19/09/2016 08:43 BST | Updated 17/09/2017 06:12 BST

Was Ronald Reagan Really A 'Hawk'?


*Hawk - a person who advocates an aggressive or warlike policy, especially in foreign affairs.

* Dove - a person who advocates peaceful or conciliatory policies, especially in foreign affairs.

The Iran-Contra affair, the branding of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" and the masculine cowboy image all led the public to categorize Ronald Reagan as the ultimate 'hawk', with his only priority, building up the military. Reagan's desire to fight and never compromise with enemies is a popular myth that conservatives cannot and will not let go of. However, it is in fact true that he did spend hell of a lot of money on the military and he also did controversially fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels with money gained from selling arms to Iran, but when the opportunity arose to send U.S troops to war, Reagan was not willing to risk peoples lives.

Ok, yes, he did carry out the 1986 bombing of Tripoli, Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi's daughter was in fact killed, but this was a direct response to the La Belle nightclub bombing in West Berlin that killed 2 US soldiers and injured 79. Libya supposedly sponsored this attack, and at the time Reagan had declared Libya a 'rogue state' giving him more incentive to fight back. But that's not enough justification that he was not a 'bird of prey'. This attack was the only one of this nature carried out throughout his 2 terms as President, along with one small land war that only lasted 2 days. If you compare this to the likes of George H. W. Bush's ground operations in Panama and Somalia and Bill Clinton's air campaigns in Bosnia, Iraq and Kosovo, as Peter Beinart argues, then these military actions "dwarfed Reagan's Libya bombing in duration and intensity."

In more recent years there has been an ongoing debate on whether or not there were "two Reagan's". The argument suggests that Reagan's first term as President was very aggressive, especially in terms of nuclear policy by siding with hawkish members of his administration such as Caspar Weinberger and Richard Perle where they all agreed to increase military spending, put MX missiles into production, commission the B1 bomber and give the go-ahead to the neutron bomb. The argument continues to suggest that Reagan suddenly became a more moderate 'dove'-like figure in his second term making negotiations with the supposedly "evil empire" setting out mutual agreements in nuclear weapons reductions.

Although Reagan did increase military spending and commissioned the B1 bomber, he was not a 'hawk' and in fact despised nuclear weapons, as Len Ackland argues, what else explains his dramatic support for abolishing nuclear weapons during the 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting? People often misjudge Reagan's consistency and completely dismiss the idea that he wasn't a 'hawk'. It wasn't until later in his presidency where scholar's appraisals were changing of Reagan. He was consistent with his foreign and nuclear policies remaining a moderate figure throughout his two terms, acting far from hawkish. In fact, he wrote multiple letters to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the early 80's expressing his desire to meet with him to "solve differences peacefully", reduce the threat of nuclear war and the "burden of nuclear armaments". Paul Lettow contends that throughout both terms Reagan was consistent with his desire to negotiate with the USSR but hid his desire to abolish nuclear weapons during his first term.

People will always associate Reagan with the Iran-Contra affair and class him as the ultimate 'hawk', but his peaceful beliefs and deep abhorrence for nuclear weapons often get dismissed. Reagan was considerably more 'dove' than 'hawk' and his legacy with nuclear achievements shouldn't get diminished by the unwillingness of conservatives to believe that Reagan was actually a peaceful president.

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