Ronald Reagan was born above a store in Illinois in 1911. He was raised in modest middle-class surroundings, influenced by his mother’s generous Christian spirit and his salesman father’s eloquence. In his youth Reagan was a moderately successful student; he earned some local fame as a volunteer lifesaver, pulling dozens of floundering swimmers out of the Rock River. He attended university, graduating in economics while participating in football, swimming, drama and student politics. In the mid-1930s Reagan, who harboured ambitions of becoming a film star, moved to Hollywood. He obtained his first movie role in 1937 and by the outbreak of World War II had appeared in 15 films. Reagan enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1937, however poor eyesight excluded him from active service; he spent most of the war working in recruiting, advertising war bonds and entertaining troops. After 1945 he returned to the movie business, appearing in more than 50 cinematic and television releases. By his ‘retirement’ from Hollywood in the mid-1960s he was a widely known actor, though his career never reached significant heights.
Reagan had always demonstrated a keen interest in politics. At first a Democrat, he was an avid supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policy of the 1930s. Reagan was also actively involved in the Screen Actors Guild (America’s ‘actors’ union’), serving as its president from 1947. A strong anti-communist, Reagan supported the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings; he reportedly supplied the FBI and congressional investigators with the names of fellow actors he suspected of communist sympathies. In the 1950s Reagan gravitated away from the Democrats and began to embrace the more conservative Republican Party. He opposed some civil rights legislation, while arguing that government should be doing less, not more, for ordinary Americans. Reagan’s public profile meant he was an obvious candidate for political office. In 1966 he accepted the Republican nomination for the governorship of California. After promising to “send welfare bums back to work” and deal with anti-Vietnam War protestors in the colleges, Reagan was comfortably elected.
From California governor to US president
Reagan’s time as California governor was marked by reductions in government spending – and some repressive measures against public unrest. He had no tolerance for protests, particularly anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. He once ordered police and National Guard troops into Berkeley to deal with troublesome students; one man was killed and more than 120 hospitalised after police used shotguns, tear gas and batons. Reagan was also a vocal supporter of president Richard Nixon’s Vietnam policies, at a time when public support for the war had plummeted. Reagan effectively legalised abortion in California by signing a bill permitting therapeutic terminations (later, he claimed he was actually opposed to abortion and that he did not fully understand the bill). During his two terms as governor, Reagan also campaigned to return the death penalty to California – but he was thwarted by the state’s legislature and courts.
Reagan stepped down from the governorship in 1975 to prepare for a tilt at the presidency. He failed to win the Republican Party nomination in 1976 but succeeded four years later, when he ran against the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s campaign made much of the stagnating US economy and Carter’s alleged foreign policy failures. Reagan won the November 1980 election comfortably; at age 69 he was the oldest man to win the presidency. Four months later he survived an assassination attempt after being shot in the lung outside a Washington hotel. Reagan’s national economic program focused on cutting tax and government spending. While his policies eventually produced reductions in inflation and unemployment, they also resulted in substantial cuts to medical aid, social security, education and environmental programs. Depending on one’s political perspective, the ‘Reaganomics’ of the 1980s can be viewed either as a period of economic recovery, or a time of social stagnation when little was done to assist the poor and the working classes.
Reigniting the Cold War
Beth A. Fischer, historian
The United States’ most vehemently anti-communist president, Reagan reignited the Cold War after a decade of relative calm. In his public speeches and press conferences, Reagan regularly criticised – and even threatened – the Soviet Union, its leaders and their ideology. He referred to the Soviet bloc as an “evil empire” whose “last pages even now are being written”. American Cold War policies of the 1950s had aimed at containing global communism – but Reagan wanted to roll back communism in Asia, Africa, South and Central America. He increased America’s missile and bomber capabilities; initiated research into the Strategic Defence Initiative (or ‘Star Wars’) project; and extended financial aid and military equipment to regimes fighting against communism. The US also placed diplomatic and economic pressure on the USSR, by cutting the trade agreements and deals forged during detente. The pinnacle of Reagan’s campaign against communism came at the Berlin Wall in June 1987, when he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. Within three years, the divide between East and West Berlin was tumbling down, as Reagan had demanded.
After serving two terms as president, Reagan retired from politics in 1989, the presidency passing to George H. W. Bush. Five years later Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He lived out his final years in his California home; towards the end of his life he could recognise and remember only a handful of people. After Reagan died in June 2004, more than 100,000 Americans traipsed passed his coffin as it lay in state. He remains one of the most popular US presidents in history – and is considered by many, rightly or not, to be one of its greatest. A good deal of this popularity is derived from Reagan’s pivotal leadership during the Cold War which, according to many, weakened the Iron Curtain and hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. Historians are more divided about Reagan’s impact, some suggesting that internal problems in the Soviet Union were equally or perhaps more responsible for its demise than any of Reagan’s actions or policies.
1. Ronald Reagan was a popular film actor who transitioned into politics and eventually became US president in 1980.
2. Initially a Democrat, Reagan became conservative in the 1950s, working against communists in the film industry.
3. In 1966 he became governor of California, where he took a strong stand against spending, crime and protestors.
4. After becoming president, Reagan ended detente and reignited the Cold War by radically increasing military spending.
5. Reagan’s support for anti-communist groups around the world, his belligerent rhetoric and his determination to ‘rollback’ communism is viewed by many as a critical factor in the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.