Paper 3

23. In what ways, and to what extent, did the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan (1981-89) affect the Cold War?


A stern, hard-line anti-communist who once referred to the Soviet Union as “an evil empire,” Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy between 1981 and 1989 significantly affected the course of the Cold War, heightening its tension to levels previously unseen, and then ultimately helping it coming to an end. Reagan ended détente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, focusing on increased defense spending and arms build up. He was willing to support any faction who was against communism anywhere around the world by any means necessary. Reagan eventually relieved tensions through summit meetings and armament reduction treaties.

A. End of détente with Soviet Union
1. Drastically increased U.S. defense spending
a. Initiated Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would protect the U.S. from
incoming nuclear missiles
b. Increased stockpile of nuclear weapons
2. Wanted to intimidate Soviet Union by demonstrating that the U.S. was not going to
down on any issue
a. Believed that the one thing the USSR respected was strength
3. Wanted to bring down Soviet economy
a. Knew that USSR would increase defense spending to compete
b. Was confident that the Soviet economic system would not allow them to keep
pace with the U.S. in an arms race
4. Above all, wanted to bring Soviet Union to negotiating table

B. Zealously supported anti-communist groups worldwide
1. Funded contra rebels in Nicaragua who were fighting Marxist-Sandinista
Government with money made from selling weapons to Iran
a. Started Iran-Contra affair, violating stated U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists and congressional mandate that outlawed U.S. military assistance to the contras
2. Invaded Grenada in 1983 after Marxist rebels overthrew the government there
a. Done without bothering to consult the British queen or Prime Minister Margaret
3. Demonstrated that U.S. was not willing to tolerate the spread of communism
anywhere, especially in the Western Hemisphere, but also demonstrated that, the
majority of the time, Reagan did not consider the long term consequences,
especially that the U.S. would appear as an aggressor nation

C. End of tensions with Soviet Union
1. Reagan took advantage of the moment when reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered peace with the U.S.
2. Several summit meetings occurred between 1985 and 1988, and both sides made concessions.
a. In 1987, Gorbachev agreed to reduce most of the U.S.S.R’s nuclear arsenal and to withdraw from Afghanistan, while Reagan agreed to abandon his plan with SDI and to reduce the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal.

Introduction: President Reagan’s policy from 1981-89 focused on a goal of “peace through strength” followed by a peaceful resolution of conflict with the Soviet Union. During these years, Reagan pulled the country out of détente by increasing defense and arms spending at a fast rate while also funding anti communist groups all over the world. After eventually leaving the Soviet Union behind due to his drastic spending and upgrading, Reagan took the offer for peace by reformist Russian president Gorbachev.

(This quote from Wikipedia sums it up better than I did: “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.”)

II. Increase in spending
- Reagan increased government spending on arms and defense, partly to show the Soviet Union that the US was powerful and unwilling to back down in any way, shape, or form, but also to try and upgrade at a pace the Soviet economy could not handle
- Products of these increases were SDI, a program based around defending the US from incoming missiles, and Reagan’s gathering of nuclear weapons and weapons in general
- Although SDI (known as the Star Wars program to many Americans) was somewhat ridiculed here in the US, it actually did concern the Soviets
- This policy dragged the two countries out of détente immediately, which was part of Reagan’s ultimate goal; as a strong anti communist, his foreign policy was aimed at ending the Cold War and defeating the Soviet Union economically
III. Support of anti communist groups
- Grenada, 1983: Reagan orders invasion of Grenada, citing the nation’s cooperation with communist Cuba as a threat to the US
- The Contras; the Reagan administration supported a group called the Contras in Nicaragua, in an attempt to take out the communist Sandinista regime.
- Financial aid to many right wing, militaristic groups jumped in the 80s, such as in Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
IV. Conclusion
- Overall, Reagan escalated the Cold War in a successful attempt to drive the Soviets into surrender
- He accomplished this through his foreign policy, which pushed defense and arms spending while supporting anti communist groups.
- Since the Soviets could not keep up economically, Reagan’s strategy appears to have been affective
- After that part of his plan, he accepted the offer of peace from Gorbachev, signaling an end to the Cold War


While it is often contended that Reagan’s hard-line policies of militarization, which brought the United States out of détente, forced the USSR to overspend militarily, damaging their economy to the point that they were forced to the negotiating table where Reagan graciously began talks ending the Cold War, the Reagan’s policies were neither original to him nor particularly decisive. In some cases they even emboldened hardliners in the USSR detracting from Gorbachev’s efforts of glasnost and perestroika. Furthermore, it was Gorbachev who, having realized that the Soviet Union could not economically sustain itself, began westernization, peace talks, and freed the Eastern bloc.

1. Reagan’s military spending and hard-line policies that brought the world out of détente did not cause the economic turmoil of the Soviet Union.
1.1. Arms race spending did hurt the Soviet economy more than the US economy; however, this had been a constant trend since the missile gap of the 1950s and had not shown any decisive change under the Reagan administration (though there was an increase)
1.1.1. George F. Kennan asserts that “the suggestion that any United States administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish.”
1.2. His hard-line attitude emboldened hard-liners in the Kremlin making negotiations with the US more difficult.
1.2.1. Kennan says on this point, “Thus the general effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union."
2. His policies of supporting anti-communist movements around the globe including invading Grenada and supporting the contras in Nicaragua were neither original nor influential to the fall of the Soviet Union.
2.1. The US had opposed Marxist regimes around the world for decades upon decades.
2.1.1. Cuba
2.1.2. Guatemala
2.1.3. Chile
2.1.4. North Korea
2.1.5. Vietnam
2.1.6. Nicaragua (before Reagan)
2.2. Afghanistan was important in that Afghanistan was the USSR’s Vietnam, a drain on the USSR’s resources, and a time when the USSR behaved like the imperialists their rhetoric despised. However this was a failing of the Soviet Government and was not a unique success for the Reagan administration who simply continued the policy of arming any opposition to a Marxist regime whoever they may be (in this case Osama Bin Laden).
3. He did not bring the Soviet Union to the table Gorbachev did. Nor was Reagan unique in meeting with the Soviets
3.1. Reagan was president for 4 years before Gorbachev took power without any change in the status of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev began the changes.
3.1.1. Gorbachev initiated his policy of westernization which allowed for talks
3.2. President after president had been meeting with the Soviet Union.
3.2.1. Truman
3.2.2. Eisenhower
3.2.3. Kennedy
3.2.4. Nixon
3.2.5. Carter
4. Reagan’s support for democracy in nations in the eastern block was not unique or decisive.
4.1. Many presidents past had supported democratic movements in the eastern block
4.2. No military support was given to the Poles during their revolution, the Czechs, or the Hungarians
4.3. The anti-soviet movement had been constantly growing since the purges under Stalin (then crushed again by tanks rolling into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and again growing)
4.3.1. The trade union “Solidarity” that eventually challenged the communist party in Poland began in 1980.
4.4. It was the fact that Gorbachev allowed Poland’s Solidarity party to take power without rolling in the tanks that inspired nation after nation in Eastern Europe to turn away from communism.
5. To say that Reagan had no effect is ridicules. He continued the policies of generations of American presidents. Policies that crippled the Marxist cause around the world and that forced the Soviet Union to waste billions upon billions of dollars on weapons, space technology, and war after war. These policies were successful. However, he is not comparable to FDR as the man who won the US a World War (asserting the Cold War was a World War). He is instead comparable to Truman—the man who continued FDR’s policies to inevitable victory, a man who perhaps ended the war earlier by dropping the bomb, but did not change who one the war.

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