As we watch the tentative and indecisive steps in our current foreign policy under Obama where personal political advantages always trump America's best interests, it is good to look back on one of the most successful foreign policy administrations in any of our lifetimes.
Reagan dealt with foreign terrorists and usurpers quickly and decisively. Warned of a possible Cuban takeover of the little Caribbean nation of Grenada in 1983, he ordered in troops to thwart Castro’s invasion. When a terrorist bombing in 1986 of a West German disco frequented by American GI’s was linked to the radical Islamic state of Libya and its unpredictable dictator Muammar al Qaddafi, Reagan authorized the bombing of the terrorist camps. American aircraft also struck Qaddafi’s home, but the colonel was not home when the bombs fell. Nevertheless, he got the message, and Libya dropped off the international terrorist radar screen for the remainder of the decade. World terrorism fell sharply alongside the declining power of the Soviet Union, to the point where the number of reported incidents by 1987 was about half that of 1970.
Only in one foreign policy situation - removal of the communist government in Nicaragua - was Reagan unable to make the progress he had hoped for. The communist regime in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, funded and equipped by Castro, not only gave the Soviets a foothold on the Central American mainland, but it also provided a staging area for terrorist activities against neighbors, such as El Salvador and Honduras. Reagan was committed to evicting Ortega’s regime by supporting the pro-American rebels in his country, the contras. Congressional democrats had continually thwarted any assistance to the contras, raising fears again and again of another Vietnam. Despite Reagan’s concerns that Nicaragua could become a second Cuba, the democrats turned back several aid packages. Frustration over this festering problem mounted within the administration.
Later, in his dealings with the USSR, Reagan added yet one more strategic objective, known as the Reagan doctrine. Rather than contain the Soviet Union, the United States should actively attempt to roll it back. Freedom, he observed, “is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” He predicted that “Marxism-Leninism would be tossed on the ash heap of history like all other forms of tyranny that precede it.” I wonder what he would think to see someone so close to the presidency who seems to embrace that very thinking?
It was all that point that the new computer information sector converged with Reagan’s steadfast goal of defeating Soviet communism to produce one of the most amazing wonder weapons of all time. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it - the weapon was a space based defense shield called Star Wars - was that it was not built and still not been truly deployed, other than a test on a falling satellite. It did create the strategy used by President Bush to create a missile shield in the Chech Republic and Poland, the same one that Obama just gave away for nothing.
Computer technologies played a critical role in ending the cold war but only when they were placed in the policy “hands” of a leader who had the insight to use them to the fullest advantage. That leader was Ronald Reagan. In his first press conference, the president announced his opposition to the SALT II treaty, which the Senate had not passed in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Announcing his intention to rectify the imbalance in forces between the United States and the USSR, Reagan signaled to the communist leadership that he would never allow the Soviet Union to attain military superiority. It was a message that terrified the entrenched Soviet leadership. In one of a Yuri Andropov’s final decrees before stepping down from his fifteen year term as chairman of the KGB, he stated that the most pressing objective of all Soviet spies, whatever their rank or specialty, was to ensure that Reagan was not reelected, according to Andrew and Mitrokhin in “Sword and the Shield.”. Soviet resistance only convinced Reagan all the more. In short order, Reagan had authorized the construction of one hundred B-1 bombers, continued funding of the controversial B-2 Stealth bomber, commissioned a speedy review of the MX missile to determine the most survivable deployment disposition, and ordered the armed forces to deploy cruise missiles on all available platforms. At the same time that he ditched SALT II, Reagan offered genuine reductions under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), but movement from the Soviet side occurred only after the Reagan build up. Moreover, the powerful Trident submarines went on station under Reagan’s watch, and so, in a heartbeat of time, the window of vulnerability America found her self in under Carter slammed shut.
Speaking to the American Association of Evangelicals, Reagan gave it another twist when he told the audience that “appeasement is folly” and that they could not ignore the “aggressive impulses of an evil empire.” Intellectuals and the media were angered and dumbfounded by the speech, which was received quite differently behind the Iron Curtain. Two former Soviet historians later reminded westerners, “The Soviet Union finds life giving energy only in expansionism and an aggressive foreign policy.”
The “evil empire” speech paved the way for one of the most momentous events of the post WWII era. On March 23rd, 83, in a television address, after revealing previously classified photographs of new Soviet weapons and installations in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada, and reviewing the Soviet advantage in heavy missiles, Reagan surprised even many of his supporters by calling for a massive national commitment to build a defense against ballistic missiles. He urged scientists and engineers to use any and all new technologies, including, but not limited to, laser-beam weapons in space.
A hostile press immediately disparaged the program, calling it Star Wars, but unwittingly the media and critics had only underscored the moral superiority of the system. In the movie Star Wars everyone knew that Luke was the good guy and the evil empire was a decrepit and corrupt dictator, much like the Soviet tyrants. Reagan’s concept baffled reporters and Washington liberal elites who secretly viewed it as lacking sufficient intellectual weight. Stu Spencer, a political strategist, explained why Reagan was at once so popular with the public and so despised by the chattering classes: Reagan’s solutions to problems were always the same as the guy in the bar.”
The Gipper had always viewed MAD as an insane policy. He told Lou Cannon, “It’s like you and me sitting here in a discussion where we are each pointing a loaded gun at each other, and if you say anything wrong, or I say something wrong, we’re both going to pull the trigger.” As early as 1967 he had been asking scientists and engineers about the technology of defeating ICBMs with antimissiles. He found support from Admiral James Watkins, the chief of naval operations, a devout Catholic who hated MAD and was outraged by a pastoral letter from the U.S. Catholic bishops condemning the nuclear arms race without ever implicating the USSR as its cause. Watkins and army General John Vessey were encouraged to get beyond MAD thinking that had shackled the USA for 20 years.
Kremlin insiders were terrified about the proposed program, largely because they knew it would work. Since the early 70s, Soviet scientists and engineers had conducted a dedicated program of testing for ruby quartz lasers and charged particle beam weapons. When confronted by the massive cost of such weapons the Soviet Union gave up on lasers in favor of blunt instruments like the single warhead silo buster missiles. The SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) or Star Wars intended use was to render obsolete, once and for all, much of the USSR’s advantage in nuclear missiles.
Reagan and national security advisor, Robert McFarlane, both despised the MAD strategy, believing it was both immoral and destabilizing. It locked the country into a position of barely staying even with the Soviets instead of permitting opportunities to seek superiority. Once he and McFarlane agreed on SDI, it took only a year to flesh out and propose in a national policy initiative. Star Wars was an example of Reagan’s ability to grasp a big new idea, simplify it, and sell it to the American people with consummate skill. He wanted reductions, not limitations, but he knew that the Soviets would never negotiate while they held all the cards. Star Wars changed all that, literally in the space of an hour.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new general secretary of the Soviet Union, and was immediately celebrated in the western media as a new type of communist who, journalist contended, understood incentives. He was lauded as a sophisticated and sensible reformer; however, he differed little from his three predecessors. He did admit that the Soviet Union was in trouble. A dedicated Marxist-Leninist, married to a teacher of Marxism-Leninism, Gorbachev had no intention of abandoning the dream of victory over the West. When Gorbachev ascended to power, he intuitively concluded that the last hope of Soviet communism lay at “Euro missiles,” and Soviet propagandists mounted a massive campaign to intimidate the Europeans into demanding the removal of the NATO weapons. Soviet spy Vaili Mitrokhin reported that the KGB was confident it “possessed a nerve hold on Western public opinion when it came to European attitudes toward the United States and NATO.
Still attempting to shape American public opinion, the Soviet supported and funded the nuclear freeze movement, which sought to freeze all new construction or deployment of nuclear weapons, leaving the Soviets with a huge strategic advantage. This included a status quo ante, that would return Europe to its condition before the missiles were installed. Virtually the entire European left mobilized, using massive parades and demonstrations to intimidate the NATO governments.
Reagan appreciated Gorbachev’s position, and he sensed in him a Russian leader who could actually be approached on a personal level. In 85 at a Geneva meeting, Reagan managed to get Gorbachev away from his advisers, just the two men and their interpreters and he spoke plainly face to face. Reagan told Gorbachev bluntly, “You can’t win in an arms race”, then he offered the olive branch by inviting the Russian to America. Gorbachev accepted, and then insisted Reagan come to Moscow. Meeting privately the leaders of the two superpowers had accomplished far more than their advisers ever thought possible.
Not since 1972 had a starker contrast been put before the American electorate than in the election of 84. Reagan’s conservatism had ridden a wave of triumph since 1980. The tax cuts had produced a tremendous boom, the stock market had taken off, and the armed forces were resupplied and rearmed. More important the nation had shaken off much of the self doubt that had lingered since Vietnam and deepened under Carter. Reagan crushed Mondale, winning every state but Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, and nearly won there as well.
The phenomenal expansion put in place by the tax cuts in 81 had produced astonishing growth. Contrary to Reagan’s critics, who claim the “rich got rich and the poor got poorer,” the blessings reached across the entire racial and class strata of American life. From 82 to 88; per capita income for whites rose 14% and for blacks 18% compared to the Carter years of 2.4% for whites and 1% for blacks. Black unemployment was cut in half under Reagan, with 2.6 million African Americans joining the labor force, and the number of black families in the highest income bracket 50k and over rose by 86%.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan while visiting the Berlin Wall in one of history’s most memorable moments, he demanded, “Mr, Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”