REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

CLASS 11

The Reagan Doctrine

 

In conventional memory, what did Reagan do in terms of foreign policy? How does the Right recall these years? How does the Left recall these same events? How does each side use the Reagan experience in order to argue for its own causes today? In what way is the Reagan experience politically useful?

 

What was the Reagan Doctrine? How does it stand in relation to earlier US policies towards enemy states, especially Communists? Did it mark a radical departure, or can we find abundant precedent?

 

What are the main fronts in the “Reagan Doctrine”? How successful is the West in each?

Given the absence of Congressional support, how can the US develop alternative means of covert action and/or intelligence? What are the dangers of this “off-the-shelf” approach?

 

What world-view does the Reagan doctrine presuppose or assume? How does it relate to the conspiracy mindset? How does it relate to the idea of restoring masculinity?

 

Can we see the Reagan Doctrine as an attempt to, exorcise the shades of Vietnam? If so, what are the implications for how the policy would be applied? How was “Vietnam syndrome” put to rest? Or was the “syndrome” misunderstood?

 

How does the Reagan Doctrine relate to the “Terror Network” debate of the early 1980s? For the Right, what had happened to undermine the West since the 1960s?

 

What role does Israel play in these changes of policy and attitude?

 

Can we see a direct line of causation (or even a not-so-direct line) from the conflicts of the 1980s through 9-11? How and why? If we’d known then what we know now, would we have done things differently?

 

Why and how did the US become involved in Afghanistan? Did US policy work? If it failed, how, why and when? What mistakes, if any, does the US make in its response? Was the subsequent blowback from radical Muslim forces foreseeable?

 

Why and how did the US become involved in Lebanon? Did US policy work? If it failed, how, why and when? Why does everything go so wrong? Are they fighting the wrong enemy? Are they misled by Israel? Are they suffering from intelligence blindness?

 

A case can be made that the Iran-Iraq war was the most important international event of the 1980s, barring the Soviet collapse. What were its international implications, especially for the USA? Why did the US respond as it did? How much was genuine fear of Iranian expansion, how much payback for the hostage crisis? How far were US policies shaped by other Middle Eastern interests, especially the Saudis?

 

Given 20/20 hindsight, one of the saddest chapters in the Reagan years was the arming of Iraq. Why did this happen, what was the US trying to achieve by this policy? Was it reasonable in the context of the time? How does the decision stand up in retrospect? That question again: if we’d known then what we know now, would we have done things differently?

 

How does the Communist issue affect US policy in Southern Africa, and specifically towards the ANC?

 

What happens in Nicaragua? What happens in El Salvador? Could the US have achieved its goals with less bloodshed? How realistic was a “domino theory” approach if the US had failed? How credible was the conservative view of the seriousness of the threat? What was at stake?

 

How was the Central American menace linked to the domestic terrorism danger? How plausible was the linkage?

 

How pivotal does Central America become to liberal opposition within the US, and specifically to religious opposition to the Reagan administration? Note the rise of Catholic activism over this issue.

 

Why does the Iran-Contra scandal happen? Does it pose a serious risk of impeachment? What constraints face the investigators? Is it a serious investigation?

 

How is it possible for the hostage crisis so to pervert the foreign policy of a superpower? What alternative courses could/should they have pursued?

 

In retrospect, one of the most surprising thing about the Reagan administration is the number of occasions in which it does not respond militarily, and in fact, acts not unlike Jimmy Carter. What are the obvious moments of NON-retaliation?  What does this all tell us about Reagan era foreign policy, and especially his advisers? Was the Reagan Doctrine as much show as substance?

 

And on a related theme, some points about

 

TERRORISM AND THE CRISIS OF INTELLIGENCE

 

To a greater or lesser extent, issues of intelligence and internal security have played a critical role through US politics over the past three decades, and they remain enormously controversial, ever more acutely since 9-11. We have witnessed a kind of roller-coaster phenomenon, in which Americans seem to vary between wanting more effective security, and being horrified at violations of democratic rights. There is also huge debate about the chief source of danger – from the Right or Left? Domestic or foreign enemies? Are they tightly organized by some James Bond-type villain, a spider in the web, or are they decentralized and spontaneous? Ultimately, modern debates can be traced back to the intelligence crises of the mid-1970s. In this class, we will explore questions such as:

 

What do Americans want from their intelligence agencies? Is there a fundamental contradiction between the quest for security and for legality? Is there a proper place for agencies of national security?

 

What were the policy implications of the Terror Network debate, with everything it suggested about state sponsorship?

 

What is the impact of the Church Committee? What is the legacy for the CIA? For the FBI?

 

How are these concerns this reflected in popular culture? How do these revelations affect popular views of government?

 

To return to a familiar question: If we’d known then what we know now, would we have done things differently?

 

How does Jimmy Carter try to reconcile human rights with effective intelligence gathering?

 

Note how “assassinations” become a symbol for everything wrong with the intelligence and national security apparatus.

 

In this ultra-critical environment, how can national security agencies be brought back after the 1970s?

 

How serious a problem are terrorist groups in the post-1975 decade? Why does America NOT construct a terrorist crisis in the mid-1970s, despite all the undoubted terrorist activity that is in progress?

 

Why did the Terror Network debate develop when and how it did? How did splits within the intelligence agencies produce such an unprecedented airing of criticisms over intelligence policy? Looking back, can we tell who was right in this debate?

 

Is the evidence that the US resumed its policy of assassinations in the 1980s, sometimes through proxies?

 

How have these debates over intelligence and internal security played out since the late 1970s? Have the issues and controversies been reconciled? Where do we stand today? Did films like Fahrenheit 911 or Syriana revive the “Spirit of (19)76”?

 

What are the practical dangers of a “terror network” or “war on terror” model?