"Reagan Revisited": Workshop with University of Texas' Will Inboden


In offering introductory remarks for the Kinder Institute’s March 5 academic workshop, Prof. Will Inboden, who also serves as Executive Director and William Powers, Jr. Chair of University of Texas’ Clements Center for National Security, began with a brief comment on what his new book project is not: a Ronald Reagan biography. Those, he noted, have been written, but what we lack is a book-length historical assessment of foreign policy during the Reagan administration’s eight years that delves deeply into figures other than the president, such as Secretary of State George Schultz, and that carves out space to explore bigger picture, structural topics like the National Security Council as an instrument of decision making and tectonic shifts in the international system in general.

Further elaborating on the “why, what, how” of his current work, he mentioned that the timing for the project was fairly felicitous, not only because partisan passions that raged during the Reagan era have cooled enough for a re-examination to be undertaken, but also, and more pragmatically, because the last two years have seen hundreds of thousands of the administration’s foreign policy-related documents declassified.

As for the manner in which the book will tackle its subject, Prof. Inboden described how the chronological structure that he plans to deploy will both temper narratives of historical inevitability with careful attention to the contingencies that shaped foreign policy under Reagan, as well as draw out the interesting simultaneities that he has unearthed in the course of archival research: the temporal proximity of the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the bombing of U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut (two days apart), for example, or of the end of the Reykjavík Summit and the beginning of the Iran-Contra scandal. Within this chronological structure—and as presented in the introductory chapter being discussed at the workshop—Prof. Inboden outlined how the study would be organized around the four primary thematic spokes detailed and briefly contextualized below:

Force and Diplomacy: How Reagan’s commitment to a historic buildup of military infrastructure (see: SDI) and his generally bellicose rhetoric existed in a fascinatingly paradoxical relationship to an actual reluctance to use force

Use of History: How we can trace the background of Schultz’s policies in Asia to his World War II service time as a Marine in the Pacific Theatre, or how the looming specter of the Vietnam War influenced the administration’s approach to interventionism

Religion and Religious Freedom: How Reagan’s commitment to protecting Russian Jews likewise traced back to World War II, when as an actor in military training videos he received footage of the liberation of the first concentration camps, and the significance of how and why he aligned himself with Pope John Paul II during the Cold War

Allies and Partners: How his time in office was consumed by the development of relationships with center-right counterparts around the globe—Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, for example—but also how these relationships were behind some of his most notable vexations and missteps

In drawing the introductory remarks to a close, Prof. Inboden touched on how his goal of structuring the book around these interpretive themes, rather than a single hypothesis, will widen the lens of his examination and allow him to go beyond and also to enrich Cold War-centric approaches to his core subject in a number of important ways: (1) by shedding more extensive light on the administration’s policy initiatives in Asia and North America; (2) by emphasizing the globalization of economic and information systems that often goes under-explored in narratives of the end of the Cold War; and (3) by connecting certain aspects of Reagan-era foreign policy to the modern day, devoting time, for example, to examining the implications of how, if you stripped them of specific details, many memos issued within the administration—those pertaining to pre-emptive militarism, for instance, or to the root causes of terrorism—could just as easily have been written in 2015.


William Inboden is Executive Director and William Powers, Jr. Chair at the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin.  He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and Editor-in-Chief of the Texas National Security Review. Inboden’s other current roles include Non-Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Associate with the National Intelligence Council, Member of the CIA Director’s Historical Review Panel, and Associate Scholar with Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project. Previously he served as Senior Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council at the White House, where he worked on a range of foreign policy issues including the National Security Strategy, strategic forecasting, democracy and governance, contingency planning, counter-radicalization, and multilateral institutions and initiatives. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a Member of the Policy Planning Staff and a Special Advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom, and has worked as a staff member in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. Inboden is the author of Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment (Cambridge University Press) as well as numerous articles and book chapters on security studies, American foreign policy, and American history. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Yale University and his A.B. in History from Stanford University.