The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy

By Pach, Chester | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy


Pach, Chester, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The Reagan Doctrine emerged in an unusual manner, as it was discovered rather than proclaimed. When he delivered his State of the Union message on February 6, 1985, Ronald Reagan did not plan to announce a guiding principle of his administration's foreign policy. After he finished his address, no one recognized that the speech contained a Reagan Doctrine until weeks later, when a political commentator declared that he had found a grand statement of foreign policy hiding in plain sight. What Reagan said that February evening on his seventy-fourth birthday was a version of what he had said many times before: that anti-Communist resistance movements deserved U.S. support. That idea had shaped his thinking since the beginning of his presidency and, indeed, from the time that he became involved in national politics in the mid 1960s. "Reagan Doctrine" nevertheless became a common and convenient term, although one that administration officials rarely used in public rhetoric or policy memoranda. "That was something you people {in the media} talked about," declared one staff aide on the National Security Council (NSC). "It wasn't a phrase we used." (1) The president only twice referred to the Reagan Doctrine in public remarks. Just once, in a speech at the National Defense University in 1988, did he actually use that precise term to describe the administration's "stand with ordinary people who have had the courage to take up arms against Communist tyranny." (2)

The Reagan Doctrine expressed one of the president's important ideas, but administration policies toward anti-Communist resistance groups varied considerably. The mujahideen who fought against Soviet troops in Afghanistan got substantial U.S. military aid, including sophisticated weapons, but the anti-Communist resistance in Cambodia got only small amounts of nonlethal supplies. The guerrillas who struggled against a Marxist regime in Angola eventually received U.S. help, but a similar movement in Mozambique that opposed a leftist government got no assistance from the Reagan administration. Differences in local conditions, U.S. security interests, and political circumstances accounted for variations in policy. So, too, did divisions between administration policy makers. Sharp disputes arose over how--or whether--to help local "freedom fighters," as national security officials disagreed over how to balance the goal of rolling back communism with some of Reagan's other principles, such as promoting democracy or reaffirming U.S. commitments to freedom and liberty that could inspire people around the world. As National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane recollected, policy emerged on a case-by-case basis, not through the application of "a comprehensive plan ... or ... set of standards to determine which insurgencies were deserving of U.S. aid." (3) The Reagan Doctrine was a convenient term for a clear and simple idea that the president embraced. The policies it produced were complicated and controversial.

The Reagan Doctrine in Time

It was Charles Krauthammer who first gave the Reagan Doctrine its name in his regular column in the April 1, 1985 issue of Time magazine. No one had previously attributed such significance to Reagan's pronouncement, but Krauthammer was not playing an April Fool's joke. He thought that the president's "prudence" and "modesty" accounted for the Reagan Doctrine being "buried" in the State of the Union address rather than "launched" with "fanfare." For Krauthammer, the Reagan Doctrine was the president's assertion that "we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives--on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua--to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth." Krauthammer maintained that these words proved once more that the president was "the master of the new idea." Like supply-side economics, which had "changed the terms of debate" on economic theory, and the Strategic Defense Initiative, which had challenged conventional wisdom on nuclear strategy, the Reagan Doctrine inverted "accepted thinking on geopolitics.

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