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Colonial resolve
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Civil War
     Ronald Reagan
     Libya, Iran and Nicaragua
     George H.W. Bush
     Bill Clinton

Since 2001

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Ronald Reagan: 1981-89

The election of Ronald Reagan brings many changes to the American political and social scene. Well known already to the public as a Hollywood and television actor in the 1940s and 50s and then as a successful governor of California (1967-75), he brings a new mood to the White House as a relaxed and charming personality, seeming to have plenty of leisure time as a result of being brilliant at delegation. He has an alarming start. A mere two months after his inauguration, on 30 March 1981, an assassination attempt is made on his life by John Hinkley. Reagan suffers heavy internal bleeding and a punctured lung but recovers quickly.

His economic and social policies, which become known as Reaganomics, are based on the premise that companies and individuals will thrive, adding wealth to the economy, if they are freed from government restrictions and are enabled to get maximum reward for their achievements. The chief means of rewarding them is to reduce taxes on personal incomes, company receipts and capital appreciation. The policy is defined as monetarism, very much in fashion in the 1980s. Its name is based on the central principle that too much money in the economy is the basic cause of inflation, leaving the control of the money supply as almost the only important economic role for government. The same policy is applied in a similar shake-up in Britain by Margaret Thatcher, and she and Reagan become close friends. The idea of redistribution of income plays no part. This is strongly displayed in Reagan's Tax Reform Act of 1986, which reduces the top rate of income tax from 50% to 28% while raising the bottom rate from 11% to 15%. However tax revenues increase overall in Reagan's period in office because of broadening the base of what is taxable and efficient closing of loopholes.

Reagan is by any standards a hawk on issues relating to Communism, the Soviet Union and the Cold War. His eagerness to take action against the spread of Communism has been evident since his early days in Hollywood, when he regularly passes to the FBI the names of actors whom he suspects of being members of the Communist party. During his presidency a more aggressive attitude to the Soviet Union becomes national policy after some years of détente attempted by previous administrations. Reagan spends very large sums on increasing the size and capabilities of the armed services, thus escalating the arms race and the Cold War. The most expensive and very controversial part of this programme is his Strategic Defence Initiative. Introduced as a government project in 1983, its purpose is to develop missiles, some on the ground and some in space, that can identify any incoming rockets and destroy them before they reach their target. Many believe that it is technologically impossible, but if it is achieved it would make useless the Soviet Union's large stockpile of nuclear missiles and give the USA great freedom of action as the only superpower in the world. It has never been put in place, though some of the technologies developed in the research for it are valuable parts of other projects.

The Reagan policy also involves more proactive support for anti-Communists groups anywhere in the world and prompt unilateral military action to that end when necessary. The two main examples in Reagan's time are the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya. Grenada, a small island nation in the Caribbean, has been very much afflicted by military coups. One, in 1979, brings to power a Communist leader, Maurice Bishop. Another, in 1983, is organized by his deputy prime-minister, Bernard Coard. He in turn is ousted by the army. Meanwhile Grenada is building a new airfield and US aerial photos reveal that the runway is unusually long. The response of the Reagan administration is that a runway of this length can only be the intended for the use of Soviet military aircraft (an interpretation widely disputed at the time and since). Reagan warns of the threat posed to the nation by the 'Soviet-Cuban militarization' of the Caribbean. And an invasion is planned.

The invasion begins on 25 October 1983 and is far from easy. It takes several days for nearly 8000 US soldiers, sailors and airmen to subdue a force of some 1500 Grenadian and 700 Cuban troops. There is some international approval but mainly condemnation, including by Britain's Margaret Thatcher (Grenada is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations). A resolution passed by the United Nations condemns it as 'a flagrant violation of international law'. There is a brief campaign by African Americans in the House of Representatives to impeach President Reagan.


Libya, Iran and Nicaragua: 1985-6

Reagan's bombing of Libya 15 April 1986 is a response to the track record of the Libyan leader, Muhammad Gaddafi, in sponsoring terrorist attacks against western targets, often with a major loss of life. The event that makes Reagan take action is an attack earlier in April on a discothèque in Berlin frequented by US soldiers. Three people are killed and 229 injured. On previous occasions the indications of Gaddafi's involvement have been circumstantial,, but this time there is proof when the USA and West Germany gain access to cables sent to Libyan agents in East Berlin. Over the next few days Reagan has discussions with European and Arab allies before ordering an air strike. A large number of US aircraft take off from sites in Britain and from three US carriers stationed off the north coast of Libya. The targets are airfields and military barracks, of which the most important is Bab al-Azizia in the capital, Tripoli. It is in this compound that Gaddafi has his headquarters.

Gaddafi and his family, forewarned just before the attack, rapidly leave his residence, thus presumably depriving the raid of its main target. Later the body of a dead infant girl is shown to the press, with the announcement that it is Hana, a recently adopted daughter of Gaddafi's. This easy bid for international sympathy is unlikely to be true. Gaddafi soon puts out a message that a spectacular victory has been won over the USA by the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Republic.

Reagan's best-known intervention in a foreign country is less successful and results in a major scandal. It involves, in a complex web of deceit, the USA and two widely separated nations, Iran and Nicaragua, in what becomes known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The story involves three separate elements. First, seven American citizens have been taken hostage by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization based in Lebanon and sponsored by Iran. The USA has no way of putting pressure on Lebanon to release them. Secondly, Iran is in the middle of the costly and protracted Iran-Iraq War and is known to be desperately short of arms. The official policy of the US State Department, endorsed by Reagan, is a ban on the sale of arms to Iran becomes of their links with terrorists. Thirdly, one of the anti-Communist groups Reagan is keen to support is the Contras, a right-wing coalition of opponents of the Marxist but elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Contras, in effect a terrorist group with an appalling civil rights record, mount guerrilla raids from neighbouring Guatemala with the aim of toppling the Sandinista regime headed by Daniel Ortega. Their purpose is secretly supported by the USA but they are always short of funds. Reagan would like to help.

Among high officials in Reagan's administration a subtle plan is hatched it is a matter of dispute how much Reagan is aware of it. Iran may be willing to intervene with Hezbollah to release the hostages if arms are sold to them. The USA is unable to do this, but Israel can secretly smuggle them into Iran as a sale from them. The USA can then give Israel the same quantity of arms and receive the money paid by Iran. This can then be given, via the CIA, to the Contras.

Two steps in this process are illegal and have to remain secret the provision of arms to Iran and the provision of funds to the Contras. Measures passed in Congress between 1982 and 1984 (the Boland Amendment) have made it illegal for the federal government to provide support to any group aiming to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. The deception, rapidly becoming a scandal, is first revealed in 1986. It is compounded by the discovery that Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council and in charge of the secret delivery of cash to the Contras , has shredded government documents relating to the Iran-Contra affair. He and several other high officials involved are subsequently indicted and convicted.


George H.W. Bush: 1989-93

Reagan's enlargement of America's military power early in his term of office has had the effect of raising the defence budget by more than 40% between 1981 and 1985. As a result the national debt triples during his presidency, from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion. Reagan describes this as his 'greatest disappointment'. It is also the greatest problem confronting his successor, George H.W. Bush, who has been vice-president throughout the eight years of the Reagan era. At the 1988 Republican convention he has made what becomes the most famous statement of his political career: 'Read my lips; no new taxes'.

When Bush enters office the Democrats control Congress, limiting the new president's options. The Republican viewpoint is that the deficit can only be reduced by a major cut in government spending. The Democrats insist that it must be done by raising taxes. To get any legislation on the issue through Congress Bush has to follow the Democratic line, breaking In his first year in office his famous pledge on tax. It immediately loses him a lot of Republican support.

The pledge has been made in a speech that becomes known as the 'thousand points of light'. The points of light are volunteers doing work in the community, and Bush passionately believes in the value of their contribution to society. He frequently lectures and campaigns on the theme and in 1989 establishes the Daily Point of Light Award, profiling each day a volunteer in any of the states of the nation. In 1990 he creates the Point of Light Foundation to promote the theme. In 2012, with affiliated organizations in more than twenty countries, the foundation mobilizes more than four million volunteers.

During Bush's period in office there are two occasions when he needs to send US forces on active service abroad. One is relatively local, in Panama in Central America. Since 1983 Panama has been ruled by a gangster and drugs baron, Manuel Noriega, who operates as a middleman between Colombia, a major producer of illegal drugs, and America, the largest market. Several unsuccesful attempts have been made by the Reagan administration to remove him. But the last straw comes in 1989 when Noriega declares his nation to be at war with the USA and the next day Panamanian soldiers kill a US marine officer.

President Bush reacts promptly in December 1989 with 'Operation Just Cause', sending 24,000 troops to occupy Panama City and to seize Noriega. For four days Noriega avoids capture. He then seeks asylum in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, but soon gives himself up to the US forces. He is taken under arrest to Miami. In 1992 he is tried and convicted in a US court for drug trafficking and money laundering. Since his removal Panama has had a succession of fully democratic elections for the presidency.

The other occasion when force is required follows just a few months after the invasion of Panama. In August 1990 Operation Desert Storm is launched by a multi-national army charged by the UN Security Council with the task of driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The US plays the leading role in what becomes known as the Gulf War

By the time of the 1992 election Bush's popularity rating, mainly because of the economy, is as low as 37% (it has at times in his presidency been extremely high). The election is complicated by the considerable appeal of a third candidate, Ross Perot. In the event the exit polls suggest that Perot has taken votes equally from the Democrats and the Republicans. Bush is defeated by the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton.


Bill Clinton: 1993-2001

Clinton has an extremely impressive record in moving fast to promote, and in most cases pass into law, a series of liberal reforms. In his first year in office, 1993, these include an Act requiring large companies to allow all employees unpaid leave in circumstances such as pregnancy or serious illness (Family and Medical Leave Act); an Act cutting taxes for fifteen million low income families and for a majority of small businesses, while raising taxes for the wealthiest 1.2% section of the population (Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act); and one minor but nevertheless significant step against the powerful gun lobby, with an act preventing instant over-the-counter purchase of hand guns by imposing a five-day waiting period before receipt of the gun, during which a federal background check is to be made on the purchaser (Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act). The Brady Act is named after James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, who was permanently disabled in the failed assassination attempt on the president in 1981.

On one of his liberal initiatives during the first year Clinton has to make a serious compromise. He has proposed a change in the law to enable openly gay men and women to serve in the military, but this meets strong opposition from conservatives of both parties in Congress. The compromise is that gays can serve, and are protected from bullying or discrimination, as long as they don't reveal or admit their sexuality. By the same token others in the service are banned from asking about it. The resulting directive to the military authorities is known as 'Don't ask, don't tell'.

The most challenging initiative by Clinton during 1993, a central feature of his presidential campaign and the one most important to him, is his attempt to achieve a transformation of the American health system, providing universal coverage though a national health care plan. Meeting strong opposition this effort collapses. But Clinton achieves a partial success in this context with his Children's Health Insurance Programme in 1997.

If 1993 has demonstrated clearly the legislative aims and successes that will characterize Clinton's presidency, it also reveals another element that will remain constant over the next eight years the involvement of his name, justified or not, in scandals.


Scandals: 1993-2001

In 1993 David Hale, an Arkansas banker who has served time in prison for fraud, claims that Clinton while governor of Arkansas pressurized him to lend $300,000 dollars to Susan McDougal, a partner of Clinton's in a project to build holiday homes along the White River in Arkansas. The issue rumbles on for years, and after several investigations fifteen people are convicted of frauds connected with the case. Clinton and Hillary, both shareholders in the Whitewater company, have throughout protested their innocence and neither is charged.

The scandal that becomes known as Troopergate also surfaces in 1993. Two Arkansas state troopers claim that they arranged sexual relations for Clinton when governor of Arkansas. The investigations bring up the name of Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee who accuses Clinton of sexual harassment in 1991 and subsequently sues him, demanding $750,000 in damages. After years of litigation Clinton settles out of court with Jones and in 1998 pays her $850,000 to cover damages and her costs in return for her dropping the case.

The greater significance of the Jones v. Clinton case has been that it introduces the name of Monica Lewinski, an unpaid internee in the White House working for the Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta. In this role she comes into contact with Clinton. She confides to a colleague that at Clinton's request she has performed oral sex on him in the Oval Office. The colleague, Linda Tripp, betrays her trust and records telephone conversations in which she asks Lewinsky for intimate details. Tripp then makes these tapes available in the Jones v. Clinton case. Clinton is called to give evidence and under oath denies having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, and repeats this very specifically in a televised White House news conference in January 1998 using the categorical phrase 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky'. Later, when this position becomes untenable in view of the evidence, he admits that his relationship with her had been 'inappropriate'.

A charge of perjury relating to this evidence is the main charge in an impeachment of Clinton by the House of Representatives. He becomes only the second president in the history of the USA to undergo impeachment. The first to be impeached has been Andrew Johnson, cleared by one vote in the Senate in 1868. Richard Nixon, confronted with the likelihood of impeachment in 1974, has resigned before the charge is placed. Clinton, with characteristic nonchalance and courage, decides to brazen it out. In February, after a trial lasting nearly a month, he is acquitted in the Senate.

This escape, in his second term of office, is characteristic of Clinton's extraordinary presidency. In spite of having his private affairs constantly scrutinized in the press he completes two very successful terms. His Gallup Poll rating on leaving office is higher than that of any president since F.D. Roosevelt. ABC News summed up the public's attitude to Clinton as 'You can't trust him, he's got weak morals and ethics and he's done a heck of a good job'. Clinton has had the good fortune for his presidency to coincide with a period of prosperity and increasing wealth in most western nations, but he has also administered the economy skilfully. In each of his last three fiscal years in office there are surpluses in the government's finances (an extremely unusual circumstance), with the surplus in 2000 being the largest ever, at $237 billion.

At the end of Clinton's eight years in the White House George W. Bush wins the 2000 presidential elections by the narrowest of margins against the Democratic candidate, Al Gore. Florida, where the vote between them is on a knife edge, becomes the state on which the result depends. Whichever of them gains Florida's twenty-five electoral votes will win the election and become president. The issue is complicated by the fact Florida's voting machines have malfunctioned. They are meant to cut a neat square hole in the ballot paper beside the name of the preferred candidate. Instead some of the ballot papers have been left with one corner of the square still attached, a situation known as a 'hanging chad'. Does this count as a vote or not? The issue is decided by the Supreme Court which awards the victory to Bush.

Eight months into the new president's term of office an event occurs which profoundly affects the rest of his presidency. The most destructive of all terrorist attacks is launched against New York and Washington.


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