In 1987, President Ronald Reagan threw down the gauntlet in Berlin: “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!”
And on November 9, 1989, less than two and a half years after Ronald Reagan spoke those stirring words, the wall came tumbling down. The Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe soon crumbled. In 1991, The Soviet Union itself collapsed. The Cold War was over. Many credit Reagan with winning the Cold War. And some lionize him as one of the United States’ great presidents. But was Reagan really the heroic champion of the most dangerous era in human history? Or was there a darker side to the man and his administration that made a mockery of his words? What really lay behind the smiling façade of this most unlikely of presidents?
Reagan was dominated by Hollywood clichés and the ideas of his wealthy but conservative and poorly educated friends from California.
Ronald Reagan, the folksy, homespun actor turned General Electric pitchman, had been California governor since 1967. He espoused strong family values but was estranged from his children and was the first president to divorce. A man of limited knowledge but deep religious beliefs and strong conservative convictions, he provided little guidance on policy and had no interest in or grasp of detail. His vice president, George H. W. Bush, confessed to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin he at first found Reagan’s views on international relations “almost unimaginable.” Bush, Dobrynin wrote, was “simply amazed to see to what extent Reagan was dominated by Hollywood clichés and the ideas of his wealthy but conservative and poorly educated friends from California.” National Security Council Soviet expert Richard Pipes admitted that at NSC meeting the president seemed “really lost, out of his depth, uncomfortable.” Very early in the new administration, counterterrorism coordinator Anthony Quainton was summoned to brief the president. In Quainton’s words, “I gave that briefing to the President, who was joined by the Vice President, the head of CIA, the head of the FBI, and a number of National Security Council members. After a couple of jelly beans, the President dozed off. That…was quite unnerving.”
Jimmy Carter was deeply troubled by Reagan’s complete lack of curiosity when he tried to brief the incoming president on the challenges he would face, assessments of world leaders, and command and control of nuclear weapons. Carter aide Jody Powell recounted, “The boss really thought it was important for Reagan to know this stuff before he was sworn in and as he ran through it he couldn’t believe that Reagan wasn’t asking any questions. He thought maybe Reagan wasn’t taking any notes because he didn’t have a pad and pencil and finally offered him one, but Reagan said, no thanks, he could remember it. It was just the damnedest thing.”
Many of Reagan’s close associates were struck by the depth of his ignorance. Upon returning from his late 1982 Latin American tours, Reagan told reporters, “Well, I learned a lot. … You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.” Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wondered, “What planet is that man living on?” when the president told him that “the Soviets [had brought] an American priest to Moscow in order to send him back to be a spokesman for Actors Equity.” Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was startled when Reagan, admiring O’Neill’s desk that had belonged to Grover Cleveland, told him that he had played Cleveland in the movie The Winning Season. O’Neill reminded him that the desk belonged to President Cleveland, not Grover Cleveland Alexander, the pitcher. O’Neill, who served in the House for thirty-four years, said that Reagan “knows less than any President I’ve ever known.”
Reagan’s simplistic worldview seemed to be a pastiche stitched together from Hallmark greeting cards, Currier and Ives lithographs, Benjamin Franklin aphorisms, Hollywood epics, and Chinese fortune cookies. He wrote, “I’d always felt that from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that Americans were a moral people who…had always used our power only as a force for good in the world.”
He often displayed a striking inability to differentiate between reality and fantasy. In a late 1983 Oval Office meeting, he told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that as a photographer during the Second World he had filmed the Allies liberating the Nazi death camps and had been so moved by the suffering he witnessed that he had decided to keep a copy of the film in case he ever encountered a Holocaust skeptic. Shamir was so impressed with Reagan’s story that he repeated it to his cabinet and it was reprinted in the Israeli paper Ma’ariv. Reagan later repeated a variant of the story to Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Marvin Hier, telling he had been with the Signal Corps filming the camps and had shown the film to someone just a year after the war. Hearing the story, Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon noted that Reagan had never left the United States during or immediately after the war. The story was entirely fanciful.
Reporters then had a field day revealing other Reagan whoppers. Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko, perhaps to dispel the notion that the president’s flights of fancy were a product of old age or related to his diminishing mental power, wrote that he first became aware of Reagan’s habit of altering the truth in 1968 when, to highlight how lawless society was becoming, Reagan asserted that eight Chicago police officers had been killed in one recent month alone. Royko, curious, discovered that no cops had been killed in Chicago in months and only one or two in the entire year. Reagan often repeated his story about the Chicago “welfare queen” with eighty names, thirty addresses, and twelve Social Security cards who had a tax-free income of over $150,000. The numbers would change – she sometimes had 127 names and received over one hundred different checks – but the point – an attack on greedy, dishonest blacks who stole from hardworking white Americans – remained the same.
Compiling lists of Reaganisms became a national pastime. Reagan often made up apocryphal quotes from prominent individuals including Oliver Wendall Holmes and Winston Churchill. Perhaps it was fitting, therefore, that his spokesman, Larry Speakes, admitted that he had made up quotes and attributed them to Reagan, anticipating what he would have wanted to say.
For meeting with visitors and even with his own cabinet officials, Reagan read from three-by-five-inch file cards provided by staffers. Visitors would be mortified on those occasions when he unknowingly read from the wrong set of cards. He extrapolated from personal experience to form his own views of the world. Facts could be ignored or contradicted when they didn’t support his preferred narrative. When William Clark, a former California Supreme Court justice, took over as the national security advisor in 1982, he was shocked to discover how little Reagan actually knew about the world. He instructed the Pentagon and CIA to produce films explaining security issues and describing the world leaders Reagan would be meeting.
Reagan’s disengaged style and lack of foreign policy experience left the door open to palace intrigue among his subordinates, who were eager to fill the void. Vice President Bush displayed firm, if nefarious, establishment credentials, with long-standing family ties to Rockefeller, Morgan, and Harriman interests. After graduating from Yale, he had moved to Texas, become an oilman, and run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1970. Richard Nixon had engineered his appointment as Republican Party chairman.
Jeane Kirkpatrick would also play a prominent role in shaping foreign policy. A conservative Democrat and Georgetown political scientist who supported Reagan because of his staunch anticommunism, she was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to the United Nations. Kirkpatrick supplied the Reaganites with a justification for supporting right-wing dictatorships, calling them “authoritarian” regimes instead of “totalitarian” ones. Along with her colleague Ernest Lefever, who directed Georgetown’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, she contemptuously dismissed Jimmy Carter’s concern for human rights and reform programs. Lefever, a defender of repressive regimes from El Salvador to South Africa, became assistant secretary of state for human rights. The New York Times described him as “an ultraconservative who sneers at existing policy as sentimental nonsense and believes it is profound error to embarrass allies, however repressive, with talk about habeas corpus.” He dismissed concerns about torture in Argentina and Chile because it was “a residual practice of the Iberian tradition.” His center had recently been assailed for accepting a large contribution from Nestle after conducting a study supportive of its campaign to convince mothers to replace breast-feeding with infant formula despite evidence that the switch had contributed to a tripling of infant malnutrition in underdeveloped nations. In June, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rejected Lefever as unqualified for the position. Five of the committee’s nine Republicans joined with all eight Democrats in the vote. He was replace by the equally objectionable Elliott Abrams.
Not everyone welcomed the opportunity for freelancing that resulted from Reagan’s inattention. General Colin Powell, the deputy to National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci, recalled, “The President’s passive management style placed a tremendous burden on us. Until we got used to it, we felt uneasy implementing recommendations without a clear decision. … One morning…Frank moaned…, ‘My God, we didn’t sign on to run this country!’” James Baker, who served Reagan as campaign manager, White House chief of staff, and Treasury secretary, described the resulting foreign policy structure as “a witches’ brew of intrigue…and separate agendas.” Though often at one another’s throats over control of policy, Reagan’s top advisors shared an enthusiasm for covert operations. Together with Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Bush, they initiated operations in Central America and Africa through the National Security Planning Group, while supporting Soviet-bloc dissidents and expanding Carter’s programs in Afghanistan.
Global economic travails made their job easier. The rapid economic growth experienced by resource-rich third-world countries in the 1960s and early 1970s ground to a halt by the mid-1970s as the worldwide economic decline undercut income earned through raw-materials exports. Third-world debt ballooned, crippling the prospects for continued development and devastating already impoverished populations. Revolutionary states that had overthrown colonialist regimes and experimented with socialism were among the hardest hit, leading many to question the viability of leftist development models. Reagan saw the resulting unrest as an opportunity to topple unfriendly governments and prove the superiority of capitalism.
The Soviet economy also hit the skids in the late 1970s, beginning a sustained period of stagnation and decline that only worsened when oil prices collapsed in 1972. Military expenditures, which absorbed almost a quarter of the gross domestic product (GDP), were further weakening the economy. Reagan was determined to exploit the situation. At his first press conference, on January 29, 1981, he unleashed an anti-Communist diatribe that reversed almost two decades of progress in easing Cold War tensions:
Well, so far détente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims…the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state, whichever word you want to use…they, at the same time, have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime,, to lie, cheat, in order to attain that, and that is moral, not immoral, and we operate on a different set of standards.
The CIA, which had largely been kept in check by Carter, played a major role in Reagan’s new anti-Communist crusade. The CIA analysts had long prided themselves on professionalism and distance from the operations side of the Agency. That would not fly with the Reagan team. The assault that began via Bush’s Team B reached fruition under Casey. Administration hard-liners wanted intelligence that supported their view of a dangerous, hostile, and expansion-minded Soviet Union regardless of how far such a perception departed from reality. Casey, a multimillionaire Wall Street lawyer and devout Irish Catholic, had come to the CIA, according to his deputy Robert Gates, “to wage war against the Soviet Union.” According to Gates, “the Reaganites saw their arrival as a hostile takeover.” Casey had read Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network and was convinced that the Soviet Union was the fount of all international terrorism. According to Melvin Goodman, head of the CIA’s office for Soviet analysis, “Several of us met with Casey to try to tell the director that much of Sterling’s so-called evidence was in fact CIA ‘black propaganda,’ anticommunist allegations planted in the European press.” But, he added, “Casey contemptuously noted…that he ‘learned more from Sterling than from’” all of them. Others who touted the Sterling line included Haig, Wolfowitz, State Department consultant Michael Ledeen, and State Department official Robert “Bud” McFarlane. CIA experts, however, knew that the Soviets, for all their faults, actually discouraged terrorism.
Casey and Gates began a purge of analysts who refused to knuckle under. If their reports railed to support the administration line, Casey just wrote his own conclusions. Goodman, who served as a senior CIA Soviet analyst from 1966 to 1986, observed, “The CIA caricature of a Soviet military octopus whose tentacles reached the world over supported the administration’s view of the ‘Evil Empire.’” Goodman blamed “the fact that the CIA missed the most important historical development in its history – the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union itself” – largely on “the culture and process that Gates established in his directorate.”
While CIA intelligence was being dismantled, operations were running amok. Colonel John Waghelstein, who headed the U.S. military advisory team in El Salvador, stated, “Real counterinsurgency techniques are a step toward the primitive.” That description could be applied to the efforts of U.S.-backed and trained government forces in El Salvador and Guatemala and to the U.S.-run insurgency in Nicaragua. These “freedom fighters,” as Reagan called them, routinely raped, tortured, castrated, mutilated, decapitated, and dismembered their victims. To harden Guatemalan soldiers to the point where they were able to kill some 100,000 Mayan peasants between 1981 and 1983, army recruits were beaten, degraded, even submerged in sewage, and forced to remain covered in shit for extended periods of time. Broken and dehumanized, they carried out brutal acts. In December 1982, in the village of Dos Erres, the army slaughtered over 160 people, swing the 65 child victims by their feet and smashing their heads against the rocks. Just the day before, Ronald Reagan had visited Guatemala as part of a tour of Latin America and complained that its president, General Efrain Rios Montt, a born-again evangelical Christian who had recently seized power in a military coup, had received “a bum rap,” assuring reporters that the dictator was “totally committed to democracy.” Reagan called him “a man of great person integrity and commitment.” In fact, he said that in light of Guatemala’s improved human rights record, he was considering restoring military aid, which Carter had cot of in 1977 because of the government’s deplorable human rights record. Reagan was apparently comfortable with Rios Montt’s explanation that “we have no scorched-earth policy. We have a policy of scorched communists.” U.S. Ambassador Frederic Chapin announced, “The killings have stopped. … The Guatemalan government has come out of the darkness and into the light.”
Reagan also met that day with Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova, who was waging his own U.S.-backed counterinsurgency war. According to the Los Angeles Times, the meeting occurred in a “drab building” at “a heavily guarded military airport in eastern Honduras. Soldiers manned anti-aircraft guns in the sugar cane fields bordering the runway, and military helicopters patrolled overhead. … The weather was hot and humid, and the pinstripe suits worn by White House officials looked conspicuously out of place.” Secretary of State George Shultz whispered to one reporter, “This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The trip had its share of unscripted moments. In Costa Rica, Sergio Erick Ardon, head of the People’s Revolutionary Movement, rose in the balcony of the National Theater and loudly indicted the U.S. president and his “militarization of Central America.”
In Columbia, Reagan was blindsided by President Belisario Betancur Cuartas, who used his toast to criticize Reagan’s efforts to “isolate” and “exclude” Cuba and Nicaragua from hemispheric peace and development efforts while tolerating murder by right-wing governments: “Our responsibility as heads of state does not allow us to remain unmoved by the daily opening of gravesites in the ground of common geography: 30,000 graves in El Salvador, to mention only one nation, shock the drowsy conscience of leaders.” The Reagan entourage was furious with this attack. Nor were they pleased with the riots and demonstrations in downtown Bogota or the crowds lining the streets greeting Reagan’s speeding motorcade with shouts of “Fuera!” or “Yanqui go home!” Unable to get all the “individual countries” straight, Reagan insulted his hosts in Brazil by saluting “the people of Bolivia.”
Reagan’s sorry spectacle of giving absolution to murderous dictators did not go unremarked back home. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis began an op-ed piece, appropriately titled “Howdy, Genghis,” with “Under the name of ‘anti-Communism,’ the President of the United States has just had a friendly meeting with a tyrant who makes a policy of mass murder. That is what has happened, in Ronald Reagan’s administration, to Americans’ belief that their country stands for basic human decency in the world.” Lewis described reports of Guatemalan soldiers descending on rural villages, hacking women to death with machetes, torching huts, and gouging out eyes as part of a campaign to take the countryside back from the guerrillas. Lewis quoted the Boston Globe’s assessment of this anti-guerrilla campaign as falling “somewhere between a pogrom and genocide.” He noted the fact that Reagan’s embrace of “torturers and murderers” extended beyond the leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador to include recent visits to Washington from the dictators of South Korea and the Philippines and an upcoming one from Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, who since taking power in 1977 “has eliminated the political opposition and resorted regularly to torture.” Lewis ended with a poignant reminder that has rung true throughout all the decades of the American Empire: “The shame marks all of us. When the economic follies of the Reagan Administration have been forgotten, its insensitivity to human cruelty will still stain the name of the United States.”
The sense of outrage so eloquently expressed by Lewis was reinforced by reports released by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and other human rights groups, detailing the ongoing murders and atrocities, and by remarks by a Guatemalan Jesuit priest, Reverend Ricardo Falla, S.J., at a press conference arranged by the American Anthropological Association. Falla, who was trained at Georgetown, charged that the purpose of organized massacres of Indians was to leave “no survivors” and hence “no memory” of what happened. He elaborated, “That is way babies and children are killed. It’s really incredible. These children, if they survive, will avenge the death of their parents. … These little ones are slit open with knives, or their heads are broken against rocks or beams of houses.” Father Falla described a massacre at San Francisco de Nenton, which transpired over an eight-hour period and included a break for dinner: “after killing the women and children, they stopped to eat steaks which they had roasted from a bull the killed shortly after their arrival. They laughed at old people who cried out like sheep when the blunt knives did not cut their throats. They sang while they listened to the radios they stole from the Indians later in the evening, when the massacre was finished.”
In January 1983, Reagan ended the embargo on military aid. He authorized sales of military hardware. But Congress’ resistance forced Guatemala to rely on military aid primarily from close U.S. allies Israel and Taiwan. Israel was also providing military aid to El Salvador and the Nicaragua contras. CIA support for the Guatemalan military continued unabated. In August 1983, Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores overthrew Rios Montt in a coup, ending the period known as “La Violencia” but not the violence itself. Following the coup, the CIA and State Department reported an increase in political killings and abductions. In February 1984, Ambassador Frederic Chapin cabled Washington about what he called “the horrible human rights realities in Guatemala.” The very next day, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliot Abrams and two other State Department officials approved a secret report urging Congress to resume military aid to Guatemala in light of its improved human rights record.
In 1986, in a secret report, the State Department acknowledged a systematic campaign by “security forces and rightist paramilitary groups” to kidnap and murder potential rural social workers, medical personnel, and campesinos dating back to 1966 and peaking in 1984. Guatemala’s official Historical Clarification Commission issued a report in 1999 detailing the 626 massacres of Mayan villages carried out by the Guatemalan army, which it termed a “genocide.” It charged the CIA and other U.S. government agencies with providing direct and indirect support for the Guatemalan slaughter, whose death toll it estimated at 200,000.
The United States was perpetrating atrocities of a different sort in Nicaragua. Former members of Somoza’s thuggish Nicaraguan national guard had been gathering across the border in Honduras, where, with CIA Director Casey’s assistance, they plotted a return to power. They called themselves the contrarevolucionarios, or “contras” for short. Here, as elsewhere, Casey transformed Carter’s rudimentary covert operations into a massive undertaking. He set up a Central America Task Force to run things. He installed Duane Clarridge to head the Latin American division. Clarridge was the perfect foil. He knew nothing about Latin America, never having worked in the region, and spoke no Spanish.
U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Anthony Quainton pinpointed the start of the war for an interviewer: “The secret war began on March 15, 1982, when the CIA, using Nicaraguan agents, blew up the bridges that connected Nicaragua with Honduras.” It had actually begun earlier. That December, Congress banned the use of government funds to overthrow the Sandinista government. In the administration, moderates like Schultz had little voice as hard-liners increasingly set a ruthless foreign policy in Nicaragua and beyond. Reagan lied to Congress about what the CIA was up to. Casey lied repeatedly, deliberately misleading the House and Senate select intelligence committees. According to Gates, “Casey was guilty of contempt of Congress from the day he was sworn in.” Shultz later said that he had complained to National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci in January 1987: “I told him that I had no confidence in the intelligence community, that I had been misled, lied to, cut out.” Congress nonetheless significantly expanded the intelligence budget, with much of the appropriation going to the CIA.
In order to make an end run around Congress, Casey and NSC official Oliver North concocted an elaborate illegal operation. Aided by Israeli arms dealers, the United States sold missiles to its enemies in Iran at exorbitant prices and used the profits to fund the contras, with Latin American drug dealers often serving as intermediaries and receiving easier access to U.S. markets in return. With U.S. funds and CIA guidance, the contra army grew to 15,000. The CIA also recruited contract mercenaries from countries like Guatemala and El Salvador who launched independent attacks from offshore, bombing and mining coastal targets and commercial ports.
Reagan defended the United States’ covert war with a flight of fancy that bore little resemblance to the reality on the ground in 1984. “The Nicaraguan people,” he said, “are trapped in a totalitarian dungeon, trapped by a military dictatorship that impoverishes them while its rulers live in privileged and protected luxury and openly boast their revolution will spread to Nicaragua’s neighbors as will. It’s a dictatorship made all the more insulting, all the more dangerous by the unwanted presence of thousands of Cuban, Soviet-bloc and radical Arab helpers. Reagan went so far as to call the contras “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers,” a comparison so odious that it drew a sharp rebuke from the Organization of American Historians. Reagan’s “moral equivalents” were notorious for torturing, mutilating, and slaughtering civilians. Employing terrorist tactics, the contras destroyed schools, health care clinics, cooperatives, bridges and power stations, and were responsible for the deaths of most of the 300,000 civilians killed in the war. Once advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff called them “the strangest national liberation organization in the world.” In his view, they were “just a bunch of killers.” The U.S. Embassy reported on former contra leader’s assertion that civilians who refused to join the contras were “shot or stabbed to death” and others were burned to death in smelting ovens.” He said that kidnapped young girls were “raped night and day.”
Atrocities were also committed in El Salvador, where U.S. leaders decided to test their new post-Vietnam counterinsurgency doctrines and try to defeat an uprising without a large commitment of U.S. forces. First, they expanded and modernized the Salvadoran army, which, by 1983, reached 53,000 troops, many of whom were trained in Fort Benning, Georgia, or in the U.S.-run School of the Americas in Panama. Former U.S. Ambassador Robert White, who served under both Carter and Reagan, testified before Congress:
For 50 years, El Salvador was ruled by a corrupt and brutal alliance of the rich and the military. The young officers’ revolt of 1979 attempted to break that alliance. It was then Reagan renewed tolerance and acceptance of the extreme right which led to the emergence of the National Republican Alliance, ARENA, and the rise of ex-Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. ARENA is a violent Fascist party modeled after the Nazis and certain revolutionary Communist groups. … The founders and chief supporters of ARENA are rich Salvadoran exiles headquartered in Miami, and civilian activists in El Salvador. ARENA’s military arm comprises officers and men of the Salvadoran Army and security forces. … My Embassy devoted considerable resources in identifying the sources of rightwing violence and their contacts in Miami, Florida. … The Miami Six explained…that to rebuild the country, it must first be destroyed totally, the economy must be wrecked, unemployment must be massive, the junta must be ousted and a “good” military officer brought to power who will carry out a total cleansing – limpieza – killing 3 or 4 or 500,000 people. … Who are these madmen and how do they operate? …the principal figures are six enormously wealthy former landowners. … They hatch plots, hold meeting and communicate instructions to D’Aubuisson.
In March 1981, the CIA informed Vice President Bush that D’Aubuisson , the “principal henchman for wealthy landlords,” was running “the right-wing death squads that have murdered several thousand suspected leftists and leftist sympathizers during the past year.” Three American Maryknoll nuns and a Catholic layperson who had been involved in humanitarian relief work had been raped and slaughtered shortly before Reagan’s inauguration. UN ambassador-designate Jeane Kirkpatrick insisted, “the nuns were not just nuns” but FMLN “political activists.” Secretary of State Alexander Haig called them “pistol-packing nuns” and suggested to a congressional committee that “perhaps the vehicle the nuns were riding in may have tried to run a roadblock.”
One atrocity particularly stands out. U.S.-trained and armed Salvadoran troops slaughtered 767 inhabitants of the village of El Mozote in late 1981. The victims, including 358 children under age thirteen, were stabbed, decapitated, and machine-gunned. Girls and women were raped. When New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner tried to expose what had occurred, the Wall Street Journal and other pro-Reagan newspapers assaulted Bonner’s credibility. The Times buckled under pressure and pulled Bonner out of El Salvador. Administration officials helped cover up the massacre. Conditions worsened. In late 1982, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported that El Salvador, along with Guatemala, had the worst record of human rights abuses in Latin America: “Decapitation, torture, disemboweling, disappearances and other forms of cruel punishment were reported to be norms of paramilitary behavior sanctioned by the Salvadoran government.” However, Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for human rights, testified that the reports of death-squad involvement were “not credible.”
George Bush had trouble sympathizing with the suffering of the people in the United States’ backyard. Before Pope John Paul II visited Central America, Bush said he couldn’t understand how Catholic clergy could reconcile their religious beliefs with Marxist philosophy and tactics and support the insurgents. Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, tried to explain that poverty and social injustice could easily lead priests to supporting Marxists or anyone else challenging the status quo. “Maybe it makes me a right-wing extremist,” Bush replied, “but I’m puzzled. I just don’t understand it.”
U.S. economic and military aid grew steadily during these years, spurred by the 1984 Kissinger Commission on Central America. Senator Jesse Helms was the point man for this effort in Congress. Administration officials deliberately concealed U.S. government documents implicating the Salvadoran National Police, the National Guard, and the Treasury Police so that congressional funding would continue. Under Carter and Reagan, Congress funneled nearly $5 billion to the tine country, making it the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, per capita, in the world. Meanwhile, the death squads continued to cleave a path of destruction. The death toll reached 70,000. Approximately half a million Salvadorans tried to escape the violence by migrating to the United States in the 1980s, but most were turned back. In 1984, U.S. immigration officials admitted approximately one in forty Salvadoran asylum seekers, while almost all the anti-Communist applicants fleeing Nicaragua were welcomed.
In 1980, Commentary magazine, the United States’ leading neoconservative journal, published a series of essays decrying what conservatives called the “Vietnam syndrome” – the revulsion against the Vietnam War that made Americans squeamish about using force to resolve international conflicts. Reagan agreed: “For too long, we have lived with the ‘Vietnam Syndrome.’ … Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests. … It is time we recognize that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. … We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt.”
Bogged down in protracted proxy wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Reagan hungered for an easy military victory that would restore Americans’ self-confidence and get the Vietnam monkey off America’s back. His opportunity came in 1983 when a radical faction overthrew the revolutionary government of Maurice Bishop in Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island with 100,000 inhabitants, murdering its leaders. Before his death, Bishop had alleged that a campaign was under way to destabilize his nation by “the vicious beasts of imperialism” – the United States. Using the resulting instability as a pretext for action, U.S. officials decided to invade and topple the new government, despite clear opposition from the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. They pressured reluctant Caribbean nations to call for U.S. intervention.
The timing proved fortunate for the administration. While preparing the invasion, the United States suffered a humiliating setback when a powerful truck bomb blew up a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon, leaving 241 dead. Desperate for a distraction, Reagan announced that the invasion of Grenada was needed to rescue endangered American medical students on the island. The students, however, were in no immediate danger. When the dean of the medical school polled them, 90 percent said they wanted to stay. To avoid even the minimalist kind of scrutiny the United States had received in Vietnam, U.S. officials banned media from accompanying invading forces for their own safety and offered government footage. The 7,000 U.S. invaders encountered more resistance than they had bargained for from a small force of poorly armed Cubans. The entire operation was logistically bungled from the start. Twenty-nine U.S. soldiers died, and more than one hundred were wounded. Nine helicopters were lost. Most troops were quickly withdrawn.
Congressman Dick Cheney of Wyoming participated in the first post-invasion congressional delegation and applauded the United States’ new can-do image around the world. When another delegation member, Representative Don Bonker of Washington, derided claims that the students had been at risk, Cheney blasted him in a Washington Post op-ed. As if in a dress rehearsal for lying about Iraq two decades later, Cheney claimed that “the Americans were in imminent danger,” “every effort was made to secure their evacuation by diplomatic means,” and the new Grenadan government posed “a threat to the security of the entire region.” Fellow delegation member representative Don Dellums of California challenged Cheney’s distortions, calling the invasion “a thinly veiled effort to use American student and a tiny black Caribbean country to mask the further militarization of American foreign policy.” Dellums also dismissed the claim of protecting the students, note “our delegation could not find one confirmed instance in which an American was threatened or endangered before the invasion. In fact, the…campus was a mere 20 meters from an unprotected beach. If the safety of the students was the primary goal, why did it take the U.S. forces three days to reach it?” By a ten-to-one margin, the UN General Assembly “deeply deplor[ed]” the “armed intervention in Granada,” which it called “a flagrant violation of international law.”
Among the casualties were at least twenty-one mental patients killed in a misguided bombing attack on their hospital. General Edward Trobaugh, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told reporters that the Grenadan People’s Revolutionary Army had been inept but the small contingent of Cubans on the island, many of whom were there to build an airstrip, had fought well. He informed visiting congressmen that there was no indication that the medical students had ever been threatened. Reagan criticized the press for labeling the action an “invasion” when it was really a “rescue mission.”
In his address to the American people, Reagan emphasized the threat to U.S. security, pointing to “a warehouse of military equipment [that] contained weapons and ammunition stacked almost to the ceiling, enough to supply thousands of terrorists.” Reagan dispelled the notion that Grenada was an idyllic tropical escape: “Grenada, we were told, was a friendly island paradise for tourism. Well, it wasn’t. It was a Soviet-Cuban colony, being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy.” “We got there just in time,” he asserted, on step ahead of catastrophe.
Afterward Reagan proudly announce, “Our days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.” Even the sting of humiliation in Vietnam had been alleviated. U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, he claimed, had been denied permission to win.” “We didn’t lose that war,” he insisted. “When the war was all over and we’d come home – that’s when the war was lost.” In December 1988, a National Defense Commission report concluded, “Our failure in Vietnam still casts a shadow over U.S. intervention anywhere.”
The U.S. attempt to avenge the killing of marines in Lebanon was badly bungled. Casey worked closely with the Saudis to assassinate the Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, exploding a massive car bomb outside his residence in 1985. Eighty people died and two hundred were wounded, but Fadlallah escaped unharmed.
While running roughshod over Central America and the Caribbean, Reagan also trampled America’s working class and poor, who were sacrificed to the exigencies of a massive military buildup, which was cheered on by more by than fifty members of the Committee on the Present Danger who held official positions. Right after the 1980 election, former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird had warned that a “defense spending binge” would be “the worst thing that could happen” to the United States. Reagan ignored that advice, having campaigned on the fiction that the United States was militarily weak and vulnerable to a Soviet attack, saying, “we’re in greater danger today than we were the day after Pearl Harbor. Our military is absolutely incapable of defending this country.”
Reagan’s scare tactics worked. By 1985, he had increased defense spending by a staggering 51 percent over 1980 expenditures. To finance this, he slashed federal support for discretionary domestic spending by 30 percent, effectively transferring $70 billion from domestic programs to the military.
Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum praised Budget Director David Stockman’s adroitness at cutting the budget, “but,” he added, “I also think you’ve been cruel, inhumane, and unfair.” Four hundred eight thousand people lost their eligibility for Aid to Families Dependent Children (AFDC) by 1983, and 299,000 saw their benefits cut. Reagan prodded Congress into cutting $2 billion out of the $12 billion food stamp budget and $1 billion from the $3.5 billion budget of school lunches. The budgets for Medicaid, child nutrition, housing, and energy assistance were also pared. Federal funds for cities were cut almost in half. While waging war on the poor, Reagan cut the highest income tax rate, which 70 percent when he took office, to 28 percent by the time he left.
New and upgraded weapons systems rolled off the assembly lines, including the long-delayed and very costly MX missile programs, which moved missiles around loops that hid their precise location, making them largely invulnerable to a Soviet first strike. Reagan knew that the Soviets, whose economy was stagnant, would be hard pressed to keep pace.
The nuclear arms budget also grew by leaps and bounds. In 1981, George Kennan, the architect of U.S. containment policy, decried the continuing senseless buildup of nuclear weapons: “We have gone on piling weapon upon weapon, missile upon missile, new levels of destruction upon old ones. We have done this helplessly, almost involuntarily, like the victims of some sort of hypnotism, like men in a dream, like lemmings headed for the sea.”
Reagan and Bush were anything but helpless in their arms buildup. They rejected the widely held view that nuclear war would lead to mutual destruction and began planning to win such a war – an approach advocated by nuclear extremists like Colin Gray and Keith Payne, who declared in 1980, “The United States should plan to defeat the Soviet Union.” They believed that the United States might lose 20 million citizens in the process. The key to surviving a nuclear attack, they posited, was an effective command-and-control structure to prevent chaos and keep the lines of communication open. The military called “C3”: command, control, and communications. Reagan invested heavily to ensure its invulnerability. Perversely, he projected such a war-winning strategy onto the Soviets. He pointed to a massive Soviet civil defense program as proof, even though no such program existed.
The Pentagon’s master plan for 1984 – 88 ranked the defense of the Middle East second only to defense of North America and Western Europe. The plan explained:
Our principal objectives are to assure continued access to Persian Gulf oil and to prevent the Soviets from acquiring political-military control of the oil directly or through proxies. It is essential that the Soviet Union be confronted with the prospect of a major conflict should it seek to reach oil resources of the Gulf. Whatever the circumstances, we should be prepared to introduce American forces directly into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened.
To put this into effect, the United States spent a billion dollars modernizing military bases and deployed nuclear-armed cruise missiles to Comiso, Italy, from which they could reach target throughout the Middle East. It inserted itself into the middle of the Iran-Iraq War. It provided arms to Iran, helping it turn the tide and begin advancing, by mid-1982, toward Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. Administration officials then had a change of heart and decided to do “whatever was necessary and legal” to prevent an Iranian victory. They did so knowing full well that Iraq was using chemical weapons. On November 1, senior State Department official Jonathan Howe informed Secretary of State Shultz that Iraq was resorting to “almost daily use of CW” against Iran. In December 1983, Reagan sent special envoy Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to meet with Saddam Hussein. The U.S. Embassy reported that Saddam showed “obvious pleasure” at Rumsfeld’s visit and the letter he presented from the president. Rumsfeld assured Saddam that the United States was doing all it could to cut off arms sales to Iran.
Rumsfeld returned for a second visit the following March, partly to assure Saddam that the United States’ priority was defeating Iran, not punishing Iraq for using chemical weapons. Howard Teicher, a Reagan administration NSC Iraq expert later admitted in a sworn court affidavit that the United States had “actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by providing military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure Iraq had the military weaponry required.” More than sixty officers at the Defense Intelligence Agency provided combat planning assistance. Teicher reported that Casey used a Chilean company to deliver cluster bombs, which could effectively repel Iran’s human-wave attacks. U.S., British, and German arms manufacturers happily supplied Iraq’s growing needs. Under license by the Commerce Committee, U.S. companies shipped several strains of anthrax that were later used in Iraq’s biological weapons program and insecticides that could be used for chemical warfare. The Iraqi military brazenly warned in February 1984, “the invaders should know that for every harmful insect there is an insecticide capable of annihilating it whatever the number and Iraq possesses this annihilation insecticide.”
Iran asked for a UN Security Council investigation. Although U.S. intelligence reports confirmed Iran’s charges, the United States remained silent for several more months, before finally criticizing the Iraqi use of chemical warfare in early March. But when Iran proposed a UN resolution condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, U.S. Ambassador Kirkpatrick lobbied other countries to render “no decision.” Upon the Iraqi ambassador’s suggestion, the United States preempted the Iranian measure by getting a Security Council presidential statement in late March opposing the use of chemical weapons but not mentioning Iraq as the guilty party. In November 1984, the United States restored diplomatic relations with Iraq. Not only did the use of chemical warfare persist until the end of the war with Iran, but in late 1987, the Iraqi air force began dropping chemical weapons against Iraq’s own Kurdish citizens, whom the government accused of supporting Iran. The attacks against rebel-controlled villages peaked with the chemical warfare assault on the village of Halabjah in March 1988. Despite widespread outrage in the United States, including from many inside the administration, U.S. intelligence aid to Iraq actually increased in 1988 and, in December of that year, the government authorized a sale to Iraq of $1.5 million in insecticides by Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of the napalm used in Vietnam.
Infuriated by Iraq’s use of chemical weapons and by U.S. tacit support for such heinous behavior, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had ended the shah’s secret nuclear weapons program when he assumed power in 1979, condemning nuclear weapons as anti-Islamic, reversed course inn 1984 and started the program back up again.
While the United States was strengthening its support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, Reagan continued his bombastic anti-Soviet rhetoric and provocative behavior. In 1983, he urged his audience at the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, ‘to speak out against those would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority…[not] to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.” The United States deployed ground-launched cruise missile to Great Britain and Pershing II missiles to West Germany in November 1983 and conducted Able Archer 83 – a massive military test using nuclear weapons – that same month. By the end of 1983, U.S.-Soviet relations had reached their lowest point in more than two decades. The two nations were conducting proxy wars around the globe, and a real one seemed possible. Some Soviet officials were convinced that a U.S. attack was imminent.
Bellicose rhetoric frightened the public. The Day After, which was viewed by a huge television audience, and other nuclear-war movies, heightened the sense of alarm and helped spark a massive nuclear freeze movement. Psychiatrists reported that children in both the United States and the Soviet Union were experiencing an outbreak of nuclear nightmares not seen since the early 1960s.
Even nuclear weapons designers were not inured against the implications of the rising threat of nuclear war. Physicist Theodore Taylor had an epiphany during his first visit to the Soviet Union. He described the experience to Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, whose own probing scholarship had revolutionized the field of nuclear studies:
Walking in Red Square in Moscow, Taylor saw many young people in wedding parties visiting Lenin’s tomb and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and was impressed by how happy they looked. He experienced a flashback to the night of the birth of one of his children years before when, rather than being with his wife, he was at the Pentagon poring over intelligence data, including aerial photographs of central Moscow, in connection with potential plans for nuclear attack. Standing Red Square, he began to weep uncontrollably: “It was seeing those happy-looking, specific people, going around, working their way up the mausoleum. For any human being to contemplate setting of a bomb on top of all this, these people, is insane…a symptom of insanity.” He had experienced such feelings before, but now for the first time “I literally set foot in the SU to see that it was that I was doing with all the details filled in.” Before that, Moscow had been no more than “a set of lines at various levels of rads…and…pressures and calories…per square centimeter” that one had to “match” with “the bombs with those numbers.”
Taylor decided to abandon weapons research and devote himself to more life-affirming research.
Despite his bluster, Reagan too feared the possibility of nuclear war, although his knowledge of nuclear weapons was limited. In 1983, he shocked a group of congressmen when he said that bombers and submarines did not carry nuclear weapons. But his profound gut-level aversion to nuclear weapons was sincere. He repeatedly told stunned advisors that considered them “evil” and wanted to eradicate them. His fears were shaped, in large part, by his religious convictions, particularly his fascination with Armageddon, the biblical account of the bloody conflagration that ends history and augurs Jesus’s return, which he believed might be coming. He associated it with nuclear war and thought it was his responsibility to protect the American people. Bud McFarlane, who served as Reagan’s deputy national security advisor, said, “From the time he adopted the Armageddon thesis, he saw it as a nuclear catastrophe. Well, what do you do about that? Reagan’s answer was that you build a tent or a bubble and protect your country.”
Reagan decided to protect the United States from incoming missiles by building a high-tech, futuristic atmospheric shield around the nation. But such a seemingly benign defensive shield was actually a major provocation to the Soviets. Although such a shield, if it worked at all, would have done little to protect against a Soviet first strike, it might have offered a measure of protection against a limited retaliatory attack by a Soviet Union already crippled by a U.S. first strike.
Reagan also understood how easily a crisis could be provoked. In September 1983, when Soviet military personnel mistakenly took a Korean Air Lines passenger jet that had crossed into Soviet airspace for a spy plane and, after unheeded warning, shot it down, killing all 269 people on board, including 61 Americans, Reagan railed against “the Korean Air Lines massacre” as an “act of barbarism” and a “crime against humanity.” But in his memoirs, he drew a different lesson: “If anything, the KAL incident demonstrated how close the world had come to the precipice and how much we needed nuclear arms control: If, as some people speculated, the Soviet pilot simply mistook the airliner for a military plane, what kind of imagination did it take to think of a Soviet military man with his finger close to a nuclear push button making an even more tragic mistake?”
His concerns about nuclear war came to the fore again the following month. After watching an advance copy of The Day After, he wrote in his diary: “It has Lawrence, Kansas, wiped out in a nuclear war Russia. It is powerfully done – all 7 mil. Worth. Its’ very effective & left me very depressed.” The usually unflappable Reagan remained depressed for days. His advisors became so concerned that they brought in Weinberger’s Soviet expert, Assistant Secretary of Defense for National Security Policy Richard Perle, to talk sense into him. Reagan’s concerns didn’t abate, although Perle and others could sometimes manipulate him into defending a nuclear buildup that was at odds with his deeper wishes. It was also during this time, in the fall of 1983, that he was beginning to grasp that Soviet leaders took his bellicose rhetoric and military escalation seriously and feared that he was preparing for an attack.
His diary entry for November 18 was revealing. He worried about the Soviets being “so paranoid about being attacked” that he planned to reassure them that “no one has any intention of doing anything like. What the hell have they got that anyone would want.” He then noted that Shultz would appear on ABC following The Day After, but now he was more concerned about making sure the film didn’t further fuel the already strong public opposition to his nuclear policies: “We know it’s ‘anti-nuke’ propaganda but we’re going to take it over & say it shows why we must keep on doing what we’re doing.” In that same diary entry, he also wrote about “a most sobering experience with Cap. W. & Gen. Vessey in the situation room – a briefing on our complete plan in the event of a nuclear attack.”
Reagan later wrote in his memoirs, “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and American. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. In fact, I had difficulty accepting my own conclusion at first.” When he came to office, it didn’t dawn on him that the Soviets could actually fear a U.S. first strike. “But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.”
Although Reagan might have found such an idea inconceivable, he did note that “there were still some people at the Pentagon who claimed a nuclear war was ‘winnable.’” He concluded that they were “crazy,” but he was beginning to understand why the Soviets might take them seriously. In October, he suggested to Shultz that “maybe I should go see [Yuri] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.”
The Soviet leaders not only feared the kind of decapitating first strike envisioned in Presidential Directive 59, drummed up by members of the Committee on the Present Danger, they took concrete steps to ensure the survivability of their nuclear deterrent – a form of sub-delegation similar to that undertaken earlier by Eisenhower. Their fears were heightened by U.S. deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe in 1983, which meant that Soviet leaders would have even less time to launch a retaliatory strike. As David Hoffman details in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 work, The Dead Hand, Soviet leaders contemplated constructing a fully automated system, the “Dead Hand,” in which computers would launch a nuclear counterstike if leaders were incapacitated. Frightened by this Strangelovian prospect – “It is complete madness,” said Colonel Valery Yarynich of the Strategic Rocket Forces – they instead settled on a system in which a small number of duty officers in deep underground bunkers would authorized the launch. The system was tested in November 1984 and put into operation soon thereafter.
Yarynich grappled with a profoundly troubling question that often plagued U.S. nuclear planners as well: he wondered if, knowing that their country as already destroyed, Soviet duty officers would actually decide to launch their weapons. He explained:
We have a young lieutenant colonel sitting there, communications are destroyed, and he hears “boom,” “boom,” everything is shaking – he might fail to launch. If he doesn’t begin the launching procedure there will be no retaliation. What’s the point of doing it if half the globe is already wiped out? To destroy the second part? It makes no sense. Even at this point, this lieutenant colonel might say, “No, I won’t launch it.” No one will condemn him for it or put him before a firing squad. If I were in his place, I wouldn’t launch.”
Yarynich understood that it was the unpredictability of the officer’s response that gave the system whatever limited deterrent effect it might have. He also thought it irrational that the Soviets were going out of their way to hide rather than broadcast the system’s existence.
Reagan traced his commitment to eradicating nuclear weapons to his earliest presidential briefing about nuclear weapons:
One of the first statistics I saw as president was one of the most sobering and startling I’ve ever heard. I’ll never forget it: The Pentagon said at least 150 million American lives would be lost in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union – even if we “won.” For Americans who survived such a war, I couldn’t imagine what life would be like. The planet would be so poisoned that “survivors” would have no place to live. Even if nuclear war did not mean the extinction of mankind, it would certainly mean the end of civilization as we knew it. No one could “win” a nuclear war.
Despite his abhorrence of nuclear war, Reagan possessed a dark side that fantasized about using those weapons to defeat his enemies. Such thinking slipped out in shocking fashion when Reagan quipped during a sound check for a radio broadcast, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russian forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.” Reagan was unaware that the tapes were rolling as he spoke. The reaction at home and abroad was quick and unsparing. Colorado Senator Gary Hart thought that Reagan’s “poor judgement” might have been caused by the stress of his reelection campaign but worried that “more frighteningly, it’s in moments of that sort that his real feelings come out, which is the most dismaying and distressing possibility.” The New York Times reported that the story was front-page news across Europe. Paris’s Le Monde figured that psychologists would have to determine whether the comments were “an expression of repressed desire or the exorcism of a dreaded phantom.” West Germany’s Social Democrats dismissed Reagan – “The lord of life or combustion of all Western Europe” – as “an irresponsible old man…who probably can no longer distinguish whether he is making a horror movie or commanding a superpower,” while the Greens exclaimed that the “perverse joke makes the bold of every reasonable person run cold.” TASS, the Soviet news agency, quoted a Western leader who described Reagan as a man “who smiles at the possibility of the mass extermination of people” and decried “the hypocrisy of his peace rhetoric.” Izvestia called it a “monstrous statement.”
At home, the controversy refused to go away. Commentators raised doubts about Reagan’s fitness for the job. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver’s admission that Reagan often napped during cabinet meetings didn’t help. John Oakes, a former senior New York Times editor, asked what kind of confidence the American people could have during a crisis in a man of such “shallow, rash, and superficial judgement?” He and others cited Reagan’s confusion over fundamental policy issues, including contradictory statements about tax policy, and found him unqualified for the job. Former MIT president Jerome Wiesner, who served as science advisor to both Kennedy and Johnson, described Reagan’s “gallows humor” as a “verbal Rorschach test” and questioned his competence to continue with his finger on the nuclear button. Some people even raised the question of the president’s metal acuity. Reporters were particularly troubled by a recent photo opportunity at his ranch at which Reagan was asked a basic question about arms control. Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer described the scene: “No answer came, and for an embarrassing few moments, the President of the United States seemed lost, gesturing but not speaking. Then his wife, Nancy, at his side, apparently saved him with an answer, uttered while barely moving her lips. ‘Doing everything we can,’ she said. Reagan repeated, ‘We’re doing everything we can.’”
Those around Reagan ran interference and protected him as best they could. George Shultz nurtured the side of Reagan that preferred negotiations over belligerency. Backed by Nancy Reagan and Michael Deaver, Shultz battled against the administration zealots. Reagan gave Shultz the green light to improve relations with the Soviets. In mid-1982, the United States and the Soviets began negotiating a new treaty to dramatically reduce strategic forces: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. But Reagan continued the Committee on the Present Danger’s campaign of bemoaning American weakness. “You often hear,” he stated in late 1982, “that the United States and the Soviet Union are in an arms race. The truth is that while the Soviet Union has raced, we have not. … Today, in virtually every measure of military power the Soviet Union enjoys a decided advantage.” Despite the scare talk, the United States still maintained a small advantage. In 1985, the U.S. arsenal contained 11,188 strategic warheads to the Soviets’ 9,907. In total warheads – strategic, intermediate-range, and tactical – the United States led 20,924 to 19,774. And global arsenals continued to grow, peaking in 1986 at more than 70,000 nuclear weapons with a total destructive capability equivalent to that of approximately 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs.
Arms control gained renewed urgency when scientists calculated that even a small nuclear exchange would release enough smoke, dust, and ash into the atmosphere to block the sunlight, plunging the earth into a prolonged period of cooling that would kill off much of its plant life. Some predicted dire consequences, even the end of life on the planet, caused by the “nuclear winter” that would result from a nuclear war.
Tensions between the world’s two military superpowers were running precariously high when an extraordinary development in the Soviet Union changed the course of history. In March 1985, Konstantin Chernenko became the third Soviet leader to die in office in two and a half years. His successor, fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, brought new energy and vision to the job. As a young man, he had witnessed the horrors of war. Later, as a Communist Party official, he had traveled widely in the West. As premier, he intended to realize his dream of revitalizing Soviet socialist democracy and improving the lives of the Soviet people. Like Khrushchev and other reformers before him, he knew that that could not be accomplished as long as military expenditures continued virtually unchecked.
He later described the situation he confronted: “Defense spending was bleeding the other branches of the economy dry.” Visits to defense plants and agricultural production complexes drove home the point. “The defense production workshop making modern tanks…had the newest equipment. The one working for agriculture was making obsolete models of tractors on old-time conveyor belts.” The cause of this disparity was obvious. “Over the previous five-year plans,” Gorbachev wrote, “military spending had been growing twice as fast as national income. This Moloch was devouring everything that hard labor and strain produced.” But even Gorbachev found it difficult to obtain the hard data needed to fully assess the situation. “What made matters worse,” he explained, “was the fact that it was impossible to analyze the problem. All the figures related to the military-industrial-complex were classified. Even Politburo members didn’t have access to them.”
Precise figures are still hard to come by. Central Committee staffer Vitaly Katayev may have kept the most detailed and accurate records. He estimated that in 1985 the Soviet defense sector accounted for 20 percent of the economy. It incorporated nine ministries, not all of whose functions could be identified by their titles. The ministry dealing with the Soviet Union’s nuclear programs, for example, was titled the “Ministry of Medium Machine Building.” Defense production consumed the efforts of more than fifty cities and, according to NSA Director William Odom, at up some 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet budget.
To realize his goals for revitalizing the nation, Gorbachev needed to end the arms race and redeploy resources to productive purposes. He also needed to end the war in Afghanistan, a conflict he had thought from the beginning was a “fatal error” and now believed was a “bleeding wound.” Achieving those goals would go a long way toward refurbishing the Soviet Union’s international image, which had been badly tarnished in the previous decade. One of his foreign policy advisors, Sergei Tarasenko, commented, “One of the first concerns of the Gorbachev administration was to repair this image so the Soviet Union wouldn’t be view as the ‘evil empire.’” Gorbachev braced for resistance from his own defense sector.
Gorbachev wrote his first of several extraordinary letters to Reagan on March 24, 1985. It was a letter that might have been written by Henry Wallace forty years earlier:
Our countries are different by their social systems, by the ideologies in them. But we believe that this should not be a reason for animosity. Each social system has a right to life, and it should prove its advantages not by force, not by military means, but on the path of peaceful competition with the other system. And all people have the right to go the way they have chosen themselves, without anybody imposing his will on them from the outside.
Gorbachev also echoed Kennedy’s American University commencement address when he wrote to Reagan in October that despite their differences, they must “proceed from the objective that we all live on the same planet and must learn to live together.”
One big question was whether Gorbachev would have a partner in the U.S. president to meet him part-way in realizing his vision for a peaceful and prosperous world. Reagan had never disavowed what he told Richard Allen, who would become his first national security advisor, prior to taking office: “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.” But Reagan’s initial response to Gorbachev was sufficiently positive to keep the doors open. He asked the Soviet leader to meet with a delegation of visiting Americans, including House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Gorbachev sensed that winning the Cold War animated Reagan’s stubborn devotion to his Strategic Defense Initiative, which became known as “Star Wars.” The Soviet leader knew that such a system would do nothing to protect the United States if the Soviets launched thousands of missiles against it, and reasoned that therefore its true purpose was to protect against a limited Soviet response after the United States had delivered a first strike. He also knew that the Soviets could render it even more ineffective by overwhelming it with additional missiles and warheads or by confusing it with undetectable decoys. And the cost of building more missiles and decoys was far less than the cost of SDI countermeasures. He wrote to Reagan that “the program of ‘star wars’ already seriously undermines stability. We urgently advise you to wind down this sharply destabilizing and dangerous program.” In October, Gorbachev decried SDI and overall U.S. militarism at a meeting of Warsaw Pact leaders: “They are planning to win over socialism through war or military blackmail. [SDI’s] militaristic nature is obvious. … Its purpose is to secure permanent technological superiority of the West, not only over the socialist community, but over [U.S.] allies as well.”
Despite their serious differences over SDI, human rights, military buildups, and third-world conflicts, Gorbachev and Reagan held a friendly summit Geneva in November. They connected on a human level, if not on a political and ideological one. Over dinners, they toasted each other warmly. Gorbachev mentioned the biblical adage that there is “a time to throw stones, and…a time to gather them.” Now is the time,” he proffered, “to gather stones which have been cast in the past.” Reagan noted that they were dining on the forty-third anniversary of the Soviet counterattack at the decisive Battle of Stalingrad and said he hoped that this summit would be “yet another turning point for all mankind – one that would make possible to have a world of peace and freedom.”
After the meeting, both sides remained hopeful, though wary. Soviet leaders were baffled by Reagan’s stubborn clinging to his Star Wars fantasy and feared that he might be lulling them into a dangerous complacency. Gorbachev feared that Reagan was just the mouthpiece of the U.S. military-industrial complex, as he had once been the mouthpiece of GE.
Gorbachev and his supporters were sincere in their desire for disarmament, détente, and democratic reform. Anatoly Chernyaev, who was once Gorbachev’s most trusted foreign policy advisors, later insisted that “détente was a sincere policy. We wanted détente, we wanted peace, we craved it. … Look at Central Committee Secretary Yegor Ligachev, he was a conservative, right? A reactionary, even, and yet he…would stand up, right in front of Gorbachev, and he would scream, ‘How long will our military-industrial complex keep devouring our economy, our agriculture and our consumer goods? How long are we going to take this ogre, how long are we going to throw into its mouth the food of our children?’”
Gorbachev decided to push his “peace offensive” even more aggressively. In January 1986, he wrote to Reagan, boldly offering “a concrete program…for the complete liquidation of nuclear weapons throughout the world…before the end of the century.” In the interim, he proposed removing all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Europe, ending nuclear testing, sharply reducing strategic weapons, and changing the ABM treaty to allow the United States to continue research on SDI but banning deployment for fifteen years. He had already, the previous August, announced a unilateral nuclear testing moratorium.
The U.S. response reinforced Soviet doubts about Reagan’s real intentions. The United States announced plans for a new series of nuclear tests. It also increased its support for the Afghan mujahideen and undertook provocative actions on other fronts.
On April 26, 1986, the devastating nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine gave Gorbachev further impetus to push his antinuclear campaign. The accident was devastating in itself, leaving 8,000 dead and directly affecting 435,000 more. The government’s attempt to downplay its severity proved to be a huge international embarrassment as radioactive particles rained down across Western Europe and beyond. But most significantly, the accident drove home the danger posed by even a limited nuclear war. Marshal Sergie Akhromeyev, the head of the Soviet general staff, recalled that after Chernobyl, “a nuclear danger for our people ceased to be an abstraction. It became a palpable reality.” Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh reflected on the fact that Chernobyl “was something like one-third the smallest nuclear explosive. And if it caused such great damage to almost half of Europe, what would happen if we should use all those arsenals we now have in our hands?” Gorbachev told a Politburo meeting in July 1986, “Global nuclear war can no longer be the continuation of rational politics, as it would bring the end of all life, and therefore of all politics.”
Chernobyl offered concrete proof that the Soviet Union was floundering. In May, Shulz suggested to Reagan a way to both exploit Soviet weakness and push Reagan’s nuclear arms control agenda. He told the president, “The Soviets, contrary to the Defense Department and the CIA line, are not an omnipotent, omnipresent power gaining ground and threatening to wipe us out. On the contrary, we are winning. In fact, we are miles ahead.” Shultz stressed that the Soviets were ahead in only one area: ballistic missiles. Therefore, reducing the numbers of ballistic missiles was very in the United States’ interest.
Reagan and Gorbachev met in Iceland in October 1986. Gorbachev brought along a stunningly bold set of disarmament proposals. In the opening session, the sweep of Gorbachev’s vision caught Reagan unprepared, causing the president, as Gorbachev recalled, to fumble clumsily for a response:
Reagan reacted by consulting or reading his notes written on cards. I tried to discuss with him the points I had just outlined, but all my attempts failed. I decided to try specific questions, but still did not get any response. President Reagan was looking through his notes. The cards got mixed up and some of them fell to the floor. He started shuffling them, looking for the right answer to my arguments, but he could not find it. There could be no right answer available – the American President and his aides had been preparing for a completely different conversation.
Gorbachev offered to cut strategic offensive arms in half, eliminate all U.S. and Soviet IRBMSs in Europe while allowing Britain and France to maintain their arsenals, freeze short-range missiles, stop nuclear testing, allow on-site inspections as the Americans demanded, and limit SDI testing to labs for the next ten years. Reagan initially failed to grasp the significance of what Gorbachev proposed or the fact that he was acceding to long-standing U.S. demands, leaving the Soviet leader frustrated by his response. During the break, Reagan huddled with his advisors back at the U.S. Embassy. Paul Nitze observed that the Soviet proposal was “the best we have received in twenty-five years.”
The debate continued at the following session. Gorbachev pushed Reagan to seize this extraordinary opportunity. Reagan gave on some points but held tight to his vision of SDI. Gorbachev countered that he wouldn’t be able to convince his people and his allies to make such dramatic reductions in strategic weapons if Reagan insisted on destroying the ABM treaty. Reagan offered to share SDI with the Soviets at some date in the future when it was ready. One of Reagan’s advisors, Jack Matlock, recalled, “Gorbachev finally exploded. ‘Excuse me, Mr. President,’ he said, his voice rising,’ but I cannot take your idea of sharing SDI seriously. You are not willing to share with us oil equipment, digitally guided machine tools, or ever milking machines. Sharing SDI would provoke a second American revolution! Let’s be realistic and pragmatic.’”
Expert negotiating teams met through the night, hammering out an agreement both sides could live with. Nitze led the U.S. team. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev led the Soviet team. Kenneth Adelman, associate director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, proclaimed, “Defining strategic systems, excluding bomber weapons, and closing on limits is one amazing night’s work, indisputably more progress than we achieved in thousands of hours in hundreds of meetings over the previous five years.
But when they met the next morning, negotiations again ran aground. As Gorbachev summarized them, they agreed on reducing strategic weapons and on intermediate-range nuclear weapons but failed on the comprehensive nuclear test ban and on the ABM treaty. “Let’s go home,” the despondent Gorbachev said. “We’ve accomplished nothing.” After discussing other matters, Gorbachev made on last-ditch effort proposing that Shulz and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze meet over lunch to see if they could resolve the differences.
Over lunch the Soviet foreign minister, objecting to the fact that the Soviets had thus far made all the concessions, pressed the United States for compromise on SDI. The United States came up with a formulation that would achieve the intended gains while allowing it to keep SDI. At the afternoon session, Gorbachev countered with a proposal that the ABM treaty remain in effect for ten years, with neither party having the right of withdrawal or the right to test any components of an ABM system outside laboratories, and a 50 percent reduction in strategic offensive weapons in five years, with the remainder to be eliminated in the next five years. After further wrangling over the details, each leader met with his close advisors. Reagan asked Perle, the most conservative member of his team, whether the United States could proceed with its SDI research under the constraints placed by the Soviets. Perle, who reared that a sweeping arms control deal would strengthen the Soviet economy and society, replied, “Mr. President, we cannot conduct the research under the terms he’s proposing. It will effectively kill SDI.” Reagan then solicited opinions from Shulz and Nitze, both of whom disagreed with Perle and urged Reagan to accept Gorbachev’s wording.
When they returned, Gorbachev realized that Reagan had changed the language from eliminating all strategic weapons to eliminating only all ballistic missiles, the area in which the Soviets were strongest. Gorbachev objected. Reagan finally relented and asked, “Do we have in mind…that by the end of the two five-year periods all nuclear explosive devices would be eliminated, including bombs, battlefield systems, cruise missiles, submarine weapons, intermediate range systems, and so on?" Gorbachev agreed, "We can say that, list all those weapons." Shultz responded, "Let's do it!" Gorbachev said he was ready to sign the agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons if Reagan restricted SDI testing to the laboratory. Reagan balked, heeding Perle's advice, and insisted on the right to conduct atmospheric tests. They had reached an impasse. Gorbachev made one last appeal:
If we sign a package containing major concessions by the Soviet Union regarding fundamental problems, you will become, without exaggeration, a great president. You are now literally two steps from that. … If not, then let’s part at this point and forget Reykjavik. But there won’t be another opportunity like this. At any rate, I know I won’t have one. I firmly believe that we could come to an agreement. Otherwise I would not have raised the question of an immediate meeting with you; otherwise I would not have come here in the name of the Soviet leadership with a solid store of serious, compromising proposals. I hoped they would meet with understanding and support from your side, that we could resolve all issues. If this does happen, if we manage to achieve deep reductions and the destruction of nuclear arms, all of your critics will not dare open their mouths. They would then be going against the opinions of the overwhelming majority of people in the world, who would welcome our success. If, on the other hand, we are not able to come to an agreement, it will obviously become the job of another generation of leaders; you and I have no more time. The American side has essentially not made any concessions, not a single major step to meet us halfway. It’s hard to do business on that basis.
Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze then interjected “very emotionally” that future generations, reading the minutes of meetings and seeing how close the participants had come to eliminating nuclear weapons, would never forgive them if they didn’t come to an agreement. Reagan said that adding the word “laboratory” would cause him great political damage at home. Gorbachev said that if he allowed the United States to take the arms race to space and deploy SDI after ten years, he would be viewed as foolish and irresponsible. Each asked the other to bend. Neither would.
The meeting ended. The United States and the Soviet Union had come within a hairsbreadth – one word – of eliminating nuclear weapons. But the scourge of nuclear weaponry would continue to haunt the world. Reagan, egged on by arch-neocon Perle, sacrificed the hopes of humanity for an illusion – a Star Wars fantasy that, as Richard Rhodes wrote, represented little more than “a specious concern for testing outside the ‘laboratory’ systems that had hardly yet even entered the laboratory in 1986.
Reagan and Gorbachev left the building. Gorbachev described the scene:
It was already dusk. The mood was downcast. Reagan reproached me: “You planned from the beginning to come here and put me in this position!” “No. Mr. President,” I replied. “I am prepared to go back inside right now and sign the document concerning the issues we already agreed upon if you will refrain from plans to militarize space.” “I’m extremely sorry,” Reagan answered.
Gorbachev expressed optimism in public, highlighting how much progress the two sides had made. “For the first time, we looked beyond the horizon,” he declared. But in private he expressed profound disappointment at U.S. obstinancy. He explained to the Politburo that he was dealing not only with the “class enemy” – the capitalist United States – but with President Reagan, “who exhibited extreme primitivism, a caveman outlook, and intellectual impotence.” That, however, was not the main impediment. The first problem, he averred, was tactical: the United States had miscalculated the extent of the Soviet Union’s “internal difficulties” and therefore assumed that Gorbachev would be almost desperate to reach an agreement, even on U.S. terms. The second was strategic: the United States believed it might “exhaust us economically via the arms race, create obstacles for Gorbachev and for the entire Soviet leadership, undermine its plans for resolving economic and social problems and thereby provoke popular discontent.” The U.S. leaders, he said, hoped this would rupture Soviet relations with third-world nations and “with the help of SDI…achieve military superiority.” In concluding his remarks, Gorbachev expressed his bitterness toward the U.S. negotiators: “representatives of American administration are people without conscience, with no morale. Their line is one of pressure, deceit or greedy mercantilism.”
Both sides hoped to revive the talks. But before that could happen, scandal rocked the Reagan-Bush administration. On October 5, 1986, the Sandinistas downed a plane manned by three Americans carrying supplies to Nicaragua’s contras. The only survivor admitted to working for the CIA. Additional information slowly leaked out as hearings of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Tower Commission lifted the veil from an administration up to its eyeballs in illegality, corruption, blundering, and subterfuge involving American hostages in Lebanon, arms sales to Iran, unsuccessful efforts to halt torture and prevent the murder of the CIA station chief in Beirut, ill-fated attempts to cultivate nonexistent “moderates” in Tehran, support for Iraq in its war with Iran, and collaboration with a rogues’ gallery of unsavory characters, including Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, as it funneled war materiel to the contras in Nicaragua in flagrant violation of the 1982 Boland Amendment, which outlawed U.S. financial aid to efforts to defeat the ruling Sandinistas.
The principal operatives in the affair, aside from Reagan and Bush, were CIA Director Casey, National Security Advisory McFarlane, and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a decorated Vietnam veteran who had suffered an apparent nervous breakdown upon returning from Vietnam and spent twenty-two days in Bethesda Naval Hospital. North, who was assigned to the NSC in 1981, was a gung-ho marine with a taste for hyperbole and a touch of megalomania, who had, after his return from Vietnam and hospitalization, become a fundamentalist Christian. North ran much of the operation on a day-to-day basis, putting together an unsavory network of right-wing fund-raisers, covert operatives, and conniving arms dealers to carry it out.
The CIA attempted to circumvent the congressional constraints upon its actions but did not do a very good job of hiding its involvement. It made the mistake of bringing in retired Special Forces veterans who had served in Vietnam. In one embarrassing episode, they convinced the Agency to translate into Spanish an old comic book instructing Vietnamese peasants on ways to take over a village by murdering the mayor, chief of police, and militia. The CIA distributed a Spanish-language version of this “Freedom Fighter’s Manual” to the contras. Some ended up in the hands of opponents of the U.S. wars in Central America, who made them public. Americans also learned that the CIA had mined Nicaraguan harbors, which provoked conservative icon Barry Goldwater to scold Casey. “I am pissed off,” he wrote. “This is an act violating international law. It is an act of war.”
Congress reacted in October 1984 by strengthening the Boland Amendment and cutting off all aid to the contras. In order to tie Casey’s hands, Congress explicitly prohibited any intelligence agency from soliciting funds from “any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual.” Chief of Staff James Baker feared administration “crazies” would nonetheless solicit funds from other countries, which Casey, McFarlane, and North proceeded to do. Saudi Arabia provided the lion’s share, but other nations, including South Africa, Israel, and Taiwan pledged millions of dollars more. Shultz had warned Reagan that approving further assistance would constitute an impeachable offense. But Casey, Bush, and Reagan all pooh-poohed that notion.
Reagan instructed his top aides to do what they could. He told National Security Advisor McFarlane, “I want you to do whatever you have to do to help these people keep body and soul together.” McFarlane soon saw a way to carry that out. In summer 1985, he met with David Kimche, director general for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Kimche convinced him that he was working with Iranian “moderates,” who were poised to take power when the elderly Ayatollah Khomeini passed from the scene. He suggested that in return for arms, the Iranians could help secure the release of U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian Shiite group. Included among the hostages was CIA Beirut station chief William Francis Buckley, who, unknown to the Americans, had been tortured to death in June. In mid-1985, Reagan, despite his public opposition to negotiating with hostage-takers, authorized Israel to transfer TOW antitank missiles to Iran. Israel continued to serve as the go-between in weapons sales for fourteen months. During that time, Iran released some American hostage but seized more so that it always had a steady supply to barter. Israel had also been secretly sending its own weapons to the ayatollah’s regime.
The notion of dealing with Iranian “moderates” had gained currency among top administration officials, who began to think about the shape of a post-Khomeini Iran. In June 1985, the CIA produced a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran titled “Iran: Prospects for a Near Term Instability,” which suggested that conditions inside Iran were unstable and Khomeini’s days might be numbered. The NSC picked up on this theme in a National Security Directive suggesting that Iran “moderates” might be inclined toward the United States. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger wrote on his copy of the report, “This is almost too absurd for comment. It’s based on the assumption there’s about to be a major change in Iran and that we can deal with that rationally. It’s like inviting Kadafi over for a cozy lunch.”
The Iranians demanded and the United States sent HAWK antiaircraft missiles and other weapons. In 1986, the Iranians requested and received battlefield intelligence to assist them in their war with Iraq. They paid exorbitantly for the assistance.
Flush with money from the Iranian arms sales and from the Saudis, the CIA expanded its military support for the contras, with the anti-Castro Cuban Felix Rodriguez and Luis Posada Carriles playing major parts. Rodriguez was a close associate of Vice President Bush’s national security advisor, Donald Gregg, a former CIA official. Posada had escaped incarceration in Venezuela for his role in killing seventy-three people in a Cuban passenger jet bombing in 1976. Congress also authorized $100 million to support Central American operations following the repeal of the Boland Amendment, a move instigated by Cheney.
On October 5, the operation began to come unglued. That day a young Nicaraguan soldier brought down the C-123 cargo plane carrying weapons to the contras. Former marine Eugene Hasenfus, the plane’s only survivor, confessed to his Sandinista captors that he worked for the CIA was supplying the contras. On election day, November 4, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, went public with the story of U.S.-Iranian dealings. Bush, the following day, recorded in his diary, “This is one operation that had been held very, very tight, and I hope it will not leak.”
It was much too late for that. Details of the murky, convoluted operation were splashed across the nation’s newspapers and television screens. The White House issued clumsy denials. On November 13, Reagan admitted that “small amounts of defensive weapons” had been transferred but that “we did not – repeat, did not – trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will be.”
The lies continued when Casey and Rear Admiral John Poindexter testified before Congress. Several of those involved, including Poindexter, North, and General Richard Secord, began shredding thousands of pages of incriminating documents in their possession. On November 25, Reagan gave what historian Sean Wilentz described as “the worst performance of his presidency, if not his entire career” when he told the press corps that based on the preliminary findings of Attorney General Edwin Meese, he “was not fully informed of the nature of one of the activities undertaken in connection with this initiative.” He announced that Poindexter was stepping down as national security advisor and that North had been relieved of his duties. “As I’ve stated previously,” he added, “I believe our policy goals toward Iran are well founded. However, the information brought to my attention yesterday, convinced me that in one aspect, implementation of that policy, was seriously flawed.” After reading this brief statement, he turned the session over to Meese and walked off as reporters kept yelling out questions. One week later, Gallup reported that Reagan’s approval ratings had plummeted 21 points to 46 percent in the course of the month.
Investigations were conducted, all directly implicating Reagan but making it apparent that he had little grasp of and less control over what his underlings were up to. The congressional investigating committee concluded, “If the President did not know what his National Security Advisors were doing, he should have.” Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh declared, “President Reagan created the conditions which made possible the crimes committed by others by his secret deviations from announced national policy as to Iran and hostages and by his own determination to keep the contras together ‘body and soul’ despite a statutory ban on contra aid.”
Among those convicted of crimes were National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane, after an abortive suicide attempt; his successor, Rear Admiral William Poindexter; Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the mastermind behind the entire operation; and Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was indicted but pardoned. CIA Director William Casey died of a brain tumor the day after the congressional hearing began. Vice President George H. W. Bush, though having figured prominently in the foolhardy scheme, managed to avoid prosecution. Deputy CIA Director Robert Gates would barely escape prosecution, thought the manipulation and politicization of intelligence on his watch paved the way for Reagan’s disastrous policies. McFarlane later regretted not having had the “guts” to warn Reagan. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “probably the reason I didn’t is because if I had done that, Bill Casey, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Cap Weinberger would have said I was some kind of commie.”
This sordid affair dashed hopes for renewing talks on nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev decided to salvage something by decoupling the intermediate-range ballistic missile issue from other long-term measures. He visited Washington in December 1987 and signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a major milestone in U.S.-Soviet relations. “This was the first agreement in history on the mutually agreed destruction of an entire class of nuclear weapons,” Gorbachev noted.
Meanwhile, Soviet operations were finally winding down in Afghanistan. Reagan and Casey had transformed Carter’s tentative support for the Afghan insurgents into the CIA’s largest covert operation to date, totaling more than $3 billion. The CIA channeled aid through Pakistan’s President Zia, who funneled U.S. arms and dollars to the most extreme Afghan Islamist faction under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a man of legendary cruelty. According to James Forest, director of terrorism studies at West Point, Hekmatyar “was known…to patrol the bazaars for Kabul with vials of acid, which he would throw in the face of any woman who dared to walk outdoors without a full burka covering her face.” He was also known for skinning prisoners alive. Senior State Department official Stephen Cohen admitted, “The people we did support were the nastier, more fanatic types of mujahideen.” The CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, Howard Hart, recalled, “I was the first chief of station ever sent abroad with this wonderful order: ‘Go kill Soviet soldiers.’ Imagine! I loved it.” The CIA even provided between 2,000 and 2,500 U.S.-made Stinger missiles, some of which WikiLeaks revealed were used to down NATO helicopters three decades later.
From his early days in office, Gorbachev had made clear his intention to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan and sought U.S. assistance in making that happen. He assured Reagan that his country had “no plan for using Afghanistan to gain access to a warm water port, to extend its influence to the Persian Gulf or to impinge on U.S. interests in any way.”
The United States worked with the Saudis and Pakistanis to tie Soviet forces down as long as possible and did what it could to make sure that UN efforts to broker a settlement failed, funneling massive amounts of money and arms to the insurgents, who were also profiting immensely off the suddenly burgeoning opium production and sales. The Chinese, British, and Egyptian contributed millions of dollars’ worth of weapons. The CIA delivered the money and weapons to Pakistani intelligence. After taking their cut, the Pakistanis shipped the remainder to Afghan rebel leaders in Peshawar, who skimmed off their share before shipping the rest on to the front lines. Many of the stockpiled weapons would later be turned against the United States.
Because of the fighting, approximately 3 million Afghans – one-third of the population – fled to Pakistan. In February 1988, Gorbachev announced that Soviet troops would withdraw from the country. The withdrawal began on May 15 and lasted for ten months. The Geneva Accords ending the fighting were signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Only the Soviets adhered to their commitments. Zia promised Regan that Pakistani supplies to the Afghan rebels would continue to flow unabated. “We’ll just lie about it,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing for eight years. … Muslims have the right to lie in a good cause.”
Over a million Afghans were killed in the fighting. The Pakistani dictatorship profited, becoming the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The United States turned a blind eye toward Pakistan’s progress in developing a nuclear bomb.
Tens of thousands of Arabs flooded into Pakistan to join the jihad against the infidels, including a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden and Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri. They and thousands of other future Islamist terrorist received military training in the Pakistani camps, learning such valuable skills as how to perform assassinations and detonate car bombs. Thousands more flocked to Pakistan’s madrassas, where they were indoctrinated in radical Islam and recruited for jihad. The madrassas were one product of the $75 billion the Saudis spent during the 1980s to spread Wahhabi extremism. Casey ignored repeated warnings that the religious fanaticism he was helping unleash would eventually pose a threat to U.S. interests. He instead persisted in his view that the unholy partnership between Christianity and Islam would endure and could be used to bludgeon the Soviets throughout the region. In fat, in mid-decade, Casey unleashed mujahideen raids across the border into the Soviet Union in the hope of inciting Islamist uprising by Soviet Muslims.
Upon withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Soviets sounded out U.S. willingness to collaborate on curbing Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, but the Americans could not be bothered. The die-hard Islamists now in control of Afghanistan worked closely with Pakistani intelligence. Having achieved its goals, the United States washed its hands of the mess it had helped create. Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman complained, “We start wars without figuring out how we would end them. Afghanistan was lurching into civil war, and we basically didn’t care anymore.” He said that he and U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley had tried to get CIA officials from Directors Robert Gates and William Webster on down to think seriously about ending the U.S., Saudi, and Pakistani involvement, but they were dealing with people who reasoned, “Why should we go out there and talk to people with towels on their heads?” According to RAND expert Cheryl Benard, whose husband, Zalmay Khalilzad, served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan:
We made a deliberate choice. At first, everyone thought, there’s no way to beat the Soviets. So what we have to do is throw the worst crazies against them we can find, and there was a lot of collateral damage. We knew exactly who these people were, and what their organizations were like, and we didn’t care. Then, we allowed them to get rid of, just kill all the moderate leaders. The reason we don’t have moderate leaders in Afghanistan today is because we let the nuts kill them all. They killed the leftists, the moderates, the middle-of-the-roaders. They were just eliminated, during the 1980s and afterwards.
Reagan left office a befuddled old man who claimed little knowledge of things going on under his nose, yet many people lionize him and credit him with having restored the United States’ faith in itself after the failed presidencies of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Even before Reagan’s second term, conservatives had begun anointing him one of the nation’s great presidents. A 1984 Republican campaign memo read, “Paint Reagan as the personification of all that is right with or heroized by America. Leave Mondale in a position where an attack on Reagan is tantamount to an attack on America’s idealized image of itself.”
But what is Reagan’s real legacy? One of the most poorly informed and least engaged chief executives in U.S. history, he empowered a right-wing resurgence of hard-line anti-Communists who militarized U.S. foreign policy and rekindled the Cold War. He paid lip service to democracy while arming and supporting repressive dictators. He turned local and regional conflicts in the Middle East and Latin America into Cold War battlegrounds, unleashing a reign of terror to suppress popular movements. He spent enormous sums on the military while cutting social programs for the poor. He sharply reduced taxes on the wealthy, tripling the national debt and transforming the United States from the world’s leading creditor in 1981 to its biggest debtor by 1985. In October 1987, he oversaw the worst stock market collapse since the Great Depression. He let the chance to rid the world of offensive nuclear weapons slip through his fingers because he wouldn’t let go of a childish fantasy. And as for his much-vaunted role in ending the Cold War, as we will see, the lion’s share of credit goes instead to his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Next, Chapter 12: THE COLD WAR ENDS – Squandered Opportunities