Presidential advisers played an important, if sometimes unfortunate, role in the administration of Ronald Reagan. The president set forth the goals he sought to achieve—challenge the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, assist those around the globe fighting against communist subversion, and do everything possible to spare the world a nuclear catastrophe. But Reagan had little interest in the details of foreign policy and delegated broad authority to his subordinates in the day-by-day conduct of diplomacy. As a result, his presidency helped pave the way for the end of the Cold War, but also was badly shaken by the Iran-Contra scandal.
At the outset, Reagan tried to avoid the internal tension that had hampered the Carter administration by relying on a strong secretary of state and downplaying the status of the national security adviser. Alexander Haig, his first secretary of state, proved too imperious and domineering and the White House staff finally forced him to resign in 1982. His successor, George Shultz, was much more successful. A conservative economist skilled at bureaucratic maneuvering, he ran the Department of State smoothly and became an effective advocate of negotiation with the Soviet Union. The first five national security advisers, on the other hand, lacked stature and yet were allowed a surprisingly large amount of discretion in carrying out their duties. Only the final two, Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell, had the high professional qualifications that the post required.
Within the Reagan administration, the primary tension was between Shultz, who favored a more cooperative policy toward the Soviet Union, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who championed Cold War confrontation. As president, Reagan tried to avoid siding with either antagonist, often seeking a middle course or avoiding a clear-cut policy decision. At the same time, Reagan turned to others in his administration for advice, notably two hard-liners. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the American ambassador to the UN, challenged Carter's stance against aid to friendly dictators like the shah of Iran, arguing instead that the United States should support "authoritarian" leaders who believed in the free market and were cooperative. William Casey, the Central Intelligence Agency director, a wealthy lawyer and veteran of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, favored an active American role in challenging what he and Reagan saw as Soviet surrogates, notably Cuba.
Reagan's reliance on Kirkpatrick and Casey proved most dangerous in Central America. The administration's efforts to use the CIA to back the contras in Nicaragua, as well as to defeat the rebels in El Salvador, led Congress to use its power of the purse to cut off funding for the contras. The president, moved by the plight of American hostages in Lebanon, approved a plan to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of Americans held by groups friendly to Iran; the NSC staff, led by National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and his successor Admiral John Poindexter, assisted by Colonel Oliver North, went much further. Following the advice of CIA Director Casey, they channeled the money generated by the arms sales to Iran into the hands of the contras, in defiance of Congress. When the resulting Iran-Contra scandal became public in late 1986, McFarlane, Poindexter, and North all insisted that the president knew nothing of the illegal diversion of funds (Casey died of a brain tumor in early 1987). While Reagan took responsibility for the unwise decision to sell arms to Iran, he went along with his aides' assertion that he was ignorant of the financial transaction.
Reagan finally was able to offset the damage done by the Iran-Contra affair by his success in a series of summit conferences with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Encouraged by the quiet diplomacy of George Shultz, the president abandoned his stinging rhetoric and instead embraced the new polices of glasnost and perestroika begun by Gorbachev in an effort to reform the Soviet system. Although the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, would take place after Reagan left office, he could claim credit for laying the foundation with his highly publicized meetings with Gorbachev and his negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, a first step toward meaningful arms control by the superpowers. Reagan could also claim that the massive buildup of the American military carried out under Weinberger had played a crucial role in bringing the Soviet Union to the bargaining table. His presidency, however, would remain tarnished by the Iran-Contra affair, the result of granting excessive discretion to his national security advisers.