Reagan's Top Hand: Part II

Posted: Dec 07, 2007 12:01 AM
Reagan's Top Hand: Part II

Editor's Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication and a regular feature from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. In this latest edition, the Center interviews its own executive director, Dr. Paul Kengor, on his new book, "The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand" (Ignatius Press, 2007), the untold story of Ronald Reagan’s closest friend, confidant, and most influential adviser. Bill Clark is widely regarded as the insider who more than any other adviser helped President Reagan win the Cold War. This is the second of a two-part interview.

V&V: Dr. Kengor, we left off with you listing some of the revelations in your new biography of Bill Clark, “The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand,” and promising to pick up with the Cold War component. Do any of those revelations involve Reagan policy toward the Soviet Union?

Paul Kengor: Yes, several of them. I will note two in particular: the MiG incident and the major historical revelation in the book—the secret mission to Suriname.

On the MiG incident: This was never before reported until Clark shared the story for this book. It occurred in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was still a relatively new president. The Soviets were known to test new presidents—like JFK in Berlin. The historians on Bill Clark’s NSC staff warned him about the possibility the Russians would test Reagan somewhere.

Well, the test suddenly appeared to be unfolding in Nicaragua. In the spring of 1982, Clark’s staff received reports that the Soviets were behind the construction of a large new airfield west of Managua. The runway was large enough to handle large military transports and bombers. As Clark put it, “This was for Soviet MiGs, and certainly not for Pan-Am airlines.”

Clark remembers that the president—far from the detached, bumbling grandfather type depicted by the left—grew quite angry. He turned to Secretary of State Al Haig and ordered that he deliver a message to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin: “You tell Dobrynin that if they move MiGs into that new lengthened airfield in Managua, we’ll take them out within 24 hours.” Haig saluted. The Soviets backed down.

That’s the kind of thing you didn’t read about in the early biographies that made Ronald Reagan out to be a puppet controlled by his more moderate advisers—the true geniuses, of course.

V&V: What about Suriname? What happened there?

Kengor: Only a handful of people knew even a few details about this. Here’s what happened:

At the start of the 1980s, the Soviets were hoping to have another busy decade of expansion into the Third World, and especially into the Western Hemisphere. One man stood in the way: Ronald Reagan. The Soviets soon learned that Bill Clark was the other man who stood in the way. As a cover story on Clark in the New York Times Magazine reported at the time, Clark was not only “the most influential foreign-policy figure in the Reagan administration,” but “the president’s chief instrument” in confronting Soviet influence in the world, particularly in Latin America.

Well, at the northern tip of South America is the nation of Suriname, which had undergone a coup by a military despot named Desi Bouterse, who was suddenly getting very close to the USSR and Cuba. The Soviets, Clark’s staff learned, actually had plans for a full-scale embassy in Suriname’s capital. They saw this country as a significant military-strategic outpost, for reasons we lay out in the book. It gets worse: there was also a terrorist connection to Moammar Kaddafi’s Libya. Further, the American company ALCOA had a plant there, and Clark and Reagan were very fearful of a potential hostage situation.

There are many similarities here to what happened in Grenada, but with one major difference: We didn’t invade or use U.S. military force, which is not to say we didn’t suggest a threat to do so. Clark and a few others flew a secret mission to Suriname, authorized by Ronald Reagan and not shared with White House moderates and leakers. Their objective was to try to salvage this situation with unique, dramatic, carrot-and-stick diplomacy. They pulled it off. And then, none of them talked about it until this book.

V&V: So, this is an unknown case of Ronald Reagan stopping the Soviet advance in Latin America? And Reagan never talked about it?

Kengor: Near the end of his presidency, Reagan rightly declared that during his eight years, “not one inch of ground has fallen to the communists”—compared to 11 nations that fell into the Soviet camp under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. As an example of where communism was halted, Reagan openly pointed to countries like Grenada, but was silent on Suriname.

V&V: This book has a strong religious component, which is integral to the Cold War story; it is the only book on a Reagan official published by a religious press. Explain that.

Kengor: Here were two men, Reagan and Clark, a devout Protestant president and devout Catholic, who prayed together, and who spoke of what they together, in their personal code language, called “the DP”—the Divine Plan. They believed they had a mutual spiritual obligation to drive a stake into the heart of an evil and self-acknowledged atheistic empire. And they proceeded to do just that. Reagan decided on the destination and Clark laid the railroad, which is now evident through a paper trail of declassified NSDDs [National Security Decision Directives] quoted at length in the book. Clark managed the NSC [National Security Council] staff that produced all those remarkable NSDDs that stated categorically that the plan was to undermine Soviet communism, reverse communism’s hold on Eastern Europe, bring political pluralism to the USSR, and change the course of history by actually winning the Cold War.

These documents, which were done by Clark’s NSC, and refined in daily consultation between Clark and Reagan, often meeting alone, expressed these precise goals. This is one of the biggest stories of the end of the 20th century.

The two men also together established the vital Cold War relationship with Pope John Paul II’s Vatican, with Clark being the principal liaison.

V&V: How did Clark manage to get praised by the likes of Time and Michael Reagan, by the New York Times and Cap Weinberger, by Edmund Morris and Ed Meese, by tree huggers and Cold Warriors? You believe this is the only book on a Reagan official, or maybe anyone, endorsed by both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Was there anyone who didn’t like Clark?

Kengor: People liked him as a person. Politically and ideologically, however, he had his opponents, such as the moderates and pragmatists in the Reagan White House. Among them were Mike Deaver and Nancy Reagan, who wanted Clark fired. Some of these folks thought that if only hard-line Bill Clark would quit backing Ronald Reagan in his primitive desire to bankrupt the USSR, the Nobel Committee would show up at the Oval Office one day with the Peace Prize.

V&V: How did you convince him to tell his story?

Kengor: I can’t say I really did. I appealed to his sense of duty to Ronald Reagan and to the historical record. He still regrets the attention this has brought to himself. He has a striking faith-based humility, stemming from a devout Catholicism begun as a young boy on the ranches and vistas of California, connecting to God through nature—as did his favorite saint, Saint Francis—and through years of contemplating the priesthood at seminary, which he left for another mission: to fight atheistic Soviet communism—to win the Cold War. The fulfillment of that mission would require that he meet an ex-actor named Ronald Reagan. The “DP” ultimately had precisely that in store.

V&V: So, in the end, you say that Clark rode off into the sunset?

Kengor: I will quote Roger Robinson, probably the most significant NSC aide. He says of Clark: “You talk about a dark horse in history…. There may have never been a greater dark horse than Bill Clark. He and his president were all about some 300 million people going free. And isn’t it poetic, isn’t it fitting, that this quiet rancher, this unassuming guy, gave everyone else the credit? He wanted no credit for himself. And then he just walked away.”

Death, alas, in 1991, came to the doorstep of the Kremlin. And somewhere, at some point, when no one was watching, Bill Clark quietly returned to his ranch in California.

There are a number of photos of Clark and Reagan on horseback together. One, however, seems especially poignant. It has a special inscription from Reagan: “Dear Bill: ‘And As The Sun Slowly Sank in the West’—Don’t Ride Too Far Into the Sunset. Ron.” Well, as that sun sank slowly in the west, Bill Clark one day put all those achievements behind him and silently did just that.

Bill Clark was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon in winning the Cold War—period. This is the unheralded, enigmatic figure who, more than any other White House official, helped President Reagan undermine atheistic Soviet communism, and then, quite literally, one day saddled his horse in Washington for the final time, and rode off into the sunset.