The Reagan Doctrine: To Wipe Out Communism

President Reagan Holding Up Bumper Sticker During Meeting
President Reagan With an SDI Bumper Sticker. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Reagan Doctrine was a strategy implemented by U.S. President Ronald Reagan intended to eradicate communism and end the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Throughout Reagan’s two terms in office from 1981 to 1989, and extending to the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Reagan Doctrine was the focal point of U.S. foreign policy. By reversing several aspects of the policy of détente with the Soviet Union developed during the Jimmy Carter Administration, the Reagan Doctrine represented an escalation of the Cold War.

Key Takeaways: The Reagan Doctrine

  • The Reagan Doctrine was the element of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy dedicated to ending the Cold War by eradicating communism.
  • The Reagan Doctrine represented a reversal of the Carter Administration’s less proactive policy of détente with the Soviet Union.
  • The Reagan Doctrine combined diplomacy with direct U.S. assistance to armed anti-communist movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
  • Many world leaders and historians credit the Reagan Doctrine as having been the key to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Functionally, the Reagan Doctrine combined the tense brand of Cold War atomic diplomacy as practiced by the United States since the end of World War II, with the addition of overt and covert assistance to anti-communist guerrilla “freedom fighters.” By assisting armed resistance movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Reagan sought to “roll back” the influence of communism on the governments in those regions.

Prominent examples of implementation of the Reagan Doctrine included Nicaragua, where the United States covertly assisted the Contra rebels fighting to oust the Cuban-backed Sandinista government, and Afghanistan, where the U.S. provided material support to the Mujahideen rebels fighting to end the Soviet occupation of their country.

In 1986, Congress learned that the Reagan administration had acted illegally in secretly selling arms to the Nicaraguan rebels. The resulting infamous Iran-Contra affair, while a personal embarrassment and political setback to Reagan, failed to slow the continued implementation of his anti-communist policy during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.  

History of the Reagan Doctrine

During the late 1940s, President Harry S. Truman had established a doctrine of “containment” in regard to communism intended only to limit the ideology from spreading beyond the Soviet bloc nations in Europe. In contrast, Reagan based his foreign policy on the “roll-back” strategy developed by John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower committing the United States to actively attempt to reverse the political influence of the Soviet Union. Reagan’s policy differed from Dulles’ largely diplomatic approach in that it relied on the overt active military support of those fighting against communist dominance.

As Reagan first took office, Cold War tensions had reached their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Growingly suspicious of the country’s expansionist motives, Reagan publicly described the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” and call for the development of space-based missile defense system so fantastically high-tech that Regan’s critics would dub it “Star Wars.”

On January 17, 1983, Reagan approved National Security Decision Directive 75, officially declaring U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union to be “to contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism,” and to “support effectively those Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures or oppose Soviet initiatives hostile to the United States, or are special targets of Soviet policy.”

The Strategy of "The Great Communicator"

Nicknamed “The Great Communicator,” Reagan made giving the perfect speech at the perfect time a key strategy of his Reagan Doctrine.

The ‘Evil Empire’ Speech

President Reagan first expressed his belief in the need for a specific policy to deal proactively with the spread of communism in a speech on March 8, 1983, during which he referred to the Soviet Union and its allies as the “evil empire” in a growingly dangerous “struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” In the same speech, Reagan urged NATO to deploy nuclear missiles in Western Europe to counter the threat posed by Soviet missiles then being installed in Eastern Europe. 

The ‘Star Wars’ Speech

In a nationally-televised speech on March 23, 1983, Reagan sought to defuse Cold War tensions by proposing an ultimate missile defense system he claimed could “achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.” The system, officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) by the Department of Defense and “Star Wars” by pundits and critics, was to employ advanced space-based weapons like lasers and subatomic particle guns, along with mobile ground-based missiles, all controlled by a dedicated system of super-computers. While acknowledging that many, if not all of the necessary technologies were still theoretical at best, Reagan claimed the SDI system could make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”

1985 State of the Union Address

In January 1985, Reagan began his second term by using his State of the Union address to urge the American people to stand up to the Communist-ruled Soviet Union and its allies he had called the “Evil Empire” two years earlier. 

In his opening remarks on foreign policy, he dramatically declared. “Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few; it is the universal right of all God’s children,” adding that the “mission” of America and all Americans must be to “nourish and defend freedom and democracy.”

“We must stand by all our democratic allies,” Reagan told Congress. “And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” He memorably concluded, “Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.”

With those words, Reagan seemed to be justifying his programs of military assistance for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, whom he had once called the “moral equal of the Founding Fathers;” the mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation, and anti-communist Angolan forces embroiled in that nation’s civil war.

Reagan Tells the Soviets to ‘Tear Down This Wall’

On June 12, 1987, President Reagan, standing under a larger-than-life white marble bust of Vladimir Lenin at Moscow State University in West Berlin, publicly challenged the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to dismantle the infamous Berlin Wall that had separated democratic West and communist East Berlin since 1961. In a characteristically eloquent speech, Reagan told the crowd of mostly young Russians that “freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things.”

Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" Speech. The Reagan Foundation.

Then, directly addressing the Soviet Premier, Reagan declared, “General Secretary Gorbachev if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Surprisingly, the speech received little notice from the media until 1989, after Mr. Gorbachev had indeed “torn down that wall.”

The Grenada War

In October 1983, the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada was rocked by the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and the overthrow of his government by a radical Marxist regime. When Soviet money and Cuban troops began flowing into Grenada, the Reagan administration acted to remove the Communists and restore a democratic pro-American government.

On October 25, 1983, nearly 8,000 U.S. ground troops supported by air strikes invaded Grenada, killing or capturing 750 Cuban soldiers and setting up a new government. Though it had some negative political fallout in the United States, the invasion clearly signaled that the Reagan administration would aggressively oppose communism anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

The End of the Cold War

Reagan’s supporters pointed to his administration’s successes in aiding the contras in Nicaragua and the mujahideen in Afghanistan as evidence that the Reagan Doctrine was making headway in reversing the spread of Soviet influence. In the 1990 Nicaraguan elections, the Marxist Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega was ousted by the more American-friendly National Opposition Union. In Afghanistan, the Mujahideen, with the support of the U.S., succeeded in forcing the Soviet military to withdraw. Reagan Doctrine advocates contend that such successes laid the foundation for the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

Many historians and world leaders praised the Reagan Doctrine. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, credited it with helping to end the Cold War. In 1997, Thatcher said that the doctrine had “proclaimed that the truce with communism was over,” adding that, “The West would henceforth regard no area of the world as destined to forego its liberty simply because the Soviets claimed it to be within their sphere of influence.”

Sources and Further Reference