After his reelection in 1984, President Ronald Reagan sat for an interview with Time magazine. “I just happen to believe that we cannot go into another generation with the world living under the threat of those weapons and knowing that some madman can push the button some place,” he said. “My hope has been, and my dream, that we can get the Soviet Union to join us in starting verifiable reductions of the weapons. Once you start down that road, they’ve got to see how much better off we would both be if we got rid of them entirely.” In his dealing with the Soviets, Reagan’s two terms were almost those of two different presidents. Both the hard-liner and the peacemaker were present throughout, but the balance shifted so decisively from one to the other as to create a discontinuity. The man who had denounced the nuclear freeze as Soviet propaganda was now suggesting not just reduction but elimination of all nuclear weapons.
What explains Reagan’s remarkable transformation from Cold War hawk to nuclear peacemaker? His nuclear abolitionism had deep roots, going back to a flirtation with pacifism in the early 1930s. His antiwar side was connected to narratives and images that deeply affected him: seeing the British antiwar play Journey’s End in 1929, being shown footage from the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, and watching the ABC television movie The Day After in 1983. A projection that stuck with him was that at least 150 million Americans—two-thirds of the population in 1980—would be killed in an all-out nuclear war, though he believed for some reason that Soviet losses would be limited to a much smaller percentage. Advisers who “tossed around macabre jargon about ‘throw weights’ and ‘kill ratios’ as if they were talking about baseball scores” appalled him. In his diary and to aides, Reagan even worried that the biblical prophecy of Armageddon was at hand.