The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News



During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan (1911–) projected an optimistic, "can-do" attitude. He offered an appealing vision of an America restored to its former glory and prosperity through hard work, self-reliance, and faith in God. He appealed to Americans' deep-seated patriotism with his vow to restore the prestige and power of the United States in foreign policy.

At the top of Reagan's foreign-policy list was the defeat of communism (political system or form of government, such as in China or the former Soviet Union, in which all property and wealth is shared by all members of the community). The creation of the world's first nuclear weapons during World War II (1939–45) had sparked the "Atomic Age," which brought with it new power struggles and a great shift in the political thought of the U.S. government. The United States and the Soviet Union had emerged from the war as the world's two superpowers, and the United States no longer considered the Soviet Union an ally. Instead, a hostile yet nonviolent period of relations, which became known as the Cold War, developed between the two nations, and a far-reaching and rapid campaign against communism was begun in the United States.

To root out communism in American society, the U.S. Congress had begun hearings at which people were called to testify against suspected communists. At the war's end, Reagan had become active in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), soon serving as its president. Because of his standing in Hollywood, Reagan was called before Congress to testify about possible communists in the movie business. It was from his experience battling alleged communist penetration of SAG that Reagan developed the anticommunist beliefs that would remain at the core of his convictions through his presidency.

During his presidential campaign, Reagan pledged he would confront the Soviet Union and vigorously oppose communism and terrorism everywhere. After winning the presidential election, Reagan continued his anti-Soviet rhetoric. Early in his presidency, he charged that Soviet leaders were capable of lying, cheating, and stealing to further their cause. Speaking to a group of religious broadcasters in March 1983, Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."

Reagan soon backed his words with deeds. He increased military spending by over $1 trillion, the largest peacetime buildup of the U.S. military in years. He proposed developing a protective shield, partially based in space, to intercept any incoming nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union and others. His administration provided money, arms, and military assistance to anticommunist revolt movements in Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan and anticommunist governments in the Philippines and El Salvador. It did not matter if those governments or movements were guilty of human-rights violations. It also did not matter to the Reagan administration if the U.S. Congress had outlawed such activities.

Reagan committed U.S. troops to assist peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon, ordered the bombing of Libya in retaliation for its support of terrorist activities, and launched an invasion of Grenada to oust a government friendly to Fidel Castro's communist government in Cuba. By authorizing a massive arms buildup and creating a foreign policy based on the belief that a nuclear war in Europe was winnable, Reagan nearly scrapped the policy of détente (pronounced day-TONT; a lessening of hostility or tension between nations) with the Soviet Union that President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) had developed nearly a decade before.


To achieve his aim of defeating communism, Ronald Reagan (1911–) increased military spending during his first term as president. It was the

biggest peacetime buildup since 1940 and the largest in the history of the United States. In 1982, his second year in office, Reagan issued the Defense Guidance Plan, which called for an increase in military spending of $1.2 trillion over five years. Reagan and his administration also wanted to increase the size of the U.S. Navy to six hundred ships.

Presidential Election Results of the 1980s

Presidential Election Results: 1980

Presidential/Vice Presidential CandidatePolitical PartyPopular VoteElectoral Vote
Ronald Reagan/George BushRepublican43,904,153 (50.75%)489 (90.9%)
Jimmy Carter/Walter MondaleDemocrat35,483,883 (41.01%)49 (9.1%)
John Anderson/Patrick LuceyNational Union5,720,060 (6.61%)0 (0.0%)
Ed Clark/David KochLibertarian921,299 (1.06%)0 (0.0%)
Other485,826 (0.56%)0 (0.0%)

Presidential Election Results: 1984

Presidential/Vice Presidential CandidatePolitical PartyPopular VoteElectoral Vote
Ronald Reagan/George BushRepublican54,455,075 (58.77%)525 (97.6%)
Walter Mondale/Geraldine FerraroDemocrat37,577,185 (41.03%)13 (2.4%)
David Bergland/James LewisLibertarian228,314 (0.24%)0 (0.0%)
Other392,268 (0.42%)0 (0.0%)

Presidential Election Results: 1988

Presidential/Vice Presidential CandidatePolitical PartyPopular VoteElectoral Vote
George Bush/J. Danforth QuayleRepublican48,886,588 (53.37%)426 (79.2%)
Michael Dukakis/Lloyd BentsenDemocrat41,809,485 (45.65%)111 (20.6%)
Lloyd Bentsen/Michael DukakisDemocrat1 (0.2%)
Ron Paul/Andre MarrouLibertarian432,184 (0.47%)0 (0.0%)
Other467,463 (0.51%)0 (0.0%)

One of Reagan's more controversial acts in regard to increasing military strength was to revive plans to build the B-1 bomber. President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) had proposed the development of the B-1 in 1970. The first supersonic bomber, its primary mission was to deliver nuclear bombs anywhere around the world, including deep inside the Soviet Union. Antiwar protestors heavily criticized the B-1 program during the 1970s, and in 1977, President Jimmy Carter (1924–) canceled the program. Four years later, Reagan restarted it, and the B-1 became the largest military program at the time. By the time Reagan left office in 1988, one hundred B-1 bombers had been built.

While the B-1 was controversial, Reagan's call for a military system to be used to defend against potential nuclear attack by the Soviet Union both on the ground and in space was almost unimaginable. The threat of nuclear warfare had gripped the world since scientists in the United States created the first atomic bombs in 1945. In 1949, the Soviet Union built its own atomic bomb, and the arms race was on. In the 1950s and 1960s, airplanes were the chosen means to deliver nuclear warheads to their destinations. To guard against Soviet bombers, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) developed an antiaircraft defense system. In the 1960s, with the introduction of the technology of rocketry, the preferred delivery system became the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Nancy and Her Astrologer

Ronald and Nancy Reagan had been interested in astrology for many years, a fact he had revealed in his 1965 autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? In the late 1960s, when Reagan was governor of California, Mrs. Reagan even consulted astrologers to help determine his best course of action while in office.

After Reagan was elected U.S. president in 1980, Mrs. Reagan began to consult Joan Quigley, a San Francisco astrologer whom she had met almost a decade before. Her faith in Quigley was reinforced after Quigley had predicted that something bad would happen to the president on March 30, 1981. On that day, John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate Reagan when he emerged from the Washington Hilton Hotel after delivering a speech.

Fearing for her husband's safety after this, Mrs. Reagan dictated the president's schedule based on advice from Quigley, whom she called every Saturday, usually from Camp David, the presidential retreat in central Maryland. For the most part, Quigley determined when it was best for Reagan to move from one place to another, to speak in public, or to begin negotiations with foreign leaders. On some occasions, Reagan was not allowed to leave the White House because of predictions by Quigley.

The American public became aware of the great influence of an astrologer on the president's schedule in the spring of 1988 when former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan revealed so in his memoir, For the Record. When the news broke, the president stated emphatically that he had never consulted an astrologer about policy decisions. Although Mrs. Reagan tried to stress that Quigley had only offered advice on scheduling, the damage was done. Quigley was quickly taken off the White House payroll.

The development of ICBMs then led the United States, during President Nixon's administration, to develop antiballistic missiles (ABMs) that could shoot down incoming enemy missiles. The creation of ABMs led both sides to search for further means of delivering their bombs to their targets. As a result, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) were created in the 1970s. MIRVs, consisting of one launch rocket with several nuclear bombs aboard, were able to overwhelm ABM defenses. All of these military developments increased the concern that a first nuclear strike by the Soviet Union on the United States (or the reverse) was possible.

As part of an expanded national defense system, the Reagan administration introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). It was to make use of the latest technology, and develop new technologies where necessary, in putting into place a protective shield (based both in space and on Earth) around the United States in the event of a Soviet nuclear missile attack. SDI had two essential components: surveillance of Soviet activities so that a launch could be detected at the earliest possible moment and the necessary weaponry to disable Soviet nuclear warheads before they reached the United States. Backers of SDI asserted that it would do what ABMs could not: protect Americans in the event of a nuclear war.

Initial estimates put the project's price at around $30 billion. Experts were soon pointing out that the cost might be as high as $1 trillion. Because SDI was to use lasers, subatomic particle beams, "bullets" launched from electromagnetic rail guns, and other space-age technologies, it was dubbed "Star Wars," after the popular 1977 science-fiction film. By the mid-1980s, the goals of SDI were downsized. Rather than preventing any Soviet missiles from reaching U.S. targets, the new aim was to

ensure that enough Soviet MIRVs would be stopped so that the United States could effectively strike back.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan captivated millions of Americans with his ability to communicate the need for values such as patriotism, religion, hard work, and self-reliance. But an assessment of his presidency yields mixed results. His ability to stimulate the economy and to foster major tax reforms must be weighed against the astronomical increase in the federal deficit that occurred during his administration. His achievements in arms control and ending the Cold War are tempered, in the assessment of some historians, by the public embarrassment of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. After graduating from Eureka College in 1932, he worked for a few years as sportscaster, then was put under contract with Warner Brothers, a major Hollywood studio. By 1947, he was one of the top actors in Hollywood, and he eventually appeared in fifty films, including Bedtime for Bonzo (1951).

In 1947, Reagan was elected to his first of six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). As SAG president, Reagan expelled what he believed were communists from the guild and made all other members swear an oath of loyalty to the United States. Originally a Democrat, Reagan switched to the Republican Party in 1962. Four years later, he ran for governor of California on a platform that called for the downsizing of the California state government. He won easily, and was reelected in 1970.

In 1976, Reagan made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Four years later, he won not only the Republican nomination but the presidency. Within three months of his inauguration, Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. as he left a Washington hotel after having delivered a speech. Contrary to news reports at the time, he nearly died.

During his first term, Reagan vigorously pursued an anticommunist foreign-policy agenda. He increased defense spending by $1.2 trillion. In March 1983, he proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "Star Wars"), which was intended to protect the United States against a Soviet strategic-missile attack. On domestic issues, Reagan tried to carry out his pro-business economic agenda with tax breaks that would create a new prosperity that would "trickle down" to the middle and working classes through new jobs and pay increases. The plan never worked, and the federal deficit continued to grow at an alarming rate.

During Reagan's second presidential term, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States improved dramatically as Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev successfully negotiated major arms-control agreements, which resulted in a decrease in defense spending.

In late 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal came to light. The sale of arms to Iran in order to raise funds for Nicaraguan contra (counterrevolutionary) rebels had been specifically outlawed by the U.S. Congress. Disregarding those laws, the Reagan administration went ahead with the secret operation. The resulting criminal prosecution of several administration officials and questions about his management style led to negative political fallout for Reagan.

The debate over the cost, effectiveness, and need for SDI came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1993, the administration of President Bill Clinton (1946–) announced that SDI was ended. It was to be replaced by a Ballistic Missile Defense Program with a substantially reduced budget.


When Ronald Reagan (1911–) ran for president in 1980, he wanted to change the nation's economic path. He rejected the prevailing economic theory that had dominated American economic policy since World War II (1939–45). That theory held that the federal government should influence the actions of the business world with its policies. It also called for deficit spending by the federal government. Deficit spending is the gap between what the government spends and what it takes in as income (mostly but not exclusively from taxes). To make up the difference between spending and income, the federal government borrows money from the private sector or from other governments, sometimes in the form of bonds. Therefore, every year that the government runs a deficit it adds to the national debt, the total amount of money owed by the government because of borrowing.

Some economists believe that deficit spending can be good in that it will stimulate the economy, as was the case when spending on World War II ended the Great Depression, the period of severe economic decline that began in 1929. Others economists believe that long-term deficit spending makes it harder for people in the private sector to borrow money. When those people borrow money to buy a house or start a business, they end up competing with the government for the available capital.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

On November 13, 1982, 150,000 Vietnam veterans and their families gathered in Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Funded through private contributions, the plan for the memorial had been conceived and established by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), a nonprofit organization incorporated by a group of Vietnam veterans. Like the war to which it bore testimony, the memorial was surrounded by controversy at each stage of planning and construction. Many suggested America was still trying to ignore or forget the conflict that had caused so much division in the country and then ended in defeat. Criticism was especially heated regarding the design that won the competition for the memorial, submitted by Maya Ying Lin, a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate architecture student at Yale University.

Lin designed a V-shaped black granite wall, each side stretching more than two hundred feet, with a gently sloping plot of ground in between, giving visitors the sensation of walking down into the earth. The highly polished, mirrorlike surface was carved with the names of the more than fifty-eight thousand Americans killed or missing in the conflict in Southeast Asia. The names of the men and women were listed in the order they were killed, rather than alphabetically.

While some veterans and many others liked Lin's spare and moving design and the sense of peace it created around itself, many veterans expressed dismay at the color and simplicity of the design. Some leading conservative journalists labeled it an "outrage." To satisfy those who criticized the memorial design, the VVMF commissioned sculptor Frederick Hart to create a realistic sculpture to add to the existing plan. In 1984, his larger-than-life-size statue of three rifle-carrying soldiers, one black and two white, was unveiled approximately 150 feet away from the memorial.

Situated on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial, the memorial, known simply as "The Wall," soon became one of the most visited sites in the nation's capitol, attracting more than five million visitors in its first two years.

Indeed, one of the favored targets for Reagan's wrath was deficit spending. In 1980, the deficit facing the federal government was nearly $80 billion. This led Reagan to proclaim that the federal budget was out of control and government was the problem, not the solution. Reagan promised to balance the budget and to bring a new type of economics to Washington: supply-side economics. During the 1980 presidential primaries, Republican presidential hopeful George Bush (1924–) labeled Reagan's plan "voodoo economics," although after the election Bush upheld Reagan's economic policies both as Reagan's vice president and after his own election to the presidency in 1988.

At the heart of supply-side economics was Reagan's belief that increasing government spending in hopes of stimulating the economy was wasteful. Instead, Reagan argued, taxes should be cut and incentives created to encourage savings and investment, especially for the wealthy. Given such economic breaks, the wealthy would invest in American companies, stimulating the economy. This prosperity would then "trickle down" to the average American worker in the form of jobs and wage increases. Reagan firmly believed that lower tax rates, with lower government spending, would in fact balance the federal budget, not increase deficit spending. Reagan and his budget director, David Stockman, spoke of reducing federal spending by $67 billion.

However, Reagan had also promised to restore America's military might after a losing effort in the Vietnam War (1954–75) and a failed attempt to rescue hostages held by Iran in 1980. Fulfilling this promise resulted in the largest increase in peacetime military spending in the history of the United States. In 1981, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Kemp-Roth tax cuts to put Reagan's economic theory into practice. The following year, Congress cut the projected federal spending by $35.1 billion and approved a three-year, 25 percent reduction in personal and business income taxes. After these measures, the combined federal income taxes on earned income paid by the top 1 percent of the U.S. population dropped from 50 percent in 1981 to 37.5 percent in 1983. The tax cuts were combined with modest cuts in spending on social programs and a massive increase in military spending. Americans enjoyed both continued government spending and lower tax rates. According to Reagan's original plan, such policies would produce a balanced budget by 1984.

Miami Race Riot

The first large-scale urban riot in the United States in more than a decade broke out in Miami on May 17, 1980, after four white police officers were found not guilty in the brutal beating death of an African American motorist. By the time the rioting ended three days later, eighteen people had been killed, four hundred had been injured, and property damage had exceeded $50 million.

Arthur McDuffie, thirty-three, was a former U.S. Marine and an insurance agent. On December 17, 1979, he was riding a motorcycle in the early morning hours when he drove through a red light in north Miami. His driver's license had been suspended because of a bounced check written to pay for another traffic offense. When Dade County Metro police pursued him for running the light, he attempted to escape and, according to police, ran more than twenty-five additional red lights at speeds up to one hundred miles-per-hour before being apprehended by a dozen Miami and Metro police. Initial police reports indicated that he had crashed and hit his head on the ground, then resisted arrest so that police had to use force to arrest him.

When McDuffie died from head injuries four days later, questions were quickly raised. After a four-day investigation, the local prosecutor filed charges against six Metro police officers on charges ranging from participating in a cover-up to second-degree murder. Eventually, four officers went on trial. Because of the high emotions surrounding the case, the trial was moved to Tampa. The defense was successful in obtaining a jury of six white males. After hearing conflicting versions of who had done what from officers, some of whom received immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony, the jury acquitted the four men.

Following what many thought was an unjust verdict, especially since several officers had testified that McDuffie had been beaten as he lay hand-cuffed and defenseless on the ground, rioting broke out. The Justice Building in Miami was broken into and vandalized; dozens of cars were over-turned or burned; and many people, mainly white, were pulled from their cars and beaten or killed. Order was restored only after Florida's governor called out thirty-six hundred National Guardsmen, bringing to an end the worst race riot in American history up to that time.

They did not. During Reagan's two terms as president, the federal deficit rose dramatically, from a low of $128 billion in 1982 to a high of $221 billion in 1986. The accumulated debt of the six years of deficit spending, from 1981 to 1987, was more than $1.1 trillion. When Reagan left office in 1988, the national debt was $2.6 trillion, compared with the $914 billion debt he inherited from the administration of President Jimmy Carter (1924–). In 1986, the United States became a debtor nation, the largest in the world.


In the fall of 1986, two seemingly separate and secret arms deals were revealed to the nation. During the next few years, the American public became transfixed by even more revelations that would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal. In a series of highly publicized hearings, special investigations, and prosecutions of high-ranking officials in the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–), it was revealed that a secret government operating within the official one had charge of U.S. foreign policy. The Iran-Contra scandal threatened to result in impeachment proceedings against the president of the United States and to cause the utter collapse of public confidence in the integrity of government.

A joint congressional investigation and a specially appointed prosecutor probed the allegations that lawbreaking reached into the highest offices in the land. In the end, however, the U.S. Congress decided that only a handful of junior officials in the Reagan administration had broken the law. While the president himself was negligent in the supervision of his appointees, neither he nor Vice President George Bush (1924–) were found guilty of any crimes personally. In all, fourteen men were prosecuted for various charges, and none were penalized with anything more than fines. While several minor players received light sentences, most of these were overturned on appeal on the grounds that the men had been granted immunity (freedom from penalty) to testify before Congress and thus could not be incriminated or found guilty by any statements they made in the Iran-Contra hearings, despite admitting to breaking the law.

The scandal began on October 5, 1986, when a plane piloted by an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was shot down over Nicaragua. The plane's cargo bay was full of weapons intended for Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras (counterrevolutionaries), for use against Nicaragua's communist government. Since Congress had passed laws in 1982 and 1984 expressly forbidding attempts both to overthrow the government of Nicaragua and to arm the contras, the captured weapons revealed evidence that the Reagan administration had broken the law. Initially Reagan said his administration had no connection to this flight, but subsequent revelations proved this to be false.

Less than five weeks later, a Lebanese newspaper revealed that Robert McFarlane, Reagan's special assistant for national security, had engaged in secret arms-for-hostages deals with the Iranian government of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989). During the early 1980s, Western hostages were seized and held by pro-Iranian terrorists throughout the Middle East. After the ordeal of fifty-two American hostages taken by Iran in 1979 and held for more than a year, the U.S. government officially decided never to make such trades with terrorist governments. The most shocking revelation, however, was that money obtained by secretly selling arms to Iran was being channeled back to the contras to arm them. The Reagan administration claimed that by selling arms to Iran, it was trying to win the favor of more-reasonable politicians in that nation's government and to win release of hostages. The administration also stated that the money paid for the arms was controlled by a single National Security Council (NSC) staffer: U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North.

Holes in the official story soon surfaced. On November 6, 1986, Reagan had said that reports about arms sales had "no foundation." On November 13, he admitted the sales, but denied they were for hostages. Six days later, he declared that such sales were, in fact, legal. Under controversial powers granted by the National Security Act, the president is sometimes able to bypass the law (legally) by issuing what is called a "finding," in which national security issues are claimed to override any legal checks. U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese said that Reagan had signed such a finding in order to override the acts passed by Congress. It was revealed late that Reagan did so only after the fact. Moreover, Reagan failed to inform Congress of this finding in a timely manner as the law specified and did so only when the scandal broke.

Several investigations were mounted in the wake of the Iran-Contra revelations. The first was the Tower Commission, named after its chair, former Republican Senator John Tower of Texas. Appointed by Reagan to conduct a review of the NSC's role, the Tower Commission issued its report on February 26, 1987, blaming the NSC's staff and concluding the affair was the result of Reagan's notoriously poor management skills. The American public, however, demanded a better accounting, and Congress took the unprecedented step of conducting publicly televised hearings in the summer of 1987.

North testified that he had altered official NSC documents to cover for the president. U.S. Navy Admiral John Poindexter, North's supervisor, also revealed he had destroyed documents so the president would not be politically embarrassed. North later admitted to shredding thousands of documents that would have proven his guilt, and presumably many others, up to and including Reagan. Testifying under congressional immunity, North, McFarlane, and Poindexter admitted some of their illegal activities. North, understanding that he was being made a scapegoat, claimed that he believed Reagan knew and approved of his actions. Poindexter, however, denied this. North went so far as to insist that William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had personally approved his secret operations, but since Casey died during this period, he could not be questioned personally.

The most important and far-reaching investigation was carried out by Special Prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh. At first, the Reagan administration tried to avoid sponsoring an independent investigation, but soon realized this might appear an obstruction of justice. From the beginning, Walsh, a noted former government prosecutor, immediately showed his intent to be independent and thorough. Fighting an uphill battle, in many cases against former friends who labeled him a turncoat, Walsh doggedly pursued as many leads as possible. His final report concluded that the policies at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal matter were developed at the "highest levels" of the Reagan administration. Every senior cabinet member involved in foreign policy had knowledge of the affair, and many of them lied to cover up their and the president's knowledge. Walsh's report also points out that following the initial Iran-Contra revelations, these officials "deliberately deceived the Congress and the public" about their support for illegal operations.

Mikhail Gorbachev

The Communist Party ran the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, more commonly known as the Soviet Union, for almost seventy years. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Communist Party in the mid-1980s, he introduced economic and social reforms that radically transformed the lives of the Soviet people and had a profound effect on nations around the world. He helped improved relations between the Soviet Union and the United States and reduced the threat of global nuclear war. In the process, he brought an end to his own leadership and to the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, to peasant farmers in the tiny farm village of Privolnoe near the Caucasus Mountains in the southwestern region of the Soviet Union. In 1950, he entered Moscow State University to study law. While in school, he met and married Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko. He also joined the Communist Party, and after graduating in 1955, he began to work for the Party.

Over the next three decades, Gorbachev rose steadily through the leadership ranks of the Communist Party. In 1985, after a series of deaths of the Party's top leaders, Gorbachev was appointed general secretary (leader) of the Communist Party, making him the effective leader of his country.

Gorbachev immediately began a campaign of reforms in the Soviet Union. He forced many conservative Communist leaders out of government and replaced them with younger members who shared his views. He began policies called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) that removed government controls over the economy and allowed the Soviet people to openly discuss the problems facing their country.

Gorbachev also sought peace abroad and at home. After a series of summit conferences, he and U.S. president Ronald Reagan signed a treaty in 1987 limiting the number of nuclear weapons each country could have. In 1989, Gorbachev ended the Afghanistan War, which had pitted anticommunist Afghans against their government and the Soviet Union since 1978. For all of his peace efforts, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

The end of the Soviet Union began in 1989 when Gorbachev allowed other political parties to run against the Communists in general elections. The Communists lost their power and Gorbachev separated himself from them by taking the position of Soviet president. As communism weakened across Eastern Europe, many countries and ethnic groups wanted their independence. Gorbachev sought to maintain control, but his people wanted freedom and reforms quicker than he was willing to give it to them.

In August 1991, after a failed coup (overthrow of the government) by Communist leaders, Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party. He then granted independence to the remaining Soviet-controlled republics. On December 8, 1991, a new economic federation, the Commonwealth of Independent States, was formed among those republics. On Christmas Day, Gorbachev resigned the office of president, becoming a private citizen. At midnight on December 31, 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist.

Walsh charged fourteen individuals with criminal violations. North and Poindexter were tried and found guilty of various charges, but their convictions were overturned on appeal because they had been granted immunity by Congress. McFarlane pleaded guilty to withholding information and to lying before Congress, but he received a short sentence. As Walsh said in his final report:

The underlying facts of Iran/contra are that, regardless of criminality, President Reagan, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the director of central intelligence and their necessary assistants committed themselves, however reluctantly, to two programs contrary to congressional policy and contrary to national policy. They skirted the law, some of them broke the law, and almost all of them tried to cover up the President's willful activities.


The cold war was not a time of war in the traditional sense, but it was a period of extreme political tension that arose after World War II (1939–45) between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. Many people believed President Ronald Reagan (1911–) finally brought an end to the cold war by building up the American military and doggedly pursuing an anticommunist foreign policy during his terms in office. While these measures may have helped end the cold war, they did not do so alone. The actions of Reagan's counterpart, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) helped as much, if not more so.

The early 1980s saw rapid changes in the leadership of the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982), who had led the Soviet Union since 1964, died in 1982 and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov (1914–1984). When Andropov died two years later, he was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985). Less than a year later, Chernenko died and fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet premier. Gorbachev ushered in a new era of Soviet leadership: He and many of his generation of leaders were better educated and more widely traveled than their predecessors.

Almost immediately, Gorbachev unleashed revolutionary reforms in Soviet politics and economics. He instituted a policy of glasnost ("openness") in Soviet society, increasing freedom of speech and assembly and introducing new rights for consumers, employees, and managers. His perestroika ("restructuring") policy provided greater incentives and rewards for workers and managers, modernized technology, and opened the Soviet Union to world trade and foreign investment. In foreign policy, Gorbachev wanted friendlier relations with the United States, to see further reductions in conventional and strategic weapons, and to downscale or eliminate Soviet influence in Third World conflicts.

Gorbachev was motivated in part by the notion that money saved from a reduction of military spending for costly efforts abroad could stimulate the Soviet domestic economy, which was hurting. Politically, he could justify such cuts only by persuading the United States to agree to similar cuts in strategic and conventional forces and by resolving some of the ongoing conflicts in the Third World.

Although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were still high in 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev decided to meet in Geneva, Switzerland, in November of that year. While no major agreements were reached, each leader came away from the meeting believing he could work with the other. Three sets of arms-control talks continued in Geneva: talks on reducing or eliminating intermediate-range missiles, on reducing strategic arms, and on issues related to space and defense.

The Reagan administration was deeply suspicious of Gorbachev's pronounced willingness to lessen tensions between the two superpowers. Many in the administration considered it a ploy to undermine the relationship between the United States and its European allies. Despite protests from the Soviets, Reagan continued to develop his plan for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based military system that would shield the United States against a possible nuclear-missile attack by the Soviet Union.

In September 1986, Gorbachev proposed to Reagan that the two leaders meet in Reykjavík, Iceland, on October 11 and 12. Gorbachev seemed to suggest that he was willing to reach an agreement on intermediate missiles without needing an agreement that would place limits on SDI. When the two leaders met, Gorbachev stunned everyone by first proposing that each side reduce it strategic missiles by 50 percent. The following day, he further shocked the world by proposing that the two countries eliminate all nuclear weapons over a period of ten years. The talks stalled, however, because the two sides could not come to an agreement over SDI.

Finally, in a summit in Washington, D.C., on December 8, 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Under the terms of the treaty, both sides agreed to withdraw and destroy all intermediate-range nuclear weapons from their arsenals (the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Congress in May 1988).

In 1988, Gorbachev began reducing Soviet presence in countries in Europe and in other parts of the world. In February, he announced the Soviet Union would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan where it had fought a war with the Afghanistan government against Afghan rebels since 1979. (The withdrawal was completed one year later.) In December, in a speech before the United Nations, Gorbachev announced the Soviet Union would withdraw five hundred thousand troops and ten thousand tanks from Eastern Europe.

These troops had ensured the stability of pro-Soviet communist governments in the region. Without them, these governments began to collapse. The governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania all fell quickly. On November 10, 1989, the Berlin Wall separating East Germany and West Germany was torn down. The following year, the two countries were reunited.

As communists lost control across Europe, so, too, did the Soviet Union lose control over its empire. Citizens in countries that were part of the Soviet Union began to assert their independence and freedom. At the end of 1991, powerless in the face of rising protests, the Soviet Union was dissolved, bringing an end to the cold war.

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The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News