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Undoubtedly, the foreign policy of the United States has been marked by its multi-faceted scope of intentions, policy shifts, and images throughout the last two centuries. Though it remains a relatively young country, it has been a major factor in weighing the balance of power in the world, during peacetime and in periods of war. Ronald Reagan, perhaps more than any other president of the United States, has shifted this balance of power to a point where the international community is no longer divided in two. This makes him, from a foreign policy perspective, one of the most interesting presidents in the history of the United States.

In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine advocated American isolationism. Then came the Truman Doctrine. A few decades later, the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities succeeded that of the United States’, SALT II was a failure, and the domino effect assured the collapse of democracies around the world. Thus was the situation when Ronald Reagan assumed power in 1981. Immediately, though, the newly initiated president took a much harder approach to communism. He was incredulous of containment policy (1), reluctant to negotiate treaties with the Soviet leaders on the basis of distrust, and, as opposed to former presidents, regarded the Cold War as winnable. This brought about the space program SDI. His anti-Soviet rhetoric reflected his innate desire to depart from d tente, and embark on a much sterner course. In the first few years of his presidency, military spending reached levels not seen since the Korean War, American-Soviet relations were cold indeed, and the prospects of arms limitations seemed dim. Reagan’s clearest departure from 1970’s policy was to be found in what some observers dubbed the Reagan doctrine. The Reagan doctrine was premised on the assumption that direct military, economic and political pressure against communist governments, would strain the Soviet Union’s military and economic system to a point where they could not compete.

The questions remain, however: what were Reagan’s initial policies towards the Soviet Union, how did he seek to realize these intentions, and what were the successes and failures that followed in their wake. To answer these, investigation must be made into the nature of his political character, with particular focus on speeches and comments made during his presidency. Furthermore, inquiry will be made into the, in my opinion, most important aspects of Ronald Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union: arms control (Negotiating With the Soviet Union), SDI, and the Reagan doctrine. Together, they give a representative picture of his foreign policy, and the means by which to answer the above questions. Additionally, I will investigate whether Reagan actually set a new tone in the US-Soviet relationship.

There shall remain no doubt, though: when Reagan left office in 1989, the world was in a state of transition. The break-up of the Soviet Republic would soon become a reality, the United States would be the only superpower in the world, and the threat of nuclear war would be greatly reduced. The whole extent of Ronald Reagan’s role in implementing these matters is, of course, not possible to discern entirely. However, I am convinced he played quite an important part the motivation for developing this homepage.


The perceptions of Ronald Reagan as a political figure and a foreign policy maker are numerous.

He was seen by some, as an “ideological cold warrior”, by others such as Margaret Thatcher, as a savior, the man who “won the cold war without firing a shot.”(2) The plethora of opinions and ideas concerning the president are, however, fully justifiable. There is probably no other president in history who has been accused of, not only radically changing his stance throughout his presidency, but also of being a man of bigotry. Some critics were thus concerned about the prospect of having a president who had “prejudices about the Soviet Union.”(3) Ronald Reagan’s macro management of government affairs and foreign matters led many of his critics, and even some of his supporters to severely criticize him for carelessness, and not being able to fully comprehend world politics. Leslie Gelb described it as thus: “the President’s ideas about the world situation are from his life, his personal history, rather than study.”(4)

He was a passionate conservative, blunt and direct in his political speeches, and more often than not, took to applying anti-Soviet rhetoric to an unheard-of degree: “Let’s not delude ourselves, the Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world.”(5) Ronald Reagan’s dedication to freedom, and his apathy for communism was continuously reflected by his actions and his addresses to Congress and the American public. He was, in short, a hard-liner on communism, intent to “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”(6)

His primary goals in regards to communism can be traced back a long way. In a 1962 speech, at which time he was governor of California, he described the political system of the Soviet Union as “a single world-wide force dedicated to the destruction of our free enterprise system and the creation of a Socialist State.”(7) This approach to the Soviet system is affirmed and consolidated by speeches made throughout his presidency. The speeches are essential to understanding Reagan the politician, and Reagan the ideologue, for they not only present us with his intentions, but indeed also the ideals and the means by which he expected to realize these. Several themes recur throughout his speeches, and will here be discussed in further detail.


As the Soviet Union acquired the ability to produce the nuclear bomb in 1949, the security of being the world’s sole nuclear power suddenly vanished. The threat posed by two nations having nuclear weapons would eventually lead to a policy of deterrence. Essentially, the focal point of this policy was retaliation – if one nation launched a nuclear attack, the other nation would retaliate. The result being: mutual destruction. The contingency of mutual destruction, or “Mutually Assured Destruction”, held the United States and the Soviet Union in a prolonged state of “check”, and consequentially, contained the possibility of any one nation starting a nuclear war.

Ronald Reagan recognized the policy of deterrence as a workable solution to the “stand-off” between the two superpowers. In the speech on “National Defense and Security” this becomes clear, as he describes the policy as having promoted “stability through offensive threat.”(8) Even though the policy “has worked”(9), Ronald Reagan’s personal stance on the issue is well expressed by the following allegory, which is probably inspired by his time in motion pictures: “It was like having two Westerners standing in a saloon aiming their guns at each others heads – permanently. There had to be a better way.”(10) His hopes are “that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence.”(11) Ronald Reagan’s conviction that deterrence was absurd, and his intention of freeing the world from nuclear threat became one of the centerpieces of his foreign policy. It was a visible indication of wanting to take a different approach in dealing with the Soviet Union; a clear repudiation of what every president since World War II had embraced. An embrace which Ronald Reagan would not sustain. In the speech on “Defense and National Security”, he states:

My predecessors in the Oval Office have appeared before you on other occasions to describe the threat posed by Soviet power and have proposed steps to address that threat. But since the advent of nuclear weapons, those steps have been increasingly directed toward deterrence of aggression through the promise of retaliation.(12)


Enormous amounts of money were allocated for the military in the first few years of Reagan’s

presidency. In fact, defense spending increased by 7 percent a year from 1981 to 1985. The

Pentagon’s share of the federal budget rose from 23 to a staggering 27 percent.(13) This massive

increase in the defense budget was necessary, in order to “make America strong again after too

many years of neglects and mistakes.”(14) This assertion by Ronald Reagan was made in the

speech on “National Defense and Security.” Ronald Reagan furthermore justified the necessity to

rearm by stressing the inferiority of the United States’ armed forces, when compared to the Soviet

Union’s: “in virtually every measure of military power the Soviet Union enjoys a decided

advantage.”(15) This view marked a change of tone in relation to earlier presidents, who were

mostly concerned about maintaining d tente at any cost – much to the frustration of Ronald

Reagan. The build-up and modernization of the military also gave credibility to Ronald Reagan’s

desire to bargain from a position of strength: “With their [the Soviet Union's] present margin of

superiority, why should they agree to arms reductions.”(16)


Trade agreements, technology transfer, and economic aid to the Soviet Union were all advocated

during the age of d tente. By making the Soviet Union dependent on American goodwill and

research, the different administrations had hoped to gain leverage in arms control agreements and

exert influence on the Soviet economy. Unfortunately, this leverage policy was largely unsuccessful:

at the end of the Carter Presidency, little progress had been made in the way of limiting nuclear

weapons (Carter’s SALT II treaty was proposed to limit the rate of increase in offensive arsenals,

but was never ratified by Congress), and the United States were spending an enormous amount of

money. Ronald Reagan took an entirely different approach: by denying the Soviet Union

economic(17) and technological aid, he believed their domestic situation would be worsened –

participating in an arms race would then become even more strenuous. Ronald Reagan states:

“How long can the Russians keep on being so belligerent and spending so much on the arms race

when they can’t even feed their own people.”(18) The Russian view of this policy change is revealed

by Gorbachev’s advisor: “you’re trying to destroy our economy, to interfere with our trade, and

make us inferior in the strategic field.”(19)


Freedom as an ideological constituent to counter the evils of the world, was prominent in many of

Ronald Reagan’s speeches. Although the term “freedom” as such is rather vague, it is necessary to

touch upon it here, as Ronald Reagan sometimes used it to justify the need to subvert communist

governments around the world. Furthermore, Marxism as a hindrance for remaining “free, secure

and at peace.”(20) was often highlighted by the president. Ronald Reagan stretches this rhetoric in a

speech to the National Heritage foundation, proposing action to “go on the offensive with a

forward strategy for freedom.”(21) In President Reagan’s first inaugural address, he states: “We will

again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have

freedom.”(22) This categorization was symptomatic of Ronald Reagan, and undeniably suggested

communism as being amoral (Reagan once bluntly remarked that there was no word for ‘freedom’

in Russian)(23), and the Western civilization (the free civilizations) as being economically and

politically superior. At the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan says:

In the 1950’s, Krushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” But in the West today, we see a free world [emphasis added] that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind – too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself….Freedom leads to prosperity….Freedom is the victor.(24)


As stated earlier, several themes recur throughout the speeches of Ronald Reagan. Through a close examination of his speeches, I have hereby found four themes which are highlighted and touched upon more prominently than others. The categorization of these will allow for the drawing of a thread from each of these ideologies to actual policies, and put his intentions into perspective: The first concerns President Reagan’s dislike of deterrence and MAD. This would eventually lead to the controversial space program, SDI. SDI, as will be discussed later, had far-reaching effects. The second major theme stresses the need for a larger defense budget. This raised the stakes of the arms race, forced the Soviet Union into increasing their own military expenses, and gave the United States renewed power in arms negotiations. The third was the policy of denial. This was commenced to compel the Soviet Union to lower its defense budget. In an arms control context, it bought the United States “time” to build up its defenses. The fourth was the concept of freedom. Freedom as a policy procured the subversion of communist governments, and painted a picture of the Soviet Union as inherently evil. This led to the Reagan Doctrine.

These four thematic factors all have two common denominators: to pressurize the Soviet Union, and to indicate a change in policy – the central thrusts of the Reagan administration’s intentions.


Arms negotiations seemed to have a very bleak future in 1981, as SALT II was passed unto Ronald Reagan from the Carter administration. When questioned about the future of the treaty, Reagan responded: “this bird is not a very friendly bird…the limitations in that agreement would allow in the life of the treaty for the Soviet Union to just about double their nuclear capability.”(25) This does not indicate, as some observers have noted, a reluctance to engage in arms talks. Instead, it suggests an unwillingness to negotiate when the terms were unfavorable or contradicted the direction Ronald Reagan was taking – the Reagan administration was interested in a treaty reducing strategic weapons – not limiting them. The acronym was therefore altered from SALT to START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). In his last speech on foreign policy, Ronald Reagan advises, in retrospect:

Trust but verify. It means keeping our military strong. It means remembering no treaty is better than a bad treaty. It means remembering the accords of Moscow and Washington summits followed many years of standing firm on our principles(26)

The policy of denial did nothing to foster Soviet-American arms negotiations. With the announcement of SDI, the verisimilitude of serious arms reductions was even gloomier. When the Soviet delegation walked out of Geneva in 1983, Professor Seweryn Bialer reported that the Soviet leaders “had concluded that any attempt to improve relations [with the Reagan administration] would be futile.” He goes on to say that the mood in Moscow was “very, very negative.”(27) The situation in 1984 represented the worst in Soviet-American relations during the Reagan Presidency. One observer reported that the atmosphere between the two superpowers was “as bad as it’s been in my memory.” (28) Nevertheless, 1984 marked a new beginning between the United States and Russia. In the address on “The US-Soviet Relationship,” Ronald Reagan declares: “We must and will engage the Soviets in a dialogue as serious and constructive as possible, a dialogue that will serve to promote peace.”(29) Indeed, this sudden change in tone toward the Soviet Union represented the most significant shift during the Reagan Presidency. What brought about this shift in mood is uncertain. One possible explanation is the strengthened position of the US armed forces which, as previously stated, were modernized. Ronald Reagan states: “I believe that 1984 finds the United States in its strongest position [militarily] in years to establish a constructive and realistic working relationship with the Soviet Union.”(30) Undeniably, the address took place shortly before the presidential election; Ronald Reagan may have conveyed the message of wanting to pursue peace negotiations in order to win votes.

The succession of Chernenko by Gorbachev increased the possibility of arms negotiations. Gorbachev was not a hard-line communist, but a moderate, intent on reforms. The first summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev took place in Geneva. Despite the fact that little success was made in the way of actual arms control, Ronald Reagan seemed intent on pursuing serious arms negotiations. The summits between Gorbachev and Reagan, which took place from 1985 to 1988, were milestones in the Reagan presidency. The anti-Soviet rhetoric, so common in the beginning of the 1980s, became more and more seldom. Ronald Reagan, however, never departed from his conviction that “no treaty is better than a bad treaty”:

the Soviets said they would return to the bargaining table, but only to talk about banning space weapons: when that failed, they agreed to resume START and INF talks, but only if they were linked to a ban on SDI; when that failed, they agreed to ‘delink’ the negotiations and reach a separate INF accord, but only covering Europe; when that failed, they agreed to ban medium range missiles world-wide.(31)

The signing of the INF treaty in 1988 became one of Ronald Reagan’s lasting achievements. For the first time in history, a nuclear treaty banning an entire class of nuclear weapons was signed. This development is a stark contrast to the anti-Soviet rhetoric used in many of his speeches, and the dismal situation in 1984. Still, it is necessary to take into consideration Ronald Reagan’s desire to bargain from a position of strength, and the shift in tone which took place when Premier Mikael Gorbachev replaced Chernenko. Ronald Reagan regarded Mikael Gorbachev as sincere (32), and Margaret Thatcher described him as a man with whom it was possible “to do business.” The Gorbachev Doctrine (Perestroika and Glasnost) reflected a desire to move away from the sterility that had marked Soviet-American relations. Thus, the credit, if it is due, must be shared by Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.


The application of the Truman doctrine against Korea and Vietnam was, in short, not very successful. In fact, some observers spoke of a “Vietnam complex” in the years after the Vietnam war. Ronald Reagan inherited this complex, but as already stated, laid the foundation for a renewed sense of confidence in the military and the American public. The Reagan Doctrine was implemented as an alternative to containment which had been a failure, and to rebut the Brezhnev doctrine; the Sovietization of the third world had to be reversed. In 1981, Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state, stated that the Soviets had to be convinced “that their time of un-resisited adventuring in the Third World was over.”(52) In the president’s “February 1985 State of the Union Address”, President Reagan affirms:

We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives…on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua …to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense(53)

This, in essence, was the Reagan Doctrine: economic and political support for insurgent movements in third world countries where Marxism had been instigated. Contrary to earlier doctrines, such as the Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter doctrines which “were concerned with prevention, the Reagan approach emphasized cure.”(54)

The Reagan Doctrine can lay claim to having had limited success; when applied against Afghanistan, it was successful – it sent the Soviet Union “a warning” and, once again, indicated a willingness to back the hard-lined rhetoric with action. In Kampuchea, the Vietnamese withdrew their forces. When applied against Nicaragua, however, the result was a nasty blow to the Reagan administration – it portrayed the Reagan administration as unreliable, and the inability to overthrow the Sandinista regime is a standing monument of failure.


To uncover the entire spectrum of Ronald Reagan’s impact on the Soviet Union, a detailed analysis of the Soviet economic and political situation in the 1980s would have been necessary. However, as stated in the introduction, this was not my purpose. The aim was, through the establishment of Reagan’s intentions in regard to the Soviet Union – and the policies which were a result thereof to find out if Reagan actually did set a new tone in the American-Soviet relationship.

Reagan could claim to have succeeded in bringing about a considerable change in policy. He came to the White House thinking that his “predecessors in the Oval Office” had disregarded the nation’s armed forces, and been too idle in the battle against persevering Soviet expansionism. The ingrained policy of containment needed to be superseded by a more decisive and forceful approach – the Reagan doctrine; communist regimes in the third world were to be subverted by providing military and economic assistance to partisans sympathetic to the United States. The Reagan administration thus played an active part in countering Soviet influence in Afghanistan. However, when applied against Central America, the doctrine was not successful. This proved to be a nasty blow to the administration: the United States faded in the eyes of the world. Furthermore, as the Soviets only understood the language of bellicosity, the United States needed to build up its defenses, not solely for the sake of rearming, but as a means of getting the Soviet

Union back to the bargaining table on terms favorable to the Reagan administration. INF is the prime result of this, and marked the entry into a new era of negotiations; START was signed in 1989 by President Bush, the foundation of the treaty laid out by Ronald Reagan. Two years later, the Cold War was officially over. In spite of his belligerent rhetoric, Reagan was dismayed by the prospects of the policy of deterrence and “Mutually Assured Destruction”, and was concerned about the need of ridding the world of the peril of nuclear weapons – a predicament that eventually led him to make SDI, or “Star Wars”, the focal point of his nuclear strategy. Many critics challenged the judgment of these policy shifts and, as is depicted from the paper, not all of them were fully effectuated. Nonetheless, tangible movements in the directions taken by Reagan did materialize – movements characterized, not so much by their short-term achievements, as by their lasting effects. What I am pointing to is, of course, that a policy change did transpire when Reagan assumed power; this is his most lasting achievement, and I have, through an examination of Ronald

Reagan’s intentions and policies, found that a prominent alteration of policy took place in the Reagan Presidency

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