The Soviet Union is the focus of evil in the modern world.
RONALD REAGAN, MARCH 1983
WITH THE ADVENT OF THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION, AMERICAN foreign policy underwent another of its periodic swings. The new team of President Reagan, former governor of California and movie actor, and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, former NATO commander and assistant to Kissinger, was far tougher in its public statements than the Carter-Vance team had been. The Republicans said they were determined to restore the shattered American prestige and position around the world. They talked tough to the Russians, took a firm anti-Communist line in Central America, and dramatically escalated the arms race. Reagan charged that Carter (and by implication Nixon and Kissinger before Carter) had allowed the Soviets to achieve strategic superiority, and insisted that the SALT II agreements would have to be revised before they could be considered for ratification. Reagan ordered the B-1 bomber, canceled by Carter, put into production; he stepped up the preparations for basing Pershing II missiles in Western Europe; he sharply increased defense expenditures for both conventional and nuclear forces within the United States; he scrapped the human rights policy; and he allowed American arms manufacturers to sell arms at a record level.
As a consequence, the arms industry became the leading growth industry in the United States. The level of armaments reached unprecedented proportions. By the early 1980s, worldwide military spending was nearly $550 billion annually, or $150 for every person on earth. The Russians were actually exporting more arms than the United States, while France, Britain, Germany, and other industrialized countries were paying for their oil and other imports with arms sold to the Third World exporters of raw materials.
But just as Carter had discovered in the Iranian crisis that being the Commander in Chief of the greatest armed forces ever assembled on this earth (or the second-greatest, depending on which statistics about the Soviet armed forces one believed) did not give him sufficient power to enforce his will, so did Reagan discover in the Polish crisis in late 1981 that for all America’s missiles and bombers and submarines and NATO partners, he was no more able to influence events in Eastern Europe than Truman and Eisenhower had been in the first years of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union forced the Polish army to impose martial law in order to crush Solidarity, a trade union that had nearly half the Polish population in its ranks, and which was moving Poland toward a genuine democracy, Reagan was outraged. But he was also disconcerted to discover that he was helpless. He dared not risk war with the Soviets over Poland; he could not persuade his NATO allies to join in an economic blockade of either Poland or Russia; he was, in the end, reduced to verbal denunciation and the most limited and ineffective economic sanctions. The only effects were to make life even more difficult for Polish citizens while strengthening the resolve of the Polish generals. In August 1984, after the Polish military released some of its hundreds of political prisoners, the Reagan administration lifted most of the sanctions.
By the early eighties, there were more wars going on, in more places. By 1984, Europe, which had seen so many wars over so many centuries, and which had twice in the twentieth century dragged the rest of the world into war, was the only continent where no active fighting was going on. Everywhere else wars were raging. Many of them had no connection with the Cold War, or with political or religious ideology. In Southeast Asia, Communists were at war with Communists (China versus Vietnam; Vietnam versus Cambodia). In the Middle East, Muslims fought Muslims (Iran versus Iraq) as Jews fought Arabs and Lebanese Christians fought Lebanese Muslims. The United States was involved in these conflicts, sometimes as a mediator, always as a supplier of arms. So were the Russians.
Virtually all Third World countries were spending enormous sums on war or preparation for war, despite staggering debts and dreadful poverty. In the Western economic boom of the second half of the 1970s, excess capital had piled up in American and European banks, and so large sums were loaned to the Third World. The money was used to purchase either arms or consumer goods, rather than as investment capital to increase production facilities. As a consequence, when the worldwide economic recession set in during the early 1980s, bringing with it a drop in the price of Third World exports (oil, minerals, commodities) and a rise in interest rates (caused in part by the previously unimaginable level of American deficits, as Reagan simultaneously cut taxes while increasing defense spending dramatically), many Third World nations faced bankruptcy. Billions of dollars in potential defaults were involved, putting the entire Western banking structure at risk. The world faced an economic crisis that was potentially worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s.
There was no easy solution. A temporary respite—loaning more money so that the Third World countries could at least meet the interest payments—only made the long-term problem worse. By 1984, the American economy was again expanding, at near-record rates, but because of Reagan’s success in holding down inflation (4 percent in 1984), prices of commodities, oil, and other Third World products were not rising.
Another threat to worldwide stability was the continuing Iran-Iraq war. In 1984 the two sides began to attack oil tankers in the Persian Gulf with modern missiles. In 1979, the United States had proclaimed, in the Carter-Doctrine, that it would use military force to prevent the Russians from controlling the region or disrupting the flow of oil. But in 1984, the United States watched helplessly as Iraq and Iran disrupted the oil flow. In 1987, an American ship, the U.S.S. Stark, was hit by a French-made Exocet missile fired by an Iraqi plane. Iraq apologized and paid damages; Reagan’s critics asked why the United States had a warship in a war zone without a specific task in the first place.
In the other major war in the Middle East, in Lebanon, the United States had no economic interest of any consequence, but nevertheless it became deeply involved. The war was exceedingly complex (it pitted Lebanese Muslims against Lebanese Christians, Syria against Lebanon, the PLO against everyone, and Jew against Arab), but the reason for American involvement was simple—to contain the Soviet Union. Reagan saw Syria as a client state of the Russians, and Israel as a potent Cold War ally in the Middle East. Secretary Haig and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wanted close military ties with Israel, because they regarded Israel as the strongest and most reliable power in the region. The difficulty was that the Israelis, although eager to accept American arms and willing to cooperate with the Americans on military intelligence, viewed Arab nationalism and the PLO, not the Russians, as the chief threat.
Alliances are almost impossible to make when the potential partners do not agree on a common enemy. Haig and Weinberger realized that before they could persuade Israel to concentrate on an anti-Russian alliance, Israel had to be assured of peaceful, stable borders. Thanks to Carter’s Camp David agreements, such borders had been achieved on Israel’s Egyptian front. But on the West Bank of Jordan, on the Golan Heights, where Israel faced Syria, and on the northern front, where Lebanon provided a base for the PLO fighting forces, Israel had major problems, which Israeli leaders believed had to be solved before they could turn their energies and power to an anti-Soviet alliance with the United States.
American policy aimed to provide Israel with security, primarily by eliminating the PLO base in Lebanon, partly through military action, partly by giving the Palestinians a homeland on the West Bank. Such a two-track policy was necessary, Reagan believed, because the moderate Arabs could not simply stand aside as Israel eliminated the PLO. Until the Palestinians had a homeland, they would be a permanent source of turmoil, terrorism, and war in the Middle East. The West Bank provided the best opportunity for such a homeland, if only the PLO, Jordan, Syria, and Israel would agree.
None would, however. The PLO could not accept the American formula of a Palestinian state tied to Jordan and unable to set its own foreign and military policy. Jordan had no desire to take responsibility for the PLO. Syria aimed at a regional predominance that had no room for an independent PLO. And Israel would not agree to a Palestinian nation on the West Bank no matter how tightly controlled by Jordan. On the contrary, Prime Minister Begin and his government continued to believe that Israeli security depended on seizing and holding territory, and on military might, rather than on political compromise. Thus in direct defiance of strongly stated American wishes, Begin continued to encourage Jewish settlement on the West Bank, turning it from a potential homeland for the Palestinians into a perhaps permanent part of greater Israel.
Reagan and Haig believed that if the PLO could be eliminated as a fighting force, Israel would be willing to be reasonable about a Palestinian homeland on the West Bank. The military base of the PLO was in southern Lebanon. Because Lebanon was torn by an endemic civil war, the government in Beirut was incapable of asserting its authority over the PLO. As a first step in getting the Israelis to be reasonable about the Palestinian question and to turn Israel’s attention to the Soviet threat, Haig decided to encourage Israel to solve the PLO problem with a massive military stroke. On May 26, 1982, in Chicago, Secretary Haig delivered a major foreign policy address. Israel had just completed on April 25 her withdrawal from the Sinai, in accordance with the Camp David agreement. With a peaceful and stable southern border, Begin felt free to concentrate on his northern front. In his Chicago speech, Haig called for “international action” to end the Lebanese civil war. This was, most observers agreed, a signal to Israel to invade Lebanon.
On June 6, 1982, Israel did invade. Israeli troops drove northward and then beseiged West Beirut, where refugee camps held tens of thousands of Palestinians and provided a base for PLO soldiers. Officially, the United States did not welcome the invasion, but neither would it condemn it. The immediate aim of the invasion was to crush the PLO, but the immediate result was a de facto Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, thus adding to Israel’s conquered territory. Haig stated publicly that the invasion created “new and hopeful opportunities” for a political settlement in Lebanon, which presumably meant the elimination of the PLO, but by this time the confused situation had the Reagan administration working at cross-purposes. American Ambassador Philip Habib was laboring, with impressive energy, skill, and patience, to find a diplomatic solution. The Israelis were apprehensive that Habib would put together a compromise that would give the PLO a permanent place in Lebanon (a solution supported by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, as well as by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger).
In August 1982 Israel began the systematic and heavy shelling of the PLO camps in West Beirut. This action led to a general public demand that Reagan dissociate the United States from Israeli action and contributed to the resignation of Secretary of State Haig, who was replaced by George Shultz, a California businessman and former professor with long experience in government. By September, Ambassador Habib produced a political compromise. Israel agreed to lift the siege while a trilateral force of French, Italian, and American troops supervised the withdrawal of the PLO army from Beirut to Jordan and Tunisia, countries Habib had persuaded to give refuge to the PLO soldiers.
Reagan then tried to get the Camp David process in motion once again. He delivered a major foreign policy speech that committed the United States to the general principles agreed to by Begin, Carter, and Sadat in 1979—a homeland and self-determination for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza in return for a guarantee from the Arab states of the inviolability of Israel’s borders and its right to exist. But immediately upon the removal of the PLO troops from Beirut and the withdrawal of the trilateral force, the Israeli army moved into Beirut again—just as PLO leader Yasser Arafat had warned that it would—and took control of the city. The Christian militia of Lebanon, working closely with the Israelis, sought revenge for the assassination of the Christian leader, President Gemayel. They entered the Palestinian refugee camps and slaughtered hundreds of women and children. The bloodbath horrified the world and forced Reagan once again to send in the U.S. Marines (along with the returning French and Italian troops), in an attempt to restore some semblance of peace in Beirut.
The peacekeepers, however, found themselves virtually besieged in Beirut and completely unable to influence events. There were not enough Marines, French, and Italian forces to enforce their will on any of the various warring factions, but the mere presence of Western troops, especially American Marines, in Beirut was infuriating to the Muslims. Every political party in Lebanon now had its own militia; Syria occupied eastern Lebanon, Israel occupied southern Lebanon, what remained of the PLO (by 1983 itself divided in warring factions) occupied northern Lebanon, while U.S. Marines, with neither a clear objective nor the necessary force (there were only 1,500 of them) to accomplish anything, were isolated at the Beirut airport.
Far from solving anything, much less leading to a U.S.- Israeli alliance directed against the Soviets, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon had made a bad situation worse for everyone involved—most of all for Israel itself. The war was costing the Israelis billions of dollars and heavy casualties; the occupation of southern Lebanon brought worldwide denunciation; Israel’s inflation rate was 400 percent annually; and Israel’s body politic was badly split between hawks and doves. Still, Israel would not retire from Lebanon.
In February 1983, Reagan attempted to induce Israel to pull back by promising “this administration is prepared to take all necessary measures to guarantee Israel’s northern borders in the aftermath of the complete withdrawal of the Israeli Army.” It was an historic pledge—never before had an American President made an offer to guarantee any of Israel’s borders—but the Israelis would not respond, primarily because the following day Reagan, in an attempt to maintain an evenhanded policy, called for “something in the nature of a homeland for the Palestinians.” Meanwhile American Marines began taking casualties from sniper fire. Reagan told the Israeli foreign minister of the “necessity and urgency” of an Israeli withdrawal, again to no avail. Reagan also refused to release some 75 F-16 fighters to Israel, again without results.
In May 1983, with Secretary of State Shultz himself acting as mediator, an Israeli-Lebanese agreement was finally reached. But it was a paper accord, without substance. The new Lebanese President, Amil Gemayel, controlled only one small faction in his country and was not in a position to make good on any agreement, much less one that allowed the Israeli Army de facto control of southern Lebanon. The Shultz formula called for the simultaneous withdrawal of all Israeli, Syrian, and PLO forces from Lebanon, but it allowed the Israelis to remain in southernmost Lebanon until the others had withdrawn. Worse, neither the Syrians nor the PLO had agreed to either this or any other of Shultz’s propositions, and indeed denounced the agreement immediately. Nevertheless, Reagan, grateful for Israeli “cooperation,” lifted the embargo on the F-16 fighter planes, and in June 1983 Defense Secretary Weinberger announced that the prospective U.S.-Israeli alliance against the Soviet Union could now be revived. The Israelis, meanwhile, shortened their lines in Lebanon, but insisted they would not completely withdraw until Syria and the PLO also withdrew.
By August 1983, six distinct armies were fighting throughout Lebanon—Syrians, Israelis, Christian Phalangists, Muslim militia factions, the Lebanese army, and the PLO (also divided into factions). Beirut was under constant shelling; the Marines at the airport were taking more casualties. It was increasingly difficult to see what point there was to keeping the Marines in Lebanon, and Congress was threatening to invoke the War Powers Act, which would force Reagan to withdraw them within ninety days. Secretary Shultz, in response, restated the administration’s position that although the Marines in Lebanon “are involved in a situation where there is violence,” they were not “in combat” and thus the War Powers Act did not apply. His statement confused more than it elucidated and satisfied almost no one.
In truth, the Reagan administration had blundered in Lebanon as badly as Carter had blundered in Iran. Encouraging the Israeli invasion had turned out to be a dreadful mistake, made worse by sending in the Marines in such insufficient force that they became hostages rather than peacekeepers. The attempts at evenhandedness—denouncing Israeli settlement on the West Bank, placing an embargo on the sale of airplanes to Israel, speaking out for a “sort of” homeland for the Palestinians that frightened Israel while still leaving the PLO far short of its aspirations, demanding a Syrian and PLO withdrawal while allowing the Israelis to maintain their position in southernmost Lebanon, putting the Marines into a hostage situation at the airport—made all the participants angry at and suspicious of the United States. It was difficult to see how American diplomacy could have done worse.
Reagan tried to retrieve the situation by sending in more force, in the form of U.S. warships stationed off the Lebanese coast. In September 1983, as fighting in Beirut escalated and the Marines took still more casualties, the Navy began shelling Druse militia positions. This only exacerbated the problem and led many people to wonder who on earth was in charge of American foreign policy, and especially of the use of the military to support that policy. Firing sixteen-inch naval guns into the Lebanese countryside hardly seemed a proper application of force in a civil war in which the United States professed to be neutral and a seeker of peace.
The violence increased with every salvo from the huge battle-ships, reaching a culmination on October 23, 1983, when a suicide truck loaded with TNT drove into Marine Headquarters and killed 230 Marines. Vice President George Bush, visiting the site three days later, declared that such terrorist acts would not be allowed to shape American foreign policy. Reagan denounced the “despicable” act, promised to find and punish those responsible, and forthrightly declared that it was “central to our credibility on a global scale” to keep the Marines in Lebanon. Naval shelling of Muslim positions increased, supported by air strikes.
But for all the brave words and deeds, the situation had in fact become intolerable. Reagan had no choice but to withdraw the Marines, and in effect admit a terrible mistake. In January 1984, just as the campaign for his reelection was getting under way, he began the preparations for the withdrawal. On a minor scale, it was like Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam—slow, painful, full of threat and bluster, punctuated by random bombing and shelling, and marked by misleading statements and downright lies. Reagan insisted, in December 1983, that U.S. Marines and Navy vessels (by then forty in number, including three aircraft carriers) would stay in Lebanon until the Lebanese government was in full control of the situation. The battleship New Jersey and the Naval aircraft openly took the side of Gemayel’s government in the raging civil war—a strange action for a “peacekeeping” force—but even as he was thereby stepping up American involvement, Reagan announced on February 7, 1984, that he was “redeploying” the Marines to ships off Beirut.
That same day, the White House announced that the bombardment of Muslim militia positions was done for the purposes of “protecting” the Gemayel government; two days later it declared that the shelling was for “the safety of American and other multinational force personnel in Lebanon.” Such contradictory pronouncements were a fitting way to end the American involvement in Lebanon, where no one, most of all Reagan himself, ever seemed to be clear on the purpose of that involvement.
By February 26, 1984, the Marines were gone. The Navy soon followed. The war went on. Completing the debacle, in March, Lebanon canceled its agreement with Israel. The Israelis still held southern Lebanon, but at a high cost; Syria still held eastern Lebanon; civil war still raged; there was no U.S.-Israeli alliance; there was, in brief, nothing good to say about the Reagan administration’s policies in Lebanon, and much to denounce. But as had been the case in Vietnam after American withdrawal in 1973, no one wanted to learn the lessons of failure. Lebanon was not even an issue in the 1984 presidential campaign.
Far more satisfactory to the Reagan administration, and to the public, was a successful piece of gunboat diplomacy on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. In October 1983, a military coup in Grenada (a British Commonwealth nation) deposed and then killed Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, himself a leftist who had already greatly alarmed the Reagan administration because he was allowing Cuban construction workers to build an airfield on the island, and had signed military agreements with Communist bloc countries. The military council that took power, headed by General Hudson Austin, was thought to be even more Communist than Bishop. When Austin murdered Bishop, the United States decided to intervene. On October 25, Reagan announced that he had ordered 1,900 Marines to invade Grenada and depose General Austin. The Cuban workers and troops, some eight hundred altogether, fought back, but had no chance of successful resistance and were quickly overwhelmed. A new government was formed, under Governor General Sir Paul Scoon. The Cubans were ordered off the island, the Soviet embassy was closed and all members expelled. Land redistribution policies carried out under the Bishop regime were canceled.
Reagan called the invasion a “rescue mission,” an interpretation that got vivid visual support when American medical students, returning to the United States from Grenada, kissed the ground upon arrival at the airport. Latin Americans, fearful as always of the Colossus of the North, condemned the invasion as Teddy Roosevelt Big Stick tactics. The United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution that “deeply deplored” the American action. Much of the American press was outraged, not so much by the invasion as by the fact that the Pentagon did not permit newsmen to cover it. Reagan personally saw it as a major triumph. It showed he could be tough and decisive; it enhanced American credibility in the Caribbean; it prevented the Russians from gaining a strategic airfield; it added to the President’s popularity; it served as a warning to revolutionaries in Central America.
The British were upset about the invasion, not because they disapproved, but because they were not consulted, and Grenada was a Commonwealth member nation. Reagan and the State Department simply ignored the British, a particularly gratuitous insult because, if they had been asked, the British almost certainly would have given reluctant consent. This slighting gesture by the Reagan administration caused a setback in Anglo-American relations, which had reached a high point only a year and a half earlier, during the Falklands War.
In March 1982, the Argentine junta seized the Falkland Islands, a barren and sparsely inhabited British possession off the tip of South America. Those islands were of no significance to the world, with neither strategic nor economic importance or potential. But they did have tremendous political significance, enough to cause a war and once again illustrate the power of nationalism as the strongest of all political forces. What made the Falklands War the dramatic and incredible event that it became was that it was fought with the most modern weapons, which fascinated everybody, over the oldest issue of all: Whose territory is this? Whose flag flies here? It had absolutely nothing to do with any of the issues dividing mankind and causing wars, the modern issues such as Communism versus capitalism, or the colored world versus the white world, or the Muslims versus the Jews. Such issues were irrelevant to the British-Argentine War of 1982.
The Falkland Islands had long been claimed by Argentina, but the British had always refused to negotiate seriously on the issue, which gave the military junta a reason for action. Patriotism was thus stirred up, diverting the public’s attention from the botch the generals had made of the economy, not to mention their horrific record on human rights. The generals who twitched the British lion’s tail became heroes. What the generals had not anticipated was the tough British reaction, because they ignored the obvious fact that British nationalism was at least every bit as strong as Argentinian, and the fact that the serving Prime Minister herself could use a boost in the public opinion polls.
When the Argentines took the islands, Margaret Thatcher’s response was tough and immediate. She ordered a large naval task force to the Falklands, including using the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II as a troop carrier—the largest fighting task force since the end of World War II. The public was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The British were also delighted at the American reaction. Reagan told his military to give the British task force covert support, especially invaluable intelligence. Reagan also had his United Nations Ambassador, Mrs. Jeane Kirkpatrick, support the British in heated debates in the United Nations. British gratitude was widespread; when Britain won the short war, not without taking heavy losses, there was an outpouring of pro-American sentiment in the United Kingdom, where many public figures remarked that the strain on U.S.-U.K. relations created by Eisenhower’s actions during the 1956 Suez crisis was now eliminated.
As noted, Reagan sacrificed much of this goodwill in 1983, when he invaded one of the Queen’s possessions without informing, much less consulting, Prime Minister Thatcher (it must be noted that she was in a secure position, having recently won a quickly called election that took full advantage of her victory in the Falklands War). To Reagan, however, the positive results of invading Grenada far outweighed the negative repercussions. The reason was that the Caribbean and, even more, Central America were central to Reagan’s thinking.
Central America was almost an obsession with Reagan. Unlike previous presidents, who have looked east and west for the dangers and challenges, toward Europe and the Soviet bloc, and toward Japan and China, Reagan has looked south for his challenges. He was not very persuasive in getting others to join him in regarding Central America as the critical area. This stemmed, in part, from a lack of experience; when he took office, Reagan was as inexperienced in foreign affairs as Carter had been. He knew only what he was against. In Central America, he was very much against any expansion of the Sandinista movement. What he was for was less clear.
What Carter had been for was extending a helping hand to the Sandinista regime, in the hope that this really would bring about a viable social democratic government in Nicaragua, with political and economic justice. What Reagan was for was a 1980s version of Churchill’s cry in 1919, “We must strangle Bolshevism in the cradle.”
In Reagan’s view, the threat from the Sandinistas and their partners, the rebels in El Salvador, was twofold. First, that Nicaragua would become another Cuba, providing the Russians with a base in Central America that they would use both to export revolution to their neighbors, north and south, and as a naval and military base. The second threat Reagan saw was that either continued chaos, or even worse a Communist victory throughout Central America, would lead to a massive flight of refugees from Central America into the United States itself. America already had serious problems with illegal immigrants from Mexico; the propect of countless Central American refugees crossing the Rio Grande caused Reagan to view the situation with the greatest alarm. Far better, Reagan reasoned, to support the existing governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, however distasteful, than to abandon the region to the Communists.
Reagan moved immediately. Within days of taking office, he froze the last $15 million of Carter’s aid package to Nicaragua because, he said, Nicaragua was “aiding and abetting violence” in El Salvador. Reagan also extended extensive military aid to a government in El Salvador that was, many charged, as objectionable as Somoza’s in Nicaragua had been. According to his critics, Reagan grossly exaggerated both the extent of Communist infiltration and Cuban-Russian support for the guerrillas in El Salvador. In March 1981, Reagan nevertheless increased military aid to the military government in El Salvador by $25 million and soon sent in American military advisers. Reagan dismissed any analogy with Vietnam in the early sixties and pointed to the free election held in El Salvador in March 1982.
Still, Reagan could not rally support sufficient to get Congress behind the effort. Too many politicians, and too large a segment of the public, believed that Reagan was seeing the wrong threats and applying the wrong solutions, for Reagan to get a consensus behind him. His critics thought that it was precisely the governments themselves, the ones Reagan was supporting with military aid, that were the danger and the problem. Narrowly based military regimes that perpetuated right-wing violence and a grossly unfair economic status quo based on a colonial relationship with the United States, such as the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, could never bring stability to an area that cried out for change. Reagan’s critics further charged that Reagan exaggerated the number and quality of arms supplied by the Communists to the rebels in El Salvador, the size of the Cuban contingent in Nicaragua, and even the degree of influence of Communists in the Sandinista movement. The critics thought that the United States should be working with the Sandinistas, not against them, in order to promote the kind of social and economic democracy that is a prerequisite for stability. Economic aid to the forces of the left, rather than military aid to the forces of the right, was the proper policy. As to the “wave of refugees” Reagan so feared, the critics responded that an improvement in the political and economic situation in Central America, not more military rule, was what was needed to meet that threat.
Certainly the threat of deepening military involvement was there, and hanging over it, always, was the memory of Vietnam. In Congress and among the public there were widespread fears that Central America would become “another Vietnam.” No matter how often Reagan explained that there was no comparison between the situations in Vietnam and Central America (a judgment that was more right than wrong), he could not dispel the fear. Congress proved extremely reluctant to meet Reagan’s demands for military aid for the army of El Salvador, even after the State Department asserted that El Salvador had curbed its right-wing death squads and “made progress” in human rights. In March 1983, a year after the elections in El Salvador, fears of “another Vietnam” were markedly increased when Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries (“Contras”), based in Guatemala and supported and trained by the CIA, crossed the border and began an insurgency operation against the Sandinista government. Reagan asked for more money to support the operation, but Congress remained hesitant.
Reagan tried to raise the level of alarm. He justified CIA support for the Contras in his press conferences as necessary to overthrow the Sandinistas, calling the Contras “freedom fighters.” Secretary Shultz asserted that support for the El Salvador government was “moral” because the United States was preventing a “brutal military takeover by a totalitarian minority.” In April 1983, Reagan went before a Joint Session of Congress to ask support for his Central American policy, asserting that the “national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America.” But to his dismay, the only sustained applause he received, from Republicans as well as Democrats, was when he promised to send no American combat units to the scene.
In the fall of 1983, Reagan nevertheless increased the pressure. The CIA-sponsored Contras expanded their activities, to the bombing of oil storage and other facilities in Nicaragua. The U.S. Army held major maneuvers in Honduras and began construction of a permanent military base near the Nicaragua border. But Congress remained unconvinced, not only because of painful memories of Vietnam, but also because Congress represented the split in the country as a whole over Central America. No other issue in the world—not even arms control, the Middle East, or relations with Russia—caused such a deep and broad split in American opinion. The result was congressional stalemate. Reagan could not get the funds that were necessary to prosecute the war against the Central American revolutionaries successfully, but Reagan’s critics could not force him to withdraw from the area, much less support the forces of change. This stalement made it difficult for the United States to influence events in Central America, even though, as always, Uncle Sam was blamed by both the left and the right in Latin America for everything that went wrong.
In March 1984, presidential elections in El Salvador gave the Reagan administration some cause for optimism. The leader of the death squads, or so it was charged, Roberto d’Aubuisson, was the candidate of the right wing. He was defeated by the somewhat more moderate candidate, the man the United States supported, José Napoleon Duarte, who quickly set about trying—with some success—to improve El Salvador’s image in the world.
Simultaneously, however, the Contras—using CIA- supplied equipment—began mining Nicaragua’s harbors, and some Russian ships were damaged. Reagan was forced to announce that he was withdrawing his requests for additional military aid to El Salvador until after the elections. In other words, the hopelessly divided American perceptions of the nature of the threat in Central America continued to make it difficult for the United States to set, and hold to, clear policy goals. Violence and turmoil in Central America continued.
In his relations with the Soviet Union, Reagan had much clearer goals than he did in Lebanon and the Middle East, and a much broader and deeper consensus supporting him than he did in Central America. Reagan’s goals were peace, limitations on the arms race, an actual reduction in the size of the nuclear arsenals, good trade relations with Russia, cooperation in solving such problems as acid rain and water and air pollution, and generally a mutually beneficial détente. Almost all Americans wanted the same general goals achieved. Where the consensus broke down was over the means used to achieve the goals.
Reagan’s tactics for achieving peace and controlling the arms race included hurling insults at the Soviet Union. In March 1983, he characterized the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Outside of Japan and Western Europe, few people around the world accepted Reagan’s analysis. In the southern half of the globe, the general perception was that poverty, imperialism, and racism were the true focus of evil. In the Middle East, the Israelis saw the radical Arabs as the focus of evil. The Arabs saw the Israelis as the source, while in Iran the perception was that the United States was equally a focus of evil with the Soviet Union.
Fewer Americans disagreed with Reagan, but many wondered how such accusations could further the cause of peace or détente. The argument was that there was no point to hurling gratuitous insults against the other superpower, because the United States had to live with the Soviet Union, like it or not.
With regard to arms control, by far the most important real issue challenging the superpowers, Reagan rejected Carter’s policy of offering the Soviets restraint and even accommodation, because, as he pointed out, Carter’s policy had not worked. The Russians simply did not respond; indeed they took advantage of Carter. Reagan reverted to Nixon’s policy of buildup, the old Cold War tactic of never bargaining with the Russians except from a position of strength (i.e., superiority). In his first three years in office, Reagan increased defense spending, in real terms, by 40 percent. This massive buildup did indeed alarm the Russians, but to Reagan’s dismay it did not cause them to negotiate seriously. Instead, as they had always done in the past, they matched (and in some areas exceeded) the American increases.
Europe remained the area of greatest concern and danger. The most serious destabilizing factor in Europe was the Soviet emplacement, in the late seventies, of more than 345 SS-20 missiles (modern intermediate-range weapons with three nuclear warheads each). NATO decided, in December 1979, to match this threat with some 500 American cruise missiles based in Western Europe. Carter, at the urging of the NATO allies, had made the cruise decision; Reagan heartily endorsed it, despite intense opposition within many of the NATO countries, an opposition that was well financed (from Russian sources, it was charged by opponents), well-organized, and highly motivated.
To many Europeans, the most frightening aspect of the situation was that it appeared that the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed that if war ever broke out between them, Europe was the battleground on which it would be fought. If that happened, then there surely would be no more Europe. This realization put a great strain on NATO and the individual countries involved. But all the governments remained steadfast behind the original decision, despite massive protest demonstrations in London, Bonn, Paris, Rome, and West Berlin.
On November 23, 1983, deployment of the cruise missiles began in Great Britain and West Germany. The Russians immediately discontinued the arms control talks in Geneva. Russian-American relations were at one of their lowest points since the Cold War began. There was widespread alarm, and there was good cause for it. The arsenals of both sides had reached huge, indeed unbelievable proportions (except that they were all too real). In strategic weapons, the United States had more than 9,000 nuclear warheads on bombers and missiles, the Soviet Union more than 7,000. These were aimed at targets inside the other superpower’s homeland. In theater nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had 3,580 of all types (land- and sea-based) directed at targets in Western Europe, while NATO had 4,445 aimed at Eastern Europe and the western sections of the Soviet Union (including 98 French and 64 British theater nuclear missiles). Aside from the dangers to human existence, the cost of these arsenals, and of the conventional forces in the Warsaw Pact and NATO, was horrendous. By 1985 the United States was spending $300 billion per year on defense, the West Europeans nearly $150 billion. (Accurate figures for the Warsaw Pact nations are impossible to come by, but were somewhat less than the total for Western Europe.)
“This is not a way of life at all,” President Eisenhower had declared in 1953, when the costs and the dangers of the arms race were one tenth or less of what they had become thirty-two years later, but no one could find a way out of the arms race. Both sides made proposals—the Russians offered to reduce their SS-20 deployment to the size of the French and British missile forces if NATO agreed to deploy no cruise missiles; Reagan offered a “zero-zero” option, in which NATO would forgo the deployment of cruise missiles if the Soviets dismantled all the SS-20S—but in each case the offer was seen by the other side as propaganda, not to be taken seriously.
A principal Soviet aim, Western leaders agreed, was to divide and weaken NATO, and certainly the huge costs were putting a great strain on the alliance. Europeans protested against the prospect of Europe becoming the battleground in a superpower nuclear war; Americans protested against paying so much for what was widely regarded as the defense of Europe. By 1985, one half or more of the American defense budget went for NATO defense. It was, therefore, galling to hear West Germans refer to the American troops in their country as an occupying force, rather than West Germany’s defenders; it was irritating that the Europeans would not spend more on their own defense.35
In Congress, there was growing sentiment for the United States to reduce its NATO commitment and costs, unless the Europeans did more for their own defense. In 1984, Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, proposed that ninety thousand of the three hundred sixty thousand U.S. troops stationed in Europe be withdrawn within five years if the Europeans declined to increase their share of the burden. The Reagan administration opposed Nunn’s proposal, and it lost in the Senate, but only by a vote of fifty-five to forty-one. Obviously Nunn had struck a responsive chord. In 1953, Eisenhower had said that American troops could not remain in Europe indefinitely, because America could not afford to maintain a “Roman wall” forever. By 1985, it appeared that the Senate, and millions among the public, agreed with Eisenhower’s assessment. The consensus on both sides of the Atlantic as to what NATO was, what it should do, and how it should do it, was under severe strain.
Reagan’s economic policies toward the Soviet Union contributed to the difficulties. Originally, Reagan had supported Carter’s decision to put an economic blockade against the Soviets into effect in response to the invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed, Reagan went beyond refusing to sell grain to the Russians, as he attempted to prevent America’s European allies from trading with the Eastern bloc. In the late seventies, the Western Europeans had concluded an agreement with the Soviet Union that allowed them to purchase Soviet-produced natural gas in return for building a pipeline from Siberia. But the pipeline was dependent upon American technology, which was to be supplied by European-based multinational corporations. Reagan, outraged by this, attempted to block the construction of the pipeline by imposing economic sanctions on those corporations that sold American-produced equipment to the Soviets. But the sanctions were insufficient to deter the Europeans.
Furthermore, Reagan himself was eager to trade. For all his “evil empire” talk, Reagan had a huge grain surplus and a major balance of payments problem. By 1985, although the Soviets were still very much involved in attempting to subdue Afghanistan (where they had taken nearly fifty thousand casualties, roughly equal to American losses in Vietnam, and where they had used poison gas and chemical weapons), Reagan had abandoned nearly all the restrictions and embargos Carter had instituted against the Soviets. To Europeans, Reagan’s actions seemed contradictory, as he was simultaneously selling more wheat and corn to the Soviets while insisting that they not sell pipeline technology. Reagan responded that the pipeline was a strategic issue (presumably food sales were not). More to the point, Reagan argued that the Soviets could buy grain elsewhere, but they could only get the technology for the pipeline from the United States. His arguments, however, convinced few if any Europeans, and the pipeline, like the grain sales, went forward. Indeed, by 1984 Reagan was actually encouraging pipeline and other high-tech sales to the Soviets, completing the reversal of Carter’s policies. Amazingly, most of the public continued to regard Jimmy Carter as “soft on Communism,” Ronald Reagan as “hard.”
Reagan’s actions confused many Americans. They wondered why, if the U.S.S.R. was their enemy, the United States was selling it badly needed commodities and goods. And if the U.S.S.R. was not America’s enemy, then why was the United States spending such enormous sums on missiles directed against Russia?
During the 1984 presidential campaign, Democrats called Reagan the “Teflon” President, because none of his mistakes ever seemed to stick to him. Events preceding the election illustrated the point. In early September 1984, the Sandinistas shot down a helicopter in Nicaragua, killing two Americans who were members of the Civilian Military Assistance group, a private organization—or so it was claimed. Still, Reagan’s policies in Central America did not become an issue. The debacle in Lebanon was also ignored, even when in mid-September terrorists drove a truck carrying explosives into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and blew it up, killing twenty-three people. Reagan responded to critics by charging that the blame for the disaster lay with “previous administrations” for the “near destruction of our intelligence capabilities.” By this time, Reagan had been in office three and a half years!
In October, the Associated Press revealed that the CIA had prepared a manual for the Contras that suggested assassinations and kidnappings as techniques for use in Nicaragua. This was part of a total program of using terror to overthrow the government, carried on by an administration that had been the most forthright in the world in denouncing terrorism. Meanwhile, in Beirut, Reagan was as unsuccessful in obtaining the release of American hostages held by Muslim extremists as Carter had been in Iran during the 1980 election. Yet none of these contradictions and embarrassments reduced Reagan’s great popularity; he got three out of every five votes cast, and was triumphantly reelected.
But Reagan was unable to transfer his great personal popularity into support for his policies. For example, Congress, in the so-called Boland Amendment, defied the President and ordered a ban on military support of the Contras. It began in October 1984 and continued for two years. During that time, Reagan devised and executed a series of programs and actions designed to circumvent the clear intent of Congress, or—more bluntly—to violate the law.
He did so in any number of ways. He solicited contributions from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, other Arab potentates, Texas oil men, and rich right-wing American widows. Aides to the President, including Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the NSC staff and Robert McFarlane, the National Security Adviser, also solicited funds. These funds were then used to buy arms for the Contras. The CIA, meanwhile, in specific violation of the law, provided the Contras with military assistance, including intelligence, weapons, and supplies. The law also required the CIA to disclose to the congressional oversight committees the nature and scope of its activities, but CIA Director William Casey, perhaps the strongest supporter of the Contras within the administration, simply ignored the law.
Thus was a private terrorist army raised and equipped and supported from the White House and CIA headquarters. Its objective was to overthrow the Sandinista government. But the Contras were unable to make progress. They had no popular base; they controlled no cities or even towns; they consisted of a mixture of former Somoza National Guard officers and mercenaries; they could not rally behind a single leader or a program; and they would not take on the Sandinista army in open battle, but rather made their war against villages and the civilians.
Reagan tried to make up for the shortcomings of the Contras through overblown rhetoric. In February 1985, he called the Contras “our brothers,” and said that Nicaragua had become “a Communist totalitarian state.” On March 1, he called the Contras the “moral equal of our Founding Fathers” and insisted that “we owe them our help.”
Congress could not be moved. The ban on military assistance to the Contras remained in place. Adding to Reagan’s woes, the private fundraising efforts were proving inadequate to the need. The collapse of the Contras, and thus of Reagan’s policy in Central America, was imminent.
Reagan’s credibility and prestige were also at risk in another region of the world rife with guerrilla warfare, the Middle East. In Lebanon, in his second term, Reagan faced a problem similar to the one that had destroyed the Carter presidency, namely the holding of innocent American hostages by the crazed revolutionary Muslim followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who demanded a ransom for their release. Reagan had been scathing in his criticism of Carter’s softness on Khomeini, and absolutely convincing in his repeated promises to never pay a ransom. He also, wisely, avoided Carter’s mistake of overstressing the hostages and thus kept the subject off the front pages. He was helped by the differences in the situations: The terrorists in Lebanon held less than ten hostages, as opposed to more than fifty in Teheran five years earlier, and in Teheran the terrorists had overrun and held the U.S. Embassy, while in Lebanon they took private citizens and held them in secret places.
But Reagan’s public face, calm and confident, concealed a terrible inner anxiety about the fate of the hostages. Soon he was as obsessed by them as Carter had been. The anxiety became unbearable when the terrorists took the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, and began torturing him.
Reagan decided to act. In the spring of 1985, he began putting into motion a master plan that he had devised, one that if it worked would solve simultaneously his problems in Central America and in the Middle East, bring the hostages home, chase the Communists out of Central America, and win a new ally for the United States in the Middle East.
Reagan’s plan was a bold one, but it was not well thought out, and indeed showed an absence of understanding of the most basic events of the immediate past. Anyone who had made the slightest study of Carter’s problems with the Ayatollah Khomeini could have warned Reagan, “You can’t trust any of those people.” And anyone who had lived through the Watergate scandal could have told Reagan, “In this country it is next to impossible for the President to get away with breaking the law.”
Reagan’s master plan was to sell arms to Iran, as he had promised Khomeini he would during the 1980 election campaign. Iran’s military equipment, purchased by the Shah, was nearly all made in America, and the war with Iraq gave Iran an insatiable appetite for American arms and ammunition. Reagan believed that by selling arms to Iran, he could create a new beginning for U.S.-Iranian relations, perhaps reestablish the closeness that prevailed in the days of the Shah. As a second benefit, the sales would be a ransom for the hostages in Lebanon (which assumed that the Ayatollah Khomeini could and would order them released, in gratitude). The bonus was that the Iranians would pay double and triple the value of the weapons; the profits could be diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua and provide them with a permanent source of funding. Long-term funding, in fact, as Reagan was simultaneously supplying Iraq with critical military intelligence, gathered by America’s spy satellites, which would help ensure that even with the American arms, Iran could not win the war. Her need for arms might never end.
In implementing his plan, Reagan operated in the utmost secrecy. He failed to inform the State Department or his Secretary of State of the new policy. Thus he failed to build a base in the bureaucracy for the policy. In public, rather than attempting to build a constituency for paying a ransom or selling arms to Iran, he continued to insist that he would never, ever pay a ransom, and to call on all nations to impose an arms embargo on Iran, as he said the United States was doing.
What could have led the President to tell such tales? Evidently, his anxiety about the hostages became unbearable and led him to insist on immediate action. Lieutenant Colonel North and others began selling arms to Iran, through a variety of channels, mainly Israel. The Iranians offered to release a hostage to show their good faith. The President asked that it be CIA agent Buckley, but Buckley had by then been tortured to death. American clergyman Benjamin Weir was then released, the first—and as it turned out, the only—payoff Reagan got for his new policy.
The Iran-Iraq war, meanwhile, had become by 1985 the third-largest and most expensive war of this century, with no end in sight. Reagan continued to sell arms to Iran, whose leaders tantalized him with promises, as they provided North with millions of dollars in profits, a part of which was used to fund the Contras (the bulk of it went into private hands as profit). Still, the Contras were losing.
So, at the beginning of 1986, Reagan increased his pressure on Congress to get behind a policy of aid to the Contras. He demanded $100 million for “humanitarian aid” and military support. On March 16, he delivered a national television address warning about the consequences of allowing the Communists to win in Nicaragua. He made telephone calls to swing Congressmen right up to the roll call. But he failed. After two days of bitter debate, cries of “no more Vietnams” and assertions that if the United States did not stop the Communist menace in Nicaragua “then we will soon be fighting them along the Rio Grande,” Congress narrowly defeated the administration package.
Reagan funded the Contras anyway, through the arms sales to Iran and money privately raised. He granted tax deductions to American donors, and made favorable decisions about high-tech sales to foreign governments for corporations that pitched in with a contribution for the Contras. Thus did Reagan force a confrontation with Congress and the Constitution. By ignoring the Boland Amendment, the administration challenged Congress in a fundamental way over an ultimate question: Who controls the foreign policy of the United States?
The question was asked in an atmosphere that was unprecedented: Congress had told the President what he could not do in foreign affairs, while the President was engaged in willful and continuing violations of the law.
It was a startling development, this congressional assertion of its authority over foreign policy, but it had been building for two decades. Since the end of the sixties, Congress had attempted to take control of foreign affairs in ways quite unimaginable during the first two decades of the Cold War. The Boland Amendment was a culmination, not an aberration. Still Reagan ignored it, but in the first two years of his second term no one in Congress knew this.
What Reagan wanted was the kind of consensus that developed behind FDR in 1941, or behind Harry S. Truman at the time of the containment doctrine and the Marshall Plan. When the President leads a united country, he can safely ignore Congress, because with a consensus behind him the President is clearly in control and capable of acting boldly, as Reagan had demonstrated when he ordered the invasion of Grenada, and showed again in his handling of international terrorism.
In October 1985, the nation gave its full and enthusiastic approval to Reagan’s use of aircraft from the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean to force the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro to land in Italy. Reagan warned terrorists everywhere, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”
Two months later, terrorists attacked civilian passengers in the Rome and Vienna airports; the State Department called the perpetrators “beyond the pale of civilization.” In January 1986, Reagan accused Libya of aiding the Palestinians who had mounted the airport assaults and ordered the severance of all U.S. economic ties with Libya. Libyan leader Colonel Muammer el-Qaddafi defied the United States, hurled insults at Reagan, and drew a “line of death” across the Gulf of Sidra. In January and February 1986, there were clashes in the area between elements of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and the Libyan air force. Hostilities escalated in March, with a climax coming when Reagan ordered a major air strike on Tripoli, evidently with the aim of killing Qaddafi, whose residence was the aiming point of the bombers. Qaddafi escaped, although his daughter was killed and his prestige was badly hurt. Predictably, the Arabs denounced the United States, the Europeans were concerned over Reagan’s trigger-happy approach, while the American people heartily approved.
The intense public interest in Reagan’s war against the terrorists was in sharp contrast to the relative indifference the public showed to the Iran-Iraq war, or the Contra war, a contrast that in turn showed how difficult it is in a democracy to concentrate on the main event while avoiding side shows. Americans in the spring of 1986 put international terrorism high on the list of their greatest concerns, and tourism to Europe dropped by half. But, in fact, terrorism had hardly touched the Americans—of the 950 people killed by terrorists in 1985, only 23 were Americans. Terrorism was important, mostly because the Reagan administration said it was. Reagan, in other words, was repeating Carter’s mistake of attaching far too much importance to terrorism and hostage-taking.
In the spring of 1986, Reagan’s prestige was at its zenith, due in part to his offensive against the terrorists, and he was able to use his popularity to get Congress to lift its ban on aid to the Contras, as it rescinded the Boland Amendment and appropriated $100 million to support them. So in the summer and fall of 1986, the Contras were receiving aid overtly from Congress, covertly from the CIA; Arab potentates were contributors, as were American millionaires; the Israelis chipped in, as did Lieutenant Colonel North with some of the profits from the arms sales to Iran. Never have so many contributed so much to so few with less results, for despite everything, the Contras made no progress. But almost to the end of 1986, there were no questions asked about the legality of the President’s actions, because the actions remained unknown.
When Reagan began his second term, in January of 1985, there were hopes expressed that he would use the opportunity to become the President who brought arms control into reality and thus achieved historic standing as the peacemaker. Just as Nixon was the only American politician who could have opened the door to China, it was said, so Reagan was the only one who could achieve arms control with the Russians, as no one could accuse Reagan of being soft on Communism or of having neglected the nation’s defenses.
As a second-term President, with his last election behind him, Reagan stopped calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and began indicating that he might be willing to sit down with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to discuss arms control.
Gorbachev was eager to meet with Reagan, as a part of his overall policy of glasnost, or openness. The policy involved reforms at home and an easing of tension abroad, and featured Gorbachev’s presentation of himself as trustworthy, reasonable, open, and peaceloving. Reagan wanted to project the same image of himself. But however great their desire, the path to arms control and détente was strewn with unanticipated obstacles. Chance happenings, like the Russian shooting down of a Korean Air Lines (KAL) passenger jumbo jet in 1983, set back progress. The event demonstrated how deeply seated were the suspicions of both sides, and how far apart their views. To the Americans, the KAL incident showed what bloodthirsty monsters the Russians were; to the Russians, it showed that the capitalists would stop at nothing, not even putting spy equipment on a civilian airline and sending it over highly sensitive Soviet military intelligence centers. The truth of the matter, as has so often been the case in these Cold War incidents, was elusive. Eventually, a summit was set up for Geneva in November 1985. Going into the meeting, Reagan was simultaneously calling for a 50 percent reduction in nuclear weapons and an expanded Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. He said that what he feared most was a nuclear Pearl Harbor, and argued that the way to prevent it was to eliminate all offensive missiles through arms-control talks and to push SDI in order to erect a defensive shield in the event the arms control talks failed.
SDI was the most expensive weapons system ever devised. Many scientists argued that the thing simply would not work, that it could be overcome through offensive countermeasures that were much cheaper, and that it could only provoke the Russians, who would have to match American expenditures on the off chance of success. But Reagan insisted that it was purely defensive and that it would be unforgiveable of him to pass up an opportunity to provide a defense for the American people. His critics replied that SDI, if carried out, would leave America more insecure than ever, and trillions of dollars in debt to boot.
In short, at the time of the Geneva summit, the superpowers were on the brink of a stupendously big jump in the expenditures on the arms race, and each side had overwhelmingly powerful reasons to wish to avoid that outcome—in the United States, the federal deficit, incomparably larger than it had ever been as a direct consequence of Reagan’s arms race, loomed over the American way of life more dangerously than did the Soviet missiles; in the Soviet Union, expenditures for defense had made a mockery out of the original Communist promise to improve the lives of the Russian people.
Thus hopes were high, engendered by the mutual need for restraint and the high cost of pushing ahead with the arms race. Reagan spoke to those hopes in a nationally televised address on the eve of his departure for Geneva. The meeting with Gorbachev, he said, “can be a historic opportunity to set a steady, more constructive course in the twenty-first century.”
But the following day, even as the President was departing, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger leaked a letter he had given to the President, in which he gave a list of supposed Soviet treaty violations, asked the President not to agree to observe the terms of the never-ratified SALT II, not to give an inch on SDI expenditures, and in short not to enter into any agreement at all. It was sabotage, pure and simple. Weinberger had given every Senator opposed to any sort of arms control a perfect peg on which to base opposition to whatever agreement Reagan and Gorbachev might reach. At Geneva, meanwhile, Reagan did as Weinberger had recommended. He would not back down on SDI and no agreements were reached.
Three months late, the Joint Chiefs released a paper entitled “United States Military Posture,” in which they said that the Soviet Union “continues to comply with the SALT II treaty by dismantling strategic systems as new systems are introduced.” This directly contradicted statements made by both Reagan and Weinberger.
Contradictions were fast becoming the chief characteristic of the Reagan administration. As his expenditures for arms went to new record heights, especially for SDI, he astonished everyone, including some of his closest advisers, by revealing a letter he had written to Gorbachev, in which he proposed to share SDI with the Soviets once America had completed the research and development phases. Which was harder to believe—that the United States really would give away the fruits of the most expensive program in history, or that Gorbachev would consent to trust that Reagan (and his successors) would live up to Reagan’s promise if SDI did work—no one could say.
Through 1986, Gorbachev maintained a unilateral ban on nuclear testing. He used every opportunity to obtain maximum propaganda advantage from the ban, primarily by asking the United States to join the Soviets in refusing to test. But Reagan, who like Carter had said repeatedly that his goal was the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this earth, insisted that meanwhile he had to test new weapons. In January 1987, the Russians, citing America’s frequent tests, resumed their own program.
Gorbachev’s much-touted glasnost, meanwhile, underwent a severe test. On April 26, 1986, a nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev failed to inform the world about the mishap. Radioactive poison spread over much of Europe. Everyone, everywhere, was furious with the Russians. But Gorbachev had a bit of the “Teflon” quality that Reagan enjoyed, and subsequent Russian cooperation with nuclear scientists from the international community restored his image rather quickly.
One reason for Gorbachev’s success in courting world opinion was his obvious eagerness for an arms-control agreement, as opposed to Reagan’s apparent hesitancy. Thus it was Gorbachev who took the lead in promoting the next summit, using rather bizarre tactics to bring it about.
In August 1986, American officials arrested Gennadi Zakharov in New York and charged him with espionage for the KGB. The Soviets responded by arresting Nicholas Daniloff, a reporter for U.S. News. They charged Daniloff with espionage for the CIA. The White House insisted that Daniloff was innocent (although he was the grandson of a Czarist general and spoke fluent Russian, and anyway was asking the same questions as a reporter that a CIA agent would have asked, such as how many Russian troops were in Afghanistan, how were they equipped, what was their morale, and so on). Reagan said that under no circumstances whatsoever would there be a swap—Daniloff for Zakharov—because Zakharov was clearly guilty, Daniloff innocent.
Two weeks later, Reagan made the swap. He then told the American people that he had not made a deal for Daniloff. The next day the White House announced that Reagan had agreed to a Gorbachev proposal for a summit meeting in ReykjavÍk, Iceland, in two weeks—this from an administration that had always insisted it would never go to the summit without adequate preparation.
The ReykjavÍk summit was as barren as the windswept countryside of Iceland. At its conclusion, a sad and haggard-looking Secretary of State Shultz reported that Reagan and Gorbachev had agreed on the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the missile systems to deliver them and that this process of disarmament was to be completed in ten years. It seemed much too good to be true, and it was—Shultz went on to explain that these agreements in principle had been abandoned because Reagan refused to accept one of Gorbachev’s demands, that the United States give up its SDI program.
There were howls from around the world. The left wing wanted to know how on earth Reagan could squander such an opportunity for a defensive system that experts said would not work. The right wing wanted to know how on earth Reagan could agree to eliminate nuclear weapons and the missile systems when the Soviets had a commanding lead in conventional warfare capability. A series of conflicting statements from the White House further confused everyone. No one could say with any authority, evidently not even the President himself, what the American policy on arms control was or was not. Efforts to revive the talks, in the first half of 1987, consisted primarily of propaganda statements by both sides, with no real progress.
In the fall of 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed on a much more modest arms reduction, the elimination of short-range missiles in Europe. Although these constituted but a small fraction of the total arsenal, this was potentially a major event, as it was the first time the two sides actually agreed to reduce their missile strike forces. Signed in Washington in December 1987, the treaty did not end the arms race, nor did it reduce the dangers significantly, but it did promise some hope for more meaningful progress in the future.
Reagan’s foreign policy in his second term was not completely without success. He got through a crisis in the Philippines in 1986 that was fraught with danger. In elections in February, President Ferdinand Marcos, a dictator who had enriched himself beyond all imagination at the expense of the Filipino people, ran against Mrs. Corazon Aquino, widow of an opposition leader who had been gunned down by Marcos’s military. Marcos, who counted the ballots, declared himself the winner. The Filipino people took to the streets in an astonishing and unique display of what they called “People Power.” The held what amounted to a general strike. Marcos attempted to tough it out, counting on American support.
Initially, Reagan was willing to provide that support. He asserted that there had been a fair and free election with an honest count and said that despite the charges of fraud “there is evidence of a strong two-party system now in the islands.” But as the demonstrations continued, Reagan found it necessary to endorse a report from Senator Sam Nunn, in which Nunn insisted that Mrs. Aquino was the winner by actual vote count and that Marcos was engaged in an “all-out effort to steal the election.”
When even the Philippine Defense Minister and the Chief of Staff joined in the demand for Marcos’s resignation, Reagan gave up the effort to maintain Marcos in power. He telephoned Marcos to ask him to resign and leave the Philippines, and made it possible for Marcos to do so by promising to provide U.S. Air Force transportation to Hawaii, where Marcos could live permanently, and—not incidentally—keep his fabulous riches. By the end of February 1986, Marcos was in Hawaii, and Aquino was the President of the Philippines.
Reagan had little choice under the circumstances, but nevertheless his actions were critical to this happy outcome. It was Reagan who prodded Marcos into resignation and exile; had Reagan not made the offers he did, it is possible Marcos would have stayed in Manila and thrown his country into a savage civil war. Fear on Reagan’s part that Aquino would not be tough enough on the Filipino Communists made it even more difficult for him to support her, but support her he did when the incontrovertible evidence proved she was the choice of the people of the Philippines.
In another Spanish-speaking region of the Third World, Central America, Reagan continued to lead the counteroffensive against the Sandinistas. In the first ten months of 1986, the offensive took many forms, including major military maneuvers by U.S. troops on Nicaragua’s borders and diplomatic efforts to enlist Nicaragua’s neighbors, Honduras and Costa Rica, as allies in the counterrevolution. Their reluctance to get involved, however, put more of the burden on the Contras.
In the fall of 1986, the Sandinistas shot down a transport airplane flying supplies to the Contras. Three Americans were the crew; one of them survived and confessed that he was working for the CIA. A month later, an Arab journal published an article that gave some of the details of the arms sales to Iran; at a quickly called press conference, Attorney General Edwin Meese revealed some parts of the Iran/Contra scam, and suddenly Reagan had a scandal within his administration that rivaled Watergate for importance and press attention. It could not have come at a worse time for Reagan, as the Democrats had swept the fall elections and were about to take control of the Senate; with commanding majorities in both Houses, the Democrats were in an ideal position to reap the full benefit of any Republican scandal.
Shocking disclosures were followed by incomprehensible statements. Reagan initially claimed that only a “few strictly defensive weapons” were shipped to Iran, denied that any third country had been involved, asserted that “no U.S. law has been or will be violated,” and insisted that “our policy of not making concessions to terrorists remains intact.” Two days later he confessed that he had entered into discussions with the Iranians in the hope that they could lead to the release of the American hostages in Lebanon. The following day he said it was “utterly false” to charge that the weapons he sent to Iran were a “ransom.”
From this low point, things got worse. Secretary of State Shultz said he had opposed sending any arms to Iran, that he had not been consulted about this major shift in American foreign policy, and that American ambassadors in the Middle East were reporting directly to the White House, ignoring the State Department. A week later, on November 25, 1986, Reagan relieved his National Security Adviser, Admiral John Poindexter, and his assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Olivier North, who directed the Iran/Contra program for the NSC, because “serious questions of propriety” had been raised. Simultaneously, Reagan praised North as “an American hero.”
North immediately began shredding documents in his White House office, while the FBI called for a special prosecutor. Reagan’s approval rating fell 21 points to 46 percent. In early December, Poindexter and North appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and invoked the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer questions. Reagan, meanwhile, insisted that he knew nothing about anything; when pressed, his defense was “I don’t remember.” He said that like everyone else he was eager to find out what Poindexter and North had been doing; Democrats pointed out that he was Commander in Chief, and if he really wanted to know, all he had to do was order the admiral and the lieutenant colonel to tell him.
By the spring of 1987, a series of investigations was under way. Former Senator John Tower was the head of an independent committee, appointed by Reagan, to look into the affair. The Tower Commission reported that laws had been violated, pointed to various serious flaws in the Reagan administration’s foreign policy structure, found the President negligent in meeting his duties, but stopped short of charging him with illegal actions. Congress meanwhile created a select joint committee to conduct hearings. These hearings soon rivaled the Watergate hearings for public attention, as they were telecast daily and continued to reveal additional details of the scam. It was a sorry and sordid sight. Eventually, the congressional Iran/Contra committee concluded that in selling arms for hostages and in diverting some of the profits to the Contras, the administration had brought “confusion and disarray at the highest levels of government, evasive dishonesty and inordinate secrecy, deception and disdain for the law.” President Reagan, the committee charged, abdicated his “moral and legal responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Strong words, in some ways stronger than the impeachment charges brought against Richard Nixon. Why, then, did Congress make no move to impeach Reagan? One reason was timing—he had less than two years to go and it hardly seemed worth the effort. Besides, the Democrats did not want to run in 1988 against an incumbent President George Bush, nor did the Democrats want to be known as the party that went around impeaching Republican Presidents.
So Ronald Reagan survived, barely, but his administration had been seriously crippled.
Reagan had failed to achieve his basic goals in foreign policy. In Poland, nothing he had done had made the slightest difference; in the arms race, he had been unable to eliminate a single nuclear bomb, much less all of them; his buildup of the American armed forces had had little effect on the Soviets. In terms of foreign trade, America had the largest trade imbalance in her history, by far, and it came simultaneously with the largest deficit in the federal budget in history, by far. These circumstances in turn led to a stock market collapse in October 1987, which was itself a result of worldwide financial crisis. The crisis resulted, in part, from Reagan’s policy of borrowing money from the Japanese to pay for America’s military expansion, in order to protect oil for Japan coming out of the Persian Gulf. Reagan did not have the hostages out of Lebanon, he had not improved U.S. relations with Iran, and he had abandoned neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war when he chose to protect Kuwait’s oil tankers (because Kuwait, Iraq’s ally, used some of its oil profits to support Iraq’s war costs). He did manage to successfully challenge the War Powers Act, not directly but simply by ignoring Congressional demands that he invoke it. Congress was incapable of forcing the President to follow its wishes, partly because of the inherent difficulties in the Act, mainly because of divisions in the Congress itself.
In the spring of 1987, Reagan implemented the Carter Doctrine (without citing it) when he sent U.S. Navy warships into the Persian Gulf to protect tankers from Kuwait that had been re-flagged with American colors. The tankers, which were carrying oil for Japan, were threatened by missiles made in France and China, fired by Iranians and Iraqis. On May 17, the U.S.S. Stark was hit by two missiles fired by Iraqi jet fighters; thirty-seven sailors were killed. Reagan responded by sending minesweepers and helicopters to the Gulf; in October, after Iranian missiles had hit tankers flying the U.S. flag, U.S. navy destroyers shelled Iranian offshore oil platforms. Former president Jimmy Carter said that the U.S. had become an ally of Iraq and was engaged in hostilities and called for Reagan to invoke the War Powers Act. Reagan ignored him.
The war escalated, on the ground, in the air, and at sea. The U.S. Navy convoys got through, usually successfully, although in April 1988, an American frigate was damaged by a mine. The navy destroyed two Iranian oil rigs in retaliation and damaged or sank six Iranian vessels. As more mines were laid and more tankers came under missile fire, Reagan ordered U.S. forces in the Gulf to extend protection to all neutral vessels.
On July 3, the U.S.S. Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 passengers and crew. Reagan called the incident “tragic” but said it “appears that it was a proper defensive action.” Later he sent a message of “deep regret” to Iran and compensated the families of the victims.
Terrible though this action was, it does seem to have helped propel the two sides in the second-longest and third-bloodiest war of the century to seek peace. Two weeks after the incident, Iran agreed to a UN call for a cease-fire; the Ayatollah Khomeini gave the agreement his personal endorsement, thereby accepting the “poison” of ending the war without winning it. In effect, he admitted he had sacrificed hundreds of thousands of young Iranians, and uncountable treasure, for nothing. Indeed, Iraq had gained some territory at Iran’s expense. In August, the cease-fire went into effect.
Reagan’s goal of overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua continued to elude him. In the summer of 1987, the presidents of the Central American republics, led by Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, drafted a peace plan to which the Sandinistas agreed. Reagan gave it grudging support while continuing to supply and encourage the Contras. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega proposed direct talks between the U.S. and Nicaragua, but Reagan refused. Ortega nevertheless implemented the various steps called for in the peace plan, including lifting the ban on the opposition newspaper La Prensa and allowing Catholic radio stations to broadcast without censorship. To most observers, Reagan looked like the main obstacle to peace in Central America, even more so when the Nobel Peace Prize went to Sanchez.
Another small country that was able to taunt and defy the Colossus of the North was Panama. In June 1987, students staged a riot in Panama, accusing General Manuel Noriega of involvement in the death of the nation’s former leader, General Omar Torrijos. Noriega managed to turn the demonstrations against the U.S. Embassy; in response, the State Department protested strongly, then announced a suspension of all aid to Panama. Noriega began arresting his political opponents and otherwise causing embarrassment to the United States, which had worked closely with him on intelligence and covert activities over the past few years—among those involved was then vice president and former CIA director George Bush.
By early 1988, the Panamanian opposition, mostly in exile, was charging Noriega with murder, drug trafficking, and money laundering for drug lords. On February 5, the U.S. Justice Department brought two indictments against Noriega on drug-trafficking charges. He was accused of providing airstrips for drug smuggling and receiving $350 million for his efforts. President Eric Arturo Delvalle then dismissed Noriega as commander of the defense forces; Noriega, in turn, ousted Delvalle and put his own man in as president. Delvalle went underground but continued to be recognized by the United States.
In March, Noriega turned down a U.S. offer to drop the criminal charges against him if he would leave Panama to live in exile. Reagan then imposed economic sanctions on Panama, ordering American firms to withhold all payments to the government. This hurt the people of Panama, but had no effect on their new dictator. It destroyed the economy and converted some members of the internal opposition to Noriega into critics of the United States.
By the fall of 1988, Reagan’s Central American policy was in a shambles. Ortega was still in power and Noriega was openly defying the U.S. government. The Republicans, who had been touting Reagan’s policy as a great success, were doing everything possible to avoid mentioning the region during the presidential campaign.
In its policy toward South Africa, the Reagan administration was also running into difficulties. There was a high level of concern in the United States, especially on the college campuses, with the increasing brutality of the South African regime. Student protesters demanded an end to American investment there, and at schools like the University of California at Berkeley they were able to force the trustees to divest the university’s South African holdings. Reagan’s policy, which he called “constructive engagement,” was to encourage American investment on the basis that American policy toward South Africa ought to be to support corporations that provided jobs for black workers, paid a fair wage, and made some room in management for blacks. The argument was that this would have a more beneficial effect on the vast majority of the blacks than pulling out and leaving them to the mercies of the white South Africans.
That sounded fair and reasonable, but the problem was that it simply did not work. Things got worse rather than better. Still, the Reagan administration stuck to its policy of constructive engagement, even as some of the major U.S. corporations divested their South African holdings. In South Africa, meanwhile, the divestments were beginning to hurt the economy, raising some hope that there could be a change in the government’s policies toward blacks in general and the African National Congress (ANC) specifically.
The Reagan administration did have a major breakthrough to the north of South Africa. On December 22, 1988, the United States and the Soviet Union announced support for an agreement worked out by the United Nations regarding the future of Angola and Namibia. It stipulated that Cuban troops would leave Angola within two years and provided for independence of the last colony in Africa, Namibia, within that time. Although Reagan continued to provide military support for UNITA, the African equivalent of the Contras, in Angola, the UN agreement nevertheless was significant, as it involved more active collaboration between Moscow and Washington than there had ever been on any other regional conflict in which the superpowers were at odds.
The cooperation at the southern tip of Africa was part of the great triumph of Reagan’s foreign policy, an arms-reduction treaty with the Soviets. Achieved in the administration’s last eighteen months in office, it held out hope for a genuine easing of tensions in the world, perhaps even the end of the Cold War. This was a startling turnaround for Reagan, and highly welcome. It appeared to justify his, tough-guy approach of the previous six years and gave him his strongest claim to success in foreign affairs. How much of the credit belonged to Reagan, how much to Gorbachev, and how much to events outside their control cannot be judged with any precision. What can be said is that it happened while they were in power.
U.S.-Soviet relations had reached a low point in the late summer of 1986, following the breakup of the Reykjavík summit, after Reagan had rejected Gorbachev’s bold proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. For the next year, the two sides snarled at each other. On June 12, 1987, in Berlin, Reagan goaded Gorbachev when he challenged him to “tear down this wall.” To most observers, it seemed to be an irresponsible provocation, as almost no one in the world expected the Berlin Wall to come down in the twentieth century or even the twenty-first.
One month later, however, in Geneva, the Soviets presented a new arms-reduction proposal, to which the United States almost immediately agreed. It called for the worldwide elimination of all U.S. and Soviet short- and medium-range missiles. In December 1987, at a summit meeting in Washington, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty, which called for the dismantling and destruction of all short- and medium-range missiles, with provisions for a system of independent, on-site verification and weapons inspection.
The INF treaty was a great breakthrough in the Cold War. Ever since the first arms-control proposals were made—back in the Eisenhower administration, with the 1955 offer of “Open Skies”—the Soviets had refused to even consider on-site inspection of their missile capabilities. Further, none of Reagan’s or Gorbachev’s predecessors had ever dared to consider actual arms reduction; instead, they tried—unsuccessfully—to achieve some measure of arms control. But in 1987, the INF treaty provided for the actual elimination of major weapons systems, with on-site inspection.
By no means were all the world’s problems solved with the INF treaty. Reagan continued to invest huge sums in SDI; Gorbachev continued to maintain the world’s largest ground forces and a huge navy; U.S. and Red Army forces continued to face each other on opposite banks of the Elbe River; the strategic arsenals of the superpowers—long-range missiles, submarine-launched missiles, bomber-carried nuclear weapons—remained intact. Still, INF did lower the destructive capability of each side, it loosened the taut bowstring in central Europe—where the Pershing missiles had reduced the warning time for a nuclear attack to a few minutes—and, most important of all, it was a symbolic achievement of the first order.
Who to praise? Reagan’s admirers claimed that Gorbachev had crumbled because the Soviet Union could not keep pace with the Americans in the arms race, that Reagan’s policy of building more and more weapons so that we would not have to build more weapons in the future had worked brilliantly. He had forced the Soviets to accept peace and accommodation because the Soviet attempt to match America, missile for missile, had left the Soviet economy in a shambles. The Soviets had paid for their SS-20s and other new weapons by denying their citizens not only consumer goods but even food and shelter. Gorbachev could not simultaneously engage in an arms race and implement glasnost and perestroika, so he gave up on the arms race.
There is some truth in that analysis. There is also truth in the observation that the Americans had paid for their military buildup with money borrowed from the Japanese. Reagan was leaving his grandchildren with a $3 trillion debt. Prophets warned that some day that debt would have to be paid, and when it was it would be the American people who would be sacrificing not only consumer goods but even food and shelter to pay for SDI. As Eisenhower had observed way back in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Such criticism should not obscure the fact that the Washington summit of December 1987 was one of the most successful and hopeful of the Cold War. Gorbachev rightly called it “a major event in world politics.” Beyond INF, Reagan and Gorbachev talked about further arms reductions in strategic and conventional weapons. In addition, Gorbachev indicated that he was preparing to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan. All previous summits had ended with a claim that although little or nothing concrete had been accomplished, at least the meeting had “reduced tensions.” The Washington summit actually eliminated major causes of tension, and promised to inaugurate a new world structure.
It also promoted “Gorby’s” already high worldwide popularity. He proved to be a natural at American-style public relations as he met with leaders from Congress, the media, and business. He met with schoolchildren. At one point, he dramatically ordered his limousine to stop on Connecticut Avenue, got out, and plunged into the crowds, shaking hands and talking. Even Reagan was captured by his charm.
There were disagreements between the two men. Reagan lectured Gorbachev on human rights, which led the Soviet leader to tell the American leader, “You are not the prosecutor and I am not the accused.” But Reagan had needed to provide something for his right-wing supporters, who were furious about INF. For his part Reagan, who for almost two decades had been the chief spokesman for American Cold Warriors, the leading opponent of any arms accord of any kind with the Soviets, charged that the conservative opponents of INF wanted to believe “that war is inevitable.” That Ronald Reagan would criticize the hawks indicated just how different the new world he and Gorbachev were creating was going to be. That he could get the Senate to quickly ratify the INF treaty showed how popular both he personally and arms reduction in general were with the American people.
In April 1988, Reagan announced an agreement with the Soviets over the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan—the first time in thirty-three years that the Red Army would pull back from anywhere—and on May 18, the first Soviet unit left Afghanistan. Eleven days later, Reagan arrived in Moscow for his second summit meeting in less than six months. To appease the right wing back home, he continued to criticize Gorbachev for human rights violations, meeting with ninety-six Soviet dissidents and demanding reform. Gorbachev struck back by inviting North American Indians to Moscow; they asserted that they were political prisoners in the land the whites had stolen from their ancestors. Reagan gave Gorbachev some lessons of his own in PR, as he took an unscheduled walk along the famous Moscow street Arbat, mixing with the crowds. He obviously enjoyed using the Soviet people and Red Square as a backdrop for his kind of politics. The American television networks, meanwhile, gave unprecedented and quite fascinating coverage to the Russian people, their culture and history.
The networks gave less coverage to the meetings themselves because the two leaders were unable to reach their stated goal: a reduction of strategic arms. The failure showed the latent persistence of conservatives on both sides, the strength of the legacy of mistrust, and the limits on the powers of the two presidents. Gorbachev bemoaned the “missed opportunities” and indicated he would wait for Reagan’s successor to try again. Reagan stopped in London on his way home to confer with Prime Minister Thatcher. There he made a statement that took much of the sting and disappointment out of the failure to reach agreement in Moscow: Gorbachev, said Reagan, “is a serious man seeking serious reform. We are beginning to take down the barriers of the postwar era ... and this is a time of lasting change in the Soviet Union.”
That certainly was true, on all fronts. In Russia, glasnost was opening up the government to severe criticism across the board and encouraging the unwilling members of the Soviet empire—of whom there were many millions—to protest and demand their independence. Three months after the Moscow summit, there were mass demonstrations in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the three Baltic republics forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1940. Other demonstrations soon followed in Armenia, Azerbaidzhan, Georgia, and Ukraine. Not only that, the coal miners throughout the Soviet Union went on strike. Western experts made almost daily predictions that Gorbachev could not survive the growing domestic turmoil, but somehow he did.
He survived, in part, because he was an astute politician who outmaneuvered all his internal opposition, and in part because of his successes in dealing with Reagan. Dramatic evidence of those successes came in September, when the Americans destroyed two Pershing missiles as a first step in implementing the INF treaty, and U.S. officials in the Soviet Union witnessed an underground nuclear test, measuring it with their own instruments. Both actions had been unthinkable just two years earlier, when the Americans were installing Pershing II missiles in Germany and the Russians were insisting, as they had done for forty years, that they would never, ever, allow American inspection teams on their soil.
When Reagan left office in January 1989, the world was much different from what it had been when he had moved into the White House. Cuban troops were withdrawing from Angola, where the cease-fire was taking effect. The Soviets were retreating from Afghanistan. The Iran-Iraq war had ended. In Central America a peace plan was under way and armed hostilities were diminishing. International terrorism was on the decline (although terrorists still held a dozen Americans hostage in Lebanon, where fighting continued, while in the Arab areas occupied by Israel—the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—a peoples’ uprising led by teenage boys was forcing the Israeli armed forces to act in a brutal and bloody manner). Most of all, Reagan’s second term had seen more progress in ending the Cold War and achieving a genuine détente between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. than had any other administration. Around the world, peace had broken out. There were fewer wars, and less killing, in 1989 than in any year since 1938.
Not in half a century had a president handed over to his successor an American foreign policy in better shape. This came about in some part thanks to Reagan’s consistent refusal to compromise with Communism in any way (“tear down this wall”). But because he had refused to pay the cost of the arms race he had escalated he was handing over to his successor a debt greater, by far, than that incurred by all his predecessors put together.
Further, much of the change in the world had come about despite, rather than because of, Reagan. The United Nations was more instrumental in bringing about the cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war than was anything done by Reagan. So too for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Angolan-Namibian disentanglement. Indeed, Reagan had often stood in the way, especially when he had undertaken to undercut the UN by stopping payments to UNESCO (an ideological decision, brought on by domestic policies; it was connected to the birth control policies of UNESCO) and by threatening to stop payments to the UN proper because of the votes on Israel. Under Perez de Cuellar’s stewardship, UN peacekeeping forces were working successfully in the Golan Heights, in Namibia, Cyprus, and Lebanon. The quiet diplomatic successes of the UN in the Reagan years were part of a process that would become clearer in the 1990s: the growing loss of influence of the United States in the international arena. The UN kept on working, even prospering, despite U.S. complaints and obstructionism.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Reagan was his immense popularity after eight years as president, despite the national debt, despite Iran-Contra, despite domestic scandals as bad as any seen in fifty years, despite his flip-flops from arms builder to arms destroyer and from seeing the men in the Kremlin as the focus of evil in the world to becoming the number-one fan of Gorbachev. Reagan’s popularity is all the more remarkable when it is recalled that six of his nine predecessors who had guided America through the tumultuous half century of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War had been judged to be failures by their contemporaries. When they left office, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter had all fallen to the point that three out of four voters disapproved of the way they were doing their job. Insofar as John F. Kennedy was in office for too short a period to allow for any meaningful assessment, it appears that only Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan were judged competent by their contemporaries. That illustrates a number of points: the difficulties of the times; the high expectations people have of the president; the unfairness of contemporary judgments, among others. But it also indicates that Reagan, despite the sneers of sophisticated critics, who regarded him as an object of ridicule, was somehow doing something right. Or perhaps he was just lucky.
History regards Reagan as a top ten U.S. president with lasting influence. In 1998 the National Airport in Washington, D.C., was named after him. How he accomplished as much as he did can be better understood with the publication on The Reagan Diaries. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain once said that Reagan “won the Cold War without firing a shot.” Reagan’s own diary entries through the years explain how he fought his most critical adversary, the U.S.S.R. As he wrote on April 6, 1983, “Some of the N.S.C. staff are too hard line and don’t think any approach should be made to the Soviets. I think I’m hard line and will never appease but I do want to try and let them see there is a better wor1d if they’ll show by deed they want to get along with the free world.” In foreign relations, Reagan knew innately when to show power and when to be subtle. The personal friendship he developed with Gorbachev, in fact, was of a deep historic nature.”
“There is no question in my mind,” Reagan wrote of his chief adversary just before Jeaving the White House, “but that a certain chemistry does exist between us.”