Reagan's Policy and Attitudes Towards the Soviet Union in the 1980s

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The Cold War in the 1980s was driven by Reagan’s policies and attitudes towards the Soviet Union. In this period the implications of his policies and attitudes had a major impact on the United States and Soviet relations and created the path to the ending the Cold War. Reagan’s attitudes and policies were aggressive and there were fierce tensions but Mikhail Gorbachev sparked a turning point and Reagan’s attitudes and policies became less hawkish. Through the policy of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) and Reagan’s strong attitude against communism it heightened tensions between the two superpowers. The tensions slowly became defused after Gorbachev came to power and the Geneva, Reykjavik and Washington Summits led to a good working relationship between the two superpower leaders and eventually the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 which was a beginning to an end. The turning point of Gorbachev’s arrival was a positive influence and its implications were tremendous which eased the tensions between the US and Soviets.

Reagan had a strong attitude towards Communism and it was a part of the Reagan Doctrine which influenced his policies but it later changed due to the rise of Gorbachev. Reagan’s attitude on communism as well as the personalities of the Soviet leaders was based on his belief that there was a ‘record of deceit’ and believed ‘they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat’ [Farnham 2001, pg 227]. This aggressive view pushed the Reagan Doctrine to remove communism from the world and bring democracy and freedom to all people. The Reagan Doctrine was about his perception of the war and it was based on the perceived power of the Soviets and America’s weaknesses [Farnham, 2001]. This perception created paranoia among Reagan and the US and the paranoia was only dampened by increasing weapons and the power of the US defence. While Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist and wanted to remove the world of nuclear weapons, his advisors and the administration did not and military power was sought after to remove communism [Lettow, 2006].

The Reagan rhetoric described Reagan’s form of attack and he used powerful words when he spoke about the Soviets. Early in his presidency in 1982, Reagan made a strong statement that the Soviets were an ‘evil empire’. ‘The memorable phrase “evil empire” seemed to encapsulate the Reagan administration's attitude toward the Soviet government” [Schultz 1993, pp266-267]. However, 1985 was a turning point as President Gorbachev was elected into power and he had different ideas to previous leaders. This had a dramatic effect on Reagan’s attitude and he questioned his statements in the past. In the Geneva summit of 1985, it allowed Reagan and Gorbachev an opportunity for rapprochement and this improved relations between the US and the Soviets and a conclusion was made that a nuclear war was undesirable. The ‘dichotomous nature of Reagan's views’ [Oberdorfer cited in Farnham 2001, pg 229] reflected his attitude before and after Gorbachev and these eventually led to peaceful relations.

Reagan had a fierce attitude when it came to the arms race and it was a continuing facet in the 1980s where defence became a huge focus for the United States and the concern of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Reagan was paranoid of feeling inferior to the Soviets and especially communism and his attitude to this was to increase defence spending dramatically. Both sides increased the production of nuclear warheads in order to gain advantage on the other side. Ronald Powaski states the reason for the arms race in plain terms, ‘Reagan and his advisers not only wanted to close the perceived window of vulnerability, they also wanted to use an arms race -- one that would emphasize America's technological superiority -- to strain and bankrupt the Soviet economy’ [Powaski, 1998]. Hence, the Pentagon's budget rose from $171 billion to $376 billion between 1981 and 1986....
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