Ronald Reagan and the Opening Salvos in the War on Terror

We must all work to stamp out the scourge of terrorism that in the Middle East makes war an ever—present threat.  — Ronald Reagan

The primary foreign policy focus of Ronald Reagan's Presidency was confronting and ultimately defeating the Soviet Union without firing a shot. Yet, during this Presidency he was forced to confront the emerging challenge of global terrorism.  Reagan's approach to the war on terror met with a mixture of success and failure. By examining the Reagan years, we can glean valuable lessons on confronting terrorism.

Perhaps the best example of how Reagan fired initial salvos in both word and deed in the emerging war on terror was his approach to Libya.  From the beginning of Reagan's Presidency, Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, was constantly challenging and taunting the United States.  Libya was believed to be the sponsor of many terrorist organizations across the world, though the intelligence to firmly tie these groups to Libya was tenuous. 

In April 1986, a terrorist bomb killed four military personnel in a German disco.  This time there was sufficient evidence to tie the attack to Libya.  As a result, Reagan ordered air strikes against Libya which nearly killed Qaddafi. Following this decisive move, he did not challenge President Reagan again. 
Ronald Reagan used his communications skills to rally the American people behind him in an Oval Office speech.  In this speech, he laid the framework for dealing with this new challenge:

We always seek peaceful avenues before resorting to the use of force —— and we did. We tried quiet diplomacy, public condemnation, economic sanctions, and demonstrations of military force. None succeeded. Despite our repeated warnings, Qaddafi continued his reckless policy of intimidation, his relentless pursuit of terror. He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong. I warned that there should be no place on Earth where terrorists can rest and train and practice their deadly skills. I meant it. I said that we would act with others, if possible, and alone if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere.


Perhaps remembering this lesson, and possibly seeing in George W. Bush some of the same steel he experienced in Ronald Reagan, Qaddafi surprised the world in 2004 when he announced that he was ending his effort to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Reagan's views and actions on the subject of terrorism were apparent before he was elected as well as throughout his presidency.  When then—Governor Reagan challenged President Jimmy Cater for the White House in 1980, the United States was facing crises on several fronts.  The economy had stagnated, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and state—sponsored terrorists in Iran were holding fifty two Americans hostage. 

From their capture in November 1979 and until the hostages' release 444 days later on January 20, 1981, the Carter Administration had made a variety of attempts to secure their release.  Several diplomatic initiatives, economic penalties, and a single, disastrous rescue attempt all failed. Along with the severe economic problems of the time, combining stagnation and inflation, the continuing humiliation of the hostages brought American's prestige in the world and its self—confidence to an all time low.  

The hostage crisis was a source of frustration for Americans and symbolized what many believed was the decline of the United States.  In the 1980 Presidential campaign, Reagan offered American a vision that included regaining its world leadership position and addressing the hostage crisis.  The voters approved of Reagan's vision and elected him by a landslide. 

As President—elect, Reagan signaled to the world and the Iranians that the country would be under new leadership.  He called the 'students' holding the hostages 'criminals' and their sponsors in the Iran government 'kidnappers.'  To further send home the message that there was a new sheriff in town, the head of Reagan's transition team Edwin Messe stated 'the Iranians should be prepared that this country will take whatever action is appropriate' and they 'ought to think over very carefully the fact that it would certainly be to their advantage to get the hostages back now.'  

The Iranians must have understood Reagan's message. They realized that their flouting of sanctity of diplomatic establishment and their gangsterism would finally have consequences one Jimmy Carter was out of office. The hostages were released shortly after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.

The next major battle in the war on terror that Reagan faced was the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in October 1983.  In this incident, 241 Marines were killed while they slept, when a truck bomber was able to penetrate the compound's defenses.  This loss greatly  affected President Reagan, who said it was the saddest day of his Presidency if not his life.  Militarily, Reagan responded by having the battleship New Jersey hurl sixteen inch shells at suspected terrorist bases.   He also used his skills that earned him the name the Great Communicator both to console the nation for its loss and gain support his initiatives.  Reagan stated in a primetime address on terrorist attack:

Our hearts go out to the families of the brave men that we honor today. Let us close ranks with them in tribute to our fallen heroes, their loved ones, who gave more than can ever be repaid. They're now part of the soul of this great country and will live as long as our liberty shines as a beacon of hope to all those who long for freedom and a better world.

In October 1985, President Reagan was once again forced to confront terrorism.  This time terrorist seized an Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, and killed an elderly wheelchair—bound American, Leon Klinghoffer.  The killers were captured by American special operations forces with the military and diplomatic cooperation of its allies.  In a speech on this incident, President Reagan sent the terrorists a message with the memorable one liner, 'You can run, but you can not hide.'

A outgrowth of the war on terror nearly destroyed the Reagan Presidency in the Iran Contra scandal.  In an effort to secure the release of Americans being held hostage in Lebanon, weapons were sold to the Iranians.  While the intentions of effort were good, it undermined a principle that Reagan had established when dealing with terrorists —— that we should not negotiate with them.  Initially, President Reagan denied that this had occurred. 

However, evidence emerged that the Administration had indeed made such deal.  Faced with a growing political firestorm of Congressional hearings, blue ribbon commissions and special prosecutors, Reagan acknowledged that the trade did indeed occur and accepted fully responsibility for the arrangement.  By accepting responsibility, Reagan likely saved his Presidency.   The Iran—Contra affair reminds us of the importance in sticking to principles despite the short term gains than may result when departing from them.

As one of the many facets of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan fired many of the initial salvos in the war on terror.   These initial battles provided his successors valuable insights into what works and what does not work when confronting this challenge.  President Reagan's experience in the war on terror also illustrates some of the challenges faced in this new kind of war. 

One, intelligence will often be hard to come by and will require new methods to be developed to understand this adversary.  Many in his Administration believed that Libya was a state sponsor of many terrorist organizations, but it was not until 1986 was there sufficient evidence to justify military action. 

Two, initiatives that depart from the moral high ground and have ambiguous results can have disastrous outcomes.  Offering weapons for hostages and the resulting fallout from the Iran Contra scandal is a prime example of what happens if principles are abandoned

Despite challenges and errors, President Reagan laid some foundations for conducting the war on terror. Establishing and maintaining the moral high ground proved to be a key.  Dubbing the Soviet Union an 'evil empire' rallied the American people and helped undermine the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe.  

The appropriate use of military force does deter terrorism.  The military strike against Libya sharply reduced Qaddaffi's terrorist activity.  'Peace through strength' is equally applicable to the war on terror as it was to Reagan's confrontations with the Soviets. 

President Reagan effectively used the bully pulpit of the Presidency to celebrate successes, offer comfort in a dark time or rally the people behind him.  Finally, President Reagan urged potential terrorist adversaries not to underestimate the resolve of the American people when challenged.  In his first inaugural speech, President Reagan remarked:

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is as formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.

In examining the war on terror let us not forget that President Reagan fired the initial salvos in what will likely to a long struggle similar to the Cold War.  Drawing on the methods Reagan used to defeat the Soviet Communism and these opening salvos in the war on terror can show us how to succeed in this struggle. 

James A. Leggette, PhD is an economist and talk radio host. Michael W. Funk is an executive in the telecommunications industry.They are collaborating on a book on Ronald Reagan's economic legacy.

We must all work to stamp out the scourge of terrorism that in the Middle East makes war an ever—present threat.  — Ronald Reagan

The primary foreign policy focus of Ronald Reagan's Presidency was confronting and ultimately defeating the Soviet Union without firing a shot. Yet, during this Presidency he was forced to confront the emerging challenge of global terrorism.  Reagan's approach to the war on terror met with a mixture of success and failure. By examining the Reagan years, we can glean valuable lessons on confronting terrorism.

Perhaps the best example of how Reagan fired initial salvos in both word and deed in the emerging war on terror was his approach to Libya.  From the beginning of Reagan's Presidency, Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, was constantly challenging and taunting the United States.  Libya was believed to be the sponsor of many terrorist organizations across the world, though the intelligence to firmly tie these groups to Libya was tenuous. 

In April 1986, a terrorist bomb killed four military personnel in a German disco.  This time there was sufficient evidence to tie the attack to Libya.  As a result, Reagan ordered air strikes against Libya which nearly killed Qaddafi. Following this decisive move, he did not challenge President Reagan again. 
Ronald Reagan used his communications skills to rally the American people behind him in an Oval Office speech.  In this speech, he laid the framework for dealing with this new challenge:

We always seek peaceful avenues before resorting to the use of force —— and we did. We tried quiet diplomacy, public condemnation, economic sanctions, and demonstrations of military force. None succeeded. Despite our repeated warnings, Qaddafi continued his reckless policy of intimidation, his relentless pursuit of terror. He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong. I warned that there should be no place on Earth where terrorists can rest and train and practice their deadly skills. I meant it. I said that we would act with others, if possible, and alone if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere.


Perhaps remembering this lesson, and possibly seeing in George W. Bush some of the same steel he experienced in Ronald Reagan, Qaddafi surprised the world in 2004 when he announced that he was ending his effort to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Reagan's views and actions on the subject of terrorism were apparent before he was elected as well as throughout his presidency.  When then—Governor Reagan challenged President Jimmy Cater for the White House in 1980, the United States was facing crises on several fronts.  The economy had stagnated, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and state—sponsored terrorists in Iran were holding fifty two Americans hostage. 

From their capture in November 1979 and until the hostages' release 444 days later on January 20, 1981, the Carter Administration had made a variety of attempts to secure their release.  Several diplomatic initiatives, economic penalties, and a single, disastrous rescue attempt all failed. Along with the severe economic problems of the time, combining stagnation and inflation, the continuing humiliation of the hostages brought American's prestige in the world and its self—confidence to an all time low.  

The hostage crisis was a source of frustration for Americans and symbolized what many believed was the decline of the United States.  In the 1980 Presidential campaign, Reagan offered American a vision that included regaining its world leadership position and addressing the hostage crisis.  The voters approved of Reagan's vision and elected him by a landslide. 

As President—elect, Reagan signaled to the world and the Iranians that the country would be under new leadership.  He called the 'students' holding the hostages 'criminals' and their sponsors in the Iran government 'kidnappers.'  To further send home the message that there was a new sheriff in town, the head of Reagan's transition team Edwin Messe stated 'the Iranians should be prepared that this country will take whatever action is appropriate' and they 'ought to think over very carefully the fact that it would certainly be to their advantage to get the hostages back now.'  

The Iranians must have understood Reagan's message. They realized that their flouting of sanctity of diplomatic establishment and their gangsterism would finally have consequences one Jimmy Carter was out of office. The hostages were released shortly after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.

The next major battle in the war on terror that Reagan faced was the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in October 1983.  In this incident, 241 Marines were killed while they slept, when a truck bomber was able to penetrate the compound's defenses.  This loss greatly  affected President Reagan, who said it was the saddest day of his Presidency if not his life.  Militarily, Reagan responded by having the battleship New Jersey hurl sixteen inch shells at suspected terrorist bases.   He also used his skills that earned him the name the Great Communicator both to console the nation for its loss and gain support his initiatives.  Reagan stated in a primetime address on terrorist attack:

Our hearts go out to the families of the brave men that we honor today. Let us close ranks with them in tribute to our fallen heroes, their loved ones, who gave more than can ever be repaid. They're now part of the soul of this great country and will live as long as our liberty shines as a beacon of hope to all those who long for freedom and a better world.

In October 1985, President Reagan was once again forced to confront terrorism.  This time terrorist seized an Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, and killed an elderly wheelchair—bound American, Leon Klinghoffer.  The killers were captured by American special operations forces with the military and diplomatic cooperation of its allies.  In a speech on this incident, President Reagan sent the terrorists a message with the memorable one liner, 'You can run, but you can not hide.'

A outgrowth of the war on terror nearly destroyed the Reagan Presidency in the Iran Contra scandal.  In an effort to secure the release of Americans being held hostage in Lebanon, weapons were sold to the Iranians.  While the intentions of effort were good, it undermined a principle that Reagan had established when dealing with terrorists —— that we should not negotiate with them.  Initially, President Reagan denied that this had occurred. 

However, evidence emerged that the Administration had indeed made such deal.  Faced with a growing political firestorm of Congressional hearings, blue ribbon commissions and special prosecutors, Reagan acknowledged that the trade did indeed occur and accepted fully responsibility for the arrangement.  By accepting responsibility, Reagan likely saved his Presidency.   The Iran—Contra affair reminds us of the importance in sticking to principles despite the short term gains than may result when departing from them.

As one of the many facets of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan fired many of the initial salvos in the war on terror.   These initial battles provided his successors valuable insights into what works and what does not work when confronting this challenge.  President Reagan's experience in the war on terror also illustrates some of the challenges faced in this new kind of war. 

One, intelligence will often be hard to come by and will require new methods to be developed to understand this adversary.  Many in his Administration believed that Libya was a state sponsor of many terrorist organizations, but it was not until 1986 was there sufficient evidence to justify military action. 

Two, initiatives that depart from the moral high ground and have ambiguous results can have disastrous outcomes.  Offering weapons for hostages and the resulting fallout from the Iran Contra scandal is a prime example of what happens if principles are abandoned

Despite challenges and errors, President Reagan laid some foundations for conducting the war on terror. Establishing and maintaining the moral high ground proved to be a key.  Dubbing the Soviet Union an 'evil empire' rallied the American people and helped undermine the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe.  

The appropriate use of military force does deter terrorism.  The military strike against Libya sharply reduced Qaddaffi's terrorist activity.  'Peace through strength' is equally applicable to the war on terror as it was to Reagan's confrontations with the Soviets. 

President Reagan effectively used the bully pulpit of the Presidency to celebrate successes, offer comfort in a dark time or rally the people behind him.  Finally, President Reagan urged potential terrorist adversaries not to underestimate the resolve of the American people when challenged.  In his first inaugural speech, President Reagan remarked:

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is as formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.

In examining the war on terror let us not forget that President Reagan fired the initial salvos in what will likely to a long struggle similar to the Cold War.  Drawing on the methods Reagan used to defeat the Soviet Communism and these opening salvos in the war on terror can show us how to succeed in this struggle. 

James A. Leggette, PhD is an economist and talk radio host. Michael W. Funk is an executive in the telecommunications industry.They are collaborating on a book on Ronald Reagan's economic legacy.