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

By ms21440 May 04, 2013 1652 Words
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. The defence spending was seen to be critical in order to be superior and the budget continued to rise and rise.

While Reagan increased defence and pushed the arms race forward, he was very contradictive as he wanted a decrease in nuclear weapons. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was proposed in 1982 by Reagan in order to reduce weapons but ‘paradoxically, he insisted that his administration had to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in order to close a “window of vulnerability”’ [Larson, 1997]. Furthermore, MAD was a huge threat at the time and Reagan believed it could only be overcome by ‘mutual deterrence’ which was the belief that if each country had enough nuclear warheads to destroy the opposing country, then neither would attack. However, mutual deterrence was not needed as the reduction in weapon production was spurred on by Gorbachev’s rise to power and the economy became a priority focus for the Soviets and consequently in 1987 the INF Treaty was agreed upon. Prior to this, Reagan had taken the arms race to the next level by announcing the SDI and to put pressure on the Soviets. The arms race strained the Soviet economy and Reagan’s attitude was assertive and his determination to be victorious meant tensions continued.

The Strategic Defence Initiative was a policy pushed forward by Reagan in order to make all nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete.’ Prior to his time as President, Reagan visited the North American Aerospace Defence Command which is where he discovered no nuclear defences had been created. This led Reagan to his visionary dream of removing all nuclear weapons from the world and ‘in his eyes, such a defence would make not just ballistic missiles but all nuclear weapons negotiable, and would spur talks’ [Lettow, 2006]. This is contrasted to another source which says, “It is not at all surprising that the Kremlin considers 'Star Wars' highly threatening and a barrier to negotiations…[It] threatens to poison the atmosphere and to aggravate the factors which fuel nuclear escalation”. [Pakula 1985, pg 26]. The SDI was announced in 1983 by Reagan and was to gain advantage over the Soviets with the idea that the use of technology could defeat communism. The SDI objective was to put a strain on the economy and weaken and destabilize the Soviet Union. This shows how the SDI pushed the US-Soviet relations to the limit. Reiterated by Gaddis [Gaddis 2005, pg 375], Reagan’s ‘hard line strained the Soviet system at the moment of its maximum weakness’.

MAD was a strong concern and the idea of the SDI made the US administration and the US people feel safer if SDI was set up. Instead of MAD, SDI could have transformed it into mutually assured security and this created fear within the Soviet Union. This is identified through the summits of Geneva and Reykjavik where Gorbachev attempted to negotiate the end of SDI testing and discontinue any progress of it. The Reykjavik Summit became a turning point in the mid 1980s as it introduced the INF Treaty and this created better relations. The SDI policy weakened the US and Soviet relations as it was unfavoured by the Soviets but the relations improved by the summits and face-to-face negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was a breakthrough in the Cold War and the first policy negotiated between the US and Soviets. The treaty was signed at the Washington summit in December 1987 and it meant the US and Soviet Union had to destroy their intermediate range missiles and nuclear weapons. It was evidence that the US-Soviet relations had come a long way and it was seen as a summit of progress and Anatoly Chernyaev, an advisor to Gorbachev said, “It was after the INF Treaty that our [US-Soviet] relationship began to evolve in the framework of trust”. From signing the treaty it showed there had been a shift in the political environment and it was better having a policy and attitude of “changing rather than containing” [Gaddis 2005, pg 376]. While this treaty showed great progress, this was just what was seen on the surface. The treaty did not include all nuclear weapons, just most and “therefore, the argument that the threat environment is considerably lessened after the INF Treaty is not valid” [Soofer, 1988, pg 116]. It created unease in the West and US feared this created mutually assured vulnerability.

Progress had been made and Reagan kept the pressure on and pushed Gorbachev to make more changes. He also ‘continued to condemn communist violations of human rights’ and push the Soviet Union to withdraw from the Third World. Gorbachev accelerated the Soviet retreat from the Third World [Powaski, 1998] and Soviet deeds proved to the US that the end of the Cold War was viable. Reagan visited Moscow in June 1988 and he was asked ‘if he still considered the Soviets the “focus of evil in the modern world,” Reagan responded, “They've changed.”’ [Powaski, 1998]. This signifies an era of development as this policy and consequential events represent significant improvements and a well established relationship that had been built up between Reagan and Gorbachev.

Reagan was the central figure of this period and shaped the defining moments of Cold War by his attitudes and policies. His attitude not only changed over the period of time but it helped end the nuclear war because of his new understanding of communism gained through his experiences with Gorbachev. The arms race and defence spending continued the tensions in the Cold War while the Strategic Defence Initiative created fear within the Soviets but this all became alleviated through the summits. The summits were a critical factor as they created an excellent relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev and prompted the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Mikhail Gorbachev was a stimulus to the end of the Cold War and the necessary power to construct positive and desirable relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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