AP®︎/College US History
Ronald Reagan: Foreign policy
During Reagan's years in office the Cold War began to thaw and the Middle East started to heat up.
- In foreign policy, President Reagan sought to assert American power in the world. He denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and authorized the largest military buildup in US history.
- Reagan's administration funded anti-communist “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in order to effect a rollback of worldwide communist influence.
- Despite Reagan's strong stance against communism, US-Soviet relations warmed during Reagan’s second term. In 1987 Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the first-ever nuclear arms reduction treaty. By the end of Reagan's second term the Cold War was coming to an end.
- President Reagan’s second term was roiled by the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran and used money from the sale to covertly fund the Contras, a group opposed to the government of Nicaragua.
Foreign policy and foreign affairs under Reagan
A staunch anticommunist, President Reagan worked to assert American power and rollback Soviet communist influence around the world. He celebrated American founding ideals and institutions—including the nation’s freedoms, democracy, and competitive market capitalism—and, in a 1983 speech, denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.”
In his first term, President Reagan authorized the largest military build-up in US history, including new bombers and missiles, as well as the development of a space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed "Star Wars") to shoot down Soviet missiles before they reached the United States. He also deployed medium-range nuclear missiles in five NATO countries in late 1983 to counter a Soviet missile build-up.
Seeking to contain and rollback Soviet communist influence around the world, President Reagan’s administration funded anti-communist “freedom fighters” around the world, sending covert aid to anti-communist UNITA rebels in Angola; covert military support to the Contras seeking to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua; and authorized aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in their battle against the Soviet Union.
In 1983, US forces invaded the small Caribbean island nation of Grenada after a coup by hardline members of the island’s own leftist government, and replaced the Marxist government with one friendly to the United States.
The Reagan administration also supported authoritarian anticommunist dictatorships in Chile and South Africa, and gave aid to authoritarian regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala to finance the resistance against leftist insurgents in those countries.
The Cold War thaws
The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to Soviet leadership in March 1985, along with the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (Soviet economic and political restructuring) he introduced, led to warmer relations between the two superpowers.
Reagan and Gorbachev held four summit meetings during Reagan’s second term, and agreed to the first-ever nuclear arms reduction treaty. They also began negotiations that led to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in the 1990s, which reduced the two nations’ nuclear arsenals by 50 percent.
On June 12, 1987, President Reagan delivered a moving speech at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall which culminated with an entreaty to the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Two years later, on November 9, 1989, the wall came down.
Middle East and North Africa
From the outset of his presidency, President Reagan faced not only the challenges of the Cold War, he also faced the growing threat of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa.
On the day of his inauguration in January 1981, Iran released the last of the American embassy workers it had held hostage for 444 days. (President Carter’s inability to secure the hostages' release had been a major issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.)
Two years later, in April 1983, a suicide bomber detonated a van packed with explosives outside the US embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing seventeen Americans and forty-six others. Six months later, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden truck into US Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 242 United States Marines stationed there as peacekeepers in support of the Lebanese government. President Reagan withdrew US forces from Lebanon soon thereafter.
Relations between the United States and the North African country of Libya were contentious throughout President Reagan’s time in office. In 1981, US forces shot down two Libyan fighter planes in the Gulf of Sidra incident. In April 1986, after Libya’s alleged involvement in a bombing at a Berlin club that killed or injured more than sixty American soldiers, President Reagan authorized the bombing of ground targets in Libya. In a televised address to the nation, Reagan said, "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."
President Reagan’s second term was sullied by the Iran-Contra affair, in which US officials secretly sold weapons to Iran and funneled the profits from those sales to Nicaraguan rebels.
What do you think?
How central to ending the Cold War was President Reagan’s foreign policy?
What is the main argument of Reagan's 'Evil Empire' speech? Why do you think Reagan chose to speak about the Cold War in an address to a religious group?
Were the Beirut bombings in April and October 1983 precursors to subsequent anti-American actions in the Middle East?
Want to join the conversation?
- It says, "President Reagan’s administration funded anti-communist “freedom fighters” around the world, sending covert aid to anti-communist UNITA rebels in Angola; covert military support to the Contras seeking to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua; and authorized aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in their battle against the Soviet Union."
How come his aid to UNITA and the Contras had to be covert, when he could give authorized aid to the mujahideen?(5 votes)
- I think because Angola and Nicuagra were much smaller and most of the American population did not know, and the administration was trying to keep it that way.(4 votes)
- Were the Beirut bombings in April and October 1983 precursors to subsequent anti-American actions in the Middle East?(2 votes)
- There was a lot of "anti-American" in the Middle East long before 1983. These bombings were just part of it.(2 votes)
- Why do you think Reagan chose to speak about the Cold War in an address to a religious group?(1 vote)
- When one gets into 20th Century conservative politics in the USA, one finds all kinds of connection to conservative Protestant religious groups. Anti-communism is an almost religious thing for both groups. The recent book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Du Mez is very helpful in showing the tangled up relationships between the two movements.(1 vote)
- Were the Beirut bombings in April and October 1983 precursors to subsequent anti-American actions in the Middle East?(1 vote)
- You might see them that way. You also might see them as locally powerful people pushing back at what they perceived to be foreign interference.(1 vote)
- In the part locating Grenada, was the island doing well with its Marxist government? In terms of economy and the public?(1 vote)
- How central to ending the Cold War was President Reagan’s foreign policy?(1 vote)
- What was Reagans background before being president?(1 vote)
- Before he got elected as a President, don't be surprised: He was an actor.(0 votes)
- help i need to know about his lifestory(0 votes)