Ronald Reagan served two terms as president, from 1981 to 1989. The conservative Republican spoke frequently regarding his belief that the spread of communism, supported by the Soviet Union, threatened freedom worldwide. Reagan made preventing communist expansion the cornerstone of his foreign policy. However, he went beyond mere containment, saying "the West won't contain communism, it will transcend communism."
The Evil Empire
President Reagan viewed communism as a destructive ideology. In a 1983 speech, Reagan claimed the Soviet Union was "the focus of evil in the modern world." Previously, the U.S. and Western European countries attempted to thaw Cold War relations between them and the communist superpower through a policy known as "détente." Reagan believed the Soviet Union had benefited from this policy to the detriment of U.S. interests, so he used aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric in his speeches that emphasized his distrust for the "evil empire." His hard-line approach ultimately paid off, ending in a 1988 presidential visit to Moscow that historians mark as the end of the Cold War.
Support for Freedom Fighters
In a portion of Reagan's 1985 State of the Union address, he announced what became known as the Reagan Doctrine: active and open U.S. support for anti-communist insurgents in countries around the world. During his presidency, the U.S. provided both open and covert support for rebel groups fighting Soviet-backed communist regimes in Central America, Asia and Africa. Calling these rebel groups "freedom fighters," Reagan used this support to roll back the global spread of communism. Through active engagement, Reagan believed the U.S. would give people without freedom around the world the courage and hope to rise up against communist oppression.
Peace Through Strength
From the beginning of his first term, President Reagan believed the Soviet economic system was poorer, and weaker, than U.S. sources suggested. A key component of the strategy of his policy towards the Soviet Union involved modernization of the military and significant increases in defense spending. He knew if the U.S. started building up its military on a massive scale, the Soviet Union would be unable to compete. Once the Soviet government realized it was outmatched, it would come to the bargaining table to negotiate reductions of nuclear arms, leading to "peace through strength." Reagan increased defense spending by 35 percent while he was in office, including the record-setting $220 billion military budget -- the largest peacetime budget in history.
Trust, But Verify
Reagan's strategy worked, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbechev negotiated a treaty with him to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. Reagan was dissatisfied with earlier strategies that set caps on future production of weapons but didn't reduce the stockpiles the two superpowers had already produced. Further, Reagan believed the Soviet Union was not abiding by limits set in prior treaties. Throughout negotiations, he repeated the Russian saying "trust, but verify." The resulting Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty not only eliminated all intermediate-range missiles, but included a strict verification process that included permanent on-site compliance inspectors living in each country. The INF Treaty was the first agreement in history that reduced the overall size of nuclear arsenals.
- The White House: Ronald Reagan
- The University of Virginia Miller Center: American President: Ronald Wilson Reagan -- Foreign Affairs
- TIME Magazine: The Reagan Doctrine
- PBS American Experience: Reagan -- Foreign Affairs
- Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration: The Reagan Presidency
- Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration: Remarks on Signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
- Getty Images/Getty Images News/Getty Images