Ronald Wilson Reagan (pron.: / /; February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was the 40th President of the United States (1981–1989). Prior to that, he was the 33rd Governor of California (1967–1975), and a radio, film and television actor.
Born in Tampico, Illinois, and raised in Dixon, Reagan was educated at Eureka College, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology. After graduating, Reagan moved first to Iowa to work as a radio broadcaster and then, in 1937, to Los Angeles where he began a career as an actor, first in films and later television. Some of his most notable films include Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Kings Row (1942), and Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). Reagan served as President of the Screen Actors Guild and later as a spokesman for General Electric (GE); his start in politics occurred during his work for GE. Originally a member of the Democratic Party, his positions began shifting rightward in the 1950s, and he switched to the Republican Party in 1962.[1
After delivering a rousing speech in support of Barry Goldwater‘s presidential candidacy in 1964, he was persuaded to seek the California governorship, winning two years later and again in 1970. He was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and in 1976, but won both the nomination and general election in 1980, defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter.
As president, Reagan implemented sweeping new political and economic initiatives. His supply-side economic policies, dubbed “Reaganomics“, advocated reducing tax rates to spur economic growth, controlling the money supply to reduce inflation, deregulation of the economy, and reducing government spending. In his first term he survived an assassination attempt, took a hard line against labor unions, and ordered an invasion of Grenada. He was re-elected in a landslide in 1984, proclaiming that it was “Morning in America“. His second term was primarily marked by foreign matters, such as the ending of the Cold War, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair. Publicly describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire“, he supported anti-communist movements worldwide and spent his first term forgoing the strategy of détente by ordering a massive military buildup in an arms race with the USSR. Reagan negotiated with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, culminating in the INF Treaty and the decrease of both countries’ nuclear arsenals.
Reagan left office in 1989. In 1994, the former president disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease earlier in the year; he died ten years later at the age of 93. A conservative icon, he ranks highly in public opinion polls of U.S. Presidents and is credited for generating an ideological renaissance on the American political right.
After completing fourteen home-study Army Extension Courses, Reagan enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve on April 29, 1937, as a private assigned to Troop B, 322nd Cavalry at Des Moines, Iowa. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps of the cavalry on May 25, 1937.
Reagan was ordered to active duty for the first time on April 18, 1942. Due to his nearsightedness, he was classified for limited service only, which excluded him from serving overseas. His first assignment was at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation at Fort Mason, California, as a liaison officer of the Port and Transportation Office. Upon the approval of the Army Air Force (AAF), he applied for a transfer from the cavalry to the AAF on May 15, 1942, and was assigned to AAF Public Relations and subsequently to the First Motion Picture Unit (officially, the “18th Army Air Force Base Unit”) in Culver City, California. On January 14, 1943, he was promoted to first lieutenant and was sent to the Provisional Task Force Show Unit of This Is The Army at Burbank, California. He returned to the First Motion Picture Unit after completing this duty and was promoted to captain on July 22, 1943.
In January 1944, Reagan was ordered to temporary duty in New York City to participate in the opening of the Sixth War Loan Drive. He was re-assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit on November 14, 1944, where he remained until the end of World War II. He was recommended for promotion to major on February 2, 1945, but this recommendation was disapproved on July 17 of that year. While with the First Motion Picture Unit in 1945, he was indirectly involved in discovering actress Marilyn Monroe. He returned to Fort MacArthur, California, where he was separated from active duty on December 9, 1945. By the end of the war, his units had produced some 400 training films for the AAF.
Reagan never left the United States during the war, though he kept a film reel, obtained while in the service, depicting the liberation of Auschwitz, as he believed that someday doubts would arise as to whether the Holocaust had occurred. It has been alleged that he was overheard telling Israeli foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1983 that he had filmed that footage himself and helped liberate Auschwitz, though this purported conversation was disputed by Secretary of State George Shultz.
Midway into his second term, Reagan declared more militant policies in the War on Drugs. He said that “drugs were menacing our society” and promised to fight for drug-free schools and workplaces, expanded drug treatment, stronger law enforcement and drug interdiction efforts, and greater public awareness.
In 1986, Reagan signed a drug enforcement bill that budgeted $1.7 billion to fund the War on Drugs and specified a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses. The bill was criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population and critics also charged that the policies did little to reduce the availability of drugs on the street, while resulting in a great financial burden for America. Defenders of the effort point to success in reducing rates of adolescent drug use. First Lady Nancy Reagan made the War on Drugs her main priority by founding the “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign, which aimed to discourage children and teenagers from engaging in recreational drug use by offering various ways of saying “no”. Nancy Reagan traveled to 65 cities in 33 states, raising awareness about the dangers of drugs including alcohol.
Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. The act made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants, required employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status, and granted amnesty to approximately three million illegal immigrants who entered the United States prior to January 1, 1982, and had lived in the country continuously. Critics argue that the employer sanctions were without teeth and failed to stem illegal immigration. Upon signing the act at a ceremony held beside the newly refurbished Statue of Liberty, Reagan said, “The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.” Reagan also said, “The employer sanctions program is the keystone and major element. It will remove the incentive for illegal immigration by eliminating the job opportunities which draw illegal aliens here.”
By the early 1980s, many people in the US perceived that the USSR military capabilities were gaining on that of the United States. Previously, the U.S. had relied on the qualitative superiority of its weapons to essentially frighten the Soviets, but the gap had been narrowed. Although the Soviet Union did not accelerate military spending after President Reagan’s military buildup, their large military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. At the same time, Saudi Arabia increased oil production, which resulted in a drop of oil prices in 1985 to one-third of the previous level; oil was the main source of Soviet export revenues. These factors gradually brought the Soviet economy to a stagnant state during Gorbachev‘s tenure.
Reagan recognized the change in the direction of the Soviet leadership with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shifted to diplomacy, with a view to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. Reagan’s personal mission was to achieve “a world free of nuclear weapons”, which he regarded as “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization”. He was able to start discussions on nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev. Gorbachev and Reagan held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Geneva, Switzerland, the second in Reykjavík, Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow. Reagan believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, this would lead to reform and the end of Communism.