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posted Oct. 4, 2001

Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush told his staff -- and soon thereafter the world -- that the United States was at war. Not conventional war, not any kind of war his military advisers had studied in textbooks, but a new "war on terrorism."

Yet George W. Bush is not the first American president to wage such a war. Two decades ago, facing deadly threats against U.S. military and civilian personnel in the Middle East, Ronald Reagan declared, "Terrorists be on notice, we will fight back against you." From Lebanon to Libya the United States engaged its military forces -- at first tentatively, then aggressively -- in a struggle to deter terrorist attacks on American targets.

In "Target America," FRONTLINE explores the story of this first war on terrorism -- the military responses, the diplomatic maneuvering, the internal policy struggles within the Reagan White House -- and the lessons to be drawn from it. "We try to connect the current crisis to our recent history," says Michael Kirk, producer of "Target America." "One fascinating aspect of our story is that today, the Bush administration is being led by men who were participants in these historical events -- men like Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Dick Cheney."

Through interviews with key players in the Reagan White House -- Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, and several of their deputies -- FRONTLINE revisits the key events of the U.S. confrontation with terrorism in the 1980s, from the release of American hostages in Iran and the attacks on the American embassy and Marines in Beirut, to the hijacking of TWA 847, the kidnappings of Americans in the Middle East, and the bombing of Pan Am 103. "Let terrorists be aware," Reagan announced in 1981, "that when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution." Over the next eight years of his administration, Reagan and his Cabinet would employ the tools of war, espionage, secret negotiation, and finally international law enforcement, in the effort to combat terrorism.

The debates within the White House, in particular between secretaries Weinberger and Shultz, at times grew fierce. Veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward tells FRONTLINE, "Weinberger wanted to solve the problems of terrorism ... with negotiation, not with military force. George Shultz ... wanted to be tough and to use the military. These were such powerful forces in the Reagan White House ... that at times they nullified themselves." "In the Reagan years," recalls Robert McFarlane, "we often faced ... a terrorist event ... without consensus within the government or in the body politic on how to deal with it. So the result was paralysis." Indeed, as key members of the present administration would do well to remember, in its war against terrorists the Reagan administration lost more battles than it won.

Here on the Web, FRONTLINE expands its coverage with extended interviews conducted in the reporting of this story, a timeline of terrorist attacks on Americans from 1979 to 1988, an historical overview of the rise of Islamic terrorist groups from the 1960s to today, a collection of links and background readings on terrorism and U.S. policy, and, of course, an invitation to our viewers to join the discussion.

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