Post Date: March 21, 2005

Paul Lettow was too young to vote for Ronald Reagan, but that hasn’t kept the third-year law student from writing a book on Reagan’s policies that is causing some to rethink the record of America’s 40th president. “Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons” hit bookstores in February and earned praise in The New York Times for being “provocative, informative and largely persuasive.”

While many biographers and former journalists have written exhaustive retrospectives on Reagan, Lettow poses a specific hypothesis: Beginning in the 1940s, Reagan developed a visceral opposition to nuclear weapons that remained with him throughout his political life and, paradoxically, fueled his escalation of U.S. nuclear arms production.

Lettow recognizes the irony, saying his research clearly shows a man who believed that winning the arms race with the Soviet Union was the only way to bring about the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

“What I found in my research was that the really interesting part of the [Cold War] era was Reagan himself, and his views on nuclear weapons,” said Lettow, who began work on the book while a junior at Princeton. “This hadn’t been written about very much before, not even by Reagan’s most astute biographers.” Lettow spent the next six years poring over reams of speeches, many of which were handwritten by Reagan in the ’50s and ’60s, when he was a spokesman for General Electric. Lettow also gained access to recently declassified intelligence documents at the CIA, State Department and Pentagon. He traveled several times to the Reagan Library in California, including long-distance trips from Oxford University, where he continued his research as a doctoral student. He then interviewed more than a dozen of Reagan’s closest advisers, among them White House Communications Director Michael Deaver and former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger ’41.

“It was a combination of guts and luck,” Lettow said of getting former Cabinet secretaries and White House officials to speak with him. “A lot of them were skeptical at first. These are conservatives for the most part, and they’re not necessarily inclined to speak with someone who’s a graduate student at Oxford. But I got the feeling that some of them, after being interviewed, felt that I had done my homework.” Lettow’s homework included an analysis of Reagan’s summer job as a lifeguard on the Rock River in Dixon, Ill. Lettow argues that lifeguarding was an important formative experience for the future president: “Reagan harbored a fundamental impulse to intervene in the course of human events in order to rescue others from peril,” he writes.

According to Lettow, this impulse would eventually play a role in Reagan’s zeal to construct the Strategic Defense Initiative, which the president believed was not merely a defense against ballistic missiles, but the world’s best hope for total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Although his book focuses primarily on Reagan’s Cold War policies, Lettow sees the nuclear issue as a defining narrative for Reagan‹a window into the thinking of a president he believes was a farsighted visionary, not an aging actor who read from a prepared script.

“It’s difficult to understand Reagan’s presidency without taking into account his antinuclearism because it played such an important role in how he approached the Soviet Union, and even, in some cases, domestic policy,” said Lettow, who hopes his book will challenge some of the conventional wisdom on Reagan more generally. “People on the left and the right may have to do a little readjusting of their views.”

Following commencement this spring Lettow will clerk for Chief Judge Danny Boggs in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. He isn’t sure what he’ll do after that but, he says, “One of my primary interests will be to keep writing.”