The Cold War's Influence on the Election of 1980
The election of 1980 marked a significant realignment in American Politics. The Cold War’s impact on this election was vast. In 1979, after the first 3 years of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, over 60% of the population favored an increase in military strength and spending. Jimmy Carter’s policy of strength through diplomacy wasn’t cutting it, and led to a public fear that Carter’s détente policy was allowing the Soviets to catch up to the U.S. in arms, space, and global influence. In his “Commander 60” re-election commercial we see President Carter try to paint himself as a strong military man to push back against the criticism of his “weak” foreign policy. For President Carter, who preferred to stay frank with the public, selling happiness and patriotism was not a strong suit.
Because of the complexity of the Cold War, the topic of foreign policy concerning U.S.- Soviet relations was often avoided by presidential nominee candidates, Carter included. Carter met with the Soviet General Secretary of the Central Committee in June of 1979 to propose SALT II, in the hopes of Soviet cooperation. When the treaty proved a failure, however, the nation’s approval wavered. News articles criticized both parties and flashbacks to the Vietnam War increased fear among voters.
Tensions increased in December of 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This move, Carter argued, would not only threaten Iran and Pakistan as well as violate international law, but give the USSR access to vast oil supplies. Carter addressed the American Public, arguing that this geopolitical development was unacceptable. He offered an ultimatum; if Soviet troops did not pull out from Afghanistan within one month, the United States would boycott the Summer Moscow Olympics. As this did not come to fruition, Carter withdrew American athletes. While this development had some support internationally, there was wavering national confidence in Carter’s strategy.
A major theme from the campaign of Reagan was patriotism, as conflict and rivalry with the Soviet Union fostered a strong sense of national pride in the American people. His stress on a strong American presence abroad and desire to combat the Soviet Union's expansion of communism were popular among the American people who were feeling a strong sense of this patriotism. Reagan's campaign was full of references to patriotism including campaign posters filled with American flags and red, white, and blue colors and speeches at national landmarks.
Beginning with his speech to the RNC in 1980, it became clear that Ronald Reagan would take a markedly different tact than the Carter administration in dealing with the Soviet Union. He promised the delegates gathered in Detroit that with his election, the Unites States would again be a symbol of strength in the world. Reagan presented his strategy of “peace through strength,” promising that the United States would no longer submit to foreign enemies and would again defends its values at home and abroad. He rallied his supporters around this new patriotism and resolve to once again take pride in the American brand of freedom.
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