policy?

PODHORETZ: My view is that the role of people like me, that is, professional intellectuals who would deal at a certain remove from policy and the exercise of actual political power, that our role is to try to shape the political culture, the climate of opinion, attitudes, ideas, assumptions within which the people who have political power and make policy govern and by which they are constrained and, in my opinion, ultimately shaped and determined. And that process, that is the formation of a political culture, is a very arduous one. It takes a long time. And if you’re not prepared to stay the course, you inevitably are going to fail. I have had some disappointment, obviously, but I also have to say that in certain respects things are much better than I would have dreamed some years ago. There’s a great deal of work yet left to do. The only question always is whether we have enough time. I don’t know whether we do, and neither does anyone else. But you have to assume that you do, and you have to keep fighting the fight over and over and over again.

HEFFNER: But what would change the climate of opinion if the primary leader, the person upon whom you depended (“depended” may be too strong a word), the person upon whom you counted to lead the nation in a different direction, what happens to your level of optimism or pessimism now?

PODHORETZ: Well, what I infer or deduce from the failure of the Reagan administration to follow through on what are undoubtedly the president’s private convictions as an individual, what I deduce from that is that the political climate was not sufficiently favorable to those convictions for him to follow through on them without paying what he and his people considered too high a price.

HEFFNER: What would be too high a price at the beginning of this new administration?

PODHORETZ: Well, my own view is that he could afford to pay almost any price now. That’s my view, given that he’s a man of 73 or 74, whatever it is, and he’s not going to have to run again. He’s immensely popular. But people in the Oval Office, as we all hear incessantly, begin to worry about their role, that the historians are going to be saying about them, and they also worry, even Ronald Reagan, about what is said about them ion the prestige press as it’s come to be called. Politicians care about their reviews the way authors do and the way performers do, and the reviews they get are in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

HEFFNER: Norman, I beg to differ with you. The reviews they get, the reviews this president got came at the polling booths in November, 1984.

PODHORETZ: Well, that particular review, which is of course the most important, ceases to have any real power and influence the day after it’s over, when the operative power shifts to the interested constituencies whose representative voices are mainly in the major organs of the media. It’s a paradox of our system, but it’s, I think, a reality of our system. And in the case of Ronald Reagan, he has mistakenly been taken for an ideologue. Now, I think that, as a man of unwavering conviction an principle who will fight for it no matter what, actually, although compared to most politicians or many politicians, Ronald Reagan is very ideological. He actually has convictions, which a lot of politicians don’t. But compared to an ideologue, he is a politician, and his convictions will yield to what he thinks public opinion, no just as measured by the votes on election day, but as measured by the clamor around him on the networks and in the newspapers and within his own administration and within the bureaucracies, what they are telling him as well. And of course allied pressure in the case of foreign affairs.

HEFFNER: Do you think that those pressures are quite so great that the press, the kinds of press you were talking about, are so powerful in the molding of opinion that the president is not right, but correct in assuming that he couldn’t have it all?

PODHORETZ: Well, the president certainly would not have won 49 states if he hadn’t tempered his pitch during the presidential campaign. I think he would have won anyway, and maybe won quite big. But the press could not have beat the president. I mean, the role of the press in this, the media, has never been defined clearly. Let me take a stab at defining it.

HEFFNER: Please.

PODHORETZ: Perhaps over-simply. It’s clear that the media have very little power over the way most people vote. It’s not true that they influence votes. But they have a lot of power over the politicians for whom people vote. And that is a power that can be as decisive as the power of the polling booth. And I think this has been true even of the Reagan administration. And I believe that we see in the Reagan administration a kind of test case of the limits of presidential conviction within a relatively unfavorable climate. That is, Reagan has certainly been able to do something. I don’t wish to be entirely negative. And as compared with the alternatives that were represented by Mondale and some of the others in 1984, there is no question in my mind that Reagan was preferable. But as compared with what seems to me necessary and what he himself would once have defined as necessary, he has not been adequate. And in trying to explain that relative lack of adequacy I can only conclude that the political culture (that’s a very broad and vague term), but the political culture in which a political leader, particularly a president, operates, was not yet ready to support the kinds of moves that he would, other things being equal, have been happy to take as President of the United States.

HEFFNER: Norman, what would you like our political culture to support? What moves, vis-à-vis, let’s say, foreign policy?

PODHORETZ: Well, since I have said ad nauseam or repeated ad nauseam that the central challenge and danger that faces us is Soviet imperialism and what it represents, it follows that what I want us to do is confront that threat and that challenge. And I believe, unlike many people who shape the political culture of the moment, that indefinite coexistence with this totalitarian communist system is not possible, that it is not in its nature to coexist peacefully with the free or democratic world.

HEFFNER: Because it is expansionist?

PODHORETZ: It is inherently expansionist, and cannot, without committing suicide, give up that expansionist thrust. So I think it is an illusion and a delusion to believe that we can negotiate our way to safety. We obviously can’t rely on war in the nuclear age, so we have to find a way in effect of winning this, I would call it a war that we’re already in, cold war if you like, or non-shooting war. But we have to find a way of winning this war short of a nuclear exchange, which is unthinkable. And before we are…

HEFFNER: Why is it unthinkable, Norman?

PODHORETZ: Well, it could happen. But it is unthinkable as a deliberate instrument of policy.

HEFFNER: And if your central neural process or your thinking about this should lead you to the conclusion that this inevitable conflict is more likely to take the course of war than not, you say…

PODHORETZ: Well, I don’t think it is likely to take the course of a nuclear war. I don’t believe it…

HEFFNER: What course will it take, in your estimation?

PODHORETZ: Well, I think there will be constant conflict, with the Soviet Union pressing forward everywhere it possibly can, and where it is not resisted.

HEFFNER: As in Afghanistan?

PODHORETZ: As in Afghanistan. As I believe also now in Central America and through its Cuban proxies.

HEFFNER: And what should our counter stand be?

PODHORETZ: Now, I believe that in Central America we must under no circumstances allow the Sandinista regime to spread its revolution without frontiers. But in the larger frame, what I think we ought to do is, within the limits of prudence, use all our nonmilitary weapons, particularly economic pressures, to help exacerbate the internal difficulties within the Soviet empire that we have had nothing to do with creating. We ought to be trying to be making life more difficult for them in the hope that there will be greater and greater pressure from within. And we have not been doing that, not even under Reagan. In the last big explosion within the Soviet empire, which was the Solidarity crisis in Poland, what we in effect did was to cooperate with the Soviet Union in dampening the crisis down. I would never have believed or predicted that an administration run by Ronald Reagan would choose such a policy, but it did. And it continues in effect to live by such a policy. So instead of looking toward the disintegration of the Soviet empire and trying to help that process along through nonmilitary means – not by invasion or by use of arms – but I would say mainly by economic and political instrumentalities. That’s what I think we should do. Instead of doing that, we are in effect cooperating with the Soviet Union in the stabilization of its empire.

HEFFNER: Norman, when Khrushchev appeared at the UN and banged his shoe on the table and said they, “Would bury us”, I don’t think it was assumed that he was talking in military terms at that point, waiting for us to collapse. Isn’t it whistling in the dark for us to wait for the Soviets to collapse?

PODHORETZ: No. And Khrushchev was talking about something different. The Soviet empire is the last great empire on earth. All the empires of history, the Babylonian, the Assyrian, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman, the British, have all gone. And I see no reason to assume that only the Soviet empire is eternal. Why should it be exempted from the laws of history, especially given the fact that the forces of disintegration within that empire are very strong now and getting stronger all the time? So it’s not a matter of whistling in the dark here. I think we’re confronted with a very realistic possibility. A lot of people, including people within the Reagan administration, would certainly agree with what I’ve said, but they would say, perhaps not in public, that the breakup of the Soviet empire, even if we had nothing to do with it, would be so dangerous, so pregnant with the possibilities of a general war, that it is paradoxically not in our interest for it to happen, which is why they support rolling over the Polish loans for example, or more of less trying to help the Soviet Union keep the wraps on in Eastern Europe. They won’t advocate such policies in so many words, but this is not only the implication but the explicit idea behind a lot of American policy.

HEFFNER: But I wonder, having to assume that the President of the United States has meant for so many years what he has said about the evil empire, I wonder whether the president couldn’t respond, not as you suggest some administration people have, there would be danger in that collapse for us all, but that given what you consider the inevitability, the historical inevitability of collapse, let’s go the way we’re going.

PODHORETZ: No, it’s not inevitable. That collapse can be forestalled by Soviet military power in cooperation with us…

HEFFNER: With us.

PODHORETZ: …with our economic help. What people don’t seem to understand is that we have been helping the Soviet Union; we haven’t been fighting the Soviet Union, we’ve been helping them in all kinds of ways. A very healthy first step for us would be simply to stop helping them. That’s one of the things I had hoped Reagan would do. He hasn’t done that.

HEFFNER: Norman, do you think it’s possible for us, for we, the people, to understand that, given who is in the White House, given the assumption that everything must be being done that would have to be done to undermine the Soviet empire?

PODHORETZ: The job of people like me is to try to explain it and demonstrate it though the citation of evidence and analysis. I think people are capable of understanding what is true. And I also think that there are people within the Reagan administration who respond to the kind of criticism I’m making with uneasiness because they are not enthusiastic about the drift that they find themselves in.

HEFFNER: Would you assume that as we come closer to the next presidential election, albeit the previous one is just over, that we’ll be further and further removed from the possibility of achieving what you want, given what you call the political culture of this country?

PODHORETZ: No, not necessarily, because in the work of trying to shape a more realistic and courageous political culture, which goes on all the time, we may succeed, and with a little help from the Soviet Union. That is to say, when the Soviets, who are, thank God, human, make a mistake or overreach, as they did in invading Afghanistan in ’79, they awake the sleeping giant. And even Jimmy Carter turned 180 degrees after the invasion of Afghanistan. American public opinion suddenly began supporting increased defense expenditures and a tougher policy, and elected Reagan.

HEFFNER: But Norman, where are the Russians now, the Soviets now in terms of Afghanistan?

PODHORETZ: Soviets are, at a price they’re perfectly willing and even happy to pay, setting up a permanent control over Afghanistan. They have no internal public opinion to make demonstrations, to say, “Bring the boys back home”. They will, as they have said many times in private, stay there as long as it’s necessary, even if it takes 50 years. They are determined to keep Afghanistan within their imperial sphere.

HEFFNER: Norman, do you think we’re capable of talking about, “As long, even if it takes 50 years”, about anything?

PODHORETZ: Well, that’s what worries me most. As I said earlier, the real question for me is, “Is there enough time?” If I thought there were enough time – and I proceed on the assumption that there is – if I really believe that we had enough time, I would not be pessimistic, because I do believe that the, as I’ve said to you on this program before, the American people are not decadent, that this is a fundamentally healthy country, and we are not going to allow freedom to disappear from the earth without a struggle of some kind. And nothing less than that is what is at stake in my opinion.

HEFFNER: We have about a half a minute left, the time for me to ask you to be a prophet. Realistically, between us, what will happen?

PODHORETZ: In the next, what, 10 years?

HEFFNER: What will happen?

PODHORETZ: I think in the end that the Soviet empire will disintegrate, that the world will experience a great deal of turmoil as a result, but I think that the forces that we represent of a free society are very powerful fundamentally and they are likely to spread, provided we are courageous enough to stand for them, and the reverse.

HEFFNER: Norman, you were here 25 years ago; come back 25 years from now and we’ll see whether you’re right in your prophecy.

PODHORETZ: God willing.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here on THE OPEN MIND once again. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.