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Context of 'Early 1981 and After: Reagan Pushes Largest Peacetime Military Buildup in US History'

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President Jimmy Carter cancels the B-1 bomber program, calling it unnecessary and staggeringly expensive. He says that newly developed cruise missiles, in tandem with the aging B-52 bomber fleet, can adequately deliver nuclear weapons if ever the need arises. Critics call Carter a “unilateral disarmer,” willing to give up key weapons programs without asking for a quid pro quo from the Soviet Union. Vladimir Semenov, the head of the USSR’s SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) negotiating team, complains that Carter should have announced the cancellation during US-Soviet negotiations “[s]o that we could both have gotten credit.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 105]

Entity Tags: Vladimir Semenov, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

A test firing of an MX missile.A test firing of an MX missile. [Source: University of Wyoming]President Carter reluctantly gives public support to the MX nuclear missile program. The MX, first proposed in 1971, is a mobile missile platform that can, in theory, escape detection by Soviet spy satellites simply because it is mobile; by the time static satellite photos are developed and analyzed, and targeting data fed into Soviet nuclear missiles, the MX could have long since been moved. The MX has ten nuclear warheads, each capable of striking separate targets. To keep it out of Soviet sights, it can be moved around on railway cars, in vans driven on superhighways, even submerged in lakes. The MX program quickly earned heated opposition from ranchers and landowners in Western states, where the missiles would be deployed. And the Soviets do not like the program because the MX, being mobile, could be used to “spoof” the counts each side make of the other’s weapons, as mandated by treaties. Carter struggles with the program throughout his term, and finally orders 200 of the missiles and 4,600 “soft shelters” constructed in Utah and Nevada. Carter’s Republican challenger in the 1980 presidential race, Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA), effectively lambasts Carter for his support of the program throughout the race, then after taking office in 1981, reverses course and enthusiastically supports and even expands the program (see 1981), in the process dubbing the MX the “Peacekeeper.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 50-51]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Newly elected President Ronald Reagan begins his first term with a cabinet and senior staff made up of two quite different brands of conservatives. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, in his 1991 book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, will describe an administration riven between “pragmatists” or “realists,” whom their opponents dismiss as “accomodationists” or “one-worlders,” and “conservatives” or “Reaganauts,” whom their opponents label “crazies” or “hard-liners.” Both groups staunchly oppose communism and support increased defense spending, but they diverge on the subject of negotiating with the Soviet Union. The “pragmatists” favor working to extend the idea of detente with the USSR, while the “Reaganauts” see any such negotiations as nothing but appeasement of a murderous and implacable foe (see June 18, 1979-Winter 1979). During Reagan’s first term, particularly in the first three years, the “Reaganauts” hold the upper hand in setting his administration’s foreign policy. In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write, “This period marked the closest conservatives came during the Cold War to seeing their principles translated into policy.” It also marks the closest the world came to an all-out nuclear war between the two superpowers since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 (see November 2-11, 1983). The “pragmatists” will have much more say in setting policy during the last five years of Reagan’s presidency, and as a result will help engineer a dramatic reduction in tensions between the US and the Soviet Union as well as a treaty eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons (see December 7-8, 1987). By the end of Reagan’s presidency, many conservatives have gone from enthusiastically supporting his policies to considering him a traitor to their ideology (see 1988). [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 115-116]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, J. Peter Scoblic, Lou Cannon

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan embarks on what will become the largest peacetime military buildup in US history. “I look forward with great enthusiasm and eagerness as we begin to rearm America,” says Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, one of the hard-liners in Reagan’s Cabinet (see January 1981 and After). (President Carter had never disarmed America; he had backed the MX missile (see June 1979) and steadily increased spending on conventional arms, raising the Pentagon’s budget significantly during his last year in office.) Reagan wants to more than double the US defense budget, from $171 billion to $368 billion, by 1986. He wants more weapons, more weapons programs, and more nuclear arms. He reauthorizes the B-1 bomber program canceled by Carter (see June 1977) and the so-called “neutron bomb,” a nuclear weapon designed to release more radioactivity—thereby killing more people—with a lessened explosive power—thereby damaging less property. He authorizes the deployment of 3,000 cruise missiles aboard aircraft, and accelerates the development of the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), nuclear-capable ocean-based cruise missiles, and the B-2 “stealth” bomber. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 117]

Entity Tags: Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan, recuperating from surgery to remove an assassin’s bullet, tells bedside visitor Terence Cardinal Cooke that God spared his life so that he might “reduce the threat of nuclear war.”
Censored Letter to Brezhnev - The day after his conversation with Cooke, Reagan pens a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev calling for “disarmament” and a “world without nuclear weapons.” Brezhnev does not read Reagan’s words; Reagan’s aides, horrified at the letter, rewrite it and strip out all the phrases calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons before sending it to Brezhnev.
Aides Refuse to Draw up Plans for Disarmament - In the following weeks, Reagan will call nuclear weapons “horrible” and “inherently evil,” and order his aides to draw up plans for their elimination. His aides will refuse to deliver those plans; one adviser, Richard Burt (see Early 1981 and After), will exclaim: “He can’t have a world without nuclear weapons! Doesn’t he understand the realities?”
Wants to Stop Nuclear Armageddon - Reagan believes in the literal Biblical story of Armageddon—the End Times—and believes that it will come about through the use of nuclear weapons. Unlike some conservative Christians (and some of his advisers), he does not relish the prospect, and in fact believes it is his task to prevent it from happening.
Plans to Reduce Nuclear Arms Based on Prescience, Ignorance - Author J. Peter Scoblic will note it is difficult to reconcile the view of Reagan as an advocate of nuclear disarmament with the confrontational, sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric and actions by him and his administration (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, March 1982, and Spring 1982), but Scoblic will write: “Each of these efforts, however, can also be interpreted as a sincere, if misguided, product of Reagan’s hatred of nuclear weapons. Reagan believed that the Soviets would reduce their atomic arsenal only if they were faced with the prospect of an arms race.” Reagan realizes—ahead of many of his advisers—that the USSR was moving towards a calamitous economic crisis, and believes that the Soviets will choose to step back from further rounds of escalation in order to save their economy from complete collapse. He also believes, with some apparent conflict in logic, that the only way to reduce US nuclear arms is to increase the nation’s military arsenal. “Reagan emphasized time and again, that the aim of his arms build-up was to attain deep cuts in nuclear weapons,” biographer Paul Lettow will write. “[M]ost people did not listen to what he was actually saying.” Scoblic cites what he calls Reagan’s profound ignorance of nuclear strategy and tactical capabilities as another driving force behind Reagan’s vision of nuclear disarmament. He is not aware that submarines and long-range bombers carry nuclear missiles; he believes that submarine-based nuclear missiles can be called back once in flight. Both ideas are wrong. He tells foreign policy adviser Brent Scowcroft that he did not realize the primary threat from the Soviet Union was that its gigantic arsenal of ICBMs might obliterate the US’s own ICBM stockpile. When journalists ask him how the MX missile program (see 1981) that he has asserted will rectify the threat to American ICBMs, as he has asserted, he confesses that he does not know. And he honestly does not seem to understand that his administration’s confrontational, sometimes overtly belligerent actions (see May 1982 and After, June 8, 1982, March 23, 1983, and November 2-11, 1983) cause apprehension and even panic among the Soviet military and political leadership. Scoblic will write that like other hardline conservatives, “Reagan could not believe that anyone could perceive the United States as anything but righteous.”
'Subject to Manipulation' - Reagan’s desire for a reduction in nuclear arms is not matched by any depth of understanding of the nuclear weapons issues. Therefore, Scoblic will observe, “[h]e was susceptible to manipulation by advisers who shared his militant anti-communism but not his distaste for nuclear deterrence and who wanted neither arms reduction nor arms control.” When he names George Shultz as his secretary of state in mid-1982, he gains a key ally in his plans for nuclear reduction and a counterweight to arms-race advocates such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other hardliners who have worked (and continue to work) to sabotage the administration’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. He gains another ally when he replaces National Security Adviser William Clark with the more pragmatic Robert McFarlane. Both Shultz and McFarlane will support Reagan’s desire to begin sincere negotiations with the USSR on reducing nuclear arms, as does his wife, Nancy Reagan, who wants her husband to be remembered by history as reducing, not increasing, the risk of nuclear war. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 136-138]

Entity Tags: Robert C. McFarlane, Leonid Brezhnev, J. Peter Scoblic, George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Brent Scowcroft, Nancy Reagan, Richard Burt, Terence Cardinal Cooke, Ronald Reagan, William Clark, Paul Lettow

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Though President Reagan has long vowed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons between the US and Soviet Union (see April 1981 and After and March-April 1982), because of a variety of factors—his recalcitrant anti-communism (see May 27, 1981, June 8, 1982, and March 8, 1983), his belief that escalating the arms race between the two countries would force the Soviets to give up their attempt to stay abreast of the Americans (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, and Spring 1982), and his aides’ success at sabotaging the US-Soviet arms negotiations (see January 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, May 1982 and After, and April 1983-December 1983)—recent events (see November 2-11, 1983 and November 20, 1983) have convinced him that he must fundamentally change the way he approaches the US’s dealings with the Soviets. He tells reporters that he will no longer refer to the USSR as “the focus of evil.” He drops what is known as “the standard threat speech” and begins speaking more frequently and openly of nuclear disarmament, to the dismay of many of his hardline advisers. In one speech, he says: “The fact that neither of us likes the other system is no reason to refuse to talk. Living in this nuclear age makes it imperative that we do talk.” Speechwriter Jack Matlock, a pragmatist recently put in charge of the National Security Council’s Soviet affairs desk, wins Reagan’s approval to insert a quote from a speech by President Kennedy: “So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.” He stops using terms like “conflict” in favor of terms such as “misunderstandings.” The rhetoric of “good vs evil,” of “us vs them,” is set aside in favor of discussions of mutual interests and problem solving. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 138-139]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Jack Matlock, National Security Council

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

American conservatives, recently contemptuous of former President Ronald Reagan (see 1988), use the fall of the Berlin Wall (see November 9, 1989 and After) to resurrect the image of Reagan as the victorious Cold Warrior who triumphed over world communism.
Historical Revisionism - In doing so, they drastically revise history. In the revised version of events, Reagan was a staunch, never-wavering, ideologically hardline conservative who saw the Cold War as an ultimate battle between good (Western democracy) and evil (Soviet communism). As author J. Peter Scoblic will describe the revision, it was Reagan’s implacable resolve and conservative principles—and the policies that emanated from those principles—that “forced the Soviet Union to implode.” Conservatives point to the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” of backing anti-Soviet insurgencies (see May 5, 1985) and to National Security Decision Directive 75, accepting nuclear war as a viable policy option (see January 17, 1983), as evidence of their assertions. But to achieve this revision, they must leave out, among other elements, Reagan’s long-stated goal of nuclear disarmament (see April 1981 and After, March-April 1982, November 20, 1983, and Late November 1983), and his five-year history of working with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear arms between the two nations (see December 1983 and After, November 16-19, 1985, January 1986, October 11-12, 1986, and December 7-8, 1987).
USSR Caused Its Own Demise - And, Scoblic will note, such revisionism does not account for the fact that it was the USSR which collapsed of its own weight, and not the US which overwhelmed the Soviets with an onslaught of democracy. The Soviet economy had been in dire straits since the late 1960s, and there had been huge shortages of food staples such as grain by the 1980s. Soviet military spending remained, in Scoblic’s words, “enormous, devouring 15 percent to 20 percent of [the USSR’s gross national product] throughout the Cold War (meaning that it imposed three times the economic burden of the US defense budget, on an economy that was one-sixth the size).” Reagan did dramatically increase US military spending during his eight years in office (see Early 1981 and After), and ushered new and potentially devastating military programs into existence (see 1981 and March 23, 1983). Conservatives will assert that Reagan’s military spending drove the USSR into implicit surrender, sending them back to the arms negotiation table with a newfound willingness to negotiate the drawdown of the two nations’ nuclear arsenals (see Early 1985). Scoblic will characterize the conservatives’ arguments: “Whereas [former President] Carter was left playing defense, the Gipper [Reagan] took the ball the final 10 yards against the Reds, spending them into the ground and leading the United States into the end zone.” Scoblic calls this a “superficially… plausible argument,” but notes that Carter, not Reagan, began the tremendous military spending increase (see Late 1979-1980), and more importantly, the USSR made no effort to match Reagan’s defense spending. “Its defense budget remained essentially static during the 1980s,” he will write. “In short, the Soviet Union suffered no economic distress as a result of the Reagan buildup.” Scoblic will also note that conservatives had long insisted that the USSR could actually outspend the US militarily (see November 1976), and never predicted that increasing US military spending could drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 145-149]

Entity Tags: J. Peter Scoblic, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

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