The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy

By Pach, Chester | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2006 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.