The White House was about to issue a statement on the killing of Major Arthur Nicholson, a U.S. army officer serving in East Germany. Maj. Nicholson had been shot in cold blood by a Russian soldier.
Speakes thought the president's statement, "This violence was unjustified," was weak. I agreed. We interrupted the president, who reread the statement, then said go ahead with it.
What lay behind this Reagan decision not to express his own and his nation's disgust and anger at this atrocity?
Since taking office, Reagan had sought to engage Soviet leaders in negotiations, but, as he told me, "they keep dying on me."
Two weeks earlier, on March 10, 1985, Konstantin Chernenko, the third Soviet premier in Reagan's term, had died, and the youngest member of the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, had been named to succeed him.
Believing Gorbachev had no role in the murder of Maj. Nicholson, and seeking a summit with the new Soviet leader to ease Cold War tensions, Reagan decided not to express what must have been in his heart.
Which raises a question many Republicans are asking:
What would Reagan do -- in Syria, Crimea, Ukraine?
Is Sen. Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, or Gov. Jeb Bush or Chris Christie the candidate most in the Reagan tradition, the gold standard for the GOP?
We cannot know what he would do, as we live in a post-Cold War world. But we do know what Reagan did.
In the battle over the Panama Canal "giveaway," Reagan stood against Bill Buckley and much of his movement and party. "We bought it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we're gonna keep it," he thundered.
The Senate agreed 2-1 with Jimmy Carter to surrender the Canal to Panama's dictator. Reagan's consolation prize? The presidency.
Reagan came to office declaring Vietnam "a noble cause" and determined to rebuild U.S. military might and morale, which he did in spades. His defense budgets broke the spine of a Soviet Union that could not compete with the booming America of the Reagan era.
What's our strategy, his first National Security Council adviser Dick Allen asked him.
Replied Reagan: "We win, they lose."
Reagan saw clearly the crucial moral dimension of the ideological struggle between communism and freedom. He called the Soviet Bloc "an evil empire." Yet he never threatened military intervention in Eastern Europe, as some bellicose Republicans do today.
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