When Ronald Reagan took his oath of office as commander-in-chief in January 1981, he inherited a military that was still struggling to overcome the severe damage inflicted by the Vietnam War, which had ended in defeat in 1975. For fifteen long years leading up that date, American soldiers had borne the brunt of a demoralizing and ultimately fruitless campaign to prop up our country's anticommunist allies in Vietnam's civil war. More than 57,000 American servicemen ultimately died in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and much of the American military's fighting spirit and effectiveness died with them. Billions of dollars worth of equipment and munitions were destroyed in the fighting, while an unpopular draft filled the ranks with soldiers who didn't want to be there, sapping morale. Many of the best and brightest men of the junior officer corps left the force in disgust and exhaustion, robbing the military brass of a generation of promising young leaders. Prolonged inability to conquer a seemingly overmatched enemy left many in the military doubting—perhaps for the first time—their own capabilities. Thus the U.S. Army that left Vietnam in defeat in 1975 was but a shell of the formidable force that had entered the conflict with such confidence a decade and a half earlier.
Things didn't get much better in the late 1970s, as the United States found itself virtually impotent in the face of rapidly proliferating threats to its security. President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977 promising to pursue a foreign policy built around universal human rights rather than the narrow interests of Cold War realpolitik. The Nixon/Ford Administration's policy of détente had succeeded in opening up friendly relations with Communist China and lessening tensions with the Soviet Union. The prospect of the Cold War exploding into World War III seemed less threatening than at any time since 1948. Carter hoped to use this moment of opportunity to shift America's foreign policy further away from confrontation with foreign enemies and toward a more proactive pursuit of positive aims. Instead, by 1979, the Cold War came roaring back with a vengeance, alongside new threats from Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East. These new foreign challenges overwhelmed and undermined the Carter presidency.
1979 was a terrible year for Jimmy Carter and for America's interests in the world.
January brought the fall of the Shah of Iran, a pro-American dictator who had long served as an anticommunist ally in the Middle East. The Iranian people, however, had come to despise the Shah for his autocratic rule, and many blamed the United States for propping up his antidemocratic regime. The Shah's government ultimately fell to fundamentalist Islamic revolutionaries, who built an uncompromising new political and social structure upon the principles of sharia law and denounced America as "the Great Satan."
In March, Marxist revolutionaries staged a successful revolution in the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, which had been a British colony until 1974. Though Grenada—just twenty miles wide and home to only 100,000 people—was hardly a nation of great strategic significance, the unexpected success of a Communist revolution in an English-speaking country so close to the United States came as a shock to American policy-makers.
The impression that Communism was suddenly on the march in the Western Hemisphere only grew stronger in July, when the Marxist Sandinista insurgents overthrew the long-established Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. The Carter Administration had been critical of Somoza's human-rights abuses, but it was far from happy to see Somoza replaced by Cuban-backed Communist militants.
In November, the situation in Iran grew infinitely more dire. Young Islamic revolutionaries—infuriated by the Carter Administration's decision to admit the exiled Shah, who had been sentenced in absentia to death by an Iranian court, into the United States to receive medical treatment for cancer—stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, seizing 52 American citizens as hostages and demanding that the United States extradite the Shah to their custody in exchange for the hostages' freedom.
Finally, just when it seemed that things couldn't get any worse, late December brought a full-fledged Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan. Though the government in Moscow claimed that its forces had been sent into Afghanistan only at the request of Afghanistan's own Communist government, the images of Red Army tanks streaming into the sovereign territory of a neighboring country to stamp out anticommunist opposition brought back bad memories of the darkest days of the early Cold War.
From Afghanistan to Iran, Grenada to Nicaragua, it suddenly seemed that Communism and anti-Americanism were on the march all around the globe—and neither the Carter Administration nor the enfeebled U.S. military seemed capable of doing anything about it. The Sandinistas quickly consolidated their power in Nicaragua while the Carter Administration struggled to formulate a proper diplomatic response. The only retaliation Carter could mount against the Soviets for their invasion of Afghanistan was a toothless verbal condemnation in the United Nations and a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. (Many Americans felt that the main victims of the boycott were not the Russians but instead innocent American athletes, who lost a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete for gold medals.) Even tiny Grenada was able to thumb its nose at its powerful American neighbor with seeming impunity; "No country has the right to tell us what to do or how to run our country or who to be friendly with," Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop declared after defying American orders by establishing an alliance with Fidel Castro's Cuba. "We are not in anybody's backyard, and we are definitely not for sale. Anybody who thinks they can bully us or threaten us has no understanding, idea, or clue as to what material we are made of."12
Defiant words from Marxist revolutionaries on the tiny island of Grenada were aggravating, but the blow that truly crippled Jimmy Carter's presidency came from the ongoing hostage situation in Iran. The American people, understandably, demanded the immediate release of their innocent countrymen, and their frustration grew more and more pronounced as the American hostages' lives continued to hang in limbo throughout 1980. (The TV news program "Nightline" debuted in 1979 as a daily special report on the hostage crisis; the show's original title was "America Held Hostage: Day X," where X was the number of days that had passed since the occupation of the embassy. The show began on Day 4, and by the time the hostages were finally freed on Day 444, Jimmy Carter's ruined presidency would be over.) For several months, Carter worked to secure the hostages' release through secret diplomatic negotiations. When those failed, he authorized Operation Eagle Claw, a challenging April 1980 special-ops rescue mission in which a small force of elite soldiers carried in American helicopters were supposed to fly into Tehran under cover of darkness to extract the hostages. But the operation ended in disaster when American aircraft attempting to rendezvous at a staging area inside Iran crashed into each other in a dust storm. After the deadly mishap—which resulted in the loss of eight American lives, seven helicopters and one C-130 cargo plane—the mission had to be aborted before American forces even got far enough into the country to encounter Iranian resistance. The next day, Carter had to make a humiliating announcement to the American people, revealing that eight Americans had lost their lives in a mission that involved no combat and failed to rescue any hostages. The debacle seemed to prove that neither Carter nor his military were up to the task of protecting the American people.
For 444 long days, stretching from November 1979 into January 1981, the United States was shown to be incapable of doing anything to rescue its captured citizens. Carter's seeming impotence throughout the Iran hostage crisis caused his public approval to plummet, all but guaranteeing his crushing defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in the presidential election of 1980. In a final kick in the teeth to Jimmy Carter's pride and reputation, the Iranian government agreed at last to release all the hostages on 20 January 1981—Ronald Reagan's inauguration day.
Ronald Reagan swept into the White House promising to end the weakness of the Carter era by restoring the United States to military greatness. As a candidate in 1980, he had vowed to end what he called the "Vietnam syndrome" by restoring the nation's confidence in the military (and the military's confidence in itself). Reagan promised a policy of "peace through strength," believing that only by building up American armed forces strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union could the United States deter the Communists from instigating World War III. Upon taking office in 1980, Reagan dramatically increased spending on the military, telling planners at the Pentagon, "Defense is not a budget item. You spend what you need."13
The result was a huge buildup in the country's armed forces. Spending on the military increased by hundreds of billions of dollars under Reagan's watch, with most of the increased spending pouring into research, development, and production of sophisticated new equipment like Tomahawk cruise missiles, B-2 stealth bombers, F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters, and even Humvee trucks. (The internet, too, began as a Defense Department research project.) More expensive and controversial was Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, announced in 1983, which was a futuristic project designed to use powerful lasers mounted on space-based satellites to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles before they could enter American airspace. Critics immediately tagged the hugely expensive missile-defense system with the derogatory nickname "Star Wars" (after the modern film classic), arguing that it was a colossal waste of money for a system that would likely never work outside the imaginary world of science fiction. On that count, the critics were surely correct; the technology to implement "Star Wars" with any measure of reliability did not exist in 1983; in fact, it still does not exist today. But there is some evidence that Reagan's aggressive pursuit of missile-defense did spook the Soviet military leadership, perhaps causing the USSR to mount an unsustainable military buildup of its own, helping to bankrupt the Soviet economy and hastening the downfall of Communism. However, the question of just how significant a factor Reagan's military buildup really was in instigating the collapse of the Soviet Union is still a matter of great controversy, hotly debated by historians and political scientists.
In any case, there is no question that Ronald Reagan left office with the American military much larger and better equipped than the one he had inherited in 1981. Given Reagan's unswerving support for the American military, the actual results of the military actions he ordered as Commander-in-Chief were, perhaps, surprisingly mixed. Reagan did command the military through one glorious triumph—the successful invasion of Grenada in October 1983, which toppled the country's Communist government and won Reagan massive approval at home. But the conquest by the world's most powerful military of a tiny Caribbean island defended by a 1000-man militia struck many as almost absurd. Furthermore, some of the more expansive claims Reagan made to justify the invasion—"[Grenada] was a Soviet-Cuban colony, being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time"14—were later proven to be wildly overblown, and the United Nations General Assembly voted, by a stunning margin of 108-9, to condemn the intervention as an unwarranted act of international aggression. Still, more than 71% of Americans polled in November 1983 supported the action, reveling in the good feeling of finally defeating a Communist enemy in combat—no matter how puny that enemy may have been.15
Beyond Grenada, however, military successes in the Reagan Era were hard to come by. Reagan's greatest foreign policy victory—winning the Cold War—came through negotiation and compromise with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev rather than through armed confrontation. The other instances in which Reagan actually used armed force in pursuit of his foreign-policy objectives—either through direct American intervention or through American-supported covert action by allies abroad—usually produced less successful outcomes.
Many of the difficulties that Reagan encountered derived from the president's narrowly Moscow-centered worldview. Having spent much of his life deeply concerned with the threat posed to the American way of life by the international Communist movement centered in the Soviet Union, Reagan had a hard time seeing global problems from anything other than a narrow Cold War perspective. In Reagan's mind, every international challenge to American interests originated in Moscow. "Let us not delude ourselves," he said in 1983. "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."16 Thus, in Reagan's judgment, everything from terrorism in the Middle East to revolutionary movements in Central America to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa could be chalked up to Soviet malfeasance. Reality was more complicated. While the Soviets did sometimes have a hand in stirring up these "hot spots," the conflicts that roiled much of the world throughout the 1980s were primarily driven by local forces. Nelson Mandela was no Soviet agent. Neither was Grenada's Marxist leader Maurice Bishop. Neither were Iran's Islamic Revolutionaries.
Reagan's conviction that the Soviet Union lurked behind all the world's evils led him to embrace a series of unsavory allies on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." In the name of anticommunism, Reagan supported the regimes of brutal authoritarian dictators like Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos. He supported the white supremacist government of South Africa in its efforts to suppress the country's growing anti-apartheid movement. He funded and armed right-wing "death squads" that rampaged through El Salvador and Nicaragua, massacring leftist foes and innocent civilians alike. He sent lethal weaponry to both the Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran and to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, at a time when Iran and Iraq were at war with each other. (And in the course of secretly sending arms to the Iranians, his administration broke the law and found itself engulfed in the greatest scandal of the Reagan Era.) It's not clear that any of these Reagan administration interventions did real damage to any vital Soviet interest.
Only in Afghanistan did one of Reagan's covert foreign interventions inflict real harm upon the Soviet Union—but in hindsight we can see that Reagan's Afghanistan policy ended up inflicting real harm upon the United States as well. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, hoping to use the might of the Red Army to prop up a faltering Communist regime there. Soviet troops would maintain their occupation of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, suffering heavy casualties from insurgent attacks launched by the mujahideen (Muslim holy warriors), who hoped to replace Afghanistan's Communist government with a theocratic Islamic state. Reagan sent hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of military equipment—from small arms to rocket-propelled grenades to Stinger anti-aircraft missiles—to aid the insurgents, whom he praised as "valiant and courageous Afghan freedom fighters… [who provided] an example to all the world of the invincibility of the ideals we hold most dear, the ideals of freedom and independence."17
But the ideals of the Afghan mujahideen were not, in fact, quite the same as Reagan's. After they defeated the Soviets, the Muslim holy warriors Reagan had hailed as "freedom fighters" continued their violent struggle to establish fundamentalist Islamic rule over the Middle East, and eventually they turned their weapons against their one-time allies. By the 1990s, Afghanistan's mujahideen had evolved into the Taliban and Al Qaeda. On 11 September 2001, Osama Bin Laden—a Saudi jihadist who had been a paid CIA asset in Afghanistan during the 1980s—unleashed the worst terrorist attack against the United States in American history, destroying New York's World Trade Center towers, damaging the Pentagon in Washington, and killing nearly 3,000 people in the process.
The enemy of our enemy, it turned out, was not really our friend. While it's surely unfair to blame Ronald Reagan for unanticipated consequences of his policies that were twenty years in the making, there can be little question that the narrow Cold War worldview that led him to classify Osama Bin Laden as a "freedom fighter" and Nelson Mandela as a "terrorist" had some serious drawbacks.