Ronald Reagan and What it Means to lead a Nation

The President of the United States of America has two primary responsibilities aside from the usual routine of governing a country. The first one is to develop and execute domestic policies. The second one is to develop and execute foreign policies.

The domestic policies that will come out of the White House will determine the destiny of the nation and will impact the citizens of the US as well as every sector of American society. The foreign policies on the other hand help to influence global events and how the rest of the world will come to view America.

The remarkable leadership qualities of Ronald Reagan allowed him to formulate domestic policies that righted a sinking ship and his foreign policies made America the sole superpower in the late 20th century.



Sometimes a successful leader gets more than he asked for. His success becomes his undoing. This is true for Ronald Reagan for dismantling the Union Soviet Socialist Republic (“USSR”) and their capability to change the way people view themselves and the world. Think of North Korea and the impoverished masses in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam when communism took root in these countries.

But because Reagan prevented a Third World War and made possible for the reduction of nuclear arms, critics are now turning to the other decisions tha he made such as the massive military build-up and the manufacture of thousands of nuclear warhead not to mention the multi-billion dollars of taxpayer’s money to build military bases and produce state-of-the-art weaponry.

It is easy for critics today to pass judgment on the Reagan administration but if one will place themselves in the shoes of the President of the United States during the heyday of the Soviet Union then they too would be overly concerned and will do everything in their power to force the Russians to stay within the Soviet Union and never gave them the opportunity to turn the world into one big Soviet bloc.

The following short summary of Soviet hegemony will help explain what Reagan had to deal with when he took over the presidency from Jimmy Carter:

By New Year’s Day of 1980, the international wreckage caused by recent Soviet advances was visible virtually everywhere.

In Southeast Asia, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos had fallen into Soviet orbit; in southern Africa, Angola and Mozambique had fallen, with the aid of tens of thousands of Cuban troops; in the Horn of Africa, it was Ethiopia and South Yemen, again with the help of Cuba; in the Caribbean, Nicaragua and Grenada; and finally …. like a dagger at the heart of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan (Busch, 2001. p.186).

Reagan was a realist. Other leaders like Truman and Carter tried to play it safe and they espoused the principles of détente and containment to be their main foreign policy regarding the Soviet Union (Westad, 2007, p.247). Nobody wanted another global conflict and no one dare imagine the consequences of nuclear holocaust.

Reagan believed the same thing but he allowed himself to be guided by a principle and political scientists were able to simplify the framework that Reagan used to develop his ideas and foreign policies. According to them realism is a way of explaining political behavior and it has something to do with these assumptions:

  1. Every single geopolitical nation, together with its its current leadership struggles for power and wants more of it; and
  2. Every single geopolitical nation, together with its its current leadership struggles for security and wants more of it (Tellis, 1996, p. 3).

If this theory is to be believed then every nation will have to be always on the move to either defend their territory, creating an alliance with others, and at the same time scheming to find ways of expanding territory or to usurp other lands.

This a problematic set of assumptions because there can never be peace. The former president Ronal Reagan was a realist from the beginning up until the end of his term. He was not like Truman who wanted to appear as a good steward of resources and never wanting to spend beyond what is necessary. In contrast Reagan spent billions of dollars in trying to outlast the Soviet Union in a global arms race.

Reagan was ready to fight the Soviet Union and he was prepared in both defense and offense. For Reagan nothing good can come out of the Communist Politburo in Kremlin and he wanted the United States to be armed to the teeth in order to defeat the so-called evil empire of Communism.

The Cold War

America and the Soviet Union coordinated the movement of troops, war equipment and financed the building of military bases in strategic places around the world (Noonan, 1998, p.1).

The presence of Soviet-made nuclear missiles in Cuba is just the tip of the iceberg in the global arms race during this frenetic period in American and Soviet military history. It was a time when people were afraid of what two superpowers can do to each other. There was also a need to convince nations to side with either the United States or the Soviet Union.

The most conspicuous effect of the massive military build-up was the proliferation of nuclear arms. It was the increasing number nuclear warheads that sent the world into panic. This is because a nuclear war could no longer be described as unprecedented (Filitov, 1992, p.78).

In 1945 the United States dropped two nuclear bombs into Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the idea of war and how it can be waged was never the same again. It is no longer enough to simply recruit and train up an army there is now an urgent need to harness the full devastating power of nuclear fission.

At least this is the view of military leaders and political strategists based on ancient doctrines of war – that in order to prevent others from attacking, defense must be strong while at the same time to let the enemy think they could never win.

Arms Race

Thus, the U.S.S.R. started its own military build-up and accumulated tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. According to one estimate, each side had 25, 000 weapons of mass destruction (Andrews, 2009, p.1). In Hiroshima it only took one nuclear bomb to level an entire city and killing thousands of people.

One could easily imagine what 25,000 bombs can do to key cities in the U.S. like Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. There is no point in even considering such a scenario for it will be catastrophic. It will not be a war but an act to exterminate not only the people but flora and fauna, every living thing in sight.

Reagan was forced to match this military output. It was a show of force and no one wanted to back down. In the same manner that the Russians were financing and helping in toppling weak regimes to replace it with a ruling communist party, Reagan also secretly financed and supported rebels who wanted to wrest control from a communist government.

Thus, Reagan was not simply contented with spending huge amounts of money to upgrade the U.S. Armed Forces and to spend additional amounts to win over other nations to the side of democracy; he was also prepared to commit a portion of American resources to aid the rebels and guerilla forces fighting to overthrow Soviet hegemony.

In 1985 he inadvertently developed the Reagan doctrine in response to the growing threat of communism in the planet. In this Regan doctrine, the former president made it very clear that the United States will provide resources to those who longed to be free from the shackles of the Soviet Union.

Defeating the U.S.S.R.

After he took office Reagan worked tirelessly to defeat the U.S.S.R. He did it by competing in an arms race. For every nuclear missile that the Soviet Union produced, Reagan made sure that there was an equal deterrent coming from the American side.

But after two-terms in office Reagan succeeded where many of his predecessors failed. He forced the Soviet Union to compromise with his terms and forced them to deal with him in an effort to reduce the number of nuclear missiles pointed at each other.

Therefore, it can be said that Reagan was the one who ended the Cold War and this is the reason why Reagan is considered an effective leader. But not so fast there are those who said that Reagan did not accomplish anything of significance.

It is therefore important to clarify that the Cold War may not be a real battle between two opposing nations but it was still as tense and as destructive as a real war (Crocker, Osler, Aal, 2007, p.247). By ending it Reagan proved his worth as a national leader.

This can be resolved by defining the Cold War. If the Cold War is about the proliferation of dangerous nuclear missiles then the reduction of these missiles should be considered an important achievement. The threat of a nuclear holocaust was significantly reduced during the Reagan administration (Andrews, 2004, p.1). There are many who credited Ronald Reagan as the true victor in the aftermath of the stand-off between two nations.

Leadership Success

It is important to begin this section by pointing out the criticisms leveled against the Reagan administration. There are those who said that Reagan escalated the Cold War – that his war-mongering and his controversial policies forced the hand of the Soviet Union to ramp up their nuclear build-up.

But it can be argued that these kinds of comments are best said in hindsight; the fact that World War III did not occur is sometimes used as a reason to find fault in the Reagan administration. But leadership should not be judged on what transpired during times of peace but what was done during times of conflict.

No one can deny that when the Reagan administration inherited the problems of the Nixon and Carter administration the United States was in dire straits both in the domestic and international stage. The economy was reeling and the reputation of the United States after the embarrassing defeat in the Vietnam war gave her enemies not only reason to celebrate, it also emboldened them to try to conquer the world through communism ideals.

For those who agree that Reagan was indeed the true victor in the Cold War, they would cite Reagan’s speeches that provided an insight into his policies and strategies addressing the problem with the Soviets.

In a speech made in June 1982 made to the British Parliament, Regan described the outline of “…a plan and a hope for the long term – the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxims-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies…”(Garrity, 2002, p.1).

A few years later Reagan delivered an address in West Berlin while standing near the infamous Berlin Wall and where he said, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization:

Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Garrity, 2002, p.1). Reagan confronted the Soviet Union. He made the world see them as who they are and then he turned around to create a system that will force them to reduce the number of warheads.

If leadership is judged by how well a person executes a plan and how well a leader inspires the population with a clear presentation of his vision then Reagan was a towering success in the aftermath of the Cold War. Reagan was therefore credited in helping accelerate the end of the conflict which according to one historian, “…consumed both nations for 46 years and cost hundreds of billions of dollars…” (Hoffman, 2004, p.1).

This means that without Reagan the U.S. economy would have been in terrible shape because the economy would have perpetually financed a Cold War for generations to come.

But more importantly Reagan prevented the U.S.S.R. from invading the U.S. mainland. It might seem absurd for 21st century political scientists to believe that the Russians had the capability to engage America in a war and win convincingly but at the height of the Cold War there were many Americans who thought that the Soviet Union had what it takes.

Moreover, the Soviets believed that they can overtake the United States in terms of the economy, politics, ideology, and scientific achievements.

Thus, Reagan’s success is also psychological, in that he made the Russians believe that they could not defeat the U.S. and at the same time encouraged the whole American continent that they will live to see another century and not disappear in a cloud of nuclear dust.

But before Regan stepped into the presidency Kruschev had already made his fiery speeches to humiliate the U.S., Sputnik had been launched and missiles were in-route to Cuba and, “By the time Reagan made a serious run for presidency, in 1976, it was easy to think the Soviets might conquer America militarily” (Noonan, 1998, p.1).

There was a need to reduce the confidence of the Russians because otherwise it would only take one rouge Russian general to start World War III.

Reagan was able to achieve this and more. He was able to force the U.S.S.R. to accept a plan that will reduce the nuclear arsenals of both countries. Reagan was also able to do all of these without appearing weak and this resulted in increasing the political clout of America especially in the need to promote democracy in other parts of the globe.

His success as a leader and a policymaker can be seen in two major areas. First of all he succeeded in defeating the Soviet Union and secondly he was able to transform an ailing U.S. economy and turn it into one of the most formidable and influential economies in the world.

It can be said that his approach was always two-pronged to save America from ineffective economic policies and to save the world from the rampaging Soviet bloc. Reagan was not trying to hit two birds with one stone he was forced to hit two birds with one stone.

From the very beginning Reagan was against détente and disagreed sharply with the idea of containment (Hilton, n.d., p.1). In one of his speeches Reagan made it painfully clear that there is a need to change the way people deal with the Soviet Union, that there must be “long-term political and military changes with the Soviet empire that will facilitate a more secure and peaceful world order” (Hilton, n.d., p.1).

Thus, Reagan had to increase the commitment of the United States to arm itself against the Soviets but at the same time he cannot afford to bankrupt the State.

It is important for him to balance the two. If he can transform the U.S. economy and revitalize it once again by reducing inflation and cutting the deficit then he will have the ability to coax the U.S. Congress to do what he wanted to do but more importantly he will get the support of the American people (Gaddis, 1989, p.1).

Reagan’s success is seen in the depth and breadth of his vision. He knew what it takes to topple the U.S.S.R. He also knew that the Cold War can be won without firing a single nuclear warhead. However, it has to be done his way. His terms dictate that the United States must appear to be strong. He wanted his enemies and his allies to believe that American is no pushover.

According to one commentary, Reagan’s fiery speeches were not a mere show of communication skills and a mere explanation of his ideology; it served two purposes: “First, it was intended to remobilize American public opinion after years of détente … second, it was meant to send the Soviet leaders a message, especially at such an unstable time when Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov, and Konstatin U. Chernenko died in rapid succession: Reagan’s blunt declarations signaled that America had the will to resist Soviet expansion and left no doubt that it would respond to new soviet aggression (Smith & Hall, p.137 It was a game of chicken and the Soviets were the first to blink.

The Soviet Union has reason to be afraid of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI. This is a remarkable piece of foreign policy because it built upon the excesses of the Cold War and instead of being blamed for the huge expenditures and all the problems that comes with a massive nuclear build-up, Reagan made a decisive move to change the way the American people and its allies see the world stage, especially when dealing with the Soviet Union.

Reagan was saying that the time has come to show the Soviets what the United States is capable of while at the same time signaling to the rest of the world that America will never be the aggressor and yet at the drop of a hat the combined strength of the United States can be used to pulverize the Soviet Union.

This message was loud and clear within the United States and abroad. According to historians Reagan saw the weakness of the Soviet Union and went to exploit it: “For the Soviets, his Strategic Defense Initiative spearheaded the information/technology revolution they feared, and confronted them with a costly arms race at a time when the Soviet economy needed huge capital investments at home” (Smith & Hall, year, p.165).

It was made clear later on that the Soviet Union “spent as much as 50 percent of its yearly budget on weapons and the armed forces … and every year about $3 billion went to support other communist countries” (Langley, year, p.50).

In other words Reagan created a deal that was too good to pass up. He made Soviet leaders think that there is a way for them not to lose face because they can make it appear that it was a mutually beneficial move to seek peace. In addition they were given the chance not to be placed in awkward position when the whole world will discover that Russia could not support its own weight.

The Russians were tethering at the brink of economic collapse and they had to choose between death from an imagined future conflict with the United States or death from starvation brought about by a dysfunctional government weighed down by the spiraling cost of maintaining military superiority (Kaplan, 2004, p.1).

They had to make a quick decision and it was fortunate for them and the American people that Gorbachev was at the helm and not a demigod bent on preserving the lofty status of the U.S.S.R.

Aside from forcing the Soviet Union to go to the negotiation table, Reagan was also able to convince them that there is no other way to go but to reduce their nuclear capability. The Cold War should be deescalated. There is no longer any reason why both countries to bankrupt their treasury.

There is no reason to build more bombs to create more destructive capability. It is time to end what was started during the Korean War and begin to create a world in peace.

Once again, Reagan gave them an offer that they cannot put down because he knew that in a few years time the Soviet Union will have nothing left in its tank. It is simply remarkable how Reagan turn things around. A good leader will win World wars but a great one will prevent an all-out nuclear war.

If his contributions to history were limited to the successful crafting and implementation of foreign policies such as the SDI then Reagan deserved to be honored as one of the greatest leaders of all time. But he did more than that. Reagan can be considered as one of the best U.S. presidents of all time because he did not sacrifice the welfare of his countrymen just to show the world who can will the war against the Soviets.

His actions and leadership style can be easily contrasted against the Soviet leaders who decided that the citizens of the Soviet Union are of less importance as compared to the prestige of socialism. They poured all their resources into the arms race and at the end millions of Russians suffered.

Reagan had a different view and how he was able to balance two opposing objectives is another feather in his cap. He knew that he had to bolster the economy of the United States in order to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

What he did during his two terms in the White House demonstrated that he is not only an excellent communicator and strategist; he is also a brilliant economist.

His domestic policies were controversial at first, it was known as Reaganomics, but at the end he was able to prove his critics wrong. In his 1981 Program for Economic Recovery Reagan said that there are four major policy objectives and these are:

  1. Reduce the growth of government spending;
  2. Reduce the marginal tax rates on income from both labor and capital;
  3. Reduce government regulation; and
  4. Reduce inflation by controlling the growth of the money supply (Niskanen, 2002, p.1).

According to an unbiased view of history, Reagan was able to deliver on each of his four major policy objectives considering the fact that not all of his proposed changes were approved (Niskanen, 2002, p.1).

In spite of increase in real defense spending, the Reagan administration was able to reduce inflation from 4.0 to 2.5 percent (Niskanene, 2002, p.1). It was evident that the Reagan economic program “led to substantial improvement in economic conditions” (Niskanen, 2002, p.1). This is the final proof that Reagan demonstrated true leadership.


There is no better way to prove leadership potential and greatness aside from becoming the President of the United States. This is because there are two spheres of influence that an American president has to deal with and the first one is with regards to domestic policies and the second one deals with foreign policies.

In the tumultuous times of the 1980s when Reagan took over form Jimmy Carter he was not only able to develop foreign policies to dismantle the power of the U.S.S.R. he was also able to develop domestic policies that prevented the United States from going into an economic tailspin. These are the main reason why Reagan is such an effective and successful leader.

Works Cited

Andrews, Wyatt. “Reagan’s Cold War Legacy.” 2004. CBS Evening News.

Busch, Andrew. Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001. Print.

Crocker, C., F. Osler, & P. Aall. Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2007.

Filitov, Alexei. Victory in the Postwar Era: Despite the Cold War or Because of it?” In The End of the Cold War, ed. Michael Hogan, 77-90. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Print.

Gaddis, John. Ronald Reagan’s Cold War Victory. American History 102. 1989.

Garrity, Patrick. . Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. 2002.

Hoffman, David. Washington Post. 2004.

Kaplan, Fred. “.” Slate Magazine. 2004.

Langley, Andrew. The Collapse of the Soviet Union: The End of an Empire. MN: Compass Point Books, 2007. Print.

Niskanen, William. . 2002. Library of Economics and Liberty. 2010.

Noonan, Peggy. Ronald Reagan: He Brought Big Government to its Knees and Stared Down the Soviet Union. Time Magazine. 1998.

Smith James, Gwendolyn Hall, and USAF Institute for National Security Studies. Milestones in strategic arms control, 1945-2000: United States Air Force roles and outcomes, Collingdale: DIANE Publishing, 2002. Print.

Talbott. Strobe. Reagan and Gorbachev: Shutting the Cold War Down. Brookings. 2004.

Tellis, Ashley. Reconstructing Political Realism: The Long March to Scientific Theory. In B. Frankel (Ed.). Roots of Realism. Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass, Inc., 1996. Print.

Westad, Odd. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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