Reagan Fires Air Traffic Controllers - History

Reagan Fires Air Traffic Controllers - History

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President Reagan fired 2,000 of the nation's striking air traffic controller, after they refused to return to work. The strikers defied the law that bars strikes by federal workers. The controllers rejected a proposed 11.4 percent annual wage increase. The failure of the strike was a major defeat for organized labor.

On August 11, 1981, President Reagan fired 13,000 flight controllers. The flight controllers had begun a strike two days earlier, which resulted in 7,000 flights being canceled nationwide in the middle of the summer rush. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) demanded a significant raise. They also wanted to reduce their five days 40 hour work week to three days 32 hour week. The FAA offered a package worth $40 million which fell far short of the $770 million that the controller demands would have cost.

In 1955, Congress made strikes punishable by fines or a one-year prison sentence. President Reagan declared the strike illegal. He warned the strikers that they would be fired if they did not return to work within 48 hours. A judge fined the union a million dollars a day. When the controller did not return to work, Reagan fired all of them. An emergency plan went into effect in which a combination of supervisors and military controller were able to take over, and within days air traffic was back to normal. The failure of the strike weakened the union fatally.

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Reagan vs. Air Traffic Controllers

“They are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated,” President Ronald Reagan said at a press conference on August 3, 1981, responding to a nationwide air traffic controllers’ strike. Members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), one of the few unions that endorsed Reagan during the election of 1980, were picketing for better pay and working conditions when about 13,000 of them walked off the job.

Two days later, when most PATCO workers did not return, it became clear that Reagan was not bluffing. On August 5, he fired 11,345 of them, writing in his diary that day, “How do they explain approving of law breaking—to say nothing of violation of an oath taken by each a.c. [air controller] that he or she would not strike.”

Reagan took no joy in doing it, however. The law was the law, and he believed public safety workers had no right to strike. It was the same approach Reagan’s hero Calvin Coolidge took when the Boston police went on strike in 1919.

Reagan speaking at the Rose Garden, August 3, 1981

The firing slowed commercial air travel for some time, but it didn't come to a grinding halt, thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration's work-around: Supervisors, non-striking controllers, and military controllers were able to fill in for the picketers, in short order handling 80 percent of what had been the prior workload. In the meantime, the FAA began the long process of hiring new controllers, taking years to reach pre–August 1981 staffing levels.

The mass firing was a controversial move by Reagan, but one that members of his administration remember as an example of courage, as you can read in these excerpts from the Miller Center's extensive Reagan oral histories.

Howard Baker, Jr.
Senate majority leader chief of staff

The president, right off the bat, said, “Are they striking legally?” And the answer was, “No.” And he said, “That’s not the way people ought to work. Tell them when the strike’s over, they don’t have any jobs.” It was a very decisive move. It enhanced the power of the presidency significantly at that time. Most of the American people didn’t support the idea of a union that was a public service union and was legally barred from striking. They didn’t want them to strike. They didn’t want to support it. So we had the support of the vast majority of the American people.

1981 meeting with Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, Chief of Staff James Baker III, and Counselor to the President Ed Meese.

Michael Deaver
Deputy chief of staff

I don’t think he thought of it as a seminal moment, but it turned out to be. It was interesting to me, because it goes right to this business about staff, and who’s making the decisions. I remember that morning in the Cabinet meeting—the Cabinet’s all around the table, and everybody had ideas, and Drew Lewis—who was [Secretary of] Transportation—and others were going back and forth across the table. I looked over at Reagan, because it dawned on me that he wasn’t saying anything. He was writing on his yellow pad, writing, writing, writing. This went on for about 15 minutes, and finally I heard him say, "Excuse me, fellows, but let me just read you something here. Tell me what you think about it." It was the statement he gave in the Rose Garden about half an hour later, word for word. Nobody changed anything. Everybody said, "Oh, yes, that’s great."

But it wasn’t a surprise to me, because it had been a Reagan position in California when the firefighters, I think it was, went out. Reagan said, "A public employee does not have the right to strike. How can you strike against the public? They’re the people who hire you." He’d had that experience with teachers, saying, "They insist on the right to strike and tenure at the same time, how can you do this?" So it wasn’t a real surprise to me. I guess what was the surprise was that in this first example of his own action, it was pure Reagan, and it wasn’t changed in any way.

Edwin Harper
Assistant to the president for policy development deputy director of OMB

Well, one of the things that really impressed me was his courage. For example, the air traffic controllers strike: Calling their bluff on that was a real act of political courage. It took on a group that nobody had ever been willing to confront before. He did it with his eyes wide open and went ahead. It was Drew Lewis’ call in some ways, but Drew Lewis was not going to do this without Ronald Reagan’s permission—and I think that was a real act of political courage to do that. And it set the tone for a lot of other things.

Senator Laxalt and Ronald Reagan, 1980

Paul Laxalt
Republican Senator from Nevada

I was so proud of him. We all were when he stood firm. It wasn’t really surprising. They defied authority, and he wasn’t about to let them get by with it, not on his watch.

Q: Was there early warning of that strike? Was this something that he was anticipating?

Laxalt: I think that Drew Lewis was working in it principally, and I think he came back with a reading that they could well strike and force his hand.

Q: So it didn’t take the president entirely by surprise.

Laxalt: No, not entirely. He wasn’t going to tolerate that. And I agree with you, I think that established him in the minds of an awful lot of people who aren’t that political as a guy who is going to stand up and be counted. Despite all the gloomy predictions that we had—the whole system would break down, we’d have crashes everywhere—all those spots where they portrayed Reagan as an evil person.

Q: Did your colleagues in the Senate react in any discernible way that you recall? Did that impress them?

Laxalt: Well, it would all depend, obviously, on their politics. A lot of our Democratic colleagues with strong union leanings didn’t like it a bit because that didn’t send out a very decent message as far as the union supporters were concerned. Conservatives loved it, of course, and the moderates, depending, I guess, on their constituencies. But he just developed a hell of a lot of respect for standing up and being counted, in Harry Truman style. You know what I mean? Right now, I think from that point on, the power centers in this town figured, here’s a guy you better take seriously.

Martin Anderson
Assistant to the president for policy development

I think what is extraordinary about that is the impact that it had way beyond domestic politics. Especially when you listen to George Shultz or Henry Kissinger talk about the impact it had on foreign policy, it was stunning. Basically, the impact was that they said, “Oh my God, this president took on the unions and did it? He might do other things.” Which was true, of course.

What he did with PATCO—at the time it was presented, they were going to strike. When he was told about it, he just said, “No, they can’t strike.” It looked like off the top of his head he had done that. Well, when we were putting together this book Reagan, In His Own Hand, my wife and I found some of these essays that he had written dealing with strikes by public employees. Many years ago he had very carefully laid out, analyzed it, studied it, and said, “Look, they cannot strike. And if they strike, they’re gone.”

So what we did not realize while we were in the White House with him was that he had already thought about this. He had worked out the theory, he had a whole thing all set up. Then they came and said they’re striking and he said, “Fine, they’re gone.”

PATCO was founded in 1968 with the assistance of attorney and pilot F. Lee Bailey. On July 3, 1968, PATCO announced "Operation Air Safety" in which all members were ordered to adhere strictly to the established separation standards for aircraft. The resultant large delay of air traffic was the first of many official and unofficial "slowdowns" that PATCO would initiate.

In 1969, the U.S. Civil Service Commission ruled that PATCO was no longer a professional association but in fact a trade union. [1] On June 18–20, 1969, 477 controllers conducted a three-day sick-out. [2]

On March 25, 1970, the newly designated union orchestrated a controller "sickout" to protest many of the FAA actions that they felt were unfair over 2,000 controllers around the country did not report to work as scheduled and informed management that they were ill. [3] Controllers called in sick to circumvent the federal law against strikes by government unions. Management personnel attempted to assume many of the duties of the missing controllers but major traffic delays around the country occurred. On April 16, the federal courts intervened and most controllers went back to work by order of the court, but the government was forced to the bargaining table. The sickout led officials to recognize that the ATC system was operating nearly at capacity. To alleviate some of this, Congress accelerated the installation of automated systems, reopened the air traffic controller training academy in Oklahoma City, began hiring air traffic controllers at an increasing rate, and raised salaries to help attract and retain controllers. [1]

In the 1980 presidential election, PATCO (along with the Teamsters and the Air Line Pilots Association) refused to back President Jimmy Carter, instead endorsing Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan. PATCO's refusal to endorse the Democratic Party stemmed in large part from poor labor relations with the FAA (the employer of PATCO members) under the Carter administration and Ronald Reagan's endorsement of the union and its struggle for better conditions during the 1980 election campaign. [4] [5]

During his campaign, Reagan sent a letter to Robert E. Poli, the new president of PATCO, in which he declared support for the organization's demands and a disposition to work towards solutions. In it, he stated "I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available, and to adjust staff levels and workdays so they are commensurate with achieving the maximum degree of public safety," and "I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers." This letter gave Poli and the organization a sense of security that led to an overestimation of their position in the negotiations with the FAA, which contributed to their decision to strike. [6]

In February 1981, PATCO and the FAA began new contract negotiations. Citing safety concerns, PATCO called for a reduced 32-hour work week, a $10,000 pay increase for all air-traffic controllers and a better benefits package for retirement. [7] Negotiations quickly stalled. Then, in June, the FAA offered a new three-year contract with $105 million of up front conversions in raises to be paid in 11.4% increases over the next three years, a raise more than twice what was being given to other federal employees, “The average federal controller (at a GS_13 level, a common grade controller) earned $36,613, which was 18% less than private sector counterpart" [8] with the raise demanded, the average federal pay would have exceeded the private sector pay by 8%, along with better benefits and shorter working hours. However, because the offer did not include a shorter work week or earlier retirement, PATCO rejected the offer. [9]

At 7 a.m. on August 3, 1981, the union declared a strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay (PATCO sought a total raise of $600 million over three years, compared to FAA's offer of $40 million) [8] and a 32-hour workweek (a four-day week and an eight-hour day combined). In addition, PATCO wanted to be excluded from the civil service clauses that it had long disliked. In striking, the union violated 5 U.S.C. (Supp. III 1956) 118p (now 5 U.S.C. § 7311), which prohibits strikes by federal government employees, "One Florida controller regarded the $10,000 demand as almost an embarrassment". Anthony Skirlick of the Los Angeles Center warned that these “Unrealistic demands in the face of this change is suicide". [8] Despite supporting PATCO's effort in his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan declared the PATCO strike a "peril to national safety" and ordered them back to work under the terms of the Taft–Hartley Act. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work. [4] At 10:55 a.m., Reagan included the following in a statement: "Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: 'I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.'" [10] He then demanded those remaining on strike return to work within 48 hours or officially forfeit their positions.

After PATCO disobeyed a federal court injunction ordering an end to the strike and return to work, a federal judge found union leaders including PATCO President Robert Poli to be in contempt of court, and the union was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine, and certain named members were ordered to pay a $1,000 fine [11] for each day its members are on strike. At the same time, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis organized for replacements and started contingency plans. By prioritizing and cutting flights severely (about 7,000), and even adopting methods of air traffic management that PATCO had previously lobbied for, the government was initially able to have 50% of flights available. [4]

On August 5, following the PATCO workers' refusal to return to work, the Reagan administration fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order, [12] [13] and banned them from federal service for life. In the wake of the strike and mass firings, the FAA was faced with the task of hiring and training enough controllers to replace those that had been fired, a hard problem to fix as, at the time, it took three years in normal conditions to train a new controller. [1] [ page needed ] They were replaced initially with non-participating controllers, supervisors, staff personnel, some non-rated personnel, and in some cases by controllers transferred temporarily from other facilities. Some military controllers were also used until replacements could be trained. PATCO was decertified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority on October 22, 1981. The decision was appealed but to no avail, [14] and attempts to use the courts to reverse the firings proved fruitless. [15]

The FAA had initially claimed that staffing levels would be restored within two years however, it took closer to ten years before the overall staffing levels returned to normal. [1]

Some former striking controllers were allowed to reapply after 1986 and were rehired they and their replacements are now represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which was certified on June 19, 1987 and had no connection with PATCO. The civil service ban on the remaining strike participants was lifted by President Bill Clinton on August 12, 1993. [16] Nevertheless, by 2006 only 850 PATCO strikers had been rehired by the FAA. [7]

Reagan's firing of the government employees encouraged large private employers, like Phelps Dodge (1983), Hormel (1985–86), and International Paper (1987), to hire striker replacements instead of negotiating in labor conflicts. [17] Comparatively, in 1970 there were over 380 major strikes or lockouts in the U.S., by 1980 the number had dropped to under 200, in 1999 it fell to 17, and in 2010 there were only 11. [18]

In 2003, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, speaking on the legacy of Ronald Reagan, [19] noted:

Perhaps the most important, and then highly controversial, domestic initiative was the firing of the air traffic controllers in August 1981. The President invoked the law that striking government employees forfeit their jobs, an action that unsettled those who cynically believed no President would ever uphold that law. President Reagan prevailed, but far more importantly his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.

When the president said no, American business leaders were given a lesson in managerial leadership that they could not and did not ignore. Many private sector executives have told me that they were able to cut the fat from their organizations and adopt more competitive work practices because of what the government did in those days. I would not be surprised if these unseen effects of this private sector shakeout under the inspiration of the president were as profound in influencing the recovery that occurred as the formal economic and fiscal programs. [20]

In a review of Joseph McCartin's 2011 book, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America in Review 31, Richard Sharpe stated that Reagan was "laying down a marker" for his presidency: "The strikers were often working-class men and women who had achieved suburban middle class lives as air traffic controllers without having gone to college. Many were veterans of the US armed forces where they had learned their skills their union had backed Reagan in his election campaign. Nevertheless, Reagan refused to back down. Several strikers were jailed the union was fined and eventually made bankrupt. Only about 800 got their jobs back when Clinton lifted the ban on rehiring those who went on strike. Many of the strikers were forced into poverty as a result of being blacklisted for [U.S. government] employment." [21]

Paul Volcker called the strike a "watershed" moment in the fight against inflation:

One of the major factors in turning the tide on the inflationary situation was the controllers' strike, because here, for the first time, it wasn't really a fight about wages it was a fight about working conditions. It was directly a wage problem, but the controllers were government employees, and the government didn't back down. And he stood there and said, "If you're going to go on strike, you're going to lose your job, and we'll make out without you." That had a profound effect on the aggressiveness of labor at that time, in the midst of this inflationary problem and other economic problems. I am told that the administration pretty much took off the shelf plans that had been developed in the Carter administration, but whether the Carter administration ever would of done it is the open question. That was something of a watershed. [22]

If Teachers Won’t Teach, Follow Ronald Reagan’s Example and Fire Them

When 13,000 air traffic controllers walked off the job in August 1981, President Ronald Reagan had this to say: &ldquoTell them when the strike&rsquos over, they don&rsquot have any jobs.&rdquo The media, not yet fully familiar with the seriousness with which Reagan intended to govern, scoffed at the president&rsquos threat. But it was not a bluff. Two days later, when more than 11,000 controllers refused to come back, Reagan fired them all. It was a powerful move, and demonstrated to the entire country that essential public employees serve the public, not union bosses. America&rsquos public school teachers should be reminded of this fact.

With thousands of teachers across the country currently protesting a return to the classroom because of COVID fears, Reagan&rsquos example is particularly relevant. Like air traffic controllers, teachers sign employment contracts. While air traffic controllers contract with the federal government and teachers with local school districts, the principle is the same: perform the duties for which you were hired, or be fired.

Teachers who refuse to teach in the setting for which they were hired &ndash the classroom &ndash need to stop acting like scared bunnies and grow up. If they truly are &ldquoessential&rdquo workers, as they remind us repeatedly, then they need to start behaving like other essential employees and get back to work.

Many businesses, unfortunately, have been forced by the government to shut down wholly or in part in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, and this is having a devastating effect on our national economy. Amidst this devastation, public schools in virtually every jurisdiction across the country ended the school year early after COVID hit our shores in March.

Unlike commercial businesses, however, the prolonged closure of schools has ramifications far beyond the economic. Moreover, educating children is a process that cannot be switched on and off like a production line the damage to young minds that are allowed to lie fallow month after month, or which are presented with &ldquovirtual&rdquo learning in place of human-to-human interface, creates learning voids not easily replenished.

&ldquoTeaching&rdquo means, if anything, working with students as well as encouraging students to work with other students in a social setting for the purpose of learning essential skills and acquiring essential knowledge. &ldquoVirtual&rdquo teaching is not teaching at all it is cinematography &ndash nothing more than an adult (the &ldquoteacher&rdquo) speaking to a camera, with an audience of one (the &ldquostudent&rdquo) at the end of the electronic transmission watching a screen. Raw information may be thus transmitted, but not true knowledge.

What many public school teachers and their union bosses at the National Education Association appear to be setting as the price for them to return to the classroom, is a guarantee that the environment will be 100% percent COVID-free at all times. Such a condition is, of course, impossible to meet and essentially allows the teachers to avoid a return to their job site for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, demanding a zero-risk premise for classroom teaching sends the message to students (and everyone else for that matter) that risk-avoidance is the highest and most desirable goal for society. This further erodes the principle on which America&rsquos greatness heretofore has been premised &ndash that society advances not by avoiding challenges, but by meeting and overcoming them.

There might perhaps be somewhat more compassion for the our-way-or-the-highway posture being taken by these public school teachers had they and their union not spent decades working to ensure that public education remained the only practical option for millions of families across America. Unionized teachers continue to vilify homeschooling and oppose providing taxpaying parents any meaningful ability to choose where to send their children to be educated.

No teacher should be forced to go into the classroom against their will. However, if local government leaders properly equip them with personal protective equipment and mandate reasonable protocols within the schools to minimize the risk of COVID, and if teachers and their unions then still refuse to teach in school, it is time to &ldquopull a Reagan&rdquo and fire them. The money saved from thinning educational bloat of protesting teachers and useless district administrators with nothing to do, can be returned to parents who are struggling to pay for alternatives to ensure their children actually have a productive school year.

This week in history: Ronald Reagan fires 11,345 air traffic controllers

On Aug. 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 air traffic controllers after a two-day strike.

Only seven months into his administration and less than a month after appointing the first woman to the Supreme Court, the first great political crisis of Reagan's presidency occurred when 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike. With their federal contracts expired, the air traffic controllers walked off the job on Aug. 3.

Recognizing the stressful, demanding nature of the profession, Reagan had offered an 11 percent increase in wages, though this was not enough for PATCO. Among other concessions, the union demanded a 100 percent pay increase that would have amounted to $700 million for taxpayers at a time when Reagan was trying to trim the federal budget. Reagan rejected the demands and the stage was set for a showdown.

The strike proved difficult for Reagan for a couple of reasons. First of all, PATCO had been one of the few unions that had supported Reagan's bid for the presidency the year before, and he counted friends among the union's leadership. Second, Reagan himself was a former union leader. An actor by profession, Reagan had served as the president of the Screen Actor's Guild in the ’40s and ’50s.

Reagan told his transportation secretary, Drew Lewis, “You tell the leaders of PATCO that as a former union president I am the best friend they've ever had in the White House.”

PATCO's strike, as it turned out, was illegal. Under a provision of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, Reagan ordered the controllers back to work, giving them a 48-hour deadline. Some of the controllers returned to work, but the majority did not. Reagan echoed the words of Calvin Coolidge when he told Lewis, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

As former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes in her book, “When Character was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan,” “What (Reagan) didn't tell reporters . is that a strike by American air traffic controllers carried real national security implications. PATCO in effect controlled the skies, and American AWACS bombers that might on a moment's notice be ordered to head for Moscow were in those skies every day.”

These civilian air traffic controllers played a key role in America's defense system, and by walking off their jobs threatened America's potential to respond to a Soviet attack, or offer a proper deterrence through strength. Though union leaders remained silent on the issue as a bargaining tool, they no doubt understood the national security dimension of their actions.

In a show of true bipartisanship, congressional Democrats stood behind the president. Lewis phoned Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts who told him, “I'll help get you Democratic support.” To be sure, some Democrats made some unflattering noise, but no major Democratic action was taken against the president for political advantage. The president of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland, also offered support to the administration.

When the 48 hours had expired on Aug. 5, Reagan remained true to his word and fired the striking controllers. Reagan said, “I'm sorry. I'm sorry for them. I certainly take no joy out of this.”

In order to fill the need for air traffic controllers, many airport support and military personnel were pressed into service. A significant number of flights had to be decreased during the crisis, though they quickly returned to levels enjoyed before the strike. Additionally, the fired controllers were banned from federal employment, though eventually this order was rescinded.

In his book “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” biographer Lou Cannon quotes Washington insider Donald Rumsfeld, “You had a president who was new to the office and not taken seriously by a lot of people. It showed a decisiveness and an ease with his instincts . ” Cannon goes on to quote Reagan who later said that the episode proved “an important juncture for our new administration. I think it convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.”

Noonan writes of perhaps the most important consequence of the strike: “The Soviet Union was watching. They saw how the American president dealt with a national security issue, saw that his rhetorical toughness could be matched by tough action. They absorbed this, and thought about it. That's why George Shultz, Reagan's last and most effective secretary of state, said that the PATCO decision was the most important foreign policy decision Ronald Reagan ever made.”


Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in an apartment on the second floor of a commercial building in Tampico, Illinois. He was the younger son of Nelle Clyde ( née Wilson) and Jack Reagan. [7] Jack was a salesman and storyteller whose grandparents were Irish Catholic emigrants from County Tipperary, [8] while Nelle was of English and Scottish descent. [9] Ronald's older brother, Neil Reagan, became an advertising executive. [10]

Reagan's father nicknamed his son "Dutch", due to his "fat little Dutchman" appearance and Dutch-boy haircut the nickname stuck with him throughout his youth. [11] Reagan's family briefly lived in several towns and cities in Illinois, including Monmouth, Galesburg, and Chicago. [12] In 1919, they returned to Tampico and lived above the H. C. Pitney Variety Store until finally settling in Dixon, Illinois. [7] After his election as president, Reagan lived in the upstairs White House private quarters, and he would quip that he was "living above the store" again. [13]


Ronald Reagan wrote that his mother "always expected to find the best in people and often did". [14] She attended the Disciples of Christ church regularly and was active, and very influential, within it she frequently led Sunday school services and gave the Bible readings to the congregation during the services. A firm believer in the power of prayer, she led prayer meetings at church and was in charge of mid-week prayers when the pastor was out of town. [15] She was also an adherent of the Social Gospel movement. [16] Her strong commitment to the church is what induced her son Ronald to become a Protestant Christian rather than a Roman Catholic like his Irish father. [9] He also stated that she strongly influenced his own beliefs: "I know that she planted that faith very deeply in me." [17] Reagan identified himself as a born-again Christian. [18] In Dixon, Reagan was strongly influenced by his pastor Beh Hill Cleaver, an erudite scholar. Cleaver was the father of Reagan's fiancée. Reagan saw him as a second father. Stephen Vaughn says:

At many points the positions taken by the First Christian Church of Reagan's youth coincided with the words, if not the beliefs of the latter-day Reagan. These positions included faith in Providence, association of America's mission with God's will, belief in progress, trust in the work ethic and admiration for those who achieved wealth, an uncomfortableness with literature and art that questioned the family or challenged notions of proper sexual behavior, presumption that poverty is an individual problem best left to charity rather than the state, sensitivity to problems involving alcohol and drugs, and reticence to use government to protect civil rights for minorities. [19]

According to Paul Kengor, Reagan had a particularly strong faith in the goodness of people this faith stemmed from the optimistic faith of his mother [20] and the Disciples of Christ faith, [20] into which he was baptized in 1922. [21] For that period, which was long before the civil rights movement, Reagan's opposition to racial discrimination was unusual. He recalled the time when his college football team was staying at a local hotel which would not allow two black teammates to stay there, and he invited them to his parents' home 15 miles (24 kilometers) away in Dixon. His mother invited them to stay overnight and have breakfast the next morning. [22] [23] His father was strongly opposed to the Ku Klux Klan due to his Catholic heritage, but also due to the Klan's anti-semitism and anti-black racism. [16] After becoming a prominent actor, Reagan gave speeches in favor of racial equality following World War II. [24]

Formal education

Reagan attended Dixon High School, where he developed interests in acting, sports, and storytelling. [25] His first job involved working as a lifeguard at the Rock River in Lowell Park in 1927. Over six years, Reagan performed 77 rescues. [26] He attended Eureka College. He was an indifferent student, majored in economics and sociology and graduated with a C average. [27] He developed a reputation as a "jack of all trades", excelling in campus politics, sports, and theater. He was a member of the football team and captain of the swim team. He was elected student body president and participated in student protests against the college president. [28]

Radio and film

After graduating from Eureka in 1932, Reagan took jobs in Iowa as a radio announcer at several stations. He moved to WHO radio in Des Moines as an announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games. His specialty was creating play-by-play accounts of games using only basic descriptions that the station received by wire as the games were in progress. [29]

While traveling with the Cubs in California in 1937, Reagan took a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. studios. [30] He spent the first few years of his Hollywood career in the "B film" unit, where, Reagan joked, the producers "didn't want them good they wanted them Thursday". [31]

He earned his first screen credit with a starring role in the 1937 movie Love Is on the Air, and by the end of 1939, he had already appeared in 19 films, [32] including Dark Victory with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Before the film Santa Fe Trail with Errol Flynn in 1940, he played the role of George Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American from it, he acquired the lifelong nickname "the Gipper". [33] In 1941, exhibitors voted him the fifth most popular star from the younger generation in Hollywood. [34]

Reagan played his favorite acting role in 1942's Kings Row, [35] where he plays a double amputee who recites the line "Where's the rest of me?"—later used as the title of his 1965 autobiography. Many film critics considered Kings Row to be his best movie, [36] though the film was condemned by The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. [37] [38]

Kings Row made Reagan a star—Warner immediately tripled his salary to $3,000 a week. Shortly afterwards, he received co-star above-the-title billing with Flynn – who was still a huge star at the time – in Desperate Journey (1942). In April 1942, Reagan was ordered to military active duty in San Francisco and never quite became a big first-rank film star despite playing the lead in numerous movies. [39] After his wartime military service he co-starred in such films as The Voice of the Turtle, John Loves Mary, The Hasty Heart, Bedtime for Bonzo, Cattle Queen of Montana, Tennessee's Partner, Hellcats of the Navy (the only film in which he appears with Nancy Reagan), and his one turn at playing a vicious villain, in the 1964 remake The Killers (his final film) with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickenson. Throughout his film career, Reagan's mother answered much of his fan mail. [40]

Military service

After completing 14 home-study Army Extension Courses, Reagan enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Officers' Reserve Corps of the Cavalry on May 25, 1937. [41]

On April 18, 1942, Reagan was ordered to active duty for the first time. Due to his poor eyesight, he was classified for limited service only, which excluded him from serving overseas. [42] 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. [43] Upon the approval of the U.S. Army Air Forces (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 18th AAF Base Unit (Motion Picture Unit) at Culver City, California. [43] 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. [43] He returned to the 18th AAF Base Unit after completing this duty and was promoted to captain on July 22, 1943. [44]

In January 1944, Reagan was ordered to temporary duty in New York City to participate in the opening of the Sixth War Loan Drive, which campaigned for the purchase of war bonds. He was reassigned to the 18th AAF Base Unit on November 14, 1944, where he remained until the end of World War II. [44] By the end of the war, his units had produced some 400 training films for the Air Force, including cockpit simulations for B-29 crews scheduled to bomb Japan. He was separated from active duty on December 9, 1945, as an Army captain. [45] While he was in the service, Reagan obtained a film reel depicting the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp he held on to it, believing that doubts would someday arise as to whether the Holocaust had occurred. [46]

Screen Actors Guild presidency

Reagan was first elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1941, serving as an alternate member. After World War II, he resumed service and became third vice president in 1946. [47] When the SAG president and six board members resigned in March 1947 due to the union's new bylaws on conflict of interest, Reagan was elected president in a special election. He was subsequently re-elected six times, in 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1959. He led the SAG through implementing the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, various labor-management disputes, and the Hollywood blacklist era. [47] First instituted in 1947 by Studio executives who agreed that they would not employ anyone believed to be or to have been Communists or sympathetic with radical politics, the blacklist grew steadily larger during the early 1950s as the U.S. Congress continued to investigate domestic political subversion. [48]

Also during his tenure, Reagan was instrumental in securing residuals for television actors when their episodes were re-run, and later, for motion picture actors when their studio films aired on TV. [49]

FBI informant

In 1946, Reagan served on the national board of directors for the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (ICCASP) and had been a member of its Hollywood chapter (HICCASP). His attendance at a July 10, 1946, meeting of HICCASP brought him to the attention of the FBI, which interviewed him on April 10, 1947, in connection with its investigation into HICCASP. [50] [51] [52] Four decades later it was revealed that, during the late 1940s, Reagan (under the code name T-10) and his then-wife, Jane Wyman, provided the FBI with the names of actors within the motion picture industry whom they believed to be communist sympathizers. Even so, he was uncomfortable with the way the SAG was being used by the government, asking during one FBI interview, "Do they (ie. the House Un-American Activities Committee) expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn't?" [53] [54]

HUAC's Hollywood hearings

In October 1947 during HUAC's Hollywood hearings, Reagan testified as president of the Screen Actors Guild: [55]

There has been a small group within the Screen Actors Guild which has consistently opposed the policy of the guild board and officers of the guild. suspected of more or less following the tactics that we associate with the Communist Party. At times they have attempted to be a disruptive influence. I have heard different discussions and some of them tagged as Communists. I found myself misled into being a sponsor on another occasion for a function that was held under the auspices of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. [55]

Regarding a "jurisdictional strike" going on for seven months at that time, Reagan testified:

The first time that this word "Communist" was ever injected into any of the meetings concerning the strike was at a meeting in Chicago with Mr. William Hutchinson, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, who were on strike at the time. He asked the Screen Actors Guild to submit terms to Mr. Walsh, for Walsh to give in the settling of this strike, and he told us to tell Mr. Walsh that if he would give in on these terms he in turn would run this Sorrell and the other Commies out—I am quoting him—and break it up. [55]

However, Reagan also opposed measures soon to manifest in the Mundt–Nixon Bill in May 1948 by opining:

As a citizen I would hesitate, or not like, to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. I detest, I abhor their philosophy, but I detest more than that their tactics, which are those of the fifth column, and are dishonest, but at the same time I never as a citizen want to see our country become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group, that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment. [55]

Further, when asked whether he was aware of Communist efforts within the Screen Writers Guild, Reagan would not play along, saying, "Sir, like the other gentlemen, I must say that that is hearsay." [55]


Reagan landed fewer film roles in the late 1950s and moved into television. [31] He was hired as the host of General Electric Theater, [56] a series of weekly dramas that became very popular. [31] His contract required him to tour General Electric (GE) plants 16 weeks out of the year, which often demanded that he give 14 talks per day. [31] He earned approximately $125,000 (equivalent to $1.1 million in 2020) in this role. The show ran for ten seasons from 1953 to 1962, which increased Reagan's national profile. [57] On January 1, 1959, Reagan was the host and announcer for ABC's coverage of the Tournament of Roses Parade. [58] In his final work as a professional actor, Reagan was a host and performer from 1964 to 1965 on the television series Death Valley Days. [59] Following their marriage in 1952, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who continued to use the stage name Nancy Davis, acted together in three TV series episodes, including a 1958 installment of General Electric Theater titled "A Turkey for the President". [60]

In 1938, Reagan co-starred in the film Brother Rat with actress Jane Wyman (1917–2007). They announced their engagement at the Chicago Theatre [61] and married on January 26, 1940, at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather church in Glendale, California. [62] Together they had two biological daughters, Maureen (1941–2001) and Christine (born prematurely, and died, June 26, 1947) and adopted a son, Michael (b. 1945). [63] After the couple had arguments about Reagan's political ambitions, Wyman filed for divorce in 1948, [64] citing a distraction due to her husband's Screen Actors Guild union duties the divorce was finalized in 1949. [33] Wyman, who was a registered Republican, also stated that their breakup stemmed from a difference in politics (Reagan was still a Democrat at the time). [65] When Reagan became president 32 years later, he became the first divorced person to assume the nation's highest office. [66] Reagan and Wyman continued to be friends until his death Wyman voted for Reagan in both his runs, and on his death she said, "America has lost a great president and a great, kind, and gentle man." [67]

Reagan met actress Nancy Davis (1921–2016) [68] [69] in 1949 after she contacted him in his capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He helped her with issues regarding her name appearing on a Communist blacklist in Hollywood she had been mistaken for another Nancy Davis. She described their meeting by saying, "I don't know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close." [70] They were engaged at Chasen's restaurant in Los Angeles and were married on March 4, 1952, at the Little Brown Church in the Valley (North Hollywood, now Studio City) San Fernando Valley. [71] Actor William Holden served as best man at the ceremony. They had two children: Patti (b. 1952) and Ronald "Ron" (b. 1958).

The couple's relationship was close, authentic and intimate. [72] During his presidency, they often displayed affection for each other one press secretary said, "They never took each other for granted. They never stopped courting." [70] [73] He often called her "Mommy", and she called him "Ronnie". [73] He once wrote to her, "Whatever I treasure and enjoy . all would be without meaning if I didn't have you." [74] In 1998, while he was stricken by Alzheimer's, Nancy told Vanity Fair, "Our relationship is very special. We were very much in love and still are. When I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it's true. It did. I can't imagine life without him." [70] Nancy Reagan died on March 6, 2016, at the age of 94. [75]

Reagan began as a Hollywood Democrat, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was "a true hero" to him. [76] He moved to the right-wing in the 1950s, became a Republican in 1962, and emerged as a leading conservative spokesman in the Goldwater campaign of 1964. [77]

In his early political career, he joined numerous political committees with a left-wing orientation, such as the American Veterans Committee. He fought against Republican-sponsored right-to-work legislation and supported Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 when she was defeated for the Senate by Richard Nixon. It was his belief that Communists were a powerful backstage influence in those groups that led him to rally his friends against them. [78]

At rallies, Reagan frequently spoke with a strong ideological dimension. In December 1945, he was stopped from leading an anti-nuclear rally in Hollywood by pressure from the Warner Bros. studio. He would later make nuclear weapons a key point of his presidency when he specifically stated his opposition to mutual assured destruction. Reagan also built on previous efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. [79] In the 1948 presidential election, Reagan strongly supported Harry S. Truman and appeared on stage with him during a campaign speech in Los Angeles. [80] In the early 1950s, his relationship with actress Nancy Davis grew, [81] and he shifted to the right when he endorsed the presidential candidacies of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1952 and 1956) and Richard Nixon (1960). [82]

Reagan was hired by General Electric (GE) in 1954 to host the General Electric Theater, a weekly TV drama series. He also traveled across the country to give motivational speeches to over 200,000 GE employees. His many speeches—which he wrote himself—were non-partisan but carried a conservative, pro-business message he was influenced by Lemuel Boulware, a senior GE executive. Boulware, known for his tough stance against unions and his innovative strategies to win over workers, championed the core tenets of modern American conservatism: free markets, anticommunism, lower taxes, and limited government. [83] Eager for a larger stage, but not allowed to enter politics by GE, he quit and formally registered as a Republican. [84] He often said, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me." [85]

When the legislation that would become Medicare was introduced in 1961, he created a recording for the American Medical Association (AMA) warning that such legislation would mean the end of freedom in America. Reagan said that if his listeners did not write letters to prevent it, "we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don't do this, and if I don't do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free." [86] [87] Other Democratic initiatives he opposed in the 1960s included the Food Stamp Program, raising the minimum wage, and the establishment of the Peace Corps. [16] He also joined the National Rifle Association (NRA) and would become a lifetime member. [88]

Reagan gained national attention in his speeches for conservative presidential contender Barry Goldwater in 1964. [89] Speaking for Goldwater, Reagan stressed his belief in the importance of smaller government. He consolidated themes that he had developed in his talks for GE to deliver his famous speech, "A Time for Choosing":

The Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing . You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man's age-old dream—the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order—or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. [90] [91]

This "A Time for Choosing" speech was not enough to turn around the faltering Goldwater campaign, but it was the crucial event that established Reagan's national political visibility. David Broder of The Washington Post called it, "the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his Cross of Gold speech". [92] [93] [94]

California Republicans were impressed with Reagan's political views and charisma after his "Time for Choosing" speech, [96] and in late 1965 he announced his campaign for governor in the 1966 election. [97] [98] He defeated former San Francisco mayor George Christopher in the Republican primary. In Reagan's campaign, he emphasized two main themes: "to send the welfare bums back to work", and, in reference to burgeoning anti-war and anti-establishment student protests at the University of California, Berkeley, "to clean up the mess at Berkeley". [99] In 1966, Reagan accomplished what both U.S. senator William Knowland in 1958 and former vice president Richard Nixon in 1962 failed to do: he was elected, defeating Pat Brown, the Democratic two-term governor. Reagan was sworn in on January 2, 1967. In his first term, he froze government hiring and approved tax hikes to balance the budget. [100]

Shortly after assuming office, Reagan tested the 1968 presidential waters as part of a "Stop Nixon" movement, hoping to cut into Nixon's southern support [102] and become a compromise candidate [103] if neither Nixon nor second-place candidate Nelson Rockefeller received enough delegates to win on the first ballot at the Republican convention. However, by the time of the convention, Nixon had 692 delegate votes, 25 more than he needed to secure the nomination, followed by Rockefeller with Reagan in third place. [102]

Reagan was involved in several high-profile conflicts with the protest movements of the era, including his public criticism of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus. On May 15, 1969, during the People's Park protests at the university's campus (the original purpose of which was to discuss the Arab–Israeli conflict), Reagan sent the California Highway Patrol and other officers to quell the protests. This led to an incident that became known as "Bloody Thursday", resulting in the death of student James Rector and the blinding of carpenter Alan Blanchard. [104] [105] In addition, 111 police officers were injured in the conflict, including one who was knifed in the chest. Reagan then called out 2,200 state National Guard troops to occupy the city of Berkeley for two weeks to crack down on the protesters. [104] The Guard remained in Berkeley for 17 days, camping in People's Park, and demonstrations subsided as the university removed cordoned-off fencing and placed all development plans for People's Park on hold. [104] [106] One year after the incident, Reagan responded to questions about campus protest movements saying, "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement." [107] When the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst in Berkeley and demanded the distribution of food to the poor, Reagan joked to a group of political aides about a botulism outbreak contaminating the food. [108]

Early in 1967, the national debate on abortion was starting to gain traction. In the early stages of the debate, Democratic California state senator Anthony Beilenson introduced the Therapeutic Abortion Act in an effort to reduce the number of "back-room abortions" performed in California. [104] The state legislature sent the bill to Reagan's desk where, after many days of indecision, he reluctantly signed it on June 14, 1967. [109] About two million abortions would be performed as a result, mostly because of a provision in the bill allowing abortions for the well-being of the mother. [109] Reagan had been in office for only four months when he signed the bill and later stated that had he been more experienced as governor, he would not have signed it. After he recognized what he called the "consequences" of the bill, he announced that he was anti-abortion. [109] He maintained that position later in his political career, writing extensively about abortion. [110]

In 1967, Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which repealed a law allowing the public carrying of loaded firearms (becoming California Penal Code 12031 and 171(c)). The bill, which was named after Republican assemblyman Don Mulford, garnered national attention after the Black Panthers marched bearing arms upon the California State Capitol to protest it. [111] [112]

Despite an unsuccessful attempt to force a recall election on Reagan in 1968, [113] he was re-elected governor in 1970, defeating Jesse M. Unruh. He chose not to seek a third term in the following election cycle. One of Reagan's greatest frustrations in office was the controversy of capital punishment, which he strongly supported. [35] His efforts to enforce the state's laws in this area were thwarted when the Supreme Court of California issued its People v. Anderson decision, which invalidated all death sentences issued in California before 1972, though the decision was later overturned by a constitutional amendment. The only execution during Reagan's governorship was on April 12, 1967, when Aaron Mitchell's sentence was carried out by the state in San Quentin's gas chamber. [114]

In 1969, Reagan signed the Family Law Act, which was an amalgam of two bills that had been written and revised by the California State Legislature over more than two years. [115] It became the first no-fault divorce legislation in the United States. [116] Years later, he told his son Michael that signing that law was his "greatest regret" in public life. [117] [118]

Reagan's terms as governor helped to shape the policies he would pursue in his later political career as president. By campaigning on a platform of sending "the welfare bums back to work", he spoke out against the idea of the welfare state. He also strongly advocated the Republican ideal of less government regulation of the economy, including that of undue federal taxation. [119]

Reagan's 1976 campaign relied on a strategy crafted by campaign manager John Sears of winning a few primaries early to damage the inevitability of Ford's likely nomination. Reagan won North Carolina, Texas, and California, but the strategy failed, as [120] he ended up losing New Hampshire, Florida, and his native Illinois. [121] The Texas campaign lent renewed hope to Reagan when he swept all 96 delegates chosen in the May 1 primary, with four more awaiting at the state convention. Much of the credit for that victory came from the work of three co-chairmen, including Ernest Angelo, the mayor of Midland, and Ray Barnhart of Houston, whom Reagan as president would appoint in 1981 as director of the Federal Highway Administration. [122]

However, as the GOP convention neared, Ford appeared close to victory. Acknowledging his party's moderate wing, Reagan chose moderate senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate if nominated. Nonetheless, Ford prevailed with 1,187 delegates to Reagan's 1,070. [121]

Reagan's concession speech emphasized the dangers of nuclear war and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Though he lost the nomination, he received 307 write-in votes in New Hampshire, 388 votes as an independent on Wyoming's ballot, and a single electoral vote from a faithless elector in the November election from the state of Washington. [123]

In 1978, conservative state legislator John Briggs, sponsored a ballot initiative for the November 7, 1978 California state election (the Briggs Initiative) that sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California's public schools. [124] officially California Proposition 6, was a ballot initiative put to a referendum on the in the . [125] Early opposition was led by LGBT activists and a few progressive politicians, but to many people's surprise, Reagan moved to publicly oppose the measure. He issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, told reporters that he was opposed, and wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing it. [126] [127]

The timing of Reagan's opposition was significant, and surprised many, because he was then preparing to run for president, a race in which he would need the support of conservatives and those moderates who were uncomfortable with homosexual teachers. At that very moment, he was actively courting leaders from the religious right, including Jerry Falwell, who would go on to form the Moral Majority to fight out such culture war issues the following year. [128] As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon puts it, Reagan was "well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue" but nevertheless "chose to state his convictions." [129] Cannon reports that Reagan was "repelled by the aggressive public crusades against homosexual life styles which became a staple of right wing politics in the late 1970s." [129] Reagan's November 1 editorial stated, in part, ""Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this." [126]

The 1980 presidential election featured Reagan against incumbent president Jimmy Carter and was conducted amid a multitude of domestic concerns as well as the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. Reagan's campaign stressed some of his fundamental principles: lower taxes to stimulate the economy, [130] less government interference in people's lives, [131] states' rights, [132] and a strong national defense. [133]

Reagan launched his campaign with an indictment of a federal government that he believed had "overspent, overstimulated, and overregulated". After receiving the Republican nomination, Reagan selected one of his opponents from the primaries, George H. W. Bush, to be his running mate. His relaxed and confident appearance during the televised Reagan–Carter debate on October 28 boosted his popularity and helped to widen his lead in the polls. [134] [135]

On November 4, Reagan won a decisive victory over Carter, carrying 44 states and receiving 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49 in six states plus D.C. He also won the popular vote, receiving 50.7 percent to Carter's 41.0 percent, with independent John B. Anderson garnering 6.6 percent. Republicans also won a majority of seats in the Senate for the first time since 1952, though Democrats retained a majority in the House of Representatives. [135] [136] [137]

During his presidency, Reagan pursued policies that reflected his personal belief in individual freedom, brought economic changes, expanded the military and contributed to the end of the Cold War. [138] Termed the "Reagan Revolution", his presidency would boost American morale, [139] [140] reinvigorate the U.S. economy and reduce reliance upon government. [138] As president, Reagan kept a diary in which he commented on daily occurrences of his presidency and his views on the issues of the day. The diaries were published in May 2007 in the bestselling book The Reagan Diaries. [141]

First term

Reagan was 69 years, 349 days of age when he was sworn into office for his first term on January 20, 1981, making him the oldest first-term president at the time. He held this distinction until 2017, when Donald Trump was inaugurated at age 70 years, 220 days, though Reagan was older upon being inaugurated for his second term. [142] In his inaugural address, he addressed the country's economic malaise, arguing: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems government is the problem." [143]

Prayer in schools and a moment of silence

Reagan campaigned vigorously to restore organized prayer to the schools, first as a moment of prayer and later as a moment of silence. [144] In 1981, Reagan became the first president to propose a constitutional amendment on school prayer. [145] Reagan's election reflected an opposition [145] to the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale that had prohibited state officials from composing an official state prayer and requiring that it be recited in the public schools. [146] Reagan's 1981 proposed amendment stated: "Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any state to participate in prayer." In 1984, Reagan again raised the issue, asking Congress, "why can't [the] freedom to acknowledge God be enjoyed again by children in every schoolroom across this land?" [147] In 1985, Reagan expressed his disappointment that the Supreme Court ruling still banned a moment of silence for public schools, and said that efforts to reinstitute prayer in public schools were "an uphill battle". [148] In 1987, Reagan renewed his call for Congress to support voluntary prayer in schools and end "the expulsion of God from America's classrooms". [149]

Assassination attempt

On March 30, 1981, Reagan, his press secretary James Brady, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy were struck by gunfire from would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton hotel. Although "close to death" upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital, Reagan was stabilized in the emergency room, then underwent emergency exploratory surgery. [150] He recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11, becoming the first serving U.S. president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt. [151] The attempt had a significant influence on Reagan's popularity polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73 percent. [151] Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a higher purpose. [152]

Sandra Day O'Connor

On July 7, 1981, Reagan announced that he planned to nominate Sandra Day O'Connor as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, replacing the retiring Justice Potter Stewart. He had pledged during his 1980 presidential campaign that he would appoint the first woman to the Court [153] On September 21, O'Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 99–0. [154]

Air traffic controllers' strike

In August 1981, PATCO, the union of federal air traffic controllers, went on strike, violating a federal law prohibiting government unions from striking. [155] Declaring the situation an emergency as described in the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, Reagan stated that if the air traffic controllers "do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated". [156] They did not return, and on August 5, Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order and used supervisors and military controllers to handle the nation's commercial air traffic until new controllers could be hired and trained. [157] A leading reference work on public administration concluded, "The firing of PATCO employees not only demonstrated a clear resolve by the president to take control of the bureaucracy, but it also sent a clear message to the private sector that unions no longer needed to be feared." [158]

"Reaganomics" and the economy

During Jimmy Carter's last full year in office (1980), inflation averaged 12.5 percent, compared with 4.4 percent during Reagan's last full year in office (1988). [159] During Reagan's administration, the unemployment rate declined from 7.5 percent to 5.4 percent, with the rate reaching highs of 10.8 percent in 1982 and 10.4 percent in 1983, averaging 7.5 percent over the eight years, and real GDP growth averaged 3.4 percent with a high of 8.6 percent in 1983, while nominal GDP growth averaged 7.4 percent, and peaked at 12.2 percent in 1982. [160] [161] [162]

Reagan implemented neoliberal policies based on supply-side economics, advocating a laissez-faire philosophy and free-market fiscal policy, [163] seeking to stimulate the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts. [164] [165] He also supported returning the United States to some sort of gold standard and successfully urged Congress to establish the U.S. Gold Commission to study how one could be implemented. Citing the economic theories of Arthur Laffer, Reagan promoted the proposed tax cuts as potentially stimulating the economy enough to expand the tax base, offsetting the revenue loss due to reduced rates of taxation, a theory that entered political discussion as the Laffer curve. Reaganomics was the subject of debate with supporters pointing to improvements in certain key economic indicators as evidence of success, and critics pointing to large increases in federal budget deficits and the national debt. [166] His policy of "peace through strength" resulted in a record peacetime defense buildup including a 40 percent real increase in defense spending between 1981 and 1985. [167]

During Reagan's presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, [168] which lowered the top marginal tax bracket from 70 percent to 50 percent over three years (as part of a "5–10–10" plan), [169] and the lowest bracket from 14 percent to 11 percent. Other tax increases passed by Congress and signed by Reagan ensured, however, that tax revenues over his two terms were 18.2 percent of GDP as compared to 18.1 percent over the 40 years of 1970–2010. [170] The 1981 tax act also required that exemptions and brackets be indexed for inflation starting in 1985. [169]

Conversely, Congress passed and Reagan signed into law tax increases of some nature in every year from 1981 to 1987 to continue funding such government programs as Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), Social Security, and the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA). [171] [172] TEFRA was the "largest peacetime tax increase in American history". [172] [173] [174] [175] Gross domestic product (GDP) growth recovered strongly after the early 1980s recession ended in 1982, and grew during his eight years in office at an annual rate of 7.9 percent per year, with a high of 12.2 percent growth in 1981. [176] Unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent monthly rate in December 1982—higher than any time since the Great Depression—then dropped during the rest of Reagan's presidency. [177] Sixteen million new jobs were created, while inflation significantly decreased. [178] The Tax Reform Act of 1986, another bipartisan effort championed by Reagan, simplified the tax code by reducing the number of tax brackets to four and slashing several tax breaks. The top rate was dropped to 28 percent, but capital gains taxes were increased on those with the highest incomes from 20 percent to 28 percent. The increase of the lowest tax bracket from 11 percent to 15 percent was more than offset by the expansion of personal exemption, standard deduction, and earned income tax credit. The net result was the removal of six million poor Americans from the income tax roll and a reduction of income tax liability at all income levels. [179] [180]

The net effect of all Reagan-era tax bills was a 1 percent decrease in government revenues when compared to Treasury Department revenue estimates from the administration's first post-enactment January budgets. [181] However, federal income tax receipts increased from 1980 to 1989, rising from $308.7 billion to $549 billion [182] or an average annual rate of 8.2 percent (2.5 percent attributed to higher Social Security receipts), and federal outlays grew at an annual rate of 7.1 percent. [183] [184]

Reagan's policies proposed that economic growth would occur when marginal tax rates were low enough to spur investment, which would then lead to higher employment and wages. Critics labeled this "trickle-down economics"—the belief that tax policies that benefit the wealthy will create a "trickle-down" effect reaching the poor. [185] Questions arose whether Reagan's policies benefited the wealthy more than those living in poverty, [186] and many poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their struggles. [186] These views were exacerbated by the fact that Reagan's economic regimen included freezing the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour, slashing federal assistance to local governments by 60 percent, cutting the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half, and eliminating the antipoverty Community Development Block Grant program. [187] Along with Reagan's 1981 cut in the top regular tax rate on unearned income, he reduced the maximum capital gains rate to 20 percent. [188] Reagan later set tax rates on capital gains at the same level as the rates on ordinary income like salaries and wages, with both topping out at 28 percent. [189] Reagan is viewed as an antitax hero despite raising taxes eleven times throughout his presidency, all in the name of fiscal responsibility. [190] According to Paul Krugman, "Over all, the 1982 tax increase undid about a third of the 1981 cut as a share of GDP, the increase was substantially larger than Mr. Clinton's 1993 tax increase." [191] According to historian and domestic policy adviser Bruce Bartlett, Reagan's tax increases throughout his presidency took back half of the 1981 tax cut. [192]

Reagan was opposed to government intervention, and he cut the budgets of non-military [193] programs [194] including Medicaid, food stamps, federal education programs [193] and the EPA. [195] He protected entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, [196] but his administration attempted to purge many people with disabilities from the Social Security disability rolls. [197]

The administration's stance toward the savings and loan industry contributed to the savings and loan crisis. A minority of the critics of Reaganomics also suggested that the policies partially influenced the stock market crash of 1987, [198] but there is no consensus regarding a single source for the crash. [199] To cover newly spawned federal budget deficits, the United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, raising the national debt from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion. [200] Reagan described the new debt as the "greatest disappointment" of his presidency. [178]

He reappointed Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and in 1987 he appointed monetarist Alan Greenspan to succeed him. Reagan ended the price controls on domestic oil that had contributed to the energy crises of 1973–1974 and the summer of 1979. [201] [202] The price of oil subsequently dropped, and there were no fuel shortages like those in the 1970s. [202] Reagan also fulfilled a 1980 campaign promise to repeal the windfall profits tax in 1988, which had previously increased dependence on foreign oil. [203] Some economists, such as Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and Robert Mundell, argue that Reagan's tax policies invigorated America's economy and contributed to the economic boom of the 1990s. [204] Other economists, such as Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow, argue that Reagan's deficits were a major reason his successor, George H. W. Bush, reneged on his campaign promise and resorted to raising taxes. [204]

During Reagan's presidency, a program was initiated within the United States Intelligence Community to ensure America's economic strength. The program, Project Socrates, developed and demonstrated the means required for the United States to generate and lead the next evolutionary leap in technology acquisition and utilization for a competitive advantage—automated innovation. To ensure that the United States acquired the maximum benefit from automated innovation, Reagan, during his second term, had an executive order drafted to create a new federal agency to implement the Project Socrates results on a nationwide basis. However, Reagan's term came to an end before the executive order could be coordinated and signed, and the incoming Bush administration, labeling Project Socrates as "industrial policy", had it terminated. [205] [206]

Civil rights

The Reagan administration was often criticized for inadequately enforcing, if not actively undermining, civil rights legislation. [207] [208] In 1982, he signed a bill extending the Voting Rights Act for 25 years after a grass-roots lobbying and legislative campaign forced him to abandon his plan to ease that law's restrictions. [209] He also signed legislation establishing a federal Martin Luther King holiday, though he did so with reservations. [210] In March 1988, he vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, but his veto was overridden by Congress. Reagan had argued that the legislation infringed on states' rights and the rights of churches and business owners. [211]

Escalation of the Cold War

Reagan escalated the Cold War, accelerating a reversal from the policy of détente that began during the Carter administration, following the Afghan Saur Revolution and subsequent Soviet invasion. [213] He ordered a massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces [167] and implemented new policies that were directed towards the Soviet Union he revived the B-1 Lancer program that had been canceled by the Carter administration, and he produced the MX missile. [214] In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw NATO's deployment of the Pershing missile in West Germany. [215] In 1982 Reagan tried to cut off Moscow's access to hard currency by impeding its proposed gas line to Western Europe. It hurt the Soviet economy, but it also caused ill will among American allies in Europe who counted on that revenue. Reagan retreated on this issue. [216] [217]

In 1984, journalist Nicholas Lemann interviewed Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and summarized the strategy of the Reagan administration to roll back the Soviet Union:

Their society is economically weak, and it lacks the wealth, education, and technology to enter the information age. They have thrown everything into military production, and their society is starting to show terrible stress as a result. They can't sustain military production the way we can. Eventually it will break them, and then there will be just one superpower in a safe world—if, only if, we can keep spending. [218]

Lemann noted that when he wrote that in 1984, he thought the Reaganites were living in a fantasy world. But by 2016, Lemann stated that the passage represents "a fairly uncontroversial description of what Reagan actually did". [218]

Reagan and the United Kingdom's prime minister Margaret Thatcher both denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms. [219] In a famous address on June 8, 1982, to the Parliament of the United Kingdom in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, Reagan said, "the march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism–Leninism on the ash heap of history." [212] [220] [221] On March 3, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, stating, "Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written." [222] In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union "an evil empire". [223]

After Soviet fighters downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007 near Moneron Island on September 1, 1983, carrying 269 people, including Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, Reagan labeled the act a "massacre" and declared that the Soviets had turned "against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere". [224] The Reagan administration responded to the incident by suspending all Soviet passenger air service to the United States and dropped several agreements being negotiated with the Soviets, wounding them financially. [224] As a result of the shootdown, and the cause of KAL 007's going astray thought to be inadequacies related to its navigational system, Reagan announced on September 16, 1983, that the Global Positioning System would be made available for civilian use, free of charge, once completed in order to avert similar navigational errors in the future. [225] [226]

Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, Reagan and his administration also provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist resistance movements in an effort to "rollback" Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. [227] However, in a break from the Carter administration's policy of arming Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, Reagan also agreed with the communist government in China to reduce the sale of arms to Taiwan. [228]

Reagan deployed the CIA's Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were instrumental in training, equipping and leading Mujahideen forces against the Soviet Army. [229] [230] President Reagan's Covert Action program has been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, [231] though some of the United States funded armaments introduced then would later pose a threat to U.S. troops in the 2001 War in Afghanistan. [232] The CIA also began sharing information with the Iranian government which it was secretly courting. In one instance, in 1982, this practice enabled the government to identify and purge communists from its ministries and to virtually eliminate the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran. [233]

In March 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a defense project [234] that would have used ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. [235] Reagan believed that this defense shield could make nuclear war impossible. [234] [236] There was much disbelief surrounding the program's scientific feasibility, leading opponents to dub SDI "Star Wars" and argue that its technological objective was unattainable. [234] The Soviets became concerned about the possible effects SDI would have [237] leader Yuri Andropov said it would put "the entire world in jeopardy". [238] For those reasons, David Gergen, a former aide to President Reagan, believes that in retrospect, SDI hastened the end of the Cold War. [239]

Though supported by leading American conservatives who argued that Reagan's foreign policy strategy was essential to protecting U.S. security interests, critics labeled the administration's foreign policy initiatives as aggressive and imperialistic, and chided them as "warmongering". [237] The administration was also heavily criticized for backing anti-communist leaders accused of severe human rights violations, such as Hissène Habré of Chad [240] and Efraín Ríos Montt of Guatemala. [241] [242] During the 16 months (1982–1983) Montt was President of Guatemala, the Guatemalan military was accused of genocide for massacres of members of the Ixil people and other indigenous groups. Reagan had said that Montt was getting a "bum rap", [243] and described him as "a man of great personal integrity". [244] Previous human rights violations had prompted the United States to cut off aid to the Guatemalan government, but the Reagan administration appealed to Congress to restart military aid. Although unsuccessful with that, the administration was successful in providing nonmilitary assistance such as USAID. [243] [245]

Lebanese Civil War

With the approval of Congress, Reagan sent forces to Lebanon in 1983 to reduce the threat of the Lebanese Civil War. The American peacekeeping forces in Beirut, a part of a multinational force during the Lebanese Civil War, were attacked on October 23, 1983. The Beirut barracks bombing killed 241 American servicemen and wounded more than 60 others by a suicide truck bomber. [246] Reagan sent in the USS New Jersey battleship to shell Syrian positions in Lebanon. He then withdrew all the Marines from Lebanon. [247]

Invasion of Grenada

On October 25, 1983, Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade Grenada (codenamed "Operation Urgent Fury") where a 1979 coup d'état had established an independent non-aligned Marxist–Leninist government. A formal appeal from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) led to the intervention of U.S. forces President Reagan also cited an allegedly regional threat posed by a Soviet-Cuban military build-up in the Caribbean and concern for the safety of several hundred American medical students at St. George's University as adequate reasons to invade. Operation Urgent Fury was the first major military operation conducted by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War. Several days of fighting commenced, resulting in a U.S. victory, [248] with 19 American fatalities and 116 wounded American soldiers. [249] In mid-December, after a new government was appointed by the governor-general, U.S. forces withdrew. [248]

1984 presidential campaign

Reagan accepted the Republican nomination in the Republican convention in Dallas, Texas. He proclaimed that it was "morning again in America", regarding the recovering economy and the dominating performance by the American athletes at the 1984 Summer Olympics on home soil, among other things. [31] He became the first U.S. president to open an Olympic Games. [250] Previous Olympics taking place in the United States had been opened by either the vice president (three times) or another person in charge (twice).

Reagan's opponent in the 1984 presidential election was former vice president Walter Mondale. Following a weak performance in the first presidential debate, Reagan's ability to win another term was questioned. [251] Reagan rebounded in the second debate confronting questions about his age, he quipped: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience". This remark generated applause and laughter, even from Mondale himself. [252]

That November, Reagan won a landslide re-election victory, carrying 49 of the 50 states. Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. [135] Reagan won 525 of the 538 electoral votes, the most of any presidential candidate in U.S. history. [253] In terms of electoral votes, this was the second-most-lopsided presidential election in modern U.S. history Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1936 victory over Alf Landon, in which he won 98.5 percent or 523 of the then-total 531 electoral votes, ranks first. [5] Reagan won 58.8 percent of the popular vote to Mondale's 40.6 percent. His popular vote margin of victory—nearly 16.9 million votes (54.4 million for Reagan to 37.5 million for Mondale) [254] [255] —was exceeded only by Richard Nixon in his 1972 victory over George McGovern. [135]

Second term

Reagan was sworn in as president for the second time on January 20, 1985, in a private ceremony at the White House. At 73 years of age, he was the oldest person to take the presidential oath of office, though this record was surpassed by Joe Biden in 2021, who was 78. [142] Because January 20 fell on a Sunday, a public celebration was not held but took place in the Capitol rotunda the following day. January 21 was one of the coldest days on record in Washington, D.C. due to poor weather, inaugural celebrations were held inside the Capitol. In the weeks that followed, he shook up his staff somewhat, moving White House Chief of Staff James Baker to Secretary of the Treasury and naming Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, a former Merrill Lynch officer, Chief of Staff. [256]

War on drugs

In response to concerns about the increasing crack epidemic, Reagan began the war on drugs campaign in 1982, a policy led by the federal government to reduce the illegal drug trade. Though Nixon had previously declared war on drugs, Reagan advocated more aggressive policies. [257] 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. [258] [259]

In 1986, Reagan signed a drug enforcement bill that budgeted $1.7 billion (equivalent to $4 billion in 2020) to fund the war on drugs and specified a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses. [260] The bill was criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population, [260] and critics also charged that the policies did little to reduce the availability of drugs on the street while resulting in a tremendous financial burden for America. [261] Defenders of the effort point to success in reducing rates of adolescent drug use which they attribute to the Reagan administrations policies: [262] marijuana use among high-school seniors declined from 33 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 1991. [263] 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. [264]

Response to AIDS epidemic

According to AIDS activist organizations such as ACT UP and scholars such as Don Francis and Peter S. Arno, the Reagan administration largely ignored the AIDS crisis, which began to unfold in the United States in 1981, the same year Reagan took office. [265] [266] [267] [268] They also claim that AIDS research was chronically underfunded during Reagan's administration, and requests for more funding by doctors at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were routinely denied. [269] [270]

By the time President Reagan gave his first prepared speech on the epidemic, six years into his presidency, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 20,849 had died of it. [270] By 1989, the year Reagan left office, more than 100,000 people had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United States, and more than 59,000 of them had died of it. [271]

Reagan administration officials countered criticisms of neglect by noting that federal funding for AIDS-related programs rose over his presidency, from a few hundred thousand dollars in 1982 to $2.3 billion in 1989. [272] In a September 1985 press conference, Reagan said: "this is a top priority with us. there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer." [273] Gary Bauer, Reagan's domestic policy adviser near the end of his second term, argued that Reagan's belief in cabinet government led him to assign the job of speaking out against AIDS to his Surgeon General of the United States and the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services. [274]

Addressing apartheid

From the late 1960s onward, the American public grew increasingly vocal in its opposition to the apartheid policy of the white-minority government of South Africa, and in its insistence that the U.S. impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on South Africa. [275] The strength of the anti-apartheid opposition surged during Reagan's first term in office as its component disinvestment from South Africa movement, which had been in existence for quite some years, gained critical mass following in the United States, particularly on college campuses and among mainline Protestant denominations. [276] [277] President Reagan was opposed to divestiture because, as he wrote in a letter to Sammy Davis Jr., it "would hurt the very people we are trying to help and would leave us no contact within South Africa to try and bring influence to bear on the government". He also noted the fact that the "American-owned industries there employ more than 80,000 blacks" and that their employment practices were "very different from the normal South African customs". [278]

As an alternative strategy for opposing apartheid, the Reagan Administration developed a policy of constructive engagement with the South African government as a means of encouraging it to move away from apartheid gradually. It was part of a larger initiative designed to foster peaceful economic development and political change throughout southern Africa. [275] This policy, however, engendered much public criticism and renewed calls for the imposition of stringent sanctions. [279] In response, Reagan announced the imposition of new sanctions on the South African government, including an arms embargo in late 1985. [280] These sanctions were, however, seen as weak by anti-apartheid activists, and as insufficient by the president's opponents in Congress. [279] In August 1986, Congress approved the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which included tougher sanctions. Reagan vetoed the act, but the veto was overridden by Congress. Afterward, Reagan reiterated that his administration and "all America" opposed apartheid, and said, "the debate . was not whether or not to oppose apartheid but, instead, how best to oppose it and how best to bring freedom to that troubled country." Several European countries as well as Japan soon followed the U.S. lead and imposed their sanctions on South Africa. [281]

Libya bombing

Relations between Libya and the United States under President Reagan were continually contentious, beginning with the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981 by 1982, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was considered by the CIA to be, along with USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, part of a group known as the "unholy trinity" and was also labeled as "our international public enemy number one" by a CIA official. [282] These tensions were later revived in early April 1986, when a bomb exploded in a Berlin discothèque, resulting in the injury of 63 American military personnel and death of one serviceman. Stating that there was "irrefutable proof" that Libya had directed the "terrorist bombing", Reagan authorized the use of force against the country. In the late evening of April 15, 1986, the United States launched a series of airstrikes on ground targets in Libya. [283] [284]

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed the U.S. Air Force to use Britain's air bases to launch the attack, on the justification that the UK was supporting America's right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. [284] The attack was designed to halt Gaddafi's "ability to export terrorism", offering him "incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior". [283] The president addressed the nation from the Oval Office after the attacks had commenced, stating, "When our citizens are attacked or abused anywhere in the world on the direct orders of hostile regimes, we will respond so long as I'm in this office." [284] The attack was condemned by many countries. By a vote of 79 in favor to 28 against with 33 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 41/38 which "condemns the military attack perpetrated against the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on April 15, 1986, which constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law". [285]


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 before January 1, 1982, and had lived in the country continuously. 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." [286] 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." [286]

Iran–Contra affair

In 1986, the Iran–Contra affair became a problem for the administration stemming from the use of proceeds from covert arms sales to Iran during the Iran–Iraq War to fund the Contra rebels fighting against the government in Nicaragua, which had been specifically outlawed by an act of Congress. [287] [288] The affair became a political scandal in the United States during the 1980s. [289] The International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction to decide the case was disputed by the United States, [290] ruled that the United States had violated international law and breached treaties in Nicaragua in various ways. [291] [292] Reagan later withdrew the agreement between the United States and the International Court of Justice. [293]

President Reagan professed that he was unaware of the plot's existence. He opened his own investigation and appointed two Republicans and one Democrat, John Tower, Brent Scowcroft and Edmund Muskie, respectively, to investigate the scandal. The commission could not find direct evidence that Reagan had prior knowledge of the program, but criticized him heavily for his disengagement from managing his staff, making the diversion of funds possible. [294] A separate report by Congress concluded that "If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have." [294] Reagan's popularity declined from 67 percent to 46 percent in less than a week, the most significant and quickest decline ever for a president. [295] The scandal resulted in eleven convictions and fourteen indictments within Reagan's staff. [296]

Many Central Americans criticize Reagan for his support of the Contras, calling him an anti-communist zealot, blinded to human rights abuses, while others say he "saved Central America". [297] Daniel Ortega, Sandinistan and president of Nicaragua, said that he hoped God would forgive Reagan for his "dirty war against Nicaragua". [297]

In 1988, near the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655 killing 290 civilian passengers. The incident further worsened already tense Iran–United States relations. [298]

Decline of the Soviet Union and thaw in relations

Until the early 1980s, the United States had relied on the qualitative superiority of its weapons to essentially frighten the Soviets, but the gap had been narrowed. [299] Although the Soviet Union did not accelerate military spending after President Reagan's military buildup, [300] their enormous military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. At the same time, oil prices in 1985 fell to one third of the previous level oil was the primary source of Soviet export revenues. These factors contributed to a stagnant Soviet economy during Mikhail Gorbachev's tenure. [301]

Meanwhile, Reagan escalated the rhetoric. In his famous 1983 speech to religious fundamentalists, he outlined his strategy for victory. First, he labeled the Soviet system an "Evil Empire" and a failure—its demise would be a godsend for the world. Second, Reagan explained his strategy was an arms buildup that would leave the Soviets far behind, with no choice but to negotiate arms reduction. Finally, displaying his characteristic optimism, he praised liberal democracy and promised that such a system eventually would triumph over Soviet communism. [302] [303]

Reagan appreciated the revolutionary change in the direction of the Soviet policy with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shifted to diplomacy, intending to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. [304] He and Gorbachev 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. [305] 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. [306] The critical summit was at Reykjavík in October 1986, where they met alone, with translators but with no aides. To the astonishment of the world, and the chagrin of Reagan's most conservative supporters, they agreed to abolish all nuclear weapons. Gorbachev then asked the end of SDI. Reagan said no, claiming that it was defensive only, and that he would share the secrets with the Soviets. No deal was achieved. [307]

Speaking at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, five years after his first visit to West Berlin as president, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to go further, saying "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" [308] Later, in November 1989, East German authorities began allowing citizens to pass freely through border checkpoints, [309] [310] and began dismantling the Wall the following June [311] [312] its demolition was completed in 1992. [311] [312]

At Gorbachev's visit to Washington in December 1987, he and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) at the White House, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. [313] The two leaders laid the framework for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I Reagan insisted that the name of the treaty be changed from Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. [314]

When Reagan visited Moscow for the fourth summit in 1988, he was viewed as a celebrity by the Soviets. A journalist asked the president if he still considered the Soviet Union the evil empire. "No," he replied, "I was talking about another time, another era." [315] At Gorbachev's request, Reagan gave a speech on free markets at the Moscow State University. [316]


Early in his presidency, Reagan started wearing a custom-made, technologically advanced hearing aid, first in his right ear [317] and later in his left ear as well. [318] His decision to go public in 1983 regarding his wearing the small, audio-amplifying device boosted their sales. [319]

On July 13, 1985, Reagan underwent surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital to remove cancerous polyps from his colon. He relinquished presidential power to the vice president for eight hours in a similar procedure as outlined in the 25th Amendment, which he specifically avoided invoking. [320] The surgery lasted just under three hours and was successful. [321] Reagan resumed the powers of the presidency later that day. [322] In August of that year, he underwent an operation to remove skin cancer cells from his nose. [323] In October, more skin cancer cells were detected on his nose and removed. [324]

In January 1987, Reagan underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate that caused further worries about his health. No cancerous growths were found, and he was not sedated during the operation. [325] In July of that year, aged 76, he underwent a third skin cancer operation on his nose. [326]

On January 7, 1989, Reagan underwent surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to repair a Dupuytren's contracture of the ring finger of his left hand. The surgery lasted for more than three hours and was performed under regional anesthesia. [327]


During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan pledged that he would appoint the first female Supreme Court Justice if given the opportunity. [328] That opportunity came during his first year in office when Associate Justice Potter Stewart retired Reagan selected Sandra Day O'Connor, who was confirmed unanimously by the Senate. In his second term, Reagan had three opportunities to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. When Chief Justice Warren E. Burger retired in September 1986, Reagan nominated incumbent Associate Justice William Rehnquist to succeed Burger as Chief Justice (the appointment of an incumbent associate justice as chief justice is subject to a separate confirmation process). Then, following Rehnquist's confirmation, the president named Antonin Scalia to fill the consequent associate justice vacancy. [329] Reagan's final opportunity to fill a vacancy arose in mid-1987 when Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. announced his intention to retire. Reagan initially chose Conservative jurist Robert Bork to succeed Powell. Bork's nomination was strongly opposed by civil and women's rights groups, and by Senate Democrats. [330] That October, after a contentious Senate debate, the nomination was rejected by a roll call vote of 42–58. [331] Soon afterward, Reagan announced his intention to nominate Douglas Ginsburg to the Court. However, before his name was submitted to the Senate, Ginsburg withdrew himself from consideration. [332] Anthony Kennedy was subsequently nominated and confirmed as Powell's successor. [333]

Along with his four Supreme Court appointments, Reagan appointed 83 judges to the United States courts of appeals, and 290 judges to the United States district courts. Early in his presidency, Reagan appointed Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. of San Diego as the first African American to chair the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Pendleton tried to steer the commission into a conservative direction in line with Reagan's views on social and civil rights policy during his tenure from 1981 until his sudden death in 1988. Pendleton soon aroused the ire of many civil rights advocates and feminists when he ridiculed the comparable worth proposal as being "Looney Tunes". [334] [335] [336]


On April 13, 1992, Reagan was assaulted by an anti-nuclear protester during a luncheon speech while accepting an award from the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas. [337] The protester, Richard Springer, smashed a two-foot-high (61 cm), 30-pound (14 kg) crystal statue of an eagle that the broadcasters had given the former president. Flying shards of glass hit Reagan, but he was not injured. Using media credentials, Springer intended to announce government plans for an underground nuclear weapons test in the Nevada desert the following day. [338] Springer was the founder of an anti-nuclear group called the 100th Monkey. Following his arrest on assault charges, a Secret Service spokesman could not explain how Springer got past the federal agents who guarded Reagan's life at all times. [339] Later, Springer pled guilty to reduced charges and said he had not meant to hurt Reagan through his actions. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor federal charge of interfering with the Secret Service, but other felony charges of assault and resisting officers were dropped. [340]

Public speaking

After leaving office in 1989, the Reagans purchased a home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, in addition to the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara. They regularly attended Bel Air Church [341] and occasionally made appearances on behalf of the Republican Party Reagan delivered a well-received speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. [342] Previously, on November 4, 1991, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was dedicated and opened to the public. Five presidents and six first ladies attended the dedication ceremonies, marking the first time that five presidents were gathered in the same location. [343] Reagan continued to speak publicly in favor of the Brady Bill [344] a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits anyone from serving more than two terms as president. [345] In 1992 Reagan established the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award with the newly formed Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. [346] His final public speech occurred on February 3, 1994, during a tribute to him in Washington, D.C. his last major public appearance was at the funeral of Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.

Alzheimer's disease

Announcement and reaction (1994)

In August 1994, at the age of 83, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, [347] an incurable neurodegenerative disease which destroys brain cells and ultimately causes death. [347] [348] In November of that year, he informed the nation of the diagnosis through a handwritten letter, [347] writing in part:

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease . At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done . I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you. [349]

After his diagnosis, letters of support from well-wishers poured into his California home. [350] However, there was also speculation over how long Reagan had demonstrated symptoms of mental degeneration. [351] At a June 1981 reception for mayors, not long after the assassination attempt, Reagan greeted his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce by saying "How are you, Mr. Mayor? How are things in your city?", [352] [353] although he later realized his mistake. [354] In a 2011 book titled My Father at 100, Reagan's son Ron said he had suspected early signs of his father's dementia as early as 1984 [355] [356] an allegation that sparked a furious response from his brother, Michael Reagan, who accused him of “selling out his father to sell books”. [357] Ron would later temper his claims, telling The New York Times he did not believe his father was actually inhibited by Alzheimer's while in office, only that “the disease was likely present in him”, for years prior to his 1994 diagnoses. [358] In her book Reporting Live, former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl recounted that in her final meeting with the president in 1986, Reagan did not seem to know who she was. Stahl wrote that she came close to reporting that Reagan was senile, but by the end of the meeting, he had regained his alertness. [359]

Lay observations that Reagan suffered from Alzheimer's while still in office have been widely refuted by medical experts, however, including the many physicians who treated Reagan both during and after his presidency. [360] [361] [362] Regarding his mental competency while in office, all four of Reagan's White House doctors maintained they never had any concerns "even with the hindsight of" the former president's diagnosis. [362] Neurosurgeon Daniel Ruge, who served as Physician to the President from 1981 to 1985, said that he never detected signs of the disease while speaking almost every day with Reagan. [363] John E. Hutton, who served from 1985 to 1989, said the president "absolutely" did not "show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer's". [362] Though all were familiar with the disease, none of Reagan's White House physicians was an expert in Alzheimer's specifically an outside specialist who reviewed both Reagan's public and medical records agreed with the conclusion that he displayed no signs of dementia during his presidency. [360] Reagan's doctors said that he first began exhibiting overt symptoms of the illness in late 1992 [364] or 1993, [362] several years after he had left office. An example of which may include when Reagan repeated a toast to Margaret Thatcher, with identical words and gestures, at his 82nd-birthday party on February 6, 1993. [365] Lawrence Altman (M.D.) of The New York Times, while noting that "the line between mere forgetfulness and the beginning of Alzheimer's can be fuzzy", [362] upon reviewing Reagan's medical records and interviewing his doctors agreed that no signs of dementia appear to have been present while he was in office. [361] Other staff members, former aides, and friends said they saw no indication of Alzheimer's while he was president. Reagan did experience occasional memory lapses, though, especially with names. [362]

Reagan suffered an episode of head trauma in July 1989, five years before his diagnosis. After being thrown from a horse in Mexico, a subdural hematoma was found and surgically treated later in the year. [347] [348] Nancy Reagan, citing what doctors told her, asserted that her husband's 1989 fall hastened the onset of Alzheimer's disease, [348] although acute brain injury has not been conclusively proven to accelerate Alzheimer's or dementia. [366] [367] Ruge said it was possible that the horse accident affected Reagan's memory. [364]

Progression (1994–2004)

As the years went on, the disease slowly destroyed Reagan's mental capacity. [362] He was able to recognize only a few people, including his wife, Nancy. [362] He remained active, however he took walks through parks near his home and on beaches, played golf regularly, and until 1999 he often went to his office in nearby Century City. [362]

Reagan suffered a fall at his Bel Air home on January 13, 2001, resulting in a broken hip. [368] The fracture was repaired the following day, [369] and the 89-year-old Reagan returned home later that week, although he faced difficult physical therapy at home. [370] On February 6, 2001, Reagan reached the age of 90, becoming only the third U.S. president after John Adams and Herbert Hoover to do so. [371] Reagan's public appearances became much less frequent with the progression of the disease, and as a result, his family decided that he would live in quiet semi-isolation with his wife Nancy. She told CNN's Larry King in 2001 that very few visitors were allowed to see her husband because she felt that "Ronnie would want people to remember him as he was." [372] After her husband's diagnosis and death, Nancy Reagan became a stem-cell research advocate, asserting that it could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's. [373]

Reagan died of pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer's disease, [374] at his home in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles, California, on the afternoon of June 5, 2004. [375] A short time after his death, Nancy Reagan released a statement saying, "My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has died after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone's prayers." [375] Speaking in Paris, France, President George W. Bush called Reagan's death "a sad hour in the life of America". [376] He also declared June 11 a national day of mourning. [377]

Reagan's body was taken to the Kingsley and Gates Funeral Home in Santa Monica, California, where well-wishers paid tribute by laying flowers and American flags in the grass. [378] On June 7, his body was transferred to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where a brief family funeral, conducted by Pastor Michael Wenning, was held. Reagan's body lay in repose in the Library lobby until June 9 over 100,000 people viewed the coffin. [379] On June 9, Reagan's body was flown to Washington, D.C., where he became the tenth U.S. president to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol [380] in thirty-four hours, 104,684 people filed past the coffin. [381]

On June 11, a state funeral was conducted in the Washington National Cathedral, presided over by President George W. Bush. Eulogies were given by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, [382] former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and both former President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush. Also in attendance were Mikhail Gorbachev and many world leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair Prince Charles, representing his mother Queen Elizabeth II German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and interim presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Ghazi al-Yawer of Iraq. [383]

After the funeral, the Reagan entourage was flown back to the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where another service was held, and President Reagan was interred. [384] At the time of his death, Reagan was the longest-lived president in U.S. history, having lived 93 years and 120 days (2 years, 8 months, and 23 days longer than John Adams, whose record he surpassed). He was also the first U.S. president to die in the 21st century. Reagan's burial site is inscribed with the words he delivered at the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: "I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and that there is purpose and worth to each and every life." [385]

Since Reagan left office in 1989, substantial debate has occurred among scholars, historians, and the general public surrounding his legacy. [386] Supporters have pointed to a more efficient and prosperous economy as a result of Reagan's economic policies, [387] foreign policy triumphs including a peaceful end to the Cold War, [388] and a restoration of American pride and morale. [140] Proponents say that he had an unabated and passionate love for the United States which restored faith in the American Dream, [389] after a decline in American confidence and self-respect under Jimmy Carter's perceived weak leadership, particularly during the Iran hostage crisis, as well as his gloomy, dreary outlook for the future of the United States during the 1980 election. [390] Critics point out that Reagan's economic policies resulted in rising budget deficits, [178] a wider gap in wealth, and an increase in homelessness [187] and that the Iran–Contra affair lowered American credibility. [391]

Opinions of Reagan's legacy among the country's leading policymakers and journalists differ as well. Edwin Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, said that Reagan "helped create a safer, freer world" and said of his economic policies: "He took an America suffering from 'malaise' . and made its citizens believe again in their destiny." [392] However, Mark Weisbrot, co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, contended that Reagan's "economic policies were mostly a failure" [393] while Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post opined that Reagan was "a far more controversial figure in his time than the largely gushing obits on television would suggest". [394]

Despite the continuing debate surrounding his legacy, many conservative and liberal scholars agree that Reagan has been the most influential president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, leaving his imprint on American politics, diplomacy, culture, and economics through his effective communication and pragmatic compromising. [395] As summarized by British historian M. J. Heale, since Reagan left office, historians have reached a broad consensus that he rehabilitated conservatism, turned the nation to the right, practiced a considerably pragmatic conservatism that balanced ideology and the constraints of politics, revived faith in the presidency and American exceptionalism, and contributed to victory in the Cold War. [396] [397]

Cold War

In 2017, a C-SPAN survey of scholars ranked Reagan in terms of leadership in comparison with all 42 presidents. He ranked number nine in international relations. [398] [399]

Reagan's major achievement was the end of the Cold War as he left office. Furthermore, the USSR and Soviet-sponsored Communist movements worldwide were falling apart—and collapsed completely three years after he left office. The U.S. thus became the only superpower. His admirers say he won the Cold War. [400] After 40 years of high tension, the USSR pulled back in the last years of Reagan's second term. In 1989, the Kremlin lost control of all its East European satellites. In 1991, Communism was overthrown in the USSR, and on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The resulting states were no threat to the United States. Reagan's exact role is debated, with many believing that Reagan's defense policies, economic policies, military policies and hard-line rhetoric against the Soviet Union and Communism—together with his summits with General Secretary Gorbachev—played a significant part in ending the Cold War. [186] [304]

He was the first president to reject containment and détente and to put into practice the concept that the Soviet Union could be defeated rather than simply negotiated with, a post-Détente strategy, [304] a conviction that was vindicated by Gennadi Gerasimov, the Foreign Ministry spokesman under Gorbachev, who said that the Strategic Defense Initiative was "very successful blackmail. . The Soviet economy couldn't endure such competition." [401] Reagan's aggressive rhetoric toward the USSR had mixed effects Jeffery W. Knopf observes that being labeled "evil" probably made no difference to the Soviets but gave encouragement to the East-European citizens opposed to communism. [304]

General Secretary Gorbachev said of his former rival's Cold War role: "[He was] a man who was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Cold War", [402] and deemed him "a great president". [402] Gorbachev does not acknowledge a win or loss in the war, but rather a peaceful end he said he was not intimidated by Reagan's harsh rhetoric. [403] Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said of Reagan, "he warned that the Soviet Union had an insatiable drive for military power . but he also sensed it was being eaten away by systemic failures impossible to reform." [404] She later said, "Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty and he did it without a shot being fired." [405] Said Brian Mulroney, former Prime Minister of Canada: "He enters history as a strong and dramatic player [in the Cold War]." [406] Former President Lech Wałęsa of Poland acknowledged, "Reagan was one of the world leaders who made a major contribution to communism's collapse." [407] Professor Jeffrey Knopf has argued that Reagan's leadership was only one of several causes of the end of the Cold War. [304] President Harry S. Truman's policy of containment is also regarded as a force behind the fall of the USSR, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan undermined the Soviet system itself. [408]

Domestic and political legacy

Reagan reshaped the Republican party, led the modern conservative movement, and altered the political dynamic of the United States. [409] More men voted Republican under Reagan, and Reagan tapped into religious voters. [409] The so-called "Reagan Democrats" were a result of his presidency. [409]

After leaving office, Reagan became an iconic influence within the Republican Party. [410] His policies and beliefs have been frequently invoked by Republican presidential candidates since 1988. [31] The 2008 Republican presidential candidates were no exception, for they aimed to liken themselves to him during the primary debates, even imitating his campaign strategies. [411] Republican nominee John McCain frequently said that he came to office as "a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution". [412] Reagan's most famous statement regarding the role of smaller government was that "Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem." [413] Praise for Reagan's accomplishments was part of standard GOP rhetoric a quarter-century after his retirement. Washington Post reporter Carlos Lozada noted how the main Republican contenders in the 2016 presidential race adopted "standard GOP Gipper worship". [414]

The period of American history most dominated by Reagan and his policies that concerned taxes, welfare, defense, the federal judiciary and the Cold War is known today as the Reagan Era. This time period emphasized that the conservative "Reagan Revolution", led by Reagan, had a permanent impact on the United States in domestic and foreign policy. The Bill Clinton administration is often treated as an extension of the Reagan Era, as is the George W. Bush administration. [415] Historian Eric Foner noted that the Obama candidacy in 2008 "aroused a great deal of wishful thinking among those yearning for a change after nearly thirty years of Reaganism". [416]

Cultural and political image

President Reagan's approval ratings
Date Event Approval (%) Disapproval (%)
March 30, 1981 Shot by Hinckley 73 19
January 22, 1983 High unemployment 42 54
April 26, 1986 Libya bombing 70 26
February 26, 1987 Iran–Contra affair 44 51
December 27–29, 1988 [417] Near end of presidency 63 29
N/A Career average 57 39
July 30, 2001 (Retrospective) [418] 64 27

According to columnist Chuck Raasch, "Reagan transformed the American presidency in ways that only a few have been able to." [419] He redefined the political agenda of the times, advocating lower taxes, a conservative economic philosophy, and a stronger military. [420] His role in the Cold War further enhanced his image as a different kind of leader. [421] [422] Reagan's "avuncular style, optimism, and plain-folks demeanor" also helped him turn "government-bashing into an art form". [187]

Reagan's popularity has increased since 1989. When Reagan left office in 1989, a CBS poll indicated that he held an approval rating of 68 percent. This figure equaled the approval rating of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and was later matched by Bill Clinton), as the highest rating for a departing president in the modern era. [6] Gallup polls in 2001, 2007 and 2011 ranked him number one or number two when correspondents were asked for the greatest president in history. [423] Reagan ranked third of post-World War II presidents in a 2007 Rasmussen Reports poll, fifth in a 2000 ABC poll, ninth in another 2007 Rasmussen poll, and eighth in a late-2008 poll by British newspaper The Times. [424] [425] [426] In a Siena College survey of over 200 historians, however, Reagan ranked sixteenth out of 42. [427] [428] While the debate about Reagan's legacy is ongoing, the 2009 Annual C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leaders ranked Reagan the tenth-greatest president. The survey of leading historians rated Reagan number 11 in 2000. [429]

In 2011, the Institute for the Study of the Americas released the first-ever British academic survey to rate U.S. presidents. This poll of British specialists in U.S. history and politics placed Reagan as the eighth-greatest U.S. president. [430]

Reagan's ability to talk about substantive issues with understandable terms and to focus on mainstream American concerns earned him the laudatory moniker "The Great Communicator". [431] [432] [433] Of it, Reagan said, "I won the nickname the great communicator. But I never thought it was my style that made a difference—it was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things." [434] His age and soft-spoken speech gave him a warm grandfatherly image. [435] [436] [437]

Reagan also earned the nickname "the Teflon President", in that public perceptions of him were not tarnished by the controversies that arose during his administration. [438] According to Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, who coined the phrase, the epithet referred to Reagan's ability to "do almost anything and not get blamed for it". [439]

Public reaction to Reagan was always mixed. He was the oldest president up to that time and was supported by young voters, who began an alliance that shifted many of them to the Republican Party. [440] Reagan did not fare well with minority groups in terms of approval, especially African Americans. However, his support of Israel throughout his presidency earned him support from many Jews. [441] He emphasized family values in his campaigns and during his presidency, although he was the first president to have been divorced. [442] The combination of Reagan's speaking style, unabashed patriotism, negotiation skills, as well as his savvy use of the media, played an important role in defining the 1980s and his future legacy. [443]

Reagan was known to joke frequently during his lifetime, displayed humor throughout his presidency, [444] and was famous for his storytelling. [445] His numerous jokes and one-liners have been labeled "classic quips" and "legendary". [446] Among the most notable of his jokes was one regarding the Cold War. As a microphone test in preparation for his weekly radio address in August 1984, Reagan made the following joke: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." [447] Reagan's sense of humor was also observed by hundreds of Americans at Tempelhof U.S. Air Base June 12, 1987. While giving a speech celebrating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, a balloon popped in the front row. Without missing a beat, Reagan quipped "missed me", a reference to his previous assassination attempt in 1981. [448] Former aide David Gergen commented, "It was that humor . that I think endeared people to Reagan." [239]

He also had the ability to offer comfort and hope to the nation as a whole at times of tragedy. Following the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. [449] On the evening of the disaster, Reagan addressed the nation saying,

The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted it belongs to the brave . We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" to "touch the face of God". [450]


Reagan received several awards in his pre- and post-presidential years. After his election as president, Reagan received a lifetime gold membership in the Screen Actors Guild, was inducted into the National Speakers Association Speaker Hall of Fame, [451] and received the United States Military Academy's Sylvanus Thayer Award. [452]

In 1981, Reagan was inducted as a Laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the state's highest honor) by the governor of Illinois in the area of government. [453] In 1982 he was given the "Distinguished Service Medal" by the American Legion because his highest priority was the national defense. [454] In 1983, he received the highest distinction of the Scout Association of Japan, the Golden Pheasant Award. [455] In 1989, Reagan was made an honorary knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, one of the highest British orders. This entitled him to the use of the post-nominal letters "GCB" but, as a foreign national, not to be known as "Sir Ronald Reagan". Only two U.S. presidents have received this honor since attaining office: Reagan and George H. W. Bush [456] Dwight D. Eisenhower received his before becoming president in his capacity as a general after World War II. Reagan was also named an honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford. Japan awarded him the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum in 1989 he was the second U.S. president to receive the order and the first to have it given to him for personal reasons as Eisenhower received it as a commemoration of U.S.–Japanese relations. [457] In 1990, Reagan was awarded the WPPAC's Top Honor Prize because he signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with H.E. Mikhail Gorbachev (then president of Russia), ending the cold war. [458] [459]

On January 18, 1993, Reagan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded with distinction), the highest honor that the United States can bestow, from President George H. W. Bush, his vice president and successor. [460] Reagan was also awarded the Republican Senatorial Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed by Republican members of the Senate. [461]

On Reagan's 87th birthday in 1998, Washington National Airport was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by a bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That year, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center was dedicated in Washington, D.C. [462] He was among 18 included in Gallup's most admired man and woman poll of the 20th century, from a poll conducted in the U.S. in 1999 two years later, USS Ronald Reagan was christened by Nancy Reagan and the United States Navy. It is one of few Navy ships christened in honor of a living person and the first aircraft carrier to be named in honor of a living former president. [463]

In 1998 the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation awarded Reagan its Naval Heritage award for his support of the U.S. Navy and military in both his film career and while he served as president. [464]

Congress authorized the creation of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home in Dixon, Illinois in 2002, pending federal purchase of the property. [465] On May 16 of that year, Nancy Reagan accepted the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, on behalf of the president and herself. [466]

After Reagan's death, the United States Postal Service issued a President Ronald Reagan commemorative postage stamp in 2005. [467] Later in the year, CNN, along with the editors of Time magazine, named him the "most fascinating person" of the network's first 25 years [468] Time listed Reagan one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century as well. [469] The Discovery Channel asked its viewers to vote for The Greatest American in June 2005 Reagan placed in first place, ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. [470]

In 2006, Reagan was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum. [471] Every year from 2002, California governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed February 6 "Ronald Reagan Day" in the state of California in honor of their most famous predecessor. [472] In 2010, Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 944, authored by Senator George Runner, to make every February 6 Ronald Reagan Day in California. [473]

In 2007, Polish President Lech Kaczyński posthumously conferred on Reagan the highest Polish distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, saying that Reagan had inspired the Polish people to work for change and helped to unseat the repressive communist regime Kaczyński said it "would not have been possible if it was not for the tough-mindedness, determination, and feeling of mission of President Ronald Reagan". [474] Reagan backed the nation of Poland throughout his presidency, supporting the anti-communist Solidarity movement, along with Pope John Paul II [475] the Ronald Reagan Park, a public facility in Gdańsk, was named in his honor.

On June 3, 2009, Nancy Reagan unveiled a statue of her late husband in the United States Capitol rotunda. The statue represents the state of California in the National Statuary Hall Collection. After Reagan's death, both major American political parties agreed to erect a statue of Reagan in the place of that of Thomas Starr King. [476] The day before, President Obama signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act into law, establishing a commission to plan activities to mark the upcoming centenary of Reagan's birth. [477]

How the Air Traffic Controllers Strike Changed Everything

There are two opposing explanations for the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, established in 1968) strike of August, 1981—the tragic event that led not only to President Reagan’s firing of 11,345 air traffic controllers, but to the dissolution of the union itself.

Take your pick as to which explanation most represents what actually happened. We can interpret the PATCO debacle as nothing less than a clear manifestation of virulent, deep-seated Republican anti-unionism, or we can view the strike as one of the dumbest and most self-destructive moves ever made by a labor union.

Addressing the anti-unionism angle first, let’s make no mistake about Ronald Reagan’s sentiments. He clearly rejoiced in being able to spank organized labor, and to do it with a grandiose and very splashy public gesture.

Reagan spent years conning people into believing that, as a former labor union president himself (as SAG president, he was little more than an FBI shill whose mission was to ferret out suspected “Commies” in the movie industry), he understood and was sympathetic to the “working man.” That was a con job. He and his cronies were clearly anti-union.

In contrast to Nixon’s Secretary of Labor, the moderate and pragmatic George P. Shultz, Reagan’s Labor Secretary was Ray Donovan, a former vice-president of labor relations at a construction company known for its antipathy toward unions. Basically, Donovan was Reagan’s hatchet man.

After warning the controllers not to pull the plug, Reagan and Donovan didn’t mess around. There are strikes and then there are massacres. This was the latter. The controllers were not only fired for striking, they were banned for life from working for the federal government. The ban wasn’t lifted until President Clinton did it, in 1993.

As odious as Reagan’s actions were, the behavior of PATCO was close to mind-boggling. The PATCO strike of 1981 will undoubtedly go down in history as a monument to overplaying one’s hand. First and foremost, the strike was illegal. Federal employees were, by statute, forbidden to strike.

Moreover, the strikers knew it. They knew it, Reagan knew it, Donovan knew it, and the American public knew it. Yet, these PATCO guys, led by their inexperienced and egomaniacal president, Robert Poli—and despite being cautioned by the AFL-CIO—did it anyway. By violating a federal labor law they became felons.

Second, they woefully underestimated the government’s ability to replace them. Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation, Drew Lewis, already had a contingency plan in place and instantly brought in replacements. While there some bumps in the road, the transition went remarkably (and depressingly) smoothly.

Third, they overestimated the value of political “currency.” PATCO, along with the Air Line Pilots Association and Teamsters, were the three notable labor unions who, in 1980, abandoned President Carter and came out in support of Reagan. If PATCO honestly thought that this apostasy would translate into a “Get of jail free” card, they were nuts.

And fourth, they willfully squandered a “do-over” chance. It’s true. They ignored the opportunity to reconsider their reckless move and return to work without penalty. A union doesn’t often get a chance like that, because once you hit the bricks, you’re generally treated as pariahs. But PATCO was given a second chance.

President Reagan issued an ultimatum: Return to work within 48 hours, or be fired. Incredibly, convinced that they had the U.S. government by the gonads, the air traffic controllers remained defiant. They continued the strike.

The damage the PATCO strike did to organized labor is immeasurable. Basically, it ruined everything. By allowing a Republican president to publicly humiliate a big-time union, organized labor exposed itself as not only “vulnerable,” but “toothless.”

This wasn’t simply another example of management winning a strike this was an example of management—the government in this case—clobbering a union, eviscerating it. With everyone watching, the White House went toe-to-toe with a big bad labor union, and kicked its ass.

This very public ass-kicking inspired businesses everywhere to rethink their tactics. Why tip-toe around? Why treat organized labor with undue respect when unions can obviously be beaten down? The PATCO strike changed everything. And the saddest part is that it didn’t have to happen. The whole sordid episode was self-inflicted.

The PATCO Strike, Reagan and the Roots of Labor’s Decline

If you ask any union activist what went wrong with the labor movement in the last several decades, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about the 1981 PATCO strike. And for good reason: President Ronald Reagan’s harsh response to an illegal strike by federal government employees, members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, was interpreted by many as a green light from the federal government for unionbusting, and ushered in the vicious employer attacks of the 1980 s.

With his new book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers and the Strike that Changed America, Joseph McCartin, one of the nation’s leading scholars on the decline of the strike, has written the definitive account of the PATCO strike. McCartin details two decades of struggle by often-militant federal employees culminating in the failed 1981 strike. In doing so, McCartin offers new incites into the PATCO strike and pokes holes in some popular conceptions.

Today, many think of the PATCO strike’s impact on private-sector unions. Reagan’s hard-line stance validated a long-allowed but little-used tactic of permanently replacing striking workers. In its 1938 Mackay Radio decision, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated employers were free to retaliate against strikers by giving away their jobs in the event of an unsuccessful strike.

Well into the 1970 s, with the labor movement still strong and militant traditions still alive, employers largely avoided using the permanent replacement tactic. Reagan’s hard line against PATCO strikers helped normalize this anti-union behavior, however in the 1980 s, employers routinely threatened to permanently replace strikers, or in fact replaced them.

Even though PATCO is best remembered for its impact on private-sector unions, McCartin’s account reminds us that PATCO was a public-sector strike. As federal employees, PATCO strikers were not legally allowed to strike or even bargain over wages. With the renewed attacks on public employee bargaining rights we’ve seen recently in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere, public-section unionists should find PATCO’s struggle, and Collision Course, instructive.

Indeed, most of the book is spent discussing the decade and a half leading up to the PATCO strike. As McCartin stated in an online discussion of the book:

When I began the book, I had no idea that I would need to take the story all the way back to 1960 . But I discovered that there was no way to really understand why the controllers struck in 1981 without explaining the 20 years of struggle and disappointment that led to that moment. The problems they sought to address were many. As I show in the book, they were initially motivated by the desire to make the system safer and to have a voice in policies that would do this – this was something that their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration resisted.

By refusing to provide a legal process of collective bargaining in which controllers could bargain over wages, the federal government helped prompt the strike.

At great risk to their careers, PATCO members repeatedly engaged in slowdowns and thinly disguised sickouts throughout the 1970 s. According to McCartin, ​ “ Between 1972 and 1977 , PATCO emerged as the most militant, most densely organized union in any bargaining unit of the nation’s largest employer, the U.S. government.” Many other federal employee strikes of the period were wildcat actions, disowned by the union leadership. In contrast, PATCO repeatedly organized strikes and slowdowns, going so far as to create a strike fund in 1977 .

Not that the going was always easy. Workers were fired, the union lost dues check-off for a period and, without solid collective bargaining laws, gains were eroded over time. Yet PATCO activists fought and built a strong union through the 1970 s and somehow usually forced management to get fired strike leaders rehired. As one PATCO slogan put it: ​ “ There are no illegal strikes, just unsuccessful ones.” By that, PATCO activists meant that even though labor law did not permit striking, if strikers were strong and united they could defy the ban on striking.

But another lesson of the PATCO strike is that context matters. By the late 1970 s, the political terrain was shifting for public employees. In a process similar to today, many Democrats turned on public-employee unions. Indeed, we see in Collision Course that the roots of the PATCO strike lie, in part, in the Carter administration’s failure to reform federal bargaining laws. Frustrated by years of neglect and erosion of hard-won gains, PATCO members were itching for battle just as conditions were worsening for public employees.

In fact, readers will find many similarities to today’s attack on public-employee unions. In the late 1970 s, an aggressive union-busting wing of the Republican Party attacked public employee strikes. This wing supplied pressure on Reagan from the right, pushing him to take a hard line against PATCO. Abandoned by Democratic allies, striking public-sector workers found themselves on the defensive. Indeed, McCartin found one of the results of the PATCO strike to be a drastic decline in public-employee strikes.

Unlike PATCO’s actions of the early 1970 s, the 1981 strike ended with strikers fired and the union busted. One of the more interesting revelations in Collision Course was that newly elected President Ronald Reagan was not initially gunning for PATCO. PATCO endorsed Reagan and through the threat of a strike, PATCO negotiators were able to negotiate in 1981 what other federal unions saw as a breakthrough contract. But rank-and-file PATCO members, fed up by years of abusive treatment and stress, voted the contract down, and the strike was on.

After decades of union-busting, perhaps Collision Course will prompt a re-examination of the effects of labor law on the decline of our movement. For the last 15 years, the labor movement has largely ignored confronting basic issues of power. Collision Course ​ ’ s treatment of worker and political power should help inform trade unions’ strategies today, and perhaps prompt discussion of how to revitalize the greatest source of worker power: the strike.

Joe Burns works for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. The opinions expressed here are his own.

The Air Traffic Controllers Even the Score

Reagan fired their predecessors for striking in 1981. Today, they got sick, stayed home, and forced Trump to end the shutdown.

On January 14, the Prospect ran a piece by Georgetown’s Joe McCartin, one of the nation’s leading labor historians, recommending that federal workers start staging sickouts as, perhaps, the one way to compel our deranged president to end the government shutdown.

McCartin was uniquely qualified to offer such advice: As the author of Collision Course, he had written the definitive history of the air traffic controller strike of 1981, which ended calamitously when President Ronald Reagan abruptly fired the strikers, busted their union (PATCO), and hired permanent replacements, thereby encouraging many American corporations to lock out their workers and fire them as a way to bust their own unions. Since strikes by federal workers are forbidden by law, Joe suggested that sickouts from strategically situated federal workers who were compelled to work without pay would be a way to force President Trump to end the shutdown.

And lo and behold, it was air traffic controllers at LaGuardia who did just that—essentially taking their airport out of commission this morning by refusing to show up for work, thereby wreaking havoc all across U.S. air travel. (Yesterday's comments by their boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, encouraging them to take out loans, surely pushed some of those controllers over the edge.) Within hours of the LaGuardia shutdown, and battered by public opinion, Trump caved.

Thirty-eight years after the failed PATCO strike, the air traffic controllers have finally evened the score. Good for them!

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.

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