The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.
Timothy Andrews Sayle
In March 2003 US and coalition forces invaded Iraq. US forces withdrew in December 2008. Approximately 4,400 US troops were killed and 31,900 wounded during the initial invasion and the subsequent war. Estimates of Iraqi casualties vary widely, ranging from roughly 100,000 to more than half a million. The invasion was launched as part of the US strategic response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and ended the rule of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. After the collapse of the regime, Iraq experienced significant violence as former regime loyalists launched insurgent attacks against US forces, and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a group linked to al-Qaeda, also attacked US forces and sought to precipitate sectarian civil war. Simultaneously with the increasing violence, Iraq held a series of elections that resulted in a new Constitution and an elected parliament and government. In 2007, the United States deployed more troops to Iraq to quell the insurgency and sectarian strife. The temporary increase in troops was known as “the Surge.” In November 2008, the US and Iraqi governments agreed that all US troops would withdraw from Iraq by December 2011. In 2014, AQI, now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), attacked and captured large swaths of Iraq, including several large cities. That year, the United States and allied states launched new military operations in Iraq called Operation Inherent Resolve. The government of Iraq declared victory over ISIL in 2017.
Spencer D. Bakich
The Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991 was something of a paradox. From the American perspective, the war had the hallmarks of a resounding victory. Responding to a flagrant case of interstate aggression by Iraq against Kuwait, the George H. W. Bush administration assembled a substantial international coalition to deter further Iraqi attacks against its neighbors in the Gulf and to compel Saddam Hussein into quitting Kuwait, to avoid war. When the latter proved infeasible, the United States led that coalition in forcibly ousting Iraq’s military from Kuwait, substantially degrading Iraqi combat power in the process. The war’s outcome resulted from an auspiciously altered geopolitical landscape at the end of the Cold War, the overwhelming superiority of American power vis-à-vis Iraq, and a US decision-making process that tightly knitted military and diplomatic objectives into a coherent—and coherently executed—wartime strategy. However, America’s historically lopsided victory in the Persian Gulf War proved fleeting. Iraq’s surviving military forces retained the capacity to crush domestic challenges to the Ba’athist regime and to threaten its Gulf neighbors. President Bush’s vision of a post-war new world order notwithstanding, Gulf security depended heavily on continuing military missions years after the Persian Gulf War ended. Despite wartime tactical and strategic successes, grand strategic success eluded the United States in the years after the war.
James Graham Wilson
The Cold War may have ended on the evening of November 9, 1989, when East German border guards opened up checkpoints and allowed their fellow citizens to stream into West Berlin; it certainly was over by January 28, 1992, when U.S. president George H. W. Bush delivered his annual State of the Union Address one month after President Mikhail Gorbachev had announced his resignation and the end of the Soviet Union. After the Berlin Wall came down, Bush and Gorbachev spoke of the Cold War in the past tense in person and on the telephone. The reunification of Germany and U.S. military campaign in the Persian Gulf confirmed that reality. In January 1991, polls indicated that, for the first time, a majority of Americans believed that the Cold War was over. However, the poll results obscured the substantial foreign and domestic crises, challenges, and opportunities created by the end of the Cold War that occupied President Bush and his national-security team between November 1989 and Bush’s defeat in the 1992 presidential inauguration and the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton as America’s first post–Cold War president in January 1993.