36 1980’s: Foreign Entanglements (and “Non-combat” combatants)

This is a work in progress. US foreign policy regarding China, Eastern Europe, and Russia must be added but I wanted to release what we have here now because President Reagan’s primary concern when he was sworn in was Central America. So, more is forthcoming.

In 1982, upon graduating high school, I tried college. I failed. I lacked maturity and dedication to succeed. I grew up watching television shows such as The Wild, Wild West, Batman, and the Mod Squad. Shows about law enforcement and the positive portrayal of government and working for the government.  Ultimately, I wanted to work either for the CIA or the National Security Agency and so I thought about getting some experience in the military. Military Intelligence to be specific. I went to my local recruitment office. I wanted to learn either Polish or Czech and work in Europe, preferably West Germany. The recruiter said all that was available was Korean, but when I arrived at the language school I should ask the commander if I could change languages. Um, that was an inaccurate piece of advice by the recruiter. So I signed along the dotted line and enlisted in the Army.

“Central America is a region of great importance to the United States. And it is so close: San Salvador is closer to Houston, Texas, than Houston is to Washington, DC. Central America is America. It’s at our doorstep, and it’s become the stage for a bold attempt by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua to install communism by force throughout the hemisphere.” -President Ronald Reagan, 1984[1]

After Basic Training I went to the Defense Language Institute in San Fransisco where I started my Korean studies. Shortly thereafter, a need arose for Spanish linguists and so I volunteered, imagining that I would be assigned to maybe the US Embassy in Spain! The reason for the need for Spanish linguists was because the Cold War was heating up in Central America. Our ally, El Salvador, was inundated with a Nicaraguan-supported, Cuban-backed communist insurgency. Honduras was threatened by the communist country of Nicaragua and Cuba was sending in bigger and better Russian weapons into Nicaragua, which the Reagan administration feared was growing so large Nicaragua could not be stopped invading its Central American neighbors. There was also a communist insurgency in Guatemala. Remember Guatemala? The US installed a military dictatorship there back in the 1950s. So, there was a great need for Spanish linguists. I did not make it to Spain until a four-hour layover on the way home from Italy in 2007. The Reagan administration began building a US presence in Central America, with the center of the hub being at that time Palmerola Airbase (first renamed the Col Enrique Soto Cano Airbase, then most recently renamed the Comayagua International Airport)  just northwest of its capital, Tegucigalpa.

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A U.S. military advisor instructs Honduran troopers in Puerto Castilla, Honduras, in 1983. AP Photo

Freedom fighters in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. US advisors in Honduras and El Salvador. Taking part in anti-drug operations such as Operation Blast Furnace in Bolivia. Supplying both sides during the Iran-Iraq War. “Non-combat” roles for US troops in Lebanon and El Salvador (while taking fire). Invading a small island nation in the eastern Caribbean (Grenada) to stop the delivery of Cuban bombers and to save some US medical students? And negotiations with the Russians. Always needing to keep the channels of communication open with the Russians during the Cold War. That was one of the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis of the Kennedy administration. Nuclear weapons got more dangerous due to MIRV: Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle. One ballistic missile containing multiple warheads, each capable of having its own target.  Think final scene in Dr Strangelove. Then the decade ends with the end of the Cold War and what seems to be a new foreign policy: unplug our Frankenstein’s monsters.

We, the US, wore the white hats. The Russians wore the black hats. The white hats were the good guys and what they did was for the good of not only the US but for the free world. The US needed supporters and so the US allowed and at times created world leaders who acted in ways that in the long run were antithetical to regional stability (and US domestic considerations -see immigration and the 21st century). But during the Cold War, we supported those who otherwise could be considered evil, brutal dictators such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Jose Napolean Duarte in El Salvador, and, Col. Manuel Noriega in Panama. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush sent a contingency of around 28,000 troops to remove Noriega from power in Panama. Hussein followed. Was this a shift in US policy? Was the Bush administration going to remove these dictators that the US needed (and supported, and at times created) during the Cold War? Well, no. There were particular reasons why the US went into Panama and Bush would later say that he did not have the authority to order the capture or killing of Hussein during Operation Desert Storm. But, those stories come later.

At the beginning of the decade, both the US and the USSR had more than enough nuclear weapons to blow each other off the face of the Earth multiple times. So, the counties came together in the 1970s and 1980s to try to negotiate some end to the nuclear arms race.

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Lizzet Bautista, Eduardo Marin, Gregory Mejia, Javier Orozco, and Fiona Ramirez looked at the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or, SALT II.

To understand SALT II, we must first understand SALT which began in January 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the Soviet Union had begun to construct a limited Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defense system around Moscow. Johnson, therefore, called for strategic arms limitations talks (SALT), and in 1967, he and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met at Glassboro State College in New Jersey.  Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the ABM Treaty and interim SALT agreement on May 26, 1972, in Moscow.[2] SALT II was aimed at replacing the interim SALT I agreement with a comprehensive treaty providing broad limits on strategic offensive weapons. In June 1979, a week before the president was to sign the new treaty one that had taken seven years and three administrations to finalize Carter approved funding for the MX mobile missile to boost Senate chances of ratifying the treaty. Negotiations for the second round of SALT began in late 1972. Since SALT did not prevent each side from enlarging their forces through the deployment of Multiple Independently Targeted Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRVs) onto their ICBMs and SLBMs, SALT II initially focused on limiting, and then ultimately reducing, the number of MIRVs.

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On 4 May 1979, in the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the cartoonist, Behrendt, speculates on the genuine will of the US President, Jimmy Carter, and of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, to implement the SALT II disarmament agreement.

However, during the Cold War Reagan and his administration condemned Salt II, and later in the decade president would announce that the US would no longer comply with the limits in SALT II and would not continue its process of ratification, putting the treaty in limbo in Congress.[3] This worried some congressmen so much that two days after Reagan’s announcement they would hold a press briefing to state how they are against Reagan’s decision and how the decision was not helping the United States’ security. The press would ask questions about the reasons that Reagan gave on leaving SALT II such as Reagan believed that the Soviets had already broken the agreements. The congressmen did not believe in any of these allegations and believed that this was done by the people in Reagan’s administration who did not believe in arms control.[4]

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room at the White House in 1987. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Interestingly enough, some would believe that it was not in the US’s best interest to be on SALT II but that of the Soviets Union. Washington Post journalist, Robert Kaiser, who discussed the competitive impulse he sees inherent in Soviet behavior. Kaiser believed that the Soviets have concluded that in a full-scale competition the United States would prevail thus the Soviets’ interest in constraining the U.S. weapons programs at a level where they have, until now, been able to compete with. Kaiser considers it unlikely that the U.S. could dissuade the Soviet leadership from its current level of defense spending. Kaiser feels that this concept will eventually be understood by the Soviets. In his opinion, the nature of strategic competition in the 1980s could play an instrumental role in urging Soviet acceptance of a broader concept of security. Kaiser is intrigued by the possibility that by the end of the 1980s the United States may have clear strategic superiority over the USSR.[5]

At the end of the day, Reagan did decide that what was best for U.S security was to follow through with SALT II despite his reluctance to do so.

1979

1979 was a terrible year for US intelligence, US security, US training operations, and the US State Department. In 1979 the US lost Afghanistan to the Russians, Iran to Islamic extremists, and Nicaragua to communists.

The Russian invasion, (failed) war, and departure from Afghanistan created a void that will be filled by the Taliban, who provided comfort and cover for such terrorists like Osama Bin Laden and resulted in both September 11th and the second-longest war in US history, which resulted in the Taliban once again seizing control following the US pullout in 2021. Afghanistan was Russia’s Vietnam, but with much dire international consequences to include the rise of staunch nationalists in Russia such as the former KGB operative Vladamir Putin, whose government and NGOs interfered in the US presidential elections of 2016 and 2020.

The US-backed dictator of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was toppled by a student-led revolution that ultimately handed the keys to the castle over to Muslim extremists such as the longtime-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, who slowly turned Iran into a theocracy. But the US had built up Iran to be the fourth largest military in the world. Yet the Western world cut off Iran from obtaining US weapons and replacement parts once Iranian revolutionaries held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Iran went to war against Iraq. France continued to trade with Iran and eventually, most of Europe returned to the trading table, with the US standing on the sideline. But that allowed Iran to dabble in nuclear technology. Of course, so too did Iraq, at least until Israel blew up Iraq’s only unfinished nuclear reactor in 1981. Take my Middle East class for that story.

Finally, with the demise of the Somoza family’s control over Nicaragua and the rise of the Sandinistas (led by Daniel Ortega) in 1979, the Communist country imported Russian weapons from AK-47 rifles to MI-24 Hind attack helicopters. Some of those weapons poured across the border into Honduras then into El Salvador carried by Salvadorans who had launched a Communist guerrilla war against the brutal, US-backed Salvadoran government. The name of the Sandinistas was the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) and in El Salvador, the communist guerrillas were the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). The Reagan administration sent the CIA and US military advisors to Honduras and into El Salvador. Ultimately, it was the end of the Cold War that ended the fighting. An election in 1990 ended the rule of Daniel Ortega and the FMLN laid down their weapons (so too did the Contras). But the irony of these Cold War military-political jockeying is that today in Nicaragua the FSLN is in power and Daniel Ortega is the country’s president. They had an election in November of 2021. Before the election Ortega had 7 opposition candidates arrested. Ortega won re-election. Whaddya’ know? And in El Salvador, the FMLN went legitimate to become the ruling political party in the first few decades of the 21st century. However, both Honduras and El Salvador are messed up politically and economically. In the latter, it seems that gangs more often rule than the government. But that’s a story for my intro to Latin American studies class.

1979 was a bad year for the US, the Middle East, and Central America and 1979 still affects the US, the Middle East, and Central America today. Nonetheless, Communism in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Cuba seems to have been the focus of Reagan when he initially took office.[6]

Iran-Contra

My team and I were watching the Iran-Contra hearings when Oliver North was testifying. Some of us, more than others, were worried as to what North was going to say. What was he going to give up? Who was he going to give up? More than a few packed their “go bag” just in case we had to quickly depart from our immediate area. So, as we are huddled around the television I am opening a letter from my parents (mail was delivered to us from the US Embassy in Honduras via an address in Florida), and in it contained a Doonesbury cartoon. Garry Trudeau draws Doonesbury, an editorial cartoon he has been drawing since the Vietnam era. That particular cartoon focused on a team of intelligence officials, huddled around their television, somewhere in Central America, watching Oliver North testifying, hoping that North would not name names. Trudeau had no idea how close he got that one. BTW, I have been looking for that cartoon for ages! If anyone happens to stumble upon it, let me know.

Anyhow, an interesting interconnected web of felonious intrigue from Lt. Col. Oliver North to Israel (TOW missiles) to Iran to Hezballah (to free Terry Anderson eventually) and Iranian money through back channels to North to the Contras. All while the US supported Iraq with arms and intelligence during the Iran-Iraq war.

Kellie Miralda:

The Iran-Contra Affair was one major scandal in the Reagan administration in the United States in the 1980s. The affair arise from the Reagan administration’s foreign policy between two countries, Nicaragua and Iran which had two different problems and were dealt with in two different ways. It was brought about by two initiatives during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The first agreement was with the Contras in Nicaragua and the second dealt with the arms deal with Iran.

Despite the fact that the scandal came to light in November 1986, it actually started seven years earlier in both countries. In Nicaragua, there were two dictators who ruled, Somoza Garcia and his son Anastasio, there was a lot of protest through their ruling which ended with the Sandinista overthrowing them and seizing power. With the new regime, many Nicaraguans didn’t agree to it and started a counter-revolution, which the administration decided to help and provided them with financial and material support. In contrast, Iran, which had a new ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to break all ties with the U.S.  The Administration tried to bolster moderate elements within Iran, a policy that became more complicated when Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist groups seized American hostages.[7]

A series of American hostages- takings in Lebanon conducted Iranian- backed Lebanese terrorist organization, Hezbollah had and its affiliates begin in 1982 was a key precursor to the arms deal.[8] Officials in the Reagan administration sold anti-tank missiles to Iran to let them release the hostages, which they used the money from the sales to fund US military support to the Contras. Congress also had passed the Boland amendment, limiting US assistance to the Contras in Nicaragua, but it soon expired. To which they made Boland amendment II, after signing it the law initiated a series of policy decisions designed specifically to circumvent the law that included selling weapons to Iran and raising funds for the contras through various private contributors.[9]

In 1986, the secret dealing of the Reagan administration in Central America and the Middle East came out to the public, when a plane crash carrying weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua, and the surviving crew made statements about the U.S involvement. There were three investigations, conducted by a presidentially appointed commission headed by former Texas U.S. senator John Tower, by Congress, and finally by a special federal prosecutor.[10]  Reagan promptly raised the issue in a June speech, warning that unless a tough stand was taken, a “tidal wave” of “feetpeople” would be “swarming into our country”.[11] Although he denied his administration had any involvement in the scandal, it made the public mistrust him and question his actions.

The Iran Contra Affair is difficult to understand at times. It is hard to determine who told the truth, and who lied. He was the head of the United State government who had all the power and knew everything that went on. He lied to Congress, to the American people, and had his administration do the same for him. In the end, he was as much to blame for the scandal as anyone else.

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1979 was a bad year because of the loss of 3 allies. 1983 was a bad year for the US Marines and by extension, the country when on October 23rd two truck bombs hit the Marine barracks killing  241 Marines. The largest single-day loss of Marines since World War II. US Marines were sent into Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force to quell the civil war between Christian and Muslim factions while the Palestine Liberation Organization withdrew from Lebanon. Marines were non-combatants. However . . .

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Lebanon

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1981, ostensibly to clear out Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) locations firing from the border area into Israel. But Israeli forces went to the outskirts of Beirut, and there was a civil war to boot. This was not the Marines’ first trip to Lebanon. Eisenhower sent them in 1958. But 1982 was different. They were part of something larger and their mission was to keep everyone apart from everyone else while the PLO, Syrian forces, and others withdrew. Oh yea, and then the Lebanese President was assassinated. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and besieged West Beirut for weeks until the PLO agreed to withdraw from Lebanon. And so, an international peacekeeping force was assembled and sent to Lebanon, including French and Italian forces.

1,400 US Marines came ashore in August of 1982 to take control and security of the international airport in Beirut as well as protection for US diplomatic corp around Beirut. Their mission was supposed to last 30 days. Remember the War Powers Act?

On April 18th, 1983, a terrorist truck-bombed the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63.

“An American Marine Second Lieutenant stands with his back to rescue workers swarming the ruins of the American embassy after a suicide bomber attacked killing 63, including 17 Americans among them CIA station chief Robert Ames, Beirut, April 18, 1983.” Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

On October 23rd, 1983, twin suicide truck bombers hit the US Marine barracks in Beirut killing 241 US Marines (and 58 French paratroopers). President Reagan pulled the remaining Marines out of Lebanon on Feb 26, 1984. Their 30-day mission became an 18-month deployment. In all, 265 Americans were killed, and 159 were wounded.

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AFP/Getty Images “US Marines searching for victims in Beirut eight days after an attack that killed 241 American service members on October 23, 1983.”

For a full history of the 1982-1984 US Marine presence in Lebanon, go here.

Russia/Cold War

While Carter backed up into the Cold War, the Cold War heated up during the Reagan years. Reagan envisioned himself as this stalwart against Communism and as he supported a new direction of US foreign policy. Called the National Security Decisions Directive 22 (NSDD-22) the uS was going to out-spend Russia. Cripple the “Evil Empire” economically. Make it so that Russia would not be able to keep up with the pace of US military spending. And boy, did Congress (led by Rep. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who was Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987) go on a spending spree.

Reagan’s first budget request included a 10% increase in military spending.[12] And although O’Neill initially rejected such a large increase, he did work with the President. Acknowledging the landslide 1980 election, the Speaker of the House said “We’re going to cooperate with the president. It’s America first and party second,” O’Neill said, just days after the Reagan landslide. “We’re going to give ‘em enough rope. They can use it either to herd cattle, or make a mistake. … They’ve got to deliver.”[13]

Well, Reagan did not get is 10% increase, but military spending did increase dramatically. “Between 1980 and 1985, the number of dollars devoted each year to defense more than doubled, from $142.6 billion to $286.8 billion. The Navy increased its force from 479 combat ships to 525, while the Army bought thousands of the new Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. An Army attack helicopter called the Apache, a key weapon in both gulf wars, made its debut.”[14] As recent as 2021, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute called for increased Pentagon spending to counter the threat from China.[15] Beating the same drum, even after the death of the President.

In the end, “The federal budget grew fat and swollen, dotting the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs with defense contractors and government consultants. Reagan didn’t drain the swamp in Washington: He made it the imperial capital it is today. Along the way, he raised taxes—seven times.”[16]

 

I would like to thank Lizzet Bautista, Eduardo Marin, Gregory Mejia, Javier Orozco, Fiona Ramirez, and Kellie Miralda for their interest in and dedication to US foreign policy in the 1980s. They all selected what aspects of 1980s foreign policy they were going to look at.


  1. https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/address-nation-united-states-policy-central-america
  2. J.P, and G.D. 1979. "The Soviets and SALT." Arms Control Today 8-9. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23622693.
  3. Downey, Congressman Thomas. 1982. "The Reagan Freeze on Salt." Arms Control Today 1-3,9. Accessed September 23, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23623067.
  4. Warnke, Paul C., Gerard C. Smith, Robert S. McNamara, and Spurgeon M. Keeny. 1986. "The Folly of Scrapping SALT: Arms Control Experts Believe Reagan Decision Will Undermine U.S. Security." Arms Control Today 3-7. Accessed September 25, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23623401.
  5. J.P, and G.D. 1979. "The Soviets and SALT." Arms Control Today 8-9. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23622693.
  6. https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/short-history/reaganforeignpolicy
  7. “The Iran Contra Affair.” Understanding the Iran-Contra affairs - the Iran-Contra Affairs, 2012. https://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/iran-contra-affairs.php.
  8. Alex, Douville. “THE IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR.” Edited by Richard Weitz. CASE STUDIES WORKING GROUP REPORT. Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep11953.7. Pg.15
  9. HCC College History Department. American Perspectives: Readings in American History Vol. 2. Available from: Yuzu Reader, (7th Edition). McGraw-Hill Learning Solutions, [2019]. Pg.581
  10. Larry, Sabato. “The Iran-Contra Affair – 1986-1987.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 1998. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/frenzy/ginsburg.htm.
  11. Robert, Parry, and Kornbluh Peter. “Iran-Contra’s Untold Story.” Foreign Policy, no. 72 (1988): 3–30. https://doi.org/10.2307/1148818. Pg.5
  12. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/17/us/reagan-and-o-neill-each-one-needs-the-other.html
  13. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/donald-trump-democrats-tip-o-neill-214467/
  14. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bal-te.pentagon08jun08-story.html
  15. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/reagan-institute/publications/don-t-skimp-on-the-defense-budget/
  16. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/donald-trump-democrats-tip-o-neill-214467/

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Our Story: An Ancillary to US History by James Ross-Nazzal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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