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What is the Reagan Doctrine?

By Constance Simmons
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Reagan Doctrine was the foreign policy in the United States, enacted by Ronald Reagan during his presidency, to help eliminate the communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that were supported by the Soviet Union. Implementation of this plan provided both open and private support to guerrilla and resistance movements in Soviet-supported communist countries. This doctrine was the foreign policy of the United States from about 1980 to 1991.

During the initial years of the Cold War, the United States’ official policy towards communism was containment. With the creation of the Reagan Doctrine the focus shifted from keeping communism from spreading to eliminating existing communist governments. In addition to the rollback of these communist governments, the United States also wanted to encourage capitalism and democracy in those places.

The philosophy behind the Reagan Doctrine originated before Reagan’s presidency. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter gave aide to Afghanistan in the form of weapons and military training to defeat Soviet forces. The Reagan Doctrine was seen by many supporters as an expansion on this philosophy.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, is responsible for the Reagan Doctrine becoming concrete foreign policy. This organization chose nine Soviet-supported communist countries that the United States should focus its attention on: Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, Libya, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. It then encouraged the president’s administration to focus on giving military and financial aide to these countries, through endorsing the doctrine in books written to provide advice to his administration on foreign policy.

The Reagan Doctrine is credited by its supporters as helping to end the Cold War by stopping the Soviet Union from spreading its communist control over specific regions of the world. The policy’s philosophical justifications were to eliminate tyrannical governments and promote individual liberties, freedom, and democracy. The policy was successful because the United States financed these resistance movements with a relatively small amount of money, while the Soviet Union had to use more resources and suffered more losses of their military.

Although some credit the Reagan Doctrine for ending the Cold War, there are critics who argue this foreign policy was not a complete success. The U.S.-backed contras in Nicaragua were found to engage in illegal activities, such as drug trafficking and violating basic human rights of people within the country. Supporting the contras in Nicaragua also garnered criticism because the country was a target of the Soviet Union. Others argue that the Reagan Doctrine was too far-reaching because the resources spent on supporting the overthrow of these governments outweighed the benefits gained.

A new term, blowback, is also being used to refer to the negative impact of rolling back communist governments. Blowback has happened in countries like Afghanistan, where the weapons supplied by the United States to fight the Soviet Union are being turned against the United States. For instance, the military training and weapons provided there have fallen into terrorist hands.

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Discussion Comments
By anon939865 — On Mar 16, 2014

Why do Americans always feel forced to interfere in the world affairs?

By Sunny27 — On Jan 26, 2011

@Sunshine31 - I remember those days. President Reagan viewed the cold war as a way to fight communism and offer aid to the anti communists rebels. He felt that the United States had to stand up to the Soviet Union and protect U.S. interests.

The Reagan Doctrine of 1985 was a change in the way the United States dealt with the communist nations. His policy was a more forceful stance against communism and I know many people are grateful for his actions.

I actually cried when the Berlin Wall came down. It was an amazing time to be an American.

By sunshine31 — On Jan 25, 2011

I have to say that I wish more Presidents were like President Ronald Reagan. The attempt to eliminate communism is a noble thing that he should be applauded for.

As a child of Cuban immigrants I know firsthand how cruel and unjust communism is and how it kills the human spirit.

The Reagan Administration was successful in eradicating communism in many parts of the world because it applied economic pressure to the Soviet Union through the arms race.

The Soviet economy collapsed as President Reagan envisioned it would and all of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries were no longer communist.

Even the Berlin Wall came down during this time. He will always be considered one of the best American Presidents ever. He also commanded respect from all over the world.

As a matter of fact, when he won the Presidential election in 1980, the American hostages were released immediately from Iran which was something that the previous President Jimmy Carter could not do the previous year.

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