Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Soviets and Reagan's PATCO strike

Saturday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker repeated a claim that has become a truism among a certain genre of conservatives in recent years:
Walker contended that "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime" was then-President Ronald Reagan's move to bust a 1981 strike of air traffic controllers, firing some 11,000 of them.
"It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world," Walker said. America's allies and foes alike became convinced that Reagan was serious enough to take action and that "we weren't to be messed with," he said.
The PATCO strike was indeed big news in the United States, but it has always struck me as a bit odd that this would resonate the same way in the Soviet Union, much less significantly impact its decisions. Americans routinely overestimate the rest of the world's interest in our domestic affairs, and this particularly line plays a little too neatly on right-wing narratives about sympathies between communists and unions, the role of "credibility" in foreign policy, and the valorization of Reagan as the single-handed conqueror of the Soviet Union.

Looking into this has only deepened my suspicion. First, Walker has been caught in a lie about this before, when he claimed that "documents released from the Soviet Union showed" the impact of Reagan's actions. This was directly rebutted by Reagan's own diplomat to the USSR, who said that "There is no evidence of that whatever."

Beyond those fabricated documents, the only susbtantive claim I can find comes from Steven Hayward's book "The Age of Reagan," where he writes, "The White House realized it had gotten Moscow's attention when the Soviet news agency TASS decried Reagan's 'brutal repression' of the air traffic controllers."

But he provides no further details on this quote, and I have been completely unable to find it in TASS's archives. And Hayward is a conservative iconoclast who has spent his entire career riding the right-wing think tank gravy train, publishing climate change denial and Solyndra conspiracy articles in fringe outlets like The Weekly Standard and Power Line.

I see at this point no reason to take for granted the narrative about Reagan impressing the Soviets with his PATCO firings, and every reason to suspect fabrication in Hayward's book.