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Reagan's National Security Policy Targeted Soviet Threat

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2004 – The Cold War was heating up when Ronald Wilson Reagan became the 40th U.S. president in early 1981.

Reagan assumed the presidency at a time when the Soviet Union was flexing its muscles to contest American influence in world affairs.

The Soviets controlled Eastern Europe through a series of puppet governments. The militaries of these Soviet-armed satellites were grouped under the Warsaw Pact, a behemoth of tanks and troops that seemed poised to pounce on Western Europe at any time.

The Soviets also were busily applying an expansionist foreign policy in places like Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere around the globe.

"If the Soviet military buildup continues unabated, if Soviet imperial expansion is not reversed, if the Soviets see themselves steadily and easily gaining in military strength, our ability to deter aggression will be inexorably weakened," then-U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger warned in his 1982 report to Congress.

And the Soviet Union's formidable arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles possessed global reach, Weinberger warned, including the ability to strike the United States.

"Soviet nuclear offensive capabilities now exceed by far our most pessimistic forecasts of 15 years ago," Weinberger said in his congressional report. The Soviet Union, he noted, had "steadily increased its investment in nuclear strategic forces even though we reduced ours."

To confront the Soviet threat, Weinberger acknowledged "the realization that we must devote more resources to defense."

Accordingly, the U.S. defense budget went up from 5.0 percent of the gross national product in 1980 to: 5.2 in 1981, 5.8 in 1982, 6.2 in 1983, 6.0 in 1984, 6.2 in 1995, 6.3 in 1986, 6.2 in 1987, 5.9 in 1988, and 5.7 in 1989.

That money paid for modernizing U.S. military equipment -- such as the development of today's B-2 stealth bomber -- and for bolstering troop quality- of-life initiatives like pay.

In 1983, Reagan launched the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as SDI, as a means of countering the Soviet nuclear threat. The premise of SDI was to harness technology to provide America with a defensive "shield" against incoming enemy ballistic missiles by destroying them in flight before they reached their targets.

Weinberger noted in 1987 during congressional testimony that "SDI seeks to move us toward a safer world one with reduced levels of arms and deterrence based on defending against an attack, rather than retaliating after an attack." Although SDI was never deployed, it put economic pressure on the Soviets to develop countermeasures.

During a 1987 visit to Germany, Reagan called upon then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall. By that time, the cash-poor Soviets whose creaky, state-run economy ultimately proved to be their economic undoing -- were hard-pressed to keep up with American military modernization.

History shows that 1980s Soviet military expenditures made in an attempt to keep up with the Americans eventually broke their bank. In 1989, within a year after Reagan had left office, the Berlin Wall did fall. That event was followed two years later by the disintegration of the Soviet system.

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President Ronald Reagan
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger

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