All the while, superpower relations degenerated to an unnerving low. Arms control negotiations stalled. Some Americans, including a number of religious leaders, urged a freeze on nuclear weapons. To blunt the movement, Reagan assailed the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." He called communism "another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written." He announced a plan to develop a space-based defense system, called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), to destroy Soviet missiles before they could reach the United States.
American critics said SDI would never work. They named the system Star Wars, after the George Lucas space fantasy film. But Reagan would not give it up, and it became a persistent stumbling block to an arms control agreement.
In September of 1983, a Soviet fighter shot down an unarmed South Korean airliner that had strayed into Soviet air space over a Russian peninsula. The attack killed 269 people, including a U.S. congressman. Although an isolated incident, it deepened fear of a superpower conflict.
In the Middle East, the administration tried hard to bring peace. Reagan sent Marines into Lebanon as part of a multinational force to end warfare between Christians and Muslims. But the administration was divided. Reagan's advisors showed signs of the infighting that would come to cost him dearly during his second term. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger opposed the mission in Lebanon. But Reagan, encouraged by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, stepped up U.S. involvement.
Pro-Iranian terrorists crashed a bomb-laden van into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. Reagan held the Marines in place despite the increasing risk.
Terrorists struck again. A truck filled with explosives broke through inadequate defenses around a Marine barracks in Beirut. It blew the building to pieces and killed 241 U.S. servicemen.
It was "the saddest day of my presidency," Reagan wrote in "An American Life," and "perhaps the saddest day of my life."
On the day after the bombing, he ordered Marines and Army Rangers to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada to oust a cadre of Cuban troops, effectively overthrow a new Marxist government and bring home 800 American medical students. Many allies and a number of Democratic leaders called the invasion meddling in Grenada's affairs and suspected that it was intended to distract Americans from the horror in Beirut.
The facts show otherwise, Cannon said. Although Reagan did not issue his formal order for the invasion until the day after Beirut, planning for a military evacuation of the students from Grenada had been underway for four days, and Reagan and his advisors had reached a consensus to invade the island one day before.
In the end, the 5,000-member invasion force, facing little opposition, sustained 19 fatalities. But Americans reveled in the show of military muscle.
During all of this, Reagan refused to bring the Marines home from Lebanon. He left them at risk for three more months until he quietly ordered all 1,500 to retreat to the safety of U.S. Navy ships offshore.
By now the economy was back up. The president and the Federal Reserve had curbed inflation, "the most enduring," Cannon judged, "of Reagan's economic legacies."
The president, who might have been doomed by recession and plagued by misadventures abroad, basked in respect. As the 1984 election approached, he held a big lead in the polls.
His television commercials declared: "It's morning again in America."
Triumph and Scandal
Reagan campaigned on patriotism, prosperity and military strength. His opponent, Walter F. Mondale, who was Carter's vice president, failed to seize on a compelling issue. He saddled himself with a pledge to raise taxes. He said Reagan would raise taxes too, but would not be candid enough to admit it ahead of time.
A poor performance during one debate gave Reagan his only uneasy moment. It prompted speculation that the president, well past 73, might be too old for the job. When the matter came up in the next debate, he remarked with a disarming smile, "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."