How did Ronald Reagan’s presidency affect the Cold War?

A 1940s Hollywood Film Star turned President, Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Presidential Election. What was his contribution towards the Cold War and what did he stand for?

The worksheet is available to download here. If you do not have access to Word, please complete the tasks as outlined in the yellow boxes on this page.

Obsolete = out of date and therefore ineffective. A word mostly used to describe old technology.

Complete the quiz on the Cold War below. How many can you get right?

TASK ONE: What kind of president was Ronald Reagan?
What can you learn about Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy from the quote below?
Think about the following:
– What did he assume the Soviet Union were trying to achieve?
– What did he assume America’s responsibility to be in the world?
– How might this have affected the Cold War from 1980 onwards?

During the late 1970s, I felt our country had begun to abdicate (step down) from its historical role as the spiritual leader of the Free World and its foremost defender of democracy… Predictably, the Soviets interpreted our hesitation as reluctance to act and had tried to exploit it in their agenda to achieve a communist dominated world… I deliberately set out to say some frank things about the Soviets to let them know there were some new fellas in Washington.

An extract from Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, published after his presidency in 1990.

TASK TWO: What impact did Reagan’s presidency have on the Cold War?
Read through the information below and answer the following questions:
1) What was the ‘Second Cold War’?
2) When did the ‘Second Cold War’ take place?
3) What did Reagan refer to the USSR as?
4) What did Reagan do to the US armed forces?
5) What was the Reagan doctrine?
6) What does SDI stand for?
7) How would SDI work?
8) Why was SDI significant?

What was Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy during his presidency?

Tough talking Reagan slammed Carter in the 1980 Presidential Election for being too soft on the Soviet Union. He argued that the period of detente in the 1970s was a failed attempt to find peace as it allowed communism to continue in the world. His tough approach towards the Soviet Union contributed to a new period of tense relations that is referred to as the ‘Second Cold War’. This would last for the next five years: the Cold War once again looked as though it might become ‘hot’.

Reagan was not afraid of publicly attacking the Soviet Union. In a speech to a Christian group in 1983, he denounced the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’ that the USA was responsible for dealing with. He turned these words into action by increasing military spending on arms. In 1982, military spending increased by 13%. 1983 and 1984 saw another increase of 7% respectively. New weapons such as Trident submarines and stealth bombers were developed. The hard work to quell the arms race in the period of detente via SALT I and II were being reversed.

Albeit expensive, Reagan pushed hard for developments on stealth planes like the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. These planes could avoid anti-aircraft missiles and had the capacity to carry nuclear bombs.

In addition to military spending, like Truman and Carter before him, Reagan announced his own doctrine – the ‘Reagan Doctrine’. This stated that the USA would support:

1) Anti-communist governments around the world, and
2) Anti-communist groups that were trying to overthrow communist governments around the world.

The USA therefore supported groups in countries such as El Salvador and Nicaragua in trying to overthrow their communist governments. The USA even invaded the island of Grenada in October 1983 to remove the communist government there. Reagan called this the first ‘rollback’ of communist influence.

A news broadcast documenting the US invasion of Grenada. The invasion was code-named ‘Operation Urgent Fury’, which gives you some idea of how seriously Reagan took this measure.
The Strategic Defense Initiative

The biggest and most ambitious of Reagan’s war against communism was his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Coined ‘Star Wars’ by the press, Reagan’s idea was to place satellites into orbit of earth that carried powerful lasers that could shoot down Soviet missiles from space, preventing them from reaching the USA. This went directly against the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but Reagan didn’t care.

An artist’s interpretation of what an SDI satellite might look like. No wonder the programme was referred to as ‘Star Wars’; does anyone else think ‘Death Star’ when looking at this?

In reality, SDI was years away from being developed, and it is questionable if the USA was ever intending to make the initiative a reality. Reagan spoke of the initiative as something that the USA were close to launching, however.

This had important consequences on the Cold War. The Soviet economy was struggling to keep up with the arms race, and the announcement of SDI forced many in the Soviet Union to consider how much longer the country could keep up its military development. SDI would change the game of nuclear war: If the American’s successfully launched these satellites, almost all of the Soviet Union’s weapons would become obsolete.

The Soviet Union knew that they would have to invest huge sums of money into developing a similar SDI system. This turned out to be one of the main contributions towards the ‘new thinking’ of Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader from 1985, that we shall learn more about in the next lesson.

TASK THREE: Challenge question

Think about everything that we have learnt so far and consider this question:

Who had a bigger impact on superpower relations: Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan?

These presidents had very different policies towards the Soviet Union, so this is not an easy question to answer. But if you can justify your ideas using some good SPEND evidence, that would be great to see.

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