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  • Ronald Reagan Roundtable: “full of jovial doom”

    Posted by Charles Cameron on February 10th, 2011 (All posts by )

    Knowing of my interest in matters apocalyptic, you wouldn’t expect me to pass up President Reagan‘s connection with Ezekiel and the Revelation of John of Patmos on an occasion such as this, would you?

    Seriously:

    I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of people who believe in prophecy having their fingers on the triggers of nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan was one such, and didn’t press the trigger — a fact for which I am profoundly grateful. Perhaps it was his “jovial” approach to “doom” that made the difference.

    The story is actually quite fascinating. I first ran across mention of it in Stephen O’Leary’s (politically neutral) book, Arguing the Apocalypse, researched it a little more and found the account in Sara Diamond’s (leftwards) book, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, and verified the story’s legs by finding it in this account by Joel Rosenberg (right-leaning, Christian, apocalyptic), which I believe can be found in his book The Epicenter but which I’m quoting here from his website FAQ:

    In 1971, Reagan—then governor of California—attended a banquet to honor State Senator James Mills. After the main course, he asked Mills if he was familiar with “the fierce Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.” He went on to explain that Russia was the Magog described in Ezekiel’s prophecy and was thus doomed to destruction.
     
    “In the thirty-eighth chapter of Ezekiel it says God will take the children of Israel from among the heathen [where] they’d been scattered and will gather them again in the promised land,” Reagan told Mills. “Ezekiel says that . . . the nation that will lead all the other powers into darkness against Israel will come out of the north. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel [besides Russia]? None. But it didn’t seem to make sense before the Russian revolution, when Russia was a Christian country. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description perfectly.” Reagan conceded that “everything hasn’t fallen into place yet,” but he strongly believed the end of the Soviet empire and the second coming of Christ were increasingly close at hand.
     
    In his 1997 book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Edmund Morris—the president’s official biographer—revealed that Ezekiel was actually Reagan’s “favorite book of prophecy.” Morris also recounted an intriguing scene he personally witnessed in the Oval Office in which Reagan discussed the Ezekiel option with White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker and National Security Advisor Colin Powell.
     
    “We talk mainly about religion,” read the notes of Morris’s meeting with Reagan on February 9, 1988. “I have been reading a book about his Armageddon complex, and, when I mention the subject, am rewarded by an animated speech, full of jovial doom, that lasts the rest of the half hour. … [White House chief of Staff] Howard Baker and [National Security Advisor] Colin Powell arrive, impatient for their own thirty minutes. ‘We’re having a cozy chat about Armageddon,’ I say. They stand grinning nervously as he continues.”
     
    “When it comes [Ezekiel 38–39],” Reagan explained to his senior staff, “the man who comes from the wrong side, into the war, is the man, according to the prophecies, named Gog, from Meshech, which is the ancient name of Moscow—”
     
    “I tell you, Mr. President,” Baker replied. “I wish you’d quit talking about that. You upset me!”
     
    But Reagan continued to talk about such things, as he had for many years.
     
    I once asked Michael Reagan, the president’s son, if such accounts rang true. He confirmed that they did, noting that his father firmly believed he was living in history’s last days and thought that he might even see the return of Christ in his lifetime.
     
    Ronald Reagan was a devout Christian. He was a student of the Bible. He was fascinated with end-times prophecies. He believed they were true. He talked about them with friends and colleagues. They helped shape his view that the Soviet Union, and the system of evil it advanced and perpetuated, was not long for this world. For a movie actor turned president like Ronald Reagan, the Bible was indeed the greatest story ever told. He had read the last chapter, and thus he knew for certain that a day of reckoning—a day of justice—was coming.

    That’s the “apocalyptic” angle — let’s see how the same faith actually played out on the world stage.

    To do that, I’d like to follow that quote up with another, this one from the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a group which advocates for nuclear disarmament:

    According to his wife, Nancy, “Ronnie had many hopes for the future, and none were more important to America and to mankind than the effort to create a world free of nuclear weapons.”
     
    President Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist. He believed that the only reason to have nuclear weapons was to prevent the then Soviet Union from using theirs. Understanding this, he argued in his 1984 State of the Union Address, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
     
    Ronald Reagan regarded nuclear weapons, according to Nancy, as “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.”
     
    In 1986, President Reagan and Secretary General Gorbachev met for a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. In a remarkable quirk of history, the two men shared a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Despite the concerns of their aides, they came close to achieving agreement on this most important of issues. The sticking point was that President Reagan saw his Strategic Defense Initiative (missile defenses) as being essential to the plan, and Gorbachev couldn’t accept this (even though Reagan promised to share the US missile defense system with the then Soviet Union). Gorbachev wanted missile defense development to be restricted to the laboratory for ten years. Reagan couldn’t accept this.
     
    The two leaders came heartbreakingly close to ending the era of nuclear weapons, but in the end they couldn’t achieve their mutual goal. As a result, nuclear weapons have proliferated and remain a danger to all humanity. Today, we face the threat of terrorists gaining possession of nuclear weapons, and wreaking massive destruction on the cities of powerful nations. There can be no doubt that had Reagan and Gorbachev succeeded, the US and the world would be much safer, and these men would be remembered above all else for this achievement.

    May President Reagan rest in peace: our task of peace-making remains.

     

    14 Responses to “Ronald Reagan Roundtable: “full of jovial doom””

    1. deichmans Says:

      Excellent post, Charles, and an intriuguing concept of “jovial doom”.

      I saw much of the same vision of a “nuclear free” world in my research for my post. I also saw Reagan as a man of devout faith, thouh not a regular churchgoer (per his remark to Falwell’s Moral Majority: “You can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you!”).

      Thanks for posting!

    2. Lexington Green Says:

      Morris is unreliable. He came to despise the subject of his research, and wrote a work of fiction instead of the book he was commissioned to write.

      The second cite is ludicrous. The very language it uses is meaningless. It is not possible to “end the era of nuclear weapons” any more than we can end the era of dynamite or gunpowder or iron, bronze or copper. The knowledge exists and it won’t go away and there will always be nuclear weapons. Reagan spoke in rosy and utopian terms from time to time, but there was zero prospect that the USA would get rid of its nuclear weapons entirely. To do so would have initiated a conventional arms race no one wanted to pay for. Mr. Gorbachev was a realist and, as a communist, a utilitarian liar who would say whatever the useful idiots in the West might want to hear put political pressure on his adversaries. The tyranny he inherited was going broke and he wanted a respite in the arms race, that was what he was negotiating for. Mr. Gorbachev’s goal was to stay in power. He sent the tanks into Vilnius for that reason. He presided over psychiatric prisons and a secret police force and other tools of control. The only noteworthy thing about Mr. Gorbachev was his failure. He failed and his failure has made him a secular saint in the West, mostly as a way to deny Mr, Reagan his role in defeating Mr, Gorbachev’s vile dictatorship. Nothing heartbreaking happened. The Soviet Union could not compete and it fell apart. Proliferation has nothing to do with the Rekyavik meeting. The point of this quote is tell the outright lie that Reagan’s negotiating stance at Reykavik has something to do with the dangers of proliferation today. This is incoherent, baseless propaganda.

    3. Joseph Fouche Says:

      Edmund Morris was invented expressly for the reason of having a talking head on every Reagan documentary that was the exact inverse of Ronald Reagan, the perfect un-Reagan.

      British accents like Morris’ don’t exist in the real world, only in animatronic replicas of Britons designed by Americans.

    4. Joseph Fouche Says:

      That should read “Edmund Morris is an Englishman designed by a committee of Americans whose only reference material is re-runs of Mr. Belvedere.”

    5. tehag Says:

      Can’t say I’ve thought much about politicians who believe in prophecy, but I have to admit that the Nazi and Communist regimes, who prophesied often about their inevitable destinies didn’t work out well.

    6. Charles Cameron Says:

      Lex, you write:

      Morris is unreliable. He came to despise the subject of his research, and wrote a work of fiction instead of the book he was commissioned to write.

      It’s Reagan’s apocalyptic interest that I’m pointing to here, and I quoted Rosenberg (who quoted Morris) because he’s unimpeachably a conservative Christian – so the idea that Reagan was interested in Ezekiel and Revelation and expected the end-times is not a scare-smear from the left, which it might be taken to be if I’d quoted an evangelical critical of “muscular Christianity” such as Grace Halsell.

      Morris is not essential to my point that Reagan was a student of apocalyptic. Interestingly, however, Frances Fitzgerald gives us something of a mixed message about RR and Armageddon – perhaps in line with the “jovial doom” of my title:

      Reagan often spoke of Armageddon; he knew the eschatology rather better than he knew Libyan politics. Many people, including Mills, wondered whether his belief affected his actions as President. But it is not clear that Reagan believed in Armageddon any more than he believed in astrology or ghosts in the Lincoln bedroom; besides, Armageddon is something that mortals can’t do anything about.

      That last point about mortals is an issue that Halsell raises in her book Forcing God’s Hand — but that, along with the question of Islamists “hot-wiring the apocalypse” (to use Reuven Paz’ useful shorthand) is something I intend to discuss in an upcoming review of Joel Rosenberg’s The Twelfth Imam.

      *

      I haven’t read Paul Lettow’s Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Random House, 2005), but when I tried to find materials to give RR’s views on nuclear weapons a context in my second section, I read his 2006 Heritage Foundation lecture “President Reagan’s Legacy and U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy”.

      Here’s the picture as Lettow sees it:

      Reagan, contrary to his image as a champion of the bomb, was a nuclear abolitionist. This is not a mere historical curiosity. Abolishing nuclear weapons was one of Reagan’s fundamental goals for his presidency. His desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons under pinned much of what he did as President in terms of his Cold War policy. In many ways it is difficult to understand Reagan’s presidency without taking into account his anti-nuclearism. But thus far that aspect of Reagan has been largely overlooked.

      Lettow finds the beginnings of this stance in Reagan’s response to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs:

      Immediately after the United States dropped two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945 to end World War II, Reagan became involved in antinuclear politics. He was an ardent proponent of the abolition of nuclear weapons and the internationalization of atomic energy. In December 1945, Reagan intended to help lead an anti-nuclear rally in Holly wood. He planned to read an anti-nuclear poem at the rally, but Warner Brothers, the studio to which Reagan was contracted as a film actor, informed him that he could not participate, ostensibly because it would violate his performance contract, but almost certainly because the studio did not want that kind of political attention. So we were denied our first chance to see Reagan’s anti-nuclearism in public.
       
      Many views that Reagan held in the mid-1940s changed as he evolved from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. But he never abandoned his hatred of nuclear weapons and his desire to eliminate them. Reagan’s “dream,” as he himself described it, was “a world free of nuclear weapons.” He pursued that dream as a personal mission.

      He too mentions Reagan’s eschatological beliefs:

      Throughout his two terms as governor of California, Reagan frequently discussed with his aides, many of whom later joined his presidential administration, his hatred of nuclear weapons, his conviction that they ought to be eliminated, and his desire to seek a missile defense. We also see evidence that during this period Reagan came to believe that the biblical story of Armageddon foretold a nuclear war. He thought both that a nuclear war that would end civilization was imminent and that it could be avoided. Reagan’s belief in a future nuclear war as Armageddon further contributed to his nuclear abolitionism, and to his desire to pursue a missile defense system.

      And (here I’m responding to your comment, “It is not possible to ‘end the era of nuclear weapons’ any more than we can end the era of dynamite or gunpowder or iron, bronze or copper”) he suggests that SDI was Reagan’s proposed solution to the “genie out of the bottle” problem:

      Reagan saw SDI as a means of accomplishing his objective of a nuclear-free world. An effective missile defense, he believed, could render ballistic missiles “impotent and obsolete.” In his eyes, such a defense would make not just ballistic missiles but all nuclear weapons negotiable, and would spur talks, first with the Soviet Union and then with the other nuclear powers, that would result in the elimination of all nuclear arms. He thought that the United States could then share a defense system, and that an “internationalized” defense would serve to guarantee security in a nuclear-free world. None of Reagan’s advisers adhered to his vision of SDI as the catalyst for and guarantor of a world without nuclear weapons. But from the inception of the initiative through the rest of his presidency, Reagan held unwaveringly to that vision of SDI.

      But that’s not my field of interest here: the possible influence of eschatology on geopolitics is — and even there it’s the Islamist variants that I mostly try to keep tabs on.

    7. Lexington Green Says:

      “… besides, Armageddon is something that mortals can’t do anything about.”

      Reagan believed in free will and that our fate was in our hands. I do not have sources at hand, but this is not reasonably disputable. He did not believe in an inevitable apocalypse, or that prophecy locked in the future. Morris presents him in this quote, with the crack about “jovial doom” as a borderline lunatic. Reagan did not believe in doom, jovial or otherwise. He believed in the triumph of goodness over evil, and his own ability to shape history, including making a personal connection with the leader of the Evil Empire. He was a techno-optimist.

      I tend to think also that a Christian apocalyptic thinker would like very much to recruit Reagan as “one of his own” which makes me discount his testimony.

      Reagan did have an aspiration to abolish nuclear weapons. He saw that as a long-term goal. This wish on Reagan’s part is not reasonably disputable, and I don’t disagree with it. My point is any such vision was never possible. Therefore, there was no tragic failure at Rekyavik. In fact, by not giving in on Star Wars, he ultimately reached the zero/zero deal on theatre nuclear weapons in Europe. Reagan knew how to negotiate. There was no tragedy, and the attempt to somehow blame proliferation of nuclear weapons in the last quarter century on the supposed intransigence of Reagan is nothing more than a baseless slander.

      I do agree that getting to the bottom of Reagan’s thought on apocalyptic matters is an interesting subject. At this point, it may be hard to do. He probably did not write much down about it. His more mainstream-thinking aids probably did not like to hear this sort of talk — Howard Baker’s reaction sounds plausible.

      In the 1970s Hal Lindsey’s books were popular, of course. Reagan apparently read those, or heard about them. How seriously he took it is an open question.

      I also wonder how much of this sort of thing Reagan wanted to leak out to the Soviets? Deterrence succeeds when the decision-makers are less rational. If the Soviets think the President is an apocalyptic thinker, a madman, then they are less likely to force a confrontation. Nixon intentionally created rumors that he was irrational, for Soviet consumption, to enhance crisis stability and to strengthen his bargaining hand. Reagan was very close to Nixon, much more so than is ordinarily recognized. They had many private conversations, and Reagan respected him and sought his advice. This “apocalyptic” talk may have been a ploy on Reagan’s part. Reagan was a subtle person, who waged war on the USSR on all fronts, including the psychological.

    8. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hello again, Lex:

      To be clear: the quote, “… besides, Armageddon is something that mortals can’t do anything about” is from Frances Fitzgerald, not Morris, and it seems to me she’s agreeing with your own point, that RR “believed in the triumph of goodness over evil, and his own ability to shape history”.

      And the idea of someone expecting (on the basis of prophecy) a nuclear apocalypse while also trying to avoid it is an interesting one, certainly, and merits further thought.

      I also agree that apocalyptic thinking is something that one might prefer to keep quiet about, certainly, and if I avoid both “left” and “right” sources like Halsell and Rosenberg, I’m left with Stephen O’Leary (fine scholar, friend of mine too) and the James Mills story, which he quotes.

      And your point about a “ploy” is well taken. All in all, I’d love to see further digging in this area…

    9. Lexington Green Says:

      Reagan was a man of who was not a product of an elite education. Most presidents who start out poor manage to go to well-regarded Universities and acquire the culture of the American elite. Reagan was a product of the religious center of the country, which is open to various Bible-derived ideas which the more sophisticated, wealthy, and well-credentialled never hear about and would reject out of hand. Plus he was exposed to some of the stranger ideas circulating in California largely through his wife. Another element in Reagan’s makeup is his father’s Catholicism. Some writers have described Reagan as “culturally Catholic” and one, somewhere, said Reagan was an “Aristotelian” without knowing it. This aspect is also one that merits further exploration.

      Reagan’s inner world, nonetheless, was notoriously hard to penetrate. Morris was driven to distraction by his inability to penetrate it. Reagan’s surface bonhomie and seeming simplicity create a false sense of shallowness in unsympathetic observers. That is obviously wrong.The existing and growing record shows him to have been a consistent, realistic, penetrating and lucid thinker who was not easily distracted from his goals. The record shows that there were depths there, as well as a strong will and intellect. Further, his apparent inner peace seems to have resulted from an interior life marked by prayer and trust in God, leading to a reflectively happiness and hopefulness, however idiosyncratic he may have been in his religious practices and beliefs.

      Much like Franklin D. Roosevelt, his inmost private thoughts, and the deepest motives for his actions, may never have been shared aloud with anyone. However, Roosevelt had a manipulative, feline, aspect to him that was very different from Reagan’s personality.

      Bottom-line, the apocalyptic element has been used to malign Reagan and dismiss him as a kook. As a result it is a very politically loaded issue. It is one weapon that has been used in the multi-decade effort to defame and dismiss President Reagan. Hence I hope you will pardon an irritated response by this life-long devotee of President Reagan.

    10. J. Scott Says:

      Charles,

      One point I didn’t see as I scanned the comments: Revelation is the only book in the Bible that promises a blessing to those who read it (my biblical skills are sadly rusty, so I might be wrong) :

      “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” Revelation 1:3

      And Reagan wasn’t alone in equating nuclear weapons with end times. One of the makers of the atomic bomb observed that he had become “death”—-at the beginning (I’m too lazy to look up the source, sorry:)), and from a metaphoric point of view, the enormity of the power of a nuclear weapon might lead a believer to make the connection.

      Also, the “idea of someone expecting” versus someone acquainted/informed with/of the prophesy aren’t the same.

      Good post!

    11. Michael Kennedy Says:

      They had many private conversations, and Reagan respected him and sought his advice. This “apocalyptic” talk may have been a ploy on Reagan’s part. Reagan was a subtle person, who waged war on the USSR on all fronts, including the psychological.

      It has been revealed that Reagan’s “gaffe” in testing a microphone by saying “The bombing will begin in five minutes” was actually a ploy to unsettle the Soviets when he was early in his presidency.

      Another very interesting book about Reagan is The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, which goes into considerable detail about his relationship with Suzanne Massie who spent a lot of time in the USSR on business and who spoke Russian. He got a lot of insight into the Russian people from her. My review of the book is here .

    12. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi Scott:

      It was Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie”) who made the “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds” quote at Alamogordo — and he was quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, 10.34. He also quoted “If in the sky the light of a thousand suns were to rise all at once, it would be the likeness of the light of that great-spirited One” from Bhagavad Gita 11.12. Oppie, it turns out, knew Sanskrit.

      The test itself was named Trinity, also by Oppie, after John Donne’s celebrated poem, XVI in his Holy Sonnets:

      Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
      As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
      That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’ and bend
      Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

      And the Hiroshima bomb exploded on August 6th, the Feast of the Transfiguration…

      I have a long (7,000 word) and slightly out-of-date essay on mythology, world scriptures and nuclear weaponry on the web here.

    13. J. Scott Says:

      Thanks for the reference, Charles. I’ll get to it this weekend!

      Michael, I’ve heard of the Massie book, but haven’t read—-I’ll add to my never-ending list!

      Cheers!

    14. Charles Cameron Says:

      Lex:

      Bottom-line, the apocalyptic element has been used to malign Reagan and dismiss him as a kook. As a result it is a very politically loaded issue. It is one weapon that has been used in the multi-decade effort to defame and dismiss President Reagan.

      That’s pretty much why I tried to find sources on the right to quote on the issue – my interest is to inquire, not to defame.

      Hence I hope you will pardon an irritated response by this life-long devotee of President Reagan.

      I’m quietly hoping you’ll make a post about Reagan’s interactions with John Paul II, as a matter of fact – that seems to be one of the great tales of Reagan’s presidency and of the last half-century.

      Michael:

      Thanks: I too will keep an eye out for the book.