When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he inherited a broken all-volunteer military force, still reeling from the traumas of the post-Vietnam era. When he left the White House eight years later, he left the nation a well-equipped, highly professional military on which the country has depended for three decades.
Reagan — whose presidency ushered in a $2 trillion buildup that bought more manpower, tanks, jet bombers and a nearly 600-ship Navy — also elevated the theoretical idea of missile defense into actual Pentagon policy.
"President Reagan recognized the unique and special role that America's men and women in uniform played in keeping us free and strong," said former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican who headed the House Intelligence Committee. "He loved them, and it showed."
The U.S. today maintains active anti-missile batteries in Alaska, guarding against the possibility of a North Korean attack, because Reagan braved fierce opposition to spend the money on ground-breaking technology. And Europe this year set the construction of a defensive missile umbrella for the continent as a priority because Reagan made such defense a mainstream national security idea.
It was that missile defense program, coupled with his decision to modernize the country's nuclear arsenal, that forced Soviet leaders to pursue economic and political reforms in a futile bid to keep pace. That, in turn, led to the collapse of the Soviet empire in Europe in 1989, Reagan supporters say.
Frank Gaffney was a hard-line cold warrior bent on confronting and undermining the Soviet Union when he arrived at the Pentagon in Reagan's first term. Mr. Gaffney had worked for Democratic Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, an ardent anti-Soviet, and then did staff work for the Senate Armed Services Committee. He knew firsthand that Washington's neglect during the post-Vietnam era had led to what the Army's own chief of staff termed in 1980 the "hollow Army."
"The hollowing out of our military was absolutely palpable," recalled Mr. Gaffney, who now runs the Washington-based Center for National Security Policy. "And Reagan saw that and he knew it needed to be fixed. And he did it. "
Mr. Gaffney said the Pentagon's buildup, led by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, became a "critical component" in a complex strategy to defeat Moscow, using economic as well as military weapons.
"Reagan did three things for the armed forces of the United States that were of incalculable importance," he said. "One is, he restored them to a position of respect and admiration in the America society. Second, he rebuilt their military capabilities specifically with respect to nuclear deterrence and power projection.
"And third, his investment … built the forces that we still to this day largely rely upon. It wasn't just the folks serving in the 1980s being re-equipped with modern and highly effective weapons that was tremendously important in that moment, but [Reagan's military budgets] become even more important because we have consistently failed to follow up on those kinds of investments. We're living off the legacy of Ronald Reagan's commitment to our military."
Along the way, Reagan coined Cold War phrases that irked Moscow — words such as "peace through strength," "the evil empire" and, to the British Parliament in 1982, "the ash heap of history" to describe — accurately, it turned out — the Soviet Union's final resting place.
In his book, "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader," Dinesh D'Souza wrote of the president's subtle understanding of his adversary's vulnerabilities.
"This California lightweight turned out to have as deep an understanding of Communism as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn," he wrote. "This rank amateur developed a complex, often counter-intuitive strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union which hardly anyone on his staff fully endorsed or even understood. Through a combination of vision, tenacity, patience and improvisational skill, he produced what Henry Kissinger terms 'the most stunning diplomatic feat of the modern era.' Or as Margaret Thatcher put it, 'Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.'"
Reagan's 1980 election also ushered in scores of young conservative congressmen who, like Reagan, believed the military was a force for good.
One of them was Duncan Hunter of San Diego, an Army Vietnam War combat veteran who would go on to head the House Armed Services Committee.
Now retired from Congress, Mr. Hunter recalls that morale and pay were so low at the time Reagan came to office that the Navy was losing 1,000 petty officers a month "because they weren't able to support their families." More than 50 percent of the nation's tactical aircraft were not fully mission-capable for lack of spare parts.
"Reagan gave America's military new equipment, better pay and a sense of worth that had been lacking for the last 20 years," Mr. Hunter said. "He rebuilt national defense. We started with a 12.6 percent pay raise. There was a sense of value that Ronald Reagan, in his unique fashion, embedded in the hearts of everyone who wore the uniform. Simply, Americans wanted to serve under Reagan."
Today, Reagan's legacy includes a massive projection of power — the carrier USS Ronald Reagan launched in 2001, three years before his death. Mr. Hunter said he had heard that sailors volunteer specifically to serve on the Reagan in the late president's honor.
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