In 1966 the genial Reagan won the first of two terms as the Republican governor of California. During his campaign he supported U.S. intervention in Vietnam and condemned student antiwar protesters. He soon became one of the leading figures of the increasingly powerful Republican Right, supporting deep cuts in taxes and domestic expenditures, high defense budgets, and a strong anti-communist international posture, positions he affirmed while seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 and 1980.
In 1980, when Reagan defeated Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter, the United States was suffering from spiraling inflation and high unemployment. In Iran, radical Muslims had overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, sending oil prices soaring, and for more than a year held U.S. diplomatic personnel hostage in Tehran. An almost simultaneous Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan intensified a sense of American impotence, as did communist insurgencies in Central America and Africa. Reagan opposed compromise with communism. Believing firmly in the American way of life and convinced that an American victory in the Cold War was attainable, the ever-optimistic Reagan used blatantly triumphalist, anti-Soviet rhetoric, famously terming the Soviet Union an "evil empire."
Reagan purposefully engaged the Soviets in an arms race whereby he and his advisors hoped that American technological and economic superiority would strain the Soviet economy. In 1982 and 1983 the president issued directives intended to deny the Soviets Western credits, currency, trade, and technology and to embargo Soviet exports of oil and natural gas to the West. The Reagan administration hiked the defense budget from $171 billion to $376 billion between 1981 and 1986, hoping to force the Soviets into bankruptcy and to position the United States better to combat communism around the world. In 1983 Reagan announced that the United States would begin research on an expensive new ballistic missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars, to intercept and destroy incoming nuclear missiles. If successful, this program, which contravened several existing arms control treaties, would have provided the United States with substantial protection against a Soviet nuclear attack, thereby destabilizing the nuclear balance and quite possibly triggering a new arms race.
Breaking with Carter's policies, Reagan also deliberately de-emphasized human rights, consciously supporting dictatorships provided they were pro-American while assailing human rights abuses within the Soviet sphere. Covert operations intensified as the United States offered support to anti-communist forces around the world, providing economic aid to the dissident Polish Solidarity trade union movement and military and economic assistance to antigovernment rebels in Angola, mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan, and the anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua. Efforts to overthrow the existing Nicaraguan government included Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mining of ports and harbors. When Congress responded by passing the Boland Amendment of 1984, forbidding funding for Nicaraguan covert actions, the Reagan administration embroiled itself in an ill-fated secret enterprise to sell arms to Iran—thereby evading its own embargo but, officials suggested, enhancing the political standing of Iranian moderate elements—and using the proceeds to aid the Nicaraguan Contras. Revelations of these illegal activities and his probable complicity in them embarrassed Reagan during his second term.
They did not, however, compromise Reagan's ability to reach unprecedented new understandings with the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding his bellicose rhetoric and a near infatuation with prospective nuclear war according to some Reagan administration officials, in practice Reagan was surprisingly pragmatic and cautious. In potentially difficult guerrilla settings, his administration favored covert operations, preferably undertaken by surrogates such as the Afghan mujahideen or the Nicaraguan Contras, over outright military intervention. Wars were kept short and easily winnable, as in the small Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 when American troops liberated the island from Marxist rule. When, almost simultaneously, radical pro-Syrian Druze Muslims bombed the Beirut barracks of an American peacekeeping force in Lebanon, killing 241 American soldiers, the United States quickly withdrew. In 1986, suspected Libyan involvement in terrorist incidents provoked only retaliatory American surgical air strikes on Tripoli.
Despite campaign pledges to the contrary, Reagan did not shun the People's Republic of China (PRC) or restore American relations with the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan). In 1982 the Reagan administration reached an understanding with China on Taiwan, after which the Chinese gave some support to the Afghan rebels. Sino-American trade increased, and Reagan made a 1984 state visit to Beijing. By 1984, domestic politics suggested that the president moderate his anti-Soviet line. He faced a reelection campaign against a liberal opponent, Walter Mondale, just as his nuclear buildup and the stalemating of inconclusive arms control talks had generated substantial public support in both America and Europe for a nuclear freeze. In September 1984, Reagan proposed combining all major ongoing nuclear weapons talks into one package, and Soviet leaders soon agreed.
Reagan's mellowing coincided with the culmination of long-standing Soviet economic problems. Empire imposed added burdens on the Soviets as military spending rose, diverting funds from domestic programs. Most countries in Eastern Europe still resented Soviet domination. In Poland, the Solidarity movement proved remarkably persistent, undercutting Soviet control. Assertive Soviet policies in Africa and Latin America carried a high price tag too, while the decade-long Afghan intervention embroiled Soviet troops in a costly and unwinnable guerrilla war.
In 1985 the young and energetic Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He immediately sought to address Russia's problems and reform the communist economic and social system, an uphill battle given the immense burdens of the Soviet military. In addition, the costly SDI program that Reagan had recently proposed was likely to demand massive further investment.
American and European leaders were initially wary of Gorbachev's overtures, but even so, he quickly won great popularity. After meeting Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, the hard-line British Conservative prime minister whom Reagan had long found to be a political soul mate, urged her colleague to work with the Soviet leader, and Reagan was more willing than many of his advisors to trust Gorbachev. Domestic economic factors may also have impelled Reagan toward rapprochement. Deep tax cuts meant that heavy government budget deficits financed the defense buildup in the 1980s, and in November 1987 an unexpected Wall Street stock market crash suggested that American economic fundamentals might be undesirably weak. Reagan had several summit meetings with Gorbachev, and in 1987 the superpowers signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, eliminating all medium-range missiles in Europe and imposing strong verification procedures. This marked the beginning of a series of arms reduction agreements, continued under Reagan's successor George H. W. Bush, and of measures whereby the Soviet Union withdrew from its East European empire and, by 1991, allowed it to collapse. Although Bush's presidency saw the culmination of these developments, it was Reagan who first perceived their potential.
Reagan, the oldest U.S. president in history, left office in 1989. After a decade-long battle with Alzheimer's, he died of pneumonia at his home in Los Angeles, California, on 5 June 2004. Reagan's impressive state funeral in Washington, D.C., paid tribute to him as the American president whose policies effectively helped to end the Cold War on U.S. terms.
Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.; Fitzgerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.; Matlock, Jack F., Jr. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004.; Mervin, David. Ronald Reagan and the American Presidency. New York: Longman, 1990.; Pemberton, William E. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1997.; Smith, Geoffrey. Reagan and Thatcher. New York: Norton, 1991.; Strober, Deborah Hart, and Gerald S. Strober. The Reagan Presidency: An Oral History of the Era. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 2003.