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."
Even Mondale, 56, laughed.
Reagan won by the largest electoral raw vote landslide in history. He received 59% of the popular vote, carried 49 states and got 525 electoral votes — to Mondale's 13.
Even before his second inauguration, planning was underway for Reagan to visit Germany for the 1985 economic summit on the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis. Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked him to honor dead German soldiers as an act of reconciliation. Touched by Kohl's emotion and eager to reciprocate his support as an ally, Reagan agreed — and kept his word, despite relentless objections from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish leaders, as well as groups of American veterans, prominent Republicans and his own wife, Nancy.
The ceremony would be at a cemetery in Bitburg. Protests exploded into outcries when snow melted on the graves and revealed that 49 SS troops were among the 2,000 German soldiers buried there. Wiesel begged Reagan to abandon the Bitburg visit, citing SS participation in the Holocaust. "One million Jewish children perished," he pleaded. "If I spent my entire life reciting their names, I would die before finishing the task. Mr. President, I have seen children — I have seen them being thrown in the flames alive. Words, they die on my lips . May I, Mr. President, if it's possible at all, implore you to do something else to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS."
Reagan added a stop to honor the Jews who had died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but it hardly helped. When the president finally visited the German graves, he lost a measure of his stature in the Jewish community.
"Within two months of Bitburg," Cannon said, "Reagan would authorize the first stages of a backdoor deal with Iran that would demonstrate in even greater measure [his] inadequate historical understanding, political naivete and awesome presidential stubbornness." Emboldened by his landslide reelection, the Reagan administration reached beyond what was legal and provided arms to the Iranians in return for American hostages in Lebanon — and used proceeds to finance a war by guerrillas, called Contras, trying to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua.
The deal developed into a scandal called Iran-Contra, and it cost the president mightily.