“Don’t call yourself Reagan Republicans,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “Ronald Reagan would never – would never let this kind of aggression go unresponded to by the American people.”
John McCain was commenting on the Russian occupation and likely annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine. His Reagan triumphalism is not supported by the facts or history.
The Ronald Reagan mythologized by the conservative media entertainment complex is nothing at all like the real man or his times. Let’s run through just a few of the major foreign policy events during the Reagan presidency.
Scandal began even before Reagan was elected president. There was the allegation that representatives of Reagan’s presidential campaign had conspired with Iran to delay the release of the 52 American hostages held by Iran until after the election to thwart President Carter from pulling off an “October Surprise.”
The release of the hostages 20 minutes after Reagan concluded his inaugural address only fueled the speculation. Both chambers of Congress investigated the allegation and dismissed the conspiracy, but several key political figures at the time have stood by their allegations. October Surprise conspiracy theory – Wikipedia.
April 1981: Reagan lifted the grain embargo imposed on the Soviet Union by President Carter as an economic sanction for its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The grain shortage in Russia meant higher profits for American farmers.
December 1981: The Communist government of Poland declares martial law to crack down on the Solidarity union movement. Reagan was criticized by hardliners for his “candle in the window” address to the nation, urging Americans to put a candle in the window in solidarity with the Poles.
The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Reagan – like Mr. Carter before him – is doing just about all he can do, and all he should do, in a situation not likely to be helped by saber-rattling or cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. As with so many cases with which a President must deal, no ‘quick fix’ is available.” IN THE NATION – A Symbol, Not a Sword .
April 1983: A suicide bomber blows up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. 63 people are killed, 17 of them Americans, including the entire U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Middle East contingent. Congress approves $251 million in additional economic and military aid to Lebanon, as requested by the administration, but attached an amendment to the bill that would force the White House to seek approval for any expanded U.S. military role. The U.S. embassy was moved to a supposedly more secure location in East Beirut.
September 1983: The Soviets shoot down KAL 007, killing 269 people – including U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald. Reagan condemned the shoot-down as a “crime against humanity.” A U.S.-Soviet Summit previously scheduled for September went ahead as planned. The Soviet airline Aeroflot had its flight privileges to the U.S. revoked.
October 1983: A suicide bomber blows up the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen. Three months later, Reagan orders the U.S. military to retreat from Beirut onto ships in the Mediterranean. The Reagan administration prefers to call this retreat a “strategic redeployment.”
October 1983: Reagan instead orders the invasion of the small Caribbean nation of Grenada to prevent U.S. medical students at St. George’s University from graduating, as the late night comics said at the time. The United Nations General Assembly condemned it as “a flagrant violation of international law.” The United Nations Security Council considered a similar resolution, which failed to pass when it was, of course, vetoed by the United States.
October 1984: The CIA is caught mining Nicaragua’s harbors. Congress cuts off any funding for CIA-Contra operations. This leads to the administration’s secret Iran-Contra program.
June 1985: Hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Hezbollah. During the intercontinental ordeal, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethern is killed and his body thrown out of the plane onto the tarmac. Some hostages are released, while others are taken off the plane and held hostage at locations in Beirut. The 39 remaining hostages are released at the end of June and driven to Syria. Israel releases over 700 Shia prisoners as demanded by the terrorists, while maintaining that the prisoners’ release was not related to the hijacking.
Iran-Contra Affair: It is not discovered until 1986. Seven Americans had been held hostage in Lebanon by a terrorist group with Iranian ties. The Reagan administration devised an arms-for-hostages scheme, in which members of the executive branch sold weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of the American hostages, in violation of a U.S. weapons embargo of Iran.
Lt. Col. Oliver North on the National Security Council diverts a portion of the weapons sales proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras, in violation of Congress’ express cutting off of any funding.
The congressional Iran-Contra investigation was impeded when large volumes of documents relating to the scandal were destroyed or withheld from investigators by Reagan administration officials. In the end, fourteen administration officials were indicted, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Eleven convictions resulted, some of which were vacated on appeal. The rest of those indicted or convicted were all pardoned in the final days of the presidency of George H.W. Bush, who was vice-president at the time of the Iran-Contra affair.
Adam Serwer posted this chart which shows the number of attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts abroad soared during Reagan’s presidency. Terrorists were not at all deterred by Reagan’s “peace through strength” rhetoric.
And despite Reagan’s negotiation of nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements with the Soviet Union after 1985, prior to that his loose talk of nuclear war and the “Evil Empire” almost triggered nuclear war in November 1983. As recounted by historian Lawrence Wittner, Did Reagan’s Military Build-Up Really Lead to Victory in the Cold War?:
In November 1983, during NATO’s Able Archer military exercises, the jittery Soviet government became convinced that, under cover of the exercises, a U.S. nuclear attack upon the Soviet Union was underway. Consequently, Soviet nuclear forces were alerted, command staffs reviewed their strike missions, and nuclear weapons were readied for action. “The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss,” recalled Oleg Gordievsky, a U.S. intelligence agent within the KGB. “But during Able Archer 83 it had . . . come frighteningly close.”
Soviet double agents relayed this information to their American counterparts. The administration altered its stance with the Soviet Union shortly thereafter from a policy of confrontation towards a policy of rapprochement. “It was arguably this shift in diplomacy, along with the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of Secretary General, which eventually eased relations between the two superpowers, and brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union.” Able Archer 83: The Forgotten Close Call that Almost Started World War III.