Modern history

Reagan’s Cold War Policy, 1981-1988

Ronald Reagan entered the White House determined to offer a direct challenge to the Soviets. Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz believed that détente would become feasible only after the United States achieved military supremacy over the Soviet Union. Reagan also took strong measures to fight communism around the globe, from Central America to the Middle East. Yet military superiority alone would not defeat the Soviet Union. A shift of leadership within the USSR, as well as a worldwide protest movement for nuclear disarmament, involving people like Barbara Deming, helped bring an end to the Cold War and prepare the way for the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

“The Evil Empire”

In running for president in 1980, Reagan wrapped his hard-line anti-Communist message in the rhetoric of peace. “I’ve called for whatever it takes to be so strong that no other nation will dare violate the peace,” he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention on August 18, 1980. Still, he made it clear that he did not intend to pursue peace at any price; it “must not be a peace of humiliation and gradual surrender.” Once in the White House, Reagan left no doubt about his anti-Communist stance. He called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” regarding it as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” The president planned to confront that evil with both words and deeds, backing up his rhetoric with a massive military buildup.

In a show of moral and economic might, Reagan proposed the largest military budget in American history. Under the Reagan administration, the defense budget grew about 7 percent per year, increasing from $157 billion in 1981 to around $282 billion in 1988. Reagan clearly intended to win the Cold War by outspending the Soviets, even if it meant running up huge deficits that greatly burdened the U.S. economy (see chapter 27).

The president sought to expand the Cold War by developing new weapons to be deployed in outer space. He proposed a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars,” as it was dubbed, to create an orbiting shield of antiballistic missiles, which even Secretary of State Shultz privately called “lunacy.” Seeming more like a page out of science fiction, the SDI was never carried out, though the government spent $17 billion on research.

Reagan was unyielding in his initial dealings with the Soviet Union, and negotiations between the superpowers moved slowly and unevenly. The Reagan administration’s initial “zero option” proposal called for the Soviets to dismantle all of their intermediate-range missiles in exchange for the United States agreeing to refrain from deploying any new medium-range missiles. The administration presented this option merely for show, expecting the Soviets to reject it. However, in 1982, after the Soviets accepted the principle of “zero option,” Reagan sent negotiators to begin Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). Influenced by antinuclear protests in Europe, which had a great impact on European governments, the Americans proposed shelving the deployment of572 Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe in return for the Soviets’ dismantling of Eastern European— based intermediate-range ballistic missiles that were targeted at Western Europe. The Soviets viewed this offer as perpetuating American nuclear superiority and rejected it.

Relations between the two superpowers deteriorated in September 1983 when a Soviet fighter jet shot down a South Korean passenger airliner, killing 269 people.

The Soviets charged that the plane had veered off course and violated their airspace on a trip from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, South Korea. Although the disaster resulted mainly from Soviet mistakes, Reagan chose to condemn this attack as further proof of the malign intentions of the USSR, and country singer Lee Greenwood wrote the patriotic song “God Bless the USA” in support of the country and of Reagan. The United States sent additional missiles to bases in West Germany, Great Britain, and Italy; in response, the Soviets abandoned the disarmament talks and replenished their nuclear arsenal in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. More symbolically, the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of the Olympics in Moscow four years earlier. As the two adversaries swung from peace talks to threats of nuclear confrontation, one European journalist observed: “The second Cold War has begun.”

Human Rights and the Fight against Communism

The Reagan administration extended its firm Cold War position throughout the world, emphasizing anticommunism often at the expense of human rights. The president saw threats of Soviet intervention in Central America and the Middle East, and he aimed to contain them. As had former presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, Reagan exploited the fear of communism in Central America and the Caribbean, where for nearly a century the United States had guarded its sphere of influence. During the 1980s, the United States continued its economic isolation of Cuba via the trade embargo, and it sought to prevent other Communist or leftist governments from emerging in Central America and the Caribbean. In doing so, the Reagan administration interfered in the internal affairs of small nations struggling to lift themselves from the poverty caused by decades of oppressive rule that had benefited private companies and commercial interests in the United States.

In the late 1970s, Nicaraguan revolutionaries, known as the National Liberation Front or Sandinistas, had overthrown the tyrannical government of General Anastasio Somoza, a brutal dictator who had suppressed dissent and tortured opponents. President Jimmy Carter, who had originally supported Somozas overthrow, halted all aid to Nicaragua in 1980 after the Sandinistas began nationalizing foreign companies and drawing closer to Cuba. In the early years of the Reagan administration, Secretary of State Shultz suggested a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, reflecting the administration’s belief that the Sandinistas were “Soviet proxies” and that the revolution in Nicaragua had been sponsored by Moscow. Rather than invade, Reagan adopted a more indirect but no less violent approach. In 1982 he authorized the CIA to train approximately two thousand guerrilla forces outside the country, known as Contras (Counterrevolutionaries), to overthrow the Sandinista government. Although Reagan praised the Contras as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” the group consisted of pro-Somoza reactionaries as well as anti-Marxist democrats who blew up bridges and oil dumps, burned crops, and killed civilians. In 1982 Congress, unwilling to support such actions, passed the Boland Amendment, which prohibited direct aid to the Contras, thereby limiting the president’s ability to aid the anti-Sandinista forces.

Proponents of the Boland Amendment drew on the lessons of the Vietnam War. Recalling that President Johnson had manipulated Congress and the public to support intervention in a civil war conducted by guerrillas, supporters of the amendment sought to prevent Reagan from producing another disaster of this kind. Members of the Reagan administration viewed Vietnam differently. They believed that the United States had to restore its honor and credibility following the defeat in Vietnam, especially in fighting Communists in its own backyard. In the face of congressional opposition, Reagan and his advisers came up with a plan that would secretly fund the efforts of their military surrogates in Nicaragua.

Elsewhere in Central America, the Reagan administration supported a corrupt right-wing government in El Salvador that, in an effort to put down an insurgency, sanctioned military death squads and killed forty thousand people during the 1980s. Despite the failings and abuses of the El Salvadoran government, Reagan insisted that Communist regimes in Nicaragua and Cuba were behind the Salvadoran insurgents. The United States sent more than $5 billion in aid to El Salvador and trained its military leaders to combat guerrilla forces.

While many Americans supported Reagan’s strong anti-Communist stance, others opposed to the president’s policy mobilized protests. Marches, rallies, and teach-ins were organized in cities and college campuses nationwide. U.S.-sponsored wars also drove many people to flee their dangerous, poverty-stricken countries and seek asylum in the United States. Between 1984 and 1990, 45,000 Salvadorans and 9,500 Guatemalans applied for asylum in the United States, but because the United States supported the established governments in those two nations, nearly all requests for refugee status were denied. Approximately five hundred American churches and synagogues established a sanctuary movement to provide safe haven for those fleeing Central American civil wars. Other Americans, especially in California and Texas, began to view the influx of refugees from Central America with alarm. This immigration, both legal and illegal, meant an increase in medical and educational costs for state and local communities, which taxpayers considered a burden.

In addition to financing secret wars in Central America, on October 25, 1983, Reagan sent 7,000 marines to invade the tiny 133-square-mile Caribbean island of Grenada. After a coup toppled the leftist government of Maurice Bishop, who had received Cuban and Soviet aid, the United States stepped in, ostensibly to protect American medical school students in Grenada from political instability following the coup. A swift victory in Grenada boosted Reagan’s popularity and installed a proAmerican government.

In Reagan’s worldview, securing human rights was less important than fighting communism. Thus Reagan supported repressive governments in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa without reservations. Reagan embraced the distinction made by his ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, between non-Communist “authoritarian” nations, which were acceptable, and Communist “totalitarian” regimes, which were not. The difference remained fuzzy in practice, particularly in South Africa, where a white totalitarian government ruled over the black majority. Reagan considered the South African government an example of an acceptable authoritarianism, even though it practiced apartheid (white supremacy and racial separation) and torture. The fact that the South African Communist Party had joined the fight against apartheid reinforced Reagan’s desire to support the white-minority, anti-Communist government. Interested in the country’s vast mineral wealth, Reagan opted for what he called “constructive engagement” with South Africa, meaning that the United States would maintain and expand trade with a nation whose government had been condemned by the United Nations for its racist practices. The Reagan administration did so even as protesters across the United States and the world spoke out against South Africa’s repressive white- minority government and campaigned for divestment of public and corporate funds from South African companies.

As early as 1977, the Reverend Louis Sullivan, an African American clergyman from Philadelphia and a board member of General Motors, convinced the company, the largest employer of blacks in South Africa, to treat its employees equally and in a nonsegregated manner. Supporters of this approach campaigned to persuade other companies doing business in South Africa to adopt what became known as the Sullivan Principles and to get investment funds to withdraw their portfolios from the apartheid nation. In the mid-1980s, students on U.S. college campuses nationwide joined the divestment movement by building “shantytowns” to protest the squalid, segregated living conditions of black South Africans. They also conducted demonstrations to demand that universities remove investments in South Africa from their endowment funds. Antiapartheid forces staged similar protests against municipal and state governments. At the same time, numerous African American officials and their allies conducted sit-ins at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. These efforts were largely successful. Between 1984 and 1988, the number of colleges and universities divesting either partially or fully from South Africa tripled from 53 to 155. In 1986 Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which prohibited new trade and investment in South Africa. President Reagan vetoed it, but in testimony to the strength of this popular grassroots movement, Congress overrode the president’s veto.

Fighting international Terrorism

Two days before the Grenada invasion in 1983, the U.S. military suffered a grievous blow halfway around the world. In the tiny country of Lebanon, wedged between Syrian occupation on its northern border and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) fight against Israel to the south, a civil war raged between Christians and Muslims. Reagan believed that stability in the region was in America’s national interest. With this in mind, in 1982 the Reagan administration sent 800 marines, as part of a multilateral force that included French and Italian troops, to keep the peace, but fighting continued in Beirut between Christian and Muslim militias. On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck into a marine barracks, killing 241 soldiers. Reagan withdrew the remaining troops.

The removal of troops did not end threats to Americans in the Middle East. Terrorism had become an ever-present danger, especially since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979— 1980. In 1985, 17 American citizens were killed in terrorist assaults, and 154 were injured. In June 1985, Shi’ite Muslim extremists hijacked a TWA airliner in Athens with 39 Americans on board and flew it to Beirut. The Israeli government acceded to the hijackers’ demands to release Shi’ite prisoners in its jails, and the crisis ended safely for the hostages. That same year, PLO members hijacked an Italian cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Before the dangerous situation was resolved, an elderly American man in a wheelchair was killed and his body dumped in the sea.

In response, the Reagan administration targeted the North African country of Libya for retaliation. Its military leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, supported the Palestinian cause and provided sanctuary for terrorists. In 1981 a squadron of Libyan planes attacked a U.S. naval flotilla conducting maneuvers off Libyan shores, and American pilots shot down two enemy planes. The Reagan administration placed a trade embargo on Libya, and Secretary of State Shultz remarked: “We have to put Qaddafi in a box and close the lid.” In 1986, after the bombing of a nightclub in West Berlin killed 2 American servicemen and injured 230, Reagan charged that Qaddafi was responsible. In late April, the United States retaliated by sending planes to bomb the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The military strongman survived, but one of his daughters perished in the attack. Following the bombing, Qaddafi took a much lower profile against the United States. Reagan had demonstrated his nation’s military might despite the retreat in Lebanon (Map 28.1).

Bombing of Marine Barracks, Lebanon, 1983 On October 23, 1983, an Islamic terrorist group ignited two truck bombs that blasted U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241. Here rescuers search for survivors in the wreckage of the U.S. marine command. The troops were part of a multilateral peacekeeping force during the Lebanese civil war. President Reagan removed American forces after the bombings. ap Photo/Zouki

The Reagan administration’s efforts to fight communism in Central America and terrorism in the Middle East continued unabated. Despite passage ofthe Boland Amendment in 1982 and its extension in 1984, the president continued to support the Nicaraguan Contras. By 1985 the Contras numbered somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 troops and relied almost entirely on U.S. assistance. Barred from providing direct military or economic aid to the Contras, Reagan ordered the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC) to raise money from anti-Communist leaders abroad and wealthy conservatives at home. This effort, called “Project Democracy,” raised millions of dollars. In violation of federal law, CIA director William Casey also authorized his agency to continue training the Contras in assassination techniques and other methods of subversion.

In the meantime, the situation in Lebanon remained critical as the strife caused by civil war led to the seizing of American hostages. By mid-1984, seven Americans, including the CIA bureau chief in Beirut, had been kidnapped by Shi’ite Muslims financed by Iran. Since 1980, Iran, a Shi’ite nation, had been engaged in a protracted war with Iraq, which was ruled by military leader Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Muslim party, the chief rival to the Shi’ites. With relations between the United States and Iran having deteriorated in the aftermath of the 1979 coup, the Reagan administration backed Iraq in this war. The fate of the hostages, however, motivated Reagan to make a deal with Iran. In late 1985, Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane negotiated secretly with an Iranian intermediary for the United States to sell antitank missiles to Iran in exchange for the Shi’ite government using its influence to induce the Muslim kidnappers to release the hostages. This covert bargain produced mixed success. Two Americans were freed by the end of 1986, but by then another three had been captured.

MAP 28.1

The United States in the Middle East, 1978-1991 The United States has historically needed access to the rich oil reserves of the Middle East. From the 1970s to the 1990s, both Democratic and Republican administrations were committed to the security of Israel, supportive of Afghan rebels fighting Soviet invaders, and opposed to the rising power of Islamic regimes. These principles often led to contradictory policies that further embroiled the United States in Middle East affairs.

Had the matter ended there, the secret deal might never have come to light. However, NSC aide Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North developed a plan to transfer the proceeds from the arms-for-hostages deal to fund the Contras and circumvent the Boland Amendment. Despite opposition from Secretary of State Shultz, Reagan liked North’s plan, although the president seemed vague about the details, and some $10 million to $20 million of Iranian money flowed into the hands of the Contras.

In 1986 information about the Iran-Contra connection came to light. Not since the Watergate scandal had a presidential administration received such intense media scrutiny. In the summer of 1987, televised Senate hearings exposed much of the tangled, covert dealings with Iran. In 1988 a special federal prosecutor indicted NSC adviser Vice Admiral John Poindexter (who had replaced McFarlane), North, and several others on charges ranging from perjury to conspiracy to obstruct justice. However, Reagan did not suffer the same fate or disgrace as had Nixon. Certainly the president knew what had been going on and had even approved it, but what he said publicly about his responsibility was circumscribed: “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

The Nuclear Freeze Movement

Despite his tough talk and military buildup, Reagan was not immune to public pressure. Rising protests against nuclear weapons in the United States and Europe in the early 1980s revealed a public increasingly anxious about the possibility of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. At the end of the Carter administration, the United States had promised NATO that it would station new missiles in England, Italy, West Germany, and Belgium. Coupled with his confrontational stance against the Soviet Union, Reagan’s decision to implement this policy sparked enormous protest. The campaign for nuclear disarmament included men and women, but women played a particularly strong leadership role in opposing nuclear proliferation. In 1981 peace activists set up camp at Greenham Common in England outside of one of the military bases prepared to house the arriving missiles. With twenty such camps in England, the disarmament forces organized nonviolent protests, including marches and sit-ins. The peace camp at Greenham Common became the model for the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice at Seneca Falls, where Barbara Deming and other activists staged demonstrations. Protesters engaged in various forms of nonviolent expression, including singing, dancing, and performing skits to affirm women’s solidarity for peace. As the participation of Deming as well as those at Greenham Common showed, women came together not only to promote disarmament but also to empower themselves and create communities based on mutual respect, trust, equality, and nonviolence.

These activities were part of a larger nuclear freeze movement that began in 1980. Its proponents called for a “mutual freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons and of missiles and aircraft designed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons.” Grassroots activists also held town meetings throughout the United States to mobilize ordinary citizens to speak out against nuclear proliferation. In 1982 some 750,000 people rallied in New York City’s Central Park, the largest demonstration of its kind, to support a nuclear freeze resolution presented at the United Nations. Despite opposition from the United States and its NATO allies, measures favoring the freeze easily passed in the UN General Assembly. In the 1982 elections, peace groups placed nonbinding, nuclear freeze referenda on local ballots, which passed with wide majorities. The nuclear freeze movement’s momentum carried over to Congress, where the House of Representatives narrowly rejected an “immediate freeze” by only two votes. Catholic bishops in the United States sent a pastoral letter to their parishioners condemning the spread of nuclear armaments. Even hard-line anti-Communists like Republican senator and former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater ofArizona joined the critics. “I’m not one of those freeze-the-nukes nuts,” he explained in opposing new missile production, “but I think we have enough.”

Demonstrations in the United States and in Europe influenced Reagan. According to a 1982 public opinion poll, 57 percent of Americans favored an immediate nuclear freeze. Reflecting this sentiment, a 1983 television drama, The Day After, graphically portrayed the devastating horror of a nuclear attack on America. Reagan acknowledged that he was more inclined to reconsider deploying missiles abroad because European leaders felt pressure from protesters in their home countries. Ironically, the president credited Europeans’ sentiments on the matter while claiming to ignore widespread efforts of domestic opponents such as Barbara Deming. However, the freeze movement inside and outside the United States created a favorable climate in which the president and Soviet leaders could negotiate a genuine plan for nuclear disarmament by the end of the decade.

The Road to Nuclear De-escalation

As frightening as this massive arms buildup was and despite the continuation of peace protests, Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 by a landslide (see chapter 27). Following his enormous victory, the popular Reagan softened his militant stance and became more amenable to negotiating with the USSR. Like Nixon, Reagan came to office with a well-deserved reputation as a fervent anti-Communist and left the White House having eased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. It took a president with impeccable credentials in fighting communism to reduce Cold War conflicts. Had a liberal or even a moderate Democratic president copied Reagan’s actions, he would have been seen as a traitor for succumbing to what many considered the godless Soviet villains. Reagan, even more than Nixon, espoused conservative principles during his presidency, but he refused to let rigid dogma interfere with more pragmatic considerations to foster peace. Notwithstanding his aggressive, moralistic rhetoric, he perceived the limits of America’s power in the post-Vietnam era, as evidenced by his decision to invade a very weak Grenada rather than Cuba, Nicaragua, or El Salvador, and he quickly withdrew U.S. marines from Lebanon rather than risk a wider war. By the time President Reagan left office, little remained of the Cold War.

In the mid-1980s, powerful changes were sweeping through the Soviet Union, which helped bring the Cold War to a close. In September 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party and head of the Soviet Union. The first Soviet chief of state born after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev introduced a program of economic and political reform. Through glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the Soviet leader hoped to reduce massive state control over the declining economy and to extend democratic elections and freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Gorbachev understood that the success of his reforms depended on reducing Cold War tensions with the United States and slowing the arms escalation that was bankrupting the Soviet economy. Gorbachev’s glasnost brought the popular American musical performer Billy Joel to the Soviet Union in August 1987, staging the first rock concert in the country.

The changes that Gorbachev brought to the internal affairs of the Soviet Union carried over to the international arena. From 1986 to 1988, the Soviet leader negotiated in person with the American president, something that had not happened during Reagan’s first term. In 1986 at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, the two leaders agreed to cut the number of strategic nuclear missiles in half. Gorbachev even proposed to eliminate his nation’s entire nuclear stockpile of weapons if Reagan terminated the SDI program, an offer Reagan declined. Despite widespread skepticism in the scientific community about the practicality of the SDI, Reagan sincerely believed that it offered the best hope of preventing nuclear warfare. In 1987 the two sides negotiated an Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which provided for the destruction of existing intermediate-range missiles and on-site inspections to ensure compliance. The height of détente came in December 1987, when Gorbachev traveled to the United States to take part in the treaty-signing ceremony. Reagan no longer referred to the USSR as “the evil empire,” and Gorbachev impressed Americans with his personal charm and by demonstrating the media savvy associated with American politicians. The following year, Reagan flew to the Soviet Union and hugged his new friend Mikhail at Lenin’s Tomb and told reporters, “They’ve changed,” referring to the once and not-so-distant “evil empire.” Citizens of the two adversarial nations breathed a collective sigh of relief; at long last, the Cold War appeared to be winding down.


• How did anticommunism shape Ronald Reagan's foreign policy?

• What role did ordinary citizens play in prompting the superpowers to move toward nuclear de-escalation?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!