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Reagan Doctrine

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On Friday October 16, 1981, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his personal diary, "Central America is really the world's next hotspot. Nicaragua is an armed camp supplied by Cuba and threatening a communist takeover of all of Central America." (The Reagan Diaries, 2007) For the next eight years as Commander-in-Chief, this mindset would shape his perspective on the small Third World country about the size of North Carolina. The Administration's policies, actions, and attitudes toward Nicaragua and other perceived hostile nations became known as "Reagan Doctrine." The defeat of the Nicaraguan Revolution became the "cornerstone of the Reagan Central American policy and the test case of Reagan Doctrine." (U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, 1992)

Reagan Doctrine was not a label coined by President Reagan or his administration. It was a term used later by his critics to define his foreign policy strategy for countries around the world. The Reagan Doctrine was a strategy to aid anti-communist, or more specifically, anti-Soviet insurgencies in the Third World during Reagan's two terms as president from 1981-1989. The primary goal was to overthrow Marxist regimes and/or prevent Marxist regimes from becoming established.

Reagan wasted no time getting started in the implementation of his foreign policy. The Administration's first comprehensive "U.S. National Security Strategy," which was a document approved by the President in May of 1982, stated the objective to "contain and reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world, and to increase the costs of Soviet support and use of proxy, terrorist and subversive forces." (Presidential Studies, 2006) Reagan made staunch calls for public support in his efforts. In the State of the Union Address in 1985, for example, he stated that the U.S. must "not break faith with those who are risking their lives--on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua--to defy Soviet-supported aggression." One year later he boldly remarked that "America will support with moral and material assistance your right not just to fight and die for freedom, but to fight and win freedom...in Afghanistan, in Angola, in Cambodia, and in Nicaragua." (Political Science Quarterly, 2007)

In most of these nations, the aggressive policies and actions of Reagan caused severe damage. In Nicaragua for example, the economy was decimated by U.S. sanctions and manipulation of its banking institutions. The Administration, supported by Congress, funded a war against the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de LiberaciĆ³n Nacional, or FSLN). It was a war fought by various Nicaraguan rebel groups, labeled the Contras, which sought to overthrow the Sandinistas, who came to power after the revolution in 1979.

"The development of Contra forces began in 1981 when Reagan authorized $19.5 million in funding for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to construct a paramilitary force of 500 Nicaraguan exiles from deposed President Anastasio Somoza's National Guard." (International Security, 1990) Along with congressionally funded aid, members of the Reagan Administration attained additional funds through the illicit sales of arms to Iran. Funds from these sales were funneled to the Contras. When this illegal activity was revealed in the "Iran-Contra Affair" in November of 1986, it led to the indictment and conviction of many of Reagan's staff.

Reagan policy in Nicaragua was failure in many respects. The Contra war was ill-conceived and did not enjoy support of the people of Nicaragua. The rebel forces never legitimately threatened the Sandinista government and military. The U.S. failed to gain international support for the war or its political and economic actions. In fact, Reagan was largely condemned by the international community. Domestic support and popular opinion was low as well.

Reagan's policies pushed communist nations into aiding Nicaragua. The FSLN enjoyed majority support of the people, and were not looking for a change until the end of the decade when they could no longer survive with the Sandinistas under U.S. pressure. Did Reagan really need to be concerned with Nicaragua? Probably not. However, his firm Cold War policy stance led him to believe that the country posed a threat, and he had to do whatever it took to keep socialism out of Central America by making Nicaragua "say uncle."

In damaging Nicaragua's economy, Reagan Doctrine policy caused ripple effects on the USSR and Cuba who were aiding Nicaragua during this time. When the Administration began to halt trade and relations with Nicaragua, the USSR and Cuba began their efforts to provide the country increased economic aid, military aid, and trade revenue. By the time Reagan left office, economic aid from the USSR never came close to covering Nicaragua's losses from U.S. sanctions on the economy.

One of Reagan's principal arguments against the Sandinistas was that they were not a legitimate government because their elections in 1984 were "rigged." The people of Nicaragua, according to Reagan, were being oppressed and viewed the government unfavorably. The Contras, to Reagan, represented freedom for Nicaraguans. He went as far as saying that the Contras were "the moral equal of our Founding Fathers."

World reaction to the U.S. trade embargo, beginning in May of 1985, was uniformly negative. U.S. allies including the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Portugal, all openly opposed the embargo and promised continued trading relationships with Nicaragua. Countries such as Canada, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden extended new trade credits to help offset the effects of the embargo.

Reagan's behavior toward Nicaragua, particularly in the glaring disregard for international law and world opinion, threatened to backfire and endanger broader U.S. interests, especially with foreign allies. At the United Nations in 1985, the Security Council voted 11-1 (with 3 abstentions) for a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo. The U.S., however, used its veto. In General Assembly, a similar resolution was passed 84-4 (with 37 abstentions).

The funding and support of the Contras was unsuccessful. The movers and shakers who negotiated peace and organized free elections did not reside in the White House. What facilitated the collapse of the FSLN? Essentially, it was the U.S. economic sanctions and trade embargo. Reagan's legacy in Latin and Central America is tarnished at best. His foreign policy was disastrous. The Administration was exposed for corruption with the revelations of the Iran-Contra Affair and the CIA involvement in terrorist-like acts in Nicaragua.

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