The Reagan doctrine, according to Digital History, emerged from the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when "Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States intensified. Reagan entered office deeply suspicious of the Soviet Union. Reagan described the Soviet Union as 'an evil empire' and called for a space-based missile defense system, derided by critics as 'Star Wars'."
The Reagan Doctrine was championed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and its foreign policy analysts, along with others on the right sympathetic and influential with the Reagan administration. Speaking at The Heritage Foundation in 1983, Reagan said: "In the Third World, in Afghanistan, in Central America, in Africa and Southeast Asia, opposition to totalitarian regimes is on the rise. It may not grab the headlines, but there is a democratic revolution underway."
The Reagan administration "tended to view every regional conflict through a Cold War lens" and were particularly intent on preventing a "Communist takeover" in the Western Hemisphere.
"In his 1985 state of the union address President Reagan pledged his support for anti-Communist revolutions in what would become known as the "Reagan Doctrine." In Afghanistan, the United States was already involved in "providing aid to anti-Soviet freedom fighters, ultimately helping to force Soviet troops to withdraw." However, it "was in Nicaragua, however, that the doctrine received its most controversial application [where, for] the Reagan administration, Nicaragua looked 'like another Cuba,' a Communist state that threatened the security of its Central American neighbors."
First, Reagan "approved covert training of anti-Sandinista rebels (called 'contras'). While the contras waged war on the Sandinistas from camps in Honduras, the CIA provided assistance. In 1984 Congress ordered an end to all covert aid to the contras. ... [However, the] Reagan administration circumvented Congress by soliciting contributions for the contras from private individuals and from foreign governments seeking U.S. favor. The president also permitted the sale of arms to Iran, with profits diverted to the contras. The arms sale and transfer of funds to the contras were handled surreptitiously through the CIA intelligence network, apparently with the full support of CIA director William J. Casey. Exposure of the Iran-Contra affair in late 1986 provoked a major congressional investigation. The scandal seriously weakened the influence of the president. The American preoccupation with Nicaragua began to subside in 1987, after President Oscar Arias Sanches of Costa Rica proposed a regional peace plan. In national elections in 1990 the Nicaraguan opposition routed the Sandinistas, bringing an end to ten turbulent years of Sandinista rule."
According to Ted Galen Carpenter, foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute--U.S. Aid to Anti-Communist Rebels: The 'Reagan Doctrine' and Its Pitfalls, June 24, 1986, "A critical change in U.S. foreign policy toward world communism has begun during the past year. In marked contrast to the established cold war doctrine of 'containing' Soviet expansionism, the new strategy envisions American moral and material support for insurgent movements attempting to oust Soviet-backed regimes in various Third World nations. Initial hints of this Reagan Doctrine surfaced in the president's February 1985 State of the Union Address when he affirmed, 'We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives--on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua--to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.'"
Carpenter adds: "Secretary of State George P. Shultz expanded on this embryonic policy assumption in a February 22, 1985, speech before San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. There and in a subsequent Foreign Affairs article, Shultz asserted that a wave of democratic revolution was sweeping the world. He contended that for years the USSR and its proxies have acted without restraint to back insurgencies designed to spread communist dictatorships. Wars of national liberation 'became the pretext for subverting any non-communist country in the name of so-called socialist internationalism.' At the same time, the infamous 'Brezhnev Doctrine' proclaimed that any victory of communism was irreversible. According to Shultz, the Soviets were saying to the world: 'What's mine is mine. What's yours is up for grabs.'"
"If the administration assumed that it could confine support for anti-Marxist insurgencies to the realm of rhetoric, translating words into concrete action only in selected cases such as Nicaragua," Carpenter says, "it miscalculated. The Reagan Doctrine fired the enthusiasm of the conservative movement in the United States as no foreign policy issue has done in decades. ... Existing conservative organizations and a proliferation of new ones have rushed to promote the cause of Third World 'freedom fighters.' Some have raised funds or provided direct material assistance (medical supplies, clothing, and sometimes military hardware) to specific rebel movements."
"Since the Reagan Doctrine promises to become a program with far-reaching foreign policy implications," writes Carpenter, "it is vital to examine its assumptions and probable consequences. Before the U.S. government decides to encourage and endorse anti-communist insurgent movements--much less provide material assistance to them--some serious questions must be addressed. First, is there an underlying theme to the struggles, or are the dynamics of each 'revolutionary situation' radically different? Second, would U.S. support essentially counteract existing intervention by the Soviet bloc, or would it constitute egregious interference in the internal affairs of other nations? Third, is the administration correct in its perception that the various insurgencies are animated by democratic, pro-Western, and anti-Soviet values? Fourth, can the United States assist these rebellions without risking either a direct clash with the USSR or a gradual escalation of commitments that may culminate in a disastrous military entanglement? Finally--and most important--is supporting anti-communist insurgencies in the Third World essential to American security?"
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- Reagan Doctrine, U.S. Department of State: "The Reagan Doctrine was used to characterize the Reagan administration's (1981-1988) policy of supporting anti-Communist insurgents wherever they might be. ... Breaking with the doctrine of 'Containment,' established during the Truman administration--President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy was based on John Foster Dulles' Roll-Back strategy from the 1950s in which the United States would actively push back the influence of the Soviet Union. Reagan's policy differed, however, in the sense that he relied primarily on the overt support of those fighting Soviet dominance. This strategy was perhaps best encapsulated in NSC National Security Decision Directive 75. This 1983 directive stated that a central priority of the U.S. in its policy toward the Soviet Union would be 'to contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism,' particularly in the developing world."
- Isaac Asimov, The Reagan Doctrine, Austin American-Statesman, May 10, 1981: "Let me begin by presenting this Reagan Doctrine (using the term with all possible respect): 'No one who disbelieves in God and in an afterlife can possibly be trusted.' If this is true (and it must be if the president says so), then people are just naturally dishonest and crooked and downright rotten. In order to keep them from lying and cheating every time they open their mouths, they must be bribed or scared out of doing so. They have to be told and made to believe that if they tell the truth and do the right thing and behave themselves, they will go to heaven and get to plunk a harp and wear the latest design in halos. They must also be told and made to believe that if they lie and steal and run around with the opposite sex, they are going to hell and will roast over a brimstone fire forever."
- Thomas Bodenheimer and Robert Gould, The Reagan Doctrine: Third World Rollback from the book ROLLBACK: Right-wing Power in U.S. Foreign Policy, South End Press, 1989: "Third World rollback has come to be named the Reagan Doctrine. However, it is inaccurate to attribute this Doctrine solely to Ronald Reagan or the Right. Third World rollback in the 1980s is little more than an extension of postwar era policy. ... this policy transcends which party holds the office of president or the balance of power in Congress."