Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and the Cold War

President Reagan’s Foreign Policy. President Reagan’s policy with regard to the Soviet Union was guided by what he called peace through strength. He continued President Carter’s policy of building up American defenses and placed intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. In 1983 he announced that the United States would develop a new high-tech defense system against intercontinental ballistic missiles. The controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as “Star Wars,” was a plan to use space-based weapons to intercept incoming missiles. Critics felt that the program would be excessively expensive and doubted that it would be technologically feasible. Supporters argued that Reagan’s hard-nosed approach to defense strengthened his position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

In fact, American defense spending placed a strain on an already struggling Soviet economy. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was therefore amenable to discussions regarding reductions in strategic arms and other agreements between the two superpowers. During his second term Reagan agreed to two treaties with the Soviets that significantly reduced nuclear armaments and rendered the Soviet Union less threatening to the United States. With his motto of “trust but verify,” President Reagan promised to be fair but firm in his dealings with the Soviets. He developed friendly personal relations with Chairman Gorbachev, whose visits to the United States resulted in very favorable coverage by the media.

President Reagan’s policies toward Latin America, while not as prominent as those of U.S.—Soviet relations, still played a significant role during the 1980s. When the government of the island of Grenada in the Caribbean was taken over by a leftist political party, neighboring countries requested intervention by the U.S. President Reagan sent United States forces to Grenada to protect American citizens and students threatened by the disturbances. They soon discovered large amounts of Soviet-made Cuban weapons and remained in Grenada for about two months. Democratic elections were held a few months later. The United States also intervened in El Salvador to assist of the democratic government, though violence continued in that country for some time.

In Nicaragua the United States supported the Contras—opponents of the left-wing Sandinista government. Although Congress officially ceased providing funds to the Contras in 1984, members of the administration continued sending arms to the Contras in secret. Although a congressional investigation led to the resignation or firing of administration officials, Congress found no reason to begin impeachment hearings against the president. The investigation determined that the United States government had secretly sold arms to Iran and used part of the funds from the arms sales to support the Nicaraguan Contras. The Iran-Contra scandal kept Americans glued to the television for a number of weeks.

In 1983 a terrorist bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, killed over 200 US Marines who had been sent to the country to help support a pro-western government. In 1986 American air forces bombed targets in Libya in response to a Libyan supported series of terrorist attacks against American military personnel stationed in Europe. In the Persian Gulf U.S. naval vessels helped keep shipping lanes open by protecting convoys in the region. In Asia, the democratic government Corazón Aquino replaced the dictatorship of Philippine Ferdinand Marcos. Under American pressure, South Africa began to end its policy of apartheid.

President Bush’s Foreign Policy. With the experiences of being director of the Central intelligence agency and vice president behind him, President Bush was well-prepared to continue overseeing progress toward the end of the Cold War. Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s struggles with the Soviet economy revealed the weakness inherent in the Soviet system. As communist governments in the Soviet bloc broke down Gorbachev found himself challenged by hardline Communists. Nevertheless he continued to advance his policies of economic reform called perestroika (restructuring) and increasing openness, called glasnost, to include things as freedom of the press.

President Bush met with Premier Gorbachev and helped oversee the end of the Cold War. The Berlin wall was torn down and East and West Germany were reunited in September 1990. The US and Russia—the Soviet Union no longer existed—also agreed to a reduction in nuclear weapons. The lowering of tension and the end of the period known as the “balance of terror” was offset by the fact that thousands of us who warheads existed and the threat of nuclear proliferation remained a concern to all nations. By 1991 Boris Yeltsin had gained control of the government and dissolved the Soviet Union.

The End of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War was not greeted with the same sort of public display of enthusiasm that accompanied the end of the Second World War. On the other hand, there was none of the bitterness that accompanied the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the only real high point of which had been the return of America’s prisoners of war from Hanoi. True, there was much excitement as German citizens and others smashed the Berlin wall to pieces, and certainly there were great feelings of relief among those who were now free to travel unimpeded into places that had been closed to them for decades. Although German reunification was seen as a happy event, the transition challenged the German government because of economic differences between the two regions.

See the Berlin Episodes of the Cold war Era.

Some American commentators were bothered by the fact that too few Americans seemed to know what had really been achieved. Having come through the time when the “balance of terror” never burst into a nuclear holocaust, Americans should have been on their knees thanking God or good fortune that the feared balloon had never gone up. Instead of celebrations, there was much somber reflection. As one historian wrote, “It is not certain that the United States won the Cold War. … It was Gorbachev and the East Europeans themselves, not the Americans, who rolled back the iron curtain and ended the cold war.”

Another commentator was skeptical of the unalloyed joy over the end of the Cold War. He claimed that the America foreign policy establishment was “stupefied by the pace of events … clinging to the remains of an obsolete strategy and incapable of defining a new one.” The End of the Cold War did call for a reevaluation of America’s role in the world. Soon enough, it would become apparent that forces still existed in the world capable to inflicting terrible casualties on other nations, whether or not they possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” a term that would emerge later in our history. The essential truth of the end of the Cold War remains the fact that thousands of nuclear weapons still exist, and it will require the most diligent application of the intelligence resources of the international community to prevent an act of nuclear terrorism.

Desert Storm. Focus on the end of the Cold War was diverted by the invasion of Kuwait conducted by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army in August, 1990. Iran and Iraq had been at war with each other throughout much of the 1980s, and the United States had generally maintained favorable relations with Iraq. The invasion of Kuwait, which was seen as a threat to Saudi Arabia, change the situation. A special session of the United Nations resulted in a series of resolutions condemning the Iraqi action and authorizing military responses.

President Bush called upon other nations to join in a coalition in preparation for driving in Iraq out of Kuwait. The president began dispatching thousands of American troops to Saudi Arabia in an operation called Desert Shield. The presence of American troops on Arabian soil raised issues with historic roots. When asked by an American news man how the Saudi government was dealing with the thousands of Americans in his nation, he responded that his government was trying to convince the Saudi people that the Americans were not crusaders. The significance of his reference to an event that had happened centuries earlier was lost on most Americans.

The issue of the deployment of American troops in combat was vigorously debated in Congress. Early in 1991 they passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to use armed force to restore Kuwaiti independence. American commanders skillfully planned an operation that resulted in the swift destruction of Iraqi forces, driving them out of Kuwait. Within a few days of the opening battles, President Bush declared that the objective of the war, to free Kuwait, had been achieved, and the fighting was halted. Saddam Hussein, however, was still in power, a fact that the next President George Bush would have to deal with. His repression of the Kurds in Northern Iraq and Shiites in the South and his defiance of the United Nations would lead to another confrontation a decade later.

President Bush also worked to reduce tension in the Middle East, overseeing the signing of an agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization at the White House in September, 1993. He also ordered the invasion of Panama and the seizure of General Manuel Noriega as part of his war on drugs. Noriega was later tried and convicted of drug trafficking in a U.S. Federal Court in Florida.

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