Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s first direct foray into foreign affairs culminated in his speech and press conference in Mexico City. Democrats quickly criticized Mr. Trump, but many in the media confirmed that Trump had achieved a major triumph.
Candidates for the highest office in the land usually have had no experience in world affairs. And other than making speeches, as has Trump about border security and defeating ISIS, often there are few concrete actions that a presidential candidate can do in the arena of world affairs.
Yet Gov. Ronald Reagan, during his first presidential campaign in the mid-to-late 1960s, showed how it could be done. Reagan demonstrated to voters and the press, that come inauguration day 1969, he could in fact be commander in chief.
During Reagan’s first run for the presidency, which lasted some 21 months from November, 1966 until the GOP convention in August, 1968, Reagan used multiple methods of highlighting his growing bona fides in foreign affairs.
Candidate Trump in 2016 is following the path blazed by Reagan.
Reagan’s entry into foreign affairs began the moment he took office as governor of California. For his inauguration in January 1966, just as his first quest for the presidency was beginning behind the scenes, Reagan had arranged that a small California state flag was hung from the ceiling. In the midst of his address, Reagan pointed to the flag and explained to the audience that the flag recently had been carried by California soldiers into battle in Vietnam.
Reagan then told the story of the specific wounded GI from California who had brought the flag back home — and thus began the tradition of citing and honoring specific individuals at inaugural addresses.
During his many out-of-state campaign speeches during 1967-1968, usually his themes were domestic: downsizing government. But at his multiple press conferences, reporters concentrated on the hot-button topic of that era: the war in Vietnam.
So candidate Reagan, virtually every time he was asked, had the opportunity to espouse his deeply-held vision: that since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson first had placed American boots on the ground, that the administration should follow through and give the troops the tools to win.
At this time, Reagan had a hidden mentor on world affairs: former President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower headed a 1967 committee to make recommendations about the war. Of all the candidates in 1968 — Republican or Democratic — it was only Reagan who followed through on Ike’s recommended tactics: hot pursuit of enemy troops and aircraft if they strayed over a border, the mining of Haiphong Harbor, and bombing the dams in the north.
In great part, Ike had stopped the fighting in Korea fifteen years earlier by threatening to use atomic weapons; Reagan wanted the same threats used against Vietnam. The liberal press of 1968 was horrified. But they missed the point. As historian Evan Thomas has shown, to Ike in 1952 it was the threat that was critical — Eisenhower never revealed if he would have used the ultimate weapon.
Thus in 1968, Reagan also wanted the American navy to stage maneuvers off the coast of North Vietnam. Reagan wanted the enemy “quaking in their beds,” wondering what America might do. Reagan’s urging of a threatened invasion of their homeland would cause the troops from the North to flee home to protect their homeland.
And just as Donald Trump has said that he would not tell our enemies in advance what he would or would not do, Reagan said the same thing. During his press conferences, he reiterated many times that come January, 1969, a new Republican president would have a complete reassessment of the war in Vietnam: weapons and theaters of operations.
Besides the above comments made at multiple press conferences during the campaign, Reagan gave a number of important speeches completely dedicated to world affairs.
Trump has just begun that process. The first Reagan complete foray into foreign affairs was in Albany, Oregon, for Veterans Day, 1967. In it he began his attacks on the foreign policy and defense failures of the Kennedy-Johnson years.
On May 15, 1967, Reagan was the Republican Party representative at an international debate with Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on Vietnam. Reagan studied well in advance — learning from Ike, from texts prepared by Reagan’s staff, and from practice sessions with staff member, and his future attorney-general, Edwin Meese.
The debate also covered American’s dealing with Soviet and Chinese communism. Reagan won hands-down.
And even the liberal press had to admit that Reagan was a formidable debater. In fact, many Republicans who observed Reagan’s foreign affairs debate triumph realized that a year later for 1968, they didn’t want to see another Nixon-Kennedy debate fiasco as in 1960. Now these grass roots Republicans saw a new winner, and they joined the Reagan bandwagon
Contrary to the historical recollection of many Americans, it was not in the mid 1980s when Reagan first would call to tear down the Berlin Wall. The first time in public was during that debate with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and Reagan repeated his call several more times during that first presidential run.
During 1967-1968, Reagan was learning all about a new technology: anti-missile defense. He began reading all he could on the subject, became the first governor to visit the Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratories, which was developing the technology.
And in July 1968, just as the Senate was holding hearings on funding for the project, Reagan voiced his support.
Candidate Reagan found other ways to show his growing expertise in foreign affairs.
Similarly to Donald Trump today, Reagan traveled to Mexicali, Mexico for an official meeting to discuss joint problems. Reagan issued a special proclamation for freedom in Croatia, was made an honorary Seabee and accepted their base flag from Vietnam, and honored Captive Nations Day.
During the spring and summer of 1968, Reagan delivered a series of five White Paper speeches, ranging from scathing critiques of administration failures in the Caribbean, including Cuba, to the quagmire in Vietnam and the growing Soviet missile threat.
Indeed candidate Reagan turned John F. Kennedy’s 1960 false charge that Eisenhower had allowed a “missile gap” to occur on its head: Reagan showed that it was the Kennedy-Johnson administration that had allowed the Soviets to catch up and might soon surpass America.
Ultimately as president, during his farewell address in January, 1989, President Reagan would look back with pride that he had restored pride in America, had restored America’s economy and its military. Indeed careful reading of his words shows clearly that his goals all along had been to restore America to the economic and military greatness of the Eisenhower years.
There is growing speculation of candidate Trump’s cognizance of the Eisenhower years.
One prominent item was Trump’s campaign reference to Ike’s deportation of illegal aliens during the 1950s. In the 1980s, Princeton University historian Fred Greenstein analyzed the Eisenhower years and called Ike’s firm control of his cabinet and policy, Ike’s “hidden hand.”
Recent historical analysis has shown that in the 1960s, Ike personally mentored Reagan on domestic politics and on world affairs, and Ike’s influence on President Reagan continued well into the Reagan presidency and into the 1990s.
Donald Trump also is showing that same, although of course indirect, influence of Dwight Eisenhower. In the mid 1960s, Ike contributed directly towards Reagan’s emergence as a world statesman. As demonstrated in Mexico City, Eisenhower’s hidden hand likely is guiding another Republican, Donald Trump, well into the 21st century.
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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