Born 6 February 1911, Ronald Reagan was only a few days short of his seventieth birthday when, on 20 January 1981, he became the fortieth and oldest president in US history.
The period of détente, the easing of East-West relations, particularly between the US and the Soviet Union, was drawing to a close amid increasing Cold War tension. Soviet forces had just invaded Afghanistan, resulting in the US, under President Jimmy Carter, boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
Reagan, a fervent anti-communist, had campaigned on an anti-detente ticket. What was détente, asked Reagan rhetorically in 1978: “Isn’t that what a turkey has with his farmer until Thanksgiving Day?”
On coming to office, having easily beaten Carter in the 1980 presidential elections, Reagan went straight onto the offensive, increasing military spending, and calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Of course, such language did nothing to improve the already deteriorating situation. The Soviet Union accused the new US president of thinking “only in terms of confrontation”.
The ash-heap of history
Speaking to the UK Parliament in June 1982, the first US president to do so, Reagan spoke of the “forward march of freedom and democracy [which] will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” He considered negotiations with the Russians a sign of feebleness, and criticized the lack of free elections in Eastern Europe: “Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”
In 1983 Reagan predicted “communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written”.
Reagan initiated a defensive anti-missile system in space, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or, as nicknamed, ‘Star Wars’), aimed at neutralizing incoming Soviet missiles. The technology needed for such an ambitious project had not yet been developed.
Although incredibly expensive and ultimately futile, Reagan’s SDI program and his aggressiveness shocked the Soviet Union who were unable, economically, to match the US in Reagan’s rapid escalation of the arms race. The cost of being a superpower was crippling for the Soviet Union – commitment to conventional and nuclear arms, the funding of communist regimes elsewhere in the world, and the costly and unpopular war in Afghanistan were all taking its toll on the economy and the everyday lives of the Soviet citizen.
The ‘Reagan Doctrine’
Ronald Reagan won a second term as president, winning the November 1984 presidential election with 525 of 538 electoral votes, the largest number ever won by a US presidential candidate, and carrying 49 of the 50 US states, only the second US president to do so. (Richard Nixon being the first in 1972).
Unlike his predecessors, containment of communism wasn’t enough for Reagan – he wanted to destroy it wherever possible. The ‘Reagan Doctrine’ provided support, financially and militarily, for anti-communist fighters throughout Africa, Asia and particularly in Latin America, in an attempt to “roll back” communism.
With the Soviet Union embroiled in Afghanistan since 1979, its ‘Soviet Vietnam’, Reagan provided the Mujahedeen, fighting the Soviets, cash, arms and training.
Reagan and Gorbachev
Following the deaths of three aging Soviet leaders in quick succession (Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, Yuri Andropov in 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko in 1985), Reagan quipped how could he meet with the Russians if “they keep dying on me?” But with the appointment in March 1985 of 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan saw the possibility of a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
As Gorbachev introduced domestic reform and greater openness, Reagan’s bullish stance softened. He began to see the Cold War in terms of the ordinary citizen, “the Ivan and Anya and the Jim and Sally” who, through their ordinary lives, had more in common within their domestic lives than to worry about their respective governments and their differing ideologies.
Reagan and Gorbachev first met in Geneva in November 1985 to discuss reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Over the next three years, despite their ideological differences, the two men found a diplomatic and personal meeting of the minds. Further summits took place and finally, in December 1987, agreed the INF Treaty (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces), the first agreement on actually reducing nuclear weapons. (Pictured: Reagan and Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty, 8 December 1987).
Tear down this wall
Visiting Berlin in June 1987, Reagan delivered a speech at the Berlin Wall in which he urged the Soviet leader, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Twenty-nine months later, the wall came down.
Visiting Moscow in 1988, Reagan was asked by a Russian journalist whether if he still viewed the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. “No”, Reagan replied. “I was talking about another time, another era.”
After two terms as president, Reagan retired, replaced by his vice president, George Bush, Snr. In his Farewell Address, he said, “Man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.”
Ronald Reagan died, aged 93, on 5 June 2004.
Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour.
and The Afghan Wars: History In An Hour both by Rupert Colley, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60, and as downloadable audio.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.