As a teenager growing up in 1980s Australia, my generation was constantly bombarded by the media that the world was destined for nuclear holocaust because of the Cold War showdown between the United States and the Soviet Bloc. The then US President Ronald Reagan, a former B-grade Hollywood actor, was painted as a loopy politician who could not differentiate between reality and an old film script.
But with hindsight, was the 40th President of the United States (1981-89) correct in his handling of world events, namely the dismantling of Communism and confronting Middle East and North African “mad dog” leaders?
Teddy Roosevelt, US President from 1901-09, believed in “speak softly and carry a big stick” in foreign policy. But could we summarise Reagan’s doctrine as “speak loudly and carry a medium sized stick?”
Some have credited Reagan with “winning” the Cold War (1947-89) by draining the Soviet Union’s resources with his elaborate but science fiction Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), commonly known as “Star Wars.” Star Wars would see the US use satellites to block Soviet Nuclear missiles from hitting the US. In order to counter Star Wars the Soviets would have to spend billions in acquiring the technology.
In a 1983 speech with Biblical overtones, Reagan preached:
So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
Moreover, Reagan supported covert aid to Islamic resistance fighters or Holy War warriors (mujahaddin) in Afghanistan, which was invaded by the Soviets in 1979. The Soviet’s Afghan War lasted nearly a decade and finally ended when the reform minded Mikhail Gorbachev pulled the plug on a disastrous intervention.
The downside of US support to the mujahaddin was the inadvertent growth of Al Qaeda, now fighting a war by terror against Washington. America as well as its two allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, provided money, training and weapons to those groups whom later evolved into Al Qaeda.
Reagan came unto the political scene when an America was perceived as being impotent on the foreign stage, after the debacle of the Vietnam War (1962-72), the 1979 kidnapping of US diplomats in Iran during the Shiite Islamic revolution led by cleric the Ayatollah Khomeini, which overthrew the Shah, and the subsequent but failed US military attempt to save the diplomats.
To shake off the Vietnam syndrome, Reagan authorised the military invasion of neighbouring Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983 to overthrow a ‘Marxist’ government aligned with arch nemesis Cuba, an ally of the Soviet Union.
No doubt the former actor would have appreciated how this was reflected in popular culture at the time. In a 1987 war movie, Heartbreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood plays US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Highway, who bemoans the fact he has a 0-1-1 record. That is one draw in Korea and a loss in Vietnam and would want to retire with one victory, Grenada, under his belt.
Days before Grenada, the President’s act tough foreign policy backfired when 241 US Marines were killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut, Lebanon. Despite pledging to stay on, Reagan later withdrew the troops. The spectre of body bags from an earlier Southeast Asian war would have played on his mind.
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