.
N

ot too long ago an article circulated online that alleged that Hollywood was considering remaking the 1990 classic movie “The Hunt for Red October” based off of Tom Clancy’s 1984 book of the same title. To me, this is both sacrilegious and heretical in equal measure. The book is one of my favorites of all time and the movie ranks easily ranks among my top five. I was so incensed by this report that I penned a tweet (grammatical error included), which garnered 2,000 likes over the course of a weekend. Clearly, I was not alone in my affection for the sublime Cold War story.

Clancy’s reach went well beyond my impressionable young mind and, in Benjamin Griffin’s telling, reached deep into the White House and President Ronald Reagan—forming part of a body of literature that both shaped and reflected the president’s worldview. In “Reagan’s War Stories” (a copy of which was provided for review), Griffin explores this underappreciated aspect of the Cold War President, one he purposefully concealed from the broader public. Indeed, I suspect few people would associate the former governor of California with literature of any kind.

Book Details: Reagan's War Stories: A Cold War Presidency | Benjamin Griffin | Naval Institute Press

“Reagan’s War Stories” is one of those books that offers up a new angle on a subject about which much has already been written. President Reagan is a much-mythologized figure in Republican politics, but likely little thought of by the broader public. A great president to his supporters and much reviled by his critics. He is a figure who brought clarity and moral focus to the Cold War and who oversaw abuses of power and human rights in pursuit of that purpose. “Reagan’s War Stories” is a novel take on the president—a sort of biography via books. Starting with Reagan’s love of John Burrow’s “John Carter of Mars” series and later exploring the influence of Clancy on the president, Griffin finds the evolution of Reagan’s character and worldview—for both good and ill. Griffin finds understanding and meaning in Reagan’s politics and purpose in what the late president read as a child, an actor, and as president.

“Reagan’s War Stories” offers up a number of avenues for exploration of the president himself and the power of fictional narratives. Reagan’s narrative was, in most cases, distinctly positive (even if he fabricated stories and anecdotes)—a brighter future, a reinvigorated and stronger America, a world where the defeat of the Soviet Union was not only possible, but morally necessary. This is in stark contrast this with much of the increasingly divisive language used in today’s politics: “American carnage” or “a winter of severe illness and death.”

Of course, this is not to say that everything was rosy under Reagan or that politics was any less, well, political. Indeed, much of the mythology around Reagan and his political story comes from this narrative: Republicans in particular fondly remember his “Morning in America” campaign advertisement—seen as perhaps the best embodiment of this narrative.

One can just as easily reflect on mythology in American politics and culture—how America sees itself as a shining city on the hill and a moral force for good. As Griffin notes, Reagan sought and found books that perpetuated these beliefs, finding that they both helped shape and reinforced his worldview. Equally, for Griffin, his disinterest in reading books that challenged his views contributed to poor policies toward Africa, Latin and South America, and the Middle East—particularly as he preferred stories that perpetuated the myth of the “white man’s burden.” Here it is perhaps less deterministic than Griffin presents. One imagines that it was less what Reagan read and more a function the Cold War policies his administration pursued that led to geopolitical decisions which sacrificed human rights for stability or successes against the Soviet Union.  

Griffin’s exploration of the relationship between Reagan and Clancy is particularly interesting. Clancy, in Griffin’s telling, was the right author at the right time—capturing Reagan’s effort to portray the American military in a positive light and highlight the power and capabilities of American technology. At the same time, Clancy penned a narrative that fit Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union and communism as an inherently corrupt ideology. Even Clancy’s character, Jack Ryan, seemed to embody the traits that Reagan sought to advance in America writ large—a dedicated family man one who gave up on the pursuit of wealth (having found success there, of course) to serve his country and who stood up to Washington’s archetypal powerbrokers. Clancy’s American characters were, almost without question, the ideal citizen—moral, upright, intelligent, self-sacrificing, patriots. This led to a lasting relationship between Clancy and the president and, to a lesser degree, with his successor George H. W. Bush.

In “Red Storm Rising,” Clancy was almost writing to the President and his agenda—unsurprising given the cooperation the author enjoyed with the Pentagon and the White House. All of the themes on which Clancy touched and that were enjoyed by Reagan were built upon, expanded, and deepened—America as a noble actor, its servicemembers as above reproach and self-sacrificing, technological superiority winning the day, and individual Soviet citizens as better than their doomed system. It provided the average American a window into the administration’s defense planning and strategic innovation via AirLand Battle and the as of then still classified stealth technology.

It is interesting to note how Clancy’s attitude changed after the emergence of the Iran-Contra Scandal. In “Clear and Present Danger,” the once noble and vaunted administration figures became mirrors of their Soviet counterparts—power hungry, self-serving, and the antithesis of what Clancy believed Reagan to once embody. Perhaps there is a danger in hero worship—to borrow a line from Christopher Nolan’s film “The Dark Knight,” “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

There is a risk in attempting to divine greater meaning from what a person reads, of ascribing too influence to authors or books in shaping a person’s actions or decisions. It is akin to divining President Vladimir Putin’s strategy through the lens of his encounter with a rat in Leningrad (spoiler alert, it does not tell you much, if anything). However, Griffin does an admirable job maintaining focus and perspective. There are times when it veers a touch too close to determinism, which strikes the reader more as an editorial slip than a conscious effort on the part of the author. Yet their paucity makes them stand out when they do appear. In the main, it is less that Reagan’s worldview was defined by the books he read and more that the books he read reinforced his worldview and provided a narrative structure to his life and politics.

What a person reads is a way to better understand them, their worldview, and some bit of their character. Indeed, one should be suspicious of anyone who says they do not read. While this cannot tell you everything, it helps form a richer mosaic of a person. It is here that Griffin is decidedly successful in his endeavor.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Cold Warrior’s Bookshelf

Photo by Jason Wong via Unsplash.

October 15, 2022

In his latest book review, Joshua Huminski examines “Reagan’s War Stories” by Benjamin Griffin, which offers up a number of avenues for exploration of US President Ronald Reagan himself and the power of fictional narratives.

N

ot too long ago an article circulated online that alleged that Hollywood was considering remaking the 1990 classic movie “The Hunt for Red October” based off of Tom Clancy’s 1984 book of the same title. To me, this is both sacrilegious and heretical in equal measure. The book is one of my favorites of all time and the movie ranks easily ranks among my top five. I was so incensed by this report that I penned a tweet (grammatical error included), which garnered 2,000 likes over the course of a weekend. Clearly, I was not alone in my affection for the sublime Cold War story.

Clancy’s reach went well beyond my impressionable young mind and, in Benjamin Griffin’s telling, reached deep into the White House and President Ronald Reagan—forming part of a body of literature that both shaped and reflected the president’s worldview. In “Reagan’s War Stories” (a copy of which was provided for review), Griffin explores this underappreciated aspect of the Cold War President, one he purposefully concealed from the broader public. Indeed, I suspect few people would associate the former governor of California with literature of any kind.

Book Details: Reagan's War Stories: A Cold War Presidency | Benjamin Griffin | Naval Institute Press

“Reagan’s War Stories” is one of those books that offers up a new angle on a subject about which much has already been written. President Reagan is a much-mythologized figure in Republican politics, but likely little thought of by the broader public. A great president to his supporters and much reviled by his critics. He is a figure who brought clarity and moral focus to the Cold War and who oversaw abuses of power and human rights in pursuit of that purpose. “Reagan’s War Stories” is a novel take on the president—a sort of biography via books. Starting with Reagan’s love of John Burrow’s “John Carter of Mars” series and later exploring the influence of Clancy on the president, Griffin finds the evolution of Reagan’s character and worldview—for both good and ill. Griffin finds understanding and meaning in Reagan’s politics and purpose in what the late president read as a child, an actor, and as president.

“Reagan’s War Stories” offers up a number of avenues for exploration of the president himself and the power of fictional narratives. Reagan’s narrative was, in most cases, distinctly positive (even if he fabricated stories and anecdotes)—a brighter future, a reinvigorated and stronger America, a world where the defeat of the Soviet Union was not only possible, but morally necessary. This is in stark contrast this with much of the increasingly divisive language used in today’s politics: “American carnage” or “a winter of severe illness and death.”

Of course, this is not to say that everything was rosy under Reagan or that politics was any less, well, political. Indeed, much of the mythology around Reagan and his political story comes from this narrative: Republicans in particular fondly remember his “Morning in America” campaign advertisement—seen as perhaps the best embodiment of this narrative.

One can just as easily reflect on mythology in American politics and culture—how America sees itself as a shining city on the hill and a moral force for good. As Griffin notes, Reagan sought and found books that perpetuated these beliefs, finding that they both helped shape and reinforced his worldview. Equally, for Griffin, his disinterest in reading books that challenged his views contributed to poor policies toward Africa, Latin and South America, and the Middle East—particularly as he preferred stories that perpetuated the myth of the “white man’s burden.” Here it is perhaps less deterministic than Griffin presents. One imagines that it was less what Reagan read and more a function the Cold War policies his administration pursued that led to geopolitical decisions which sacrificed human rights for stability or successes against the Soviet Union.  

Griffin’s exploration of the relationship between Reagan and Clancy is particularly interesting. Clancy, in Griffin’s telling, was the right author at the right time—capturing Reagan’s effort to portray the American military in a positive light and highlight the power and capabilities of American technology. At the same time, Clancy penned a narrative that fit Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union and communism as an inherently corrupt ideology. Even Clancy’s character, Jack Ryan, seemed to embody the traits that Reagan sought to advance in America writ large—a dedicated family man one who gave up on the pursuit of wealth (having found success there, of course) to serve his country and who stood up to Washington’s archetypal powerbrokers. Clancy’s American characters were, almost without question, the ideal citizen—moral, upright, intelligent, self-sacrificing, patriots. This led to a lasting relationship between Clancy and the president and, to a lesser degree, with his successor George H. W. Bush.

In “Red Storm Rising,” Clancy was almost writing to the President and his agenda—unsurprising given the cooperation the author enjoyed with the Pentagon and the White House. All of the themes on which Clancy touched and that were enjoyed by Reagan were built upon, expanded, and deepened—America as a noble actor, its servicemembers as above reproach and self-sacrificing, technological superiority winning the day, and individual Soviet citizens as better than their doomed system. It provided the average American a window into the administration’s defense planning and strategic innovation via AirLand Battle and the as of then still classified stealth technology.

It is interesting to note how Clancy’s attitude changed after the emergence of the Iran-Contra Scandal. In “Clear and Present Danger,” the once noble and vaunted administration figures became mirrors of their Soviet counterparts—power hungry, self-serving, and the antithesis of what Clancy believed Reagan to once embody. Perhaps there is a danger in hero worship—to borrow a line from Christopher Nolan’s film “The Dark Knight,” “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

There is a risk in attempting to divine greater meaning from what a person reads, of ascribing too influence to authors or books in shaping a person’s actions or decisions. It is akin to divining President Vladimir Putin’s strategy through the lens of his encounter with a rat in Leningrad (spoiler alert, it does not tell you much, if anything). However, Griffin does an admirable job maintaining focus and perspective. There are times when it veers a touch too close to determinism, which strikes the reader more as an editorial slip than a conscious effort on the part of the author. Yet their paucity makes them stand out when they do appear. In the main, it is less that Reagan’s worldview was defined by the books he read and more that the books he read reinforced his worldview and provided a narrative structure to his life and politics.

What a person reads is a way to better understand them, their worldview, and some bit of their character. Indeed, one should be suspicious of anyone who says they do not read. While this cannot tell you everything, it helps form a richer mosaic of a person. It is here that Griffin is decidedly successful in his endeavor.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.