Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981 with the support of a conservative coalition — the New Right — which sought to advance America’s stature as a world power.
To President Reagan and the “neoconservatives”, the Soviet Union was an important threat. They criticized President Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis, which continued into early 1981, as well as other situations in which the U.S. appeared (to them) weak, or reluctant to use military force. Reagan and other conservatives referred to this unwillingness to assert American influence abroad as “Vietnam Syndrome”.
In contrast to the détente policy, President Reagan revived the early Cold War concept of the “iron curtain” when he took office.
Reagan’s stark view of the Cold War contributed to renewed tensions and an unprecedented U.S. military buildup. While tax cuts based on supply-side economics reduced or eliminated domestic programs, the President and his advisors implemented an aggressive military spending program that led to a revival of the military-industrial complex.
EXAMPLEDuring Reagan’s presidency (1981-1989), military spending totaled nearly $2 trillion. The money was used to develop the B-1 and B-2 bombers, cruise missiles, and to expand the Navy.
Because the Reagan administration had decreased domestic spending while spending freely on defense, the press called attention to any inefficiency in the military buildup. One of the most notable controversies grew out of coverage of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Scientists argued that much of the technology necessary for SDI to work had not yet been developed. Others claimed that SDI violated treaties with the Soviet Union, and worried that the U.S.S.R. would respond with a similar system. The plan was also very expensive; it was estimated that SDI would cost $7.5 billion. For all of these reasons, the administration abandoned SDI in the mid-1980s.
Despite the failure of SDI, the resurgence of weapons development and military spending marked a significant transition in American containment policy.
During his first years in office, President Reagan criticized proposals to “freeze” the development of nuclear weapons. As his administration increased defense funding, Reagan pledged to counter any Soviet aggression, and exploited weaknesses in the Soviet economy. He described his approach in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983:
...let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
Throughout his administration, Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” that advanced a set of values that were in opposition to the values held by the United States. These values concerned political and economic philosophies, but also questions of morality. For example, the atheism of the Soviet state (indicated by the phrase “they preach the supremacy of the state”) contrasted with the values of Christian America, leaving Reagan to "pray they [the] will discover the joy of knowing God.” In this speech, Reagan went on to describe the Soviet Union as a nation in which “Morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war.”
Although he did not deny the possibility of peaceful coexistence between the two superpowers, he made it clear that détente would not occur at the expense of American values. “We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God. And we will never stop searching for a genuine peace,” Reagan said.
In addition to an unprecedented military build-up, President Reagan revived American anti-communist intervention abroad.
Reagan enjoyed immediate foreign policy success when, on January 20, 1981 (the day he took office), Iran released the hostages who had been held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
The hostages had been held for 444 days. They were captured in November of 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, when an anti-American, Islamic theocratic government led by Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran.
The Iranian Revolution and the Iran Hostage Crisis foreshadowed continued violence in the Middle East, as anti-American sentiment in the region grew.
EXAMPLEIn 1983, the United States sent marines to Lebanon as part of a multinational force that was deployed to restore order following an Israeli invasion the year before. On October 23rd, over 200 marines stationed in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, were killed in a bombing carried out by the Iranian-trained Muslim militia, Hezbollah. In February of 1984, President Reagan announced the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon.
As tensions rose in the Middle East, the Reagan administration reasserted American influence in Latin America.
EXAMPLETwo days after the bombing in Beirut, President Reagan authorized the invasion of Grenada, a small Caribbean island nation, to end a military coup by pro-Communist forces. Communist Cuba had already sent troops and aid workers to the island, and was willing to defend the new regime. U.S. special forces swiftly took control of the situation and suppressed the coup within two days.
The situation in Nicaragua proved to be more complicated than the coup in Grenada. U.S. involvement in Nicaragua's civil unrest ultimately led to the biggest scandal of Reagan’s presidency.
In 1979, while Jimmy Carter was President, The Sandinista revolutionary movement in Nicaragua overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.
President Carter refused to aid the Somoza regime against the Sandinistas, which enabled them to succeed. Ronald Reagan discounted the grievances of the democratically elected Sandinista government against Somoza, and believed that their revolution exposed the region to communist takeover. He authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to equip and train anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans known as the Contras (contrarevolucionários or “counter-revolutionaries”) to oust the new regime.
In 1984, Congress prohibited the President from providing additional support to the Contras. It is at this point that the scandal that came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair began.
A desire to support the Contras among some members of the Reagan administration ultimately led them to Iran. At the time, Iran was fighting a bloody war against Iraq. In addition, Hezbollah had captured several American aid workers in Lebanon. In 1985, Reagan secretly authorized the sale of arms and equipment to Iran in exchange for the release of the hostages in Lebanon.
One year later, the CIA, with the help of National Security Council aide Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, began selling weapons to Iran, and used the proceeds to support the Nicaraguan Contras in their war against the Sandinistas. This scheme operated for almost two years, in violation of Congress’s ban on military aid to the Contras.
When the arrangement was exposed in 1987, Congress held hearings and indicted several members of the Reagan administration, including Oliver North. President Reagan, who delegated significant authority to subordinates, denied any knowledge of the affair. As a result, he emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed. Nevertheless, the Iran-Contra affair undermined public confidence in the President and led to criticism that he did not monitor the activities of members of his administration.
The effort to reverse the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, along with the military buildup and reference to the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire”, reinvigorated the Cold War. However, during the mid-1980s, Reagan shifted his position toward the Soviet Union slightly in response to the actions of Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985.
Gorbachev sought to reinvigorate the Soviet government and economy. The U.S.S.R. remained involved in a war in Afghanistan, which it invaded in 1979. That conflict, and the escalating arms race with the United States, was severely depleting the nation’s economic resources. The Soviet Union lagged far behind the U.S. in the production of consumer goods, and increasingly relied on agricultural imports to feed its people.
Beginning in 1985, Gorbachev implemented a series of reforms.
EXAMPLEGorbachev’s most notable initiatives were known as perestroika (political openness) and glasnost (economic restructuring) — attempts to revitalize the Soviet political system and economy.
Despite President Reagan’s stated opposition to a “nuclear freeze” earlier in the decade, Gorbachev and Reagan developed a personal rapport, and met on several occasions to discuss reductions in arms and military budgets.
EXAMPLEIn 1987, both leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in which the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to destroy their intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles.
The treaty was the result of private negotiations in a formal diplomatic setting. In public, Reagan continued to apply pressure to the Soviet Union, nowhere more notably than at the Berlin Wall in June, 1987.
Reagan made the following remarks while standing before the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin:
There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
President Reagan welcomed Gorbachev’s attempted reforms of the Soviet Union, which indicates that tension between the two nations may have decreased somewhat. However, his appeal to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”, reflects Reagan's continued unwillingness to accept peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. Acceptance of democracy, liberty, and capitalism by the U.S.S.R. may have been required to convince him that the Cold War was over.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Strategic Defense Initiative, Public Domain http://bit.ly/2rmHbcm, Ronald Reagan and Berlin Wall, Public Domain http://bit.ly/2qobl1q, Reagan, R. June 12, 1987: Address from the Brandenburg Gate (Berlin Wall). (speech) (1987, June 12). Retrieved May 16, 2017, from http://bit.ly/2qokPtp, Reagan, R. Evil Empire (speech) (1983, March 8). Retrieved May 16, 2017, from http://bit.ly/2pH6xWa, Derived from Openstax tutorial 30.5 http://bit.ly/2qsi4Wv, 31.3 http://bit.ly/2rn9Les. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.