FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: Essays for the Presidency

The First Term: The Reagan Road to Détente

A September 12, 1990 file photo shows former U.S. President Ronald Reagan holding a hammer and chisel next to the Berlin Wall on Poltsdammer Platz in East Berlin. Michael Probst / Reuters

The conventional wisdom has it that Ronald Reagan was elected to his first term in 1980 largely on the strength of economic considerations. Yet there can be no doubt that a good many voters supported him because they had been growing increasingly worried about the decline of American power and resolve in the face of the growing power and aggressiveness of the Soviet Union. Nor is there any doubt that these voters included a significant number of life-long Democrats (I myself among them), who saw in the Carter Administration—and especially in Mr. Carter's announcement shortly after taking office that it was becoming less and less necessary to contain Soviet expansionism—evidence that the Democratic Party was still in the grip of the neoisolationist forces that had captured it in 1972 behind the candidacy of George McGovern.

It was true that after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Mr. Carter had repented of his conversion to McGovernism and emerged as a born-again Truman Democrat. Confessing that the invasion had effected a "dramatic change" in his view of "the Soviets' ultimate goals," he even went so far as to proclaim a new presidential doctrine, reminiscent both in spirit and substance of the doctrine bearing Truman's name which had originally committed the nation to the policy of containment in 1947. The new Carter Doctrine of 1979 warned the Soviet Union that "an attempt . . . to gain control of the Persian Gulf region" would be "regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the U.S." and would be "repelled by use of any means necessary, including military force."

But the new Carter did not confine himself to drawing a line in the Middle East; he also began reversing course in Central America. Earlier in his term, demonstrating that he really had overcome what still earlier he had dismissed as "that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear," Mr. Carter helped topple an already tottering Somoza regime and

Loading, please wait...

This article is a part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, please subscribe.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.