There has been extensive debate over the last fifteen years of the role of President Ronald Reagan and the American conservative movement in ending the Cold War. It is apparent that the arguments are heated on both sides to this day, partly because critical distance for this event may not have been achieved and especially because there are still members and critics of the Reagan administration working in government and media at present. Given the difficulty of providing full objective analysis for this historical issue, it is important to create a dialogue over the aforementioned question so that further studies are possible. I contend that the historical record bears true the argument that Ronald Reagan played a major role in ending the Cold War. Reagan accomplished this by embarking on an ambitious program of political, economic, and rhetorical assault on the Soviet Union. As well, I will briefly conclude with a discussion of the relation of the American strategy in the Cold War to the American strategy to the war on terrorism that is going on at present.
The Reagan Revolution
It is important to note the difficulties facing the United States coming out of the 1970s. With a floundering economy, an energy crisis, and weak foreign policy initiatives, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations had proven to be failures in the war on communism. With the exception of Nixon’s meetings with Leonid Brezhnev resulting in the ABM treaty, there was little dialogue between the West and Communist states. Reagan would say upon election that, “detente is a one way street” leading to the Soviets passing the Americans on defense. This take on detente, popular in the Reagan administration, went against the prevailing ideas within Washington circles of how the Cold War should be managed. It did seem to fit well into the American public’s views on the Cold War and, aside from the failed economic plans of the President Jimmy Carter, allowed Ronald Reagan to be elected president in 1980.
Heading into the 1980 elections, the Republican Party attempted to find the right person to win back the White House and the right platform to win back Congress. The Republican primaries saw familiar names from the 1970s: former president Gerald Ford, former governor of California Ronald Reagan, former CIA director and presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. The battles between these three, along with Illinois Representative John Anderson, proved to be a battle over the future of the nation given Carter’s uninspired leadership and the popular slogan “Anyone but Carter”. When Ford’s potential vice-presidency was eliminated as a possibility, the newly nominated Reagan announced George H.W. Bush as his running mate (1). This was a move to not only gain more support within the Republican Party but also to gain insight into intelligence and defense issues, which were to be important in a Reagan administration.
Reagan proved to be patient in the debates and charmed his way through Jimmy Carter’s assaults on his rhetorical and legislative record. The question of the campaign, posited by Reagan in the final debate, was “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”. This question truly epitomized the campaign and hit close to home for many in the American public. The tide for Reagan and his brand of conservatism swept away the Carter administration, the Democratic majority in the Senate, and some of the bad memories of the 1970s. Reagan and Bush defeated Carter and Mondale by eight million votes but more importantly won 489 electoral votes to the Democratic candidates’ 49 votes (2).
In Reagan’s first inaugural address, the new president initiated his rhetorical assault on the Soviet Union. As he would throughout his two terms as president, Reagan underlined his tangible policies toward communism with a deep disdain for the ideology and its effects on the individual. Like so many Cold War combatants, Reagan tried to draw the line between his side and the other side. He stated:
“Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.” (3)
This statement was not just the rantings of a partisan; it was the frustration and the anger of a man who saw the evils and deficiencies of the communist system. This internalization of the Cold War became common for Reagan, who brought genuine emotion and personal investment into the political process to the job.
“Morning in America”
The 1984 election showed the growing support for Reagan’s policies and the upward swing of the economy. Facing former vice president Walter Mondale and New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro, Reagan widened his margin of victory to nearly 17 million popular votes as well as winning every state except Minnesota. Reagan ran a media campaign on the theme “Morning in America” which seemed to show both the resurgence of the economy as well as a new day for the United States in dealing with is communist adversaries. The positive campaign highlighted a sea change in the way the Reagan administration viewed foreign policy (4). The vitriol was still present, but with the promise of more moderate leadership within the Soviet Union and the hope of Reagan that the will of the communist people to win freedom, the end of the Cold War was on the horizon.
The dawn of a new era was apparent with Reagan’s second inaugural address. Instead of the strong language used to respond to the Iran hostage crisis and the failures of detente, the new language of Ronald Reagan was moderation and understanding. Though American conservatives were unrelenting in admonishing the Soviet Union on principle, they saw promise with the passing of the old guard. Reagan spoke that:
“One nation, the Soviet Union, has conducted the greatest military buildup in the history man, building arsenals of awesome offensive weapons…There is only one way safely and legitimately to reduce the cost of national security, and that is to reduce the need for it…We are not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons. We seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”(5)
This language, different from that which was used in the first term, indicated that the United States was closer to bringing a close to the Cold War on more favorable terms than had been negotiated prior to the Reagan revolution.
Nearing the end of the Reagan administration’s reign, with questions about the Iran-Contra scandal, Central American policy, and tax reform still looming, the public’s view of the nation’s foreign and domestic policy were still positive. In January 1988, an NBC News poll of 2400 individuals across the nation showed that 74 percent though the foreign policy of the nation was either excellent, good, or fair, while only 23 percent thought it was being handled poorly (6). The war at home, mostly with tax reform, was being won in the hearts of the American public. The Los Angeles Times conducted a poll in February 1986 that showed 50 percent of America approved of Reagan’s economic policies with 40 percent either undecided or in opposition (7). With the electoral mandates of 1980 and 1984 and the public polling throughout the nation showing optimism under Reagan, it was no wonder that the Cold War remained cold and ended rapidly with a sense of justice that had not been felt since World War II.
Strategic Defense Initiative
On March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan announced to the nation a plan for research potential defense research initiatives against nuclear attacks. As the details of this research project filled out, a great deal of commotion was created by critics and the public alike of the scope and cost of such plans (8). The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) started out, according to the White House, as a simple study of different manners in which to defend the nation against nuclear strikes. As the public got hold of this planned research, the Reagan administration had to expand their promotion of SDI faster than they had hoped. The president likened SDI to a roof over the proverbial house, protecting the United States and avoiding offensive strikes on the Soviet Union. At various times, SDI was promoted and pulled back due to ridicule and the christening of the plan as “Star Wars” by Democratic critics (9). However, the pros of the SDI plan and what it represented outweighed any negatives.
The arguments against “Star Wars” were many, though they were rooted in three essential arguments. The first was the feasability of such a plan with the technology available in the mid-1980s. While this is a fair question, the plans outline in the SDI report were not finished ideas by any means. Rather, they were explorations of possible research and development plans for the future. Components developed by the plan would not be entirely laser beams and satellites, like the media and those in opposition were suggesting. Weapons already in existence, like rail guns, which could knock nuclear weapons out of the sky (10). It does not seem realistic to say that Reagan wanted to start up missile defense in 1985; he was looking ahead to an era of loose nuclear weaponry in a postwar world. The Strategic Defense Initiative would develop in four parts, with the first consisting of research and computer modeling of new defense systems. This portion of the plan, however, was projected to last well into the 1990s and by then Reagan had hoped that either the need for such a plan would be eliminated or that SDI’s critics would be assuaged by the overwhelming need for defense at home (11).
Along with the practicality of Strategic Defense, the cost of said plan was heavily criticized. Even with the apparent prosperity in the United States during the mid-1980s, there were still questions as to whether it would be worthwhile to spend on such a plan or if it would be necessary. A popular idea in the aftermath of the Vietnam War was that of the “Vietnam syndrome”, which essentially meant not only the worry over communism’s influence over Southeast Asia but also the lack of appreciation for the sacrifices of the armed forces for an underappreciated cause. Ronald Reagan, as mentioned earlier, took to heart the lack of attention given to those who fought in Vietnam and felt that the costs of war could always be justified for the right cause. He felt that the American people would accept the costs of missile defense if they were made aware of the true threats of communism (12). The consequence that Reagan could not have accounted for is that the vast spending power of the United States, epitomized in missile defense, would be able to force the Soviet Union out of the defense spending game. The weakness of cost effectiveness became an argument in favor of such an ambitious program.
Finally, the legal repercussions of SDI would render it an improbable violation by a country attempting to maintain the moral high ground against the Soviet Union. According to the 1972 ABM (anti-ballistic missile) treaty, a strict prohibition of any missile fired from land, sea, or air upon another country (13). The critics used this as the most substantial argument against SDI’s development because it would expose moral hypocrisy in an administration built on moral values and religious supporters. Proponents of SDI, including many within the administration, said that the ABM treaty only eliminated the legality of offensive weapons (hence the term ballistic) and did not account for such an advance in defense technology. More importantly, Article V of the 1972 ABM treaty signed by Richard Nixon and approved by the Senate states that “…Each party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components which are sea-based, air-based, space-based, or mobile-land based” Presumably, this allowed for research into fixed land-based weapons systems that were isolated (14). This argument seems to be effective because it shows the inflexibility of past legal agreements and the unrealistic bargaining level that the Soviets and Americans were negotiating at in the 1970s. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter could not imagine the consequences of a strengthened defense structure and an increase in rhetoric differentiating the Soviet Union from the rest of the world.
For all of these opposing arguments to space defense, the public was largely in favor to the premise of SDI and what it meant toward protecting America. According to a Rice University poll of 619 individuals, 55 percent of those polled were in favor of SDI as compared to 33 percent opposed (15). The public also felt that missile defense was realistic, with 60 percent of people in a New York Times poll stating their positive assessment of the system and 22 percent feeling that it would never work (16). Combining cost efficiency with practicality, an NBC News poll found that 58 percent of the American public were in favor of a missile defense system that would work to prevent nuclear arms and decrease the nuclear threat worldwide (17). The Reagan administration’s goals of increasing the defense infrastructure with the cause of promoting democracy and freedom was a success and assisted in ending the Cold War.
The Reagan Doctrine
The general philosophy on foreign policy and fighting against the spread of communism would later be referred to as the Reagan Doctrine, though some question its originality. President Reagan wanted to maintain the general concept behind containment that had been used since the end of World War II but wanted to increase the pressure on the Soviet Union to maintain its ideological fervor within its own borders without access to satellite states. Therefore, the United States was committed to various degrees of military activity in places like Nicaraugua and Iran according to strategic value and recognition of the damage it would cause to the Soviet cause. It is easier to understand this concept by looking at pure numbers in general and in specific cases.
In general, the Reagan administration in its first term outspent the Carter administration by a substantial amount in defense and defense related industries. Under Carter, world wide military expenditures came out to about $159 per capita, with an increase of 67 billion dollars between the first and last budget of the term. Conversely, the Reagan era saw expenditures at about $169 per capita, with an increase of 103 billion dollars from start of the first term through reelection (18). The fears of conservative leaders that the Soviets were far apace of the Americans on nuclear development is confirmed by showing that the Soviet Union had 5.84 megaton capability in their nuclear stocks while the United States only had 3.11 megaton capability (19). This fits into the Strategic Defense Initiative discussion because this was one of the root causes of missile defense but aside from nuclear weaponry, the perception and the reality of increasing American dominance would come together during the Reagan era.
Over the Reagan years, there was considerable investment in the arms trade to East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. These areas were of immediate interest to the Western cause, because of Europe’s proximity to the Soviet Union, American and European history with Eastern Asia, and the natural resources that would help fuel new democracies throughout the world. The Soviet Union, attempting to make headway into the developing world, infiltrated Africa with arms, military consultation, and Communist propaganda. Africa was a frustrating situation for Americans because they saw the potential for communist uprising in politically immature states and they were also not as committed to Africa as Europe was as its former colonizer. Finally, Latin America was fairly even in the arms trade, but the United States was heavily focused on Nicarauga and El Salvador as key entry points for communism, while the Soviets spread their arms throughout Latin America. Overall, the Americans and their allies were able to outspend the Soviets in the arms trade and gained the upper hand on keeping communism from spreading to the rest of the world. The Soviet Union would now be without secure supply sources and the pressure from the outside would be applied to a weakened communist state with structural deficiencies (20).
Nicaragua proved to be of particularly special interest to the Reagan administration. During the 1980 president campaign, Governor Reagan called for the elimination of aid to the Sandinista government in power and assist freedom fighters working against communism. At the beginning of the president’s first term, there was wide support throughout the inner circle for supporting the Nicaraguan rebels. Those who sided with Casper Weinberger, James Baker, and Mike Deaver wanted to avoid military entanglement, like that of Vietnam (a common connection for the time). Others, like Edwin Meese, wanted to prevent the appearance of inaction by the Western super power by supporting the defeat of communism implicitly. Finally, Alexander Haig and a few others felt that supporting Nicaraguans was the second best thing to confronting Cuba in the war on communism (21).
A battle between Congress and President Reagan raged through the first and most of the second terms of the presidency. On November 17, 1981, Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive 17, which allowed for $20 million for a program to organize anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua (22). The unilateral decision of the executive branch in providing this type of aid frustrated Congress and significant debate followed in the Senate and House on the American role in Central America. By December 1982, the House and the Senate passed the Boland Amendment to the aid package. This amendment, named after its sponsor _____ Boland (?-?), prohibited aid to the rebel elements in Nicaragua and stalled the Reagan Cold War effort (23).
The administration counterattack was multifaceted: a bipartisan committee led by Henry Kissinger, support for multiparty peace negotiations in Central America led by Mexico, and a media blitz by administration officials in support of freedom fighters (24). Finally, the Reagan administration attempted to circumvent the Boland Amendment by authorizing “non-lethal” aid, such as food and medical supplies, to Nicaraguans coupled with a ceasefire and negotiations. Congress responded with a clarified second Boland Amendment, which states “…during Fiscal Year 1985, no funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual.” (25) No equivocation was in the voice of the Congress, a body angered by Reagan’s attempts at fighting communism through back channels.
Several events caused fluctuation in the attitudes of the government toward Central America. After negotiations between the President and Congressional leaders over compromise on aid broke down, Reagan’s worries over Communist influence was confirmed by President Daniel (?) Ortega’s proposed trip to Moscow in April 1985 (26). Representative Dave McCurdy (D-OK), moved by the substantiation of fears by the White House, proposed a $27 million non-lethal aid bill to help the people of Nicaragua. The bill passed 248-184 in the House and, because of Boland II, the money would be distributed by the State Department Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office (27). Following this, Congress cooled to providing more aid to the White House because many wanted to hold their ground on spending. However, the invasion of Honduras by the Sandinista army and the passage of Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-IN) bill, keeping the Reagan Doctrine policies intact, reopened aid negotiations (28).
Aside from Nicaragua, Iran was a key target for the Reagan Doctrine. More so than Central America, the Middle East experienced broad policy fluctuations from the United States. Iran was at one time ignored, wooed, and scorned by the American government, because of the conflicting forces within the White House on assessing the threat of Iran and Soviet influence. One school of thought held that the Soviet influence on Iran was strong enough, because of geography and the chaos in the Iranian government, to warrant intervention by the United States. Caspar Weinberger advocated for American intervention in overthrowing “radical” elements in Iran to install pro-American leaders. Others, like John Poindexter (?) and William Casey, felt that the hostility of Iran to the Soviet Union was strong enough that the Americans should help whatever forces wanted to eliminate the Soviet threat, irregardless of their religious zealousness (29).
The other schools of thought dealt with the Israeli and Arabic perspectives on dealing with Iran. According to Alexander Haig, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Richard Perle, the American interest in the Middle East coincided with Israeli interests. Israel felt that the goverment of the shah, which was not run as an Islamic state, was a friend to Israel and encourage the weapons trade to rebels in Iran. Some in the American government felt Islamic fundamentalism was the true threat, while others felt that they should focus on help to neighboring Iraq, a secular Arabic state with vast oil resources (30). The Arabist school, those who felt that moderate Arab states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were allies in the fight against communism, shared this sentiment about Iraq. The oil interests in the Middle East, along with the threat of a renegade Islamic government in Iran, were enough to require active measures to force Iran back into place. The various opinions were brought together by the threat of American inaction in the face of communism and the potential loss of natural resources (31).
The Iran-Contra scandal influenced heavily the view of the Reagan Doctrine from Congress. When the complicity of the White House and the military was exposed, there was a call by Congressional members for stricter oversight on foreign policy. It is difficult to excuse the vastness of the backroom dealings of the Reagan administration, but the victories surely outweighed the defeats. Communism was eventually staved off in the Third World and this forced the Soviets to focus on strength at home. The machinery of communism would eventually fall apart without the proper ideological and material outlets (i.e. satellite states, trade routes) and this was the goal of the Reagan Doctrine. The few miscues of the Reagan Doctrine, though they were publicized heavily, were never damaging to the end cause of stopping communism in its tracks. The arms trade, the attempts at back channel or “quiet” diplomacy, and the American need for non-military involvement were all natural extensions of Reagan’s policy. It is difficult to argue with the results, given that the Soviet Union would break apart only a few years later and communism has become a relic of the past.
The results of increased defense spending, the prioritization of defense commitments, and heightened rhetoric against communist incursion was the denial of outlets for Soviet military dominance. Despite some gaffes in judgement with the Iran Contra scandal and dubious support for autocrats over communists, the Reagan Doctrine was successful. It destabilized potential raw material sources for the Soviets, it paved the way for democratic elections in the Third World, and it gave hope to all nations oppressed by communism by showing what free people could do when working together. Ronald Reagan’s policy, along with the support of the American public and the uprising of people throughout the world, allowed for the end of the Cold War to transition to democracy instead of anarchy.
Assessment of Reagan’s Role
Ronald Reagan was not the only man fighting the Cold War nor was he the only one that should be credited for its resolution. The rise of moderation within Soviet ranks, in the form of Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as the inspired leadership of individuals like Lech Walesa and Vaclev Havel(?) provided opportunities from the communist side to end the fierce fight. But, it was Reagan and his representation as the quintessential American conservative that allowed the United States, then the only counterpart to the Soviets in economic and military strength, to create a strategy to expedite the Cold War’s conclusion. Without Reagan’s election and with the reelection of detente believers like Jimmy Carter, the policy of quickly ending the war while ensuring relative calm would have come far later, if ever.
This conclusion is reached by looking at what detente extends to in comparison to what the Reagan Doctrine concluded. While Ronald Reagan’s policies helped end the Cold War within a decade of his taking office, the detente policy would never bring about the shorter lived, more isolated conflicts that helped ensure moderation in the Soviet Union. Instead, detente would have given license to the Soviets to build up arms, influence Africa, Asia, and Latin America, prolonging the Cold War and swaying the balance. The Cold War ended because the Republican Party in America believed that the promise of freedom for those oppressed by communism would transcend the ironclad rule of communist tyranny. This confidence was instilled by Ronald Reagan, who in many letters and speeches expressed this positivity for the people of the Soviet Union and their hope for freedom. The Reagan era ushered in renewed optimism for foreign policy, which has been adopted by the second Bush administration in dealing with the war on terrorism. However, it stands to be questioned whether Reagan Doctrine policies work as effectively on such a different foe. The connection between past and present foreign policy is made because of the connection in personnel: Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, were involved in the Reagan administration’s war on the Soviet Union and are involved in the Bush administration’s war on terror.
Does the Reagan Doctrine work in the War on Terror?
Unlike the communist-capitalist dichotomy that was well established in this country for nearly a century, the idea of terrorism is much more ephemeral. The Soviet Union under Lenin wanted to expand the ideals of communism throughout the world, and under Stalin it held a similar view though it looked closer to home for new territory. Terrorism is a blanket term for violent actions against governments throughout the world. Even if one were to pinpoint the war on terror to be a war on Islamic fundamentalism, there is still many different shades of belief within the minds of fundamendalists. Like the Bible, the Koran can be interpreted many different ways depending on viewpoint. The second Bush administration has waged a war using tools like containment and rhetorical conflict from the Cold War, though it does not seem that the problems are analogous. Unlike the inherent weaknesses of communism, terrorism knows no one ideology and has existed much longer than communism has existed.
The Reagan Doctrine and the successful destruction of communism created an interesting wrinkle that plays into 21st century terrorism. The arms trade that was so successful in ending dictatorships throughout the world have become the weapons of the war on terrorism. Fighting in the Middle East, it has not been uncommon for American troops to see former American weapons being used against them in Afghanistan and Iraq. As well, loose nuclear warheads have made it throughout the world to authoritarian governments and rebels whom can afford to buy a few warheads from the former Russian republics. These weapons and nuclear warheads have made it throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America where conflicts still rage over political and cultural divisions. There is no clear answer as to what this means for future conflict, but it provides more evidence that instead of the threat of communism, there is perhaps the threat of more disparate forces throughout the world to any allies of capitalism.
Finally, the same war of words that was used against communism is not as successful against terrorism because politics is not being played at the same level. American-Soviet relations were sometimes heated, but there was almost always some form of communication between the two sides that was roughly equivalent on both sides. While there are recognizable leaders of terror groups (Osama Bin Laden) or leaders of safe havens for terrorists (Saddam Hussein), there is no communication between either side because of the nature of warfare engaged upon. Terrorism involves hit and run style attacks, threats, kidnapping, and concentrated attacks of local targets. Negotiation with terrorists is difficult because it concedes legitimacy and it encourages such behavior in the future. Therefore, there is no bilateral talks, no conferences or summits, only a blinded attack against a nebulous foe. George W. Bush’s strategy, modeled after the Reagan Doctrine, has not been a success by many accounts. Reagan recognized the situation around him, the variables involved in Cold War politics, and fashioned policies on the available evidence. His strategy worked well to create a positive atmosphere in former satellite states and left a legacy of strong leadership for the future. Without doubt, Ronald Reagan’s role in the Cold War was key to its successful resolution for freedom, democracy, and the free market.