Yet another cycle of Cold War confrontation followed in the wake of the collapse of détente and the foreign policy disasters in Iran and Afghanistan. Like the previous similar waves, this one featured hostile rhetoric, military escalation, little or no diplomacy, and fear of a superpower conflict. What distinguished the new cycle of conflict was the dynamic personality of President Ronald W. Reagan, an inveterate cold warrior who labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire." A former Hollywood actor and two-term California governor, Reagan declared that the country had grown weak but soon would once again "stand tall" in world affairs. The new president embarked on an enormous campaign of militarization reminiscent of similar spurts following NSC 68 (1950) and in the wake of the "missile gap" controversy in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
U.S.–Soviet relations deteriorated sharply in Reagan's first term. Diplomacy virtually ceased. In March 1983 Reagan stunned the Soviets, and threatened to destabilize the nuclear arms race, by announcing his support for a space-based defensive shield. The president glibly declared that nuclear weapons could be rendered "impotent and obsolete" by developing a perfect defense against incoming ballistic missiles. The program, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was both costly and a violation of the 1972 treaty limiting defensive systems. The Kremlin feared, however, that the initiative would force the Soviets, already suffering from a badly flagging economy, into a costly new arena of superpower competition. The Kremlin bitterly criticized SDI, launched an offensive missile buildup of its own, and accused the United States of enhancing the threat of another world war.
On 1 September 1983, U.S.–Soviet relations reached their nadir when a Soviet pilot carried out an order to shoot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, Korea. The passenger jumbo jet had deviated from its course and flown hundreds of miles into Soviet territory. The Soviet pilot could not distinguish the Boeing aircraft from U.S. reconnaissance jets, which routinely played "chicken" with Soviet forces along their vast border. The Reagan administration claimed that the Kremlin had deliberately destroyed the civilian airliner, which had gone off course as a result of a computer programming error. The Soviets, after remaining silent for days, insisted, apparently truthfully, that they had not recognized the plane as a civilian airliner. The Kremlin charged that the civilian jet clearly had been on a U.S.– and South Korean–backed intelligence mission.
While Reagan unnerved the Soviets, most of the American public supported his policies. Even foreign policy disasters did not undermine the president's appeal. In one such incident in 1983, Reagan dispatched U.S. forces to Lebanon on an uncertain mission to combat "terrorism" and contain Syrian "aggression." The action brought little more than the deaths of 241 U.S. marines from a radical suicide assault on their position. Reagan also overthrew a leftist government in Grenada by direct invasion and conducted a series of raids against the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The most intense arena of the revived Cold War, however, was Central America. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista rebels, named for a martyred reform leader from the 1930s, came to power in 1979 and launched a socialist government. In neighboring El Salvador, leftist rebels battled a murderous U.S.-backed military regime. Although Carter had initiated the move to contain the perceived threat, it was Reagan who embarked on an all-out campaign to destroy the left in America's "backyard." While employing every possible means to isolate and economically weaken Castro's Cuba, Reagan sharply increased aid to the Salvadoran military, which allied with "death squads" responsible for executing not only leftist leaders but liberal critics of the government, students, citizens, Catholic priests, and even American churchwomen. The CIA authorized funding for the contras, rebels whose aim was to overthrow the government in Managua. Funded, armed, and trained on U.S. bases in Florida as well as in Honduras, the contras began to fight their way through the Nicaraguan jungles.
Although the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the World Court condemned the United States for actions such as the illegal mining of Nicaragua's harbors in 1982, Reagan ignored the world community. Reagan's campaign against the left led to the Iran-Contra scandal, which tarnished his presidency. The president either authorized illegal actions or failed to exercise supervision over his subordinates—he was not sure himself which had been the case. What became clear was that the administration had secretly sold arms to Iran—officially a terrorist nation with which Washington had refused to conduct diplomacy—as part of a scheme to gain the release of hostages being held in Lebanon as well as to circumvent congressional restrictions on funding for the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
While Reagan remained a popular president, the damage done by the Iran-Contra scandal as well as changes in the Soviet Union prompted him to reconsider his hard-line Cold War policies. Throughout the 1980s, antinuclear protesters in the United States and Europe, as well as liberal and moderate critics, also brought pressure to bear on the White House to pursue an arms-control agreement and a renewal of East-West diplomacy. Some of the president's advisers, including his wife, Nancy, urged him to leave a legacy of peace rather than one simply of zealotry and confrontation.