Reagan Doctrine

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The Reagan Doctrine was foreign policy doctrine, adopted in the second term of President Ronald Reagan designed to weaken the Soviet Union by targeting the overthrow of its weak allies in the Third World. Reagan's foreign policy could be summed up by his view of the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire" -- that is am illegitimate state. He rejected the détente policy that Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had pursued until 1979, when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan proved its failure. He long had opposed the containment strategy, which opposed additional expansion and led to wars of the enemy's choosing in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1962-1975). He instead proposed roll-back, a strategy to steadily reduce and eventually eliminate the Communist threat.

The policy was most fully implemented in the Afghanistan War (1978-1992), which was seen, by activists in the Reagan Administration, to have potential to be the Soviet equivalent of Vietnam — a constant drain on resources and a source of domestic turmoil. Much of the support to the Afghan resistance, generically called the mujahideen, was clandestine, channeled through Pakistan. It included support of the Taliban.

An activist anti-Communist policy was more visible and more controversial in Central America, where critics, especially Democrats in Congress, repeatedly warned it would lead to nuclear war and sought to block its implementation. Reagan supporters responded that the Soviets would not risk total destruction Russia--and its Communist system--merely to protect flimsy satellite states distant from Moscow. Reagan mustered his political strength in a see-saw battle with Congress, and generally won out even though he was weakened by the "Iran Contra" scandal. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew support for Soviet satellite governments in 1989, the entire Communist empire collapsed rapidly, with Cuba the only survivor.

American conservatives take credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist states from 1989 onward, which they see as the direct response to the failed attempt to match the US military build up compounded by disaster in Afghanistan.[1] Reagan's opponents downplay his role and emphasize the internal collapse of the Soviet economy.


In 1981 the new president rejected Henry Kissinger and other advocates of détente and brought in hard-liners, many of them previously associated with Democratic Senator Henry Jackson. The Reagan Doctrine in fact operated as early as 1981, without a name, but Reagan never planned to announce this doctrine publicly. Two months after Reagan declared in his 1985 State of the Union address that the United States should not "break faith" with anti-Communist resistance groups, Charles Krauthammer, a conservative political commentator first dubbed this declaration the "Reagan Doctrine". Krauthammer explained that the Reagan Doctrine proclaims overt but unashamed American support for anti-Communist revolution on the grounds of justice, necessity and democratic tradition.

Justice, said Reagan on Feb. 16 1985, because these revolutionaries are "fighting for an end to tyranny." Necessity, said Secretary of State George Shultz, because if these "freedom fighters" are defeated, their countries will be irrevocably lost behind an Iron Curtain of Soviet domination.[2] Reagan stressed the nation's traditional support for democracy worldwide, because to support "our brothers" in revolution is to continue &mdash' "in Afghanistan, in Ethiopia, Cambodia, Angola . . . and Nicaragua"--200 years of American support for "Simon Bolivar . . . the Polish patriots, the French Resistance and others seeking freedom."[3]

The Reagan administration's policies toward anti-Communist resistance groups varied far more than the term "Reagan Doctrine" suggested. There were differences in local conditions and US security interests as well as sharp disputes between administration policymakers produced divergent policies toward "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, and Cambodia during Reagan's presidency. The mujahideen who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan received substantial U.S. military aid, including sophisticated weapons, but the anti-Communist resistance in Cambodia got only small amounts of nonlethal supplies. The guerrillas fighting a Marxist regime in Angola eventually received U.S. help, but a similar movement in Mozambique that opposed a leftist government received no assistance from the Reagan administration. [4]

Strategic views

Under this view the Third World War was not just a possibility, but was currently taking place under the auspices of proxy governments and systematic attacks on the west by covert communist forces - a label given to any group struggling against an American ally (see Reagan and South Africa). Terrorism was seen as Soviet tool against the west, and therefore needed an appropriate response from the United States, something personified by the Reagan Doctrine, a pledge to assist any militant anti-communist forces in any red country. Throughout the Third World, Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored clandestine forces were unleashed against the weaker pro-Soviet governments; such as in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and in Afghanistan.

U.S. support was especially strong for the anti-Communist forces in the Afghanistan War (1978-1992); the policy was to support anyone who opposed the Soviets. First proposed during the Carter Administration, a much more activist position characterized the Reagan Doctrine. The Director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, saw the issue as purely anti-Soviet, without that terrorism might have other motivations such as Salafism.
We're arming the Afghans, right? Every time a mujahedin rebel kills a Soviet rifleman, are we engaged in assassination? This is a rough business. If were afraid to hit the terrorists because somebody's going to yell "assassination", it'll never stop. The terrorists will own the world.[5]

Many of the jihadists who attacked US targets from the early 1990s had been trained in Afghanistan.

Military buildup

Covert warfare was accompanied by a massive build up of American forces across the board, and a program of modernization and revitalization for the armed forces began in earnest. The US defense departments budget rose from $136 billion in 1980 to $244 billion in 1985, and that figure takes no account of related expenditures concealed by other departments, such as the department of energy.[6] Reagan's administrations financed its build-up by deficit spending on a massive scale. Even during the Vietnam War, the US had run up at most a deficit of some $25 billion in a single year, or some 3% of GNP. In 1969, the budget ran a surplus. Deficit spending ran at about on aver 5-6% of GNP in the Reagan era.[7]Total public debt doubled between 1980 and 1985 and in 1987 the US finally recorded a expenditures of over one trillion dollars. The American deficit crisis continues to loom to the modern era, all of which began as a result of Reagan's military spending spree. The economy, which was beset by low growth, high unemployment and high inflation in 1980, stabilized and fully recovered by 1984 as Reagan was reelected in a landslide.

This money bought a new generation of nuclear missiles intended for a nuclear war, not mere deterrence. Most feared were the intermediate Pershing and Cruise missiles which were installed in Western Europe in 1983. The deployment of these weapons sparked massive anti war demonstrations in Britain, West Germany, Italy and other countries, which didn't want to serve in the 'European theatre' in the event of Nuclear war. Also around the time Reagan announced the beginning of a program of ballistic missile defense systems, known as the "Strategic Defense Initiative", or, popularly, "Star Wars", which increased the panic of the Soviets leadership about their nations vulnerability, whatever its feasibility. The Soviets shot down a Korean airliner that had drifted into its space in the belief that this was an American test of radar defenses prior to an American nuclear assault in 1983.

Central America

The new policy of confrontation was also evident in what American conservatives called their 'backyard'; in Central America and the Caribbean which had replaced South East Asia as the primary Cold War battlefield. Radical regimes established themselves in the 1970s in Nicaragua and Grenada, and by 1980 civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala seemed likely to increase Soviet influence in a region traditionally under the influence of the US as far back the Presidency of James Monroe.

Reagan reversed Carters policy of restraint in the region, pouring in aid to support the military establishments of the front line nations. This received criticism when the pro US regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala committed brutal atrocities. There were massacres and death squads aimed at anyone from a Liberal, moderate or pro-Labour position, and especially against indigenous Indian populations.


In 1981 Robert McFarlane, then assistant to the Secretary of State proposed a coordinated covert political, economic, and military approach to the pro-Communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the insurgency in El Salvador. His proposal was approved in January, 1982, in "National Security Directive 17," which provided for a $20 million program against the Sandinista government and gave the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) responsibility for organizing a five-hundred-man "interdiction" force.[8] Democrats in Congress began voicing opposition in 1982; Reagan and Congress were in constant battle until 1987, when all five Central American heads of state signed a peace accord. Scholars debate whether it was the military role of the contras that brought about the negotiations, or the economic restrictions on Nicaragua, or the pressure from other nations. The Sandinistas and Contras signed a cease-fire agreement in 1988, and in 1991 democratic elections overthrew the Sandinista regime.[9]

Grenada 1983

A 1983 military coup in Grenada provided an opportunity for American troops to occupy it, leaving Nicaragua and Cuba the only socialist regimes left in the region. This attitude helped mold America's evolving anti terrorist policy, with the willingness to strike directly at terrorist sponsor states in spite of international law as displayed by the US bombing of Libya in 1986, Operation ELDORADO CANYON.

Middle East

Another arena of the Reagan Doctrines confrontation of communism was in the Middle East. Communist forces were seen as the driving force of the Lebanese Civil wars. US forces were in Beirut in 1982/1983 which brought them into direct conflict with Islamist forces, as in the 1983 bombing of embassies in Beirut.

During the early 1980s, Islamic militants took hostage a number of American and West Europeans. This problem produced a confrontation between the Administration and Congress. With the Boland Amendment, Congress had barred the funding of the Nicaraguan rebels. The Administration worked around this restriction by selling weapons to Irans.

In about 1985, some of the profits of the arrangement with Iran were diverted to fund the Contras of Nicaragua, which the US Congress had refused to support in light of their repeated atrocities. The Executive branch of the Federal government was therefore able to use illegally funded money to support an illegal war in Nicaragua, causing constitutional problems and questions still not rectified to this day. Reagan managed to, in one way or the other increase the power of the office of President enormously. The affair came to light in November 1986 and the 'Iran-Contra' affair dominated headlines for years afterwards. This gave ample grounds to Democrats to impeach the President and his advisers, but were nervous about tackling a widely popular President and the Congressional investigations were therefore very restrained. Reagan succeeded in serving the rest of his term without the political crisis that seemed inevitable in 1986/1987.


The mid-1980s rhetoric of anticommunism, support to freedom fighters and the Reagan Doctrine became the key drivers for United States policy towards Angola during the Reagan presidency. American and South African diplomatic and military backing for the anticommunist guerrillas was the main factor behind Moscow's policy reversal in Angola.[10]


  1. Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1994)
  2. George P. Shultz, "America and the Struggle for Freedom," Department of State Bulletin 85 (April 1985): 16-21.
  3. Charles Krauthammer, "The Reagan Doctrine Time Apr. 1, 1985 online
  4. Chester Pach, "The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy." Presidential Studies Quarterly 2006 36(1): 75-88.
  5. Steve Coll (2004), Ghost Wars: the Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Penguin, pp. 280-283
  6. Phillip Jenkins; A History of the United States (2003), p. 291
  7. Phillip Jenkins; A History of the United States (2003), p. 291
  8. See Portions online
  9. James M. Scott, "Interbranch Rivalry and the Reagan Doctrine in Nicaragua." Political Science Quarterly 1997 112(2): 237-260.
  10. William Pascoe (February 12, 1988), In Southern Africa, The State Department Bets Against the Reagan Doctrine, Heritage Foundation