Reagan Doctrine

The Reagan Doctrine in the United States

The Reagan Doctrine Summary

In his 1985 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan called upon Congress and the American people to stand up to the Soviet Union, what he had previously called the “Evil Empire”:

“We must stand by all our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.”

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. As the directive noted:

“The U.S. must rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on U.S. interests and those of its Allies and friends, and to support effectively those Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures or oppose Soviet initiatives hostile to the United States, or are special targets of Soviet policy.”

To that end, the Reagan administration focused much of its energy on supporting proxy armies to curtail Soviet influence. Among the more prominent examples of the Reagan Doctrine’s application, in Nicaragua, the United States sponsored the contra movement in an effort to force the leftist Sandinista government from power. And in Afghanistan, the United States provided material support to Afghan rebels—known as the mujahadeen—helping them end Soviet occupation of their country.

According to “The Digital History”, the President and his advisers tended to view every regional conflict through a Cold War lens. Nowhere was this truer than in the Western Hemisphere, where he was determined to prevent Communist takeovers. (…) The Reagan administration circumvented Congress by soliciting contributions for the contras (anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua) 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 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 Reagan Doctrine Definition

This doctrine was used to characterize the Reagan administration’s (1981-1988) policy of supporting anti-Communist insurgents wherever they might be.

In the words of the Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military, it is the “President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War policy, which advocated using U.S. intelligence operations to sponsor and support guerrilla warfare overseas with the goal of preventing the spread of communism.”

Its History, Consequences and Criticism

For the most part, the doctrines of American foreign policy have sprung largely from a sense of crisis in the world at large. From the early nineteenth until the late twentieth century, whenever presidents saw fit to articulate certain principles of American foreign policy, they did so in an environment of either apparent danger or impending opportunity. The Reagan Doctrine was no different. Presupposing a world of good and evil, it operated on the assumption that evil, in the form of the USSR, was gaining the upper hand. To Reagan and his advisers, examples of Soviet perfidy, including support for Marxist movements around the globe, were numerous; moreover, Soviet adventurism, from the Horn of Africa in the 1970s to Central America in the 1980s, showed no signs of abating. Reagan was intent on arresting that trend—a trend, he believed, that Carter had done little to reverse. Therefore, he adopted the rhetoric of the early Cold War, advocating policies equally assertive and bold in scope.

Reagan laid out that vision in his State of the Union Address of 6 February 1985. “We must not break faith,” he declared, “with those who are risking their lives—on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” The president went on to equate anticommunist forces with American colonists who had fought the revolutionary war, describing those latter-day patriots as “freedom fighters” for democracy. Providing aid to those groups was not only morally just but geopolitically sound. “Support for freedom fighters,” Reagan avowed, “is self-defense.” It would be months before those declarations would take shape as a fixed statement of policy.

In the interim, a further pledge to support “freedom fighters,” made on 22 February by Secretary of State George Shultz to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, lent added heft to Reagan’s message. But it was neither Reagan nor his advisers who put the president’s name to the set of policies he was announcing. Rather, it was Charles Krauthammer, a commentator on foreign affairs, who coined the term “Reagan Doctrine” in a Time magazine column of April 1985. Reagan’s practice of waging Cold War through proxy forces had a long doctrinal pedigree, one that dated back to the early years of the Cold War. Presidents from Truman through Carter had all sought to aid governments or movements battling communism, but it was Reagan who, arguably, endowed that policy with its greatest energy. The belief that Moscow was supporting leftist movements in the Third World was one of the doctrine’s guiding principles. As Reagan commented during the 1980 presidential campaign, “the Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world.” Reagan himself chose to play that game early in his administration, authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency in 1981 to begin financing the “contra” forces battling the pro-Soviet Sandinista movement for control of Nicaragua. Funding for such anticommunist units suggests that the Reagan Doctrine appeared in practice long before it became enshrined as such. (…)


Reagan looked, acted, and talked like an anticommunist Cold Warrior from start to finish in his doctrine about aid to freedom fighters and in his policies on El Salvador and Nicaragua. Yet Reagan did lower the rhetoric and move to meaningful negotiations with Gorbachev. Did this represent a reversal by Reagan, as Beth A. Fischer argues in The Reagan Reversal (1997)? Or did Reagan maintain a hard-liner perspective and accept concessions from Gorbachev as the Soviet leader moved to end the Cold War? Fischer suggests that by January 1984 Reagan was backing off of his hard-line rhetoric and rejection of negotiations because of a growing awareness that confrontation with Moscow could get out of control and lead to a nuclear Armageddon. Fischer points to three events after October 1983: the Soviet shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007, which not only horrified Reagan but raised the danger of a series of human errors producing a disaster; the controversial television movie The Day After, which focused on the effects of nuclear war on Lawrence, Kansas; and, third, Able Archer 83, war games carried out by U.S. and NATO forces in Europe that raised Kremlin concerns about a nuclear first strike to such a degree that the Soviets put their forces on alert.

Reagan was more multi-sided with respect to the Soviet Union and the Cold War than Fischer suggests. Although he never gave up on aid to freedom fighters, Reagan did respond to conflicting recommendations from his advisers and exhibited some flexibility toward Moscow before Gorbachev arrived. In the spring of 1983 hard-liners and Secretary of State Shultz encouraged Reagan to move in two somewhat contradictory directions. Hard-liners led by William Clark and the National Security Council strongly endorsed Reagan’s speech on 8 March with its reference to the Soviet “evil empire” and his endorsement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on 23 March.

Shultz disliked both speeches and SDI and did not know about the “evil empire” reference. When Shultz met with Reagan on 10 March with a well-prepared rationale for a new approach to Moscow, to his dismay he found the room filled with Clark and other National Security Council officials opposed to negotiations. As Shultz later recounted, he met privately with Reagan the next day and told him that “I needed to have direction from him on Soviet relations. I went through with him again what I was trying to achieve. ‘Go ahead,’ he told me.” Shultz noted that despite the green light from the president he had to be careful and keep checking back with Reagan on the “proposed route” to improved relations with the Kremlin.

On SDI, Shultz indicated that he first heard about the strategic defense idea at a dinner with the president on 12 February and in a debate with Clark early in March. Shultz took his concerns to the president, emphasizing that Reagan was changing basic strategic doctrine without much scientific and technological basis or consultation within the administration or with Western allies. Shultz supported research and development consistent with the ABM Treaty and reliance on existing doctrine and the structure of U.S. alliances. Reagan, however, brushed aside the secretary’s rationale and his offer to redraft the reference to SDI in Reagan’s speech. The president pushed to announce SDI before it disappeared in the face of resistance and criticism from administration officials, Congress, allies, and public critics.

Shultz had more success when he persuaded Reagan, against the resistance of Clark and the National Security Council, to open a dialogue with Soviet officials. At the 12 February dinner with Reagan, Schultz suggested that Reagan meet with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. “Great,” responded Reagan, although Clark and the National Security Council tried to head off a wayward president who had yet to meet with any Soviet official. For two hours Reagan and Dobrynin reviewed issues, including human rights and the Pentecostals, a small group of Christians who had been in the U.S. embassy in Moscow for five years and wanted to emigrate to practice their religion.

According to Shultz, Reagan thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, wanted to be involved, and wanted to move forward. On 28 February, Moscow responded with a less than direct indication that if the Pentecostals left the embassy and went home they would eventually be able to emigrate. After the “evil empire” speech Reagan approved a response to Dobrynin, and the Kremlin began to allow the Pentecostals to leave. Dobrynin kept repeating “the less said publicly the better,” and Shultz kept repeating “quiet diplomacy.” From April through July, Shultz kept up the quiet diplomacy, Moscow released Pentecostals and family members, and Reagan stayed silent as promised. (…)

Source: Entry “Cold War Termination” (Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy), by Thomas R. Maddux

Reagan Doctrine in the U.S. Legal History


President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 pledge of American aid to insurgent movements attempting to overthrow Soviet-back regimes in the Third World.


See Also

  • Colonialism
  • Neocolonialism
  • Presidential Doctrines
  • Containment
  • Continental Expansion
  • Arms Control
  • Disarmament
  • Cold War
  • Cold War Origins
  • Cold Warriors
  • Covert Operations
  • Globalization
  • Post–Cold War Policy
  • Intervention
  • Nonintervention
  • Isolationism
  • The Munich Analogy
  • The National Interest
  • Recognition

Further Reading

  • Arnson, Cynthia J. Crossroads: Congress, the Reagan Administration, and Central America. New York, 1989.
  • Berman, Larry, ed. Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency. Baltimore, 1990.
  • Adelman, Kenneth. The Great Universal Embrace: Arms Summitry—A Skeptic’s Account. New York, 1989.
  • Baker, James A., 3d. The Politics of Diplomacy. New York, 1995.
  • Beschloss, Michael R., and Strobe Talbott. At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War. Boston, 1993.
  • Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York, 1991.
  • Cold War International History Project. Bulletin 5 (spring 1995) and 11 (winter 1998).
  • Crowe, Admiral William J. The Line of Fire: From Washington to the Gulf, the Politics and Battles of the New Military. New York, 1993.
  • Dobrynin, Anatoly. In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents (1962–1986). New York, 1995.
  • English, Robert D. Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War. New York, 2000.
  • Evangelista, Matthew. Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War. Ithaca, N.Y., 1999.
  • Crabb, Cecil V., Jr. The Doctrines of American Foreign Policy: Their Meaning, Role, and Future. Baton Rouge, La., 1982.
  • DeMuth, Christopher C., et al. The Reagan Doctrine and Beyond. Washington, D.C., 1988.
  • Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia, Mo., 1997.
  • Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Washington, D.C., 1985.
  • Garthoff, Raymond L. “Détente and Deterrence in the Cold War.” Diplomatic History 22, no. 1 (winter 1998): 145–148.
  • Hyland, William G., ed. The Reagan Foreign Policy. New York, 1987.
  • Johnson, Robert H. “Misguided Morality: Ethics and the Reagan Doctrine.” Political Science Quarterly 103, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 509–529.
  • Lagon, Mark P. The Reagan Doctrine: Sources of American Conduct in the Cold War’s Last Chapter. Westport, Conn., 1994.
  • McFaul, Michael. “Rethinking the Reagan Doctrine in Angola.” International Security 14, no. 3 (winter 1989–1990): 99–135.
  • Fitz Gerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York, 2000.
  • Garthoff, Raymond L. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, D.C., 1994.
  • Gates, Robert M. From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. New York, 1996.
  • Gorbachev, Mikhail. Memoirs. New York, 1996.
  • Haig, Alexander M. Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy. New York, 1984.
  • Hogan, Michael J., ed. The End of the Cold War. New York, 1992.
  • Matlock, Jack F. Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union. New York, 1995.
  • Menges, Constantine C. Inside the National Security Council: The True Story of the Making and Unmaking of Reagan’s Foreign Policy. New York, 1988.
  • Reagan, Ronald. An American Life. New York, 1990.
  • Regan, Donald T. For the Record. New York, 1988.
  • Schmertz, Eric J., et. al., eds. President Reagan and the World. Westport, Conn., 1997.
  • Schweizer, Peter, ed. The Fall of the Berlin Wall : Reassessing the Causes and Consequences of the End of the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 2000.
  • Teicher, Howard, and Gayle Radley Teicher. Twin Pillars to Desert Storm: America’s Flawed Vision in the Middle East from Nixon to Bush. New York, 1993.
  • Tucker, Robert W., ed. Intervention and the Reagan Doctrine. New York, 1985.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. “The Reagan Strategy of Containment.” Political Science Quarterly 105, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 373–395.

Reagan Doctrine: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

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