President Ronald Reagan's Foreign Policy

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  • 0:05 Renewing the Cold War
  • 1:13 Spending to Win
  • 2:37 Use of Force
  • 4:39 Iran-Contra
  • 6:08 Diplomacy with the…
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy was an aggressive attempt to renew the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Learn about the policies, actions and results of Reagan's foreign policy in this lesson.

Renewing the Cold War

The primary goal of President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy during his two terms in office was to renew the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Reagan believed that President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter had allowed the Soviet Union to gain a military advantage during the 1970s. As a result, the Soviet Union had become more aggressive in acquiring territory, as well as persecuting ethnic minorities. Reagan also admonished that if the Soviet Union remained unchecked, the United States was in great peril.

In 1981, Reagan petitioned Congress for a massive military buildup to compete with the Soviet Union. The Reagan Doctrine focused on three important points. First, Reagan wanted to invalidate the Brezhnev Doctrine that was created by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and maintained that no country that became communist could leave the Soviet sphere of influence. Second, Reagan wanted to overturn existing Soviet governments in various parts of the world. This included providing aid to anti-communist rebels in Asia, Latin America and Europe. The third and final point was to economically bleed the Soviet Union. The idea was that if Reagan drastically increased spending, the Soviet Union, in an attempt to compete, would bankrupt itself.

Spending to Win

Reagan was unafraid to spend to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Reagan approved of the National Security Defense Directive-66 (NSDD-66) to appropriate funds aimed at undermining the Soviet economy. Reagan followed by issuing National Security Defense Directive-75 (NSDD-75), which modernized United States nuclear and military forces to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that the United States would not back down. Simultaneously, the Navy was enlarged and advanced missile systems were strategically placed throughout Europe.

The largest expenditure within Reagan's foreign policy was the Strategic Defense Initiative. This was known as the 'Star Wars' program as it called for a massive space-based shield to defend the United States from long-range Soviet missiles. The immediate upfront cost of the program (just to begin the research phase) was roughly $26 million. Congress approved some funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative, but the program was never fully implemented as the Cold War began winding down toward the end of the decade.

Defense buildup was not the only entity to receive funding from the Reagan administration. Reagan appropriated funding toward the erection of new media markets aimed at discrediting Soviet communism. For example, Reagan established Radio Marti in Florida, which sent pro-democratic messages to listeners in Cuba, which was similar to the Radio Free Europe program. He also approved the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which provided funding to Caribbean nations that opened their markets to free trade in an effort to eliminate the closed economy principle under communism.

Use of Force

The presidents of the 1970s often refused to engage in force following the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Reagan, however, believed that the United States needed to move on from the legacy of the war and re-establish itself as a force in the world. The result was American military action against nations that were aligned with the Soviet Union, such as Lebanon, Grenada and Libya.

In Lebanon, Reagan supported Israeli forces that were combating Lebanese Muslims who aligned with the Soviet Union and communist Syria. Irritated by the inability of the Israelis to defeat the Lebanese Muslims, Reagan, in 1982, deployed 1,400 marines to the region. Unfortunately, Reagan's first test of force was met with a severe loss. In 1983, suicide bombers from the Lebanese Muslim forces (officially known as the 'Islamic Jihad') exploded a device inside of a Marine compound, killing 241 soldiers. Reagan quickly withdrew, fearful of the American backlash.

Successful American military action in Grenada (a small island in the Caribbean) helped to reverse the negativity toward Reagan's foreign initiatives. At the onset of the engagement in 1983, Reagan deployed 2,000 American soldiers under Operation Urgent Fury to the island. The mission was to successfully remove the socialist government installed in Grenada (as it was associated with Cuban leader Fidel Castro) and replace it with a democratic institution. The engagement lasted a few short weeks and Reagan declared the invasion a triumph.

Libya proved to be an early battleground against terrorism. The Middle East was rife with terrorism and kidnapping during the 1980s, especially against Americans. Reagan was informed that many of the attacks were being supported by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi who was an alleged adherent of the Soviet Union. In response, Reagan ordered a massive air campaign over Libya aimed at dissuading Qaddafi from continuing to support terrorism. American planes bombed targets in Libya, including Qaddafi's compound. While Qaddafi escaped unharmed, his complex was annihilated and his daughter was killed.


The Iran-Contra affair was a convoluted foreign policy disaster for Reagan. Beginning in 1984, Reagan decided to support a pro-America regime in Nicaragua known as the Contras. His hope was to provide enough aid so that the Contras were capable of removing the socialist, and largely anti-American, Sandinista regime (yes, the same regime President Richard Nixon helped to install). Reagan authorized the training of the Contras, while launching a campaign to discredit the Sandinista regime throughout the world. The problem was Reagan had to maintain the secrecy of his efforts to train and fund the Contras from Congress because a ban on American aid had been established. Therefore, he had to somehow find a way to pay for the American effort in Nicaragua. This is where the event took an interesting turn.

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