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Foreign policy of the Ronald Reagan administration

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Title: Foreign policy of the Ronald Reagan administration  
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Subject: Ronald Reagan, Electoral history of Ronald Reagan, Domestic policy of the Ronald Reagan administration, Reaganomics, Reagan Doctrine
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Foreign policy of the Ronald Reagan administration

President Ronald Reagan

The foreign policy of the Ronald Reagan administration was the foreign policy of the United States from 1981 to 1989. It was characterized by a strategy of "peace through strength" followed by a warming of relations with the Soviet Union, and resulting in an end to the Cold War when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power.

As part of the policies that became known as the "Reagan Doctrine", the United States also offered financial and logistics support to the anti-communist opposition in central Europe and took an increasingly hard line against socialist and communist governments in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua.[1][2]

Cold War


Reagan escalated the Cold War with the Soviet Union, marking a sharp departure from the policy of détente by his predecessors Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. The Administration implemented a new policy towards the Soviet Union through NSDD-32 (National Security Decisions Directive) to confront the USSR on three fronts: decrease Soviet access to high technology and diminish their resources, including depressing the value of Soviet commodities on the world market; increase American defense expenditures to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position; and force the Soviets to devote more of their economic resources to defense. Most visible was the massive American military build-up.

The administration revived the B-1 bomber program that had been canceled by the Carter administration and began production of the MX "Peacekeeper" missile. In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw NATO's deployment of the Pershing II missile in West Germany to gain a stronger bargaining position to eventually eliminate that entire class of nuclear weapons. Reagan's position was that if the Soviets did not remove the SS-20 missiles (without a concession from the US), America would simply introduce the Pershing II missiles for a stronger bargaining position, and both missiles would be eliminated.

One of Reagan's more controversial proposals was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Reagan believed this defense shield could make nuclear war impossible, but the unlikelihood that the technology could ever work led opponents to dub SDI "Star Wars." Critics of SDI argued that the technological objective was unattainable, that the attempt would likely accelerate the arms race, and that the extraordinary expenditures amounted to a military-industrial boondoggle. Supporters responded that SDI gave Reagan a stronger bargaining position. Indeed, Soviet leaders became genuinely concerned.

Reagan supported anti-communist groups around the world. In a policy which became known as the Reagan Doctrine, his administration funded "freedom fighters" such as the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and UNITA in Angola. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Reagan deployed CIA Special Activities Division Paramilitary Officers to train, equip and lead the Mujihadeen forces against the Soviet Army.[3][4] Although the CIA in general and Charlie Wilson, a Texas Congressman, have received most of the attention, the key architect of this strategy was Michael G. Vickers, a young Paramilitary Officer.[5] President Reagan's Covert Action program has been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.[6][7] When the Polish government suppressed the Solidarity movement in late 1981, Reagan imposed economic sanctions on the People's Republic of Poland.

Reagan argued that the American economy was on the move again while the Soviet economy had become stagnant. For a while the Soviet decline was masked by high prices for Soviet oil exports, but that crutch collapsed in the early 1980s. In November 1985, the oil price was $30/barrel for crude, in March 1986 it had fallen to $12.[8]

Reagan's militant rhetoric inspired dissidents in the Soviet Empire, but also startled allies and alarmed critics. In a famous address to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, he called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" that would be consigned to the "ash heap of history." After Soviet fighters downed Korean Airlines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983, he labeled the act an "act of barbarism... [of] inhuman brutality." Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" drew the wrath of some as provocative, but his description was staunchly defended by his conservative supporters. Michael Johns of the Heritage Foundation, for instance, prominently defended Reagan in a Policy Review article, "Seventy Years of Evil", in which he identified 208 alleged acts of evil by the Soviet Union since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution[9]

On March 3, 1983, Reagan predicted that Communism would collapse: "I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose — last pages even now are being written."[10] He elaborated on June 8 of 1982 to the British Parliament. Reagan argued that the Soviet Union was in deep economic crisis and stated that the Soviet Union "runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens."

This was before Gorbachev rose to power in 1985. Reagan later wrote in his autobiography An American Life that he did not see the profound changes that would occur in the Soviet Union after Gorbachev rose to power. To confront the Soviet Union's serious economic problems, Gorbachev implemented bold new policies for freedom and openness called glasnost and perestroika.

End of the Cold War

Reagan relaxed his aggressive rhetoric toward the Soviet Union after Gorbachev became chairman of the Soviet Politburo in 1985, and took on a position of negotiating from strength, realizing the USSR was a disintegrating empire. By the late years of the Cold War, Moscow had built a military that consumed as much as 25% of the Soviet Union's gross national product at the expense of consumer goods and investment in civilian sectors.[11] But the size of the Soviet armed forces was not necessarily the result of a simple action-reaction arms race with the United States.[12] Instead, Soviet spending on the arms race and other Cold War commitments can be understood as both a cause and effect of the deep-seated structural problems in the Soviet system, which accumulated at least a decade of economic stagnation during the Brezhnev years.[13] Soviet investment in the defense sector was not necessarily driven by military necessity, but in large part by the interests of massive party and state bureaucracies dependent on the sector for their own power and privileges.[14]

Reagan and Gorbachev built a close relationship and contributed greatly to the peaceful end of the Cold War
Speaking in front of the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987 Ronald Reagan challenged reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall!" Famous passage begins at 11:10 into this video.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev had ascended to power in 1985, the Soviets suffered from an economic growth rate close to zero percent, combined with a sharp fall in hard currency earnings as a result of the downward slide in world oil prices in the 1980s.[15] (Petroleum exports made up around 60 percent of the Soviet Union's total export earnings.)[11] To restructure the Soviet economy before it collapsed, Gorbachev announced an agenda of rapid reform, based upon what he called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (liberalization, openness). Reform required Gorbachev to redirect the country's resources from costly Cold War military commitments to more profitable areas in the civilian sector. As a result, Gorbachev offered major concessions to the United States on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe.

Many US Soviet experts and administration officials doubted that Gorbachev was serious about winding down the arms race,[16] but Ronald Reagan recognized the real change in the direction of the Soviet leadership, and Reagan shifted to skillful diplomacy to personally push Gorbachev further with his reforms.[17]

Reagan sincerely believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to simply look at the prosperous American economy, they too would embrace free markets and a free society.[18]

At a speech given at the Berlin Wall on the city's 750th birthday,[19] Reagan pushed Gorbachev further in front of 20,000 onlookers: "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" The last sentence became "the four most famous words of Ronald Reagan's Presidency."[19] Reagan later said that the "forceful tone" of his speech was influenced by hearing before his speech that those on the East side of the wall attempting to hear him had been kept away by police.[19] The Soviet news agency wrote that Reagan's visit was "openly provocative, war-mongering."[19]

The East-West tensions that had reached intense new heights earlier in the decade rapidly subsided through the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1988, the Soviets officially declared that they would no longer intervene in the affairs of allied states in Eastern Europe. In 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

Reagan's economics professor at Stanford University, privately instructed Gorbachev on free market economics. At Gorbachev's request, Reagan gave a speech on free markets at Moscow University.[20]

When Reagan visited Moscow, he was viewed as a celebrity by the Soviets. A journalist asked the president if he still considered the Soviet Union the evil empire. "No," he replied, "I was talking about another time, another era."[21]

In his autobiography An American Life, Reagan expressed his optimism about the new direction they charted, his warm feelings for Gorbachev, and his concern for Gorbachev's safety because Gorbachev pushed reforms so hard. "I was concerned for his safety," Reagan wrote. "I've still worried about him. How hard and fast can he push reforms without risking his life?" Events would unravel far beyond what Gorbachev originally intended.



The communist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government in Angola, and Cuban and South African military intervention there, led to decades of civil war that cost up to 1 million lives.[22] The Reagan administration offered covert aid to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), a group of anti-communist rebels led by Jonas Savimbi, whose insurgency was backed by South Africa. Dr. Peter Hammond, a Christian missionary who lived in Angola at the time, recalled:

"There were over 50,000 Cuban troops in the country. The communists had attacked and destroyed many churches. MiG-23s and Mi-24 Hind helicopter gun ships were terrorising villagers in Angola. I documented numerous atrocities, including the strafing of villages, schools and churches. In 1986, I remember hearing Ronald Reagan's speech – carried on the BBC Africa service – by short wave radio: "We are going to send stinger missiles to the UNITA Freedom Fighters in Angola!" Those who were listening to the SW radio with me looked at one another in stunned amazement. After a long silence as we wondered if our ears had actually heard what we thought we heard, one of us said: "That would be nice!" We scarcely dared believe that it would happen. But it did. Not long afterwards the stinger missiles began to arrive in UNITA controlled Free Angola. Soviet aircraft were shot down. The bombing and strafing of villagers, schools and churches came to an end. Without any doubt, Ronald Reagan's policies saved many tens of thousands of lives in Angola."[23]
Jonas Savimbi meeting the European Parliament deputies in 1989

Human rights observers have accused the MPLA of "genocidal atrocities," "systematic extermination," "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity."[24] The MPLA held blatantly rigged elections in 1992, which were rejected by eight opposition parties. An official observer wrote that there was little UN supervision, that 500,000 UNITA voters were disenfranchised and that there were 100 clandestine polling stations. UNITA sent peace negotiators to the capital, where the MPLA murdered them, along with 20,000 UNITA members. Savimbi was still ready to continue the elections. The MPLA then massacred tens of thousands of UNITA and National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) voters nationwide.[25][26]

Savimbi was strongly supported by the conservative [27]

The killing of Savimbi in February 2002 by the Angolan military led to the decline of UNITA's influence. Savimbi was succeeded by Paulo Lukamba. Six weeks after Savimbi's death, UNITA agreed to a ceasefire with the MPLA, but even today Angola remains deeply divided politically between MPLA and UNITA supporters. Parliamentary elections in September 2008 resulted in an overwhelming majority for the MPLA, but their legitimacy was questioned by international observers.

South Africa

During Ronald Reagan's presidency South Africa continued to use a non-democratic system of government based on racial discrimination, known as apartheid, in which the minority of white South Africans exerted nearly complete legal control over the lives of the non-white majority of the citizens. In the early 1980s the issue had moved to the center of international attention as a result of events in the townships and outcry at the death of Stephen Biko. Reagan administration policy called for "constructive engagement" with the apartheid government of South Africa. In opposition to the condemnations issued by the US Congress and public demands for diplomatic or economic sanctions, Reagan made relatively minor criticisms of the regime, which was otherwise internationally isolated, and the US granted recognition to the government. South Africa's military was then engaged in an occupation of Namibia and proxy wars in several neighboring countries, in alliance with Savimbi's UNITA. Reagan administration officials saw the apartheid government as a key anti-communist ally.[28]

By late 1985, facing hostile votes from Congress on the issue, Reagan made an "abrupt reversal" on the issue and proposed sanctions on the South African government, including an arms embargo.[29] However, these sanctions were seen as weak by anti-Apartheid activists who were calling for Disinvestment from South Africa.[30] In 1986, Reagan vetoed the tougher sanctions of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, but this was overridden by a bipartisan effort in Congress. By 1990, under Reagan's successor, the new South African government of F. W. de Klerk was introducing widespread reforms, though the Reagan administration argued that this was not a result of the tougher sanctions.[31]


Relations between Libya and the U.S. under President Reagan were continually contentious, beginning with the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981; by 1982, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was considered by the CIA to be, along with USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro,[32] part of a group known as the "unholy trinity"[32] and was also labeled as "our international public enemy number one" by a CIA official.[32] These tensions were later revived in early April 1986, when a bomb exploded in a Berlin discothèque, resulting in the injury of 63 American military personnel and death of one serviceman.[33] Stating that there was "irrefutable proof" that Libya had directed the "terrorist bombing", Reagan authorized the use of force against the country.[33] In the late evening of April 15, 1986, the U.S. launched a series of air strikes on ground targets in Libya.[33][34] The UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed the US Air Force to use Britain's air bases to launch the attack, on the justification that the UK was supporting America's right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.[34] The attack was designed to halt Gaddafi's "ability to export terrorism", offering him "incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior".[33] The president addressed the nation from the Oval Office after the attacks had commenced, stating, "When our citizens are attacked or abused anywhere in the world on the direct orders of hostile regimes, we will respond so long as I'm in this office."[34] The attack was condemned by many countries. By a vote of 79 in favor to 28 against with 33 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 41/38 which "condemns the military attack perpetrated against the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on 15 April 1986, which constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law."[35]



Reagan sought to apply the Reagan Doctrine of aiding anti-Soviet resistance movements abroad to Cambodia, which was under Vietnamese occupation following the Cambodian genocide carried out by the communist Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese had installed a communist government led by Khmer Rouge dissident Heng Samrin. According to R. J. Rummel; the Vietnamese invasion, occupation, puppet regime, ongoing guerrilla warfare, and ensuing famine killed 1.2 million Cambodians in addition to the roughly 2 million who had been killed by the Khmer Rouge.[36] The largest resistance movement fighting Cambodia's communist government was largely made up of members of the former Khmer Rouge regime, whose human rights record was among the worst of the 20th century. Therefore, Reagan authorized the provision of aid to a smaller Cambodian resistance movement, a coalition called the Khmer People's National Liberation Front,[37] known as the KPNLF and then run by Son Sann; in an effort to force an end to the Vietnamese occupation. Eventually, the Vietnamese withdrew, and Cambodia's communist regime fell.[38] Then, under United Nations supervision, free elections were held.[39]

Indonesia and East Timor

Headed by [41] Uncompromising, Reagan continued the arms trade to the Suharto regime.

The Reagan administration's average in yearly arms sales to Jakarta for his first term was $40 million. In 1986, the president approved an unprecedented sale of $300 million, though yearly sales were significantly lower in his term's remainder. The policy of arms trade to Indonesia resumed under Bush and Clinton, and completely ended after the UN-sponsored 1999 East Timorese independence referendum.[40][42]


Corazon Aquino, president from 1986 to 1992

The United States played a significant role in pressuring dictator Ferdinand Marcos to step down and in the peaceful transition to democracy in the Philippines, notwithstanding decades of past American support for his regime.[43] With the People Power Revolution, Corazon Aquino's assumption into power marked the restoration of democracy in the country.


Holy See/Vatican

The United States maintained consular relations with the Papal States from 1797 to 1870 and diplomatic relations with the Pope, in his capacity as head of the Papal States, from 1848 to 1868, though not at the ambassadorial level. These relations lapsed with the loss of all papal territories in 1870.

From 1870 to 1984, the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Several presidents, however, designated personal envoys to visit the Holy See periodically for discussions of international humanitarian and political issues. Myron C. Taylor was the first of these representatives, serving from 1939 to 1950. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan also appointed personal envoys to the Pope.

The United States and the Holy See announced the establishment of diplomatic relations on January 10, 1984. On March 7, 1984, the Senate confirmed William A. Wilson as the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Ambassador Wilson had been President Reagan's personal envoy to the Pope since 1981. The Holy See named Archbishop Pio Laghi as the first Apostolic Nuncio (equivalent to ambassador) of the Holy See to the U.S.[44]


The U.S. supported the Solidarity movement in Poland, and—based on CIA intelligence—waged a public relations campaign to deter what the Carter administration felt was "an imminent move by large Soviet military forces into Poland." When the Polish government launched a crackdown of its own in 1981, however, Solidarity was not alerted. Potential explanations for this vary; some believe that the CIA was caught off guard, while others suggest that American policy-makers viewed an internal crackdown as preferable to an "inevitable Soviet intervention."[45]

Latin America

Through his terms Reagan supported the anti-communist regimes of Guatemala and El Salvador and the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, as well as democratic transitions of power in Bolivia (1982), Honduras (1981), Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985), Uruguay (1984), and Suriname (1987). His support for the contras in Nicaragua was controversial, due to the poor human rights record of the rebels.[46] Support for the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador was also controversial due to the repressive nature of those governments and what was later determined to be genocide in Guatemala.[47][48][49]

In the case of 1982's Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the "Rio Pact"). However, the North Atlantic Treaty only obliges the signatories to support if the attack occurs in Europe or North America north of the Tropic of Cancer, and the Rio Pact only obliges the U.S. to intervene if one of the adherents to the treaty was attacked—the UK never attacked Argentina, only Argentine forces on British territory. In any case, Reagan administration decisively tilted its support to the British government of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher during this conflict.


The Reagan Administration lent logistical, financial and military support to the Contras, based in neighboring Honduras, who waged a guerrilla insurgency in an effort to topple the Sandinista government of Nicaragua (which was headed by Daniel Ortega). This support was funneled through the CIA to the rebels, and continued right through Reagan's period in office. The scorched earth tactics of the Contras were condemned for their brutality by several historians.[46] In 1983, the CIA created a group of "Unilaterally Controlled Latino Assets" (UCLAs), whose task was to "sabotage ports, refineries, boats and bridges, and try to make it look like the contras had done it."[50] In January 1984, these UCLA's carried out the operation for which they would be best known; the mining of several Nicaraguan harbors, which sank several Nicaraguan boats and damaged at least five foreign vessels. This incident led to the ratification of the Boland Amendment by the US Congress, and brought an avalanche of international condemnation down on the United States.[51] The CIA also provided training and arms, as well as funding, directly to the Contras.[52]

In response to the insurgency, the regime passed a new law, the "Law for the Maintenance of Order and Public Security", under which the "Tribunales Populares Anti-Somozistas" allowed for the holding of suspected counter-revolutionaries without trial. The State of Emergency most notably affected rights and guarantees contained in the "Statute on Rights and Guarantees of Nicaraguans".[53] Many civil liberties were curtailed or canceled such as the freedom to organize demonstrations, the inviolability of the home, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and, the freedom to strike.[53]

North's mugshot taken after his arrest

The Boland Amendment made it illegal under U.S. law to provide arms to the contra militants. Nevertheless, the Reagan administration continued to arm and fund the contras through the Iran-Contra scandal, pursuant to which the U.S. secretly sold arms to Iran in violation of U.S. law in exchange for cash used by the U.S. to supply arms to the contras, also in violation of law. The U.S. argued that:[54]

Nicaragua's neighbors have asked for assistance against Nicaraguan aggression, and the United States has responded. Those countries have repeatedly and publicly made clear that they consider themselves to be the victims of aggression from Nicaragua, and that they desire United States assistance in meeting both subversive attacks and the conventional threat posed by the relatively immense Nicaraguan Armed Forces.
The U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras

The Sandinista government won victory in the 1984 Nicaraguan elections. The elections had been declared "free, fair, and hotly contested" by election observers such as New York's Human Rights Commission.[55] However, the elections were conducted under the SOE. Political prisoners were still held as it took place, and several opposition parties refused to participate. Martin Kriele opined that the 1984 election was carried out under the Sandinista Directorate, a body "no more subject to approval by vote than the Central Committee of the Communist Party is in countries of the East Bloc," and argued that there should have been a secret ballot to avoid government reprisals.[56]

In addition, the Reagan administration criticized the elections because Arturo Cruz, the candidate nominated by the Coordinadora Democrática Nicaragüense, refused to run. However, the U.S. reportedly urged Cruz to avoid participation. Several senior administration officials told the New York Times that "the administration never contemplated letting Cruz stay in the race because then the Sandinistas could justifiably claim that the elections were legitimate".[57]

The U.S. continued to pressure the government by illegally arming the contra insurgency. On October 5, 1985 the Sandinistas broadened the state of emergency begun in 1982 and suspended many more civil rights. A new regulation also forced any organization outside of the government to first submit any statement it wanted to make public to the censorship bureau for prior censorship.[58]

It has been argued that "probably a key factor in preventing the 1984 elections from establishing liberal democratic rule was the United States' policy toward Nicaragua."[59] Others have disputed this view, claiming that "the Sandinistas’ decision to hold elections in 1984 was largely of foreign inspiration".[60]

As the contras' insurgency continued with U.S. support, the Sandinistas struggled to maintain power. They lost power in 1990, when they ended the SOE and held an election that all the main opposition parties competed in. The Sandinistas have been accused of killing thousands by Nicaragua's Permanent Commission on Human Rights.[61] The contras have also been accused of committing war crimes, such as rape, arson, and the killing of civilians.[62]

Historian Greg Grandin described a disjuncture between official ideals preached by the U.S. and actual U.S. support for terrorism.

“Nicaragua, where the United States backed not a counter insurgent state but anti-communist mercenaries, likewise represented a disjuncture between the idealism used to justify U.S. policy and its support for political terrorism... The corollary to the idealism embraced by the Republicans in the realm of diplomatic public policy debate was thus political terror. In the dirtiest of Latin America's dirty wars, their faith in America's mission justified atrocities in the name of liberty.”[63]

Similarly, former diplomat Clara Nieto, in her book "Masters of War," charged that "the CIA launched a series of terrorist actions from the "mothership" off Nicaragua's coast. In September 1983, she charged the agency attacked Puerto Sandino with rockets. The following month, frogmen blew up the underwater oil pipeline in the same port — the only one in the country. In October there was an attack on Pierto Corinto, Nicaragua's largest port, with mortars, rockets, and grenades blowing up five large oil and gasoline storage tanks. More than a hundred people were wounded, and the fierce fire, which could not be brought under control for two days, forced the evacuation of 23,000 people.”[64]

Supporters of the Reagan administration have pointed out that the US had been the largest provider of aid to Nicaragua, and twice offered to resume aid if the Sandinstas agreed to stop arming communist insurgents in El Salvador.[65] Former official Roger Miranda wrote that "Washington could not ignore Sandinista attempts to overthrow Central American governments."[66] Nicaragua's Permanent Commission on Human Rights condemned Sandinista human rights violations, recording at least 2,000 murders in the first six months and 3,000 disappearances in the first few years. It has since documented 14,000 cases of torture, rape, kidnapping, mutilation and murder.[61] The Sandinistas admitted to forcing 180,000 peasants into resettlement camps.[67]

In Nicaragua v. United States,[68] the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that the U.S. had violated international law by supporting the contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua's harbors. The United States refused to participate in the proceedings after the Court rejected its argument that the ICJ lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The U.S. later blocked enforcement of the judgment by the United Nations Security Council and thereby prevented Nicaragua from obtaining any actual compensation.[69] The Nicaraguan government finally withdrew the complaint from the court in September 1992 (under the government of Violeta Chamorro).[70] on November 12, 1987, the UN General Assembly called for "full and immediate compliance" with the World Court decision. Only Israel joined the United States in opposing adherence to the ruling.[71]

El Salvador

In the [76]

Reagan's policy has been criticized due to the human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by El Salvadoran security force with Amnesty International reporting that it had received: "regular, often daily, reports identifying El Salvador's regular security and military units as responsible for the torture, "disappearance" and killing of civilians. Types of torture reported by those who have survived arrest and interrogation included beatings, sexual abuse, use of chemicals to disorient, mock executions, and the burning of flesh with sulphuric acid."[77] Rudolph Rummel has estimated that from 1979 to 1987, government forces perpetrated between 12,000 and 25,000 democidal killings,[78] with UNHCR estimating higher total figures.[79]

During the war, the FMLN received aid from the governments of Nicaragua and Cuba.[80] In 1983, an FMLN broadcast boasted of Cuban and Nicaraguan backing; an FMLN commander stated that the war was directed by Cuba and that nearly all of his weapons came from Nicaragua. In 1985, the Sandinistas offered to stop military aid to forces in El Salvador in return for an end to the contra insurgency.[81] The Soviet bloc supplied enough arms for several battalions.[82]

The US increased aid as atrocities declined. The UN Truth Commission received direct complaints of almost 2,600 victims of serious violence occurring in 1980. It received direct complaints of just over 140 victims of serious violence occurring in 1985.[83]


Given José Efraín Ríos Montt's staunch anticommunism and ties to the United States, the Reagan administration continued to support the general and his regime, paying a visit to Guatemala City in December 1982.[84] During a meeting with Ríos Montt on December 4, Reagan declared: "President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment....I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice."[85]

Reagan claimed that Guatemala's human rights conditions were improving and used this to justify several major shipments of military hardware to Rios Montt; $4 million in helicopter spare parts and $6.3 million in additional military supplies in 1982 and 1983 respectively. The decision was taken in spite of records concerning human rights violations, bypassing the Congress.[86][87][88][89][90] Meanwhile, a then-secret 1983 CIA cable noted a rise in "suspect right-wing violence" and an increasing number of bodies "appearing in ditches and gullies."[91] Indigenous Mayans suffered greatly under Ríos Montt's rule. The UN-backed official Historical Clarification Commission found that this was a campaign of deliberate genocide against the population.[92] In May 2013, Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide against Mayan Indian groups by a Guatemalan court. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison (50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity).[47]


Reagan meets with Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica in the Oval Office about ongoing events in Grenada

Barbados, and Jamaica, among other nations, for assistance due to the ongoing military rule in the country. In the end, U.S. forces suffered nineteen fatalities and 116 injuries, as the defenders were said to be well prepared, but the United States was victorious. Grenada's Governor-General, Paul Scoon, announced the resumption of the constitution and appointed a new government, and U.S. forces withdrew that December.

While the invasion enjoyed public support in the United States and Grenada[93][94] it was criticized by the United Kingdom, Canada and the United Nations General Assembly as "a flagrant violation of international law".[95] The date of the invasion is now a national holiday in Grenada, called Thanksgiving Day.

1982 Falklands War

At first glance, it appeared that the U.S. had military Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the "Rio Pact"). However, the North Atlantic Treaty only obliges the signatories to support if the attack occurs in Europe or North America north of the Tropic of Cancer, and the Rio Pact only obliges the U.S. to intervene if one of the adherents to the treaty is attacked—the UK never attacked Argentina, only Argentine forces on British territory.

In March, mediator, but was refused.

Falklands War military operations
USS Iwo Jima

In fact, the Reagan Administration was sharply divided on the issue. Meeting on April 5, Haig and Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger favoured backing Britain, concerned that equivocation would undermine the NATO alliance. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders, however, feared that supporting Britain would undermine U.S. anti-communist efforts in Latin America. He received the firm backing of U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Haig's nominal subordinate and political rival. Kirkpatrick was guest of honour at a dinner held by the Argentine ambassador to the United States, on the day that the Argentine armed forces landed on the islands.

The White House continued its neutrality; Reagan famously declared at the time that he could not understand why two allies were arguing over "that little ice-cold bunch of land down there". But he assented to Haig and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's position. Haig briefly (April 8 – April 30) headed a "shuttle diplomacy" mission between London and Buenos Aires. According to a BBC documentary titled "The Falklands War and the White House",[96] Caspar Weinberger's Department of Defense began a number of non-public actions to support and supply the British military while Haig's shuttle diplomacy was still ongoing. Haig's message to the Argentines was that the British would indeed fight, and that the U.S. would support Britain, but at the time he was not aware that the U.S. was providing support already.

At the end of the month, Reagan blamed Argentina for the failure of the mediation, declared U.S. support for Britain, and announced the imposition of economic sanctions against Argentina.

In a notorious episode in June, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick cast a second veto of a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, then announced minutes later that she had received instructions to abstain. The situation was blamed on a delay in communications but perceived by many as part of an ongoing power struggle between Haig and Kirkpatrick.

At 11.30pm London time on May 31, 1982 Reagan sent Mrs Thatcher saying that "The best chance for peace was before complete Argentine humiliation," he told her. "As the UK now had the upper hand militarily, it should strike a deal now." and suggesting a multi-national, peacekeeping force. Her reply was that "Britain had had to go into the islands alone, with no outside help, she could not now let the invader gain from his aggression."[97]

Galtieri and a fair proportion of his government thought that the UK would not react. Margaret Thatcher declared that the democratic rights of the Falkland Islanders had been assaulted and would not surrender the islands to the Argentinian "jackboot". This stance was aided, at least domestically, by the mostly supportive British press.

The Argentine dictatorship felt that the United States would, even in a worst-case scenario, remain completely neutral in the conflict (based upon the support that Argentina had given to the Reagan administration in Central America, training Contras). This assumption demonstrated a clear blindness to the reality of the US-UK special relationship.

To some extent, the Argentine military dictatorship was misled by its own opinion of democracies as being weak, inefficient talking-shops, afraid of taking risks. Indeed, in Britain there was much debate about the rights and wrongs of war. However, regardless of their own policies and opinions, opposition parties firmly backed the government during the crisis, in order to present a single united front.

A U.S. fear of the perceived threat of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism, along with the certainty that Britain could handle the matter on its own, may have influenced the U.S. to take a position of non-interference. During the Cold War, with the performance of forces being watched closely by the Soviet Union, it was considered preferable for the UK to handle without assistance a conflict within its capabilities.

American non-interference was vital to the American-British relationship. Ascension Island, a British possession, was vital in the long term supply of the Task Force South; however, the airbase stationed on it was run and operated by the U.S. The American commander of the base was ordered to assist the British in any way and for a brief period Ascension Air Field was one of the busiest airports in the world. The most important NATO contributions were intelligence information and the rescheduled supply of the latest model of Sidewinder Lima all-aspect infra-red seeking missiles, which allowed existing British stocks to be employed.

Margaret Thatcher stated that "without the Harrier jets and their immense manoeuvrability, equipped as they were with the latest version of the Sidewinder missile, supplied to us by U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, we could never have got back the Falklands." This is not only politically but militarily questionable, however, as all the Fleet Air Arm Sidewinder engagements proved to be from the rear.

In early May, Casper Weinberger offered the use of an American aircraft carrier.[98] This seemingly extremely generous offer was seen by some as vital: it was noted by Rear Admiral Woodward that the loss of Invincible would have been a severe setback, but the loss of Hermes would have meant an end to the whole operation. Weinberger admitted[99] that there would have been many problems if a request had ever been made; not least, it would have meant U.S. personnel becoming directly involved in the conflict, as training British forces to crew the vessel would have taken years. In the July 2012 newsletter of the United States Naval Institute, which was reprinted online at the Institute's web site, it was revealed that the Reagan Administration actively offered the use of the amphibious assault helicopter carrier Iwo Jima (pictured) as a replacement in case either of the two British carriers, the Hermes and the Invincible, had been damaged or destroyed. This top-secret contigency plan was revealed to the staff of the Naval Institute by John Lehman, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy at the time of the Falklands War, from a speech provided to the Naval Institute that Lehman made in Portsmouth, U.K., on June 26, 2012. Lehman stated that the loan of the Iwo Jima was made in response to a request from the Royal Navy, and it had the endorsement of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The actual planning for the Iwo Jima loan-out was done by the staff of the U.S. Second Fleet under the direction of Vice Admiral James Lyons who confirmed Lehman's revelations with the Naval Institute staff. Contigency planning envisioned American military contractors, likely retired sailors with knowledge of the Iwo Jima '​s systems, assisting the British in manning the U.S. helicopter carrier during the loan-out. Naval analyst Eric Wertheim compared this arrangement to the Flying Tigers. Significantly, except for U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, the U.S. Department of State was not included in the loan-out negotiations.[100] These 2012 revelations made headlines in the United Kingdom, but except for the U.S. Naval Institute, not in the United States.[101][102]

Both Weinberger and Reagan were later awarded the British honour of Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE). American critics of the U.S. role claimed that, by failing to side with Argentina, the U.S. violated its own Monroe Doctrine.

In September 2001, the President of Mexico Vicente Fox cited the conflict as proof of the failure of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance since the treaty provides for mutual defence. However, in this conflict, Argentina was the aggressor.

Middle East


"To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom."

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, March 21, 1983[103]
President Reagan meeting with Afghan Mujahideen leaders in the Oval Office in 1983

Upon becoming President, Reagan moved quickly to undermine Soviet efforts to subdue the government of Afghanistan, which the Soviet Army had invaded in 1979.

Islamic mujahideen guerrillas were covertly supported and trained, and backed in their jihad against the occupying Soviets by the CIA. The agency sent billions of dollars in military aid to the guerrillas, in what came to be known as "Charlie Wilson's War".

One of the CIA's longest and most expensive covert operations was the supplying of billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan mujahideen militants.[104] The CIA provided assistance to the fundamentalist insurgents through the Pakistani ISI in a program called Operation Cyclone. Somewhere between $2–$20 billion in U.S. funds were funneled into the country to equip troops with weapons. No Americans trained or had direct contact with the mujahideen.[105] The skittish CIA had fewer than 10 operatives in the region because it "feared it would be blamed, like in Guatemala."[106]

With U.S. and other funding, the ISI armed and trained over 100,000 insurgents. On July 20, 1987, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country was announced pursuant to the negotiations that led to the Geneva Accords of 1988,[107] with the last Soviets leaving on February 15, 1989.

The early foundations of al-Qaida were allegedly built in part on relationships and weaponry that came from the billions of dollars in U.S. support for the Afghan mujahadin during the war to expel Soviet forces from that country.[108] However, scholars such as Jason Burke, Steve Coll, Peter Bergen, Christopher Andrew, and Vasily Mitrokhin have argued that Osama Bin Laden was "outside of CIA eyesight" and that there is "no support" in any "reliable source" for "the claim that the CIA funded bin Laden or any of the other Arab volunteers who came to support the mujahideen."[109]

Osama bin Laden would later cite Reagan's withdrawal of forces after the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing as a sign of American weakness.[110]

Iran-Iraq war

When the Iran–Iraq War broke out following the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979, the United States initially remained neutral in the conflict. However, as the war intensified, the Reagan administration would covertly intervene to maintain a balance of power, supporting both nations at various times. The U.S. mainly sided with Iraq, believing that Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini threatened regional stability more than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. U.S. officials feared that an Iranian victory would embolden Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab states, perhaps leading to the overthrow of secular governments—and damage to Western corporate interests—in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait. After initial Iraqi military victories were reversed and an Iranian victory appeared possible in 1982, the American government initiated Operation Staunch to attempt to cut off the Iranian regime's access to weapons (notwithstanding their later shipment of weapons to Iran in the Iran-Contra Affair). The U.S. provided intelligence information and financial assistance to the Iraqi military regime.

On April 18, 1988 Reagan authorized Operation Praying Mantis, a one-day naval strike against Iranian naval ships, boats, and command posts in retaliation for the mining of a U.S. guided missile frigate. One day later, Reagan sent a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. [1] USS Simpson (FFG-56) is mentioned in firing on Iranian F-4 Phantom II Fighters built by the United States.

Iran-Contra affair

President Reagan receives the Tower Report in the Cabinet Room of the White House, 1987

The attempts of certain members of the White House national security staff to circumvent Congressional proscription of covert military aid to the Contras ultimately resulted in the Iran-Contra Affair.

Two members of administration, National Security Advisor John Poindexter and Col. Oliver North worked through CIA and military channels to sell arms to the Iranian government and give the profits to the contra guerillas in Nicaragua, who were engaged in a bloody civil war. Both actions were contrary to acts of Congress. Reagan professed ignorance of the plot, but admitted that he had supported the initial sale of arms to Iran, on the grounds that such sales were supposed to help secure the release of Americans being held hostage by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Reagan quickly called for the appointment of an [111]


With the approval of Congress, Reagan in 1983 sent forces to Lebanon to reduce the threat of civil war. The American peacekeeping forces in Beirut, a part of a multinational force during the Lebanese Civil War, were attacked on October 23, 1983. The Beirut barracks bombing killed 241 American servicemen and wounded more than 60 others by a suicide truck bomber.[112] Reagan sent in a battleship to shell Syrian positions in Lebanon. He then withdrew all the marines from Lebanon.[113]



In 1983, the Reagan Administration approached Australia with proposals for testing the new generation of American intercontinental ballistic missiles, the MX missile. American test ranges in the Pacific were insufficient for testing the new long-range missiles and the United States military wished to use the Tasman Sea as a target area. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal Party had agreed to provide monitoring sites near Sydney for this purpose.[114] However in 1985, the new-elected Prime Minister Bob Hawke, of the Labor Party, withdrew Australia from the testing program, sparking criticism from the Reagan Administration. Hawke had been pressured into doing so by the left-wing faction of the Labor Party, which opposed the proposed MX missile test in the Tasman Sea. The Labor left-wing faction also strongly sympathized with the New Zealand Fourth Labour Government's anti-nuclear policy and supported a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.[115][116][117]

To preserve its joint Australian-US military communications facilities, the Reagan Administration also had to assure the Hawke Government that those installations would not be used in the Strategic Defense Initiative project, which the Australian Labor Party strongly opposed. Despite these disagreements, the Hawke Labor Government still remained supportive of the ANZUS security treaty, a trilateral pact between Australia, New Zealand and the United States which was signed on 1 September 1951. It also did not support its New Zealand counterpart's ban on nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships. Following the US's suspension of defence and intelligence cooperation with New Zealand in February 1985, the Australian government also endorsed the Reagan Administration's plans to cancel trilateral military exercises and to postpone the ANZUS foreign ministers conference. However, it still continued to maintain bilateral military ties and continued to share intelligence information with New Zealand.[117] Unlike New Zealand, Australia continued to allow US Navy warships to visit its ports and to participate in joint military exercises with the United States.[118][119]

New Zealand

"Some Western countries have anti-nuclear and other movements which seek to diminish defense cooperation among the allied states. We would hope that our response to New Zealand would signal that the course these movements advocate would not be cost–free in terms of security relationships with the United States."

Bernard Kalb, United States Department of State spokesman, reproduced in "U.S. Plans Actions to Answer Rebuff by New Zealand," New York Times, 6 February 1985.

In 1984, the newly elected Labour government under Prime Minister David Lange introduced anti-nuclear legislation which banned the entry of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed warships into New Zealand waters. Reasons cited were the dangers of nuclear weapons, continued nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and opposition to US President Reagan's policy of aggressively confronting the Soviet Union. Nuclear disarmament was also championed by a vocal pacifist anti-nuclear movement aligned with the mainstream political left. Since the United States Navy refused to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons aboard ships, this law essentially refused access to New Zealand ports for all USN ships. Since New Zealand was a member of the tripartite ANZUS security alliance, which also included Australia and the United States, this created tensions in US-NZ relations.[120][121]

The Reagan administration regarded New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance as incongruous with its Cold War policy of only conducting strategic arms reductions from a position of strength. The US government was also concerned that the Soviet Union was working through local Communist parties like the trade union movement as part of a strategy of steering New Zealand's foreign policy away from its traditional ally the United States.[122][123]

In February 1985, a port-visit request by the United States for the [124] The Republican Senator William Cohen also advocated trade retaliation against New Zealand and urged the Reagan Administration to negotiate a separate bilateral security treaty with Australia.[125][126] Ultimately, the Reagan Administration opted no to pursue economic retaliatory measures against New Zealand.[127] President Reagan also maintained in NSDD 193 (National Security Decision Directive) that New Zealand still remained a "friend, but not an ally."[128]

In 1987, the Republican Congressman William Broomfield sponsored a bill known as the Broomfield Bill (the New Zealand Military Preference Suspension Act) that would have deprived New Zealand of its favored status as an ally when purchasing military equipment from the United States. On October 20, 1987, the United States House of Representatives passed the Broomfield Bill by a substantial majority. According to former New Zealand diplomat Malcolm Templeton, this bill was a symbolic endorsement by the Democratic-controlled Congress of the Reagan Administration's earlier decision to suspend its defence commitments to New Zealand. The Broomfield Bill also included an amendment added by the Democratic Congressman Stephen J. Solarz that would allow the U.S. President to restore the ANZUS relationship if NZ modified its nuclear-free policy.[129]

However, the Broomfield Bill languished in the United States Senate. Following the 1988 US Senate elections, the lame duck 100th Congress dropped a package containing the Broomfield Bill after Senator Edward Kennedy opposed its inclusion. Thus, the Broomfield Bill was never passed by the Senate and formally ratified into law. While the Reagan Administration continued to eschew contact with the Lange government, it continued to maintain ties with the center-right opposition National Party, which opposed the Nuclear Free Bill. Despite the suspension of ANZUS ties and ship visits, the United States's Antarctica research program Operation Deep Freeze continued to send military aircraft to Christchurch International Airport en route to US bases in the Antarctica.[129]

The [130][131] Undaunted, the Labour government was re-elected in 1987 and went on to pass New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987 into law, making the entire country a nuclear-free zone, but still remaining within the ANZUS alliance.[124]

State visits

Reagan had close friendships with many political leaders across the globe, especially Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and Brian Mulroney in Canada. In 1985 Reagan visited the Kolmeshohe Cemetery near Bitburg at the urgent request of Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany, to pay respects to the soldiers interred there. Controversy arose because 49 of the graves contained the remains of men who had served in the Waffen-SS. The cemetery also contained remains of about 2,000 other German soldiers who had died in both World Wars, but no Americans. Some Jewish and veterans' groups opposed this visit. Reagan went because of his need to support Kohl and ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Reagan also visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he cited Anne Frank and ended his speech with the words, "Never again."[132]

Collapse of USSR after Reagan

According to David Remnick in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms opened Pandora's Box of freedom. Once the people experienced reforms, they wanted more. "Once the regime eased up enough to permit a full-scale examination of the Soviet past," Remnick wrote, "radical change was inevitable. Once the System showed itself for what it was and had been, it was doomed." Without a tyrant in control anymore, like Gorbachev's predecessors, nothing could hold the Soviet Empire together anymore.

In December 1989, Gorbachev and Communist Party was forced to surrender its 73-year-old monopoly on state power. Soviet hardliners rebelled and staged a coup against Gorbachev, but it failed. Boris Yeltsin rallied Russians in the street while Gorbachev was held hostage. By December 1991, the union-state had dissolved, breaking the USSR up into fifteen separate independent states. Boris Yeltsin became leader of the new Russia.[134]

In her eulogy to Ronald Reagan at his funeral, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Reagan worked very closely with during his tenure in office, said, "Others hoped, at best, for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union; he won the Cold War — not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting enemies out of their fortress and turning them into friends.... Yes, he did not shrink from denouncing Moscow's 'evil empire.' But he realized that a man of goodwill might nonetheless emerge from within its dark corridors. So the President resisted Soviet expansion and pressed down on Soviet weakness at every point until the day came when communism began to collapse beneath the combined weight of these pressures and its own failures. And when a man of goodwill did emerge from the ruins, President Reagan stepped forward to shake his hand and to offer sincere cooperation."

For his role, Gorbachev received the first Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize.

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  118. ^ "US Ships to Visit Sydney," The Southland Times, February 22, 1985, p.1
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  134. ^ (see Dissolution of the USSR)

External links

  • U.S. Policy Towards the Contras from the Dean Peter Krogh Foreign Affairs Digital Archives
  • Address to the Nation on the Soviet Attack on a Korean Civilian Airliner
  • The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
  • The Reagan Files: Collection of thousands of top-secret documents from the Reagan Administration.

Further reading

  • Wise, Harold Lee (2007). Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf 1987–88. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.  
  • Mireya Navarro, “Guatemala Study Accuses the Army and Cites US Role,” New York Times, February 27, 1999
  • Larry Rohter, “Searing Indictment,” New York Times, February 27, 1999
  • Michael Shifter, “Can Genocide End in Forgiveness?” Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1999
  • “Coming Clean on Guatemala,” editorial, Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1999
  • Michael Stetz, “Clinton's Words on Guatemala Called ‘Too Little, Too Late,’” San Diego Union-Tribune, March 16, 1999.
  • Frederick Kempe, Divorcing the Dictator (New York, Putnam, 1990), ppg 26–30, 162.
  • Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics (New York, University of California Press, 1991), ppg 65–70.
  • Nigel Hey, The SDI Enigma: Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense (Dulles, Va., Potomac Books, 2006), 275 pp.
  • Wilson, James Graham (2014). The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  
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