For the most part, the doctrines of American foreign policy have sprung largely from a sense of crisis in the world at large. From the early nineteenth until the late twentieth century, whenever presidents saw fit to articulate certain principles of American foreign policy, they did so in an environment of either apparent danger or impending opportunity. The Reagan Doctrine was no different. Presupposing a world of good and evil, it operated on the assumption that evil, in the form of the USSR, was gaining the upper hand. To Reagan and his advisers, examples of Soviet perfidy, including support for Marxist movements around the globe, were numerous; moreover, Soviet adventurism, from the Horn of Africa in the 1970s to Central America in the 1980s, showed no signs of abating. Reagan was intent on arresting that trend—a trend, he believed, that Carter had done little to reverse. Therefore, he adopted the rhetoric of the early Cold War, advocating policies equally assertive and bold in scope.
Reagan laid out that vision in his State of the Union Address of 6 February 1985. "We must not break faith," he declared, "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." The president went on to equate anticommunist forces with American colonists who had fought the revolutionary war, describing those latter-day patriots as "freedom fighters" for democracy. Providing aid to those groups was not only morally just but geopolitically sound. "Support for freedom fighters," Reagan avowed, "is self-defense." It would be months before those declarations would take shape as a fixed statement of policy. In the interim, a further pledge to support "freedom fighters," made on 22 February by Secretary of State George Shultz to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, lent added heft to Reagan's message. But it was neither Reagan nor his advisers who put the president's name to the set of policies he was announcing. Rather, it was Charles Krauthammer, a commentator on foreign affairs, who coined the term "Reagan Doctrine" in a Time magazine column of April 1985. Reagan's practice of waging Cold War through proxy forces had a long doctrinal pedigree, one that dated back to the early years of the Cold War. Presidents from Truman through Carter had all sought to aid governments or movements battling communism, but it was Reagan who, arguably, endowed that policy with its greatest energy. The belief that Moscow was supporting leftist movements in the Third World was one of the doctrine's guiding principles. As Reagan commented during the 1980 presidential campaign, "the Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren't engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn't be any hot spots in the world." Reagan himself chose to play that game early in his administration, authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency in 1981 to begin financing the "contra" forces battling the pro-Soviet Sandinista movement for control of Nicaragua. Funding for such anticommunist units suggests that the Reagan Doctrine appeared in practice long before it became enshrined as such.
Aside from injecting an explicitly moral component into the nation's conduct of foreign affairs, the Reagan Doctrine augmented the geopolitical rationale of earlier efforts. It was the administration's position that the Truman Doctrine's version of containment, which had been designed originally to thwart Stalin's aims in Europe, was obsolete. Since the 1950s the Kremlin had achieved considerable influence in the Third World, indicating that Moscow's ambitions were more global than originally imagined. This new reality, according to the administration, called for a revision of those basic postulates first laid down by Policy Planning Staff director George Kennan during the early years of the Cold War. With the Reagan team prepared to challenge the Soviets all over the globe, administration spokespersons began to call their approach "containment plus."
Reagan officials would add an offensive component to containment that was at least as explicit—and more wide-ranging—than anything that policy had sanctioned during the early Cold War. Secretary of State George Shultz, like Secretary John Foster Dulles before him, spoke of "rolling back" Soviet gains, recapturing nations and peoples for democracy. Yet Shultz pledged to do so in a new environment, where Moscow was a global power committed to the safeguarding of communist regimes. That Soviet conceit, known as the Brezhnev Doctrine—a 1968 statement by Premier Leonid Brezhnev declaring the irreversibility of socialist gains—was anathema to Reagan, "an arrogant pretension," as he termed it, "that we must face up to."
The administration's reluctance to cede virtually any ground to communism revealed another shift in America's Cold War policy and led Reagan to contravene a principle established in the Nixon-Ford years during the 1970s. That principle, known as the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine—after State Department counselor Helmut Sonnenfeldt—upheld the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of according greater legitimacy to Soviet security concerns. Speaking to a gathering of U.S. ambassadors in December 1975, Sonnenfeldt urged the Soviets and the Eastern Europeans to seek a more "organic" relationship, downplaying the oppressiveness of that relationship while at the same time advocating a "more autonomous existence" for Eastern Europe "within the context of a strong Soviet geopolitical influence." Displeasure with that position, on both moral and geopolitical grounds, led the Reagan administration to adopt a more aggressive, global policy that challenged the legitimacy of Soviet power.
Although Reagan was unquestionably supportive of the doctrine that bore his name, his role in formulating it seems to have been quite limited. His distance from that project accords with the operating style of a president whose involvement in the day-to-day tasks of policymaking was minimal at best. Clearly, however, Reagan was in tune with the doctrine's precepts—ideas that sprang from key advisers such as CIA director William Casey, UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Attorney General Edwin Meese. Speechwriters and publicists such as Anthony Dolan, Peggy Noonan, and Patrick Buchanan were equally important in shaping the message for public consumption. In the end, however, it was Reagan, through his mastery of public speaking, who sold it to the nation.
Reagan would implement his doctrine in a variety of locales around the world, from Asia to Africa to Central America. In Afghanistan, the president sought to aid forces working to topple the pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Using means reminiscent of the Nixon Doctrine, Reagan provided the guerrillas with substantial amounts of military assistance in their battle against the invading Soviets. The administration offered similar support to Nicaraguan contras battling communist-dominated Sandinistas who had overthrown longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Likewise, Reagan offered aid to anticommunists in Angola competing with the Soviet-backed government for control of that newly independent country. And in Cambodia the administration propped up a coalition of forces working to unseat a government installed by the Soviet-sponsored Vietnamese after Hanoi's invasion of 1979.
The track record of the Reagan Doctrine is mixed. The administration got what it wanted in Afghanistan: strong resistance to Soviet armed forces and an eventual troop pullout by Mikhail Gorbachev. To the extent that it accelerated popular distrust of the Communist Party and the Soviet government, the war in Afghanistan—and the Reagan administration's contribution to it—helped bring down the Soviet empire and the USSR itself. Yet those immediate gains were offset in later years as Afghani forces turned on their former patrons, targeting U.S. interests around the world.
The Reagan Doctrine also gave a boost to the CIA, an institution that had come under fire during the 1970s as its abuses of power, investigated by Congress, came to light. Under the guidance of William J. Casey, the CIA resuscitated its operations division, carrying out policies largely shielded from public view. That emphasis on clandestine activity, however, would backfire during the second Reagan administration. Fears that "rogue" elements within the government were running U.S. foreign policy were borne out with the unfolding of the Iran-Contra affair, a political scandal that revealed how elements of the National Security Council undermined congressional legislation in an effort to aid the Nicaraguan rebels.
Scholars have questioned the distinctiveness of the Reagan Doctrine. The containment plus designation applied by its supporters suggested that the Reagan Doctrine added the element of "rollback" to the decades-old policy of restricting Soviet encroachment. In doing so, however, the administration exaggerated the novelty of its approach; though George Kennan might have called for engaging the Soviets on a more limited geographic basis in the late 1940s, by the time that Paul Nitze had replaced Kennan as head of the Policy Planning Staff in 1950—and certainly by the time that Truman had made way for Eisenhower—the United States was challenging communist and leftist movements far afield from the Soviet periphery. Similarly, Reagan's use of proxy forces echoed tactics used by every administration from Truman forward; indeed, the speech that launched the Reagan Doctrine included verbatim numerous paragraphs from Truman's 1947 speech. From Greek guerrillas to Guatemalan generals to anti-Castro Cubans to conservative Chileans, indigenous forces with anticommunist pedigrees had long fought America's Cold War battles on many a distant shore.
Others have criticized the administration for applying the Reagan Doctrine selectively. According to these observers, recipients of American aid were often lacking in liberal virtues; the Afghani guerrillas, for instance, hardly merited support on democratic grounds. Use of such proxies led commentators to label the Reagan approach as Realpolitik masquerading as morality, the very criticism Reaganites themselves had leveled at Nixon and Kissinger. It also led critics to charge Reagan with pandering to public opinion, since administration references to "freedom fighters" seemed more reflective of the president's domestic political needs than of the makeup of those forces receiving American assistance.
Aside from the more cosmetic aspects of the Reagan Doctrine, it is far from clear whether it succeeded in rolling back communist gains. Critics have charged that administration policies, such as those pursued in Nicaragua, actually retarded the emergence of stability and the growth of a more pro-American sentiment. Although the Sandinistas did lose at the ballot box in 1990, scholars have described similarly favorable outcomes in locales such as Cambodia and Angola as owing more to changes in the international arena than to Reagan's policies themselves. The breakup of Moscow's Eastern European empire in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 altered the geopolitical environment, undercutting support for pro-Soviet or Marxist regimes. Settlement of those regional conflicts, in ways largely favorable to Western interests, thus became easier to achieve.
Indeed, it is far from clear whether the allegedly greatest achievement of the Reagan Doctrine—the fall of communism itself—is attributable to Reagan at all. Historians have argued repeatedly that a host of troubles internal to the Soviet Union—from a stagnant economy to a crisis of political legitimacy to the intractable nationalities question—were far more consequential to the undoing of the Soviet system than any challenge mounted by Reagan. Nevertheless, other scholars point out that Reagan gave the final push to the Soviet house of cards. It was his pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the argument runs, that bankrupted the Kremlin leadership, prompting a liberalization of the Soviet political economy that, in turn, loosed the forces that brought down the entire system. Likewise, it was Reagan's rhetoric that emboldened Eastern Europeans to become more assertive, leading to the events of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Judgment on these matters still awaits a more thorough historical treatment.
Clearly, though, the last presidential doctrine of the Cold War was every bit as hawkish as the first. It sought to reinject a moral component to America's foreign policy, hearkening back to the language of the Truman years. In doing so, the Reagan team—rhetorically, at least—abandoned the amoral practice of Nixon-Kissinger Realpolitik, launching an all-out offensive against the "evil empire." Reagan's appraisal of the Soviets would undergo a shift, however, leading to a more productive relationship with Moscow, especially after the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, the administration remained hawkish in its approach to what it perceived as pro-Soviet forces. Working from a Manichean view of the world, the Reagan administration regarded all leftist regimes as tools of the Kremlin, a position that added greater force to its public rhetoric while possibly reducing the efficacy of its foreign policies.