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Moammar Qadhafi speaking in 1986 during a time of heightened tension between Libya and the United States. (Peter Turnley / Corbis)

Ronald Reagan and Moammar Qadhafi

Twenty-five years ago, President Reagan minced no words when he talked about the Libyan dictator

Between 1969, when Col. Moammar Qadhafi took over Libya in a coup, and 2004, when he terminated his country’s nuclear weapons program, U.S.-Libya relations were almost unremittingly hostile. A notable flash point occurred 25 years ago, after a bomb went off on April 5, 1986, in a West Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. service personnel. Two people, including a U.S. serviceman, were killed, and 204 others were injured. The Reagan administration’s response, both on the ground and at the podium, suggests the tenor of the relationship:

April 9, 1986: news conference

Q: Mr. President, do you have any solid evidence that Qadhafi is responsible for the recent acts of terrorism? And if you are contemplating major retaliation, won’t you be killing a lot of innocent people? I’d like to follow up.

The President: …[W]e have considerable evidence, over quite a long period of time, that Qadhafi has been quite outspoken about his participation in urging on and supporting terrorist acts—a kind of warfare, as he has called it. Right now, however, I can’t answer you specifically on this other, because we’re continuing with our intelligence work and gathering evidence on these most recent attacks, and we’re not ready yet to speak on that...

Q: Mr. President, I know you must have given it a lot of thought, but what do you think is the real reason that Americans are the prime target of terrorism? Could it be our policies?

The President: Well, we know that this mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Muslim fundamentalist revolution, which is targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots. And where we figure in that, I don’t know. Maybe we’re just the enemy because—it’s a little like climbing Mount Everest—because we’re here. But there’s no question but that he has singled us out more and more for attack, and we’re aware of that. As I say, we’re gathering evidence as fast as we can.

That evidence included intercepted communications implicating the Libyan government in the attack, prompting President Reagan to order air strikes on ground targets there.

April 14, 1986: address to the nation

President Reagan: At 7 o’clock this evening Eastern time air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Muammar Qadhafi’’s subversive activities. The attacks were concentrated and carefully targeted to minimize casualties among the Libyan people, with whom we have no quarrel. From initial reports, our forces have succeeded in their mission...

The evidence is now conclusive that the terrorist bombing of La Belle discotheque was planned and executed under the direct orders of the Libyan regime. On March 25, more than a week before the attack, orders were sent from Tripoli to the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Berlin to conduct a terrorist attack against Americans to cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties. Libya’s agents then planted the bomb. On April 4 the People’s Bureau alerted Tripoli that the attack would be carried out the following morning. The next day they reported back to Tripoli on the great success of their mission...

About T.A. Frail
T.A. Frail

Tom Frail is a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine. He previously worked as a senior editor for the Washington Post and for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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