Miller Center

Excerpts from the Ronald Reagan Oral History On Libya and Gaddafi

Numerous skirmishes between American and Libyan forces took place during Reagan’s eight years in the White House, the first occurring in August, 1981, when two American F-14s shot down two Soviet built SU-22s of the Libyan Air Force over the Gulf of Sidra.

The most serious confrontation between the two countries occurred in March-April, 1986, while the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet was engaged in naval exercises in the Mediterranean. On March 24, 1986, Libya responded to the maneuvers by firing missiles at the fleet and attacking with aircraft and naval vessels. It was a lopsided affair, with all of the casualties occurring on the Libyan side.


Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense (1981-87)
 ...Gaddafi challenged us not to ever enter the Gulf of Sidra, which he said were territorial waters of his. We said, “No, they’re open waters.” Freedom of navigation has been one of our tenets since the American Revolution, and we would go where we felt it was necessary to go to exercise the fleet. He made some feeble attempts to attack that, and they were immediately destroyed....

I think he [Reagan] ... receive[d] a lot of recommendations, and he would make decisions. The two or three most important were what should we do if we were attacked in the Gulf of Sidra when we were exercising the rights of free navigation and having our Navy down there exercising and maneuvering. I recommended very strongly that if we were attacked we should shoot back, and he agreed with that without any question.


On April 5th, a bomb planted in a West Berlin dance hall frequented by American servicemen killed one U.S. soldier and a civilian, and wounded 230 others. Intelligence intercepts of Libyan communications led American intelligence officials to conclude that the bomb was planted by Libyan agents. Reagan decided to retaliate, ordering Air Force and Naval aircraft to carry out a series of strikes on selected targets throughout Libya on April 14, 1986.


In the [Berlin] disco, it was very clear that Libya had trained and paid for and was supporting the terrorists who conducted that activity. Americans were killed, and others were killed, and with that proof we didn’t hesitate for a moment. We had a very massive retaliation. We had, for that time, a very big operation—50, 60 planes in the air—and we did very considerable amount of damage in Libya, in effect putting them off the map for a long time. There were a lot of stories that we’d gone after Gaddafi and bombed his home and all that. Well, he didn’t have homes, he had tents. And he had suddenly discovered or adopted some child that was hurt. He said we killed his daughter or something. Up to that time there’d been no evidence whatever that he had any family or any children.

We did what we had to do, when we had proof of who had done it. It was very effective, and it did put him off. He then spent the next couple of years just trying to survive. It bred in him a demand for revenge and fury and all that, but now to read some recent statements, you’d think he’d been supportive of the war against terrorism all the time. He’s all for us. I expect to see him welcomed in some western capitals again....

...The French did not cooperate. We had the bombers mounted in England. We had NATO bombers based in a couple of other places. For the raid on Libya, we wanted to fly many of the bombers from England to Libya to participate in the raid. The English gave us permission immediately, and the French did not. As a result, we had to fly 1,800 miles out of the way, at night, in radio silence, and refuel three extra times, which I thought were very hazardous additions to the trip. The Air Force said there was nothing different about this. But refueling at night with radio silence is, I find, a rather hazardous enterprise for an old infantryman. But they did it, and they did it extraordinarily well. But the French were not cooperative.

The other thing—Mr. [François] Mitterrand added a little salt in the wound because he told me, “If you’re going to do this—I disapprove of it, we will not give our permission—but if you’re going to do it, don’t make it a pinprick. Make it a real attack.” So I thanked him very much for his courteous advice and hung up as quickly as possible. Very difficult. No, they were not helpful.    


William Webster, FBI Director (1978-87), CIA Director (1987-91)
I thought he handled that splendidly. He had a lot of frustrations to overcome. The French wouldn’t allow us to go across their border, their property for that. Incidentally, before we leave, I want to come back because there was a lot during the Reagan administration that improved the cooperation in European countries in the war against certain types of terrorist activity. We had to go through a hell of a time—again, thinking about France—so many sanctuary countries, that if they left them alone they wouldn’t bother them. Then one-by-one we got them off. We had meetings in Milan, which I attended, then the Summit. We finally got the United Nations to treat these activities as criminal and bring to bear all the cooperative requirements that went with criminal activities.

But Reagan didn’t hesitate to do it. Once we had the evidence that the responsibility for the attack was Libyan he exercised the principle of self-defense. Which is kind of new to me, incidentally. I haven’t studied enough international law to understand how much could be brought under the rubric of self-defense, but that clearly was an acceptable response. Margaret Thatcher cooperated. That’s about all; we did the rest of it. But that attack did something to Gaddafi because he’s really been a sideliner—except, I mean Pan Am 103 tracks back, but in terms of active militancy out there, he went to ground.


James Miller, OMB Director (1985-88)
We’d had several discussions about the fact that there was good evidence that the Libyans had been responsible for this hit on Americans in the Berlin nightclub. It was complicated, but the evidence was pretty clear. Gaddafi rattled his sword some more, engaging in other terrorist activities and promoting other terrorist activities. So, the President said, “We’ve got to put him back in his box.”
The National Security Council met on a Thursday. The President decided to go ahead. I went home that night and my wife said, “Something’s bothering you.” I said, “No, no.” Later that evening she said, “Something’s bothering you, but you can’t tell me what it is.” And I said, “You’re right.”

The decision was on. We hit Gaddafi Sunday night. Early Monday afternoon the President called another National Security Council meeting. I went over early, which was unusual for me, and I saw these three young, but fairly senior, officers come in. One was carrying this aluminum or titanium case and was handcuffed to its handle. The two others were flanking him. He came in and put the briefcase down on the table. One fellow takes off the handcuffs and the other opens the case’s locks. They open the briefcase and inside there’s a videotape.

He put the videotape in a machine operating the video monitors in the situation room. Then were are briefed by an Air Force General. This general had not flown the mission, but he had been in charge of the expedition of F-111s out of Britain that hit Gaddafi. Keep in mind that we lost one crew in that mission. France had refused us permission to over-fly France so we had to fly all the way around the Rock of Gibraltar, with several mid-air refuelings. Rather than being a four and a half hour flight, it was twelve hours. If that crew hadn’t been so tired, we might not have lost them.
But as the general was making his presentation, he said, “Now Mr. President, we have gun cameras showing....” They had this videotape showing all the destruction. This was long before the Gulf War and all the briefings to which we are now accustomed. We saw laser guided missiles hitting the so-called tent. The “tent” is a building, not a tent. The missiles are taking out planes on the tarmac. I’m sitting there saying, “Good night ’a living!” Just a boy from Conyers, Georgia, and I’m seeing something that probably not more than 20 people will ever see, certainly not in my lifetime. This is super secret. You could tell from the way they came in with the handcuffs. It was something else. The gravity was important, too. People were being killed.
This is around three or three-thirty. It was a long presentation. When it was over, I watched the three officers reverse the procedure, and I went back to my office. The White House TV cable had the evening news on at 6:30 out of Baltimore. I turned on CBS and heard, “We have the latest video...” It was the same thing! Maybe it was edited somewhat, but it looks to me to be from the same tape.


From “At Reagan’s Side” by Stephen F. Knott and Jeffrey L. Chidester

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