The memory lapse is a shame, for the Reagan Administration's handling of the Soviet Union's calculated ploy to divide NATO has current foreign policy utility. It provides diplomatic, political and common sense leadership guidance for addressing several current geo-political evils, among them the Syrian dictatorship's heinous use of chemical weapons and the Iranian dictatorship's drive to acquire nuclear warheads.
As the Crisis played out, the Reagan Administration demonstrated that the executive branch can craft and execute difficult political, diplomatic and media operations under intense pressure in order to secure strategic goals vital to American interests. To pull it off, however, the president must do three things: (1) be totally committed to achieving the strategic goals, no matter the personal and political price he may pay; (2) make absolutely certain that the organizations tasked with implementing policy are fully prepared to execute their missions; and (3) when the president commits America to international action after having secured allied support and cooperation, he must do what he says he will do.
In the 1970s, the Soviets started deploying SS-20 theater ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe. The missiles threatened European cities and threatened NATO's critical British air bases with short-notice attack. NATO responded to Kremlin escalation with a "dual track" policy pushed by the Carter Administration. NATO would negotiate to remove the SS-20s but, should the Soviets refuse to withdraw them, the allies would deploy equivalent systems. West Germany's Socialist chancellor Helmut Schmidt argued that Jimmy Carter's approach exposed NATO to Soviet political attacks designed to sap the collective will to resist. Schmidt favored a common sense response that said: "You deploy, we deploy. You negotiate, we negotiate." But Carter insisted on "dual track."
Carter's strategic naivete delighted Kremlin chess masters. They knew their end game: Negotiations would fail. As Schmidt feared, neutralist sentiment, evident in Holland and Belgium, was infecting West Germany. Leveraging classic anti-American tropes (Adolf Hitler dismissed Americans as "cowboys"), Moscow's propagandists would portray NATO's response to the SS-20s as the aggressive act. Among frightened Europeans, America's promise to protect Europe within its nuclear umbrella would morph into an American nuclear threat to Europe. The chess masters argued this political judo could shatter NATO.
In mid-1983, having collectively concluded negotiations had failed, NATO confirmed it would deploy U.S. cruise missiles to Britain and Italy and Pershing 2 ballistic missiles to West Germany to counter the Soviet SS-20s.
And then the Crisis, designed to stop NATO's counter-deployment, began in full media fury. Western "peace" organizations, Western pacifists and Communist sympathizers demonstrated throughout Western Europe and the U.S., their protests motley yet synchronized. In October the demonstrations intensified, along with media hysterics. Why? The West German parliament had scheduled a vote on missile deployment.
On November 22, West Germany's parliament approved the missile deployment. The next day, U.S. missiles arrived in Europe. NATO counter-deployed -- and nuclear war didn't erupt. The chess masters ... were checked.
18 months later, Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist Kremlin regime accepted a deal Reagan, the cowboy nuclear warmonger, had offered prior to the Crisis -- no SS-20s, no U.S. missiles.
Common sense and the common need to defend democracy against impoverishing tyranny held sway. Leadership mattered. Margaret Thatcher's personal steel reinforced Reagan's ironclad commitment. Behavioral red lines for tin pot tyrants drawn by Thatcher and Reagan came with guarantees. Neither feared the next election nor craved media celebration.
In the 1983 Euro-missile Crisis, democratic leaders demonstrated to tyrants that testing a free people's will to defend themselves had sure and certain consequences. That example of how to do it is well worth commemorating, and emulating.