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Reagan: "Staying the Course"

In January 1981, Ronald Reagan became president. In his memoirs, An American Life, he describes himself as believing that the Soviet Union "was guided by a policy of immoral and unbridled expansionism." He describes himself also as wanting to dampen hostilities in the interest of avoiding a nuclear holocaust. Reagan didn't view the Soviet Union's communism on a march toward worldwide success unless it was stopped by some kind of hostile police action. It appears that he had doubts about taking the war to the enemy as favored by America's most hawkish anti-Communists. He seemed to favor letting the Soviet Union change itself – as was happening in China. He said of what he called the Soviet Empire:

If they didn't make some changes, it seemed clear to me that in time Communism would collapse of its own weight, and I wondered how we as a nation could use these cracks in the Soviet system to accelerate the process of collapse.

One of his weapons was described by the New York Times on 26 December 1981 as warning the Soviet Union that we "will have no choice'' but to impose political and economic sanctions against Moscow its repression in Poland continues.

Reagan, however, wanted to avoid acrimony leading to nuclear war. He wrote:

The Pentagon said that 150 million American lives would be lost in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union – even if we "won".

For Americans who survived such a war, I couldn't imagine what life would be like. The planet would be so poisoned the "survivors" would have no place to live.

Even if nuclear war did not mean the extinction of mankind, it would certainly mean the end of civilization as we know it.

My dream, then, became a world free of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, as expressed in the National Security Decisions Directive of 1 October 1981, Reagan intended to modernize US strategic forces "to help redress the deteriorated strategic balance with the Soviet Union." This was part of what Reagan called his "Peace through strength" policy. Later, in 1983 it would included Reagan announcing his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile defense system intended to protect the United States from attack by missiles, to be described by some as giving the US an opportunity to win a nuclear war with a first-strike capability.

Reagan didn't have winning a nuclear war on his mind, but he wrote that it would be "senseless, ill-founded, and dangerous for America to withdraw from its role as superpower and leader of the Free World. In May 1982 he sent a letter to Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev suggesting a resumption of arms control talks at Geneva before the end of June. In his memoirs, Reagan describes Brezhnev 's response as "not cordial" and as "icy," but Brezhnev agreed to new talks.

In September 1982, Reagan was told by his Secretary of State, George Schultz that Brezhnev might be interested in a summit meeting. On 15 November, after years of declining health, at the age of 75, Brezhnev died. According to Time magazine a majority in the Soviet Union mourned the old World War II veteran's death. The funeral was attended by 32 heads of state, 15 heads of government, 14 foreign ministers and four princes. One of those offering condolences was Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India. She said that Brezhnev had "stood by us in our moment of need". Reagan sent his vice president, George H W Bush.

Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, a former KGB man. He attacked what he saw as moral rot and launched a campaign against corruption and alcoholism. Reagan in early March 1983 described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire", and it was a couple of weeks later he unveiled his research program for SDI or "Star Wars." There was the Soviet Union's downing of the Korean airliner in September.

On September 25 something almost caused a nuclear holocaust. Reports from satellites to Soviet security forces indicated that a nuclear attack from the United States was pending. A diligent Russian lieutenant colonel, Stanislav Petrov, averts nuclear war by discovering the computer error involved.

In October on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, a coup overthrew the leftist prime minister, Maurice Bishop, whom they saw as too moderate. Leaders in the Caribbean region agreed with Reagan that Grenada could become a Communist danger for the region. President Reagan invaded the island with military forces a move criticized by a number countries including the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as the United Nations General Assembly, which on 2 November 1983 with a vote of 108 to 9 condemned it as "a flagrant violation of international law".

In February 1984 Andropov died, at almost 70. The new Secretary General was Konstantin Chernenko, an ideologue without much formal education and a bureaucrat in charge of propaganda, close to the policies of Brezhnev. He too was in ill-health, and he died at the age of 73 after eleven months in office. His second in command was Mikhael Gorbachev, a younger generation at 54, energetic, in good health and with a lively mind.


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