Re-thinking History

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan

Gerald Ford (1974-1976)

  • Gerald Ford became president, following the resignation of Nixon in 1974 and continued the policy of détente with China and Russia. Ford visited China and entered into the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union.
  • Ford met with Brezhnev in 1974 and agreed to support S.A.L.T. II. Ford ordered the final withdrawal of American troops in Vietnam, in “Operation Freedom Wind.” However, Ford still employed covert operations, as the president approved secrete supplies of money and weapons to UNITA and the FNLA in Angloa.
  • Ford granted Nixon a full pardon and Congress passed the Election Campaign Act of 1974 to guard against the abuses revealed in the Watergate investigations. Special investigating committees in Congress discovered a host of illegal FBI and CIA activities stretching back to the 1950s, including harassment of political dissenters and plots to assassinate Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders.
  • In the 1976 race, Ford carried a number of burdens, such as a weak economy and a serious threat mounted from the Republican right.
  • Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century, (2003), argued that in 1974-75, the resignation of Nixon, the succession of Ford and the exposure of bad deeds, such as the bombing of Cambodia were designed to regain the badly damaged confidence of the American people.
  • Grame Mount, 895 Days that Changed the World: The presidency of Gerald Ford. (2006) argued that the record of Ford’s foreign policy had mixed results. Ford found the right balance to negotiate democracy without offending Portuguese nationalists, yet failed in attempts at reconciliation with Cuba. Ford took advantage of the death of Franco and negotiated a new bilateral U.S.-Spanish treaty. However, Mount calls Ford’s support of a military government in Argentina and Kissinger’s knowledge of Operation Condor as deplorable.

Jimmy Carter

  • Elected in 1976, Jimmy Carter stressed the notion of human rights in foreign policy. However, while criticizing repressive governments of Chili and South Africa, Carter did not condemn the repressive governments in the Philippines or South Korea.
  • Foreign policy successes of the Carter administration included the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977, and the signing of the Camp David Accords by Egypt and Israel one year later. However, Carter also had problems with his foreign policy as Soviet-U.S. relations cooled with the invasion of Afghanistan, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the refusal to boycott South Africa for its apartheid policies.
  • Carter’s decision for a military buildup came in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan whose Communist government was threatened by Muslim opposition. Carter claimed that Soviet actions posed the greatest threat to peace since WWII and announced the “Carter Doctrine,” which threatened to use of any means necessary to prevent an outside force from gaining control of the Persian Gulf.
  • Carter’s foreign policy suffered its worse humiliation over Iran in 1979, with the overthrow of the Shah and hostage situation for 444 days in Tehran. On November 4, 1979 a crowd broke into the U.S. Embassy and seized more than 60 Americans, demanding that the shah be returned to Iran for trial. Carter sent a small military operation into Iran in April 1980, but the rescue mission failed and the hostages remained prisoners until January 1981. The disastrous rescue mission fed American’s feelings of impotence, and increased support for a more militaristic foreign policy.
  • Carter vowed to help the poor, the aged, improve education and to provide jobs. When these aims conflicted, especially with inflation threatening economic stability, Carter’s commitment to reform took second place.
  • Carter’s outside status helped him win the presidency, but left him with no strong ties to part insiders. Liberal objectives made little headway under Carter: his legislation to ensure the solvency of Social Security increased employer and employee contributions, increasing the tax burden of lower-and-middle income individuals. Corporations and wealthy individuals gained from new legislation, including a cut in the capital gains tax, loans to ensure the survival of the Chrysler Corporation and the deregulation of the airlines, banking, trucking and railroad industries.
  • As fuel shortages and sky-rocketing prices led to stagflation and threatened the entire economy, Carter proposed a comprehensive program to conserve energy and established the Department of Energy. The National Energy Act of 1979 penalized gas-guzzling cars and provided incentives for conservation and alternate fuels. The 1979 Iranian revolution created the most severe energy crisis, however, Carter’s measures failed to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
  • The Carter administration sponsored 1980 legislation to create a so-called Superfund of $1.6 billion to clean up hazardous wastes left by the chemical industry.
  • Human rights formed the cornerstone of Carter’s approach to reversing the policies of his predecessors, yet glaring inconsistencies appeared in Carter’s human rights policy. Carter sped up negotiations over control of the Panama Canal and led discussion between Anwar Sadat (Egypt) and the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for 13 days at Camp David in Maryland, securing the Camp David Accords which were signed at the White House in March 1979.
  • Robert A. Strong, Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of American Foreign Policy, (2000) argued that Carter engaged in “personal diplomacy,” with his foreign policy and was relentless in his quest for human rights in the Soviet Union, Central America and with the Shah of Iran. Strong noted that Carter’s gift for “a consensus”, created a balance within his own administration between Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
  • Ali M. Ansari, Confronting Iran, (2006) argued that the close relationship between the Shah and the U.S. started with Nixon. The impressions of the majority of Iranians caught up in the revolutionary fervor were shaped by the experiences of the 1953 coup. Ansari stated that Carter’s human rights within his foreign policy did not apply to Iran and precipitated the crisis by allowing the Shah to receive medical treatment in the U.S.

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

  • Foreign policy took center stage during the second presidential term of Ronald Reagan, as he reversed Carter’s policy of diplomacy with Cuban communists, supported the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which encouraged foreign investments at the expense of indigenous businesses.
  • Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, and asked scientists to develop a means of rendering nuclear weapons obsolete. In March 1983, Reagan created SDI, or dubbed “Star Wars” by his critics in an effort to combat state sponsored terrorism, a new element that emerged during the last decade of the Cold War.
  • Reagan sent U.S. forces into Grenada in 1983, applied pressure to encourage Chilean leader Pinochet to reform and took a strong stance against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Reagan’s support and economic aid to the “Freedom Fighters,” led to the passage of the Boland amendment, which prohibited the U.S. from funding the military overthrow of the Nicaraguan government.
  • In response, Reagan asked the NSC to find other solutions to help fund the Contras, a decision that led Iran-Contra scandal in 1986. Congress strongly and repeatedly instructed the president to stop aid to the Contras, but Reagan ignored their requests, ruining the Nicaraguan economy, and undermining the support for the Sandinista government. The scandal centered on the U.S. efforts to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of seven American hostages in Lebanon, funneling the proceeds from the arms sales through Swiss bank accounts to the Contras in Nicaragua. In November 1986, the Reagan administration faced serious charges: bargaining with terrorists and defying Congress’s ban on military aid to the Contras. An independent prosecutor’s report found no evidence that Reagan had broken the law, but concluded that both Reagan and V.P. George Bush and known about the diversion of funds to the Contras and had “knowingly participated or at least acquiesced” in covering up the scandal.
  • In addition, the administration aided Afghan rebels’ war against the Soviet backed government, armed revel forces against Angola’s Soviet-supported government and sided with South Africa’s brutal suppression of black anti-apartheid protesters.
  • In El Salvador, the United States sent money and military advisers to prop up an authoritarian government despite the fact that it had committed murderous human rights violations.
  • Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, and his reform measures, perestroika (economic) and glasnost (opening up) and his meetings with Reagan and later George W. Bush, contributed to the end of the Cold War.
  • Reagan’s support came from religious conservatives, who constituted a relatively new phenomenon in politics know as the “New Right.” However, the Reagan administration opposed both the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed ratification in 1982 and a woman’s right to abortion.
  • Feminists began to focus more on women’s economic and family problems and found some common ground with Reagan administration: the Child Support Enforcement Amendments and the Retirement Equity Act of 1984. Reagan’s major achievements lay in areas such as anticommunism, reducing taxes and government restraints on free enterprise.
  • Reagan’s first domestic objective was a massive tax cut and relied on a new theory called supply-side-economics, which held that cutting taxes would actually increase revenue. In the summer of 1981, Congress passed the Economic Recovery Act, the largest tax reduction in U.S. history, cutting personal tax rates on the lowest incomes from 14 to 11 percent and on the highest incomes 70 to 50 percent.
  • Reagan loosed laws protecting employee health and safety and weakened labor unions. He blamed environmental laws for the sluggish economy and targeted them for deregulation but popular support for environmental protection blocked full realization of his goals.
  • Deregulation of the banking industry created a crisis in the savings and loan industry: the S&L crisis deepened the federal budget deficit, which grew during the 1980s. The administration cut funds for food stamps, job training, aid to low income students, health service and other welfare programs. The economic upswing in 1983 and Reagan’s own popularity and a landslide 59 percent of the vote in the 1984 election.
  • The 1989 collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Berlin Wall further eased Cold War tensions.
  • William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992, (1998) argued that the Reagan administration evaded congressional oversight committees, lied to Congress about human rights violations in Central America. Reagan cleverly adopted diplomatic overtures prior to Congressional votes, but disregarded them once he received Congressional approval. Reagan’s rejection of diplomatic policy led the administration to lose all control of the diplomatic process.
  • Frances Fitzgerald, in ,Way Out There in the Blue: Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, (2000) argued that as a gifted salesman, Reagan recognized the appeal of missile defense to citizens frightened by mutual assured destruction. Secretary of State George Shultz regarded SDI as an effective tool in bargaining with Russia, while Secretary of Defense, Casper Weinberger perceived SDI as a way of dominating testy allies and the Soviets.
  • John Lewis Gaddis, in The Cold War: A New History, (2005) noted that Gorbachev promised that there would be no bloodshed with the 1989 revolution and welcomed the U.S. as a European power, something no Soviet leader had explicitly done before.
  • Melvyn P. Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind, (2007) suggested that both Reagan and Gorbachev desired to build a human relationship, to transcend the ideological divide without abandoning their individual principles. However, as Leffler argued, Gorbachev ended the Cold War, as his thinking shifted most fundamentally. Leffler stated that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the acceptance of free-market ideas, democratic political reforms, and Gorbachev’s decision to retract Soviet power to prewar borders signaled the end of the Cold War.