Ronald Wilson Reagan
RONALD REAGAN'S election to the presidency in 1980 marked the convergence of two processes, neither of which would have seemed likely to most Americans even a few years earlier. One was Reagan's transformation from a fading film actor into the dominant political figure in the nation. The other was the rise of a powerful conservative movement that profited not only from Reagan's attractive personality but also from a decade of popular disenchantment with politics and government.
Reagan's many successes as president owed much to his actor's instincts and much to the popular pessimism that he inherited and that his sunny temperament helped at least temporarily to dispel. The same factors contributed as well to the many shortcomings of his administration: its tendency to emphasize style over substance, its emphasis on short-term economic and political benefits at the price of long-term costs, and its insouciant refusal to acknowledge deep domestic and international problems that might undermine the hopeful picture of the world Reagan consistently presented. His presidency coincided with, and contributed to, a long period of dramatic economic growth and the beginning of a momentous change in international relations. But it failed to address, and in many ways intensified, a series of public dilemmas that had been developing for years before Reagan entered the White House and that continued to plague the nation for years after he left.
Reagan's rise to eminence moved along a path that, in the beginning, resembled that of many other American politicians but that later diverged sharply from the norm. He was born on 6 February 1911 in the small town of Tampico, Illinois. His parents, Jack and Nelle, named him Ronald Wilson for a great-uncle but always called him Dutch (after his father began referring to the strapping baby as his "fat little Dutchman"). Jack Reagan was an unsuccessful salesman with a serious drinking problem. Nelle Wilson Reagan was a devout farm-woman who raised Ronald and his older brother, Neil, in the Disciples of Christ Church despite their father's Catholicism. The family moved frequently, sometimes in response to new job opportunities, sometimes after Jack had been fired because of his drinking. In 1920 they settled in Dixon, Illinois, where Jack became the proprietor and part owner of a shoe store.
Nelle did occasional work to supplement the family's meager income and became intensely active in church functions. She seemed to live a life of almost complete self-denial, devoted to her children, defensive of her unsuccessful, alcoholic husband (whom she taught her children to tolerate and forgive). But on occasion, she showed signs of frustrated ambitions, particularly when she traveled around the county giving dramatic readings of poetry and melodrama to church groups and other gatherings—a popular form of entertainment at the time and one at which Nelle apparently excelled. Her younger son often accompanied her on these outings, although he later denied that they were the source of his attraction to acting.
Ronald Reagan was an outgoing, optimistic, popular, and apparently happy youth despite the problems of his family. He was interested in sports from an early age and particularly liked football and swimming. His nearsightedness, undiagnosed until he was thirteen, made baseball difficult for him. He was a hardworking and modestly successful student, with a talent for memorization. He was active early in school dramatics. As a teenager, he worked during summers as a lifeguard at the swimming area of the local river and put aside much of what he earned for his education.
His greatest childhood challenge may have been learning to deal with his father's drinking. As an eleven-year-old, he found his father drunk and passed out on the front porch, dragged him inside, and put him to bed. From then on, he joined his mother and brother in compensating for Jack's "illness," as Nelle explained it to the children. And he began as well to construct a series of defenses, finding ways to wall off the pain of his father's alcoholism from the rest of his essentially happy youth—denying unpleasant realities and viewing his world as he wished it to be. When he graduated from the public high school in Dixon in 1928, he wrote in his yearbook, "Life is just one grand, sweet song, so start the music."
Reagan had been a member of the varsity football team in high school, and his competent if unre-markable performance on the field was enough to win him a scholarship to Eureka College, a small Disciples of Christ school about a hundred miles from Dixon. He was interested in the school in part because one of Dixon's best football players (and one of Reagan's boyhood idols) had studied there six years earlier, and also because Reagan's high school girlfriend, the daughter of the Disciples of Christ minister in Dixon, would be attending.
Entering college, even one as small and provincial as Eureka, was a sign of unusual ambition in Dixon. Fewer than 10 percent of the town's recent high school graduates (and no other member of Reagan's own family) had ever done so. But Reagan glided through college without any visible single-mindedness of purpose. His grades were little better than passing (deliberately so, he later implausibly claimed, to keep him from being recruited—as most good students at Eureka were—to be a high school teacher and coach). He played on the football team but rarely started, enjoyed modest success as a varsity swimmer, and was active in the college's drama society. Even with a scholarship, Reagan had to work hard at several jobs, both during the term and over the summers, to remain in school. But he established himself nevertheless as one of the most visible and popular students on campus.
Reagan's youth was in many ways oddly similar to that of other provincial Americans who rose to political prominence: a boyhood in a small town, a family struggling precariously on the edges of the middle class, education in small, undistinguished schools. Huey P. Long, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and many others had grown up in comparable circumstances. But unlike most other small-town boys who rose to political greatness, Reagan showed little early interest in politics. Jack Reagan, like most American Catholics of his era, was a staunch Democrat; and Ronald inherited his father's unreflective enthusiasm for the party even though, throughout the 1920s, it enjoyed little national success. He became a fervent admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, an attachment that grew stronger when New Deal agencies began providing jobs to unemployed men (among them his father) in depression-ravaged central Illinois. But he never became actively involved in Democratic politics in the state. He found himself drawn occasionally into campus politics at Eureka and in his senior year won election as class president. But when he graduated in 1932, with a B.A. in economics and sociology, politics and public life remained far from his thoughts. He was, he later wrote, drawn to "some form of show business," an interest born in part of his experiences in the Eureka drama society.
Broadway and Hollywood, Reagan recalled, seemed "as inaccessible as outer space." So after graduation he decided to look for a job closer to home, in radio. After an unsuccessful search for work in Chicago, he applied for a position as a sports announcer at station WOC in Davenport, Iowa, about seventy-five miles from Dixon. He got the job by impressing the station manager with a vivid description, entirely from memory, of a Eureka College football game. His skill and enthusiasm won him a growing reputation and, soon, a position as chief sports announcer on WHO, a much larger station in Des Moines. Dutch Reagan quickly became one of the most popular sportscasters in Iowa. His first love was football, but the heart of his job was broadcasting Chicago Cubs baseball games. WHO could not afford to send him to Wrigley Field, so he relied on the running accounts of the games provided by the wire services and extemporized the rest. Reagan modeled his broadcasting on such accomplished and popular myth-makers as Graham McNamee and Grantland Rice—the leading figures in a generation of sports journalists to whom accuracy was far less important than color and uplift. Reagan was a success as a broadcaster because he was skilled at creating appealing fantasies and making effective use of anecdotes. His radio experiences reinforced the storytelling talents his friends and family had already recognized; it also reinforced his tendency to embellish events for dramatic effect.
In the spring of 1937, Reagan accompanied the Chicago Cubs to their spring training camp in southern California, a trip he arranged in order to explore a possible movie career. His good looks and confi-dent manner attracted the attention of an agent, who set up a screen test for him with Warner Brothers. The studio was impressed with Reagan and offered him a seven-year contract starting at $200 a week—many times his salary in Des Moines. Reagan promptly accepted. Six months later, he brought his parents to California to live with him.
Reagan did not soon become a star, but he worked steadily and achieved a series of small successes playing leads in B movies and minor parts in more significant films. His early screen image did not differ greatly from his own personality: good-natured, easygoing, and sincere. The studio considered him a dependable actor who did whatever he was told. In 1939, he was cast in the film version of Brother Rat, a Broadway play. It was his most substantial role in a major film yet, but its chief significance for Reagan was that he played opposite the actress Jane Wyman, then in the final stages of a divorce. By the time filming ended, they were engaged. They married in January 1940 and had two children, Maureen, born in 1941, and Michael, whom the couple adopted in 1945, a few days after his birth.
So far, Reagan had moved through his movie career relatively passively, taking the parts he was offered and seldom complaining. But Wyman pressed him to be more assertive, and in 1940 he pursued the part of George Gipp, a famous Notre Dame football player and an important character in the Warner Brothers feature Knute Rockne—All American. Reagan was not yet a "name player," and some studio executives resisted his request. But his enthusiasm for the role and his background as a sports announcer finally won him the part. The success of the film, and the critical acclaim Reagan received for it, propelled his career. He began to receive better parts, and his performances in such front-rank films as King's Row (1941) and Desperate Journey (1942) earned him more critical praise.
His growing success also won him a series of deferments from military service (at the request of Warner Brothers) once the United States entered World War II, and then—after he was called up and commissioned an officer in the cavalry—an assignment with an army film unit. He spent the war in California making army training movies at a military base in Los Angeles, with time off to make feature films at Warner Brothers (among them the successful 1943 tribute to the military, This Is the Army ). Much of the time, he lived at home with his family. Despite his later claims to the contrary, he never left the country and never saw combat. But he cooperated with studio public relations efforts to portray him as a soldier, who, like other soldiers, left his family to go "off to war." Feature stories described Wyman bravely carrying on, raising the children and maintaining the household while her man was away. Newsreels and magazine photos depicted Reagan "coming home" for leaves and visits. Reagan later sometimes seemed actually to have believed the ruse. Even decades later, he liked to talk about "coming back from the war," like other veterans, eager to take up family life again (a life that in his case had hardly been interrupted).
Reagan's postwar acting career never regained the momentum it had enjoyed in the early 1940s. He had some occasional successes (among them The Hasty Heart in 1949), but he found himself working more often now in minor roles or minor films. Jane Wyman's career, in the meantime, was flourishing, and her absorption with it contributed to what were already growing tensions within the marriage. The couple divorced in 1948.
As his career and his marriage languished, Reagan had begun to become active in politics. His first vehicle was the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the film actors' union. Reagan had been active in SAG since his first months in Hollywood, and his involvement grew with his marriage to Wyman, who was also an important figure in the organization. In 1946, he chaired a union strike committee and demonstrated an energy and a toughness that his SAG colleagues had not previously seen. In 1947, he became president of the union, a position he held for six years. Reagan still considered himself a liberal Democrat, and he used his new political distinction to campaign for Harry Truman in 1948. There was occasional talk of Reagan himself running for Congress as a Democrat, but party leaders apparently opposed the idea because they considered him too liberal.
In reality, Reagan's political views were changing more rapidly than his public activities suggested. During the war, he had harshly criticized the waste and corruption he saw in the awarding of military contracts, and his suspicion of government bureaucracies only grew in the following years. He was also now complaining frequently about taxes. He had signed a million-dollar contract with Warner Brothers in 1944, but the very high wartime tax rates (up to 90 percent in the upper brackets) greatly reduced his income. In 1950, after initially endorsing the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas for the United States Senate, he switched his support to Richard Nixon in mid-campaign. And as president of SAG, he became active in efforts to distance the union from Communist influence (driven to do so, no doubt, by the savagely anti-Communist political climate, but also by his own deep and growing aversion to Communists). By the late 1940s, he was cooperating with the FBI and testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities against Communism in the union (although he was not asked to name any individual Communists). Subsequently, he cooperated with the studios as they quietly administered the notorious blacklist of alleged Communists who were to be barred from employment in the movie industry. Reagan later claimed that the effort by Hollywood Communists to "take over the motion picture business," and the unwillingness of many liberals to confront them, was responsible for his political turn to the right.
At least as responsible, however, was his marriage in 1952 to Nancy Davis, a young and largely unknown actress whom he had met at a dinner party in 1949. Davis was the daughter of a once-successful stage actress, Edith Luckett. Her natural parents separated when she was an infant, and she spent most of her childhood in the home of her mother's second husband, Loyal Davis, whose name Nancy took and whose right-wing political views she uncritically absorbed. Her family's conservatism reinforced Reagan's own accelerating drift to the right.
Reagan's second marriage was a happy one. The couple lived in a comfortable home in Pacific Palisades and began to spend time at a ranch Reagan had bought near Santa Barbara. They had two children, Patricia, born in 1952, and Ronald, born in 1958. But Reagan's film career was now in serious decline. Warner Brothers had not renewed his contract, and he was having difficulty finding steady work elsewhere. He was now in his mid-forties, and major stardom was coming to seem beyond his reach.
Corporate Spokesman and Rising Conservative
In 1954, after several years of sporadic acting in minor westerns, Reagan signed a lucrative contract to become the host of the General Electric Theater, a new television drama series. Reagan introduced each show and acted in some of them. He also became active in GE corporate relations, touring the company's plants and serving as its "goodwill ambassador" to the public. He spent much time in the company of Earl Dunckel, who handled public relations for the GE Theater and who bombarded Reagan constantly with his deeply conservative political views.
Similar views began to appear more and more often in the increasingly frequent and increasingly political speeches Reagan gave for General Electric in the mid- and late 1950s, when he became not just the host of the company's television series but, in effect, its most prominent corporate spokesman. His subject was almost invariably the wastefulness and intrusiveness of government (which should, he insisted, "be reduced to the barest minimum") and the bankruptcy of the "welfare state." In public, at least, nothing remained of his earlier liberal enthusiasms and his fervent support of the New Deal.
In late 1959, Reagan reluctantly accepted an invitation from the Screen Actors Guild to return as president; he steered the union through a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful strike in which SAG members demanded a share of the profits the studios were receiving for selling film rights to television. But Reagan's main interests now lay elsewhere, and shortly after the unhappy end of the strike he resigned as both president and board member of SAG and never again took an active role in the organization. Instead, he plunged into Republican politics. Although he was still nominally a Democrat, he worked for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign (and in 1962 officially changed his party affiliation). But his own politics were, in fact, well to Nixon's right. His fiery speeches for GE in early 1961 and 1962 were fervently anti-Communist and expressed the unhappiness of the party's right wing with the bipartisan commitment to "containment" that had shaped American foreign policy since 1948. Reagan, like the right's great hero of the early 1960s, Barry Goldwater, spoke of the need for "victory" in the battle against Communism.
In 1962, the Kennedy administration launched an antitrust investigation of MCA, one of Hollywood's most powerful talent agencies, which in the 1950s used heavy and some believed illegal pressure to drive competitors out of business and establish a virtual monopoly over large segments of the film industry. Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild during the period of MCA's most rapid and ruthless expansion; his own agent was a power in the company; and there were charges that Reagan had used his influence with SAG to help MCA's rise to dominance. The justice Department subpoenaed Reagan's tax returns, and rumors of improper behavior that had begun in 1960 grew to new levels. At about the same time, General Electric canceled the GE Theater, and Reagan was suddenly without employment.
But Reagan's problems did not last long. In September, MCA reached an agreement with the Justice Department to divest itself of some of its divisions; the government then dropped its investigation of Reagan. In the meantime, Reagan found a new role as the host and narrator of Death Valley Days, a television western sponsored by Borax. And he accelerated his political activities, speaking now not as a corporate spokesman but as an independent political figure much in demand by the large and growing Republican right wing.
By 1964, Reagan had been socially friendly for more than a decade with Barry Goldwater, who ran for and won the Republican presidential nomination. Reagan eagerly agreed to help Goldwater's campaign. One week before the election, at Goldwater's request, Reagan appeared on national television and gave a memorable speech, "A Time for Choosing," in which he presented the conservative views on major issues he had been promoting in California for years. "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," he grandiloquently concluded, in a phrase associated with his boyhood idol Franklin Roosevelt. "We can preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children, and our children's children, say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done." The speech created a political sensation. David S. Broder of the Washington Post called it "the most successful political debut since Willam Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his 'Cross of Gold' speech." Almost overnight, Reagan became a national political figure—a hero to those on the right who even before the election were losing faith in Goldwater. After the shattering Republican defeat that fall, the party's conservative wing began looking to Reagan for leadership.
Governor of California
Reagan moved immediately to capitalize on the momentum of the Goldwater speech and began appearing before Republican gatherings in California and elsewhere within weeks of the 1964 election. By 1965, encouraged by conservative political leaders and right-wing businessmen in California, he had decided to run for governor; he formally announced his candidacy early in 1966. His opponent was the incumbent governor, Edmund G. Brown, a popular politician running for his third term. (He had defeated Richard Nixon four years earlier.) Brown spoke condescendingly of Reagan's inexperience and ridiculed his film career. But he was no match for Reagan's homespun magnetism. The Reagan campaign capitalized on popular anger at student demonstrations on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and it portrayed Brown as an old-fashioned politician out of touch with the people. Reagan, in contrast, presented himself as an ordinary citizen fed up with politics and committed to making government more efficient and accountable. He defeated Brown in a landslide.
Reagan entered office surrounded by conservative political outsiders from southern California, fueled with ideological fervor. But the pressures of politics quickly forced the new administration to compromise. In the end, Reagan's governorship was symbolically radical but substantively conventional. Having inherited a substantial budget deficit from the previous administration, Reagan ordered an across-the-board 10-percent reduction in state spending, only to have to restore funds to a host of programs that were already so lean they could not survive the cuts. Within a year he was pressing for a major tax increase—in part to address the budget deficit, in part to give him a fiscal cushion so that he would not have to ask again. Shaped in the end by Democrats in the legislature, the final bill produced a highly progressive tax increase, the highest in the history of California (or of any other state). Reagan signed it, blaming the irresponsibility of his predecessor. When the tax increases produced a budget surplus in subsequent years, he attributed it to his administration's managerial skill.
In the end, Reagan's budget was, in fact, more than twice as high as Brown's; and while much of that growth was a result of inflation, some of it was because of spending increases in the same programs that conservatives had once vowed to cut or abolish—many of them programs important to some of Reagan's critical constituencies. He worked effectively with the Democratic legislature on a series of tax and welfare reforms that were not at all consistent with the more radical agenda of Reagan's most conservative supporters. He oversaw one of the largest (and most expensive) water projects in the nation's history. And despite his harsh rhetorical attacks on the University of California for its alleged coddling of radicals, his administration was generally supportive of the system and helped it to grow. State government under Reagan, according to Gary G. Hamilton and Nicole Woolsey Biggart, did not "shrink and allow private citizens to handle their own affairs," as Reagan had once promised. "Instead government entrenched itself in many ways as a strong, effective force in California society" (Governor Reagan, Governor Brown [New York, 1984], p. 214).
Reagan's governing style in California was much like the style he would later adopt in the White House. He was an effective communicator of his administration's broad goals (vague though they often were), and he relished the ceremonial aspects of his job. But he was oddly passive in the day-to-day running of the government. His days were rigidly organized around the typed schedule his assistants always prepared for him and from which he rarely departed. He ceded operating responsibility for his office to a series of energetic aides, many of whom were as inexperienced as he was. (Lyn Nofziger, his first chief of staff in Sacramento, later claimed that the Reagan administration had "materialized out of thin air with no political background, no political cronies and no political machine," and that the new governor was surrounded by "novice amateurs," among them Nofziger himself.)
Reagan disliked bureaucratic conflict, so he permitted his aides and cabinet officers to work out their disagreements among themselves; the governor would then usually ratify a compromise he had played no role in creating. He also relied heavily on existing state agencies. That was one reason his record was so much more moderate than his rhetoric. He left control of education and the environment, for example, to Democrats of progressive inclinations, and his record in both areas pleased many liberals. Reagan won reelection comfortably in 1970 over the Democratic Speaker of the California House, Jesse Unruh, but his victory margin was considerably smaller than it had been four years before. Perhaps that was because he was by then no longer a crusading outsider. He was an incumbent governor with an essentially moderate record.
But state politics was never Reagan's principal interest. Almost from the beginning of his governorship, he had his eye on national leadership. In 1968 he made a brief foray into presidential politics, entering the race for the Republican nomination shortly before the convention—essentially as a favorite son. From then on, he and his supporters planned for another national campaign in 1976, after Nixon's second term. But Watergate ended the Nixon presidency prematurely, and when Reagan left the governorship at the end of 1974, he unexpectedly found an incumbent Republican president, Gerald R. Ford, standing between him and his hopes. Unwilling to wait, Reagan crafted a harsh conservative critique of Ford's policies and appointments and challenged him with surprising effectiveness in the 1976 Republican primaries. Ford hung on to win re-nomination by a narrow margin, but Reagan emerged from the campaign the clear leader of the growing Republican right. He hardly paused before beginning preparations for the 1980 campaign.
Only a few years earlier, so many Americans had considered Reagan to be a man of such extreme views that thoughts of him as a potential president had seemed absurd. But much had changed by the late 1970s, both in Reagan's own political credibility (a result of two reasonably successful terms as governor of the nation's most populous state) and in the character of national politics. The booming prosperity and ebullient optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s had disappeared in the maelstrom of Vietnam; the tumult of racial conflict, urban disorder, and student radicalism; the shambles of Watergate; and perhaps most of all the jarring changes in the American economy after 1973, which did much to increase insecurity and resentment. The American Right, which had appeared so thoroughly repudiated as recently as 1964, profited enormously from these changes and from its own successful efforts at rebuilding.
By the time Reagan began his campaign for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, conservatives were the beneficiaries of a remarkable communications and fund-raising organization, developed originally by conservative activist Richard Viguerie from a list of twelve thousand Goldwater contributors and expanded to more than 4 million contributors and 15 million names by the mid-1970s. Gradually, these direct-mail operations came to be accompanied by a much larger conservative infrastructure, designed to match and even exceed what the right saw as the powerful liberal infrastructure. There were now right-wing think tanks, consulting firms, lobbyists, and foundations, staffed by talented, committed men and women eager to promote the conservative cause. There was also a substantial and rapidly growing group of evangelical Christian conservatives who were becoming politically active and developing organizational strength of their own.
The failure of Gerald Ford's presidency did much to damage the fragile equilibrium that had enabled the right wing and the moderate wing of the Republican party to coexist, and convinced many conservatives that they must insist on a candidate true to their beliefs. Unwittingly, perhaps, Ford touched on some of the right's rawest nerves. He appointed as vice president Nelson A. Rockefeller, whom conservative Republicans had reviled for more than a decade. (Goldwater delegates had tried to boo Rockefeller off the podium at the 1964 Republican convention.) Richard Viguerie attributed the birth of the "New Right" to this event alone. Ford proposed an amnesty program for draft resisters, embraced and even extended the Nixon-Kissinger policies of détente, presided ineffectually over the fall of South Vietnam to North Vietnam in 1975, and agreed to cede the Panama Canal to Panama. All of these decisions became potent issues in Reagan's primary campaign against him in 1976. To stave off Reagan's challenge, Ford had to drop Rockefeller from his ticket and accept a solidly conservative platform written largely by one of Reagan's allies, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Reagan hailed that platform by saying that the party "must raise a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all the issues troubling the people."
But the phenomenon that may ultimately have done the most to propel Reagan's rise, and also to shape his presidency, was one that began in 1978. In that year, the conservative activist Howard Jarvis launched the first major, successful citizens' tax revolt in a generation by organizing an elaborate campaign behind Proposition 13, a referendum question on the California ballot rolling back property tax rates. At a time of slow economic growth and stagnating incomes, the revolt against taxes suddenly had a tremendous appeal. Proposition 13 passed easily, and a dozen other states passed similar referenda over the next several years. The tax revolt moved rapidly from local to national politics. Articulate popular economists such as George Gilder and Jude Wanniski created a new, inverted version of Keynesianism, which they called "supply-side" economics (to differentiate it from liberal Keynesianism, which emphasized consumer demand). By cutting tax rates (and offering particularly large cuts to wealthy people), the supply-siders claimed, government would encourage investment and help produce enough growth to generate higher total tax revenues. "There are always two tax rates that yield the same revenues," the economics writer Arthur B. Laffer liked to argue, explaining his briefly famous "Laffer curve." A lower rate could generate as much income for government as a higher one by stimulating growth and increasing taxable income. In 1979 Representative Jack Kemp of New York and Senator William Roth of Delaware proposed a 30-percent reduction in federal income tax rates, without suggesting that such a cut would require any significant reduction in government services. And in 1980 Ronald Reagan—who little more than a decade earlier had pushed the largest state tax increase in American history through the California legislature—accepted the advice of his campaign managers and made a major tax reduction one of the economic centerpieces of his presidential campaign.
Other events helped the Reagan cause as well. The hapless campaign of George Bush, his principal challenger in the Republican primaries, gave Reagan an important boost just before the critical New Hampshire primary. (Bush once referred to Reagan's supply-side program as "voodoo economics," a phrase that haunted both men for years, especially once Bush became Reagan's running mate and vice president.) More important was the deep unpopularity of Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president and Reagan's opponent in the fall campaign. Disenchantment with Carter was so great that Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged him in the Democratic primaries—ultimately unsuccessfully, but effectively enough to do serious harm. Particularly damaging to Carter was a crisis that began in November 1979 in Iran, where a fiercely anti-Western Islamic regime, led by the fundamental-ist cleric Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, had recently seized power. At almost the moment Kennedy announced his candidacy, Islamic militants loyal to Khomeini seized the American embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two Americans hostage. The fate of the hostages soon became a national preoccupation and, over time, a political disaster for the president. A military rescue mission in April 1980 ended in shambles, reinforcing the charges Reagan and other conservatives were making about the dismal state of the nations' defenses. The Soviet Union, in the meantime, had launched an invasion of Afghanistan, raising Cold War tensions to their highest point in years.
In the end, though, popular frustration with the troubled economy was probably Reagan's greatest political ally. Soaring inflation and high interest rates—driven in large part by dramatic price increases in Middle Eastern oil—combined with stagnation and high unemployment to create an unusually sour political climate. The most memorable statement of the campaign was Reagan's question to the American people: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
Election day 1980, then, marked the intersection of many powerful trends: the successful rebuilding of a national conservative movement; growing economic anxiety; rising insecurity about America's place in the world; Jimmy Carter's spiraling unpopularity; and perhaps most of all, the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan. Once a minor film star and a politician whom many Americans considered an extremist, he had emerged as the most magnetic public figure in the nation. His victory in the presidential race was substantial. He won 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Jimmy Carter's 41. (John Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois running as an independent, received 6.6 percent; and Ed Clark, the candidate of the Libertarian party, received a surprising 1.1.) Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49. Hours before the polls closed, President Carter called Reagan in California to offer his congratulations. Reagan had been taking a shower, and as he later recalled it: "Standing in my bathroom with a wrapped towel around me, my hair dripping with water, I . . . learned I was going to be the fortieth President of the United States."
Perhaps equally important to the future of Reagan's administration as the decisiveness of the presidential vote, Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in twenty-eight years; and Democrats retained control of the House by such a narrow margin that, for a time at least, there was an effective pro-Reagan majority composed of Republicans and conservative Democrats (known to many as "boll weevils"). Reagan would be the first Republican president since Eisenhower to enter office with a relatively pliant Congress.
Presidential Style and Leadership
Reagan's first term began dramatically. He later recalled that, as he stood to take the oath of office on 20 January 1981 on the West Front of the Capitol (the first president ever to do so), "the sun burst through the clouds in an explosion of warmth and light." A much more important symbol of change, however, was Iran's decision to release the fifty remaining American hostages at almost the moment of the swearing in; Reagan was able to announce the news at a luncheon just after the ceremony, as Jimmy Carter, who had negotiated the release in the last hours of his presidency, was flying home to Georgia.
Two other dramatic events punctuated Reagan's first months in office, both of them important in shaping the powerful image he quickly came to assume in the imagination of many Americans. On 30 March, as the president left a Washington hotel after delivering a speech, he was shot in the chest by John Hinckley, Jr., a deranged young man (later found not guilty by reason of insanity) who had been waiting in the crowd outside. Rushed to the hospital, Reagan joked with the surgeons as they wheeled him into the operating room. "I hope you're all Republicans," he reportedly said. He left the hospital eleven days later; and the White House staff arranged a series of carefully crafted public appearances that convinced most Americans that he had recovered from his wounds with remarkable speed. In fact, his injuries were serious, and he followed a sharply curtailed schedule for several months. Disguising that fact was the first of many successes by Reagan's skillful media advisers.
Four months later, on 3 August, thirteen thousand air traffic controllers (members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, a union that had supported Reagan in 1980) walked off their jobs. The controllers were federal employees and, by law, forbidden to strike; but their leader, Robert Poli, believed that their ability to shut down the nation's airports would intimidate the administration into accepting their demands. On the advice of Drew Lewis, the new secretary of transportation, Reagan refused to negotiate with the strikers. He gave the controllers forty-eight hours to return to work and then fired those who did not. The government hastily hired replacements, and the disruption of air traffic was brief. The strike was, as Reagan recalled in his memoirs, "an important juncture for our new administration. I think it convinced people who
might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said."
The assassination attempt and the PATCO strike, critical as they were to shaping the new president's image, were unexpected events. Much more important to his political successes were the everyday efforts of the administration to capitalize on Reagan's engaging personality and make it, and not his sometimes harsh policies, the defining feature of his presidency. Schooled by years in Hollywood, Reagan was a master of self-presentation. He was the most gifted public speaker to occupy the presidency in a generation, and a talented staff of speechwriters ensured that his State of the Union addresses, his televised statements on important events, and ultimately his speeches during his reelection campaign in 1984 were suffused with emotional symbols and powerful, patriotic imagery; statements that would have seemed stilted and in-authentic from a less talented speaker became exhilarating oratory when Reagan spoke them.
Reagan turned seventy years old a few weeks after his inauguration. From his first day in office, he was the oldest man ever to serve as president, and his age was almost certainly an important factor in the way he governed. He worked relatively short hours, sometimes dozed off in meetings, and spent more time on vacations than any president in generations. But through most of his eight years in the White House, Reagan managed to appear energetic, resilient, even youthful—an image his outwardly rapid recovery from the 1981 shooting did much to reinforce. Later, his staff ensured that even his many vacations would seem evidence of his vigor. The most prominent images of Reagan at leisure consisted of pictures of him riding horses and chopping wood at his Santa Barbara ranch.
The principal figures on Reagan's White House staff were James A. Baker III, Edwin Meese III, and Michael K. Deaver. For the first four years of his presidency, they formed a tightly knit triumvirate that ran the daily workings of the White House. They carefully cultivated sympathetic members of Congress of both parties and thus had much to do with the president's early legislative successes. Perhaps more significant, they understood the political importance of the president's image; and they worked energetically, and often brilliantly, to craft that image. They carefully planned the president's every public appearance, chose appropriate backdrops, worked to shape media coverage of him, and tried above all to insulate him from situations where he might speak spontaneously. (Reagan's unscripted remarks were often ill-considered; and when the staff failed to prevent them, it often had to spend considerable energy limiting the political damage they caused.) They received important assistance in their efforts from Nancy Reagan. Her public role in the administration was limited, mostly traditional, and highly social; among other things, she brought a new level of opulence and ceremony to the White House. Privately, however, she was very active and very powerful in shaping public perception of her husband. At times, she played a major role in more substantive decisions as well.
Reagan's enforced absence from the daily business of the White House after his attempted assassination established a pattern that continued in many ways well beyond his convalescence. He was never very interested in, or very well informed about, the details of governance; and his public statements often revealed a startling ignorance of his own policies and the actions of his subordinates. Just as he had while governor of California, he preferred to leave specific decisions to his advisers and to ratify compromises that they forged without him. Just as in California, he reveled in the ceremonial aspects of his job. And just as in California, he rigidly adhered to the daily schedule—a copy of which was neatly typed each day and placed on his desk in a silver frame—and rarely deviated from it. He took great pleasure in checking off meetings and events as he moved through the day.
Many critics of the president, and even some of his own advisers writing later in their memoirs, considered Reagan shockingly aloof from the business of government, a figurehead who played no more than a symbolic role in his own administration. They cited his fondness for anecdotes, his self-deprecating humor, his tendency to tell irrelevant Hollywood stories, and his frequent citation of fictional episodes in his own, or the nation's, past as if they were true; and they argued that together, they revealed a basic lack of interest in, even an unfitness for, his job. But others, including Reagan himself, insisted that he was highly effective in his most important task: establishing broad themes for his administration and keeping his subordinates focused on them despite the immediate pressures of politics. "It was striking how often we on the staff would become highly agitated by the latest news bulletins," one of Reagan's aides later recalled. "Reagan saw the same events as nothing more than a bump in the road; things would get better tomorrow. His horizons were just not the same as ours."
Reagan was, he insisted, more than the Great Communicator (as he was often described)—more than simply a gifted speaker, although he knew that his oratorical skills, and even his avuncular charm as a storyteller, did much to burnish his image and insulate him from criticism. His most important achievement, he insisted, was not how he communicated, but what. He spoke, he said, of "great things," and his words and actions helped the nation move along a fundamentally new course, a course in which he deeply believed and from which he tried not to waver. His most important legacy, he believed, would transcend the particulars of policy. It would be to convince Americans "to believe in themselves again." And for a time, at least, he seemed to succeed in that goal.
The most significant element of Reagan's first months in office, however, was not the crafting of his public image or the shaping of his style of governance—as important as both those things were to the future of his presidency. It was his bold effort to transform the nation's economic policies. Relying on the arguments of the supply-side theorists who had been so important to his campaign, he proposed a three-year, 30-percent reduction in both individual and corporate income tax rates—the biggest single tax reduction in American history. The tax cuts affected people in all income groups; but the greatest beneficiaries were people in the highest brackets—those who, according to the supply-siders, would be most likely to use the surplus income to invest in the economy. Congress approved the president's proposal in late July 1981, after lowering the reduction slightly, to 25 percent.
Cutting taxes, Reagan insisted, would stimulate economic growth much more effectively than the traditional liberal approach of increasing government spending. But Reagan, in fact, increased spending too. He proposed an enormous increase in the military budget ($1.5 trillion over five years) to rebuild armed forces that he claimed had been allowed to deteriorate badly in the 1970s. Congress approved that increase, although it was later scaled back significantly. At the same time, the administration set out to make substantial cuts in domestic spending. David A. Stockman, Reagan's talented budget director, supervised an effort to squeeze more than $41 billion out of the government's nonmilitary "discretionary" spending. The task was extremely difficult. The administration could not reduce the 10 percent of the budget committed to paying interest on the national debt (which reached $1 trillion during Reagan's first year in office) and had already agreed to actual increases in the 25 percent of the budget that went to the military. It was not willing to make any significant changes in spending on Social Security, Medicare, and several other broad-based programs. That left a host of much smaller programs, constituting about 10 percent of the budget, many of which were designed to help the poorest Americans. Almost by definition, the bulk of the cuts Stockman proposed came from these programs.
The administration increased the already tight spending restrictions on Medicaid, the major program of medical assistance for the poor, which the federal government financed jointly with the states. It reduced federal subsidies for low-income housing, cut spending on food stamps, reduced federal aid to education and federal contributions to state governments, and placed new restrictions on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the principal program of direct assistance to the poor). It also substantially reduced spending on government itself—forcing staff and service cuts in almost all departments and agencies. In some cases, the cutbacks eliminated the waste and inefficiency that Reagan argued was characteristic of many government programs. In other cases, they impaired the ability of agencies to function effectively and contributed to the growing popular belief that government could not be trusted to do anything well.
The administration did not win congressional approval of all the budget reductions it requested, but it did much better than most observers had expected. Even many programs that had once seemed unassailable experienced significant reductions. It became clear early in 1981 that the results of the 1980 election had sent shock waves through Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike were scrambling to respond to what they thought the voters had demanded. But they were also responding to evidence of the president's growing popularity. The administration pushed its legislative package through Congress in part through skillful lobbying by the talented White House staff. But equally important were the president's effective television addresses to the nation, which aroused groundswells of popular support for his proposals.
Men and women whom Reagan appointed fanned out through the executive branch of government, committed to reducing the role of government in American economic life. Deregulation, an idea many Democrats had begun to embrace in the Carter years, became the religion of the Reagan administration. Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt had been a major figure in the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement among western conservatives to fight federal environmental regulations, which they believed had a particularly devastating effect on their region's economy. Watt opened up public lands and water to development and tried to ease other restrictions on the private use of public lands. The Environmental Protection Agency (before its directors were indicted for corruption) relaxed or entirely eliminated enforcement of critical environmental laws and regulations. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department eased enforcement of civil rights laws. The Department of Transportation slowed implementation of new rules limiting automobile emissions and imposing new safety standards on cars and trucks. By getting government "out of the way," Reagan officials promised, they were helping to ensure economic revival.
The Reagan administration also transformed the federal judiciary. By the time he left office, Reagan had named more than half of all the federal judges in the nation and three justices of the Supreme Court, among them Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman ever appointed. Reagan's court appointments, like his appointments to regulatory agencies, had the effect of reversing many of the judicial trends that had been gathering force for over twenty years. The conservative judges and justices who took office in the 1980s set about limiting the effect of some of the decisions of the Warren Court in the 1960s—tempering the strict protections of criminal rights, softening some civil rights measures, and perhaps most notably, weakening (although never eliminating) the right to abortion established by the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Symbolic of the conservative shift was Reagan's elevation of William H. Rehnquist, one of the most conservative Supreme Court justices, to chief justice; and his appointment to the Court of Antonin Scalia, a brilliant legal scholar of exceptionally conservative views. Reagan attempted to appoint Robert H. Bork, another fervently conservative judicial activist, to the Supreme Court but was stymied in that effort after a well-organized campaign by liberals and feminists against Bork's controversial views.
Reagan's policies were seldom as radical as his rhetoric (and never as radical as the agenda of the militantly conservative Republican Congress of the mid-1990s). But taken together, the achievements of Reagan's first term represented a significant shift in the direction of public policy. That was visible above all in the administration's economic policies. For the first time since the 1920s, the government was shaping its fiscal policy (its taxing and spending) to promote investment more than consumption and to reduce the tax and regulatory burden on corporations and wealthy people. For the first time since the 1950s (and much more energetically than then), an administration was attempting to stop the growth of many areas of government and to reduce, at times even to eliminate, programs that many Americans had come to consider timeless and unassailable. So distinctive was the new economic program that many began describing it as the Reagan Revolution or, even more frequently and enduringly, Reaganomics.
Both in his campaign and in his early presidential speeches, Reagan had promised not only to reduce taxes and cut spending, but to balance the federal budget. He never did. Instead, his policies contributed to the largest budget deficits in American history and a tripling of the national debt during his eight years in office. Indeed, one of Reagan's most important legacies was his contribution to an enduring fiscal crisis. He helped create a federal budget that was structurally, and radically, unbalanced; and he launched an era in which the national debt grew steadily and dramatically for many years.
The fiscal crisis did little to erode Reagan's popularity. Even though his administration never proposed, let alone achieved, anything approaching a credible balanced budget, the public apparently did not care very much, or accepted the president's explanation that the deficit was the fault of Congress. But the fiscal crisis had a profound and lasting effect on American politics. Over time, it deeply eroded the already weakened faith of the American people in their government and their leaders. And it placed an enormous, even insuperable, obstacle in the way of future leaders who wished to use government to address domestic or international problems. By the mid-1990s, the federal deficit, and efforts to reduce it, had become one of the central facts of American political life.
Reagan had not intended to explode the federal deficit, but his decisions as president led inevitably to that result. He cut taxes substantially and continued to support those cuts even when they did not produce the increase in government revenues that supply-side advocates had promised. He increased the military budget by much more than he was able to cut domestic spending. He refused to consider taking the politically difficult steps of finding savings in popular entitlement programs, most notably Medicare and Social Security, despite strong pressure from members of Congress to do so. His budget officers based their economic projections on dubious, at times even preposterous, assumptions that they themselves knew were false. David Stockman delivered a sharp blow to the administration's image late in 1981 when, in a remarkably candid interview in the Atlantic Monthly, he suggested that the Reagan Revolution had failed. The president's tax cut, he claimed, was a "Trojan horse," promising reductions for everyone but really designed to reduce the rates at the top. The administration had never made a serious effort to balance the budget and never had a reasonable idea of how to do so. "None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers," he conceded.
By the end of Reagan's third year in office, funding for domestic programs had been cut nearly as far as Congress (and, apparently, the public) was willing to tolerate, and still no end to the rising deficits was in sight. Congress responded with the so-called Gramm-Rudman bill, passed late in 1985, which mandated major deficit reductions over five years and provided for automatic budget cuts in all areas of government spending should the president and Congress fail to agree on an alternative solution. Under Gramm-Rudman, the budget deficit did decline for several years from its 1983 high. But much of that decline was a result of a substantial surplus in the Social Security trust fund. (The administration had helped engineer a dramatic increase in Social Security taxes, which for people of low and moderate incomes more than offset the effects of the 1981 income tax reduction.) By the late 1980s, many fiscal conservatives were calling for a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget—a provision the president himself claimed to support but did little to promote. (Congress came within one vote of passing such an amendment in 1995.)
Much more damaging to the president's political fortunes was a steep recession that began late in 1981 and soon became the most severe since the Great Depression. Reagan's economic policies were not responsible for the downturn; few of them had yet had a chance to have an impact on the economy. But the administration did little to fight the recession once it began. Reagan took his lead in part from Paul Volcker, the strong-willed chairman of the Federal Reserve Board (appointed by Jimmy Carter), who considered inflation a more serious threat to the economy than recession. Volcker's policies of high interest rates had been one of many causes of the recession, and his slowness to reduce the rates was one reason the recession became so severe. The recession was particularly devastating to American industry. Manufacturers had been suffering from the high interest rates for several years. High rates made it difficult to borrow and invest; they also made the dollar expensive in world markets and sharply reduced American exports. The nation's trade deficit rose from $25 billion in 1980 to $111 billion in 1984. Once the recession began, businesses closed plants and eliminated hundreds of thousands of jobs. Unemployment in 1982 reached 9.7 percent, its highest point in more than forty years. Farmers, even more dependent on exports than manufacturers, fared worse. Hundreds of thousands of them lost their land in the course of the 1980s.
Reagan expressed sympathy for victims of the recession, but he never seriously considered changing course. He supported Volcker's commitment to the anti-inflation strategy even as the economy slid further downward. He refused to alter his economic program, insisting that if the nation would "stay the course" it would emerge healthier and more prosperous at the end. And in fact, the recession lifted more rapidly and impressively than almost anyone had predicted. By the end of 1983, unemployment had fallen to 8.3 percent, and it continued to decline for the next five years. The gross national product had grown 3.6 percent in a year, the largest increase in nearly a decade. Inflation had fallen to below 5 percent. The economy continued to grow, and both inflation and unemployment remained low (at least by the more pessimistic standards the nation seemed to have accepted) for the rest of the decade.
The recovery was a result of many factors. The Federal Reserve finally eased interest rates early in 1983. A worldwide "energy glut" and the virtual collapse of the powerful cartel of Middle Eastern oil producers stopped the upward spiral of energy prices that had done so much to fuel inflation and inhibit economic growth in the 1970s. And the staggering levels of deficit spending pumped billions of dollars into the sagging economy. Reagan's policies had not worked as their initial advocates had expected, and much of his administration's contribution to the economic recovery was inadvertent. The recovery itself, moreover, was less robust than the major economic indicators revealed. The benefits of the economic growth flowed disproportionately to those in the upper income categories, and the boom did not create jobs or increase incomes for working-class and lower-middle-class people in any way comparable to what earlier booms had done. The poverty rate not only failed to decline, but actually rose in the 1980s from its levels of the 1970s. But these problems became visible only slowly. In the meantime, the president reaped enormous political benefits from the prosperity of 1983 and beyond, which his supporters later called, with some justification, "the longest peacetime expansion in American history."
Reagan encountered a similar combination of triumphs and difficulties in international affairs. Determined to restore American pride and prestige in the world, he argued that the United States should once again become active and assertive in opposing Communism and in supporting friendly governments whatever their internal policies. The president's rhetoric, and the administration's military spending policies, supported that goal. But in the end, Reagan's foreign policy—although more belligerent than that of his two immediate predecessors—was considerably more cautious than his sometimes bellicose statements suggested.
Unlike recent presidents from Nixon to Carter, whose national security advisers had often overshadowed the cabinet in formulating foreign policy, Reagan appointed prominent men to be secretary of state and secretary of defense and left the White House position to a series of little-known figures whose influence at first rarely matched those of the cabinet ministers. His first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., a man of high self-regard and little patience with politics, resigned after less than a year, complaining that the administration was not following a consistent diplomatic course. His replacement, former secretary of commerce George P. Shultz, served for the remainder of Reagan's term and usually, although not always, dominated the formulation of policy. Shultz's task was complicated by his long-running feud with Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who—despite his unwavering and un-critical support of ever rising defense budgets—was extremely reluctant to endorse any deployment of American troops in situations that carried any element of risk. Over time, the intensity of their disagreements worked to enhance the position of the national security adviser, whose office became increasingly influential as the years passed.
Relations with the Soviet Union, which had been steadily deteriorating in the last years of the Carter administration, grew still more strained in the first years of the Reagan presidency. The president spoke harshly of the Soviet regime, which he once called an "evil empire." He accused it of sponsoring world terrorism, and he declared that any armaments negotiations must be linked to negotiations on Soviet behavior in other areas. Relations with the Russians deteriorated further after the government of Poland (under strong pressure from Moscow) imposed martial law on the country in the winter of 1981 to crush a growing challenge from an independent labor organization, Solidarity.
The president had long denounced the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) negotiated by Ford and Carter but as yet unratified by the Senate, although he continued quietly to honor its provisions. The treaty was, Reagan claimed, unfavorable to the United States, and he declined to request ratification. And the early Reagan administration made little progress toward arms control in other areas. In fact, the president proposed the most ambitious (and potentially most expensive) new military program in many years: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), widely known as "Star Wars" after the popular movie of that name. Reagan claimed that SDI, through the use of lasers and satellites, could provide an effective shield against incoming missiles and thus make nuclear war obsolete. The Soviet Union claimed that the new program would elevate the arms race to new and more dangerous levels (a complaint many domestic critics of SDI shared) and insisted that any arms control agreement begin with an American abandonment of SDI. But Reagan remained fervently committed to SDI until the end of his administration, even as the original lofty claims for it proved impossible to sustain and it evolved into a relatively conventional (if unprecedentedly expensive) plan for shielding American missile sites from attack.
The escalation of Cold War tensions and the slowing of arms control initiatives helped produce an important popular movement in Europe and the United States calling for an end to nuclear weapons buildups. In America, the principal goal of the movement was a "nuclear freeze," an agreement between the two superpowers not to expand their atomic arsenals. In what many believed was the largest mass demonstration in American history, nearly a million people rallied in New York City's Central Park in 1982 to support the freeze. Perhaps partly in response to this growing pressure, the administration began tentative efforts to revive arms control negotiations in 1983.
At the same time, however, it began—rhetorically at least—to support forces opposing Communism almost anywhere in the world, whether or not the regimes or movements such forces were challenging had any direct connection to the Soviet Union. This new policy became known as the Reagan Doctrine, and it represented a conscious effort to repudiate the lessons that liberals and others had drawn from the failed war in Vietnam. Reagan called Vietnam a "noble cause," and both he and his supporters seemed to believe that the American defeat had been more the result of insufficient resolve than of the flawed premises of the original commitment. In practice, the Reagan Doctrine meant above all a new American activism in Latin America. In October 1983, the administration sent American soldiers into the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada to oust an anti-American Marxist regime that showed signs of forging a relationship with Moscow. In El Salvador, where first a repressive military regime and later a moderate civilian one were engaged in murderous struggles with left-wing revolutionaries (who were supported, according to the Reagan administration, by Cuba and the Soviet Union), the president provided increased military and economic assistance. In neighboring Nicaragua, a pro-American dictatorship had fallen to the revolutionary Sandinistas in 1979; the new government had grown increasingly anti-American (and increasingly Marxist) throughout the early 1980s. The administration gave both rhetorical and material support to the so-called contras, a guerrilla movement drawn from several anti-government groups and fighting (without great success) to topple the Sandinista regime. Indeed, support of the contras became a mission of special importance to the president, and later the source of some of his greatest difficulties.
In other parts of the world, the administration's bellicose public statements masked an instinctive restraint. In June 1982, the Israeli army launched an invasion of Lebanon in an effort to drive guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country. The United States supported the Israelis but also worked to permit PLO forces to leave Lebanon peacefully. An American peace-keeping force entered Beirut to supervise the evacuation. American marines then remained in the city, apparently to protect the fragile Lebanese government, which was embroiled in a vicious civil war. Now identified with one faction in the struggle, Americans became the targets in 1983 of a terrorist bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Beirut that left 241 marines dead. Rather than become more deeply involved in the Lebanese struggle, Reagan withdrew American forces.
The tragedy in Lebanon was an example of the changing character of many Third World struggles: an increasing reliance on terrorism by otherwise powerless groups to advance their political aims. A series of terrorist acts in the 1980s—attacks on airplanes, cruise ships, commercial and diplomatic posts; the seizing of American and European hostages—alarmed and frightened much of the Western world. The Reagan administration spoke bravely about its resolve to punish terrorism; and at one point in 1986, the president ordered American planes to bomb sites in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, whose controversial leader Mu'ammar al-Gadhafi was widely believed to be a leading sponsor of terrorism. In general, however, terrorists remained difficult to identify or control; and the administration's private resolve in the face of terrorism was never as firm as its public rhetoric suggested.
Reelection and Second Term
Reagan approached the campaign of 1984 at the head of a united Republican party firmly committed to his candidacy. The Democrats, as had become their custom, followed a more fractious course. Former vice president Walter E Mondale established an early and commanding lead in the race by soliciting support from a wide range of traditional Democratic interest groups, and survived challenges from Senator Gary Hart of Colorado (who claimed to represent a "new generation" of leadership) and the magnetic Jesse Jackson, who had established himself as the nation's most prominent spokesman for minorities and the poor. Mondale captured the nomination and brought momentary excitement to the Democratic campaign by selecting a woman, Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York, to be his running mate and the first female candidate ever to appear on a national ticket.
The Republican party, in the meantime, rallied comfortably behind Reagan, who was now at the peak of his popularity. His triumphant campaign that fall scarcely took note of his opponents and spoke instead of what he claimed was the remarkable revival of American fortunes and spirits under his leadership. His campaign emphasized such phrases as "It's Morning in America" and "America Is Back." Reagan's victory in 1984 was decisive. He won approximately 59 percent of the vote and carried every state but Mondale's native Minnesota and the District of Columbia. But Reagan was much stronger than his party. Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and maintained only slightly reduced control of the House of Representatives. Reagan's triumphant reelection proved to be the high-water mark of his presidency. The administration enjoyed some successes in its second term, and Reagan left office with much of his popularity intact. But beginning in 1985, he suffered a series of painful and damaging blows from which his administration was never able fully to recover.
Two dramatic events shaped the second term of Reagan's presidency. One was the beginning of a momentous change in the structure of international relations—a change that the president played little part in creating but that he prudently accepted and encouraged. The other was a domestic political controversy over a secret initiative about which the president claimed—implausibly to some, all too plausibly to others—to have known nothing.
Shortly after Reagan took his oath of office for the second time (in a small ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, because bitterly cold weather had forced the cancellation of the traditional outdoor event), a new leader took power in the Soviet Union: Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was, by Soviet standards at least, a young and energetic head of state. In the beginning, American leaders expected little from Gorbachev. He had, after all, been molded by the same stultifying political system that had shaped his recent predecessors. But to the surprise of almost everyone (including, it sometimes seemed, himself), Gorbachev very quickly became the most revolutionary figure in world politics since the end of World War II. Benefiting from widespread frustration with the rigid and ineffective policies of the preceding twenty years, Gorbachev transformed Soviet politics with two dramatic new initiatives. The first he called glasnost (openness). Glasnost led to the dismantling of many of the repressive mechanisms that had been among the most conspicuous features of Soviet life for more than half a century. Gradually it became possible for Soviet citizens to express themselves more freely, to criticize the government, even to organize politically in opposition to official policy. The other initiative Gorbachev called perestroika (reform or restructuring). Through it, he attempted to remake the rigid and unproductive Soviet economy by introducing, among other things, such elements of capitalism as private ownership and the profit motive. At the same time, Gorbachev began reshaping Soviet foreign policy. Among the first steps in that effort was his attempt to forge a new relationship with the United States.
He began by reaching out to Washington for major new arms control agreements. Encouraged by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a friend and ideological ally of Reagan's and an early champion of Gorbachev's, Reagan too began looking for new avenues to accommodation. At a summit meeting with Reagan in Reykjavfk, Iceland, in 1986 (the second of four between the two leaders), Gorbachev proposed reducing the nuclear arsenals of both sides by 50 percent or more. Continuing disputes over Reagan's commitment to the SDI program, among other things, prevented agreements. But in December 1987, after Reagan and Gorbachev exchanged cordial visits to each other's capitals, the two leaders signed a treaty eliminating American and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) from Europe—the most significant arms control agreement of the nuclear age and the first to make actual reductions in existing nuclear arsenals as opposed to restricting their future expansion. At about the same time, Gorbachev ended the Soviet Union's long and frustrating military involvement in Afghanistan, removing one of the principal irritants in the relationship between Washington and Moscow.
The new arms control agreements, and the rapid moderation of Soviet international behavior, seemed to Reagan and his supporters a clear vindication of the president's earlier policies. By increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on the Soviet Union, and in particular by forcing the Soviets into an expensive new arms race that their staggering economy could not support, the administration had done much to weaken the hard-liners in Moscow and make Gorbachev's reforms possible, even likely. (Reagan had always claimed that the arms buildup he launched was designed, at least in part, to encourage the Soviet Union to agree to arms reductions.) Others were more skeptical and insisted that the decay of the Soviet Union had begun long before Reagan's presidency and had intensified for reasons that had little to do with American policy. In either case, Reagan—a hard-line foe of Soviet Communism for more than forty years—proved flexible enough to respond to the changes and encourage them.
For a time, the dramatic developments around the world and Reagan's continuing personal popularity deflected attention from a series of scandals that might well have destroyed another administration. Top officials in the Environmental Protection Agency resigned when it was disclosed that they were flouting the laws they had been appointed to enforce. Officials of the CIA and the Defense Department resigned after revelations of questionable stock transactions. Reagan's secretary of labor, Raymond J. Donovan, left office after being indicted for racketeering (although he was later acquitted). Edwin Meese, the White House counsel and later attorney general, finally resigned in 1988 after years of controversy over financial arrangements that many believed had compromised his office.
Unnoticed at first were several larger scandals that surfaced only as Reagan was about to leave office. One involved misuse of funds by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, abuses so widespread that by 1990 the survival of the agency itself seemed in question. Another, more serious scandal involved the savings and loan industry. The Reagan administration had sharply reduced regulatory controls over the troubled savings and loan institutions, permitting them to enter into business activities from which they had previously been barred. Many savings banks responded by rapidly, often recklessly, and sometimes corruptly, expanding. By the end of the decade the industry was in chaos, and the government was forced to step in to prevent a complete collapse. The government insured the assets of most savings and loan depositors; and as the banks failed, it found itself saddled with large debts. The eventual cost of the debacle to the public ran to more than half a trillion dollars.
But the most politically damaging scandal of the Reagan years came to light in November 1986. After reports of the episode had begun appearing in foreign newspapers, the White House conceded that it had sold weapons to the revolutionary government of Iran, apparently as part of a largely unsuccessful effort to secure the release of several Americans being held hostage by radical Islamic groups in the Middle East. Even more damaging was the administration's admission that some of the money from the arms deal with Iran had been covertly and illegally funneled into a fund to aid the contras in Nicaragua.
In the months that followed, aggressive reporting and a highly publicized series of congressional hearings exposed a remarkable and previously un-suspected feature of the Reagan White House: the existence within it of something like a "secret government," largely unknown to the State Department, the Defense Department, even parts of the CIA, dedicated to advancing the administration's foreign policy aims through secret and at times illegal means. The principal figure in this covert world appeared at first to be an obscure marine lieutenant colonel assigned to the staff of the National Security Council, Oliver L. North. But gradually it became clear that North was acting in concert with other, more powerful figures in the administration: two national security advisers, Robert McFarlane and John M. Poindexter and, many believed, both the vice president and the president himself. Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger, in a rare display of accord, had vigorously opposed the initiative; but their long-running feud had by then so diminished
their influence that they proved powerless to stop the effort. The Iran-Contra scandal, as it became known, did serious damage to the Reagan presidency—even though the lengthy investigations it spawned never decisively tied the president himself to the most serious violations of the law.
There were other signs in the late 1980s that the glow of the Reagan Revolution was beginning to fade. In October 1987 the American stock market—the spectacular success of which had been one of the most conspicuous features of the economic boom—experienced the greatest single-day decline in its history; and although stock prices recovered and continued to rise over the next two years, the crash shattered the aura of invincibility that had arisen in the financial markets. The 1987 crash, combined with the continuing budget deficits, gradually eroded popular confidence in Reaganomics.
Ultimately, however, the president retained his hold on public affections despite the many problems of his administration. He was not, as many observers scornfully described him, in any real sense the "Teflon president," a leader to whom no failures or criticisms ever stuck. His popularity rose and fell quite dramatically at times, and the most serious scandals of his administration—Iran-Contra in particular—did him considerable and lasting political damage. But relatively few Americans were ever able truly to dislike him. And as he neared the end of his presidency—his famous energy flagging, his memory failing, his gait far less jauntily confident than it had once been—the allure of his personal style seemed to lodge itself in the public mind more securely than the much more controversial character of his policies. His last year in office was dominated, of course, by a presidential campaign in which he—for only the second time since 1968—was not a candidate. But his presence was palpable nevertheless, for it was in large part on the basis of his popularity that George Bush, his vice president, managed first to win the Republican nomination and then, after a brutal and often ugly campaign, the election. From the beginning to the end of his undistinguished presidency, Bush was dogged by the image of the man he succeeded but somehow never seemed quite to replace.
Reagan retired to a comfortable home in Los Angeles, wrote his memoirs, traveled a bit, and gradually faded from public view. In 1994, after a long silence, he released a handwritten letter informing the nation that he was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. With that courageous gesture, his public life came to an end and he entered, as he himself wrote, the "twilight" of his long and eventful life.
Reagan's legacy remains a contested one, and it will be many years before historians will be able to gauge the full effect of his presidency. He set bold goals for his administration, but he paid so little attention to their implementation that his policies often veered in directions he had neither anticipated nor desired. He presided over a long period of prosperity, but one in which poverty increased and the wages of most working people remained stagnant. He was president during the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and he forged a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev that greatly defused historic tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union; but he also became involved in a series of disastrous mis-adventures in the Middle East and the Third World that very nearly destroyed his administration. He engineered some of the most profound changes in economic policy in half a century; but he left the government burdened with three times as much debt as it had carried when he entered office.
About one thing, however, there can be little doubt. Reagan's extraordinary personality enabled him to dominate national politics in the 1980s in a way that no president since his boyhood idol, Franklin Roosevelt, had done. Reagan's high-spirited optimism, his unembarrassed patriotism, his soaring, symbol-laden oratory, and his jaunty, almost cock-sure public demeanor won him the admiration even of many Americans who disagreed with his policies. He helped restore to public discourse a heady sense of possibilities, a belief in America's moral superiority, and even a faith in leadership. It is clear that many (although far from all) Americans felt better about their society and its future in the 1980s than they had a decade earlier and than they would a decade later. And it is clear that the refurbished nationalism that Reagan so energetically promoted reached out through American culture and became one of the defining characteristics of the era.
The ebullience of the Reagan years faded quickly after his departure, replaced by an increasingly sour and pessimistic political climate and a growing cynicism about leaders and government. But for a moment in the midst of the nation's long, painful transition from its booming industrial past to its uncertain postindustrial future, Reagan allowed many Americans to believe that nothing had really changed—that the problems of the 1960s and 1970s had been mere aberrations, that the country's traditional values and traditional greatness remained intact. In a characteristically exuberant speech in 1986, Reagan himself captured much of what his presidency came to mean to Americans troubled by nearly two decades of turbulence and disillusionment, and eager for reassurance:
In this land of dreams fulfilled where greater dreams may be imagined, nothing is impossible, no victory is beyond our reach; no glory will ever be too great.. . . The world's hopes rest with America's future.. . . Our work will pale before the greatness of America's champions in the twenty-first century.
Reagan published two memoirs: Where's the Rest of Me? (New York, 1965), an account of his early years and his Hollywood career, written with Richard G. Hubler, and An American Life (New York, 1990), a largely unrevealing narrative of his presidency.
Anne Edwards, Early Reagan: The Rise to Power (New York, 1987), is the fullest account of Reagan's life up to his election as governor of California in 1966. Dan E. Moldea, Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob (New York, 1986), is a harsh account of some of Reagan's Hollywood activities.
Two works by Lou Cannon, a Washington Post reporter who spend many years covering Reagan, provide what is so far the fullest account of his public career: Reagan (New York, 1982), which discusses his prepresidential career, and President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York, 1991), which analyzes his presidency. Haynes Johnson, Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years (New York, 1991), is another, largely critical overview of the Reagan presidency. Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (Garden City, N.Y., 1987), is a provocative interpretation of Reagan and his presidency in midstream. Robert Dallek, Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), and Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling with History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (Garden City, N.Y., 1983), are other, highly critical early efforts at analyzing the Reagan presidency. B. B. Kymlicka and Jean V. Matthews, eds., The Reagan Revolution? (Chicago, 1988), and Larry Berman, ed., Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency (Baltimore, Md., 1990), are collections of essays assessing the impact of Reaganism. Martin Anderson, Revolution: The Reagan Legacy (Stanford, Calif., 1990), is a more sympathetic overview.
On Reagan's foreign policy, see Strobe Talbott, Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control (New York, 1984), a critical discussion of early Reagan administration arms control policies. Kenneth L. Adelman, The Great Universal Embrace: Arms Summitry—A Skeptic's Account (New York and London, 1989), is an account of Reagan-era arms control efforts by a participant critical of the idea of arms control. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy (New York, 1984), is a memoir by Reagan's first secretary of state expressing his disillusionment with what he considered the administration's inconsistent course. George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York, 1993), is a more positive account by the man who served as secretary of state through most of the Reagan years. Robert C. McFarlane, with Zofia Smardz, Special Trust: Pride, Principle, and Politics Inside the White House (New York, 1994), is a memoir by one of Reagan's national security advisers, who was implicated in the Iran-contra scandals. Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988 (Boston, 1988), is a critical account of the troubled second term, focusing in particular on the Iran-contra scandal.
Several participants in the Reagan administration have published memoirs about the domestic policies of the 1980s. The most celebrated was David A. Stockman, The Triumph of Politics: How the Reagan Revolution Failed (New York, 1986), a disillusioned account of the creation of Reaganomics by the president's budget director. Edwin Meese III, With Reagan: The Inside Story (Washington, D.C., 1992), offers a more positive assessment by one of Reagan's closest advisers and, ultimately, his attorney general. Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era (New York, 1990), is a generally positive account by the speechwriter responsible for some of Reagan's most memorable public statements. Donald T. Regan, For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington (San Diego, Calif., 1988), is a score-settling memoir by the controversial White House chief of staff during Reagan's second term.
Recent works include Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (New York, 1999), a uniquely crafted retrospective on Reagan's life by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author. Peggy Noonan, When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan (New York, 2001), contains many never-before-heard stories from the president's friends, families, and advisers, written by former Reagan speechwriter Noonan. See also Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision of America, ed. by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson (New York, 2001); Nancy Reagan, I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan (New York, 2000) and Ronald Reagan: An American Hero: His Voice, His Values, His Vision (New York, 2001); Matthew Dallek, The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics (New York, 2000); and Michael K. Deaver, A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years with Ronald Reagan (New York, 2001).
40th president, 1981–1989
Born: February 6, 1911
Vice President: George H.W. Bush
First Lady: Nancy Davis Reagan
Children: Maureen, Michael, Patricia, Ronald Jr.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was the 40th president of the United States and the only actor to hold that office. Reagan didn't enter politics until after the age of 50, but he later served two terms in the White House because of his popularity with the American people. That popularity, which Reagan never lost, despite economic problems and scandals while he was president, was one of Reagan's greatest achievements as president.
Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, to John Edward Reagan and Nelle Wilson. Reagan's mother, Nelle, loved the theater and participated in a number of local plays. In high school, Reagan followed her example. After graduating from Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, in 1932, Reagan became a radio sports announcer. In 1937, while in southern California to report on the Chicago Cubs baseball team, Reagan took a screen test for Warner Brothers, a large motion-picture studio. The studio quickly made him an actor.
- At 69 years of age, Ronald Reagan was the oldest president ever elected.
- On March 30, 1981, John W. Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Reagan when he shot him outside a Washington, D.C., hotel.
- Reagan was nicknamed the "Teflon President"—allegations of wrongdoing never stuck to him.
Reagan acted in more than 50 feature films between 1937 and 1964. Then, he decided to give up acting and campaign for Republican candidate Barry M. Goldwater. In 1966, Reagan was elected governor of California, a position he held until 1975, when he ran for president but lost the nomination to Gerald Ford. In 1980, Reagan defeated incumbent president Jimmy Carter and swept into office on a Republican wave that also took control of Congress.
When Reagan took office, the U.S. economy faced problems with inflation and unemployment. By 1982, the U.S. economy was in its worst recession in 40 years, and the so-called supply side economic theory behind the Reagan policies had been abandoned.
In 1986, Reagan's NSC, or National Security Council, became involved in the Iran-contra scandal by selling arms to Iran and then using the profits to help rebels, called contras, in Nicaragua. Both actions were illegal, because the United States had a policy of not selling military arms to any country that supported terrorism, and Congress had forbidden all aid to the contras. Reagan himself claimed to know nothing about the Iran-contra affair.
Reagan's primary successes came in reducing tax rates for Americans and in some areas of foreign policy. Although he kept the U.S. military prepared for war, he also opened diplomatic channels with Russia. He met with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and in 1987 they signed an agreement to eliminate all U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles that were within 310 to 3,420 miles (500 to 5,500 km). Reagan is often credited with helping to bring about the demise of the Soviet Union.
When Reagan Was in Office
- The so-called Computer Revolution began as computers became more commonly used across the nation.
- Iran released the 52 American hostages it had held for 444 days.
Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.
- "Live Aid," a 17-hour televised rock concert, raised $470 million for victims of famine in Africa.
- Martin Luther King Day was observed as a federal holiday for the first time.
The space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, killing all seven people aboard.
The centennial of the Statue of Liberty was celebrated in New York City.
When he left office in 1989, two-thirds of Americans approved of his job performance, the highest approval rating of any president since World War II. In 1994, Reagan announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, which causes memory loss and affects all mental processes. He retired from public view. In 2002, he marked his 91st birthday, which made him the longest-lived American president in the nation's history.
On Reagan's First Inauguration Day
Ronald Reagan stepped to the inaugural podium with the hopes of millions of Americans focused on his "revolution." He had campaigned and, with the Republican Party, won resounding victory based on his promises to cut taxes, balance the budget, and increase military spending. As he was giving his Inaugural Address, Iranian militants were freeing 52 American hostages who had been held for 444 days in the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address
In Washington, D.C., Tuesday, January 20, 1981
SENATOR Hatfield, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Vice President Mondale, Senator Baker, Speaker O'Neill, Reverend Moomaw, and my fellow citizens: To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our Nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.
Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.
The business of our nation goes forward. These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.
Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, causing human misery and personal indignity. Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity.
But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades, we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.
You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by that same limitation?
We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding—we are going to begin to act, beginning today.
The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.
From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
We hear much of special interest groups. 1
Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truckdrivers. They are, in short, "We the people," this breed called Americans.
Well, this administration's objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this "new beginning" and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America at peace with itself and the world.
So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our Government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.
It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. 2 All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.
Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.
If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.
We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don't know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter—and they are on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the Government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life.
I have used the words "they" and "their" in speaking of these heroes. I could say "you" and "your" because I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak—you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.
We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your makeup. How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick, and provide opportunities to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?
Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic "yes." To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I have just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world's strongest economy.
In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity. Steps will be taken aimed at restoring the balance between the various levels of government. Progress may be slow-measured in inches and feet, not miles—but we will progress. Is it time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.
On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, "Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of.... On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves."
Well, I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children and our children's children.
And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.
To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment. 3 We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for our own sovereignty is not for sale.
As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it—now or ever.
Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.
Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.
I am told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are being held on this day, and for that I am deeply grateful. We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inauguration Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer.
This is the first time in history that this ceremony has been held, as you have been told, on this West Front of the Capitol. Standing here, one faces a magnificent vista, opening up on this city's special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man: George Washington, Father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence.
Beyond those monuments to heroism is the Potomac River, and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery with its row on row of simple white markers bearing crosses or Stars of David. They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.
Each one of those markers is a monument to the kinds of hero I spoke of earlier. Their lives ended in places called Belleau Wood, The Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam.
Under one such marker lies a young man—Martin Treptow—who left his job in a small town barber shop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division. There, on the western front, he was killed trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy artillery fire.
We are told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, "My Pledge," he had written these words: "America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone."
The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God's help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.
And, after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans. God bless you, and thank you.
Quotes to Note
- "We hear much..." Reagan became the first president to speak of what are also known as lobbying groups and political action committees. These groups, which arose after election reforms following the Nixon years, would come to play an important, and some would say unfair, role in governmental policy.
- "It is my intention to curb the size and influence..." Reagan forcefully states a basic principle of his "revolution"—to keep the federal government from interfering with state and local control. This belief is the exact opposite of the belief put forward by Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression, when the federal government expanded its powers.
- "To those neighbors and allies..." Historic ties would become stronger with an ally such as Great Britain, whose conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, became a Reagan supporter. U.S. ties with neighbors in Latin America would be strained by U.S. support of so-called death squads in El Salvador and Honduras and by support for rebel Contras in Nicaragua.
On Reagan's Second Inauguration Day
Despite economic problems and doubts about his Latin American policy, Ronald Reagan took the oath of office for the second time after a landslide victory in 1984. His personal popularity remained high, although the Republican Party lost control of the Senate by 1986, making it more difficult for Reagan to enact some of the legislation he supported.
Ronald Reagan's Second Inaugural Address
In Washington, D.C., Monday, January 21, 1985
SENATOR Mathias, Chief Justice Burger, Vice President Bush, Speaker O'Neill, Senator Dole, Reverend Clergy, members of my family and friends, and my fellow citizens:
This day has been made brighter with the presence here of one who, for a time, has been absent—Senator John Stennis.
God bless you and welcome back.
There is, however, one who is not with us today: Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana left us last night. I wonder if we could all join in a moment of silent prayer. (Moment of silent prayer.) Amen.
There are no words adequate to express my thanks for the great honor that you have bestowed on me. I will do my utmost to be deserving of your trust.
This is, as Senator Mathias told us, the 50th time that we the people have celebrated this historic occasion. When the first President, George Washington, placed his hand upon the Bible, he stood less than a single day's journey by horseback from raw, untamed wilderness. There were 4 million Americans in a union of 13 States. Today we are 60 times as many in a union of 50 States. We have lighted the world with our inventions, gone to the aid of mankind wherever in the world there was a cry for help, journeyed to the Moon and safely returned. So much has changed. And yet we stand together as we did two centuries ago.
When I took this oath four years ago, I did so in a time of economic stress. Voices were raised saying we had to look to our past for the greatness and glory. But we, the present-day Americans, are not given to looking backward. In this blessed land, there is always a better tomorrow.
Four years ago, I spoke to you of a new beginning and we have accomplished that. But in another sense, our new beginning is a continuation of that beginning created two centuries ago when, for the first time in history, government, the people said, was not our master, it is our servant; its only power that which we the people allow it to have.
That system has never failed us, but, for a time, we failed the system. We asked things of government that government was not equipped to give. We yielded authority to the National Government that properly belonged to States or to local governments or to the people themselves. We allowed taxes and inflation to rob us of our earnings and savings and watched the great industrial machine that had made us the most productive people on Earth slow down and the number of unemployed increase.
By 1980, we knew it was time to renew our faith, to strive with all our strength toward the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.
We believed then and now there are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.
And we were right to believe that. Tax rates have been reduced, inflation cut dramatically, and more people are employed than ever before in our history.
We are creating a nation once again vibrant, robust, and alive. But there are many mountains yet to climb. We will not rest until every American enjoys the fullness of freedom, dignity, and opportunity as our birthright. It is our birthright as citizens of this great Republic, and we'll meet this challenge.
These will be years when Americans have restored their confidence and tradition of progress; when our values of faith, family, work, and neighborhood were restated for a modern age; when our economy was finally freed from government's grip; when we made sincere efforts at meaningful arms reduction, rebuilding our defenses, our economy, and developing new technologies, and helped preserve peace in a troubled world; when Americans courageously supported the struggle for liberty, self-government, and free enterprise throughout the world, and turned the tide of history away from totalitarian darkness and into the warm sunlight of human freedom.
My fellow citizens, our Nation is poised for greatness. We must do what we know is right and do it with all our might. Let history say of us, "These were golden years—when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, when America reached for her best."
Our two-party system has served us well over the years, but never better than in those times of great challenge when we came together not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans united in a common cause.
Two of our Founding Fathers, a Boston lawyer named Adams and a Virginia planter named Jefferson, members of that remarkable group who met in Independence Hall and dared to think they could start the world over again, left us an important lesson. They had become political rivals in the Presidential election of 1800. Then years later, when both were retired, and age had softened their anger, they began to speak to each other again through letters. A bond was reestablished between those two who had helped create this government of ours.
In one of those letters exchanged in the sunset of their lives, Jefferson wrote: "It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless...we rode through the storm with heart and hand."
Well, with heart and hand, let us stand as one today: One people under God determined that our future shall be worthy of our past. As we do, we must not repeat the well-intentioned errors of our past. We must never again abuse the trust of working men and women, by sending their earnings on a futile chase after the spiraling demands of a bloated Federal Establishment. You elected us in 1980 to end this prescription for disaster, and I don't believe you reelected us in 1984 to reverse course.
At the heart of our efforts is one idea vindicated by 25 straight months of economic growth: Freedom and incentives unleash the drive and entrepreneurial genius that are the core of human progress. We have begun to increase the rewards for work, savings, and investment; reduce the increase in the cost and size of government and its interference in people's lives.
We must simplify our tax system, make it more fair, and bring the rates down for all who work and earn. We must think anew and move with a new boldness, so every American who seeks work can find work; so the least among us shall have an equal chance to achieve the greatest things—to be heroes who heal our sick, feed the hungry, protect peace among nations, and leave this world a better place.
The time has come for a new American emancipation—a great national drive to tear down economic barriers and liberate the spirit of enterprise in the most distressed areas of our country. My friends, together we can do this, and do it we must, so help me God.
From new freedom will spring new opportunities for growth, a more productive, fulfilled and united people, and a stronger America—an America that will lead the technological revolution, and also open its mind and heart and soul to the treasures of literature, music, and poetry, and the values of faith, courage, and love.
A dynamic economy, with more citizens working and paying taxes, will be our strongest tool to bring down budget deficits. But an almost unbroken 50 years of deficit spending has finally brought us to a time of reckoning. We have come to a turning point, a moment for hard decisions. I have asked the Cabinet and my staff a question, and now I put the same question to all of you: If not us, who? And if not now, when? It must be done by all of us going forward with a program aimed at reaching a balanced budget. We can then begin reducing the national debt. 1
I will shortly submit a budget to the Congress aimed at freezing government program spending for the next year. Beyond that, we must take further steps to permanently control Government's power to tax and spend. We must act now to protect future generations from Government's desire to spend its citizens' money and tax them into servitude when the bills come due. Let us make it unconstitutional for the Federal Government to spend more than the Federal Government takes in.
We have already started returning to the people and to State and local governments responsibilities better handled by them. Now, there is a place for the Federal Government in matters of social compassion. But our fundamental goals must be to reduce dependency and upgrade the dignity of those who are infirm or disadvantaged. And here a growing economy and support from family and community offer our best chance for a society where compassion is a way of life, where the old and infirm are cared for, the young and, yes, the unborn protected, and the unfortunate looked after and made self-sufficient .2
And there is another area where the Federal Government can play a part. As an older American, I remember a time when people of different race, creed, or ethnic origin in our land found hatred and prejudice installed in social custom and, yes, in law. There is no story more heartening in our history than the progress that we have made toward the "brotherhood of man" that God intended for us. Let us resolve there will be no turning back or hesitation on the road to an America rich in dignity and abundant with opportunity for all our citizens.
Let us resolve that we the people will build an American opportunity society in which all of us—white and black, rich and poor, young and old—will go forward together arm in arm. Again, let us remember that though our heritage is one of blood lines from every corner of the Earth, we are all Americans pledged to carry on this last, best hope of man on Earth.
I have spoken of our domestic goals and the limitations which we should put on our National Government. Now let me turn to a task which is the primary responsibility of National Government—the safety and security of our people.
Today, we utter no prayer more fervently than the ancient prayer for peace on Earth. Yet history has shown that peace will not come, nor will our freedom be preserved, by good will alone. There are those in the world who scorn our vision of human dignity and freedom. One nation, the Soviet Union, has conducted the greatest military buildup in the history of man, building arsenals of awesome offensive weapons.
We have made progress in restoring our defense capability. But much remains to be done. There must be no wavering by us, nor any doubts by others, that America will meet her responsibilities to remain free, secure, and at peace.
There is only one way safely and legitimately to reduce the cost of national security, and that is to reduce the need for it. And this we are trying to do in negotiations with the Soviet Union. We are not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons. We seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.
Now, for decades, we and the Soviets have lived under the threat of mutual assured destruction; if either resorted to the use of nuclear weapons, the other could retaliate and destroy the one who had started it. Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people, our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?
I have approved a research program to find, if we can, a security shield that would destroy nuclear missiles before they reach their target. 3 It wouldn't kill people, it would destroy weapons. It wouldn't militarize space, it would help demilitarize the arsenals of Earth. It would render nuclear weapons obsolete. We will meet with the Soviets, hoping that we can agree on a way to rid the world of the threat of nuclear destruction.
We strive for peace and security, heartened by the changes all around us. Since the turn of the century, the number of democracies in the world has grown fourfold. Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than our own hemisphere. Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People, worldwide, hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress.
America must remain freedom's staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally.
And it is the world's only hope, to conquer poverty and preserve peace. Every blow we inflict against poverty will be a blow against its dark allies of oppression and war. Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace.
So we go forward today, a nation still mighty in its youth and powerful in its purpose. With our alliances strengthened, with our economy leading the world to a new age of economic expansion, we look forward to a world rich in possibilities. And all this because we have worked and acted together, not as members of political parties, but as Americans.
My friends, we live in a world that is lit by lightning. So much is changing and will change, but so much endures, and transcends time.
History is a ribbon, always unfurling; history is a journey. And as we continue our journey, we think of those who traveled before us. We stand together again at the steps of this symbol of our democracy—or we would have been standing at the steps if it hadn't gotten so cold. Now we are standing inside this symbol of our democracy. Now we hear again the echoes of our past: a general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely President paces the darkened halls, and ponders his struggle to preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air.
It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That's our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still. For all our problems, our differences, we are together as of old, as we raise our voices to the God who is the Author of this most tender music. And may He continue to hold us close as we fill the world with our sound—sound in unity, affection, and love—one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world.
God bless you and may God bless America.
Quotes to Note
- "It must be done by all of us..." Despite Reagan's insistence on a balanced budget, the federal deficit would reach an all-time high by the end of his term due to decreased tax revenues and increased military spending.
- "a society where compassion..." Reagan became the first president to take a position on the question of abortion in an inaugural address. He uses the word "unborn," the term used by those opposed to abortion to refer to a fetus. Abortion rights for women are protected by the Supreme Court under a 1973 decision.
- "I have approved a research program..." Reagan refers to a space-based missile defense system that came to be known as Star Wars. Congress refused to approve funding for the program, and it was shelved until a limited version was approved under the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Born February 6, 1911
U.S. president, governor, and actor
R onald Reagan was the fortieth president of the United States. Previously a radio sportscaster and Hollywood actor, his exceptional skills as an orator brought him the label "the Great Communicator" during his political career. Appearing easygoing with a folksy charm, he brought a hardline anticommunist direction to the White House. Reagan has been credited as one of the key individuals responsible for ending the Cold War (1945–91). The Cold War was a prolonged conflict for world dominance between the two superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The weapons of conflict were commonly words of propaganda and threats.
Sportscaster and movie actor
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, in February 1911. He was the second child born to Jack Reagan and Nelle Wilson. Reagan acquired the nickname "Dutch" from his father while an infant. Reagan's father was a struggling shoe salesman who had periodic bouts with alcoholism. For several years, the family moved from town to town as Jack Reagan held various jobs. In 1920, the family settled in Dixon, Illinois. Despite poor finances, Reagan was able to attend Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. He played football and participated in the drama society. Though not earning exceptional grades, he was very popular and elected class president his senior year.
Reagan graduated in 1932 with a degree in economics and sociology. He decided to enter the new and growing field of radio broadcasting. His first broadcasting job was with WOC in Davenport, Iowa. He provided play-by-play descriptions of Eureka College football games, entirely from memory when he would return to the radio station. He next moved to WHO in Des Moines, where he broadcast Chicago Cubs baseball games. Because the station could not afford for him to broadcast directly from the games, his accounts came from ticker tape summaries arriving in the station.
In the early spring of 1937, Reagan attended Cubs spring training camp in Southern California. While there, he took a screen test with Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood. The studio signed him to a five-year acting contract. Though he appeared mostly in low-budget "B" movies (as opposed to big-budget blockbusters), he commonly played the role of an easygoing, All-American "good guy." Many claimed he was essentially playing himself. Reagan appeared in more than fifty movies over a twenty-seven-year period. His most notable films were Knute Rockne—All American (1940) and Kings Row (1942). While filming a movie in 1938, he met actress Jane Wyman (1914–). They married in 1940, had one daughter, Maureen, and adopted a son, Michael. The couple divorced in 1948.
During World War II (1939–45), Reagan was commissioned as a cavalry officer and assigned to the army film unit in Los Angeles, where he made training films. To the public, however, he was portrayed as a combat field soldier.
From liberal Democrat to conservative Republican
Following the war, Reagan was voted president of the actors' union, called the Screen Actors Guild, from 1947 to 1952 and again in 1959. To the dismay of many of its members, Reagan testified as a "friendly witness" before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). With the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union taking shape, the committee was created to search for communist influences within the nation. Communism is a system of government in which the nation's leaders are selected by a single political party that controls all aspects of society. Private ownership of property is eliminated and government directs all economic production. The goods produced and accumulated wealth are, in theory, shared relatively equally by all. All religious practices are banned. Reagan helped rid the Hollywood film industry of supposed communist sympathizers. As a result, actors, directors, and writers suspected of communist ties were blacklisted, meaning they could not be hired without fear of the employer being accused of aiding the communist cause. Many of the union members were disgusted with his committee appearance.
During this early postwar period, Reagan maintained a Democratic Party allegiance. He had been influenced by his father, who had landed a federal administrative role in the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). The programs were designed to combat economic hardships brought on by the Great Depression (1929–41), the worst financial crisis in American history. Reagan supported Roosevelt's Democratic successor, President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry), in the 1948 presidential elections. Reagan's views, however, were becoming increasingly conservative and influenced by his future wife, Nancy Davis (1923–), whom he met in 1949 (and married in 1952).
By 1950, Reagan began supporting Republican candidates, including the successful presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry) Through the 1950s, Reagan's movie acting career declined. He became host of the popular television drama series General Electric Theater. Reagan also became a spokesman for General Electric, touring company offices across the nation giving inspirational speeches. Yet his increasingly conservative views led General Electric to fire Reagan as its spokesman and television program host when his speeches became more ultraconservative, which alienated some middle-of-the-road viewers.
Reagan's political visibility was steadily growing. In 1960, he delivered over two hundred campaign speeches in support of Republican candidate Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74; see entry), who lost to Democratic challenger John F. Kennedy (1919–1963; served 1961–63; see entry). By 1962, Reagan formally changed his political party affiliation to the Republican Party. He also actively campaigned for Nixon's unsuccessful bid for the California governorship that year. He next campaigned on behalf of the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, U.S. senator Barry Goldwater (1909–1998) of Arizona. In the last week before election day, Reagan gave a thirty-minute nationally televised speech. The speech brought him to national prominence in politics and made him a key spokesman for the Republican right, or most conservative members.
Governor Reagan goes to the White House
With his newfound prominence, Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966 and upset Democrat incumbent Pat Brown (1905–1996). Reagan pledged to crack down on campus antiwar protesters opposing the Vietnam War (1954–75). He served two terms until 1974. During that time, he erased a large state budget deficit through large tax increases and reductions in state education and welfare programs.
While governor, Reagan became the most recognized national spokesman for conservative causes. He made a belated run at the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and then supported Nixon again in 1972. In 1976, Reagan made his first hard run for the party's nomination in a harsh attack on a fellow Republican, President Gerald Ford (1913–; served 1974–77). Reagan was critical of SALT I (a strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union) and the détente policies of U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger (1923–; see entry). (Détente was a mutual agreement to relax or ease tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.) Ford barely managed to win the Republican nomination but lost to his Democratic opponent, Georgia governor Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81; see entry) in the national election.
By 1980, Reagan was in a good position for a strong showing in the presidential race. He easily won the party's
nomination for president and chose longtime politician George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93; see entry) as his running mate. Reagan proposed major tax cuts and increased defense spending while balancing the budget.
Reagan's opponent, President Carter, running for reelection, was facing serious problems at home and abroad. The U.S. economy was struggling with high inflation, or rising price of goods, and unemployment rates, and Carter had been unable to resolve the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. A group of militant Iranian students had stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979, taking the American staff hostage. The Iranians demanded that Carter return the former unpopular leader of Iran, the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), who had been given permission by Carter to come to the United States for cancer treatment. Negotiations between the United States and Iran led nowhere, and a military rescue operation to free the hostages ended in disaster, when eight U.S. soldiers died in a helicopter crash. Carter was seen as weak and ineffective on international issues.
Reagan campaigned to bring America back to international respectability and charged that Carter had underfunded the military, allowing the Soviets to gain a military advantage. He also claimed the strategic arms agreement SALT II that Carter had signed in 1979 gave the Soviets an advantage. Reagan handily defeated Carter and became president at sixty-eight years of age. On the very day of Reagan's inauguration in January 1981, the hostages were freed from Iran. Questions were later raised if secret deals had been made to ensure the release came after Reagan had won the election, since an earlier release might have benefited Carter's reelection chances.
Only weeks after Reagan took office, a mentally disturbed individual named John Hinckley (1955–) fired six shots at the president and his entourage as they were leaving a Washington, D.C., building. Reagan was wounded in the chest with a bullet lodged only one inch from his heart. His press secretary, James Brady (1940–), was critically wounded in the head. Though out of the hospital soon, Reagan was physically weakened for several months.
Reagan began pressing a major economic program that became known as "Reaganomics." He and his advisors believed major tax cuts would stimulate business activity, produce more jobs, and reduce the need for welfare programs. Reagan managed to get major income tax reductions through Congress in addition to sizable increases in military spending and cuts in social service programs. When a severe recession struck the U.S. economy in 1982, the unemployment rate reached its highest level, 11 percent, since the Depression. Bankruptcies, farm foreclosures, and the trade deficit soared. A modest tax increase was passed in 1982, and by 1983, the economy had begun to improve. For the remainder of Reagan's time in office, the economy steadily grew. The huge increase in military spending, however, when combined with the tax cuts, tripled the national debt to over $3 trillion by 1988.
Cold War tensions rise
A pressing Cold War issue for Reagan was the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to support an unpopular pro-Soviet leader against rebel forces trying to take over the government. With the fall of a pro-U.S. government in Iran at about the same time as the Soviet invasion, U.S. officials feared the Soviets would seek control of the Persian Gulf oil fields. Carter had responded by cutting U.S. grain sales to the Soviets and increasing U.S. naval presence in the region. Reagan restored the grain sales, claiming it hurt American farmers more than the Soviets, and began secret support of the Afghan rebels. For example, in 1985, the United States provided $300 million to help finance the war effort. The Afghan war became an unpopular, costly guerrilla, or irregular and independent, war for the Soviets through the 1980s.
The increases in military spending were designed to expand and modernize the armed forces and increase respect for the United States in the world. The military budget rose from $126 billion in 1979 to $312 billion in 1988. More specifically, Reagan denounced the policies of détente, which called for equality between the two superpowers in terms of nuclear weapons strength. Instead, Reagan wanted to build a clear military superiority over the Soviets. The tough actions were accompanied with tough talk as well. Reagan publicly referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" in a Florida speech. He also referred to the Soviet leaders as "godless" monsters. Defense spending included monies for the MX missile defense system, an expanded naval fleet, new army tanks, and the B-1 bomber. He also assembled new intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe in the face of large antinuclear public protests.
In March 1983, Reagan proposed a massive new missile defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). More popularly known as "Star Wars" after the popular science fiction movie, SDI was envisioned as a space-based network of satellites armed with lasers and other complex technologies to destroy Soviet missiles fired at U.S. targets. The initial cost estimates of developing the system were staggering, and critics questioned the technical feasibility. The Soviets were alarmed and claimed it violated existing arms control agreements. The science community, though skeptical of the proposal, enjoyed the additional funding for research. The Soviets were further troubled by what it would cost them to keep up with the new technologies. SDI became the biggest issue between the United States and the Soviet Union.
During this period, U.S. officials began publicly talking of a winnable nuclear war and developing measures for a quick recovery. Public fear of nuclear war rose to levels not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the Soviet Union and the United States came close to war over the existence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Soviets responded with a tough stance in maintaining their rule in the communist world.
In December 1981, the communist government of Poland, under pressure from the Soviets, imposed martial law, or military rule over civilians, to break a strike by a labor union that became known as the Solidarity Movement. With tensions peaking over Reagan's aggressive style, the Soviets shot down a Korean commercial airliner in September 1983 that strayed into Soviet airspace, killing 269 people onboard. The Soviets, on heightened alert probably because of the escalation in U.S. Cold War rhetoric, suspected the airplane was a U.S. spy plane testing Soviet defenses in a sensitive area. Reagan called the downing a barbaric act.
As with previous presidents, Reagan moved decisively to combat the possible spread of communism in Latin America. In the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, Reagan seized on the occurrence of domestic strife between two procommunist factions to launch an invasion by U.S. troops in late October 1983 to supposedly protect U.S. medical students and restore order. After U.S. forces gained control of the country, a new democratic pro-U.S. government was established. Reagan came under much international criticism for becoming involved in an internal political struggle without United Nations (UN) support. The Grenada invasion, however, was the first successful military operation since before the Vietnam War and helped reestablish confidence in U.S. military capability. With the U.S. economy growing, Reagan easily won reelection in 1984. Reagan won the most electoral votes, 525, in history.
Relations with Soviets
During the early 1980s, the Soviets experienced a series of aging leaders including the last years of Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982; see entry), then the brief tenures of Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985). The Communist Party and the Soviet Union were run by aging hard-liners, but the death of Chernenko in March 1985 made way for the younger, college-educated Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; see entry) to take over.
Recognizing the looming economic crisis of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev introduced major changes under the policies of perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness). Gorbachev appointed Eduard Shevardnadze (1928–; see entry) as Soviet foreign minister to seek an end to the Cold War rivalry with the West. U.S.-Soviet relations began to improve significantly. Reagan began to back off from his tough language towards the Soviets. The Soviets cut back on their foreign commitments, including withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and cutting aid to Cuba.
Reagan met with Gorbachev in a series of summit meetings through the next few years. At the Reykjavik, Iceland, summit in October 1986, despite the two leaders laying a foundation for later meetings, Gorbachev and Reagan came away strongly disappointed that no agreement could be reached, with Reagan resolved to pursue the SDI initiative and Gorbachev insisting the United States stop it as a basis for beginning more detailed negotiations. Gorbachev would later back off from his demand in order to rejuvenate discussions.
By December 1987, new arms control treaties were signed. These included a treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) from Europe. The INF treaty was the first to actually reduce the level of nuclear arsenals, or collections of weapons, rather than simply freeze them at certain levels. Reagan's willingness to negotiate arms control agreements and support Gorbachev's reform efforts within the Soviet Union was key to the eventual fall of communist governments, first across Eastern Europe in 1989, and soon after in the Soviet Union in 1991. The foundation for ending the Cold War had been laid.
Controversy in Latin America
In 1985, Reagan had introduced the Reagan Doctrine to guide U.S. Cold War policy in Third World countries. Under the doctrine, the United States would provide military and economic support to various military dictatorships in Third World countries to resist possible revolutionary movements. He also supported oppositional forces rising up against potentially pro-Soviet governments such as cases in Angola, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua.
The one country that attracted perhaps the most interest from the Reagan administration was Nicaragua. The pro-Soviet Sandinista government led by Daniel Ortega (1945–) had overthrown a U.S.-supported military dictatorship in July 1979. U.S. officials believed Ortega was building a pro-Soviet government.
In 1981, Reagan cut off U.S. and international aid and provided $10 million and another $19 million a year later to recruit and train a guerrilla army known as the contras. Congress was not supportive of the administration's efforts and passed a law in 1982 restricting assistance to overthrow the government. In response, the administration switched to more covert, or secret, operations. In 1984, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mined Nicaraguan harbors (placed military explosives at or near the surface of the water), essentially constituting an act of war under international law. Congress passed a second law cutting off all funds for U.S. operations in Nicaragua.
The Reagan administration, however, remained persistent. In November 1985, a new covert plan was approved to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages being held by terrorists in Lebanon and to funnel some of the money gained from the sales to the contras in Nicaragua for weapons and supplies. The illegal arms-forhostages deal was publicly revealed in November 1986. A few weeks later came the revelation that some of the $48 million funds had gone to Nicaragua, breaking more laws.
Following the investigations of special commissions and an independent investigator, two in the Reagan administration were convicted of obstructing justice and other offenses. They were the head of the National Security Council (NSC), Rear Admiral John Poindexter (1936–), and NSC aide Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (1943–). Both Reagan and Vice President Bush persistently denied knowledge of the covert operation. A later investigation released in late 1992—long after Reagan was out of office and just before Bush had lost his presidential reelection bid—suggested otherwise. Though Reagan's popularity declined during the early months of the scandal revelations, it soon rebounded.
During Reagan's second term of office other skirmishes broke out in various parts of the world. Libya caught Reagan's attention as a promoter of international terrorism in the early 1980s. In 1986, Reagan ordered air attacks against Libyan targets on the North African coast after a reported Libyan missile attack on U.S. aircraft. The Soviets condemned U.S. actions and terrorist attacks increased. U.S. naval ships also began escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf region as the Iran-Iraq War expanded in the region. Several military encounters resulted and became increasingly deadly. In July 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iran Air commercial airliner with over 100 people onboard, mistaking it for an attacking jet fighter. Not long afterwards, a Pan Am airliner containing 270 people was sabotaged and crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, as a reprisal by terrorists supported by Iran, Libya, and Syria.
In 1989, Bush succeeded Reagan in the White House and Reagan retired to his Los Angeles home. He published an autobiography, An American Life, in 1990. In 1994, Reagan publicly acknowledged that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative brain condition. Though Reagan would make few public appearances through the 1990s, his popularity among conservative Republicans remained high. In February 1998, Congress renamed National Airport in Washington, D.C., to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
For More Information
Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
FitzGerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Stars Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Mandelbaum, Michael, and Strobe Talbott. Reagan and Gorbachev. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Morris, Edmund. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House, 1999.
Pemberton, William E. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.
Reagan, Nancy. My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. New York: Random House, 1989.
Reagan, Ronald. An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Wallison, Peter J. Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.
Did Reagan End the Cold War?
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, debate focused on President Ronald Reagan's role in ending the Cold War. Some historians and Reagan supporters have claimed Reagan was the primary figure leading to the downfall of communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union. His aggressive Cold War policies in fueling an expensive arms race in the 1980s, they have argued, caused an economic collapse in the Soviet Union. Other historians and critics of Reagan's hard-line policies have asserted that the Soviet economy was already struggling by the late 1970s. In addition, they reasoned, Soviet social problems were mounting under the leadership of aging communist leaders in the early 1980s.
When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the Soviet leadership in 1985, corruption and economic problems were so severe major reforms were obviously needed. Because the Soviet Union was already progressing toward internal collapse, critics have claimed Reagan's hard-line policies needlessly endangered the world with nuclear destruction. They believed that the buildup of weapons not only hastened collapse of the Soviet economy but crippled the U.S. economy as well with massive national debt.
Perhaps the more reasonable assessment of Reagan's role came from longtime U.S. foreign policy expert George Kennan (1904–; see entry). In the 1990s, Kennan contended that the two individuals most responsible for ending the Cold War were Gorbachev with his reforms, and Reagan, despite whether Reagan knew what the implications of his policies would be.
Excerpt from "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986"
Originally published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1986, Book 2, published in 1989
"The implications of these talks are enormous.… We proposed the most sweeping … arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles—Soviet and American—from the face of the Earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons."
W ith the Watergate scandal–driven resignation of U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74), the erratic foreign policies of President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81), and the strong anticommunist stance of President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89), U.S.-Soviet relations in the early 1980s were in a deep freeze. Détente, an easing of international tensions, had long stalled. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were spending vast sums on the military arms race.
U.S.-Soviet arms-reduction talks had stalled by the early 1980s. A key reason was a proposed new U.S. missile system called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The new missile system was announced by President Reagan in March 1983. It became commonly known as the "Star Wars" project, named after the popular science-fiction movie of the time, because SDI involved a protective shield of laser-armed satellites in space. Together the missile, rockets, and laser beams would search out and destroy enemy missiles fired toward U.S. targets. The project would require vast sums of money, would be highly complex, and quite possibly might not work. Reagan persisted with the Star Wars project, even though the Soviets would feel compelled to develop a similar system despite the severe strain that would put on their weak economy. Soviet premier Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) charged that Star Wars violated the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Disgruntled, he proclaimed that the arms race now had no bounds. The year 1983 was one of great tension in the Cold War superpower rivalry.
The SDI program and other arms development programs gave President Reagan an increasing sense of U.S. nuclear superiority and a feeling of security. The overall result was that Reagan, negotiating from his position of strength, became a bit more accommodating toward the Soviets. Also, the November 1984 presidential election campaign was heating up. Under pressure from opposing Democratic candidates for president, Reagan realized he must soften his approach somewhat and commit to arms control talks if he had hopes of Congress funding his massive Star Wars program and hopes of reelection.
In February 1984, Andropov died and was replaced by another old-guard Soviet communist leader, Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985). Chernenko was not eager to negotiate with Reagan. He wanted to see if Reagan was going to win reelection that fall. He did—by easily defeating former vice president Walter Mondale (1928–)—and he began his second term in January 1985. Not long afterwards, Chernenko died on March 10. The U.S.S.R.'s series of aging communist leaders, fiercely anti–United States, and unable to halt the economic state of stagnation in the Soviet Union, came to an end. By late evening on March 10, the Politburo, the key policy-making body of the Soviet Communist Party, elected fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) to lead the Soviet Union.
Vice President George Bush (1924–) and Secretary of State George Shultz (1920–) represented the United States at Chernenko's funeral. While in Moscow, they spoke with Gorbachev. Upon returning to the United States, Bush and Shultz informed Reagan that significant changes for the Soviet Union were on the horizon. They believed Gorbachev was a Soviet leader that they could possibly work with.
Gorbachev adopted a plan for Soviet economic recovery and opened up Soviet society to greater freedom of expression. To get his economic recovery program underway, he cut back economic aid to Third World nations, including Nicaragua, Cambodia, Angola, and Ethiopia. (Third World countries are poor underdeveloped or economically developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.) Gorbachev began withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The Soviets had tried to prop up a procommunist government in Afghanistan but had become entangled in an unsuccessful decade-long conflict that resembled the earlier U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Gorbachev then boldly proposed an end to the arms race and an end to the Cold War. He desired immediate talks with President Reagan. With most Soviets living in relative poverty, Gorbachev knew that the only way to begin significant social changes was to end the arms race with the United States that drained much of the Soviets' economic resources.
Reagan, still suspicious of Soviet intentions, met first with Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 1985. The meeting was designed primarily to build confidence and a personal relationship between the leaders. One year later, the two met again, in October 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland. To the Americans' surprise, Gorbachev proposed a broad detailed plan to reduce arms. A major obstacle, however, continued to be Reagan's Star Wars program. Despite this obstacle, some astounding
common understandings were personally reached between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik. These included a desire to eliminate all intermediate-range missiles located in Europe, to eliminate all ballistic missiles over a ten-year period, and to make other major reductions involving bombers and tactical (short-range) weapons. The two leaders left Iceland disappointed that they did not accomplish more, but they looked forward to figuring out how to accomplish these goals. The following excerpt is from a televised address by Reagan to the American people reporting on the progress made at Reykjavik.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986":
- Only three years earlier, the arms race had appeared to have no limits.
- For the first time, the two superpower leaders talked of actually eliminating entire classes of nuclear weapons.
- If the United States actually developed a working Star Wars defense shield, then it could attack the Soviet Union with no fear of Soviet retaliation. Economically, the Soviets had no hope of developing such a program on their own, so they had to continue serious negotiations with the United States.
Excerpt from "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986"
Good evening. As most of you know, I've just returned from meetings in Iceland with the leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Gorbachev. As I did last year when I returned from the summit conference in Geneva [the first summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985], I want to take a few moments tonight to share with you what took place in these discussions. The implications of these talks are enormous and only just beginning to be understood. We proposed the most sweeping and generous arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles —Soviet and American—from the face of the Earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons.…
Before I report on our talks, though, allow me to set the stage by explaining two things that were very much a part of our talks: one a treaty and the other a defense against nuclear missiles, which we're trying to develop. Now, you've heard their titles a thousand times—the ABM treaty [signed in 1972 with both sides agreeing to limit the number of antiballistic missiles—defensive missiles to shoot down incoming offensive missiles] and SDI. Well, those letters stand for ABM, antiballistic missile; SDI, Strategic Defense Initiative ["Star Wars" program].…
So, here we are at Iceland for our second such meeting. In the first, and in the months in between, we have discussed ways to reduce and in fact eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.…
But by their choice, the main subject was arms control. We discussed the emplacement of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia and seemed to be in agreement they could be drastically reduced. Both sides seemed willing to find a way to reduce, even to zero, the strategic ballistic missiles we have aimed at each other. This then brought up the subject of SDI.
I offered a proposal that we continue our present research. And if and when we reached the stage of testing, we would sign, now, a treaty that would permit Soviet observation of such tests. And if the program was practical, we would both eliminate our offensive missiles, and then we would share the benefits of advanced defenses. I explained that even though we would have done away with our offensive ballistic missiles, having the defense would protect against cheating or the possibility of a madman, sometime, deciding to create nuclear missiles. After all, the world now knows how to make them. I likened it to our keeping our gas masks, even though the nations of the world had outlawed poison gas after World War I. We seemed to be making progress on reducing weaponry, although the General Secretary was registering opposition to SDI and proposing a pledge to observe ABM for a number of years as the day was ending.…
The Soviets had asked for a 10-year delay in the deployment of SDI programs. In an effort to see how we could satisfy their concerns—while protecting our principles and security—we proposed a 10-year period in which we began with the reduction of all strategic nuclear arms, bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the weapons they carry. They would be reduced 50 percent in the first 5 years. During the next 5 years, we would continue by eliminating all remaining offensive ballistic missiles, of all ranges. And during that time, we would proceed with research, development, and testing of SDI—all done in conformity with ABM provisions. At the 10-year point, with all ballistic missiles eliminated, we could proceed to deploy advanced defenses, at the same time permitting the Soviets to do likewise.
And here the debate began. The General Secretary wanted wording that, in effect, would have kept us from developing the SDI for the entire 10 years. In effect, he was killing SDI. And unless I agreed, all that work toward eliminating nuclear weapons would go down the drain—canceled. I told him I had pledged to the American people that I would not trade away SDI, there was no way I could tell our people their government would not protect them against nuclear destruction. I went to Reykjavik determined that everything wasnegotiable except two things: our freedom and our future. I'm still optimistic that a way will be found. The door is open, and the opportunity to begin eliminating the nuclear threat is within reach.
So you can see, we made progress in Iceland. And we will continue to make progress if we pursue a prudent, deliberate, and above all, realistic approach with the Soviets. From the earliest days of our administration this has been our policy. We made it clear we had no illusions about the Soviets or their ultimate intentions. We were publicly candid about the critical, moral distinctions between totalitarianism and democracy. We declared the principal objective of American foreign policy to be not just the prevention of war, but the extension of freedom. And we stressed our commitment to the growth of democratic government and democratic institutions around the world. And that's why we assisted freedom fighters who are resisting the imposition of totalitarian rule in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, and elsewhere. And finally, we began work on what I believe most spurred the Soviets to negotiate seriously: rebuilding our military strength, reconstructing our strategic deterrence, and above all, beginning work on the Strategic Defense Initiative.…
I realize some Americans may be asking tonight: Why not accept Mr. Gorbachev's demand? Why not give up SDI for this agreement? Well, the answer, my friends, is simple. SDI is America's insurance policy that the Soviet Union would keep the commitments made at Reykjavik. SDI is America's security guarantee if the Soviets should—as they have done too often in the past—fail to comply with their solemn commitments. SDI is what brought the Soviets back to arms control talks at Geneva and Iceland. SDI is the key to a world without nuclear weapons. The Soviets understand this. They have devoted far more resources, for a lot longer time than we, to their own SDI. The world's only operational missile defense today surrounds Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.
What Mr. Gorbachev was demanding at Reykjavik was that the United States agree to a new version of a 14-year-old ABM treaty that the Soviet Union has already violated. I told him we don't make those kinds of deals in the United States. And the American people should reflect on these critical questions: How does a defense of the United States threaten the Soviet Union or anyone else? Why are the Soviets so adamant that America remain forever vulnerable to Soviet rocket attack? As of today, all free nations are utterly defenseless against Soviet missiles—fired either by accident or design. Why does the Soviet Union insist that we remain so—forever?
So, my fellow Americans, I cannot promise, nor can any President promise, that the talks in Iceland or any future discussion with Mr. Gorbachev will lead inevitably to great breakthroughs or momentous treaty signing.…
So, if there's one impression I carry away with me from these October talks, it is that, unlike the past, we're dealing now from a position of strength. And for that reason, we have it within our grasp to move speedily with the Soviets toward even more breakthroughs.… So, there's reason, good reason for hope. I saw evidence of this in the progress we made in the talks with Mr. Gorbachev.
What happened next …
In February 1987, Gorbachev dropped all his demands that Reagan abandon Star Wars. That cleared the way for removing all intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) missiles in Europe, both U.S. missiles aimed at the Soviets and Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe aimed at the United States. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the historic INF Treaty on December 8, 1987, in Washington, D.C., at their third meeting.
For their fourth meeting, Reagan went to Moscow in June 1988 to show support for Gorbachev's domestic reform in the Soviet Union. It was the first visit of a U.S. president to Moscow in fourteen years, since Richard Nixon visited in 1974. In December 1988, Gorbachev traveled to New York City to speak before the United Nations' General Assembly. There, he gave a dramatic speech promoting democracy and individual liberty (see next chapter). The Cold War was indeed winding down.
Did you know …
- Under the INF treaty, the United States would destroy 850 missiles and dismantle approximately 1,000 nuclear warheads. The Soviet Union would destroy 1,800 missiles and 3,000 nuclear warheads.
- On July 25, 1988, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (1928–) made the startling and sweeping statement that the entire decades-old arms race with the United States was a massively mistaken policy.
- Ultimately, Congress refused to adequately fund Star Wars and it died with the Cold War.
Consider the following …
- Although under criticism from many in the United States, Reagan insisted on his Star Wars program. List the various reasons he may have had for this determination. Also list reasons why many opposed it.
- What are the major reasons Gorbachev chose to pursue serious arms elimination talks?
- Consider and write down your reflections on what emotions must have been involved as Reagan and Gorbachev, leaders of nations that had been bitter enemies for forty years, sat down for talks.
For More Information
Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
FitzGerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Stars Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Mandelbaum, Michael, and Strobe Talbott. Reagan and Gorbachev. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
McCauley, Martin. Gorbachev. New York: Longman, 1998.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1986, Book 2. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.
Winik, Jay. On the Brink: The Dramatic, Behind-the-Scenes Saga of the Reagan Era and the Men and Women Who Won the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Reagan Library and Museum.http://www.reagan.utexas.edu (accessed on September 21, 2003).
Reagan's Early Tough Talk About the Soviets
In January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the fortieth president of the United States. Reagan had spoken in fiercely anticommunist rhetoric during his campaign. With no desire to bargain with the Soviets on arms control or anything else, he held a hard-line stance in the early years of his presidency. To illustrate this stance, he labeled the Soviet Union the "focus of evil in the modern world." His "focus of evil" speech was made to a national convention of ministers on March 8, 1983. The following is an excerpt containing his famous words:
Whatever sad episodes exist in our past, any objective observer must hold a positive view of American history, a history that has been the story of hopes fulfilled and dreams made into reality. Especially in this century, America has kept alight the torch of freedom, but not just for ourselves but for millions of others around the world.
And this brings me to my final point today. During my first press conference as President, in answer to a direct question, I pointed out that, as good Marxist-Leninists, the Soviet leaders have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is that which will further their cause, which is world revolution. I think I should point out I was only quoting Lenin, their guiding spirit, who said in 1920 that they repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas—that's their name for religion.
This doesn't mean we should isolate ourselves and refuse to seek an understanding with them. I intend to do everything I can to persuade them of our peaceful intent, to remind them that it was the West that refused to use its nuclear monopoly in the forties and fifties for territorial gain and which now proposes a 50 percent cut in strategic ballistic missiles and the elimination of an entire class of land-based, intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
At the same time, however, they must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God. And we will never stop searching for a genuine peace.…
Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness [those who live under a government that does not allow differing opinions and exercises total control over all aspects of an individual's life]—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy [highest authority] of the state, declare its omnipotence [all-powerful force or quality] over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.
While America's military strength is important, let me add here that I've always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.
I believe we shall rise to the challenge. I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man.
God bless you, and thank you very much.
Nineteen years after Reagan's remarks, U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) made similar remarks in front of the U.S. Congress concerning what he called the "axis of evil" in 2002—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Bush had harkened back to wording used during World War II (1939–45)—the Axis powers referring to U.S. enemies Germany, Italy, and Japan—and to Reagan's Cold War words.
(Excerpt from "Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, in Orlando, Florida, March 8, 1983." Published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1983, Book 1, January 1 to July 1,1983. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.)
Ronald W. Reagan
Ronald W. Reagan
Beginning as a radio sports announcer, Ronald W. Reagan (born 1911) enjoyed success as a motion picture actor and television personality before embarking on a political career. After two terms as governor of California (1967-1975), he defeated incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980 and was easily re-elected over Walter Mondale in 1984.
Born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Wilson Reagan was the second son of John Edward ("Jack") and Nelle Wilson Reagan. His parents were relatively poor, as Jack Reagan moved the family to a succession of small Illinois towns trying to establish himself in business. After living briefly in Chicago, the Reagans moved to Galesburg, Monmouth, and then—when Ronald was nine—to Dixon, where he grew to adulthood.
Nicknamed "Dutch," young Reagan liked solitude, but was popular; he enjoyed nature, reading, and especially sports. The elder Reagan's heavy drinking caused problems at home, but Nelle, a staunch member of the Disciples of Christ, exerted a powerful stabilizing influence. Ronald was raised a member of his mother's church. He graduated from Dixon High School in 1928 as a star athlete and student body president and enrolled the following fall at Eureka College, a small (250-student) Illinois school related to his church.
At Eureka Reagan held a partial athletic scholarship, earning additional income by washing dishes in his fraternity house, Tau Kappa Epsilon. He first demonstrated his skills in persuasive oratory as freshman representative in a successful student strike. Never a highly motivated student, he made an undistinguished record as an economics and sociology major but was well known on campus as a football player and swimmer. He also turned to theater—with such success that at least one faculty member urged him to turn professional. Reagan graduated from Eureka in 1932, later serving two terms on the school's board of trustees and receiving from it an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
On the Air and Screen
Graduating in the middle of the Great Depression, Reagan was unsuccessful in his job hunt in Chicago, but was finally hired by Davenport, Iowa, radio station WOC as a freelance sports announcer. His skill earned him a regular staff position at WOC in January 1933, and shortly afterward he moved to WHO in Des Moines, where one of his chief duties was to reconstruct Chicago Cubs baseball game broadcasts from telegraphic reports. In this role "Dutch" Reagan perfected a spontaneous speaking style and won at least a degree of fame throughout the Midwest. He sent a significant portion of his income home to his family, his father having suffered a series of heart attacks; he also helped pay his brother Neil's college expenses.
In 1937 Reagan persuaded the radio station to send him to cover the Cubs' spring training games in California. His real motive was to try to launch an acting career in Hollywood. A screen test with Warner Brothers netted him an initial seven-year contract. Unlike many performers, he chose to retain his own name.
As an actor Reagan received decent reviews, but not especially good roles. After a series of unmemorable films in which he typically played the innocent "good guy," in 1940 he landed a role which made him famous: that of Notre Dame football star George Gipp ("the Gipper") in Knute Rockne—All American. In January 1940 Reagan married starlet Jane Wyman. With her he had a daughter, Maureen, in 1941, and adopted a son, Michael, in 1945; another infant born to them died in June 1947.
The finest role of Reagan's movie career came in King's Row (1941), in which the character he played woke up to a double amputation crying out, "Where's the rest of me?" Reagan later used this line as the title for his autobiography, published in 1965; the role won him a new seven-year, million-dollar contract.
Reagan's film career was interrupted by World War II, which he spent as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps making training films (including one preparing pilots for the important bombing raids on Tokyo). Discharged in December 1945 as a captain, he resumed his film career, but with less artistic success. His income sufficient to sustain a playboy's life-style, Reagan encountered bad luck: in 1947 he contracted a nearly fatal viral pneumonia and, following his wife's miscarriage, his marriage failed. In June 1948 Jane Wyman divorced him on grounds of "extreme mental cruelty," winning custody of both children.
Part of the cause for the divorce was apparently Reagan's near-obsession in the late 1940s with the business of the Screen Actors Guild (he served as president from 1947 to 1952 and again in 1959), and particularly with its anti-communist activities. Reagan emerged from the ballyhooed hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that produced contempt citations for (and "blacklisted") ten Hollywood figures in 1947 as a champion of civil liberties with strong anti-Communist views. He skirted the "blacklist" issue by denying that such a list existed.
In his acting career, Reagan found himself limited mainly to uninspired, unsuccessful comedies (including, in 1951, the unfortunately titled Bedtime for Bonzo, for which he was ridiculed in his later political career). Personally, however, Reagan achieved happiness with his marriage in March 1952 to actress Nancy Davis, who shelved her own career ambitions to be his full-time wife. They had two children, Patricia Ann (1952) and Ronald Prescott (1958).
Disillusioned by his diminishing movie opportunities and financially pressed, Reagan tried a stint as a Las Vegas nightclub entertainer, but soon found his preferred medium in television. (He continued to make occasional films, the last in 1957.) Signed by General Electric in 1954 as host and sometime star for the company's weekly half-hour dramatic series, General Electric Theater, Reagan was a success. Capitalizing on their television host's polish, popularity, and personableness, G.E. insisted that he go on personal appearance tours; during the shows' eight-year run, he spoke to about 250,000 workers at 135 G.E. plants.
Within a few years, he perfected "the speech": a paean to private enterprise and condemnation of the "rising tide of collectivism," combined with a salespitch for G.E. products. Though some critics later contended that his rightward political drift was due to the influence of Nancy (daughter of a strongly conservative Chicago physician), Reagan travelled the political path of many successful Americans in the post-World War II years: having voted Democratic through 1950, he backed Republicans Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 and Richard Nixon in 1960. Then, in 1962, he formally registered as a Republican.
Avidly sought as a speaker by business and civic groups, Reagan became too controversial for G.E., and the show was cancelled in 1962. He continued as a television host on another series for a time, but gradually became a full-time political activist, narrating anti-Communist films, speaking at rallies, and becoming a member of the advisory board for Young Americans for Freedom. Reagan captured national attention and temporarily boosted Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign with an impressive televised speech in October of 1964.
By early 1965 a group of prominent California conservatives decided Reagan should run for governor of their state. Benefitting from massive financial support, shrewd campaigning, and a strong conservative trend in the California electorate, Reagan easily won the Republican primary. Then, pressing the "law and order" issue by linking Democratic Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown with unrest in the cities and on California's campuses, he bested Brown in the 1966 gubernatorial election, receiving nearly 58 percent of the vote.
Governor and Presidential Candidate
Facing a state cash-flow shortage and large deficit, Reagan took immediate and dramatic action as governor, approving across-the-board budget reductions and a hiring freeze for state agencies. From the outset, the new governor jousted with higher education in the state, as he successfully sought increases in student fees and on several occasions detailed state troopers to quell campus antiwar protests. Combining the image of an ideological conservative with pragmatism in action, Reagan agreed to an increase in state income tax rates in 1967.
Re-elected with nearly 53 percent of the vote in 1970, Governor Reagan pressed for a major welfare reform act the next year. That law, the centerpiece of his second term, tightened eligibility requirements for welfare aid, strengthened family planning, and required the able to seek work, while increasing aid to the "truly needy." State spending increased more than inflation over the course of his eight years as governor, but Reagan firmly established a reputation for sound fiscal management as the state became solvent once again.
During his first term Reagan made a last-moment but energetic run for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, and nearly managed to block Richard Nixon's victory by winning support in southern delegations. Though he did not contest Nixon's renomination four years later, Reagan's brief campaign of 1968 established him as a future presidential possibility, and in 1975—after rejecting at least two offers of cabinet posts from Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford—he once again declared his availability.
After a poor beginning in the 1976 primaries, Reagan gave President Ford a hard race for the nomination, campaigning as a strong conservative. He could not recover politically from his earlier ill-advised proposal for the massive transfer of federal programs to the states, however. Having been graceful in defeat at the GOP convention, Reagan became his party's frontrunner for the 1980 nomination after Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. By means of his own syndicated newspaper column Reagan maintained high visibility during Carter's term, strongly attacking the Democrat on a wide range of issues.
Early White House Years
After announcing his candidacy once again in late 1979, Reagan defused the issue of his age (68) and campaigned aggressively and successfully in the primaries. Nominated easily, he selected his chief rival for the nomination, George Bush, as his running mate. Reagan's campaign against the incumbent Carter went well, despite some early gaffes, and his masterful performance in a televised debate with the president in late October sealed his victory. Taking 51 percent of the popular vote against Carter and Independent candidate John B. Anderson, Ronald Reagan became the nation's 40th president by an electoral vote of 489 to 49 for Carter. His election was viewed by many as a "new beginning," as the Republicans also won control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years.
As chief executive Reagan established an effective image of strong-mindedness tempered by occasional self-deprecation. Despite jibes by political opponents that he was lazy and lacked knowledge on many issues, he maintained generally high ratings in the public opinion polls. An assassination attempt by John Hinckley in March 1981 wounded him slightly, but served also to boost further his popular support.
Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, in July 1981. This particular move irritated his most conservative supporters, but he retained most of his following on the right through dogged adherence to the goals of reduced taxes and increased defense spending coupled with domestic program cuts ("Reaganomics"). Holding true to the precepts of the "supply-side economics" he had embraced since 1978, Reagan persuaded Congress to pass in 1981 a large, three-year reduction in income tax rates, even though federal deficits were well over $100 billion per year.
The skill displayed by Reagan with the media (which won him the nickname "the Great Communicator") enabled him to deflect most criticisms, including those aimed at his role in perpetuating huge federal deficits, his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and to abortion, and his seeming indifference to the issue of minority civil rights. His media talents also allowed him to become, more than any of his recent predecessors, the spokesman and symbol of the political movement that elected him.
Reagan's actions as president were not always as aggressive as his rhetoric. He did not launch an all-out assault on federal programs, for example, despite threats to do so. And—though he darkly characterized the Soviet Union as "evil"—he ended the Carter-imposed embargo on grain shipments to that country. He committed a large contingent of U.S. Marines to help police the civil war in Lebanon, but removed them, rather than escalating the effort, after a commando attack resulted in 240 American deaths. He launched a successful paratroop strike against Communist insurgents on the island of Grenada in late 1983—a feat generally applauded by the American public.
Despite suffering numerous setbacks in Congress (notably on his "social agenda" issues such as banning abortion and permitting school prayer), Reagan appeared difficult to beat for reelection in 1984. And so it proved, as Democratic challenger Walter Mondale was unable to capitalize on the ever-increasing deficit or criticisms of Reagan's policies in Central America and South Africa (where he refused to apply sanctions to oppose apartheid). In the 1984 election, Reagan defeated Mondale easily, with 58 percent of the popular vote and 525 of the 538 electoral votes.
Holding On—The Second Term
After his reelection, Reagan continued to talk a hard line against the Soviet Union, while simultaneously pursuing a new arms limitation agreement with that nation. Two summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—in Geneva (1985) and Reykjavik, Iceland (1986)— accomplished little and Reagan pressed ahead with an aggressive (and costly) program of national defense, including the MX missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars").
Economic problems proved intractable during Reagan's second term, as the deficit continued at record-high levels and the nation's negative trade balance grew steadily worse. Hoping to bring the deficit under control, Reagan endorsed a 1985 congressional measure mandating a series of large annual budget cuts (the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act), but the law had little real impact before its enforcement mechanism was voided by the Supreme Court the following year.
In late 1986, following substantial Democratic gains in the off-year elections, Reagan ran into serious problems due to the "Iran-contra" deal. At issue were the administration's secret sale of arms to Iran, apparently to gain the release of American hostages (and in contravention of Reagan's announced policy never to "yield to terrorist blackmail"), and subsequent diversion of the proceeds to the Nicaraguan "contras" (in seeming violation of a congressional ban on such aid). Joint congressional hearings on the Iran-contra episode captured headlines through the spring and summer of 1987, revealing significant misstatements by Reagan and, more damagingly, excessive arrogation of power by the president's national security adviser and others. Though the resulting decline in Reagan's public support was relatively slight, revelations from the hearings severely damaged his image, calling into question the degree to which he was in control of policy.
Despite these problems, in mid-1987 the resilient president seized the initiative from his detractors by means of three bold actions. The most controversial was his dispatch of American forces to the Persian Gulf in order to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers from attacks by the warring Iraqis and Iranians. Political opponents charged that the action called for invoking the 1973 War Powers Resolution, but neither Reagan nor Congress acted to do so. The president also kept his domestic critics busy by nominating a strongly conservative federal judge, Robert Bork, for a seat on the Supreme Court, and then—just as the divisive hearings on his confirmation were beginning—announcing a tentative agreement with the Soviets on limitation of intermediate range missiles. The Bork nomination backfired—the Senate rejecting the nomination by a vote of 58 to 42. But success in both of his other ventures held the potential of neutralizing any harm to Reagan's reputation produced by the hearings held earlier in the year.
As Reagan's second term drew to a close, with the Democrats once again in control of the Senate and looking optimistically to the 1988 presidential election, it was clear that he had not effected the "revolution" predicted in 1980. A number of domestic programs had been cut back, but aside from the 1981 tax cuts (and perhaps the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act), no truly significant legislation had been produced. The president even found himself in the ironic position of appearing to oppose reduction of the deficit, as he tried to fend off efforts by Congress either to cut defense spending or increase taxes. But an important part of Reagan's political legacy was the increased conservatism of the Supreme Court; although the Bork nomination failed, his "replacement" (actually the opening provided by the resignation of Justice Lewis Powell), Anthony Kennedy, represented Reagan's fourth conservative appointment to that body, following the appointments of Justices O'Connor and Antonin Scalia, and the elevation of William Rehnquist to be Chief Justice.
After his return to private citizenship in 1989, Reagan continued to be a popular and active public figure. Shortly after his retirement, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was opened in Simi Valley, California. By the mid-1990s Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, an ultimately fatal degeneration of the central nervous system. He and Nancy publicized his condition in an attempt to create greater public awareness and to gain support for research into treatment. As his condition deteriorated, Reagan gradually withdrew from public appearances.
Through a mix of conservative dogma, pragmatic action, and mastery of the media, Ronald Reagan retained throughout his presidency a hold on public affection unequalled since Dwight Eisenhower's years in the White House. Paradoxically, he accomplished this feat even though polls showed that a majority of the voters consistently disagreed with his policies. Many people would agree that Ronald Reagan, whatever the verdict of history on his presidency, truly possessed that hard-to-define quality, political charisma.
Reagan's early life and film career are well covered in Anne Edwards, Early Reagan: The Rise to Power (1987), and in two comprehensive biographies: Lou Cannon, Reagan (1982) and Frank Van der Linden, The Real Reagan: What He Believes, What He Has Accomplished, What We Can Expect From Him (1981). Reagan's 1965 autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, written with Richard G. Hubler, does not deal with his political career but illuminates the character of the man. His 1990 autobiography, covers his personal and political life through the end of his second term in office. A second personal perspective is offered by Nancy Reagan's (1989). Solid treatments of the 1980 election include Elizabeth Drew, Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign (1981), and John F. Stacks, Watershed: The Campaign for the Presidency, 1980 (1981). Rowland Evans, Jr., and Robert D. Novak, The Reagan Revolution (1981), treats Reagan's political rise through his election to the presidency.
Strong assessments of Reagan's presidency may be found in John Palmer, editor, Perspectives on the Reagan Years (1986), and—though it covers only the first two years—Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling With History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (1983). Two critical appraisals, written from very different perspectives, are Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents Abroad (1986) and Michael P. Rogin, "Ronald Reagan," the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (1987). □
Reagan, Ronald Wilson
REAGAN, RONALD WILSON
Ronald Wilson Reagan served as president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. A former radio announcer, screen actor, and governor of California, Reagan's conservative political philosophy challenged the role that the federal government played in U.S. society. An avowed opponent of big government, Reagan proposed to return power to the states and to strip the federal government of many of its regulatory functions. Although he was not successful on all fronts, Reagan changed the political landscape that had remained virtually untouched since the presidency of franklin d. roosevelt.
Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. When he was nine years old, his family moved to Dixon, Illinois. He attended nearby Eureka College and graduated in 1932. He worked as a radio and sports announcer at several stations in Iowa before he was discovered by a Hollywood talent scout. He signed an acting contract with the Warner Brothers motion picture studio in 1937.
Reagan appeared in more than 50 movies between 1937 and the early 1950s. His most famous role was that of Notre Dame University football player George Gipp in Knute Rockne—All American. (From that film comes the famous quote "Win one for the Gipper.") From 1942 to 1945, he served in the U.S. Army, making training films for world war ii soldiers. It was after the war that Reagan became interested in politics, initially from his work with the Screen Actors Guild, a union that represents Hollywood film actors. Elected president of the union in 1947, Reagan was a vigorous supporter of the labor movement as well as an able negotiator with the major movie studios.
Originally a Democrat and an admirer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan became concerned about communist influence in the Hollywood labor unions. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hollywood was embroiled in a red scare. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings where screen actors, screenwriters, producers, and directors were interrogated about their participation in communist organizations. Reagan initially defended his Hollywood brethren but soon backed away.
Reagan's divorce from actress Jane Wyman in 1949 and his remarriage to actress Nancy Davis also had an effect on his politics. His new wife's father was a political conservative, who helped steer him toward the republican party. As his movie career declined, his interest in politics increased. He was hired by the General Electric Company to be its traveling spokesperson and the host of the General Electric Theater on television. From 1954 to 1962, Reagan maintained this relationship with General Electric. His conservative ideology deepened as he gave speeches around the country, supporting U.S. business, criticizing government regulation, and attacking communism.
Reagan became a national political figure during the 1964 presidential campaign. An ardent supporter of Arizona Senator barry m. goldwater, who espoused the same conservative philosophy, Reagan gave a televised speech that tried to revitalize Goldwater's sagging campaign against President lyndon b. johnson. Goldwater lost the election, but Reagan gained the attention of Republican political leaders.
At the urging of a group of prominent California businessmen, Reagan ran as the Republican candidate for governor of California in 1966. Democratic Governor Edmund ("Pat") Brown, who had defeated richard m. nixon in 1962, dismissed Reagan as a television actor and did not take him seriously. Reagan proved, however, to be a formidable opponent. A polished and effective public speaker, he spoke out against welfare cheaters and antiwar radicals on college campuses. He won the election by nearly one million votes, the most convincing victory ever achieved against an incumbent governor in U.S. history.
Reagan's two terms as governor (he was reelected in 1970) were marked by conflict with a Democratic-controlled legislature. He raised state income taxes, contrary to his political platform, but he justified the increase as the means of paying for a reduction in local property taxes. He implemented some reforms in welfare programs and improved the state's higher-education system.
In 1974, Reagan decided not to run for a third term as governor, setting his sights instead on the White House. In 1976, he challenged President gerald r. ford for the Republican party nomination. Ford, who had become president in 1974 when Richard M. Nixon resigned, was a moderate Republican whose public favor had been severely damaged by his pardon of Nixon. Reagan fell only sixty votes short of defeating Ford for the nomination.
From 1976 to 1980, Reagan prepared himself for another presidential race. He remained in the public eye through a newspaper column and radio show, in which he commented on public affairs. In 1980, he defeated his Republican rivals and was nominated for president, with george h. w. bush as his running mate.
Reagan easily defeated President jimmy carter, whose popularity had plummeted when the national economy had suffered from high inflation and unemployment. Carter also was damaged by the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans had been held hostage by Iran. His inability to resolve the hostage crisis, which included a failed military-rescue mission, contributed to his overwhelming defeat in November 1980. In 1984, Reagan won the largest victory in U.S. presidential history when he defeated former vice president Walter F. Mondale.
On January 21, 1981, as Reagan was being inaugurated president, Iran released the 52 hostages. With that crisis resolved, Reagan set out to cut income taxes, to reduce the federal budget, to increase defense spending, and to deregulate U.S. business. On March 31, 1981, his efforts were temporarily sidetracked when John W. Hinckley Jr. shot and wounded Reagan and his press secretary, James S. Brady. Reagan made a quick and complete recovery. In the aftermath of the shooting, his popularity rose even higher.
Reagan's economic plans were built on a theory called supply-side economics. This theory asserts that when taxes are cut, the money that is put back into the economy stimulates the production of more goods and services, thereby increasing jobs, with the result that more taxes are generated than were cut at the beginning of the process. In 1981, Reagan persuaded Congress to reduce taxes over a three-year period and to impose severe budget cuts on nondefense spending.
The results of "Reaganomics" proved mixed. The economy entered a recession in 1982, before rebounding in 1983. Inflation dropped, but government spending was not reduced sufficiently to make up for the revenue that had been forgone through tax cuts. The problem was exacerbated when Congress passed Reagan's tax-reform package in 1986. Tax rates were reduced, and millions of low-income persons were removed from the tax rolls. Consequently, the federal government borrowed money to pay for the tax cuts. The national debt doubled in size between 1981 and 1986. By the time Reagan left office, the United States had gone from a creditor nation to the world's largest debtor nation, owing half a trillion dollars to foreign investors.
"I believe that government is the problem, not the answer."
Pressure on the federal budget also came from Reagan's determination to begin the largest peacetime military build-up in U.S. history. Many new weapons systems were proposed, but the cornerstone of Reagan's defense system proposal was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Dubbed "Star Wars" by the media and his critics, Reagan proposed to build an antiballistic missile-defense system that would shoot down Soviet missiles from space. Billions of dollars were committed to research, but actual systems proved hard to devise.
In foreign affairs, Reagan came into office maintaining his strong anti-communist position, calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Reagan sought to negotiate arms control with the Soviet Union. In 1987, he negotiated the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty (INF Treaty). The INF Treaty was the first agreement by which both sides destroyed existing weapons. Relations between the superpowers improved during Reagan's second term, mainly because the new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had sought to change the cold war climate.
Reagan made a dramatic change in the federal courts through his appointment power. During his two terms, he filled 372 of the 736 judgeships in the federal courts. Attorneys General william french smith and edwin meese iii established a screening process that tried to assure Reagan that he would be appointing judges who were in agreement with his conservative philosophy. In 1982, Reagan appointed sandra day o'connor to the U.S. Supreme Court. O'Connor was the first woman to sit on the Court. He elevated Justice william h. rehnquist to chief justice of the Court in 1986 and appointed Judge antonin scalia to the seat that Rehnquist had vacated.
Reagan encountered problems with two of his other nominees. When he nominated Judge robert h. bork in 1987 to succeed Justice lewis f. powell jr., the nomination met a firestorm of criticism. Bork was an outspoken jurist and one of the best-known conservative judges in the country. When the Senate defeated Bork's nomination, Reagan appointed Judge douglas h. ginsburg. Ginsburg withdrew his nomination after he disclosed that he had smoked marijuana. On his third attempt, Reagan successfully appointed Judge anthony m. kennedy to the Court.
The last two years of the Reagan administration were consumed with the political damage caused by the iran-contra affair. Members of the national security council staff had secretly sold weapons to Iran, a terrorist state that was forbidden to purchase armaments under U.S. law. One goal of the weapons sales was to facilitate the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon, but another goal was to use some of the proceeds to support the Nicaraguan anti-communist Contra rebels against the Marxist Sandinista government. Because Congress had forbidden U.S. support of the rebels, the actions of Reagan's staff were illegal.
In late 1986, the details of these actions began to emerge. Reagan denied any knowledge of the actions that his advisers had taken, but Senate hearings on the matter in 1987 cast doubt on the president's statements. The hearings damaged Reagan's administration because they revealed that the president apparently had been out of touch with the conduct of national affairs.
Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan left office a popular president. In 1989, he retired to California.
In 1994, Reagan made public that he had been diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, an incurable, degenerative neurological disease marked by gradual memory loss, aphasia, and degradation of motor functions. By revealing his disease to the public, Reagan said that he hoped to foster greater public awareness of the disease and to spur research for treatment and a cure.
On March 4, 2001, Nancy Reagan christened the United States Navy's newest Nimitz-class, nuclear powered aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan in a ceremony at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. The USS Ronald Reagan was commissioned by the Navy on July 12, 2003, and is homeported at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, California.
Benson, Michael. 2004. Ronald Reagan. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications.
Busch, Andrew E. 2001. Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Mervin, David. 1990. Ronald Reagan and the American Presidency. New York: Longman.
Peterson, Christian. 2003. Ronald Reagan and Antinuclear Movements in the United States and Western Europe, 1981–1987. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press.
Wagner, Heather Lehr. 2004. Ronald Reagan. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
Wallison, Peter J. 2003. Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Born: February 6, 1911
American president, actor, and governor
Beginning as a radio sports announcer, Ronald Reagan enjoyed success as a movie actor and television personality before beginning a political career. After two terms as governor of California (1967–1975), he defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter (1924–) for the presidency in 1980 and was re-elected in 1984.
Born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Wilson Reagan was the second son of John Edward ("Jack") and Nelle Wilson Reagan. His parents were relatively poor, and Jack Reagan moved the family to a number of small Illinois towns trying to establish himself in business. When Ronald was nine the family moved to Dixon, Illinois, where he grew to adulthood.
Nicknamed "Dutch," young Reagan liked solitude but was popular. He enjoyed nature, reading, and especially sports. His father's alcoholism caused problems at home, but his mother was a powerful force for stability. As a teenager and young man, Reagan gained fame for his accomplishments as a lifeguard, rescuing seventy-seven people during the summers of 1926 to 1933, while working in a park along Illinois's Rock River. (Reagan also dove into the river to "save" one swimmer's dentures from the river bottom—for which he received a ten-dollar tip.) Reagan graduated from Dixon High School in 1928 and enrolled the following fall at Eureka College, a small Illinois school affiliated with his mother's church. He graduated from Eureka in 1932.
On the air and screen
Graduating in the middle of the national and world economic crisis known as the Great Depression (1929-39), Reagan eventually found a job in Davenport, Iowa, as a sports announcer for a radio station. His skill soon earned him a position at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. At the station one of his chief duties was to reconstruct Chicago Cubs baseball game broadcasts from reports sent by telegraph (a communication device that uses coded signals to send messages). In 1937 Reagan persuaded WHO to send him to cover the Cubs' spring training games in California. However, his real motive was to try to launch an acting career in Hollywood, and he was soon appearing in the movies.
As an actor Reagan received decent reviews, but not especially good roles. In 1940, however, he landed a role that made him famous, playing college football star George Gipp in the movie Knute Rockne—All American. In January 1940 he married actress Jane Wyman (1914–), with whom he had a daughter and adopted a son, although another infant born to them died in June 1947. The marriage began to fail shortly thereafter, and Reagan and Wyman divorced in June of 1948.
Part of the cause for the divorce was apparently Reagan's near-obsession in the late 1940s with the business of the Screen Actors Guild. He was president of the guild, which is the labor union for movie actors, from 1947 to 1952, and again in 1959. During this time he also became well known for his strong anticommunist views. Meanwhile, his own acting career began to falter, as he was offered a limited range of roles. Personally, however, he achieved happiness with his marriage in March 1952 to actress Nancy Davis (1921–). The couple had two children.
Disappointed by his diminishing movie opportunities and financially pressed, Reagan soon turned to television. Signed by the General Electric (G.E.) company in 1954 as the host of the company's weekly half-hour dramatic series, General Electric Theater, Reagan was a TV success. Taking advantage of Reagan's popularity, G.E. insisted that he go on personal appearance tours, speaking at G.E. factories. Within a few years, he perfected "the speech": a salute to private enterprise with an "anticollectivist" (anticommunist) message, combined with a sales pitch for G.E. products.
Governor and candidate
In 1962 Reagan formally registered as a member of the Republican Party. He began to plunge full time into political activities. He captured national attention with a speech supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.
By early 1965 a group of prominent California conservatives (people who resist change and prefer to keep traditions) decided Reagan should run for governor of their state. Benefiting from massive financial support, shrewd campaigning, and a strong conservative trend among California's voters, Reagan easily won the Republican primary. Running against Democratic governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown (1905–1996) in the general election, he won with 58 percent of the vote in 1966.
Reagan took immediate, dramatic action as governor, approving sweeping cuts in the state's budget and a freeze on additional hiring for state agencies. He also raised state income-tax rates. Reelected in 1970, he established a reputation for sound financial management and pressed for reform of the state welfare system, tightening the requirements applicants needed to meet in order to receive aid from the state.
During his first term Reagan made an energetic run for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. He did not win the nomination, but his campaign established him as a future presidential possibility. In 1976 he gave Republican president Gerald Ford (1913–) a hard but unsuccessful race for his party's nomination. Reagan then became his party's leading candidate for the 1980 Republican nomination.
Early White House years
After announcing his candidacy once again in late 1979, Reagan campaigned aggressively as a strong conservative. His masterful performance in a televised debate with President Jimmy Carter (1924–) sealed his victory. In November 1980 Reagan became the nation's fortieth president. His election was viewed by many as a "new beginning," as the Republicans also won control of the Senate.
As chief executive Reagan maintained generally high ratings in public-opinion polls. He was wounded in March 1981 when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate him, an event that boosted public support still further. Although he irritated his most conservative supporters when, in 1981, he appointed the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor (1930–), he kept most of his conservative following by sticking to his goal of reducing taxes and increasing defense spending while also reducing spending for social programs. In 1981 Reagan persuaded Congress to pass a large, three-year reduction in income-tax rates, even though federal deficits were more than $100 billion per year. The issue of deficits—spending that exceeds revenue—continued to trouble the Reagan presidency.
The "Great Communicator"
Reagan's skill in handling the media earned him the nickname the "Great Communicator" and allowed him to become the spokesman and symbol of the political movement that elected him. However, his actions as president were not always as aggressive as his words. Although he darkly referred to the Soviet Union as "evil," he ended the Carter-imposed halt on grain shipments to that country. He committed a large number of U.S. Marines to help keep peace during the civil war in the Middle East nation of Lebanon, but he removed them after an attack against them led to 240 American deaths.
Reagan's second term
By 1984 Reagan appeared difficult to beat for re-election. In the November polling, he defeated Democratic challenger Walter Mondale (1928–) easily, with 58 percent of the popular vote. After winning re-election, Reagan continued to talk tough concerning the Soviet Union, but he also worked to pursue an agreement with the country to limit weapons. Meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) in 1985 and 1986 accomplished little toward that goal, however, and Reagan pressed ahead with an aggressive program of national defense.
Meanwhile, economic problems at home did not improve, as the deficit continued at record-high levels and the nation continued to import more than it exported. In addition, in late 1986 Reagan ran into serious problems due to the "Iran-contra" scandal. This scandal involved a secret sale of arms to Iran, apparently to gain the release of American hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon who supported Iran. The profits of the sale were directed towards aid to the "contras"—forces struggling to overthrow a socialist government in Nicaragua. Congress, however, had banned such aid. Congressional hearings on the scandal captured headlines throughout 1987, revealing significant misstatements by Reagan and apparent misuse of power by some in his administration.
As Reagan's second term drew to a close, it was clear that he had not accomplished the conservative "revolution" predicted in 1980. However, an important part of his legacy was the increased conservatism of the Supreme Court. Reagan's appointment to the court of justices O'Connor, Antonin Scalia (1936–), and Anthony Kennedy (1936–), along with the promotion of William Rehnquist (1924–) to the position of Chief Justice, had moved the court strongly to the right.
Struggle with Alzheimer's
After his return to private citizenship in 1989, Reagan continued to be a popular and active public figure. By the mid-1990s, however, Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, an ultimately fatal degeneration, or breaking down, of the central nervous system. As his condition deteriorated, Reagan withdrew from public appearances.
Throughout his presidency, Reagan maintained a hold on the public's affection unequaled since the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969). Many would agree that Ronald Reagan, however history might judge his presidency, possessed a gift for inspiring the American people with his speaking style and personality.
For More Information
Blumenthal, Sidney, and Thomas Byrne Edsall. The Reagan Legacy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Edwards, Anne. Early Reagan. New York: Morrow, 1987.
Judson, Karen. Ronald Reagan. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.
Morris, Edmund. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House, 1999.
Noonan, Peggy. When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan. New York: Viking, 2001.
Pemberton, William E. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.
Reagan, Ronald. An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Reagan, Ronald 1911-2004
Ronald Wilson Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States, held office from 1981 to 1989. Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911. In 1937 he started a thirty-year career in film and television, and his time in Hollywood engendered his interest in politics. Upon leaving military service at the end of World War II (1939-1945), Reagan was an active member of the Democratic Party and had been a supporter of U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) and Harry Truman (1884-1972). Newly out of uniform, he engaged in union activity with the Screen Actors Guild and was its president for six years. Reagan’s experiences of the postwar red scare in the movie industry during the heyday of McCarthyism worked to solidify his staunch anti-Communist orientation. In 1952, owing to the new trajectory of his career and accompanying events, Reagan publicly renounced his Democratic Party affiliation and became a conservative Republican. His extensive acting experience, his service as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and his tenure as public spokesman for General Electric all prepared Reagan well for his entrance into California politics as state governor, and then beyond onto the national stage. Reagan’s political style is noted for his ability as a highly effective public speaker and his successful use of the presidential pulpit to advance his policy agenda, skills that earned him the moniker of “the great communicator.”
At the age of fifty-five, Reagan defeated the Democratic incumbent and was sworn in as California governor in 1967. He was reelected in 1970. His tenure as governor was marked by his sensitivity to the need to compromise his conservatively driven policies so as to allow enactment of legislation, as well as his management style of delegation and decentralization. Reagan’s aides exercised great authority and served as important formulators of policy, a management orientation that later marked his presidency and would be criticized subsequently as excessive abdication by Reagan of his presidential responsibilities. In the late 1960s, he took a firm and aggressive stance against student protesters at colleges, most notably at the University of California at Berkeley in 1969, by calling in the national guard and state police to deal with demonstrators.
Reagan secured the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and chose George H. W. Bush as his vice-presidential running mate. Reagan’s campaign stressed the economy, governmental growth, the budget deficit, declining U.S. prestige abroad, and the threat of the Soviet Union. Winning the presidency with 51 percent of the popular vote and 489 electoral college votes, Reagan took office with a new Republican majority in the Senate but with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats. In 1984 Reagan won reelection with a landslide victory over Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, obtaining a record 525 electoral votes and 59 percent of the popular vote.
The first year of Reagan’s presidency is regarded as his most significant domestically. After recovering quickly from an assassination attempt in early 1981, Reagan advanced his supply-side economic policies through Congress. Showing political skill, he was able to get congressional enactment of sweeping tax reductions that were designed to induce economic growth. Congress passed most of the president’s proposals, including a cut in income-tax rates, a substantial increase in defense spending, and a drastic shrinking of nondefense, social-welfare expenditures. The purpose of these policies was to drive economic growth, and the resulting increase in governmental revenue via taxes was expected to offset the deficit and produce a balanced federal budget. The actual results were not as envisioned: Tax cuts and defense spending pushed the United States into becoming the world’s biggest debtor nation, and the federal budget deficit and national debt exploded. Reagan did, however, preside over the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history.
With a Republican-controlled Senate, Reagan effectively and efficiently used his judicial appointment power to advance his conservative social agenda at all levels of the federal judiciary by nominating only “the ideologically faithful.” By the time of his departure from the White House in 1989, Reagan had appointed over 60 percent of all federal judges and four U.S. Supreme Court justices, a highly significant legacy.
In foreign affairs, Reagan’s stern anti-Communist posture in his first term evolved into one of relative conciliation and rapprochement in his second term. His building of a line of communications with the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev through several summit meetings was pivotal in the reduction of tension between the two superpowers. This development ostensibly ushered in a new era of U.S.-Soviet relations. In addition, Reagan successfully enhanced American power in the international arena through a military buildup and the use of force in selected regional conflicts.
Reagan will be particularly remembered for bringing forth a new tide of conservatism to American politics. Domestically, Reagan changed the face of campaigning and governing with effective imagery, symbols, and video. He emphasized personal warmth and charisma, and forged success through economic growth, tax cuts, and tax reform. His legacy has been tempered by his administration’s long-term budget deficits and national debt concerns, and by the Iran-Contra scandal, in which presidential aides violated federal law in an effort to advance foreign policy endeavors that Congress had prohibited. Many of the tenets of Reagan’s 1980 campaign, including reducing the size and scope of government and balancing the federal budget, were not achieved.
Reagan left office in 1989. He was diagnosed in 1994 with Alzheimer’s disease, a condition typically associated with the elderly in which the mental capacity and intellectual functions decline due to deterioration of brain cells. Some analysts assert that early signs of this illness (such as memory troubles) could be observed while Reagan was still in office, but this is a point of contention and speculation. Ronald Reagan passed away at his home in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, 2004. He remains a revered figure in the Republican Party and among adherents of conservative ideology.
SEE ALSO Berlin Wall; Bush, George H. W.; Gorbachev, Mikhail; Iran-Contra Affair; McCarthyism; Neoconservatism; Presidency, The
Berman, Larry, ed. 1990. Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Greenstein, Fred. 2000. The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jones, Charles. 1988. The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.
Stephen R. Routh
Ronald Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois . He was a star on his high school football team but earned an academic scholarship to Eureka College in Peoria. There he majored in economics.
Reagan graduated in 1932 and took a job as sportscaster for an Iowa radio station. Five years later, he signed a contract with Warner Bros., a major Hollywood studio. In 1940, he married actress Jane Wyman
(1917–2007). The couple had two daughters, one of whom died at birth. They also adopted a son. The marriage ended in divorce in 1948, and Reagan married Nancy Davis (1923–) in 1952. They eventually had two children of their own. By 1942, Reagan had become one of Hollywood's biggest stars. He would eventually appear in fifty films. In 1947, Reagan was elected to the first of six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). He also served as spokesman for General Electric and through that position became involved in politics.
From acting to politics
Initially a Democrat, Reagan switched political parties in 1962. California Republicans urged him to run for governor, and in 1966 he won. As governor, he vetoed spending measures, reformed the welfare system, and provided property tax relief while increasing sales and income taxes. He was well liked among his fellow Republicans and was reelected to the governor's office in 1970, having made an unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination in 1968.
Reagan ran for president again in 1976 but narrowly lost the nomination to incumbent president Gerald R. Ford (1913–2006; served 1974–77). In 1980, with running mate George H. W. Bush (1924–), Reagan easily beat incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81). On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan as the president was leaving a Washington, D.C. , hotel where he had just delivered a speech. Reagan underwent surgery to remove the bullet from his lung and remained hospitalized until April 11. The bullet had nearly killed him. Hinckley, found not guilty by reason of insanity, resides in a Washington, D.C., mental facility.
A popular president
Reagan spent a great deal of effort pursuing an anticommunist agenda in foreign policy. Communism is a political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, communist governments in practice limit personal freedom and individual rights. America feared the spread of communism for decades, and President Reagan used his power to combat the possibility. He implemented a five-year program to increase defense spending by $1.2 trillion. In 1983, he proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, commonly called “Star Wars”), which was designed to protect the country against a Soviet strategic missile attack. Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.”
Reagan promised assistance to friendly nations threatened by communist rebels and for revolt initiatives seeking to overthrow communist regimes. This policy was called the Reagan doctrine. Reagan made good on his promise. During his presidency, America supported revolutions in Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan as well as anticommunist governments in El Salvador and the Philippines. He sent troops to help with peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon, demanded the bombing of Libya as punishment for its support of terrorism, and launched an invasion of Grenada to topple a communist government friendly to Cuban leader Fidel Castro (1926–).
When running for office, Reagan appealed to social conservatives and the religious right by supporting policies such as requiring school prayer and banning abortion. Although he continued to support such efforts once elected, he refocused his efforts on trying to enact a pro-business economic agenda. His program was based on the idea that tax cuts and other incentives would stimulate business investment and create prosperity that would trickle down to the middle and working classes via new jobs and pay increases.
In addition to high military spending and tax cuts, Reagan's economic policy (which came to be known as Reaganomics), also stressed reduced spending on social service programs such as adoption, housing, disaster relief, domestic abuse, and other needs-based initiatives. In 1981, Reagan proposed a tax-reform package designed to reduce the national deficit; Congress passed it but refused to approve cuts in spending for many social services. The tax cuts alone were not enough to balance out the president's trillion-dollar military spending budget, and the result was an economic recession (slowdown in consumer spending and a marked increase in unemployment) that America could not overcome until 1983.
Immediately following World War II (1939–45), relations between America and the Soviet Union became extremely tense. The Cold War , a state of intense military rivalry without physical warfare, began. Neither side trusted the other, and the two superpowers were constantly trying to best each other. Reagan was reelected in 1984, and during his second term relations between the two nations improved drastically. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) worked to reduce tensions with the United States with the hope of increasing Western investments in his country. The two leaders negotiated major arms-control agreements that resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet Union troops from Afghanistan. Gorbachev also agreed to discontinue support for communist governments in Angola and Nicaragua.
As international relations improved, the Star Wars budget was cut and military spending was decreased. As the American economy strengthened, the Reagan administration allowed the national budget deficit to mount.
The Iran-Contra scandal
Reagan's time in office was not without scandal. In late 1986, it was discovered that the administration had made secret arrangements to provide funds to Nicaraguan contra (counterrevolutionary) rebels fighting the government of the Sandinistas, a political party that held beliefs similar to those of communism. The funding came from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran, a country that had captured American hostages and held them for over a year (1979–81). The Reagan administration had ignored the law and proceeded with the secret operation.
When the Iran-Contra Scandal came to light, Reagan appeared on national television and denied that anything wrong had taken place. Within a week, he was back on television, admitting that weapons had been transferred to Iran.
An investigation ensued, led by a special presidential commission, a congressional investigation committee, and a prosecutor. Although it was determined that Reagan knew little about what was going on, he was criticized widely for failure to supervise his team. Several officials were prosecuted, and Reagan's political reputation was tarnished.
Reagan's presidency is remembered for stimulating the economy and implementing needed tax reform but also for an out-of-control federal deficit. Many historians regard the Iran-Contra scandal as an inexcusable violation of the law, but others stress Reagan's role in bringing an end to the Cold War and enacting arms control.
Reagan returned to private citizenship in 1989, when he retired to his California ranch. He remained an active public figure. The former president was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, a fatal degeneration of the central nervous system, in 1994. He and his wife Nancy did not try to hide his struggles but instead went public in hopes of increasing public awareness of the disease. Reagan died of pneumonia in his home on June 5, 2004.
Reagan, Ronald Wilson
REAGAN, RONALD WILSON
Folk wisdom holds that the burden of politics is much like the burden of fame. If that is true then no one knows that as well as Ronald Reagan. Born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911–) grew up to become the fortieth president of the United States. Reagan was raised in several towns in the rural areas of northern Illinois. His family finally settled down in Dixon when he was nine. Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932. After graduating, he began working in Davenport, Iowa, as a radio sports announcer. He also authored a sports column on a weekly basis for a Des Moines newspaper.
While covering a sports story on Catalina Island, near Los Angeles, Reagan caught the attention of a agent from the Warner Brothers movie studio. After doing a screen test for Warner Brothers, Reagan was signed to a movie contract with the studio. His first film was Love Is on the Air (1937). In the several years following, he was seen in a number of forgettable films. There were a few, however, that were exceptions, such as Brother Rat (1938), Dark Victory (1939), and Kings Row (1941). His most notable film was made in 1940, Knute Rockne—All American, in which he portrayed football legend George Gipp. With the onset of World War II Reagan found himself making air force training films.
He continued to act after the conclusion of the war but he also found himself becoming extensively involved in politics. During his early political years, Reagan was an active member of several liberal organizations, including the Americans for Democratic Action. Eventually he began to grow fearful of communist subversion and his political attitudes made a turn to the right. In 1947 he testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee regarding the influence the communists had in the movie industry.
It was during the 1950s that Reagan's movie career faltered and he began working for the General Electric Company as a traveling spokesman and as the host of General Electric Theater (on television from 1954 to 1962). It was also during this period that he shifted from being a liberal and a Democrat to a conservative Republican.
Leadership was not unfamiliar to Reagan when he began to work in politics. By the time he co-chaired the Citizens for Goldwater-Miller Committee in 1964, he had already served on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild, serving as president from 1949 to 1952, and again in 1959. He had also served as chairman of the Motion Picture Industry Council in 1949. Two years after the Barry Goldwater campaign, Reagan successfully ran for governor of California against Democratic incumbent Edmund G. Brown.
Reagan's first term agenda as California's governor was to enact a freeze in state hiring, consequently restraining the growth rate of the state's bureaucracy. He also increased taxes to eliminate the state deficit and reduced social services. Welfare reform, reducing the caseload while increasing the payments to families with dependent children, was on the agenda for his second term. Reagan only had moderate success in promoting his programs.
In 1976 he made his first serious run for the U.S. presidency. His long-fought campaign against Gerald Ford was a lost battle and the Republican nomination went to Ford. Reagan was not deterred, and in 1980 he easily won his party's nomination and defeated the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter, for the presidency.
Reagan's presidency was filled with substantial tax cuts. He reduced spending on domestic programs, increased military expenditures, and doubled the national debt. His moves are credited with decreasing the inflation rate, which had seen rapid growth in the 1970s, down to 3.5 percent during his tenure. On March 30, 1981, a 25-year old drifter named John Hinckley shot Reagan. His wounds were serious, but he recovered and the stories of his good humor while in the hospital added to his popularity.
In 1986 it was learned that the Reagan administration had participated in the shipping of arms to the radical Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran. This was apparently an effort to gain the release of American hostages who were being held by Iranian terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon. During investigations it became clear that high-ranking officials in the National Security Council, an agency that advises the president, had covertly moved money from the Iranian arms deals to aid the U.S.-supported insurrectionists against the (Marxist) Sandinista government in Nicaragua. While others resigned or were prosecuted for their involvement, Reagan himself was left relatively unscathed by the scandal.
Reagan's foreign affairs policies may be the legacy which will stand the test of time. During Reagan's tenure he pushed for the largest peacetime military buildup in American history. In 1983 he unveiled a proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative. His strong military build up lead to the 1988 summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev where they signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) limiting the use of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Arguably, this marked the beginning of the end of communist Russia. Many credit Reagan's policies with the end of communism in Europe and its reduction as a political alternative in much of the world.
Ronald Reagan retired to Santa Monica, California, with his second wife Nancy Davis Reagan (born Anne Frances Robbins). His last public act was to have President William Clinton inform the country of his Alzheimer's Disease.
See also: Laissez Faire, Supply-Side Economics
Carter, Hodding. The Reagan Years. New York: G. Braziller, 1988.
D'Souza, Dinesh. Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Morris, Edmund. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House, 1999.
Reagan, Ronald. The Common Sense of an Uncommon Man: The Wit, Wisdom and Eternal Optimism of Ronald Reagan. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.