Ronald Reagan

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President Ronald Reagan

Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was the 40th President of the United States of America (1981–1989) and the 33rd Governor of California (1967–1975). He was Republican and a leader of American conservatism, moving the nation to the right in terms of reducing federal regulation and lowering taxes. He cut taxes but despite his proposals, spending and the federal deficit went up. After a short sharp recession early in his first term, the economy was strong by 1984. Proclaiming "It's Morning Again in America", Reagan carried 49 of 50 states to win reelection. He moved the Supreme Court and the federal courts to the right with his appointments. In foreign affairs he rejected détente with the Soviet Union, but not with China. His massive defense buildup forced the Soviets to confront their crumbling financial base. His rejected the legitimacy of Communism and in the Reagan Doctrine systematically challenged and eventually destroyed Soviet strength in the Third World. After 1986 the new leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev who tried desperately to rescue Communism by cutting its losses; they came to terms with Reagan; the Communist empire collapsed in 1989 a few months after Reagan left office, and Communism was abolished (and Gorbachev repudiated) by Russia in 1991. Reagan is thus credited with achieving victory in the Cold War.[1] As a great communicator, and leader of the Republican party, he added a new base of "Reagan Democrats" (blue collar workers who were social conservatives), religious evangelicals, and neoconservative intellectuals; his success became the model for Republicans into the 21st century.

Family background

Reagan's father was a working class Irish Catholic, a Democrat. He held a minor position in the WPA during the New Deal. His son recalled numerous alcoholic episodes. Reagan was influenced more by his mother, a devout member of the Disciples of Christ, and Reagan was a lifelong Protestant. The family lived in various small towns in northern Illinois until Reagan attended Eureka College, a small Disciples school where he was a "big man on campus" and active in theater and student government.

Hollywood star

After a radio job in Iowa, Reagan moved to Hollywood in 1937, where he starred in numerous "B" movies for Warner Brothers and became President of the Screen Actors Guild (the labor union for film actors). He was a prominent Democrat who supported the New Deal Coalition in the 1940s, and was a leading opponent of Communism in Hollywood. Reagan moved to the right in the early 1960s; he became a Republican and supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.

Governor of California: 1966–74

In the 1966 gubernatorial campaign, conservatives generally supported Reagan over George Christopher, the Republican Mayor of San Francisco, California in the primary. Reagan unexpectedly won the primary against the very popular Christopher, and ran against Pat Brown, the liberal Democratic governor of California in 1966. Reagan's strategists wanted to emphasize libertarian support for smaller government and less taxation, as the state verged on a revolt against high property taxes. However the highly controversial student unrest at the University of California at Berkeley, led him to campaign on social issues, law and order, and the morality of the war in Vietnam. Reagan's victory marked the end of New Deal liberalism in California.[2]

From 1967 onwards, Edwin Meese was his closest aide,, following him into the White House. Reagan said of him, "If Ed Meese is not a good man, there are no good men."

Although Reagan sought to defuse student protest, it grew more strident in California and nationwide, allowing Reagan 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 trying to shut the university. Reagan's handling of this crisis helped to make him into a national politician known for strength and courage. [3]

Welfare spending was a major issue in the 1970 election; with 10% of the nation's population, California had 16% of its welfare recipients. Reagan promised to cut the welfare spending by rooting out fraud and abuse, by requiring recipients to take jobs, and by collecting from dead-beat fathers. Democrats in the legislature supported a much more liberal bill, which advocated the welfare rights of the poor. Reagan personally worked out a compromise that passed and won considerable praise and some criticism. Its savings to taxpayers proved small, but it represented an important political achievement for both parties. Reagan benefited as well, emerging from the compromise as a more experienced and effective politician.[4]

Reagan supported and signed laws to liberalize abortion in California (before Roe v. Wade), but later turned against the practice.

Reagan's gubernatorial style carried over into his presidency. He was interested primarily in the big picture, choosing talented staffers who had free reign to handle the details. Reagan was a powerful communicator, through press conferences and public appearances, with an uncanny knack for precise timing to make the maximum impact.[5]

Liberals across the country were puzzled by Reagan, and decided that he was a weak reactionary who would be easy to defeat if he ran for president. California liberals explained they were all wrong, that Reagan was the most formidable Republican since Eisenhower.

Election of 1980

Governor Reagan tested the presidential waters in 1968, but drew back when he saw Richard Nixon's strength. Reagan challenged incumbent Republican president Gerald Ford in 1976. After a poor start when he lost the first 13 primaries, Reagan turned his campaign around and pulled even. Reagan named a liberal eastern Senator as his running mate, but control of the convention came down to the Mississippi delegation, which swung the nomination to Ford. After Ford was defeated in the general election, there was little doubt that Reagan was the dominant Republican, and he easily won the nomination in 1980. He named campaign rival George H. W. Bush as his running mate, and crusaded against the failures of incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. Carter fought back, lashing out at Reagan as a dangerous radical who would unleash nuclear war. A liberal Republican John Anderson ran a third party campaign which received 7% of the popular vote. Reagan won a landslide victory—receiving 51% of the popular vote and winning 44 of 50 states—in the 1980 election by denouncing what he called Carter's failures: runaway inflation, soaring interest rates, persistent unemployment, a series of humiliations abroad, and a weakened military in the face of growing Soviet power. His long coattails brought in the first Republican Senate in years, but the Democrats still controlled the House.

The election marked the last hurrah of the New Deal era, and indeed the end of liberalism as a coherent policy.[6]

Reaganomics: economic policies

Tax cuts 1981

Recession of 1981–82

Federal deficit

Social Security Reform 1983

Mounting concerns that rising Social Security benefits were causing a long-term deficit and were growing too fast resulted in a bipartisan compromise in 1983. Brokered by conservative Alan Greenspan and liberal Claude Pepper, the agreement lowered benefits over the next 75 years and brought the system into balance. Key provisions included a gradual increase over 25 years in the retirement age from 65 to 67, to take account of longer life expectancy. (People could retire younger, but at a reduced rate of benefits.) Millions of people were added to the system, especially employees of state governments and of nonprofit organizations.[7]

Tax Reform 1986

Economic recovery

Reelection 1984

Foreign Policy: Cold War

(See The Reagan Doctrine)

President Reagan riding with Queen Elizabeth II of United Kingdom, courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

Reagan forcefully confronted the Soviet Union, marking a sharp departure from the détente observed by his predecessors Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Under the assumption that the Soviet Union could not then outspend the US government in a renewed arms race, he accelerated increases in defense spending begun during the Carter Administration and strove to make the Cold War economically and rhetorically hot.[8]

Reagan had three motivations. First he agreed with the neoconservatives who argued that the Soviets had pulled ahead in military power and the U.S. had to race to catch up.[9] Second, Reagan believed the decrepit Soviet economy could not handle a high-tech weapons race based on computers; it was imperative to block them from gaining western technology.[10] Third, was the moral certainty that Communism was evil and doomed to failure. Reagan was the first major world leader to declare that Communism would soon collapse. On March 3, 1983, he was blunt to a religious group: the Soviet Union is "the focus of evil in the modern world" and could not last: "I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose — last pages even now are being written."[11] His most detailed analysis came on June 8, 1982, to the British Parliament, stunning the Soviets and allies alike. Most experts assumed that the Soviet Union would be around for generations to come, and it was essential to recognize that and work with them. But Reagan ridiculed the USSR as an "evil empire" and argued that it was suffering a deep economic crisis, which he intended to make worse by cutting off western technology. He stated the Soviet Union "runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens." [12]

A year later in 1983 Reagan stunned the world with a totally new idea: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), labeled "star wars" by the media, after the current movie. Reagan, following the ideas of Edward Teller (who invented the H-Bomb in 1950) called for a defensive missile umbrella over the U.S. that would intercept and destroy in space any hostile missiles. It was an unexpected, new idea, and supporters cheered, as SDI seemed to promise protection from nuclear destruction. To opponents, SDI meant a new arms race and the end of the Mutual Assured Destruction ("MAD") strategy that they believed had so far prevented nuclear war. The Soviets were stunned—they lacked basic computers and were unable to say whether it would work or not. Critics said it would cost a trillion dollars; yes said supporters, and the Soviets will go bankrupt if they try to match it. The SDI was in fact funded (as of 2007 it is still funded and still not finished.) [13]


The greatest embarrassment to Reagan was the strange Iran–Contra affair that unfolded in his second term and seized national attention in 1986–87. Reagan disregarded warnings by his cabinet leaders and signed off on operations by his national security staff without fully realizing what was at stake. Then he paid no attention to what was going on—an example of his usual distance from government operations.[14] His failure of oversight wounded his public standing. No Reagan official was charged with illegal behavior during Iran–Contra itself; several however were guilty of misdemeanors for later withholding information from Congress. [15]

See also Iran-Contra Affair

Efforts to impeach

See efforts to impeach Ronald Reagan

Court appointments

(PD) Photo: Ronald Reagan Library
Reagan with Robert Bork, whom he unsuccessfully nominated to the Supreme Court

Reagan appointed many justices and judges to the Supreme Court and other federal courts, most of them being conservative, effectively veering the federal judicial branch to the right. He appointed Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court and elevated William Rehnquist to the position of Chief Justice. He also nominated Robert Bork, a noted conservative legal scholar to the Supreme Court but the nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate.

Notable judges on the lower federal courts appointed by Reagan included Richard Posner, Alex Kozinski, Edith Jones, Douglas Ginsburg, Emilio Garza, and James Harvie Wilkinson III.

Reagan's legacy


Foreign policy

Liberals were aghast at Reagan's foreign policy, because it pushed idealism and moralism in dangerous directions; one critic ridiculed it as "crackpot moralism." Liberals preferred a "foreign policy that pursued this national interest—by pulling back from a preoccupation with the Soviet threat, reducing military expenditure, relying on increased cooperation with our allies, establishing more constructive links to the Third World, restricting the freedom of multinational capital, deemphasizing nuclear weapons, and deepening detente with the Soviet Union."[16]

What scholars label the "orthodox view" of the end of the Cold War is that "the Soviet Union's capitulation and the Cold War victory for the forces of freedom and democracy were ultimately due to the relentless application of the West's military superiority and the dynamism of its ideas and economic system. These factors revealed communism's moral illegitimacy and highlighted its economic stagnation." [17] It is broadly endorsed by both Republicans (who emphasize Reagan's role), and by Democrats (who emphasize the containment policies of Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.

European leaders of the 1980s give credit to Reagan for winning the Cold War. Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarity movement in Poland, said in 2004, "When talking about Ronald Reagan, I have to be personal. We in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty. This can't be said often enough by people who lived under oppression for half a century, until communism fell in 1989." [18] Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany, said, "He was a stroke of luck for the world. Two years after Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall, he noted, it fell and 11 months later Germany was reunified. We Germans have much to thank Ronald Reagan for." Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said, "President Reagan was a determined opponent of Communism and he played an important role in bringing an end to Communism and to the artificial division of Europe imposed after the Second World War." Václav Havel, who became the Czech president in 1989, said, "He was a man of firm principles who was indisputably instrumental in the fall of Communism." [19]

Domestic Policy

Reagan effected a permanent shift in economic policy, so that the wisdom of deregulation and lower taxes came to be widely accepted. The GOP locked into the lower tax mantra to the extent that it downplayed the theme of balancing budgets and stopped warning against the national debt. Reagan attacked welfare programs as wasteful for the taxpayers and inefficient for the recipients, but he was unable to make major changes. A bipartisan coalition in 1995 did radically reform welfare, but it is unclear how much influence can be attributed to Reagan.

Further reading

see Bibliography for much more detailed guide.

  • Berman, Larry, ed. Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency (1990), essays by academics
  • Busch, Andrew E.; "Ronald Reagan and the Defeat of the Soviet Empire" in Presidential Studies Quarterly. Vol: 27. Issue: 3. 1997. pp 451+. online edition
  • Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime Public Affairs. (2nd ed 2000) 948 pp. full-length biography online edition
  • Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power detailed biography
  • Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan, 1964–1980: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order (2001)
  • Berman William C. America's Right Turn: From Nixon to Bush. (1994).
  • Brownlee, W. Elliot and Hugh Davis Graham, eds. The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies (2003)
  • Campagna; Anthony S. The Economy in the Reagan Years: The Economic Consequences of the Reagan Administrations Greenwood Press. 1994 online edition
  • Cannon, Lou. Ronald Reagan: The Presidential Portfolio. (2001) online edition
  • Draper, Theodore. A Very Thin Line: The Iran–Contra Affair (1991)
  • Ehrman, John. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan. (2005)
  • Garthoff, Raymond. Detente and Confrontation: American–Soviet relations from Nixon to Reagan (1994)
  • Griscom Tom. "Core Ideas of the Reagan Presidency." In Thompson, ed., Leadership, 23–48.
  • Hulten Charles R. and Isabel V. Sawhill, eds. The Legacy of Reaganomics: Prospects for Long-Term Growth. (1994).
  • Jones, Charles O. ed. The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance (1988) essays by political scientists
  • Jeffrey W. Knopf, "Did Reagan Win the Cold War?" Strategic Insights, Volume III, Issue 8 (August 2004)
  • Kyvig, David. ed. Reagan and the World (1990), scholarly essays on foreign policy
  • Langston, Thomas S. "Reassessing the Reagan Presidency," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 34, 2004 online edition
  • Levy, Peter B. Encyclopedia of the Reagan–Bush Years (1996), short articles online edition
  • Matlock, Jack. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. (2004) by the US ambassador to Moscow
  • Pach, Chester. "The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy." Presidential Studies Quarterly(1): 75–88. Fulltext in SwetsWise and Ingenta; Reagan declared in 1985 that the U.S. should not "break faith" with anti-Communist resistance groups. However, his policies varied as differences in local conditions and US security interests produced divergent policies toward "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, and Cambodia.
  • Patterson, James T. Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush vs. Gore. (2005), standard scholarly synthesis.
  • Pemberton, William E. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan (1998) short biography by historian online edition
  • Reagan Ronald. An American Life. (1990). his second autobiography
  • Reeves, Richard. President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (2005) detailed analysis by historian
  • Sullivan, George.Mr. President (1997). for middle schools
  • Schmertz, Eric J. et al eds. Ronald Reagan's America 2 Volumes (1997) articles by scholars and officeholders vol 1 onlinevol 2 online
  • Schweizer, Peter. Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism (2002)
  • Thomas, Tony. The Films of Ronald Reagan (1980)
  • Troy, Gill. Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (2004). Study of Reagan's image.
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (2008), major narrative history



  1. Knopf (2004)
  2. Dallek, Matthew. "Liberalism Overthrown." American Heritage (1996) 47(6): 39+ Fulltext online at Ebsco
  3. Gerard DeGroot, "Reagan's Rise." History Today (1995) 45(9): 31–36. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext online at Ebsco
  4. Burbank (1991)
  5. Hamilton and Biggart, (1984); Ritter (1992)
  6. Busch 2005
  7. 1983 Greenspan Commission on Social Security Reform (1983) online version; "Claude Pepper and Social Security Reform – 1981–1983," online exhibit; Paul Charles Light, Artful Work: The Politics of Social Security Reform (1985)
  8. Busch (1997)
  9. Stansfield Turner, CIA director under Carter, declared that "in the last several years all of the best studies have shown that the balance of strategic nuclear capabilities has been tipping in favor of the Soviet Union." quoted in Cannon (2000) p. 232.
  10. Garthoff (1994) pp 38, 155
  11. Pemberton (1998) p. 130
  12. Full speech at [1]
  13. Pemberton (1998) p. 131; Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 291–97; Garthoff (1994) pp 99ff
  14. Reagan did not know that the the profits from selling arms to Iran were used to fund the Contras. The Congressional committee asked National Security Advisor John Poindexter, "Did the President know about and approve the diversion of the Iran arms sales proceeds to the contras? Poindexter answered no....he deliberately withheld the information from President Reagan because "I wanted the President to have some deniability so that he would be protected.[2]
  15. Elliott Abrams[3] and Robert McFarlane[4] pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for withholding information from Congress. See Draper (1991); Levy (1996) for details.
  16. Alan Wolfe, "Crackpot Moralism, Neo-Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy." World Policy Journal. 3#2 (1986) pp 252–75 online edition
  17. Salla and Summy, p 3
  18. Quoted in [5]
  19. Quotes at [6]