Like many of his contemporaries, Ronald Reagan formed his opinions about America's role in the world based on the experiences and outcome of World War II. As the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as dominant, and opposing, forces, Reagan shared the view that communism posed a legitimate threat to free people everywhere. His anti-Communist outlook had not softened any by the time he was elected president. Less than 10 days into his first term, Reagan characterized the Kremlin as being committed to "the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state..." He insisted that efforts at détente undertaken by previous administrations had resulted in a "one-way street" favoring the Soviets.
While he lacked a sophisticated understanding of Soviet history or ideology, Reagan believed the one thing the USSR respected was strength. Early on, Reagan made no overtures to thaw Cold War tensions between the two superpowers. His strategy was to wait and see how the Soviets would react to a drastic increase in U.S. defense spending. He was confident that the Soviet economic system would not allow them to keep pace with the U.S. in an arms race.
Conversely, Reagan abhorred the idea of ever using the nuclear weapons his administration was building. Attacked by his detractors as a warmonger, Reagan repeatedly voiced his hope to one day rid the world of nuclear weapons. He refused to accept treaties that eliminated one type of weapon, only to allow for the deployment of a new and improved version. On this matter he angered both conservatives and members of the anti-nukes community. For while he professed to deplore the existence of nuclear weapons, and may have believed they foretold a biblical Armageddon, he simultaneously deployed medium-range missiles in Europe.
Reagan's zeal to defeat communism was not limited to direct U.S.-Soviet relations. He was willing to lend U.S. support to any faction, any where, fending off communist control. Such was the case in Angola, Afghanistan, and most especially in Central America. Within days of taking office, Reagan suspended U.S. aid to Nicaragua and declared his support for contra rebels fighting to overthrow the newly installed Marxist-led Sandinista regime. With memories of Vietnam still fresh, Reagan knew the public would not abide direct U.S. military intervention in the affairs of another nation. Consequently, the CIA was employed to indirectly support the contras militarily. When word surfaced in 1984 that the CIA had mined Nicaraguan harbors, Congress passed the Boland Amendment outlawing further U.S. military assistance to the contras. Reagan viewed the amendment as short-sighted and politically motivated. He made clear his determination to continue supporting the contras, whom he called "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers," through alternative means. This decision would eventually lead to a foreign policy embarrassment and a constitutional crisis known as the Iran-Contra affair.
Among the most pressing foreign affairs problems facing the U.S. during Reagan's tenure was the activity of various rogue terrorist organizations. In 1980, Reagan campaigned on a pledge to take a firm stand on terrorism. Under his watch, he promised, the U.S. would never negotiate with terrorists. During Reagan's eight years in office hundreds of Americans, including 241 Marines stationed in Beirut, were killed by terrorist acts. Particularly troubling to Reagan was the plight of several U.S. citizens who had been kidnapped and tortured by Muslim extremists in Lebanon. In an effort to win release of the hostages, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, along with members of the National Security Council and the CIA, sold weapons to Iran. Iran, at the time engaged in a war with Iraq and considered a terrorist nation by the U.S., was believed to have influence with the hostage-takers. The Iranians were overcharged for the weapons, and North then funneled the extra proceeds from the arms sale to the contras in Nicaragua. The operation resulted in several direct violations of stated U.S. policy and congressional mandate.
Investigations during the Iran-contra affair revealed a "shadow government," operating without public knowledge or congressional approval, being run out of the White House. For months, Reagan refused to admit that arms were traded for hostages -- that he had, indeed, negotiated with terrorists. Meanwhile, congressional hearings were convened to investigate the illegal diversion of funds to the contras. The all-too-familiar question of "what did the president know, and when did he know it," summoned up the ghosts of Watergate.
Reagan administration operatives testified that the president had no direct knowledge of the diversion of funds. Still, a portrait emerged of a chief executive who had little knowledge of, and less control over, the actions of his subordinates. The congressional committee's final report asserted that Reagan had failed to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." To Reagan's detractors, the Iran-Contra scandal confirmed that he was little more than an "amiable dunce," while his supporters applauded his circumvention of pesky congressional oversight.
By the end of his second term, Reagan's hard-line foreign policy had produced significant results. His summit meetings with reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev yielded the first treaties in history reducing the nuclear arsenals of both nations. Such breakthroughs did not come without stumbling blocks, however. Gorbachev was eager to salvage the Soviet economy by ending the arms race, but was fearful of U.S. development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI was Reagan's pet project. As he envisioned it, SDI would allow the construction of a "peace shield" that would protect the U.S. from incoming nuclear missiles. Though derided by some in the U.S. as a "star wars" fantasy, SDI was taken seriously by the Soviets. Reagan held tough in insisting that its development continue. Eventually, Gorbachev relented. By the time Reagan visited Moscow -- the capital of what he once called "an evil empire" -- late in 1988, the Cold War was coming to an end.
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