(1911–2004) U.S. president
Ronald Wilson Reagan was an actor who served two terms as the 33rd governor of California and later served two terms as the 40th president of the United States. Reagan’s presidency contributed to the end of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union and witnessed the collapse of communism in eastern europe. At the end of Reagan’s admin- istration, the United States was enjoying its longest period of peacetime prosperity without recession or depression. His administration cut taxes, reformed the tax code, offered a temporary solution to the Social Security issue, reduced inflation, continued deregulation of business, and increased military spending. Critics have commented that Reagan was unconcerned with income inequality, and his dedication to military spending increased the federal deficit as well as trade deficits internationally and may have been instrumental in causing the stock market crash of 1987. Overall, Reagan was one of the most popular U.S. presidents of the 20th century, exiting office more popular than when he began. Nicknamed the Great Communicator by the media, Reagan dominated the decade of the 1980s in the United States to such an extent that the two are linked inextricably together.
Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, and was raised with strong Christian values. He attended high school in the nearby town of Dixon. In 1928 Reagan entered Eureka College, where he studied economics and sociology. Reagan graduated in 1932. After graduation, he worked as a radio sports announcer.
Following a 1937 screen test, Reagan won a Hollywood contract and began a lengthy acting career, appearing in 53 films over the next two decades. In 1940 he played the role of George Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American. In the film, Reagan delivers the memorable line “Win one for the Gipper!” From this role, Reagan acquired the nickname “the Gipper,” which he retained throughout his life. In 1935 Reagan was commissioned as a reserve cavalry officer in the U.S. Army. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States became involved in World War II, and Reagan was activated and assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit in the U.S. Army Air Forces, which made training and propaganda films. Reagan’s efforts to go overseas for combat were rejected due to his astigmatism. While in Hollywood, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman in 1940 and had a daughter, Maureen, and later adopted a son, Michael. Following his divorce, Reagan married Nancy Davis, also an actress, in 1952, and had two children, Patricia Ann and Ronald Prescott.
Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952 and again from 1959 to 1960. Although raised in a strong Democratic household, Reagan shifted his political views, primarily because of the Republican Party’s strong condemnation of communism. He became involved in disputes over the issue of communism in the film industry. During the 1950s
One of the most popular American presidents in recent history,
Ronald Reagan and his policies dominated the 1980s.
Senator Joseph McCarthy initiated a series of hearings to root out communism in the United States. Particular scrutiny was placed on Hollywood, and actors marked as communists faced exile from the film industry. Reagan claimed that Hollywood was being infiltrated by communists and kept watch on suspected actors for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
As Reagan’s film career waned, he moved to television, hosting and performing for, General Electric Theater and starring in television movies. His employment for General Electric required extensive travel as a GE spokesman. Reagan delivered numerous anticommunist speeches, which brought him to the attention of the Republicans.
In 1966 Reagan was elected governor of California by a margin of 1 million votes, and he was reelected in 1970. During his first term Reagan froze government hiring but approved tax increases to balance the budget. In 1969 Reagan sent 2,200 National Guard troops to disband a student protest on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. He worked to reform welfare and opposed construction projects that hindered conservation or transgressed onto American Indian ranches. Although Reagan supported capital punishment, his efforts to enforce this position were hindered by the Supreme Court of California’s decision to invalidate all death sentences passed prior to 1972. A constitutional amendment quickly overturned this decision.
Reagan’s first attempt to secure the Republican nomination for president in 1968 was unsuccessful. He tried again in 1976 against incumbent Gerald Ford, but was narrowly defeated at the Republican National Convention. In 1980 Reagan won the Republican nomination and selected as his running mate former Texas congressman George H. W. Bush. The United States was suffering from a period of high inflation and unemployment, fuel shortages resulting from instability in the petroleum market, and the international humiliation of the yearlong confinement of U.S. hostages in Iran. Reagan became popular, consequently winning in a landslide over incumbent Jimmy Carter. The Republican presidential victory accompanied a 12-seat change in the Senate, the first Republican Senate majority in over 25 years.
Reagan assumed the office of president on January 20, 1981. The Iran hostage crisis ended with the release of the U.S. captives the same day, which led to allegations that a covert agreement delaying their release had been negotiated between the Iranian gov- ernment and Reagan’s future cabinet. On March 30 Reagan was nearly killed in an assassination attempt but quickly recovered and returned to office. Reagan’s first official act was to end oil price controls. In 1981 Reagan fired the majority of federal air traffic control- lers when they embarked on an illegal strike, setting limits for public employees unions and signaling the acceptability of businesses’ taking stronger bargaining positions with unions.
Reagan steered his desired domestic legislation through Congress in an effort to stimulate economic growth and reduce inflation and unemployment. He followed a plan calling for cutbacks on taxes and government expenditures, refusing to deviate from this course when the strengthening of national defenses increased the national deficit. To curb inflation, Reagan supported Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker’s plan to tighten the monetary supply by dramatically increasing interest rates. Reagan also sponsored wide-ranging tax cuts to boost business investment. Reagan simultaneously limited the growth of welfare and other social programs. Beginning in 1983 the economy began to recover. However, increased military spending as part of Reagan’s cold war policy caused the national deficit to soar.
A renewal of U.S. self-confidence due to a recovering economy and heightened international prestige propelled Reagan and Bush to win their second term in an unprecedented landslide against Democratic challengers Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, winning the electoral votes in 49 out of 50 states.
During his second term, Reagan overhauled the income tax code, eliminating many deductions and exempting millions of people with low incomes. Although Reagan’s opponents claimed his economic policies increased the gap between the rich and the poor, the income of all economic groups rose in real terms. He also passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, granting compensation to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. Reagan signed legislation authorizing capital punishment for offenses involving murder in the context of illegal drug trafficking and launched a “war on drugs,” which was led by Nancy Reagan.
Reagan was staunchly against abortion. Although his appointees to the Supreme Court—including Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Supreme Court justice—shifted the balance in favor of conservatism, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. The gay rights movement criticized Reagan for not responding adequately to the arrival of HIV-AIDS in the mid-1980s. However, the Reagan administration spent almost $6 billion on HIV and AIDS research. By 1986, Reagan had endorsed large-scale prevention and research efforts. In 1984, Reagan was the first U.S. president to invite an openly homosexual couple to spend an evening at the White House.
Reagan’s foreign policy during his presidency called for “peace through strength” and a close alliance with Britain. Reagan confronted the Soviet Union head-on, arguing that only from a position of military superior- ity could the United States negotiate an end to the cold war and secure U.S. interests abroad. Reagan reasoned that the Soviet Union could not keep up with the United States in a full-scale arms race. He increased defense spending 35 percent while seeking improved diplomatic relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In keeping with this Reagan Doctrine, he actively supported anticommunist efforts in Latin America,
Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Reagan administration supported Afghani insurgents, including Osama bin Laden; Poland’s Solidarity movement; the contras in Nicaragua; and rebel forces in Angola. The United States increased military funding for anticommunist dictatorships in Latin America and was accused of assassinating several Latin American heads of state. A communist attempt to seize power in Grenada in 1983 prompted a U.S. invasion.
Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles and to continue disarmament. However, Reagan supported the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which proposed the launching of a space-based defense system to render the United States invulnerable to a nuclear attack. Opponents of the plan labeled it Star Wars and argued that the plan was unrealistic and violated international treaties.
In 1985 Reagan conducted a goodwill visit to Germany. He visited Kolmeshohe Cemetery to pay respects to the soldiers there, unaware that many had been members of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s Waffen-SS. Reagan also visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he condemned the Holocaust.
Reagan declared war against international terrorism, taking a strong stand against the Lebanese Hizbollah terrorist organization, which was holding Americans as hostages and attacking civilian targets following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Reagan’s administration also took a strong stance against Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza. U.S. involvement in Lebanon led to a limited United Nations mandate for an international force. The September 16, 1982, massacre of Palestinians in Beirut prompted Reagan to form a new international force. Diplomatic pressure forced a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon and U.S. forces withdrew following an October 1983 bombing that killed over 200 marines. Reagan sent U.S. bombers to Libya after evidence revealed government involvement in an attack on U.S. soldiers in a West Berlin nightclub. Reagan’s administration maintained the controversial position that the Salvadoran FMLN and Honduran guerrilla fighters, as well as a wing of the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC), constituted terrorist organizations.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Reagan sent naval escorts to the Persian Gulf to maintain the free flow of oil for U.S. use. The Reagan administration came to increasingly side with Iraq under the assumption that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was less a threat than Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. While support- ing Iraq, the United States covertly supplied Iran with military weapons in order to fund contra rebels in Nicaragua. This arrangement, known as the Iran-contra affair, became a huge scandal. Reagan declared his ignorance of the arrangement. As a result, 10 members of Reagan’s administration were convicted and many others were forced to resign.
Reagan addressed the nation from the White House one last time in January 1989, prior to the inauguration of George H. W. Bush as the 41st president. Reagan returned to his estate, Rancho del Cielo, in california, eventually moving to Bel Air, Los Angeles. In 1989 Reagan received an honorary British knighthood and was made Grand Cordon of the Japanese Order of the Chrysanthemum. In the early 1990s he made occasional appearances for the Republican Party and in 1993 was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1994 Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His health worsened following a fall in January 2001 that shattered his hip and rendered him immobile. By late 2003 Reagan had entered the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and he died of pneumonia on June 5, 2004. He was buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
See also drug wars, international; McCarthyism; Nicaraguan revolution (1979–1990).