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Ronald Reagan had an incredibly diverse career that ranged from a Hollywood actor to governor of California and president of the United States. As an actor, he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild where he worked with Errol Flynn and others to support the reforms that the actors strike had made available to young actors. As the president, he initiated the Strategic Missile Defense System or “Star Wars”, proposed bold programs to create the prosperous United States in a peaceful world, and brought about an end to the Cold War. Reagan believed that being the president was the greatest role that he played while he was often underestimated because of his history, however, he was one of the greatest presidents America has had.
Ronald Reagan’s life can definitely be considered a success story. His parents were poor and his father was an alcoholic, he went to an obscure college run by a religious organization and most of his classmates wanted to become teachers or ministers. His grades were never stellar and his goal after college was to become a sports announcer or an actor (Cannon, 34). When he graduated from Eureka College it was during the depths of the Depression job prospects were slim. During that time one-fourth of all Americans was out of work he convinced a radio station manager to hire him as a part-time sports announcer. A few years after that he took a screen test and became an actor. He became an expert on the film industry and president of the Screen Actors Guild which, he believed was one of the best forces for good in the movie industry. He led the guild in their only strike and when his films went out of style he switched to television (Cannon, 33).
Ronald Reagan started his political career when he spoke on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Reagan’s speech was very powerful, however; Goldwater lost the election to Lyndon Johnson the following week. After giving that speech and others he was sought out by the Republican Party as the perfect individual to run against the incumbent governor Pat Brown. When he was running for governor his main campaign points illustrated in his Time for Choice speech in 1966 emphasized getting the welfare “bums” back to work and cleaning up the mess at Berkley. After his win in California Reagan worked to change the political landscape while knowing little about the legislative process used his time in California to learn the in’s and out’s of government. He left office after two terms with constructive changes in welfare, education, and tax legislation (Cannon, 12).
During his terms in office both as a governor and president, his speeches followed several main themes. These themes included a love of country, distrust of government, glories of economic opportunity, the dangers of regulating business, and the wonders of free-market and trade (Cannon, i).
The Iran-contra affair was a difficult patch in Reagan’s presidency when it was discovered. The affair was actually two-fold. The first was the administration’s covert program of arms sales to Iran in exchange for the release of the American hostages by the terrorist group Hezbollah (Wroe, 5). The program originated in Israel but was brought to America in 1981 when president-elect Reagan authorized the supply and replenishment of weapons with Iran in return for the release of the hostages being held in the American embassy. The deal resulted in the release of very few of the hostages. Throughout the operation, it was always in the belief that more hostages would be released unfortunately as with most deals with terrorists they did not carry out their side of the bargain. The operation caused problems for Reagan’s administration for three reasons.
The first was that it went around allies of the United States and Operation Staunch which prohibited the supply of weapons to any government or power supporting terrorism. Second, the Intelligence Committees had never been informed of the arrangements (Wroe, 10). Third trading arms-for-hostages is a bad idea that goes against the Western belief in not making deals with terrorists. The second affair was the covert operation supplying the contras who were a terrorist group located in Iran to go to Nicaragua with equipment and weapons (Wroe, 24). The Iran hostage situation was resolved during Reagan’s inaugural speech when they were released by the terrorists. The hostages had been held for 444 days.
During Reagan’s first term of office, he took advantage of an opening on the Supreme Court to nominate Sandra Day O’Conner the first female nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court. While he knew that it was impossible to know how a judge would act after they had been appointed he wanted to appoint the most responsible and politically neutral jurists he could find. While he was not looking specifically for a female, he wanted a judge who would be able to interpret the Constitution rather than try to rewrite it through various rulings (Reagan, 111). He had instituted a system in California for selecting judges, it used a combination of lawyers, judges, and citizens from the community to select the best-qualified candidate for the position and used that system as the basis for selecting individuals for the Supreme Court. That system created a shortlist of potential judges and after meeting several individuals on the list, Reagan decided that Sandra Day O’Conner was the best individual for the position (Reagan, 55).
On March 30, 1981, there was an assignation attempt on Reagan and he spent several days in the hospital recuperating. Reagan remained focused on his presidential duties even at a time of personal weakness. During the healing process, Reagan decided to attempt opening a dialogue with the Soviet Union. He did this by sending a letter to Leonid Brezhnev who was the leader at the time. In the letter, Reagan addressed why he lifted the grain embargo that prevented U.S. farmers from selling grain to the Soviet Union that had been in place for several years (Noonan, 169). While members of his administration were not pleased with the decision and attempted to talk him out of personally sending the letter or at least allowing the State Department to rewrite it, Reagan persisted and sent the letter. Unfortunately, the letter did not have the desired results and in the response, America was blamed for starting and perpetuating the Cold War.
While the first communication was not successful how Reagan handled the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) showed the world that he was willing to make hard decisions to improve a situation. In 1981 the contract PATCO held with the federal government was up and they chose to demand a 100% pay increase to prevent a strike. PATCO believed that their demands would be met in order to prevent an economic and political crisis. Since they were federal government employees any strike would be illegal. While Reagan considered other alternatives he issued a statement informing the union that any strike would be illegal and would not be tolerated by the government. The message was ignored and several weeks later the union proceeded to strike. Reagan gave them 48 hours to return to work or they would be terminated. While this strike involved a union it was also a threat to national security (Noonan, 225). Without the air traffic controllers, there was no way to defend the sky. The controllers had to go back to work as soon as possible to protect America. After the two-day deadline had passed only 30% of air traffic controllers had returned to work and everybody who remained on strike was fired. When asked about his decision Reagan’s answer was simply that those individuals fired themselves when they participated in an illegal strike (Noonan, 226).
The way that Reagan handled the strike created a domino effect on different aspects of American life. The new system streamlined air traffic control and created a safer system, the pattern for wage negations for the next eight years had been set throughout all levels of government, foreign governments saw that Reagan would not allow public opinion to prohibit him from acting, and most importantly it showed the Soviet Union what type of man Reagan was (Noonan, 226).
Before Reagan was president the United States was engaged in mutually assured destruction (MAD) with the Soviet Union, neither country could send nuclear weapons against the other because of the assurance that while one country would be destroyed the other country would be destroyed along with it. Reagan believed that there was a better way to assure the safety of the United States. On March 23, 1983, Reagan addressed the nation and told them of his dream of a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or in other words a missile defense shield (Noonan, 281). While the technology was not yet available, Reagan believed that SDI was a significantly better alternative to MAD and offered once the technology was developed to give it away to any country that asked (Noonan, 281). He did not want to use it as a bargaining chip in treaty negations but rather use it to stabilize the world and neutralize the threat nuclear weapons posed.
The concepts of SDI were met with skepticism and distrust from both the American government and foreign governments especially the Soviet Union. Several concerns that were reiterated were the lack of available technology, the perceived cost of research, development, and implementation as well as the existence of treaties with other countries prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons (Noonan, 290). While Reagan had the vision to see a different path it was difficult for others to understand why it was important to find a better way. Opponents of SDI coined the term “Star Wars” in an attempt to discredit and derail the project (Noonan, 289). The Soviet Union was a vocal opponent of the SDI program in an effort to maintain its status as a world power. If they lost the threat of their missiles then their status as a world power could be lost.
When General Secretary Chernenko of the Soviet Union died, Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen as his successor. In an attempt to open communication with the Soviet Union one of Reagan’s aids was dispatched to the funeral with a personal letter from Reagan to Gorbachev. This letter eventually led to a meeting in Geneva on November 19, 1985. At this meeting, SDI was a reoccurring topic as Gorbachev was convinced that the program was concealing the first strike capabilities of American nuclear weapons and was skeptical of Reagan’s promise of sharing it with the world (Noonan, 293).
While this meeting did not resolve any of the situations it opened a dialogue between America and the Soviet Union that was unprecedented. After the summit, Reagan and Gorbachev exchanged letters disusing various topics but always revolving around the SDI program. In one such letter written in January 1986, Gorbachev pledged that in exchange for the discontinuation of the SDI program the Soviet Union would disable all of its intermediate force nuclear weapons in Europe such as the SS-20, agree to a moratorium on nuclear testing and consider the elimination of all nuclear weapons from Soviet and American soil (Noonan, 295). While Reagan believed that it was a public relations move he was concerned about several issues including how to negotiate a treaty that was verifiable and honest, how to tackle the issue of the long-range nuclear missiles that were present in overwhelming numbers in the Soviet Union, what would happen if one of the Soviets allies attacked America with a nuclear device and most importantly SDI was the most promising means of ending the threat of nuclear war (Noonan, 295).
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This letter combined with other events resulted in the second summit meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986. At this meeting, Reagan spoke about his concerns with Soviet actions in the world including the continuing invasion of Afghanistan, Communist attempts of subversion in third world countries, human rights, and the plight of thousands of Jews who were forbidden to leave the Soviet Union but abused within the country (Noonan, 295). While these topics were discussed Reagan was unable to make any headway, however, on the topic of arms reduction the possibility of making significant changes was raised by eliminating all ballistic missiles in ten years, decreasing other methods of nuclear delivery systems, and the creation of a verification procedure that was acceptable to both the Soviet Union and the United States. Reagan was optimistic until Gorbachev insisted on the discontinuation of the SDI program in order for the deal to go forward. Reagan reiterated his points on the SDI program and when Gorbachev insisted on its inclusion for the treaty to be finalized, Reagan refused and the negotiations ended. Diplomatic channels remained open and letters continued to be exchanged between the two leaders.
In 1987 when Reagan was visiting Berlin he made a speech at the Berlin Wall about freedom and democracy at the end he included a challenge to Gorbachev:
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 (Reagan “Berlin Wall Speech”)!
Four months after Reagan made that speech in Germany, Gorbachev asked for another summit this time in Washington. At that summit, they finally agreed to a treaty banning all intermediate-range weapons with consensual audits by other countries (Noonan, 295). While Reagan appeared to have everything to gain from accepting Gorbachev’s terms while in Reykjavik; such as increased respect and the presentation to the world of undreamed progress. Unfortunately, the acceptance of that deal would have reestablished the MAD system of the nuclear standoff and allowed the Soviet Union to continue as a Communist world power (Noonan, 296). Because he did not the Soviet Union eventually fell, destroyed by many factors but by lacking the economic ability to compete with the United States.
Reagan’s presidency while focusing on eliminating nuclear weapons also responded to other crises such as when the Challenger exploded. The Challenger was originally built to transport materials to the space station. It flew nine successful missions before lifting off for the tenth time in 1986. Later investigations showed that the cold weather conditions present in Florida caused the O rings to shrink resulting in the leakage of fuel down the side of the rockets and the subsequent explosion. President Reagan and Nancy Reagan addressed the nation later that afternoon and joined America in mourning the death of seven heroes’.
Looking back at Reagan’s presidency he was responsible for increasing America’s military presence understanding that Russia did not have the financial strength to continue with an accelerating arms race and understanding that having a strong military would create opportunities for negotiations to end the Cold War. He preached a message of freedom that he hoped would encourage people in Eastern Europe that was heard loudly when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The countries that had been engulfed by the Soviet Union had regained their independence and the Soviet Union returned to its origins as Russia (Cannon, 240). His effect on the domestic front while difficult to see during his presidency was also impressive. One of his accomplishments was leaving the United States with a surplus that was made possible through decreases in military spending after the end of the Cold War.
Ronald Reagan died June 5, 2004, after suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years. Characteristically when he has diagnosed with the disease in 1994 after a routine visit to the doctor, Reagan wrote a letter to the American public detailing his diagnosis and explaining his reasons for speaking about it with the public. He was part of a celebrity culture that believed that celebrities could increase positive awareness of a problem (Cannon, xv). He followed the example of Franklin Roosevelt who helped raise money to fight polio by supporting The March of Dimes. The letter that Reagan wrote is in his style translating his experiences into a universal message. He is survived by his wife Nancy Reagan who had continued her protection of him through his presidency and his illness and his children.
Cannon, Lou. President Reagan; the Role of a Lifetime. New York, NY, 1991.
Noonan, Peggy. When Character Was King. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2001.
Reagan, Ronald. An American Life; Ronald Reagan. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Reagan, Ronald. “Berlin Wall Speech”. 1987. Web.
Reeves, Richard. President Reagan; the Triumph of Imagination. New York, NY: Simon&Schuster, 2005.
Wroe, Ann. Lives, Lies & the Iran-Contra Affair. London, England: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.