Ronald Wilson Reagan An American Patriarch
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6th, 1911. He was a successful Radio announcer, Involved in the film industry, Actor, Soldier, and eventually Governor of California, and then President of the United States.
Early life & Background
Ronald Reagan, the son of Jack and Nelle Reagan, was born in a small apartment above the Pitney General Store, in Tampico, Illinois. The family, which included an older brother Neil, moved to a succession of northern Illinois towns as his salesman father searched for a well-paying job. They struggled immensely in the early years, which can not be overlooked as a reason for Ronald’s drive and work ethic later in life. In 1920, they settled in Dixon.
Jack, Reagan’s father, was a dreamer full of ideas, and yet also an alcoholic. Jack and Nelle were both die-hard Democrats; in religious background he was a Roman Catholic, and she an active member of the Disciples of Christ. After Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, Jack Reagan was promoted for his Democratic activism by being named the local director of the Works Progress Administration, a federal agency created by Roosevelt to provide work for jobless Americans. Neil Reagan was also employed by the WPA. Ronald Reagan remembered his father as being fiercely opposed to racial and religious intolerance. There are more than a few instances where Ronald Reagan credited his father in that he decided to refuse to succumb to the lows that Jack Reagan did, which is how Ronald would come to sore in life. This also created a desire in the younger Reagan to have his faith in God as a rock. Jack Reagan died in 1941.
Ronald’s mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan, nurtured and encouraged her sons. She had married Jack Reagan in a Catholic ceremony, and the older son Neil was raised as a Catholic. Both boys believed that Neil took after his father and Ronald more after his mother. Nelle raised Ronald in her church, the Disciples of Christ. She was a relentless do-gooder, visiting prisoners, poorhouse inmates, and hospital patients. She also organized drama recitals—some of which featured her sons—and worked as a salesclerk and seamstress in the 1930s. As an adult, Ronald often reminisced fondly about his mother’s compassion and generosity.
As a young boy, Ronald Reagan was bright and vicarious, excelling academically, athletically, in small acting ventures, and his high school jobs. Reagan graduated from Dixon High School in 1928, where he was a star. Playing on the football and basketball teams, became president of the student body, acted in school plays, wrote for the yearbook, and more. Reagan, worked six summers as a lifeguard in Dixon on the high-danger Rock River, saving 77 lives. These early years are key, because this was the making of Ronald Reagan, a man who’d save our nation.
Ronald Reagan began his college career in 1928 at Eureka College located in Eureka, Illinois. While attending he became known as a jack of all trades, becoming an excellent dishwasher, campus politician, participating on several sport teams, and was elected student body president. While at Eureka he also stepped his feet into the political realms a bit by giving a dramatic oration on behalf of Eureka students who were striking to restore classes that the school administration had eliminated because of financial strains caused by the Great Depression; like a good democrat. But here he did not really pursue his academics wholeheartedly and graduated with an economics degree in 1932, with an average of C.
Radio, Film & Acting Industry
Upon graduation, Reagan drove himself to Iowa and somehow managed to get a job as a radio sportscaster at WOC in Davenport, Iowa, for $10 per game and transportation expenses. His lively imagination and resonant radio voice made up for his terrible inexperience. Ronald Reagan taught himself how to ‘master’ the trade, and amazingly, by 1936, he was earning a nice sum as Chicago Cubs’ announcer, and additionally in football announcing.
In 1937, it was obvious that Ronald Reagan possessed many characteristics that set him up for a movie career. So in the spring of that year, he was heading to Hollywood to cover the Cubs spring training; and to meet an agent. Warner Brothers was seeking out a young actor to replace a rising young star that had been killed in a car accident. Ironically, Reagan resembled that young star. He was hired on the spot and as a Hollywood movie actor from 1937 to 1957, he appeared in an astounding 53 films. Reagan absorbed the craft of filmmaking, and especially the art of staging a scene effectively. This, along with a number of other skills learned through his acting career, was a skill that Ronald Reagan would use repeatedly during his political career.
During the war Reagan was in the Air Force; he was assigned to make training films. He resumed his Hollywood career on release in 1946. On his return home, we begin to see the transformation from progressive-democratic beliefs, to more conservative. Ronald Reagan became increasingly involved in politics, giving more and more of gripping speeches, but this time with a different cause. While growing more involved in politics, Reagan was becoming less involved in acting.
In 1947, Reagan cited factions within Hollywood that were “more or less following the tactics we associate with the Communist Party.” Elected that year as president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan successfully negotiated union contracts and endeavored to keep communists from gaining influence in the film industry. As he gained prominence for his skillful execution of the S.G.A. presidency, his personal life suffered. His nine-year marriage to actress Jane Wyman came to an end. The divorce greatly disturbed Reagan, and ushered in a period of deep professional and personal searching. Disappointed with the caliber of roles Hollywood was offering him, Reagan looked outside of show business for opportunities. This is where we see him get heavily involved in politics He campaigned for California Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in her bid for the U.S. Senate against Richard Nixon. Then he campaigned as a Democrat for Eisenhower, but all the while what would be the values in his latter life, were forming and/or changing all the more.
His second wife, Nancy Davis Reagan, whom he married in 1952, encouraged him to speak out in defense of the American values that were becoming increasingly important to him.
These beliefs and values would go on to be defined by many of his deepest admirers as:
- Sanctity and dignity of human life
- American exceptionalism
- The Founders’ wisdom and vision
- Lower taxes
- Limited government
- Peace through strength
- Belief in the individual
Those are the principles that would work for Reagan and the nation.
As mentioned above, Reagan was becoming more and more involved in politics. He resumed the presidency of the SAG in 1959, their main cause being a sort of Union for Actors, mainly being democratic in origin. And yet from the beginning his involvement in SAG was primarily to fight communism and those who’d been blacklisted.
In Fact, this is how he met his wife, Nancy Davis Reagan. In 1949 after she contacted him due to his role as president of the Screen Actors Guild to help her with issues regarding her name appearing on a Communist blacklist in Hollywood. She had been mistaken for another Nancy Davis.
But in his politics, however, Reagan did begin to identify more frequently with Republicans. He was a participant in the Democrats-for-Eisenhower campaigns in 1952 and 1956, which attracted many other Democrats. But in 1960, when many of these “Eisenhower Democrats” returned to the party fold and supported John F. Kennedy, Reagan championed the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon. Reagan did not especially like Nixon; he was motivated more by a distrust of Kennedy and the national Democratic Party, which Ronald Reagan saw as moving to the left. His main concern with moving to left was a growing and growing awareness of communism in Europe, and what is was doing to the nation, and more importantly the world.
Reagan, still a nominal Democrat, delivered more than 200 speeches for Nixon, whom Kennedy barely defeated. Upon Nixon running for governor of California in 1962 against Democrat Pat Brown, Reagan again supported him and this time changed his registration to Republican.
Reagan’s political conversion in part may have reflected the change in his economic status. In 1945, his agent secured him a $1 million multi-year contract, more than $11 million in today’s dollars, and he became exceptionally well off for the first time in his life in a day when tax rates were very high the in U.S. and individuals were not allowed to average their income. He was deeply displeased with paying high taxes—it was a short step from there that he could see the federal government was violating his freedom. Reagan’s critical attitude toward government was heightened and refined by his speaking trips for General Electric, which exposed him to company middle managers who shared his concerns.
Ronald Reagan took on many of the concepts of Milton Friedman, a libertarian economist who championed freedom. Reagan, who in the 1940s excoriated “Big Business” now attacked “Big Government” and sang the praises of American business in talks titled “Encroaching Control” and “Our Eroding Freedoms.” During the eight years of his contract with General Electric, Reagan spoke at every one of the company’s 135 plants and to many of GE’s 250,000 employees in trips that served as a valuable political apprenticeship. He made good use of the long trips between plants to write his speeches in longhand on legal pads, transcribing them onto cards. In these speeches, Reagan carefully reworked his themes of individual freedom and anti-Communism, surrounding his message with homey stories drawn from local newspapers or national news. The result was a basic address called “Time for Choosing” or simply, “The Speech”. It expressed Reagan’s core convictions and was sprinkled with topical anecdotes. His ease with people, brilliant speaking abilities, and increasing concern for his nation lightened the sternness of his warning that Americans were in danger.
By 1962 of course, Ronald Reagan recognized that he had diverged greatly from modern democratic policies. Conservatives nationwide saw Reagan as their new star when his campaigning for Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 was better received than Goldwater’s own speeches. He raised an astounding (it was only 1964) eight million dollars for Goldwater. Despite Goldwater’s defeat, Reagan’s 1964 “Time for Choosing” speech helped launch his political career into full gear and made him became a very considerable candidate for governor of California.
“The Speech” is by many, considered to be Ronald Reagan’s major step onto the political scene. It is included here:
“I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this.
It’s time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, “We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government.”
This idea — that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream-the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”
The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.
Public servants say, always with the best of intentions, “What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.” But the truth is that outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector.
Yet any time you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we’re denounced as being opposed to their humanitarian goals. It seems impossible to legitimately debate their solutions with the assumption that all of us share the desire to help the less fortunate. They tell us we’re always “against,” never “for” anything.
We are for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we have accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem. However, we are against those entrusted with this program when they practice deception regarding its fiscal shortcomings, when they charge that any criticism of the program means that we want to end payments….
We are for aiding our allies by sharing our material blessings with nations which share our fundamental beliefs, but we are against doling out money government to government, creating bureaucracy, if not socialism, all over the world.
We need true tax reform that will at least make a start toward restoring for our children the American Dream that wealth is denied to no one, that each individual has the right to fly as high as his strength and ability will take him…. But we can not have such reform while our tax policy is engineered by people who view the tax as a means of achieving changes in our social structure….
Have we the courage and the will to face up to the immorality and discrimination of the progressive tax, and demand a return to traditional proportionate taxation? … Today in our country the tax collector’s share is 37 cents of every dollar earned. Freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp.
Are you willing to spend time studying the issues, making yourself aware, and then conveying that information to family and friends? Will you resist the temptation to get a government handout for your community? Realize that the doctor’s fight against socialized medicine is your fight. We can’t socialize the doctors without socializing the patients. Recognize that government invasion of public power is eventually an assault upon your own business. If some among you fear taking a stand because you are afraid of reprisals from customers, clients, or even government, recognize that you are just feeding the crocodile hoping he’ll eat you last.
If all of this seems like a great deal of trouble, think what’s at stake. We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States. Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation.
They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right. Winston Churchill said that “the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits-not animals.” And he said, “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will 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.”
Not surprisingly, Reagan was soon asked to run for Governor of California. Even now, this speech is clearly one of the most effective ever made on behalf of a candidate. Nevertheless, Barry Goldwater lost the election by one of the largest margins in history. Ronald Reagan would be recognized, revered, and studied for his speaking abilities in how effective his skills were.
Reagan was both ambitious and cautious about his political future. His interest was in national politics but with no (seemingly) passageway at hand into federal office, Reagan and his wife Nancy explored other possibilities with a small group of friends and entrepreneurs. A local successful man, the leader of this group, insisted that the path to Washington went through the California state capitol of Sacramento. After some hesitation, the Reagans agreed. They recruited the state’s leading political consulting firm, Spencer-Roberts, to advise them in an attempt to win the governorship of California in 1966. Stuart K. Spencer and Bill Roberts, the consultants, had supported Nelson Rockefeller against Goldwater in 1964; they were Republican pragmatists without a defining ideology. The employment of Spencer-Roberts sent a message to Republican moderates that Reagan was similarly pragmatic; it also deprived Reagan’s foes of Spencer-Roberts’ services.
In setting out to become governor, Reagan faced first the hurdle of the Republican primary and then what appeared to be the formidable task of defeating the incumbent, two-term, Democratic governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown of San Francisco. Brown was seen as a political giant-killer after defeating nationally known Republicans in 1958 and 1962, but he suffered from the ravages of incumbency and a party deeply split over trying issues of the day. Many voters thought that the Brown administration had responded ineffectually to the Watts Riots of 1965 and to radical demonstrations at the University of California at Berkeley taxes.
Brown and his strategists dismissed Reagan as a lightweight—an opinion based almost solely on the fact that he was an actor—and a right-winger. Since labeling Goldwater an “extremist” had been an effective tactic for LBJ, Brown believed this line of attack would work against Reagan. So Brown and his operatives tried to help Reagan win the GOP nomination by leaking damaging information about his Republican opponent George Christopher to columnist Drew Pearson. This bizarre strategy backfired. Reagan defeated Christopher, who was so angry at Brown for what he believed was a smear that he backed Reagan and helped unify the Republicans. Ronald Reagan was unstoppable.
Something else of utter importance in his run for governor was Reagan’s exceptional campaigning team. In addition to the number of items we have named they also aired a 30-minute campaign spot months before the primary, outlining much of the conservative philosophy Reagan stated in his Goldwater speech, that the Republican Party was the party of “limited government, individual freedom and adherence to the Constitution.”
His opponent in the Republican primary was a former Mayor of San Francisco, George Christopher. The Reagan team leveraged their candidate’s ability as a public speaker with a grassroots campaign to win the nomination over Christopher. As stated, it is undeniable that Regan’s charm, ease, likeable persona, and ability to clearly communicate greatly effected the public’s view. The team also used polling and other behavioral science techniques that, though familiar to modern political campaigners, were novel then.
Finally, Reagan easily defeated Christopher in the June 7, 1966, primary, which was apparently what Governor Brown wanted. For various reasons, the Brown camp saw the inexperienced Reagan as an easier November opponent. But he would deafeat brown by nearly 1 million votes in Governor for the Golden state. Four years later, Reagan would win a second term.
So, what was did the public think of Ronald Regan as governor?
“He governed on the basic principles that he campaigned on – business-like methods, making sure that the government did not unnecessarily expand, welfare reform – those kinds of things that he had talked about when he ran for office in 1966.” Meese says.
“He was true to what he thought – at that point in time, I think – were his values, his political values and his personal values.”
Numerous observers of Reagan’s governorship say the experience he gained during those eight years, especially with a strong opposition Legislature; helped prepare him for President of the United States.
Major accomplishments as Governor of California
When coming into office, there was a growing number of anarchist protesters at the Berkeley Protests over the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The protests would become violent. Reagan sent forces to “crack down” upon the civil disobedience measures being practiced there, and later the national guard to handle the riots. It allowed him to showcase his populist themes of morality, Law and order, strong leadership, and defense of traditional values. Reagan was reelected in 1970, after firing the president of the state university and sending in armed force to confront student demonstrators. Reagan’s handling of this crisis helped to make him into a national politician known for strength and courage
His notable actions as governor include putting a freeze on governmental hiring and established raises in taxes in an effort to balance California’s budget. Reagan supported and signed laws to liberalize abortion in California (before the Supreme Court issued Roe vs. Wade), but later turned strongly against abortion. He also launched a bid in the Republican primaries for the upcoming Presidential race by promoting himself in an anti-Nixon campaign, hoping to split the votes between Nixon and Nelson Rockerfeller in his favor. This attempt was unsuccessful, however. Reagan continued his time as governor.
Ronald’s time as governor helped to shape the policies he would pursue in his later political career as president. During his time as governor, he developed & became known as one who dealt & worked well with Democrats. By campaigning on a platform of sending “the welfare bums back to work,” he spoke out against the idea of the welfare state. He also strongly advocated the Republican ideal of less government regulation of the economy, including that of undue federal taxation
Reagan for President?
Although he did not formally declare his candidacy until November 1979, Reagan made it clear to his inner circle from the moment of the 1976 convention that he intended to again seek the presidency. He was the choice of typical Republican voters in public opinion polls although many establishment GOP politicians thought he was too conservative and perhaps too old to win the White House; he would be Sixty-Five when he took office. And besides, there was a number of other candidates.
None of these men had Reagan’s combination of political stature and communication skills, although Bush, who had represented the United States at the United Nations and in China, and had served in the House and as Republican national chairman, had broader experience. Moreover, conservatives were the dominant force within the Republican Party, and Reagan was their champion. Moderate Republicans worried that Reagan would be too confrontational toward the Soviet Union.
Before the general election, Reagan faced a Republican primary challenge from the more moderate George H.W. Busch. Bush was well established and respected in political realms, as having served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ambassador to People’s Republic of China and the United Nations, former chairman of the National Republican Committee, and two-term Congressman Texas. Bush referred to Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics.” After Bush won a surprising victory in the Iowa State primary, Reagan surged ahead after he outwitted Bush in the New Hampshire debate. Members of Reagan’s old California political team, encouraged by Nancy Reagan, knew that their candidate was at his best when voters saw him in person, where they could hear his often inspiring oratory and sense his personal warmth. He campaigned for the victory in New Hampshire for 21 nears, nearly uninterrupted. a display of stamina that quieted many concerns. He later won the primary, and ironically named George H. W. Bush as his running mate.
Reagan was able to crusade against the failures of incumbent Democrat, President Jimmy Carter. There was soaring interest rates, persistent unemployment, a series of humiliations abroad, numerous diplomatic issues, a weakened military in the face of growing Soviet superpower, and an additional number of issues. Reagan promised a freedom sort of promise. Freedom from government. Freedom from Communism. Freedom for business. And it was different. And obviously, Americans wanted something different.
President Carter faced a very improbable reelection. Iranian Islamists were holding 53 members of the American embassy staff hostage and the rescue attempt had failed terribly, Castro flooded Florida with Cuban refugees, there was a national oil shortage resulting in increased gasoline prices, The Soviet Union was on the rise, high unemployment, and 18 percent inflation. Reagan ran as a Washington outsider as the Republican nominee. The centerpiece of the Reagan campaign was his record as an effective Governor, where he is credited for reducing California’s deficit while lowering taxes, and pointing out the failures of the Carter administration. President Jimmy Carter tried to cast his presidency in the best possible light, stressing ‘good’ records. He portrayed himself as a peacemaker and Reagan as a warmonger. Although because of Reagan’s cool and confident manner, this proved to be a failure, too.
Election day 1980, then, marked the intersection of many important things facing the country: 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 legend of Ronald Reagan. Once a minor film star and a politician whom many Americans considered an extremist, he had emerged as the most talked of 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. Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49.
Ronald Reagan took up the presidency when he was sworn into office on January 20, 1981. In his inaugural address, Reagan famously said of America’s troubled economy, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
His first act as president was an executive order ending price controls on domestic oil, price controls which had contributed to the oil and energy crisis that had been persisting over the past decade.
During his presidency, Ronald Reagan put in place policies that reflected his beliefs in individual freedom, expanded the American Economy, and contributed to the end of the Cold War. The “Reagan Revolution”, as it came to be known, aimed to reinvigorate American morale, and reduce the people’s reliance upon government.
As a politician and as President, Ronald Reagan portrayed himself as being a conservative, anti-communist, in favor of tax cuts, in favor of smaller government in the economic sphere while actively interventionist in the social and foreign policy spheres, and in favor of removing regulations on corporations. Ronald Reagan is credited with putting in place the things which ended the Cold War.
His wife, Nancy Reagan, was well-admired by the nation. She is described by a White House journalist of the time as:
“…Her devoted gaze when she looked at the president. Her fierce protection of his image and zero tolerance for aides who exhibited the slightest disloyalty…Yet, in the later years that I covered the White House, I came to appreciate the enormous influence Nancy Reagan had on her husband’s domestic and foreign policies to ensure a successful presidency. She was his only close confidant and friend, and his No. 1 adviser. In retrospect, I must say she served him — and the country— very well. While Reagan gave sharply worded speeches that embellished his conservative views on small government and his antipathy toward the Soviet Union, Nancy Reagan softened her husband’s sharp edges to produce a pragmatic president who could cut deals with the political opposition in Congress and Soviet leaders he had assailed. Such bipartisan agreements that advance the public’s agenda are all but non-existent in Washington today. On domestic policy, Nancy Reagan encouraged compromises on budget policies to preserve some programs for the poor in return for cuts in other programs that did not target those most in need.”
Ronald Reagan’s children were adults when their father became President in 1981. He and his first wife Jane Wyman had one child in 1941, Maureen, and adopted another, Michael, in 1945. With second wife Nancy Davis, Reagan had two children: Patricia Ann, born in 1952, and Ronald Prescott, born in 1958.
Just over two months after his inauguration, on March 30, 1981, Reagan survived an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., a man with a history of psychiatric problems. At 2:27pm that day, President Reagan emerged from the Washington Hilton, surrounded by secret service agents and local police, and accompanied by his press secretary, James Brady, heading toward his limo a few steps away. Stalker John Hinckley, Jr. stood in the crowd behind a rope line and opened fire. Hinckley shot six bullets in a span of 1.7 seconds. The first hit Brady in the head; another hit DC police officer Thomas Delahanty. Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy stood in a blocking position between Reagan and Hinckley and took a bullet for the president. Another shot hit the president in the chest. At the time, Ronald Reagan had been on the job for just over 2 months. This became a very public test of his character under fire. He passed with a much improved public opinion of the Reagan Administration. “I hope you’re all Republicans,” the president memorably joked to the operating room team before they put him under anesthesia.
The gunman’s bullet pierced one of the president’s lungs and narrowly missed his heart. Reagan, known for his good-natured humor, later told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Within several weeks of the shooting, Reagan was back at work.
Ronald Reagan is undeniably best known in his effective efforts of foreign policy, of the ending of the Cold War, and more importantly, the ending of the Soviet Union. So what did he do? For starters, Reagan turned his attention to foreign affairs; believing that the massive military buildup that Congress had approved would enable him to negotiate for reduced nuclear arsenals from a position of strength. There was little movement in this direction, however, during Reagan’s first term. Soviet leaders resented Reagan’s blunt description of their country, in a March 8, 1983, speech, as “the evil empire” and in any case were preoccupied with their own leadership issues. During Reagan’s first term, the Soviets went through a succession of leaders, none of whom was willing to negotiate with a U.S. President.
Americans reelected Reagan by a landslide in 1984 largely because of the economic turnaround and the perception that he was a steady leader. The nation’s economy continued to expand during Reagan’s second term, as did the budget deficits and the national debt. All income levels gained from the new prosperity. It was in foreign affairs that Reagan had his greatest successes—and also his greatest setback. Ronald Reagan’s first term in office was marked by a building up of U.S. weapons and troops, as well as an escalation of the Cold War (1946-1991) with the Soviet Union, which the president dubbed “the evil empire.” Key to his administration’s foreign policy initiatives was the Reagan Doctrine, under which America provided aid to anticommunist movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 1983, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a plan to develop space-based weapons to protect America from attacks by Soviet nuclear missiles.
During his second term, Reagan forged a diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union’s new reform-minded leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to improve superpower relations. With a view to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. He was able to start actual discussions on nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev. Gorbachev and Reagan held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Switzerland, the second in Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow. Reagan believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, this would lead to reform and the end of Communism. Before Gorbachev’s visit to Washington, D.C., for the third summit in 1987, the Soviet leader announced his intention to pursue significant arms agreements.
But it is often made to sound simple, to easy. And it was not. Over the 1970’s the Soviet Union had been increasingly aggressive, making rapid advances in Asia, South America, and Africa. Reagan did not merely react to these alarming events; he was in it to win. He created a complex strategy. He initiated a $1.5 trillion military buildup, the largest in American peacetime history, which was aimed at drawing the Soviets into an arms race he was convinced they could not win. He was also determined to lead the Western alliance in deploying 108 Pershing II and 464 Tomahawk cruise missiles in Europe to counter the SS-20s. Ronald Reagan suggested that for the first time the two superpowers drastically reduce their nuclear stockpiles. If the Soviets would withdraw their SS-20s, the United States would not proceed with the Pershing and Tomahawk deployments. This was called the ‘zero option.’
The Soviet Union was equally hostile to the Reagan counteroffensive, but its understanding of Reagan’s objectives was far more perceptive than expected. These reactions are important because they establish the context for Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power in early 1985. Gorbachev was indeed a new breed of Soviet general secretary, utterly unlike any of his predecessors, but few have asked why he was appointed by the Old Guard. The main reason is that the Politburo had come to recognize the failure of past Soviet strategies.
The Soviet leadership, which at first wrote- off President Reagan’s promise of rearmament as mere rhetoric, seems to have been stunned by the scale and pace of the Reagan military buildup. The Pershing and Tomahawk deployments were, to the Soviets, an unnerving demonstration of the unity and resolve of the Western alliance. Through the Reagan Doctrine, the United States had completely halted Soviet advances in the Third World — since Reagan assumed office, no more territory had fallen into Moscow’s hands. Indeed, one nation, Grenada, had moved back into the democratic camp. There were another number of programs Reagan had paved the way for that helped open the Soviet’s leaders’ eyes, too. Then there was Reagan’s SDI program, which invited the Soviets into a new kind of arms race that they could scarcely afford, and one that they would probably lose. Clearly the Russians saw that the momentum in the Cold War had dramatically shifted. Reagan also threatened Gorbachev. ‘We won’t stand by and let you maintain weapon superiority over us,’ he told him. ‘We can agree to reduce arms, or we can continue the arms race, which I think you know you can’t win.’
In December 1987, Gorbachev left behind his ‘non-negotiable’ demand that Reagan give up SDI and visited Washington, D.C., to sign the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Reagan was assured that the Cold War was over when Gorbachev came to Washington. Gorbachev became a celebrity in the United States, and the crowds cheered when he jumped out of his limousine and shook hands with people on the street. Reagan was out of the limelight, and it didn’t seem to bother him. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he said, “deserves most of the credit, as the leader of this country.”
Reagan’s major accomplishments in Office
- Ending the Cold War: The Cold War had raged since World War II and communism’s quest for world domination remained an existential threat to the United States when President Reagan took office. Reagan reversed the policy of detente and stood firm against the Soviet Union, calling it the Evil Empire and telling Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin. He was relentless in pushing his Strategic Defense Initiative and gave aid to rebels battling Soviet-backed Marxists from Nicaragua to Angola. Those efforts were critical in the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire and essentially ended the Cold War.
- Reaganomics: Ronald Reagan’s across-the-board tax cuts, deregulation, and domestic spending restraint helped fuel an economic boom that lasted two decades. Reagan inherited a misery index (the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates) of 19.99%, and when he left office it had dropped to 9.72%. Under Reaganomics, 16 million new jobs were created. The poverty rate fell from 15.2% during the peak of the 1982 recession to 12.8% when Reagan left office.
- Revitalizing the GOP and the conservative movement: The Republican Party was at a low after Watergate, but Reagan was able to form a winning coalition of conservatives, family-values voters, blue-collar Reagan Democrats and neo-conservative intellectuals and set the stage for future GOP electoral gains. His free-market, small-government, pro-liberty conservatism helped to revitalize the GOP and his influence resonates today as conservative candidates still invoke Reagan as their standard-bearer.
- Peace through Strength: The military was diminished during the Carter years, but Reagan reversed that by rebuilding the armed forces. His Peace Through Strength philosophy was manifested by his reviving the B-1 bomber that Carter canceled, starting production of the MX missile, and pushing NATO to deploy Pershing missiles in West Germany. He increased defense spending by more than 40%, increased troop levels, and even got much-needed space parts into the pipeline. Those efforts ensured that America remained a military superpower.
- Morning in America: It was basically a slogan for Reagan’s 1984 reelection bid, but Morning in America symbolized a new beginning for the country. Reagan’s jaunty optimism and an economic boom was a much-needed tonic for a country that had experienced the malaise of the Carter years and the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam.
- Star Wars: Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was derided by his opponents as being technologically unfeasible, but the mere threat of the U.S. building the system was instrumental in the Soviet Union’s collapse. The successful use of Patriot missile batteries in the first Gulf War proved the critics wrong, and the missile defense system that ensued has lessened the threat of ballistic missiles.
- Nuclear weapons cuts: Even as massive demonstrations were held in Europe against Reagan’s hawkish stance on nuclear arms, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty he signed with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. He also laid the framework with Gorbachev for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which reduced both countries’ arsenals of nuclear weapons.
- Voiced values: Reagan gave voice to the values that had served America well—thrift, patriotism, and hard work—and often recounted the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. He also championed the causes of the pro-life and family-values movements that sought to counter the societal upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.
- Tax reform: Not only did he cut tax rates, but the Tax Reform Act of 1986 simplified the income-tax code by eliminating many tax shelters, reducing the number of deductions and tax brackets. Reagan’s dream of tax returns fitting on a postcard has been nullified as Congress has regressed and continued to make the tax code more complex, necessitating a new push for reform.
- Taking on PATCO: Early in his administration, members of the federal air traffic controllers union (PATCO) went on strike, violating a federal regulation. Declaring the strike a “peril to national safety”. He ended up firing more than 11,000 of the controllers, sending a strong signal that union workers needn’t be tolerated.
Life after Presidency
After serving two very full-terms, Ronald Reagan left office at the age of 77. The Reagans purchased a home in the enclave of Bel Air. For the next six years, he spent his time organizing his memoirs and supervising the creation of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Visiting their Santa Barbara ranch as often as possible, also.
Tragically, Reagan was becoming increasingly forgetful. In November 1994, he announced that he had been diagnosed in August with Alzheimer’s. The forthrightness and courage with which he and Nancy Reagan faced this ordeal, however, raised public awareness and inspired a deluge of contributions to organizations dedicated to finding the cause of, and a cure for, the disease. Ronald Wilson Reagan passed away at his Bel Air home on June 5th, 2004. He was 94.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” -Ronald Reagan