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HIST1171 Reagan’s America: Capitalism and Cold War

Module Overview

This module will be extensively based upon discussion of primary sources and will encourage and develop your skills of critical analysis of source material. It will also ask you to reflect upon the decade as a useful yet problematic unit of historical analysis as well as the advantages and disadvantages of studying “America and the world” as entwined narratives. It's tempting to look at the 1980s as the antechamber to the present, but what do we learn and how much do we miss by interpreting the past as the necessary path to now? The 1980s exist in the near past, and as such present considerable challenges to historians, notably the vested interests of those involved, the political biases of those commentating, and the incomplete nature of relevant documentary sources. The result is that historical actors, pundits, and scholars have put forth many accounts of such major issues as the rise and fall of Cold War détente; neo-conservatism, neoliberalism, and their relationship; the American culture wars; the information revolution; the AIDS epidemic; high consumerism; the War on Drugs; the anti-apartheid movement; democratisation in Asia; Iran-Contra; the end of the Cold War; finance capitalism and globalisation. As a result, there exists a wide range of scholarly interpretations, for example, those supportive or critical of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, seldom with conclusive evidence to prove one correct over another. Despite these barriers, the complex history behind these events makes vital the careful analysis that historians provide. Through this module you will be encouraged to question how the past is reconstructed upon the basis of the sources, to assess the validity of competing narratives, and to form your own conclusions based upon the available evidence.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

Apart from enabling you to acquire a detailed knowledge of the United States and global history in the 1980s, the module aims to: • Develop your understanding of the origins and substance of partisan, political, and philosophical battles over foreign and domestic policy in the contemporary United States • Critically assess the arguments put forward by defenders and critics of Reagan’s policies as well as historians • Trace the development of post-war US foreign and domestic policy with a focus on the period from 1969 to 1991. • Introduce you to the main institutions and major features of American political and governmental affairs • Critically assess the challenges facing the historian when working with source materials in the process of declassification • Provide you with an opportunity to assess critically different types of source material including presidential speeches, redacted CIA reports and national security directives, economic analyses, Supreme Court decisions, news commentary, political writing, and personal memoirs • Enable you to demonstrate development of critical thought through your own independent research and group work • Provide the opportunity for open discussion on issues related to the module

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Key events in the run up to the presidential election of Ronald Reagan
  • The “Second Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union and its resolution
  • The ideology of neo-conservatism with respect to US foreign policy
  • The ideology of neoliberalism with respect to US and international economics
  • De-industrialization and the urban crises of the 1980s
  • The global impact of US foreign policy, economic activity, and consumer culture
  • Key primary sources and literature that provide evidence for US domestic and foreign policy
  • The latest research and debates on the subjects of the Cold War, the culture wars, US imperialism, globalization, and American social and cultural history
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Organise and structure material to both write and present clearly and confidently
  • Search out and analyse critically primary and secondary material
  • Participate actively in group discussions and debate
  • Work independently through organisation and planning of workload
  • Formulate coherent arguments about complex phenomena
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Discuss the historical background of US politics since the mid-1970s
  • Express familiarity with the frames used and the explanations offered by scholars for the policies pursued since Reagan took office
  • Explain the significance of the Cold War and globalization in modern global history
  • Evaluate critically the theoretical and methodological approaches used by scholars working on American national security, economic, social, and foreign policy
  • Interpret critically a variety of primary sources from the late twentieth century
  • Express an appreciation of the challenges facing historians when interpreting events in recent history, and an awareness of how to deal with these challenges
  • Explain your own views on debates within the fields of American politics and US foreign and domestic policy


Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a former Hollywood actor, spokesman for General Electric (GE) and California governor into the White House. Promising “Morning in America,” the “Great Communicator” went on to win a second term in office, presiding over a decade of foundational social, economic, cultural, political, and geopolitical change. In 1980, the United States and the global economy were wracked by stagflation, with economic growth anaemic and inflation rampant as oil prices soared and U.S.-based manufacturing declined. The Cold War entered a new crisis, with détente under siege by revolutionaries abroad and neo-conservatives at home. The “Reagan revolution” ended 35 years of liberal consensus in which Democrats and Republicans defended the institutions, entitlements, and high taxation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society in favour of a new governing creed of supply-side economics, tax cuts, and wealth’s gospel. In the United States, the neoliberal ascendancy further amplified processes of de-industrialization, incarceration, and urban decay, bequeathing an economy that functioned as an engine for innovation and boom-and-bust growth as well as an intensifier of inequalities between a white managerial class and an increasingly precarious majority whose membership spanned all races, creeds, and ethnicities. Abroad, the Reagan revolution intensified the Soviet-American rivalry whilst contributing to new trends in international relations, as American hegemony and Western influence faced challenges, both new and old. Indicative list of topics covered: • Cold War détente • neo-conservatism • neoliberalism • the American culture wars • the information revolution • the AIDS epidemic • high consumerism • the War on Drugs • the carceral state • the anti-apartheid movement • democratisation in Asia • Iran-Contra • the end of the Cold War • finance capitalism and globalisation

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • A weekly lecture, supported by core reading, additional reading in the module handbook, and materials posted to the Blackboard site • A weekly seminar, with each week drawing upon a different form of primary source, ranging from artifacts of consumer culture and media to Supreme Court opinions and presidential speeches. • Lecturer-led examination and discussion of sources Learning activities include: • Preparatory reading before each seminar • Participation in group and class discussion • Independent reading of the sources provided and of related secondary works • Short oral presentations on primary sources • Independent research of additional information and source materials Lecture elements will provide you with general knowledge and understanding about chronology, sources and key concepts. This will be consolidated through readings and seminar discussions of primary and secondary source material. Discussion in seminars will help you to develop your own ideas about a topic, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument.

Preparation for scheduled sessions120
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

William C. Berman (1994). America’s Right Turn: From Nixon to Bush. 

Lisa McGirr (2001). Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. 

Justin Vaïsse (2010). Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement. 

Andrew Hartman (2015). A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. 

Sean Wilentz (2008). The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. 

Daniel T. Rodgers (2011). Age of Fracture. 

John Ehrman (2005). The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan. 

Bradford D. Martin (2011). The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan. 

Rick Perlstein (2014). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. 

Steven F. Hayward (2009). The Age of Reagan. The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989. 


Assessment Strategy

Assessments designed to provide informal feedback: • You will engage in small group exercises, focusing on specific formative tasks, which will be reviewed in class • You will be encouraged to discuss preparation for your formal assessment with your tutor • You will have the opportunity to seek individual advice on your work in progress from your tutor • Guidance and advice in class on preparation, completion and presentation of assignments will be available to you


MethodPercentage contribution
Commentary  (1000 words) 20%
Essay  (2000 words) 40%
Exam  (1 hours) 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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