President of the United States whose optimism gave America new pride and whose vision brought the Cold War to an end
Ronald Reagan manifestly lived the American dream in which he so fervently believed. He rose from the humblest origins to become a minor Hollywood star, Governor of California for two terms, and finally America’s 40th President. His presidency was controversial and marked by some signal failures as well as achievements, but he handsomely won two presidential elections and was one of the few presidents to leave office better loved than when he was sworn in.
As President, he will be primarily remembered for hastening the end of the Cold War - or even, some claim, for winning it. He did this by ordering the largest peacetime military build-up in United States history and by the development of the Strategic Defence Initiative or “Star Wars” programme, which was designed to shield America from incoming missiles.
This policy of “peace through strength” made clear to an economically faltering Soviet Union that the arms race was unwinnable, and two crucial nuclear arms reduction treaties ensued. By the time Reagan left office, the threat of nuclear war between the West and the communist bloc had greatly diminished. Reagan’s foreign policy in other areas, however, notably the Middle East and Central America, was far less successful.
Domestically, Reagan’s two great achievements were to restore America’s pride and confidence after Vietnam, Watergate and the “malaise” of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and fundamentally to change the terms of the political debate by advancing what was, in 1980, the almost heretical notion that government was part of the problem, not the solution. Twenty-four years later, that notion has been embraced by all but the most liberal of America’s politicians.
Reagan presided over the longest expansion in the US economy since the Second World War; but it came at considerable long-term cost. He cut taxes, but failed to cut spending, and in the course of his presidency America went from being the world’s leading creditor nation to its most prominent debtor, driving up interest rates abroad and bequeathing a huge burden of debt to the next generation of Americans.
The other major blot on Reagan’s presidency was the Iran-Contra scandal. With his blessing, US arms were secretly shipped to Iran in an attempt to secure the freedom of US hostages in Lebanon. White House aides then diverted the proceeds from those arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras, in defiance of a congressional ban on such support. Reagan denied knowing of the diversion, but on this matter he was, for once, not convincing, and in any case he had no answer to the charge of appalling judgment and slack management.
Ronald Reagan had no claim to be considered an intellectual, and for a long time the elites in Washington and other world capitals found it hard to take the former actor seriously. He fell asleep during an audience with the Pope, gave himself a famously light workload, culled jokes and anecdotes from the Reader’s Digest and even in interviews tended to be lost without his “cue cards”. Once, believing a radio microphone was switched off, he jokingly announced that “the bombing begins in five minutes”, and late in his presidency it was revealed that his wife Nancy had consulted an astrologer about propitious dates for major policy ventures.
Yet Reagan brought other talents to the presidency that more than compensated for such shortcomings and eccentricities. He had in view a few basic and immutable goals, which gave his Administration an unusual clarity of purpose - the unleashing of America’s entrepreneurial spirit by lowering taxes and reducing the role of government, and the restoration of the United States’ international pre-eminence by strengthening its military forces and confronting communism.
He was an uplifting speaker who took over a demoralised country and convinced it that its best days were still to come. He was adept at sensing and articulating the nation’s mood, most notably following the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986. He restored lustre and dignity to the presidency, but above all he was immensely likeable. Democrats dubbed him “the Teflon President” because no dirt ever stuck to him, and that was perhaps because he was always so genial and optimistic. He also had a fine line in self-deprecating humour. In a farewell speech he said he planned to “lean back, kick up my feet and take a long nap”, then added: “Come to think of it, things won’t be that different after all.”
The publication in 2003 of a selection of his letters, written both in office and in the years before and after, showed him at his best. Whether writing to friends or political opponents, to young children, activists or members of his own family, he showed himself to be principled, witty and thoughtful, even meditative. His religious faith clearly guided him in his attempt to do the right thing, and he remained courteous and considerate to those who opposed him.
On a personal level, however, Reagan was an enigma. He was a friendly man who had practically no close friends except his wife Nancy. He forgot the names of senior officials, and was remote even from his four children, one of whom - Patti, his daughter from his second marriage - openly rebelled against his conservatism. Edmund Morris, his official biographer, once called him “the most mysterious man I have ever confronted. It is impossible to understand him.”
Although he lacked close friends, Reagan had an ideological soulmate in Margaret Thatcher, whom he first met in London in 1975 before either of them was in supreme office. While he was President and she was Prime Minister, the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the US blossomed. Most obviously, he gave Britain vital logistical and material support during the Falklands conflict of 1982. She welcomed the deployment of American cruise missiles on British soil, and in 1986 she allowed Britain to be used as a base for the bombing of Libya. Their one serious argument was over the US invasion of Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth, in 1983, but the last document Reagan signed as President was a letter of appreciation to Baroness Thatcher, and in 1989 he received an honorary knighthood from the Queen.
Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher were the three dominant figures of the 1980s. History may well place the man who was sometimes unkindly called “the acting President” in the first rank of those who have occupied the White House. At the very least he will be one of the most prominent in the second division.
RONALD WILSON REAGAN was born in a rented flat above the only bank in the tiny Illinois town of Tampico. His Irish-American father, Jack, was an unsuccessful shoe salesman and an alcoholic, and moved his family endlessly around Illinois in the search for work. He finally managed to become part-owner of a shoe shop in the town of Dixon, but the shop went broke in the Depression.
Despite his family’s poverty, Reagan decided he wanted to attend a small Christian institution called Eureka College after leaving school, partly because his girlfriend was going there, but also to continue playing football. He was awarded one of its scholarships for needy students, and met the rest of his costs by working as a summer lifeguard. His academic record was mediocre, but it was at Eureka that he developed a passion for acting.
He graduated at the height of the Depression, when a quarter of all Americans were out of work, but managed to persuade a radio station in Davenport, Iowa, to employ him as a sports commentator. Within three months he was transferred to a sister station in the state capital of Des Moines, where he spent the next four years. One of his jobs was to provide colourful commentaries on the Chicago Cubs’ baseball games as if he was actually sitting in Wrigley Field. He was, in fact, sitting in Des Moines reading ticker-tape accounts of each pitch.
In 1937 Reagan followed the Cubs to Los Angeles for their spring training. A friend introduced him to a Hollywood agent, who was impressed by his voice and physique and persuaded Warner Brothers to give him a screen test. That was the start of a 29-year acting career during which he made 53 films and became a minor star or, in his own characteristic words, “the Errol Flynn of the B movies”.
He believed his finest film was King’s Row, in which he played a man who regained consciousness to find his legs amputated. “Where’s the rest of me?” he cried. It was Reagan’s most memorable screen line and later, as an aspiring politician, he used it as the title of an autobiography designed to show he was more than a mere actor.
In another big film, Knute Rockne - All American, he played George Gipp, the legendary football player who urged his team-mates just before his death to “win one for the Gipper”. Reagan retained and revelled in the nickname, and half a century later used the same line to urge Americans to elect Vice-President George Bush to succeed him.
In 1940 Reagan married Jane Wyman, an actress also under contract to Warners. They had two children, one of them adopted, but they divorced in 1948 because, she claimed, he had become obsessed with political activities. During the war Reagan was excused from active service because of poor eyesight, and instead made air force training films.
After the war he rose to become president of the Screen Actors Guild, and battled against communist infiltration of Hollywood. He did not engage in McCarthyite witch-hunts, however, and defended one young actress against charges of communist sympathies. Her name was Nancy Davis, and she subsequently became his second wife.
Reagan had long been a staunch New Deal Democrat, and had been greatly inspired by President Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” during the Depression, but his battles with communist infiltrators made him rethink his political allegiance. So, too, did a four-month filming stint in postwar England, during which, he later wrote: “I saw first-hand how the welfare state sapped incentive to work.”
In 1954, with his Hollywood career fading, he agreed to host a new television show sponsored by General Electric and to give pep talks at General Electric plants around the country. He spent eight years doing that, and his talks gradually developed into a robust denunciation of big government.
During 1960, though still a registered Democrat, he campaigned for Richard Nixon. In 1962 he joined the Republican Party, and two years later he agreed to be co- chairman of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in California, delivering a 30-minute speech on his behalf on national television on the eve of polling day. The Goldwater candidature was submerged by the campaign for the incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson, but Reagan’s contribution had been noticed by a group of wealthy Republicans who liked not only his conservative views but also his attractive demeanour and talent for television. They persuaded him to run against Pat Brown, the Democratic Governor of California, in 1966. He presented himself as an outsider determined to bring California’s bloated government down to size, and romped to victory with 58 per cent of the vote. He was 55.
Reagan’s governorship was a dress rehearsal for his presidency. He trumped a hostile Democratic legislature by appealing directly to the people. He set broad goals but left the actual implementation to subordinates. His rhetoric was considerably more robust than his actions. He failed to reduce the state’s bureaucrnb acy significantly, and actually approved one of California’s largest tax increases, though this was followed by successive cuts.
Generally, though, his governorship was considered a success, and in 1976, two years after leaving the governor’s mansion, he mounted his first serious bid for the presidency (there had been an abortive effort in 1968). He was challenging the incumbent President Ford for the Republican nomination - but not an elected President, since Ford had taken the White House as a result of Nixon’s disgrace.
Reagan campaigned on his favourite conservative themes of smaller government, lower taxes and greater individual liberty, and fell just 70 votes short of the 1,140 he needed for victory at the Republican convention in Kansas City.
Had he won, he might have been President when oil prices doubled, and could well have been ousted - like the luckless Carter - after just one term. As it was, he emerged as front-runner for the Republicans’ 1980 nomination. He won it, and then handsomely defeated President Carter on polling day by carrying 44 states - and his coat-tails were long enough to give the Republicans control of the Senate. At 69 Ronald Reagan became America’s oldest president. He told the nation in his inauguration speech that it was "time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden".
As America’s 40th president, Reagan enjoyed one immediate, auspicious piece of good fortune. Within minutes of his speech, Iran freed the 52 Americans who had been held hostage for 444 days in Tehran. That was by design: President Carter had caused great offence to the Iranian authorities the previous spring when a botched effort had been made to rescue the hostages in a desert raid with helicopters.
But less than three months after he took the presidential oath of office, fortune seemed to cease to smile on the new President. As he was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel off Connecticut Avenue, Reagan was shot in the chest by a crazed gunman. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he joked to his wife as he waited for surgery. Equally characteristic was his wisecrack to the surgeons as he was about to undergo sedation: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Spared the assassination of yet another national leader, the nation gave thanks for the President’s survival, and from that moment on his political position was probably impregnable.
During the following eight years Reagan had to return to hospital for the removal of polyps from his colon, treatment of skin and intestinal cancer and for prostate surgery, but he invariably managed to project an image of rude good health. This impression was reinforced by frequent photographs of him riding and chopping wood during regular visits to his Californian ranch. And although it was increasingly apparent within the White House that he was becoming hard of hearing, his infectious optimism overwhelmed any impression of disability.
The attempt on his life was undoubtedly politically helpful. Reagan’s goodhumoured courage boosted his popularity, and it may well have helped him to win congressional approval for a 25 per cent tax cut in July 1981. For this he carried the day in the nominally hostile House of Representatives, largely thanks to the votes of 40 conservative southern Democrats (known as the “boll weevils”) who defied their party leaders. In 1986 he pushed another major Bill through Congress which cut the number of income tax bands from 14 to 3, reducing the top rate from 70 to 33 per cent and reversing past governments’ attempts at social engineering.
Reagan passionately believed that lower taxes would stimulate economic activity and, over time, generate greater revenues — a theory known as “supply-side” economics. During his eight years in office the United States created roughly 17 million new jobs, and the gross national product nearly doubled. Yet the sustained economic expansion was fuelled by more than just tax cuts. Reagan tended to forget the $100 billion tax increase he had been obliged to endorse in 1982. Oil prices, which had doubled during the late 1970s, fell steadily during the 1980s, and America was emerging from its deepest recession since the 1930s. Despite the prosperity he appeared to bring in his wake, Reagan was unable to balance the budget. Effectively he was replacing the old liberal policy of “tax and spend” with one of “borrow and spend”.
For the truth was that while he was cutting taxes he was greatly increasing defence expenditure and failing to make the deep cuts required elsewhere in the federal budget. The national debt nearly tripled while he was in the White House, from $900 billion to nearly $2,700 billion, and the trade deficit quadrupled. By the time he left office, interest repayments on that debt amounted to 14 per cent of the total budget, and the debt was growing by roughly $200 billion a year. What more than anything else enabled him to achieve his aim of cutting back government interventionism was his success in placing his successors in a fiscal straitjacket.
Reagan himself recognised his inability to cut government spending, calling it “one of my greatest disappointments” and blaming it consistently on Congress. Yet an estimated 92 per cent of the federal spending contained in the six key budgets of the Reagan years was proposed by the White House, not by Congress. For all of Reagan’s conservative rhetoric, the federal government continued to expand during his time in office, and federal spending continued to rise as a percentage of GNP.
Reagan had inherited from Carter not just a stagnant economy, but a demoralised system of military defence, whose capabilities were thought by some to be in danger of being overtaken by the Soviet Union. He embarked on a massive military build-up, and in the autumn of 1983 America began deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Britain and other European countries to counter the threat of Soviet SS-20s. These deployments were bitterly resisted by nuclear disarmament activists, who not only derailed the whole process in West Germany but pitched much-publicised protest camps outside Greenham Common and other US bases in the United Kingdom.
In the same year, Reagan labelled the Soviet Union an “evil empire” that would eventually be consigned to the “ash heap of history”, and launched the Strategic Defence Initiative — the development of a space-based “shield” intended to intercept and destroy incoming missiles.
From the outset, Moscow bitterly opposed this Star Wars programme. It argued that it would begin a fresh arms race in space — which the Soviet Union was in no position to fund — and undermine the principle of mutually-assured destruction that deterred either superpower from launching a nuclear strike against the other. Reagan, however, maintained that the initiative was purely defensive, and that the US could successfully negotiate nuclear arms agreements with Moscow only from a position of strength.
He got nowhere with successive Soviet leaders Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko — all hardliners — but with Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession in 1985 a remarkable thaw began in US-Soviet relations.
The two men first met at their so-called “fireside summit” in Geneva that November. They established a good personal rapport and agreed that they must try to end the arms race. The following year they met again in Reykjavik. They came close to an astonishing agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons, but the talks collapsed when Gorbachev again insisted that America must abandon the Strategic Defence Initiative.
In 1987, however, Gorbachev made a triumphant visit to Washington to sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, eliminating all Soviet and American medium-range missiles in Europe. This was the first treaty that had ever actually reduced the size of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, and by the time Reagan left the White House in January 1989 he and Gorbachev had laid the groundwork for the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, cutting US and Soviet long-range nuclear missiles by roughly a third. (Presidents Bush and Gorbachev finally signed the Start I agreement in 1991.)
There is no doubt that Reagan’s military build-up contributed to the pressures on Gorbachev and to the ending of the Cold War. Reagan himself was certain of its importance. “The Soviet economy was a basket case, in part because of enormous expenditures on arms,” he wrote in his memoirs. Gorbachev “had to know that the quality of American technology, after reasserting itself beginning in 1981, was now overwhelmingly superior to his. He had to know we could outspend the Soviets on weapons as long as we wanted to.”
One of Reagan’s last overseas trips was to Moscow, the first by a US President in 14 years. He and Gorbachev did a “walkabout” in Red Square. They dined at the Gorbachev dacha outside Moscow. Reagan was permitted to give a lecture at Moscow State University, and was mobbed by enthusiastic Muscovites during a visit to Arabat Street. In his farewell address as President, Reagan proclaimed a “new closeness” in US-Soviet relations, and in his memoirs he wrote: “There was a chemistry between me and Gorbachev that produced something very close to a friendship.”
But Reagan’s intense hostility towards communism also led to his highly controversial interventions in both Nicaragua and in the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. In Nicaragua the Sandinistas had taken power in 1979, and Reagan feared that they were trying to export their revolution and arms to other places — in particular to El Salvador and the other Central American republics. He battled with Congress throughout most of his presidency over how openly, and to what extent, the US should support Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinista “Contras”, men he liked to call “freedom fighters”.
In 1983 Reagan ordered an invasion of Grenada, where an extreme left-wing faction had seized power and Cuban workers were building a suspiciously huge new airstrip. This was one of the very few occasions on which Reagan and Thatcher openly disagreed. She got wind of the invasion just before it started and telephoned the President, who was in a Cabinet meeting. “As soon as I heard her voice I knew she was very angry,” he wrote later. She “asked me in the strongest language to call off the operation. Grenada, she reminded me, was part of the British Commonwealth, and the United States had no business interfering in its affairs.”
But the area of foreign policy that really bedevilled Reagan, and ultimately led to the greatest embarrassment of his presidency, was the Middle East. In 1982 he sent US Marines into Beirut to supervise an agreed PLO withdrawal from that city and the subsequent withdrawals of Israeli and Syrian forces from Lebanon. The Marines instead found themselves caught in an intractable conflict. In April 1983 a terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Beirut killed 16 Americans, and in October that year 241 Marines died in a suicide bombing of their Beirut barracks. Early the following year Reagan ordered the evacuation of all US forces from Beirut.
In November 1984, with the economy recovering and Reagan proclaiming that it was “morning in America”, he won a landslide re-election victory over Carter’s former Vice-President, Walter Mondale, carrying every state except Mondale’s native Minnesota and the District of Columbia. It was a significant triumph, but did not insulate him against controversy. Halfway through his second term he and his Administration were shaken by the Iran-Contra scandal.
This began in 1985 when Israeli sources told the Administration that moderates within the Iranian Government wanted to rebuild relations with Washington in anticipation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. They were prepared to use their influence to secure the release of six American hostages held by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, but in return wanted small shipments of US arms to enhance their prestige within the Government.
Despite the strong opposition of George Shultz, his Secretary of State, and Casper Weinberger, his Defence Secretary, Reagan agreed to allow Israel secretly to ship US arms to Iran. Over the following months three hostages were released, but in November 1986 a small Beirut magazine reported that America was trading arms for hostages.
In the ensuing furore it also emerged that Oliver North, a member of Reagan’s National Security Council staff, had diverted some of the proceeds of the arms sales to the Nicaraguan “Contras” to circumvent a congressional ban on such assistance. Colonel North and Admiral John Poindexter, the National Security Adviser, were both dismissed. Reagan insisted he had not known of the diversion. At best he was guilty of negligence, and at worst of complicity in an illegal act, but the truth was never conclusively established.
Reagan’s Vice-President, George Bush, was elected President in November 1988. Reagan left the Oval Office on January 20, after Colin Powell, his new National Security Adviser, had reported “the world is quiet today”. One of his last acts was to scribble Bush a good luck note on paper headed “Don’t Let the Turkeys Get You Down”. He returned to California, where he and Nancy divided their time between Los Angeles and the ranch in the mountains near Santa Barbara that he so adored.
Reagan kept a low profile in retirement, though he addressed the Republican 1992 convention at Houston, scoring a great hit on its opening night with a characteristically engaging speech. He was held in great affection by the party that he had done so much to rehabilitate after Watergate, but even though his views on current issues were rarely offered or solicited, he gradually became an elder statesman whose dignity was obvious to all.
He announced he had Alzheimer’s disease in a letter to America on November 5, 1994. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he wrote. “When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country and eternal optimism for its future.” He was unable to appear in public during the late stages of his illness, but was reconciled with his children.
He is survived by his wife, Nancy, whom he married in 1952, and their son and daughter, and by a son from his first marriage.
Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, 1981-89, was born on February 6, 1911. He died on June 5, 2004, aged 93.