National Army Museum

Ronald Reagan 1911-2004

Stephen Young puts the career of the 40th American President into historical perspective.

Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981.
Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981
The passing of former US President Ronald Reagan at the age of 93 was marked by a whole week of eulogising and by America's first state funeral in a generation. Many on this side of the Atlantic have expressed surprise at the glowing tributes paid to a man who remains a controversial figure. He can be portrayed as an amiable dunce who was fortunate to escape impeachment and whose policies widened social divisions, whereas supporters claim that he won the Cold War and restored America's self-confidence whilst laying the ground for a long period of economic growth in the 1990s.

From humble origins to White House

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Illinois in 1911 to a doting mother and alcoholic father. He was active in sports, student politics and amateur dramatics before carving a niche for himself as a sports broadcaster, commentating on baseball games from a radio studio but making listeners believe he was actually there as he enthusiastically embellished wire service reports. By 1937 he was in Hollywood gaining a reputation as a dependable B-movie actor with Warner Brothers. Reagan was no Henry Fonda but still amassed over 50 film appearances as he refined the skills that would serve him so well on a different stage. 

He drifted into politics via the Screen Actors' Guild, earning his anti-communist spurs in the McCarthy era as the Cold War developed. He was employed by General Electric as corporate spokesman during the 1950s, a pivotal time for his own partisan allegiances as the one-time admirer of Franklin Roosevelt changed into a staunch Republican. Following an effective fundraising speech in favour of the right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan was persuaded into running for governor of California by leading Republicans and businessmen who recognised his potential. 

His two terms in Sacramento from 1967 to 1975 gave a preview of many of the themes of the Reagan presidency. He presented himself as a regular guy as opposed to a career politician, a conservative in favour of small government, a peddler of simple solutions who left the political realities to his aides. But ultimately it was his charm and his undoubted belief in himself and America that propelled him towards Washington. 

The 1970s was a decade of self-doubt for the United States following the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. Gerald Ford proved to be little more than a caretaker president and almost lost the right to face the electorate in 1976 in favour of the up-and-coming Reagan. Ford clung on to the Republican nomination but was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter at the polls. President Carter was exactly what America needed at the time: a humble, trustworthy leader whose low-key style and frugal nature hit the mark and helped restore some faith in the presidency. But the office of president acts like a mirror for America and, following the taking of American hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the once mighty US felt somewhat impotent. The time was right to elect a more traditional type of leader, a strong man with charisma who would stand up to the Soviets and give America back its self-esteem. Reagan won the Republican primaries with ease and with defeated opponent George Bush in tow he dealt the dour Carter a convincing defeat in November 1980.

President Reagan's achievements

The stage was perfectly set for Reagan as he rode into town to save the day. His first year in office was nothing short of remarkable - full of glamour, heroism and political accomplishment. Reagan hit the ground running as the 52 US diplomats being held hostage in Tehran were released from their long captivity within an hour of his taking office. This was not due to any action of the new administration: the Iranians simply waited until Carter left office before allowing the hostages' plane to take off. Another event that helped heal America's wounded pride was the launch of the first space shuttle in April. America had appeared weak under Carter as a rescue mission to Iran had floundered in the desert and the 1980 Moscow Olympics had been dominated by communist victories following a US boycott, but now the tide was turning.

Reagan was shot and seriously wounded by would-be assassin John Hinckley who, inspired by the film 'Taxi Driver', attempted to kill the President to demonstrate his feelings for the actress Jodie Foster. Reagan showed his courage and style throughout the incident and quips such as 'Honey, I forgot to duck' (to his wife Nancy) and 'Please tell me you're Republicans' (to the surgeons about to operate on him) have gone down in Reagan folklore. Following a remarkably swift recovery he hobbled into Congress and gave an address to further his legislative programme. In July 1981 the Omnibus Budget Reconstruction Act slashed government spending by $35 billion and the Economic Recovery Tax Act of the following month significantly cut taxes for the wealthy. Reagan asserted his right-wing credentials still further by sacking striking air traffic controllers, quite a turnaround for a man who had been active in collective bargaining himself during his student and Hollywood days.

The successful enactment of his economic agenda should be considered a great achievement. An American president is much less certain of support from the legislature than a British prime minister, and with the Democrats firmly in control of the House of Representatives the administration clearly had its work cut out. Reagan's mode of operation was to spell out the big picture and then leave the rest to his aides. During the first year his capable team, headed by Chief of Staff James Baker, was stunningly effective, but further down the line this policy of delegation - or, as some would have it, dereliction - of duty almost proved to be Reagan's undoing. But for now all went according to plan and the affable Reagan played his part masterfully. His unambiguity and clear focus were major assets. He may not have been a master of backroom politics like Johnson or as in command of policy detail as Carter but his conservative beliefs were deeply held and clearly presented via a medium with which he was well at ease. Reagan's knack of winning public support for the simple, black and white choices he laid before America was invaluable in his administration's task of gaining acceptance on Capitol Hill. 

The reasoning behind 'Reaganomics' was to strengthen the economy by promoting investment, with prosperity eventually trickling down to the benefit of all. However, America was on the brink of a steep recession and this led to taxes being raised and Reagan's job approval ratings plummeting. But recovery came in 1984 and re-election was a mere formality, secured by a campaign that proclaimed that it was 'Morning Again in America'. The nation had emerged strong and proud from the domestic and international troubles of the 1970s and this was best illustrated by the ever optimistic Reagan. As a lifeguard in the summers of his youth he had saved the lives of 77 people, as President - so supporters claimed - he had saved the nation's soul. Not all agreed, however, and critics highlighted the cuts in welfare spending and the problems of homelessness, increasing drug use and a farm crisis that all left their mark on 1980s' America.

Reagan on the world stage

Even Reagan's critics must accept that he played a major role in bringing the Cold War to an end. Détente had abruptly halted following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979 and the new Republican President, well known as a strident anti-communist, drastically increased defence spending. In 1983 he labelled the Soviet Union an 'evil empire' (note the release of 'The Empire Strikes Back' in 1980) and then promptly launched his pet project of creating a space-based defensive shield to protect America from incoming nuclear missiles, which inevitably became known as Star Wars. 

Reagan was certainly never going to negotiate out of fear but he got the opportunity to demonstrate that he never feared to negotiate when a new breed of Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, arrived on the scene in 1985. The two men broke the ice at summits in Geneva and Reykjavik before signing an historic arms reduction treaty in Washington in 1987. Reagan's friendly manner and tough bargaining skills were essential to this process as he first formed a personal bond with Gorbachev and then refused to yield on the Strategic Defense Initiative. The debate will rage on as to whether Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union with his escalation of the arms race and willingness to take it into space. A crippled Soviet economy was never going to be able to keep up and Gorbachev was backed into a corner. No doubt defence spending helped take the Soviet Union to the verge of disintegration but other factors should be borne in mind: the long-term inefficiency of Soviet communism, discontent in occupied Poland, the internal reforms of the Gorbachev era and the toll of Afghanistan, which had become their Vietnam. 

The final thawing of the Cold War provided Reagan's presidency with the happy ending of which it had looked like being deprived. In late 1986 news leaked that the administration had been selling arms to Iran in return for Iranian influence in securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The President was able to justify this to himself as being in the best long-term interests of the US because it was helping to build a relationship with moderates in Iran. Yet this explanation required a suspension of disbelief, as it was common knowledge that there were no moderates in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini having had them all shot.

But more disturbing revelations were to come. A surplus payment of $12 million from the Iranians had been secretly diverted through Switzerland to Nicaraguan rebels who were fighting the left-wing regime in their homeland. Reagan had long been a supporter of the 'Contras' and had tried to provide aid to them in the past before being expressly forbidden to do so by Congress. He pleaded ignorance to this twist in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and though investigations proved inconclusive on the extent of his knowledge they did reveal an administration in disarray.

Mourning in America

So can Ronald Reagan be considered among the greats? Given Iran-Contra and the insight it gave into Reagan's ineptitude, the topography of Mount Rushmore would be better left unchanged. What would be a fitting epithet for President Reagan? 'The Great Communicator' seems apt; never has a politician used the media with such ease and flair. Consider his moving address following the loss of the shuttle 'Challenger' and compare it with George W. Bush's awkward reaction to 'Columbia'. 'The Teflon President' is also fitting as the mud never seemed to stick. Arguably Nixon and Clinton had articles of impeachment voted against them for less. 'The Credit Card President' is amusing and appropriate; his tax cuts and defence spending left an astronomical deficit behind. Gore Vidal always insisted on referring to Reagan as 'The Acting President', a sobriquet the man himself tacitly concurred with when he later confessed that the president was the greatest role he ever played.

The outpouring of affection for Reagan can in part be explained by the circumstances and timing of his death. Alzheimer's is a cruel disease that robs the afflicted of their memory: Reagan had long forgotten his time in the White House and recognised no one. It also places a terrible burden on family and friends. The mourning revealed that Americans were united in sympathy for former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who had stoically stood by her beloved Ronnie throughout his long illness just as dutifully as she had whilst he was in the White House.

The end for Reagan came at a time when a fragile America was racked with doubt over its role in the world following the release of photographs of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated by US military personnel. Nostalgia and heroism were already in the air as the West was busy commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day and so it is understandable that post 9/11 America was so receptive to images from a more certain time. These considerations notwithstanding, Ronald Reagan deserves to be remembered as a remarkable character and a highly significant if not quite truly great president.

Further Reading
  • G.H. Bennett, The American Presidency 1945-2000 (Sutton, 2000)
  • Edmund Morris, Dutch - A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (Random House, 1999)
  • Bob Woodward, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate (Simon and Schuster, 1999)
  • Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, Landslide - The Unmaking of the President 1984-1988 (Collins, 1988)

Stephen Young teaches History and Government & Politics at Ashton Sixth Form and is a co-author of Spotlight on US History (Routledge, 2004).

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