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Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

Ronald Reagan served as the 40th president of the United States from 1981–1989. He is remembered for undermining the liberal tradition that had dominated U.S. politics since Franklin D. Roosevelt and for preparing the way for the end of the Cold War.

Reagan began his political career as a Roosevelt Democrat and eventually grew to hate high taxes, big government, and communism. As a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, he emphasized the desirability of economic freedom and incentives and of removing the federal government from the regulation of industry and commerce.

Acting Career

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. After graduating from Eureka College in 1932, he began working as a sports announcer for a small radio station in Davenport, Iowa, and in 1933 for a Des Moines station. Reagan, who had done some acting in college, was recruited by a Hollywood talent scout for the Warner Brothers studio while covering baseball spring training on the radio in California. Over the course of a film career that lasted until 1964, he made more than 50 movies and became, he later observed, "the Errol Flynn of the B's" (low-budget movies).

During World War II, Reagan served for three years in the U.S. Army making training films. After his discharge with the rank of captain, he returned to his film career. In 1947, he was elected to the first of five consecutive one-year terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild. It was a difficult period to lead the union due to the investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee into the alleged infiltration of the Hollywood movie industry by communists. Reagan cooperated with the blacklisting of suspected communist sympathizers, including the Hollywood 10, in the industry. He was convinced they were trying to subvert well-meaning liberals in the film business, but he also viewed the committee and its chairperson, J. Parnell Thomas, as "a pretty venal bunch."

Governor of California

Reagan revered the efforts of President Roosevelt to alleviate the suffering of such people as his unemployed shoe salesman father during the Great Depression. He began to change his liberal Democratic allegiance during the late 1940s and 1950s, however, in the face of the massive increase in the size of the federal government. During that period, he occasionally acted in and served as the host of the television program General Electric Theater.

In 1962, Reagan became a Republican. After he taped an effective speech for use in television ads—"A Time for Choosing"—in support of Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful campaign for president in the election of 1964, many wealthy Republican conservatives became convinced that he was the best candidate available for representing their views. A number of them agreed to finance a bid by him to run for governor of California. In 1966, Reagan won the Republican nomination for governor and then the general election on a campaign platform that promised to crack down on college campus radicals, eliminate welfare fraud, and reduce taxes. He was reelected four years later by a wide margin.

Through pragmatic compromise and a masterful ability to influence public opinion, Reagan managed to fulfill many of his campaign pledges while governor. The dramatic growth in welfare payments was halted; and by freezing state government hiring and reducing social spending, budget surpluses were obtained that were used to reduce local property taxes.

Rise to the Presidency

Reagan decided not to run for reelection in 1974 as governor in order to concentrate on securing the Republican Party nomination for president in the election of 1976. He was ultimately defeated in the nomination process by incumbent Gerald Ford. After Ford was defeated in the general election by Democrat Jimmy Carter, Reagan began campaigning for the 1980 presidential election.

At first, Reagan adopted a conservative front-runner campaign strategy. Democrats attacked his support for antiabortion legislation, advocacy of the use of federal funds for parochial (religious) schools, and support for a constitutional amendment to reestablish prayer in public schools; however, these positions made him extremely popular with Republicans. Reagan disarmed President Carter's charge that he was an unstable extremist by projecting a warm and friendly image during several television debates. He managed to keep the campaign focused on domestic economic and foreign policy issues.

Reagan also capitalized on Carter's political vulnerabilities. These including soaring rates of inflation, high unemployment, and the unresolved American hostage crisis in Iran. At the end of his final televised debate with Carter, Reagan succinctly summed up the race in many voters' minds: "Ask yourself, are you better off now than you were four years ago?" This proved to be an effective campaign strategy; Reagan was elected president in a landslide victory, capturing over 50% of the popular vote and 489 electoral votes.

Economic Policy

Reagan supported an economic theory known as supply-side economics (quickly nicknamed Reaganomics) and promoted lower taxes, increased defense spending, and reduction of the budget deficit. The idea was that reduced taxes would spur investment, which would increase productivity and jobs. More people working and increased business revenue would produce greater tax revenues. Social programs could be cut because fewer people would need them.

Two months after assuming office, Reagan survived an assassination attempt by a deranged gunman. He recovered while Congress debated his tax and budget proposals and made a dramatic return to address a joint session of Congress in support of his goals. Budget cuts totaling $39 million were followed by the enactment of a 25% tax cut for individuals spread over three years and faster write-offs of capital investments for business.

Reaganomics achieved mixed results from 1981 to 1989. The nation experienced a recession in 1982 that was induced by the tight money supply policy of the Federal Reserve. Unemployment dropped from double-digit levels in 1982 to 7% by 1987, and inflation declined from 13.5% in 1980 to 5% by 1982. From 1983 to 1990, the nation enjoyed one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted economic growth in its history.

On the other hand, Reagan's balanced budget never materialized. Instead, by 1988, the national debt had soared past $3 trillion. To fund the debt, the Federal Reserve was forced to keep interest rates high to attract foreign capital. In effect, the budget deficits of the Reagan spending and tax-cutting approach had resulted in a new tax many Americans had to pay through high interest rates, the profits from which flowed to relatively small groups of lenders at home and abroad. Although growth was slowed, the federal government was not, as promised, reduced in size. These problems did very little to dampen enthusiasm for Reagan, however. He continued to be hailed for his opposition to government spending and for his reinvigoration of the capitalist economy. He further satisfied his supporters by placing two conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia.

Foreign Policy

In the area of foreign policy, Reagan adopted a hostile attitude toward the Soviet Union, which he described as the "Evil Empire." He proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed Star Wars by the press) to provide the United States with a protective shield from nuclear attack as part of the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. In October 1983, he ordered the invasion and occupation of Grenada, allegedly to prevent a communist takeover of that nation. On October 23, just two days before marines landed on Grenada, 241 marines were killed by a terrorist bombing attack in Beirut, Lebanon, where they had been acting as peacekeepers. The event led Reagan to order the swift withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon. Reagan also authorized U.S. funding of anticommunist guerrillas (contras) in Nicaragua.

By the election of 1984, most Americans felt better off economically; inflation and unemployment were down and the economy was expanding. Further, their fears about becoming involved in a war were diminished. As a result, Reagan was reelected by the largest number of electoral votes in history.

Reagan's greatest pride as president was to have started down the road toward nuclear disarmament through one-on-one diplomacy with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Foreign policy experts and historians continue to debate the extent of his role in bringing about the end of the Cold War. Reagan's supporters claim that his aggressive defense spending and rhetoric brought the Soviet Union to its knees. His critics contend that the collapse of the Soviet Union was due to long-term problems inside the Soviet Union and not to U.S. pressure.

Iran-Contra Scandal

Continuing anticommunist efforts in Nicaragua combined with a hostage situation in Lebanon led to the most serious crisis of the Reagan administration. Reagan had pledged never to deal with terrorists. However, in 1986 it was discovered that the U.S. government had arranged a complicated arms-for-hostages swap, selling weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages in Lebanon. Much of the profits from those sales were then used to obtain equipment for the contras in Nicaragua.

Reagan denied all knowledge of the existence of the arms-for-hostages deal when challenged by the press and a special congressional prosecutor; this statement relieved him from guilt of any wrongdoing in the Iran-contra scandal. However, it was also an admission that he did not know what his subordinates were doing. This undermined some of the public's confidence in Reagan, and became the most damaging chapter of his presidency.


Reagan managed to recover his prestige and popularity before he left office. He retired to his home in California in 1989 after seeing his former vice president, George H.W. Bush, sworn into office as his successor.

In November 1994, Reagan released a handwritten letter to America stating, "I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease." Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease that affects the elderly, took Reagan out of the public eye. It was hoped that Reagan's affliction would raise public awareness of Alzheimer's and help increase research efforts. Reagan succumbed to the disease at his Los Angeles home on June 5, 2004.

"the B's" "a bunch." ads—"A Choosing"—in "Ask ago?" "Evil Empire." "I disease."

Further Reading

Edwards, Anne. Early Reagan. New York: Morrow, 1987; Matlock, Jack F. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004; Reagan, Ronald. An American Life: The Autobiography. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1990; Speakes, Larry. Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House. New York: Scribner, 1988.

MLA Citation

"Ronald Reagan." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/318188. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2155829

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