United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Transform your teaching with the power of digital pedagogy. This book features: an interactive timeline, live learning feedback, embedded primary source video, automatic grading, and full customizability.

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Comparison of U.S. History Textbooks

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Hardcover print text only


Per volume


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform


Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Hardcover print text only


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Per volume


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

Explore this textbook

Read the fully unlocked textbook below, and if you’re interested in learning more, get in touch to see how you can use this textbook in your course today.

Chapter 29: The Reagan Revolution

Chapter Overview

In many ways, Ronald Reagan hit the reset button on the United States in the early 1980s. After a decade of economic sluggishness, international embarrassments, and political anguish, the American people were ready for a change. Reagan, with his unapologetic American exceptionalism and contagious optimism, helped to usher in a new era of hopefulness. A staunch social and economic conservative, Reagan’s policies were not universally lauded, and his administration had its share of disappointments. However, Reagan was a masterful politician who was able to successfully deflect away from his failures and get the public to focus instead on his successes, of which there were many. Even when his policies or initiatives did not perform as hoped, Reagan projected an air of dignified authority and always maintained his sense of humor, which put many Americans at ease and probably contributed to his landslide re-election victory in 1984. 

Reagan’s foreign policy initiatives, while regarded by some at the time as reckless, helped bring about a swift resolution to the Cold War. His successor, George Bush, would preside over the end of the Cold War, switching tactics in order to ensure a peaceful transition away from the old dynamic. Bush would experience his own moment of foreign policy triumph with the 1991 Gulf War, only to have it undermined later that year by an economic recession. Though he ultimately became a one-term president, Bush accrued many accomplishments of his own and managed to successfully escape Reagan’s shadow within a short period of time. These two men together helped to erase the painful last vestiges of the 1970s and restore American hopefulness under their capable leadership.

Chapter Objectives

  • Explain the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Conservatism
  • Assess the state of the U.S. economy in the 1980s and explain Reagan’s role in changing it
  • Indicate the factors that led to the end of the Cold War and explain the U.S. role in bringing that about
  • Explain the Iran-Contra Affair and what it revealed about the Reagan administration
  • Determine the causes of the Gulf War and explain U.S. involvement in that conflict

The Reagan Revolution

Ronald Reagan, who Americans now consistently rank as one of the most important presidents in U.S. history, was not an obvious choice for a political icon. A child of middle class Midwestern parents who went on to become a successful Hollywood star, Reagan was the first and only professional actor to become president. Not only was his professional background unusual for a politician, but his ideological roots were also unusual. Reagan spent half of his adult life as a staunch New Deal Democrat. He idolized Franklin Roosevelt, and he belonged to the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG), an actor’s labor union which existed, in part, due to Roosevelt’s strong pro-union stance. Eventually, he became the president of SAG, and it was during this time that his political stance began to evolve. During the Red Scare, as Hollywood came under intense scrutiny for its supposed communist sympathies, Reagan experienced a change of heart. He saw the potential dangers of having communists in Hollywood, and worked diligently to rid his community of this perceived scourge. 

As Reagan’s acting career waned in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he began to consider the possibility of a second career in politics. By this time a staunch Republican, Reagan campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964 before running for governor of California in 1966. Upon winning, he established himself as a devout enemy of the New Left, working diligently with law enforcement organizations to eliminate student protests from University of California campuses. Although he was initially perceived as too right-wing to be a viable national candidate, the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s made his brand of conservative ideology seem increasingly attractive. 

Reagan’s political brand rested on a rejection of détente, the restoration of confidence in the economy through support of business owners, calculated tax cuts, and a general acceptance of American might and superiority as a given. He believed that the United States had made too many compromises in the 1960s and 1970s—in foreign policy, in economics, in political leaders, and in morals—and that these concessions were the reason for decay and eroding spirit. Reagan believed that the restoration of the American spirit rested in the refusal to continue making compromises. Although this ideology yielded mixed results, it did encourage a revival of confidence and helped the nation move on from its difficult recent past.

Question 29.01

29.01 - Level 3

Explain the reasons for Reagan’s political transformation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.01.


One of the most pressing issues facing Reagan when he entered the presidential office was the economy. Despite the best efforts of three presidents before him, the economy remained in the doldrums, with wages stagnant and inflation rampant. One of Reagan’s first actions as president was to begin building positive relationships with Congress to encourage their cooperation with his legislative agenda. In the economic realm, Congress proved amenable to Reagan’s policies. The president’s plan had multiple parts: creating strategic tax cuts to bolster spending, limiting government regulation, reducing government spending, and cracking down on union activity. The first two parts of this strategy rested on a belief in supply-side economics, also known as “trickle-down economics.” This economic theory posited that if the top earners were taxed at a lower level, they would funnel those saved tax dollars into the economy in the form of new businesses, factories, jobs, and higher salaries. 

The Reagan economic team created a new, stratified tax system which taxed earners according to income level, so the higher one’s income, the more taxes paid. While the highest earners still paid the highest taxes, their effective tax rate was cut in half. Before the Reagan system, the highest level earners had an effective tax rate that sometimes reached 90 percent. Under Reagan’s system, the highest earners could never be taxed at an effective rate higher than 40 percent. Meanwhile, taxes rose slightly for all middle income earners, who comprised the largest segment of the population; the idea was that a small increase for a larger number of earners would result in more revenue than taking large amounts of taxes from a small and privileged few. Taxes for the lowest level earners were decreased, with those living under the poverty line exempt altogether.

Question 29.02

29.02 - Level 3

What is supply-side economics? What does it propose to do? Have you encountered similar beliefs about the American economy in previous periods in history?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.02.

The last part of Reagan’s strategy, which involved limiting the power of the labor unions, was more controversial for a number of reasons. As a member of a union himself, Reagan was seen as a champion of union workers, and this was an impression that Reagan worked hard to bolster during election season. He even targeted unions for his campaign speeches, promising to uphold their contracts and increase their privileges if elected. However, once elected, Reagan broke with this promise. On August 3, 1981, nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike in an attempt to bargain for higher pay and better working conditions. Rather than support them, Reagan insisted that all of these workers were employees of the federal government and were in breach of their employment contracts. He further insisted that their demands were interfering with the entire air travel industry at the height of the summer travel season, thus crippling an important part of the U.S. economy. Indeed, nearly 7,000 flights were cancelled during the strike. When nearly 11,000 air traffic controllers refused to return to work, Reagan fired all of them on August 5. To show that the firings were not just a bluff, Reagan also instituted a lifetime ban against rehiring the fired personnel. 

Although the strikers were convinced that their absence would cripple the air industry, they were mistaken. The Federal Aviation Administration had contingency plans which allowed them to immediately cover enough shifts to allow most air travel to resume. Reagan’s actions in this situation struck fear in the heart of many unions, which were now afraid to push for bargaining at the risk of suffering the same fate as the air traffic controllers. Union membership, which had been dropping gradually over previous decades, continued to plummet. While approximately 23 percent of American workers were unionized in 1980, the number dropped to about 16 percent by the end of the Reagan administration. The number would continue to drop even after the Reagan presidency, and today, less than 10 percent of American laborers belong to a union (Figure 29.1).

29.03 - Level 1

Which of the following were not parts of Reagan’s economic strategy in the 1980s?


Support of trade and labor unions


Cutting taxes on the wealthiest and poorest citizens


Raising taxes on the middle class


Stratifying the tax system


Increasing government regulation of businesses

Figure 29.1​: The above chart shows the decline in union membership between 1930 and 2010. Although union membership was clearly already in decline by Reagan’s presidency, his treatment of the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 is often perceived as a major contributing factor to the even more rapid decline in union memberships during the 1980s.​

29.04 - Level 1

Which labor union had a major and high-profile confrontation with the Reagan administration in the early 1980s?




Steel workers


Communications workers


Air traffic controllers

The success of Reagan’s economic policies was not readily apparent. Between 1981 and 1982, the unemployment rate rose from 7 percent to nearly 11 percent and public debt rose substantially, ultimately tripling by the end of Reagan’s second term. The gross domestic product dropped by nearly 2 percent even as public spending rose, a phenomenon at odds with Reagan’s promises to cut government spending. In fact, government outlays grew by 53 percent during Reagan’s administration. By 1983, however, the economy appeared on the mend, with unemployment rates and inflation dropping while incomes rose. The GDP also grew at approximately 3 percent per year for the remainder of the Reagan presidency. On the whole, consumer confidence grew and most Americans felt that their economic fortunes improved under the Reagan administration. On the eve of his 1984 re-election, Reagan felt confident enough in the progress of the economic recovery to declare that “it’s morning in America,” going as far as to make it one of his campaign slogans. 

While many Americans indeed experienced a bump in income during the 1980s, the economic recovery was not without its disadvantages. For one, the national debt nearly tripled during the Reagan administration, from 997 billion to nearly 3 trillion dollars, as the United States borrowed both domestic and foreign money in order to cover budget deficits. This enormous debt accumulation transformed the United States into the largest debtor nation on earth, a state of affairs that Reagan acknowledged was one of his biggest disappointments as president. Secondly, although most Americans did see some advances in their income, the wealth was not distributed equally. Much of the wealth created during the Reagan economic recovery remained with the top tier of earners, a trend that has continued into the present day (Figure 29.2).

Question 29.05

29.05 - Level 3

Reagan’s economic policies led to a period of substantial growth during the 1980s. Why, then, did the nation go into so much debt at the same time?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.05.

Figure 29.2: The above graphic shows the growth in real after tax income between 1979 and 2007. Although people of all income groups experienced a growth in their income during that time period, the graph clearly shows that those at the higher end of the income scale experienced a disproportionately higher increase in income than those in the lower income levels.​

29.06 - Level 4

How much did the top 1% of the income bracket see their earnings grow from 1979 to 2007? (Note: do not enter the % symbol)

Reagan’s Social Policies

In addition to his efforts to right the U.S. economy, Reagan was also interested in social issues. Perceiving the sociocultural excesses of the 1960s as a breakdown in the moral fiber of America, Reagan believed that many of the nation’s societal ills stemmed from the time period and he sought to create reforms that would stop them. From drugs to abortion to what he perceived as excessive government spending on social welfare programs, Reagan planned to restore conservative ideals in the heart of American social policy. On this front, his success was mixed.

One of the first social issues confronted by the Reagan administration was the so-called War on Drugs. Richard Nixon had first popularized the phrase in 1971, but Reagan injected new life into the fight against criminal drug use and distribution. Reagan believed that free-wheeling drug experimentation with marijuana and LSD in the 1960s had led Americans down a path to harder and more addictive substances such as cocaine and heroin. Adding to Reagan’s distress was the emergence of a new, more addictive, and more potent form of cocaine invading America’s inner cities: crack cocaine. 

First Lady Nancy Reagan ultimately made the War on Drugs her primary mission while in the White House, embarking on a national campaign to raise awareness for her Just Say No program. In addition to visiting school communities, she guest-starred on television programs and music videos to raise awareness of the dangers of illegal drug use. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration pushed the CIA and military to intervene in the drug trade by interrupting drug processing and distribution operations in other nations, which in theory would keep drugs like heroin and cocaine from entering the United States. The president also signed the 1987 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which required mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, and in 1988, created the Office of National Drug Control Policy, tasked with coordinating drug-related legislation, research, and health policies. 

The number of prisoners serving time for drug-related offenses escalated throughout the 1980s, even before the above laws passed. It is difficult to tell how effective the Reagan administration’s policies were in preventing the sale, distribution and use of illegal substances. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that drug use among teenagers dropped significantly throughout the 1980s and 1990s, indicating that perhaps the awareness campaigns did have an impact. 

One of Reagan’s signature promises was his vow to eliminate legal abortions in the United States. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled on the case Roe v. Wade, determining that a woman’s decision to have an abortion was between her and her doctor and that attempts to interfere represented an infringement of women’s 14th amendment rights. Although Reagan distanced himself from the pro-life movement, he was a supporter, and vowed during his campaign to appoint Supreme Court justices who would eventually overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. Reagan ultimately selected three justices for the court: Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice (Figure 29.3). Despite his professed commitment to the anti-abortion cause, Reagan was unsuccessful in his attempt to return abortion to its former illegal status. Two of his appointees, O'Connor and Kennedy, even went on to participate in cases in which they voted to uphold abortion rights. 

In fact, the Supreme Court of the 1980s ultimately furthered a progressive agenda, particularly in the areas of gender discrimination and affirmative action in the workplace. In County of Washington v. Gunther, a landmark 1981 case involving unequal pay, the court ruled that sex discrimination as described under Title VII extended to wage discrimination. The case determined that women’s pay should be determined according to “comparable worth,” as opposed to the traditional metric of “equal work.” In 1986, the court continued to expand on its interpretation of Title VII when it heard its first workplace sexual harassment case, Meritor v. Vinson. The court ruled that sexual harassment, when sufficiently pervasive, could institute a hostile work environment, thus laying the groundwork for additional legislation and litigation in the area of workplace harassment. 

The court also took a very progressive stance on the issue of racial discrimination. In 1982, the court heard Connecticut v. Teal, a case that held that an employer could be held liable for discrimination if any of part of its selection process disproportionately affected African American applicants or employees over others. The court determined that individual claims of discrimination were legitimate, even if there were no claims of discrimination from the entire group. They further expanded on this ruling in Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, a 1987 case that upheld voluntary affirmative action plans on the condition that they not violate the civil rights of white male and other non-minority employees.

Figure 29.3: Sandra Day O’Connor, being sworn in by Chief Justice William Rehnquist as the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. O’Connor was the first woman to hold a position on the nation’s highest court. [1]

29.07 - Level 2

What was the major policy issue that Reagan hoped to change through his selection of Supreme Court Justices?

Question 29.08

29.08 - Level 3

Describe some of the landmark Supreme Court cases that were a boon to gender and race equality in the 1980s.

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.08.

29.09 - Level 4

Match the court case to the social issue with which it was most concerned.


CountyCounty ofof WashingtonWashington v.v. GuntherGunther


Racial discrimination


ConnecticutConnecticut v.v. TealTeal


Sexual harassment


RoeRoe v.v. WadeWade


Reproductive rights


MeritorMeritor v.v. VinsonVinson


Wage discrimination

Gun control represented a domestic issue on which the Reagan administration had a mixed record. Although initially not a major concern during the 1980 campaign, the issue came to national attention after a man attempted to assassinate Reagan in March 1981, just two months after his inauguration. Although Reagan was shot, he recovered from his wound with relative ease, as did the Secret Service agent protecting him. Others standing near him at the time of the shooting, however, were not so lucky. His press secretary, James Brady, took a bullet to the head which put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and a police officer suffered a wound that forced him into retirement. The gunman, John Hinckley, was able to purchase his weapon in a pawn shop, despite his history of mental illness, because there were no requirements for background checks at the time. Despite this personal and very public brush with gun violence, Reagan did not support any anti-gun legislation during his tenure, and in fact signed the Firearm Owners Protection Bill in 1986, which loosened restrictions on a number of avenues of gun ownership. However, after leaving office, Reagan went on to support the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, named after his wounded press secretary, which required background checks and a waiting period before owners could take possession of their weapons. Congress passed the so-called Brady Bill into law in 1993.

The women’s movement, although not a major target of the Reagan administration, also experienced setbacks during the 1980s. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), proposed in 1923, had been continuously debated and tabled in Congress for decades before being approved by the House of Representatives in 1971 and by the Senate in 1972, at which point the states had ten years to ratify the amendment. It appeared that after six decades, the ERA was finally on its way to passage. However, by 1982, the ERA fell three states short of reaching the 38 states needed for ratification. This failure to achieve the necessary number of votes was in no small part due to a grassroots movement designed specifically to stop the passage of the ERA. 

STOP ERA, headed by Phyllis Schlafly, orchestrated a nationwide campaign of women dedicated to lobbying legislators to veto the amendment. Women in STOP ERA brought homemade baked goods to legislative offices, touting their commitment to preserving traditional gender roles. The organization also appealed to married women through their claims that ERA would eliminate gender-based protections for women, such as alimony and protection from the military draft. These efforts resulted in some states rescinding their ratifications and other states failing to ratify the amendment by only one or two votes. 

After the failure of the ERA to achieve ratification, the women’s movement changed trajectory, focusing instead on the preservation of reproductive rights, sexual harassment, and pay discrimination in the workplace. Although the Supreme Court ultimately supported these causes, they were not a major priority for the Reagan administration.

Instead, one of Reagan’s major focuses was cutting social spending programs as part of a stated effort to curb government spending. Although spending on the whole increased significantly during the 1980s, social programs were not the reason. Every year, Congress curbed the administration’s attempt to cut funding for public arts programs like the National Endowment for the Humanities—a curious position for the president to take considering that both he and his wife were active in the performing arts for several decades. 

One of the most controversial episodes of the Reagan administration relating to domestic policies was the president’s response to the burgeoning AIDS crisis, which first developed during his time in office. The mysterious disease, first documented in large coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, was initially viewed as an illness that only impacted homosexual men, who indeed comprised a large number of the early victims. Reagan was no supporter of the gay rights movement, saying on the campaign trail in 1980 that “my criticism is that [the gay rights movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for the recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.” The disease’s early connection with the gay community made it a difficult issue to lend support on due to the nation’s deep-seated homophobia at the time. The fact that other infected groups included Haitian refugees and intravenous drug users did not improve its standing as a disease worthy of public attention. As the Centers for Disease Control clamored for funding to perform research on the mystery disease, Congress and the Reagan administration stalled, claiming that other public health concerns took precedence over the AIDS crisis. 

In the absence of a federal public health policy, local governments took it upon themselves to create their own policies, which often involved distributing contradictory or false information about how the disease was spread, thus contributing to a nationwide panic. As more “average” Americans were diagnosed with the disease, it became apparent that the disease was being spread through blood transfusions and that the nation’s blood supply was compromised, resulting in further hysteria. Still, Reagan said nothing about the crisis, his administration prevented the Surgeon General from talking about the disease, and the National Institutes of Health and Congress allotted miniscule amounts of money for research and public education. Questions from reporters regarding administration responses to the crisis were met with derision and laughter from the White House press secretary. Reagan did not mention the disease in public until 1985, four years after it first came to the attention of the medical community. Two years later, Reagan created a permanent task force to address the public education and health issues stemming from the AIDS crisis. By this time, an estimated twenty thousand people had died of the disease and nearly forty thousand had been diagnosed. After 1987, the government increased funding for AIDS research, resulting in the creation of drugs that made the disease manageable instead of fatal, but even now, the AIDS crisis continues to plague the United States. Many public health experts believe that a stronger early response from government health agencies could have significantly curbed the impact of the epidemic.

Question 29.10

29.10 - Level 5

Assess the Reagan Administration’s successes and failures with regards to domestic policy. Given its intentions and results, how would you judge the administration’s performance?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.10.

Spotlight on Primary Source

Between 1982 and 1984, Larry Speakes served as the White House Press Secretary. The following video is a compilation of audio excerpts from White House press conferences during that time period, and provide an indication of how the White House addressed the AIDS crisis in its earliest years. 

Vanity Fair “When AIDS Was Funny”  

Question 29.11

29.11 - Level 4

How was Larry the reporter treated when he asked questions about AIDS, and what does his treatment say about general attitudes toward the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s? To what extent do you think we can say that the press secretary’s attitude can be attributed to the culture of the White House and President Reagan in particular?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.11.

29.12 - Level 2

On which of the following domestic issues did the Reagan administration stray furthest from conservative orthodoxy?




Organized Labor


Deficit spending


Reproductive rights

29.13 - Level 3

Ronald Reagan often used the phrase "a rising tide lifts all boats" as justification for which of his domestic policies?


Trickle-down economics


Increased military spending


Union busting


Waging the "War on Drugs"

Reagan and the Cold War

Although Reagan’s legacy in the realm of domestic policy was decidedly mixed, he had more success with foreign policy. Reagan rejected what he perceived as the moral equivalency of détente and moved toward a more aggressive strategy that proudly declared the superiority of the free market and democratic government. He immediately re-framed U.S.-Soviet relations as nothing less than a confrontation between good and evil, famously referring to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” in 1983 (Figure 29.4). Instead of negotiating and compromising with the Soviets, Reagan showed a willingness to directly confront the nation, as well as actively work against all communist regimes, both burgeoning and established, creating a policy that became known as the Reagan Doctrine.

Question 29.14

29.14 - Level 4

How might someone who lived through the Cold War period object to the Reagan Administration’s shift in tone with regards to the Soviet Union? Why might some people support the change of tone?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.14.

In service of this more aggressive foreign policy approach, Reagan immediately advocated for an expanded military and increased military budgets. From 1981 to 1989, the U.S. defense budget ballooned by 35%. Reagan also wanted the military to build technologies with which the Soviets could not compete. One innovation that he publicly championed was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), effectively a space shield that would prevent intercontinental missiles from reaching their targets. Although U.S. researchers quickly determined that the SDI was too difficult to build at that time, the Soviets had already taken up the challenge of building their own defense shield. Spurred by the thought that the U.S. was working on the same challenge, the Soviets were not so willing to give up. They never accomplished the goal, instead sinking millions of dollars into the project. It was one of many difficult financial situations that the Soviet Union found itself in during the 1980s in the interest of maintaining its increasingly futile bid to win the Cold War.

Figure 29.4: Ronald Reagan giving a speech in front of Germany’s Brandenburg Gate, then part of the Berlin Wall, June 1987. [2]

Reagan inherited a number of foreign policy problems from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, one of which was the burgeoning war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had invaded the Middle Eastern nation in late 1979 and remained there in an attempt to bolster the communist government. The United States initially provided limited support for the anti-communist freedom fighters attempting to overthrow the communist government, collectively known as the mujahedeen, through a CIA mission called Operation Cyclone. Over the course of Reagan’s presidency, the U.S. government would provide increased aid to the mujahedeen through Operation Cyclone, ensuring that the rebels would provide just enough of a threat to prevent the Soviets from abandoning their mission. This support came in the form of operations assistance, advisors, weapons, and training, as well as money.

Ultimately, the CIA was responsible for training more than 100,000 Afghan insurgents. Operation Cyclone became one of the longest running and most expensive CIA missions. When the mission began during the Carter administration, the U.S. was spending about 30 million dollars a year on Afghanistan, but that number ballooned to more than 600 million a year by the end of the Reagan administration. Although Jimmy Carter had endured much criticism for following this policy, as Reagan followed through on the policy long-term, it proved a highly effective measure. While the U.S. sent advisors, weapons, and money, it never committed soldiers to the ground war, thus ensuring a limited American presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Soviets were not fighting a limited war—they were all in. That committed presence required billions of dollars in food, weapons, medical care, housing, and manpower over what eventually became a ten-year period. Considering the stagnating Soviet economy and building political difficulties in the Eastern bloc of Europe, the expense of the Afghan war was a luxury the Soviets could ill afford. Their increased involvement in Afghanistan never resulted in a victory over the insurgents, but instead encouraged the mujahedeen to double their efforts. Ultimately, the Soviets left Afghanistan in defeat, in February 1989 and returned home to face increasing economic and political crises (see Figure 29.5).

Figure 29.5: A Soviet tank withdraws from Afghanistan, January 1987. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.​ [3]

Indeed, the political and economic situation in Europe became dire during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite Ronald Reagan’s publicly hardline stance toward the Soviet Union and his insistence on referring to the nation as the “evil empire,” members of his administration were aware that the Soviet Union faced serious economic problems that were also starting to severely affect the morale of the people. Soviet wages were stagnant, worker productivity was down, rates of alcoholism among workers were skyrocketing, and the Soviet economy had not modernized since the days of Stalin, meaning that the Soviets were still focusing on the production of commodities like steel while western counties were moving toward communications and information technology, the fields of the future. The discrepancy between the U.S. economy and the Soviet one, which had started to develop in the 1960s, had become so large that the Soviets could no longer even pretend to keep up. 

In addition to economic issues, the Soviets were facing a revolt of sorts from their own people. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the premier of the Soviet Union and immediately set about reforming the troubled Soviet system. The Soviet Union had long promoted censorship in order to control its population. And as a result, many Soviets put a high value on censored information, and there were secret networks by which people could obtain forbidden books and documents. People who had access to a copying machine were sought-after friends due to their ability to make copies of forbidden literature, although getting caught in the act would earn the perpetrator time in a “re-education camp.” Gorbachev believed that opening up Soviet society to information, or glasnost, would eliminate the premium placed on information and allow the people to engage more fully in communism because they would now have the opportunity to see the shortcomings of other philosophies. Ronald Reagan, who had developed a good working relationship with Gorbachev, fully supported him in his quest to make the Soviet Union a more open society.

Although the Soviet public welcomed glasnost, in terms of improving national morale, it proved a misstep. The new openness resulted in Soviets finding out, for the first time, the horrors of the Stalinist purges, the extent of the gulags and re-education camps, and pervasiveness of the Soviet police state. Instead of allowing Soviets to make peace with their past and move forward with a renewed commitment to the communist government, they instead became more open in their disgruntlement with the perceived hypocrisy of leaders who lived well while placing increasing restrictions on the people.

Meanwhile, Soviet-controlled countries in Eastern Europe were also exerting a larger degree of independence. As the Soviets were dealing with the Afghan war and their own political problems, they were no longer in a position to send military resources to quell rebellions as they had in the past. Throughout the 1980s, there was one popular revolt after another. The Polish Solidarity movement, which called for reforms within the communist government, became a powerful political presence, and the government eventually called for martial law in an attempt to forestall a Soviet invasion. The move temporarily prevented an uprising, but not for long. Meanwhile, similar movements were developing in East Germany, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. The lack of Soviet intervention emboldened the reformers to become more aggressive and public in rebuking their Soviet-controlled communist governments. 

29.15 - Level 2

Which of following Eastern European nations experienced the greatest tumult in the transition from communism to democracy?




East Germany





The United States, the Middle East, and Central America

As the United States played hardball with the Soviet Union, its leaders also struggled to establish an ally in the Middle East, with mixed success. In 1980, a war developed between Iraq and Iran. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein capitalized on the upheaval stemming from the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis to invade its beleaguered neighbor. Between 1980 and 1990, the Iranians struggled to push the Iraqis out of their land. The United States established a relationship with the Iraqis during this time. Although it was clear that Hussein was not an ideal ally, Iraq contained significant oil fields which could potentially benefit the United States now that its relationship with Iran was irreparably breached. Throughout the 1980s, the United States supplied money, machinery, weapons, and advisors to the Iraqis, even after Hussein demonstrated a willingness to use those weapons on his own people. In one particularly horrific 1988 incident, Hussein dropped a combination of mustard gas and other chemical agents onto the northern Iraqi town of Halabja, which was populated by Kurds, a hated ethnic minority. More than five thousand people, mostly women and children, perished in the attack.

In the mid-1980s, the relationship between the United States and the Iran-Iraq War became more complicated. Ironically, the complication in this relationship developed as a result of tensions in South America, thousands of miles away. The Reagan administration had developed sympathy for a group of anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua, which wanted to overthrow the communist regime there. Reagan tried to drum up support for these guerillas, who were called Contras, by drawing comparisons between them and the American founding fathers. However, the Contras proved unsympathetic to many Americans, largely due to their active participation in the drug trade. Between 1982 and 1984, Congress passed three laws, collectively termed the Boland Amendment, which were designed to prevent the United States providing aid to the Contras.

Undeterred, the Reagan administration set out to thwart the Boland Amendment by covertly providing aid to the Contras. Unable to send money directly from the U.S. Treasury, Reagan advised National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane to find other ways of getting the funds. In 1985, Iran made overtures to the United States about purchasing weapons to be used against the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq War. Despite the fact that the United States was currently assisting Iraq in that conflict, the fact that Reagan had promised to never deal with terroristic states like Iran, and the existing embargo on selling arms to the Iranians, the National Security Council struck a deal. McFarlane believed that selling weapons to Iran would improve relations between the two nations and could also lead to improved relations with Lebanon, another Middle Eastern nation with which the United States had difficulties in the 1980s. He sold the plan to Reagan as a method of increasing U.S. influence in the Middle East. Ultimately, the National Security Council (NSC) struck a bargain in which the United States would sell more than 1,500 missiles to Iran and in exchange, the Iranians would not only pay 30 million dollars, but also free seven American hostages being held in Iran.

Three hostages had been freed and most of the missiles shipped to Iran by the time the gambit was exposed by a Lebanese newspaper in November 1986. Reagan immediately gave a televised denial that an arms-for-hostages deal had taken place, only to retract the statement a week later. The arms-for hostages controversy, however, was only the beginning of the scandal. While investigating the incident, Attorney General Edwin Meese discovered that only 12 million dollars of the 30 million paid by the Iranians for the weapons had made it back to the U.S. Treasury, leaving 18 million dollars unaccounted for. 

Meanwhile, news broke than an American CIA transport plane had been shot down over Nicaragua by the Sandinista government, killing several Americans on board. A lone survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, was taken prisoner and quickly explained that he had been transporting American weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. Congressional investigators were puzzled as to how this had occurred, given that the Boland Amendment prevented such a trade.

During a Congressional investigation in December 1986, a National Security Council employee named Oliver North explained that the two events were connected. North explained that, at the behest of National Security Advisor John Poindexter, and presumably the president, the NSC had taken the proceeds from the Iranian arms sale and used them to pay for weapons to send to the Nicaraguan Contras. North’s testimony spurred a series of investigations that ultimately lasted eight years and resulted in federal charges against fourteen members of the Reagan administration, including Robert McFarlane and Oliver North. 

Question 29.16

29.16 - Level 5

Explain the Foreign policy choices facing the Reagan administration and evaluate the success or failure of their policy choices. How might a Democrat have critiqued Reagan’s foreign policy decisions?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.16.

The biggest question surrounding the Iran-Contra Affair was what role President Reagan played in the scandal. Although everyone involved assumed his tacit consent, there was no evidence connecting him directly to either the Iranian hostage deal or the Contra weapons agreement. Reagan himself vehemently denied any direct knowledge of illegal activities connected with either deal. Ultimately, the congressional investigation demonstrated that Reagan’s claims to innocence were potentially legitimate. By the end of the investigation, Reagan had publicly announced his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and evidence indicated that he had been suffering early stages of the illness during the second term of his presidency. The investigation uncovered much evidence to indicate that Reagan had mentally been quite removed from the day-to-day functioning of his second administration, to the point where high-level decisions might have been made by senior officials without his direct knowledge due to his initial request to circumvent the Boland Amendment. To this day, the exact circumstances surrounding the Iran-Contra Affair are unknown, as is Reagan’s role in it. The scandal dominated the final years of his presidency, casting a dark shadow over what many considered to be a strong tenure in office. 

Question 29.17

29.17 - Level 5

Why might a president’s secret illness, that would prevent his participation in day-to-day operations, be considered dangerous?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.17.

29.18 - Level 4

Click on the nation that received the weapons in the infamous secret "weapons for hostages" arrangement made by the Reagan administration.

When Reagan left office in January 1989, his legacy was largely positive, yet mixed. By then, it was clear that the Soviet Union was in both political and economic dire straits and many assumed that the end of the Cold War was near, a development for which Reagan was given much credit. Economically, the country was also in better shape than it had been in the past twenty years, leading some economists and historians to refer to the economic recovery as nothing short of miraculous. However, the Iran-Contra Affair, Reagan’s history of failed social policies, the AIDS crisis, and the enormous national debt offered at least some evidence that the administration had experienced some failures. Reagan’s legacy was unclear when he left office, and he died before his reputation was resurrected in the late 1990s, when he became an icon of the modern Republican Party.

29.19 - Level 5

How effective did the Reagan administration prove in the following arenas? Sort from least to most successful.


Limiting bargaining rights of unions


Balancing the budget


Restoring economic growth

Election of 1988

In the 1988 election, Vice-President George Bush ran on the Republican ticket, positioning himself as Reagan’s logical successor and heir. Running against him on the Democratic ticket was Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. The election was contentious, with frontrunner Bush using a number of questionable tactics against Dukakis. The election marked one of the last uses of the southern strategy, and also one of the most blatant. During Dukakis’s term as governor, Massachusetts employed a policy of allowing weekend furloughs for prison inmates who displayed good behavior. One prisoner, Willie Horton, used his weekend furlough to murder two people. The Bush campaign was able to use the incident to great effect in one of their most prominent television advertisements. Bush strategist Lee Atwater later detailed the role of the southern strategy in creating this series of advertisements in his memoir, published shortly after the election.

Spotlight on Primary Source

During the 1988 Presidential campaign, Republican candidate George Bush ran a series of highly effective and controversial television advertisements against his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis. It is one of the most overt examples of the use of the so-called Southern Strategy in a Republican political campaign, and also marks one of the last times it was used.

Question 29.20

29.20 - Level 3

In what way does this campaign advertisement use the Southern Strategy? How effective do you think this ad is in terms of promoting the candidate?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.20.

In addition to the Willie Horton ad, information concerning Dukakis’s wife Kitty became part of the election conversation. Kitty Dukakis had faced struggles with alcoholism and depression throughout the 1980s and this information was used to demonstrate Dukakis’s instability. Combined with his seemingly lax policies concerning prison inmates in his state, Dukakis came across as weak and ineffectual in comparison with Bush, who, in addition to being the sitting vice-president, was also a former head of the CIA. Dukakis also came across as disinterested and dispassionate, which many voters found off-putting after eight years of Ronald Reagan’s charismatic performances.

When the election results came in, it was clear that Bush’s efforts, combined with Dukakis’ lack of passion, had resulted in a landslide victory for the Republican candidate. Although the popular vote was reasonably close, with Bush receiving 53 percent of the popular vote in comparison to Dukakis’s 47 percent, the electoral vote was even starker. Bush captured 79 percent of the electoral votes in comparison with Dukakis’s 20 percent (Figure 29.6). The election demonstrated that even though voters may have been fatigued by the scandal of the Iran-Contra Affair, they were generally pleased with Republican leadership in the 1980s, to the point that they were prepared to continue in that direction for at least four more years. 

Figure 29.6: Map of electoral vote distribution in the 1988 presidential election​.​

29.21 - Level 4

The "Willie Horton" ad run against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign can be categorized as which of the following?


Race baiting


Dog-whistle politics


Southern Strategy

Bush Administration

As George Bush transitioned from vice-president to president, the world was in a state of flux. Although the U.S. economy appeared to be flourishing, many of the nation’s relationships in the rest of the world were changing drastically. The Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe seemed on the brink of revolution, the U.S. was still mired in Middle Eastern conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iran, and the investigations of the Contra scandal in Nicaragua continued to cast a long shadow over the American electorate. 

In some ways, George Bush was the perfect person to lead this transitional time in the nation’s history. Although he had fully allied himself with Reagan during his time as president, Bush proved more willing to switch gears from aggressive to pragmatic as geopolitical affairs altered course. During his administration, Bush presided over the end of the Cold War, helped U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern conflict wax and wane, and saw the seemingly indestructible U.S. economy reach a stumbling block, a development that many historians believe resulted in his losing the 1992 re-election campaign.

End of the Cold War

Bush took office in 1989, just as the Cold War was reaching its bitter end. By this time, the Soviet Union had admitted defeat in Afghanistan, no longer had the resources to quell rebellions in Eastern Europe, and faced separatist movements within its own borders. It was clear that the nation was in decline, but no one could foresee how long that decline would last. For his part, Bush parted from Reagan in his method of response to the situation. While Reagan was known for making fiery speeches in defense of anti-communist forces within Eastern Europe, Bush refrained from such displays, realizing that aligning too strongly with the separatist and anti-communist movements would potentially alienate the Soviets just when they were most capable of becoming a U.S. ally. 

As it turned out, Bush did not need to insert himself into European affairs in order to create momentum. 1989 marked a period of revolution throughout Eastern Europe, as the citizens of communist-controlled countries threw off the shackles of their communist oppressors once and for all. In February, labor leaders in Poland met with government representatives to negotiate terms. The labor union Solidarity had crippled the economy back in 1980, prompting the government to impose martial law, which forced the unions underground. Solidarity survived through the help of Polish émigré groups and Western unions, and they transformed into a political entity that transcended worker rights. They were eventually able to pose enough of a threat to force the government to concede to some of their demands. The so-called Round Table Talks resulted in significant changes in the Polish government, including free elections in the newly created Senate, partial free elections for the parliament, free elections for the new office of president, and the recognition of Solidarity as a political party. Poland held its first free elections in June, resulting in the election of Eastern Europe’s first non-communist leader since World War II.

Meanwhile, Hungary was in the throes of a similar reform movement. The government held its own version of Poland’s Round Table Talks with popular opposition leaders in June, which resulted in major concessions. The nation adopted a new constitution that made provisions for a multi-part political system and free elections. The government also conceded to popular demands by allowing freedom of assembly and opening the nation’s border with the West. The latter reform provided a new avenue of escape for other Eastern Europeans, particularly East Germans. 

The opening of the Hungarian problem posed a huge threat for East Germany, which subsequently faced a mass exodus as thousands streamed over the borders seeking refuge. Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev visited East Germany in October, when he urged the government to make some reforms in order to slow the tide of emigrants. The leadership resisted Gorbachev’s advice, and two weeks later, the East German Chancellor, Erich Honecker, was forced to resign amidst enormous protests in all of the nation’s major cities. On November 9, the provisional government decided to bow to public opinion and, at least temporarily, open the East German borders to the West, including those in Berlin. Thousands of people hurried to the Berlin Wall, where the crowds became so aggressive that they eventually started to tear the wall down as guards stood by helplessly (Figure 29.7). Public protest against the East German government became so great that it was clear the administration could no longer function. Within weeks of the Berlin Wall coming down, East and West Germany had already met to discuss plans for reunification. The two nations officially reunited within one year.

Figure 29.7: East German cranes removing sections of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate, December 1989. [4]

After the Wall came down and the Soviets once again did not intervene, Eastern European revolutions proceeded apace. For the most part, they did so peacefully. In Czechoslovakia, thousands protested the communist government, apparently undeterred by the government’s mass arrest of protesters. The nation held its first free elections in the fall of 1989 and elected its first non-communist president, Vaclav Havel. 

Romania represented a major departure from other Eastern European revolutions in that it was the only one that turned violent. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu seemed impervious to his people’s call for reform, steadfastly refusing to make any changes. In December, large public protests broke out in every major city, prompting Ceausescu to order their violent suppression. Police fired into the crowds, killing dozens. The violence, however, was not enough to suppress the rebellions, which contained far too many people for the army to effectively quell. As the protesters came after Ceausescu seeking retribution, the dictator was forced to flee, only to be arrested shortly after. An interim government, led by reformist communists, ordered an immediate mock trial for the fallen leader and executed him on December 25. 

Within months, all of the Eastern European dictatorships had been replaced with democratically elected governments, although several nations chose to maintain their ties to communism (Figure 29.8). As all of this transpired, President Bush remained steadfastly on the sidelines. As each nation transitioned to free elections, Bush offered to help them reintegrate into the western economic and political world. He was careful, however, to not do anything to damage the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. The president instead worked on building a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, who was facing a revolution in his own country. In 1989, the two leaders finalized their negotiations on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Bush encouraged Gorbachev in his continued efforts at reform, with the hope that he was leading the Soviet Union toward a more democratic political system.

Figure 29.8: Map of nations that either declared independence or experienced a political revolution in 1989.​​​

Indeed, Gorbachev’s reforms included instituting free elections, allowing a multiple party system, and creating a new presidential office. While the Soviet people may have wanted these reforms, however, they ultimately spelled doom for the Soviet government. A schism developed between those who wanted to maintain a traditional communist system and those who yearned for democratization and capitalism, making it more difficult for Gorbachev to maintain control. The Bush administration, unsure of which faction would ultimately win out, chose to maintain relationships with both sides. Despite continued support from the United States, Gorbachev’s administration could not withstand the political pressure. In addition to diverging philosophical goals, some of the Soviet nations sued for independence in late 1991, including Ukraine and Belarus. On December 25, Mikhail Gorbachev, plagued by economic woes that verged on bankruptcy and facing a legion of rogue states seeking independence, resigned as president. He handed the position over to the democratic-minded opposition leader, Boris Yeltsin, thus ensuring a relatively peaceful transition of power over this newly democratic nation state (Figure 29.9).

The Bush administration, seeing that the end of the Cold War had come, articulated principles that allowed the United States to ally both with what remained of the Russian state and the newly emerging independent former Soviet states. Those principles included a commitment to maintaining human rights, respecting current borders, honoring international obligations, and establishing democratic political processes in all of the nations in question. Any nation that adhered to these principles could expect assistance from the United States. As a result, the United States was able to maintain productive relationships with all of the Eastern European and former Soviet states as they moved away from communism.

Figure 29.9:​ Side by side, President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Yeltsin sign seven trade treaties in the East Room June 17, 1992. The treaties removed barriers to trade that had evolved during the Cold War. [5]

Question 29.22

29.22 - Level 5

Explain how George Bush's approach to the Cold War differed from that of his predecessor. Do you think one approach was more effective than the other, and if so, why?

Click here to see the answer to Question 29.22.

29.23 - Level 1

What year did the Cold War officially end?

29.24 - Level 5

Which of the following words best characterizes George H.W. Bush's handling of the complex set of events surrounding the Cold War?









Persian Gulf War

Even as U.S. tensions with the Soviet Union came to a close, another conflict developed in the Middle East. By 1990, the United States had extricated itself from Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq War, emerging on relatively good terms with Iraq. However, this alliance was short-lived. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, after his unsuccessful invasion of Iran, set his sights on Kuwait, the smallest of the Middle Eastern countries—but also the one with the largest oil reserves. If Hussein could take control of Kuwait, he would control more than 40% of the world’s petroleum supply, thus shifting the balance of power in the Middle East to his favor. Not only would annexing Kuwait create power and wealth for Iraq, but it would also help mitigate debts that Iraq had incurred during the recent war. 

In the summer of 1990, Hussein accused Kuwait of breaking OPEC rules about over-production as well as stealing oil from the Rumayla field, which straddled the Iraq-Kuwait border. He did this to create a pretext for invading the tiny nation. Hussein fully expected the United States to support this plan, as the alliance between the two could potentially mean a long-term source of cheap crude oil for the western nation. On this point, Hussein miscalculated. The Bush administration attempted to maintain good relations with the Iraqi dictator, but also strongly cautioned him against an invasion and staged some military maneuvers in the region as a deterrent. 

Hussein remained undeterred, however, and an Iraqi force numbering one hundred thousand stormed into Kuwait on August 2, 1990, overtaking the country in a matter of hours. The international condemnation of the Iraqi invasion was swift and virtually unanimous. The United States, now at odds with its erstwhile ally, worked through the United Nations Security Council to create an international coalition to combat the invasion. The U.N. declared an embargo on Iraq and demanded that the country withdraw its troops from Kuwait. Hussein ignored the threats from the U.N. and his troops continued to ravage Kuwait, looting and destroying its cities. 

By October, President Bush made a joint decision with Saudi Arabia to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait using force if necessary, since threats and economic sanctions apparently had no effect. The U.N. passed a resolution recommending force, but offered Iraq a 45-day grace period to withdraw before action commenced. Again, Hussein ignored attempts to settle the conflict peacefully. The U.S.-led coalition strike against the Iraqis, called Operation Desert Storm and led by U.S. General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, commenced within 48 hours. The U.S. led with an air strike on January 16, 1991, almost immediately taking control of Iraqi and Kuwaiti air space and bombarding key military, intelligence, and government installations, including Hussein’s palaces. They also attacked transportation routes, effectively cutting off Iraqi troops in Kuwait from their supply lines, before attacking the Iraqi military installations in Kuwait. 

Hussein attempted a retaliatory strike by way of attacks on Israel and coalition bases in Saudi Arabia. He hoped that this would induce the Israelis into launching a strike of their own, which had the potential to infuriate other Middle Eastern nations and induce them to join the Iraqi cause. Again, Hussein miscalculated, as Israel refused to retaliate and the other Middle Eastern countries were disgusted by Hussein’s actions in Kuwait. Instead, U.S.-led coalition forces, comprised of men from 34 nations including some Middle Eastern countries, responded with a land invasion on February 24. The land invasion lasted four days and resulted in coalition forces retaking the capital, Kuwait City, and forcing the Iraqis into full retreat. The Iraqis, far from humbled, set fire to the Kuwaiti oil fields they encountered on their way back home (Figure 29.10)

Figure 29.10: Map of Operation Desert Storm, 1991. ​​

By March 2, the U.N. had created terms for the cease-fire, which Iraq was obligated to accept. The terms included provisions that the Iraqis must pay war reparations and return all stolen property to the Kuwaitis. They were also required to submit to U.N. military sanctions, which included regular inspection of their biological and chemical weapons. The United States also successfully petitioned the U.N. to remove Iraqi technologies that might be used to create nuclear weapons. The one thing that the cease-fire terms did not do was remove Saddam Hussein as the leader of Iraq. Given the social, economic, and political upheaval that the nation faced in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, U.N. ambassadors believed that unseating Hussein would create a power vacuum which might prove even more disruptive. Not wanting to cause a civil war, the U.N. chose to keep Hussein in power, a decision that many would regret in the coming decade.

The Persian Gulf War proved a boon for the United States and the Bush administration. The United States displayed an overwhelming show of force that demonstrated its rightful place as the only remaining world superpower, and had brought the war to a swift conclusion on relatively agreeable terms. With the Gulf War and the Cold War ending within months of one another, George Bush had successfully separated his legacy from Ronald Reagan and established his credentials as an effective leader in his own right. He was primed to enter 1992, an election year, with a happy and confident constituency. A second term seemed inevitable.

29.25 - Level 2

Place the following events in chronological order.


Iran Hostage Crisis


Iran-Iraq War


Fall of the Berlin Wall


Sandra Day O’Connor becomes a Supreme Court justice


Iran-Contra Affair


Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan


Persian Gulf War

29.26 - Level 2

Click on the nation that was invaded by Iraq in 1991.

Economic Recession

Unfortunately for Bush, the happiness was short-lived. In 1992, the economic bubble created by Reagan’s policies finally burst, resulting in an economic recession. This recession affected not just the United States but the entire world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the biggest issues facing the U.S. economy was a prolonged loss of tax revenue stemming from Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy. Since the early 1980s, the nation had seen a large drop in tax revenue, which had prompted deficit spending to make up the difference. President Bush, who had promised in his original campaign to not raise taxes, decided to break that promise in order to stimulate government revenue streams. Although the tax increases seemed to work and the economy was on the mend by the spring of 1992, the damage was done. Unemployment remained high at 8%, and many Americans had spent a year in the economic doldrums only to have their taxes raised, and they were displeased at the turn of events, particularly at a moment when the United States should have been at the top of its economic and political form. Despite claims that the economy was recovering, most Americans believed that progress was sluggish, causing them to forget, or at least, discount, Bush’s earlier successes. His chances for re-election started to falter.


The Bush presidency marked an end to a stunning twelve years of Republican rule in the White House. Between Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the United States had extracted itself from all major foreign entanglements, emerged from the Cold War as the only remaining superpower and an ally to its former enemy, and experienced an economic revitalization. However, not all was well. The social agendas of both presidents fell short of expectations and after nearly a decade of economic recovery, the 1991-92 recession threatened to end that progress. The 1992 election would determine whether the American people felt that Bush’s geopolitical successes outweighed his domestic shortcomings.

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 29.01

Class Discussion 29.01 - Level 5

Reagan once said “The government is not the solution to our problems. The government is our problem.” Based on what you have learned, do you think that Reagan’s administration adhered to that philosophy?

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Class Discussion 29.02

Class Discussion 29.02 - Level 5

Consider how Reagan’s legacy was shaped by Iran-Contra and then consider how Richard Nixon’s legacy was shaped by Watergate. Why do you think Nixon’s reputation was so destroyed by Watergate, yet Reagan’s reputation remains fully intact despite Iran Contra?

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Class Discussion 29.03

Class Discussion 29.03 - Level 2

What was the purpose of the Equal Rights Amendment, who was it intended to protect, and what were some of the arguments for and against its passage?

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Class Discussion 29.04

Class Discussion 29.04 - Level 5

In your opinion, was the decision to allow Saddam Hussein to keep his position as the leader of Iraq following the Gulf War a sound choice? Why or why not?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 29.04.

Class Discussion 29.05

Class Discussion 29.05 - Level 3

Dr. Mervyn Silverman, an epidemiologist who was on the frontlines of the battle against AIDS in the 1980s, once said “AIDS was the most political disease I had ever seen or read about.” What did he mean by this?

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Suggested Additional Material

Brownlee, W. Elliot and Hugh Davis Graham, ed. 2003. The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and its Legacies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas).

Carter, Dan T. 1999. From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press).

Critchlow, Donald. 2005. Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Meacham, Jon. 2015. Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House).

Shane, Scott. 1995. Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union (Washington, D.C.: Ivan R. Dee Press).

Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 29.01

Reagan experienced an evolution in his political thought after being SAG president during the Red Scare. Having worked closely with the FBI and HUAC, he came to understand that communism posed a grave danger to the United States and that the Democratic methods of handling the situation were inadequate.

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Answer to Question 29.02

Supply side economics operates on the principle that all barriers should be removed that might prevent society’s producers from producing. A method of achieving this is cutting taxes for the wealthy and their tax burden transferred to the middle class. In this way, a larger number of people carry that burden, resulting in a very small tax increase. Meanwhile, the wealthy who received the tax cut will theoretically translate their savings into building more factories, hiring more workers, raising wages, or other activities that ultimately benefit the middle class. Although the concept of supply side economics was not invented until the 1970s, similar methods were used during the Gilded Age as well as the 1920s.

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Answer to Question 29.05

The national debt grew during the Reagan administration because it was necessary to borrow money in order to cover budget deficits stemming from the 1981 tax cuts.

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Answer to Question 29.08

1) County of Washington v. Gunther ruled that wage discrimination was a form of sex discrimination; 2) Meritor v. Vinson ruled that sexual harassment created a hostile work environment; 3) Connecticut v. Teal held that employers were liable for any part of the hiring process that disproportionately affected African American applicants; 4) Johnson v. Transportation Agency upheld voluntary affirmative action plans as Constitutional.

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Answer to Question 29.10

Domestic policy was easily one of Reagan’s weakest areas as president. Although the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment and the lack of gun control legislation could be read as wins for the Republicans, his bid to end abortion failed, despite his nominating three justices during his tenure, he was able to make only negligible gains toward solving the drug problem, and his record in handling the AIDS crisis was virtually non-existent.

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Answer to Question 29.11

When the reporter asks the press secretary about AIDS funding, he is mocked by not only the press secretary, but also the laughter of the press corps. It becomes a running joke that Larry must be asking these questions because he is gay or has AIDS himself. This behavior demonstrates the pervasiveness of homophobia in the early 1980s and also indicates the degree to which AIDS was associated with homosexuality and how that translated to it not being taken seriously as a public health issue.

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Answer to Question 29.14

Someone who lived through the Cold War might object to Reagan’s shift in tone because it signaled a return to hostile relations with the Soviet Union after a decade of détente. However, critics of détente felt that Reagan’s shift in tone was appropriate, as détente represented a tacit admission that the Soviet political and economic methods were valid alternatives to democratic capitalism, something that Reagan and his supporters did not believe was true.

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Answer to Question 29.16

Reagan’s method for dealing with the Cold War turned out to be appropriate, as it riled the Soviets into a defensive posture and spurred a defense spending spree they could ill afford. Most Americans supported his stance on the Afghan war and the Iran-Iraq War, as they seemed in line with containment objectives. The support of the mujahadeen in particular worked out well for the United States, although its long term consequences were yet to be felt. Easily the weakest decision that the Reagan administration made concerning foreign policy was that of selling weapons to an enemy, Iran, and then funneling the proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras in direct violation of the Boland Amendment.

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Answer to Question 29.17

The fact that Reagan’s Alzheimer’s Disease may have affected his ability to lead the country is dangerous because it indicates that a flaw in our democratic process. If Reagan cannot lead but is unwilling to give up power, then a vacuum develops and the American people do not get to decide who assumes the reins of power in that situation. As the Iran Contra Affair demonstrated, Reagan’s inability to lead allowed the National Security Council to dictate a foreign policy that was both illegal and contrary to the wishes of Congress and the people.

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Answer to Question 29.20

This ad employs the southern strategy by using a black man to demonstrate the dangers of the furlough policy without specifically alluding to his race. The ad was incredibly effective, as Dukakis’ record with the furlough became a central issue late in the campaign.

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Answer to Question 29.22

While Reagan’s stance on communism was unabashedly aggressive and hostile, Bush understood that taking such a stance as the Soviet Union fell could alienate the nation at precisely the point when it could become an ally. Bush instead remained largely silent on the problems of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during this time, offering assistance where needed and attempting to remain neutral. The final part of the question is opinion-based, but it appears that both Reagan and Bush utilized the correct tone at the correct time.

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 29.01

The Reagan administration did not adhere to this philosophy. The United States intervened in multiple foreign conflicts, tripled its national debt, and increased government spending during the Reagan years. 

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Answer to Class Discussion 29.02

Reagan was unhurt by Iran-Contra partially because no evidence ever linked him directly to the scandal or its cover up and partially because his medical history offered a potential excuse as to why the scandal occurred. Reagan also had a charming quality that often permitted him to get away with things that others could not, hence his nickname “the Teflon president.”

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Answer to Class Discussion 29.03

The purpose of the ERA was to eliminate all laws which gave favor to one sex over the other, and was intended to primarily benefit women. The argument for it is that the constitution does not explicitly guarantee equal protections under the law on the basis of sex, with the exception of the right to vote. Some critics, like STOP ERA, said that the law would actually hurt women because it would remove protections that they currently benefited from, like alimony, child support, and exemption from the draft.

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Answer to Class Discussion 29.04

Although in hindsight, the decision to let Saddam Hussein keep his position seems foolhardy because it allowed him to toy with the United Nations and ultimately led to a second U.S. invasion of the nation, at the time, the United States did not have much of a choice, as the United Nations did not believe the U.S. had the grounds to remove the leader and there were also concerns that the loss of Hussein would create a dangerous power vacuum in an already tumultuous political situation.

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Answer to Class Discussion 29.05

AIDS was considered a political football because its earliest victims were societal outcasts- homosexuals, Haitian refugees, IV drug users. It was not fashionable or respectable to offer them help. Additionally, the disease struck the gay community right as it reached the height of its liberation movement. Many gay rights activists perceived calls to limit their sexual activity as evidence of homophobia, prompting many not to listen to what few public health warnings existed.

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Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of the National Archives Catalogue ARC# 1696015 in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of Raoulduke47 in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of The Learning Network in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of George Bush Library and Museum in the Public Domain.