The Early Ronald Reagan Administration

By Alexandra Evans

In youthful rebellion against my liberal East Coast upbringing, I proposed a senior thesis on the early Ronald Reagan administration. My fascination with the late-president, however, extended beyond the thrill of my family’s horror to a genuine academic interest in the president’s role in the broader historical evolution of the modern neo-conservative movement. A former actor, governor, and popular radio jockey, the Californian’s rise to power chronicles the struggles of a nation to define its role admits a shifting international order. As controversial as he is celebrated, Reagan embodies the complex—and often contradictory—nature of American politics that a Vassar education emphasizes.

Inspired by contemporary senatorial debates over ratification, my senior thesis explores the Reagan administration’s negotiations at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea as a case study in the emergence of a late-Cold War conservatism. Though the conference’s product (a mammoth treaty governing political, economic, environmental, and military use of the seas) is in itself important, my research focuses on the mechanisms of policy making in order trace the influence of personality, presidential leadership, and ideology on modern American diplomacy. Towards this end, I was awarded the History Department’s Evalyn C. Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship to support research at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

In early January 2013, I flew from my home in Washington, DC to Simi Valley, California, the proverbial heart of Californian conservatism. I was in search of two key White House briefs: the Interagency Policy Report on the Law of the Sea and the Senior Interagency Policy memorandum. A phone interview conducted with Assistant Secretary of State Theodore G. Kronmiller indicated that these documents had dictated U.S. negotiating strategy and predicted the conference’s conclusion, and I was eager to read their original phrasing. Unfortunately, the memorandum remained officially classified, but I was hopeful that a filing error might reveal an unknown copy.

Luckily, archive catalogues are often wrong. Digging through the personal files of former Secretary of State William P. Clark, I uncovered three copies of the reports hidden as attachments to later memorandum. Complete with revisions, marginalia, and meeting notes, the documents depict the process of decision-making, allowing me to track internal divisions, concerns, and, most importantly, emerging consensus. Written by a White House appointee with unprecedented input from Congress, the documents provided important insight into what the White House knew—and when. Together with other Reagan library documents, including NSC agendas, personal notes, seating arrangements, letters, diplomatic cables, speech drafts, and inter-agency memorandum, the policy review revealed presidential disinterest and the private lobbies’ infiltration of the White House. Rather than engage the upper levels of foreign policymaking, UNCLOS debate was dominated by the opinion of the former-lobbyist and ex-Congressional staffer who had so graciously taken my call—Kronmiller, a man who overcame his relatively low rank by outmaneuvering passive treaty supporters and capturing the President’s attention.

Though I was unusually lucky in finding exactly what I had sought, direct access to the Reagan library archives also introduced me to a variety of neglected documents. Transcripts of Reagan’s radio show and drafts of campaign speeches illustrated the president’s ideological development and provided important personal detail for my thesis drafts since. Yet, the personal files of presidential advisor T. Kenneth Cribb and first Deputy Director for Management of the Office of Management & Budget Frank Hodsoll were the most important discoveries. As members of Reagan’s inner circle, Cribb and Hodsoll’s meticulous records paint a vivid image of the White House’s troubled transition. Describing half-hearted efforts at re-organization and reform, their documents provided evidence to broaden my research into personal turf-wars and directed my thesis towards analysis of the relationship between individual personalities and institutional disorder.

The research trip illustrated our History Department’s unofficial mantra: “Go to the Source.” The opportunity to conduct original primary research at the Reagan Presidential Archive introduced me to files I had previously not considered and forced me to reorient my argument to account for broader, structural factors. I’d like to raise a toast of thanks with my new, officially branded Reagan Museum mug to the Vassar History department for much-appreciated financial, advisory, and (not least) emotional support for my thesis project.