Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan's presidential portrait, 1981
Official portrait, 1981
40th President of the United States
In office
January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989
Vice PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
Preceded byJimmy Carter
Succeeded byGeorge H. W. Bush
33rd Governor of California
In office
January 2, 1967[1] – January 6, 1975[2]
LieutenantRobert Finch[3]
Edwin Reinecke[4]
John L. Harmer[5]
Preceded byPat Brown
Succeeded byJerry Brown[2]
9th and 13th President of the Screen Actors Guild
In office
November 1959 – June 1960
Preceded byHoward Keel
Succeeded byGeorge Chandler
In office
March 10, 1947 – November 1952
Preceded byRobert Montgomery
Succeeded byWalter Pidgeon
Personal details
Ronald Wilson Reagan

(1911-02-06)February 6, 1911
Tampico, Illinois, U.S.
DiedJune 5, 2004(2004-06-05) (aged 93)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting placeRonald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Political partyRepublican (from 1962)
Other political
Democratic (until 1962)
  • (m. 1940; div. 1949)
  • (m. 1952)
Parent(s)Jack Reagan
Nelle Wilson
RelativesNeil Reagan (brother)
EducationEureka College (BA)
  • Politician
  • trade unionist
  • actor
  • author
  • broadcaster
AwardsList of awards and honors
SignatureCursive signature in ink
Military service
Years of service

Ronald Wilson Reagan (/ˈrɡən/ RAY-gən; February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was an American politician who served as the 40th president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. He also served as the 33rd governor of California from 1967 to 1975 after having a career in entertainment.

Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois. He graduated from Eureka College in 1932 and began to work as a radio announcer in Iowa. In 1937, Reagan moved to California, where he found work as a film actor. From 1947 to 1952, Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, working to root out alleged communist influence within it. In the 1950s, he moved to a career in television and became a spokesman for General Electric. From 1959 to 1960, he again served as the guild's president. In 1964, his speech "A Time for Choosing" earned him national attention as a new conservative figure. Building a network of supporters, Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966. During his governorship, he raised taxes, turned the state budget deficit into a surplus, and challenged protesters in Berkeley by ordering in National Guard troops.

After challenging and nearly defeating sitting president Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries, Reagan easily won the Republican nomination in the 1980 presidential election and went on to defeat incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter. At the time of his first inauguration, Reagan was the oldest person to become president of the United States.[a] Early in his presidency, he began implementing new political and economic initiatives. His supply-side economics policies, dubbed "Reaganomics", promoted economic deregulation and reductions in both taxes and government spending. He also survived an assassination attempt, spurred the war on drugs, ordered an invasion of Grenada, and fought public-sector labor unions. Reagan was reelected in 1984, defeating Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, in an electoral landslide.

Foreign affairs dominated Reagan's second term, including the bombing of Libya, Iran–Iraq War, Iran–Contra affair, and ongoing Cold War. In a speech in 1987, four years after he publicly described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire", Reagan challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to open the Berlin Wall. He transitioned Cold War policy from détente to rollback by escalating an arms race with the Soviet Union while engaging in talks with Gorbachev, culminating in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Over Reagan's two terms, the American economy saw a reduction of inflation from 12.5 percent to 4.4 percent and an average real gross domestic product annual growth of 3.6 percent. His cuts in domestic discretionary spending and taxes, as well as increases in military spending contributed to a near tripling of the federal debt.

Reagan had planned an active post-presidency, but he disclosed in 1994 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. His public appearances became more infrequent as the disease progressed. On June 5, 2004, Reagan died at his home in Los Angeles. His tenure constituted a realignment towards conservatism in the United States, and he is often considered a conservative icon. Evaluations of Reagan's presidency among historians and the general public place him among the upper tier of American presidents.

Early life

The Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, where Reagan's family lived from 1920 to 1924[7]

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.[8] Jack was a salesman and storyteller whose grandparents were Irish Catholic emigrants from County Tipperary,[9] while Nelle was of English and Scottish descent.[10] Ronald's older brother, Neil Reagan, became an advertising executive.[11]

Throughout Reagan's youth, his father nicknamed him "Dutch" for his "fat little Dutchman" appearance and Dutch-boy haircut.[12] His family briefly lived in several towns and cities in Illinois, including Monmouth, Galesburg, and Chicago.[13] In 1919, they returned to Tampico and lived above the H. C. Pitney Variety Store until finally settling in Dixon.[8] By the time Reagan lived in the upstairs White House private quarters, he would quip that he was "living above the store" again.[14]

Reagan's opposition to racial discrimination was unusual. When his college football team was staying at a local hotel that would not allow two black teammates to stay there, he invited them to his parents' home nearby in Dixon. His mother invited them to stay overnight and have breakfast the next morning.[15] Reagan's father strongly opposed the Ku Klux Klan due to his Catholic heritage, as well as 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.[17]


Reagan's mother attended the Disciples of Christ church regularly and was very influential within it, leading Sunday school services and giving Bible readings to the congregation. She led prayer meetings and was in charge of mid-week prayers when the pastor was out of town.[18] She was also an adherent of the Social Gospel.[16] Her strong commitment to the church induced Reagan to become a Protestant Christian rather than a Roman Catholic like his father.[10] As she strongly influenced his own beliefs,[19] Reagan would be influenced by his pastor Ben Cleaver, the father of his fiancée. Stephen Vaughn suggested that the church's positions influenced Reagan to pursue his religious, economic, and social policies as president of the United States.[20] According to Paul Kengor, Reagan had a particularly strong faith in the goodness of people, which stemmed from the optimistic faith of his mother and the Disciples of Christ faith[21] he was baptized into in 1922.[22]

Formal education

Reagan attended Dixon High School, where he developed interests in acting, sports, and storytelling.[23] His first job involved working as a lifeguard at the Rock River in Lowell Park in 1927. Over six years, he performed 77 rescues.[24] In 1928, Reagan attended Eureka College. He was an indifferent student, majoring in economics and sociology while graduating with a "C" average.[25] He developed a reputation as a "jack of all trades", excelling in campus politics, sports, and theater. He was a member of the American football and swimming teams. He was also elected student body president and he participated in student protests against the college president.[26]

Entertainment career

Further information: Ronald Reagan filmography

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 the Chicago Cubs of Major League Baseball. 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.[27] While traveling with the Cubs in California in 1937, Reagan took a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with the Warner Bros. studio.[28]

Reagan spent his first few years as an actor in B films, which he joked that the producers "didn't want them good; they wanted them Thursday."[29] He made his film debut in Love Is on the Air (1937)[30] and appeared in Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, and Santa Fe Trail (1940) with Errol Flynn. Prior to Santa Fe, he portrayed George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), acquiring the lifelong nickname "the Gipper".[31] In 1941, exhibitors voted Reagan as the fifth most popular star from Hollywood's younger generation.[32] The following year, Reagan played his favorite acting role in Kings Row (1942),[33] 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,[34] though the film was condemned by The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther.[35][36] Still, the film made Reagan a star, with Warner immediately tripling his weekly pay.[37] Reagan then reunited with Flynn in Desperate Journey (1942).[37] He later appeared in films such as The Voice of the Turtle (1947), The Hasty Heart (1949), Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), Hellcats of the Navy (1957), and The Killers (1964) featuring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Throughout his film career, Reagan's mother answered much of his fan mail.[38]

Military service

Captain Reagan at Fort Roach, between 1943 and 1944

After completing fourteen 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.[39] On April 18, 1942, Reagan was ordered to active duty for the first time, but because of severe nearsightedness,[40] he was classified for limited service only, which excluded him from serving overseas.[41] His first assignment was at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation as a liaison officer.[42] Upon the approval of the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF), he applied to transfer to the AAF on May 15, and was assigned to AAF Public Relations and subsequently to the 18th AAF Base Unit at Culver City.[42] 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 (1943) in Burbank.[42] He returned to the 18th AAF Base Unit after completing this duty and was promoted to captain on July 22.[43] 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. On November 14, he was reassigned to the 18th AAF Base Unit, where he remained until the end of the war.[43] He was separated from active duty on December 9, 1945 as an Army captain. During 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.[44] Reagan obtained and kept a film reel depicting the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, believing that doubts would someday arise as to whether the Holocaust had occurred.[45]

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 of the guild in 1946.[46] When the guild's president Robert Montgomery and six board members resigned on March 10, 1947 due to the new bylaws on conflict of interest, Reagan was elected president in a special election.[46][47] He was subsequently reelected six times, in 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1959.[46][48] As the president, he secured residuals for actors when their television episodes reran and later for actors when their films aired on television.[49] He led the union through the Taft–Hartley Act's implementation, various labor-management disputes, and the Hollywood blacklist,[46][48] which, 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, grew steadily larger during the early 1950s as the U.S. Congress continued to investigate domestic political subversion.[50]

On July 10, 1946, Reagan attended a Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP) meeting, which led to the FBI interviewing him on April 10, 1947, in connection with its investigation into HICCASP.[51][52][53] In 1985, it was revealed that during the late 1940s, Reagan and Jane Wyman provided the FBI with the names of actors whom they believed to be communist sympathizers. Even so, he was uncomfortable with actors and producers assembling to fire the sympathizers.[54][55] During a October 23, 1947 hearing held by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Reagan testified that some members who "consistently opposed the policy of the guild board and officers of the guild" were associated with the Communist Party, that he would break up an ongoing "jurisdictional strike", and that he opposed measures soon to manifest in the Mundt–Nixon Bill. When asked whether he was aware of communist efforts within the Screen Writers Guild, Reagan would not play along, calling the efforts "hearsay".[56]

Marriages and children

Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman, 1942

Reagan married Brother Rat (1938) co-star Wyman[57] on January 26, 1940.[58] Together, they had two biological daughters, Maureen in 1941, and Christine, born prematurely on June 26, 1947 and dead the next day. They also adopted a son, Michael, in 1945.[59] In 1948, Wyman filed to divorce Reagan,[60] citing a distraction due to her husband's duties as president of the Screen Actors Guild; the divorce was finalized in 1949,[31] though they continued to be friends until his death.[61] In the same year, Reagan met Nancy Davis[62][63] after she contacted him in his capacity as the union's president about 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."[64] They married on March 4, 1952[65] and had two children, Patti in 1952 and Ronald in 1958.[63]


Reagan landed fewer film roles in the late 1950s and moved into television.[29] He was hired as the host of the anthology series General Electric Theater.[66][29] His contract required him to tour General Electric (GE) plants sixteen weeks out of the year, which often demanded that he give fourteen talks per day.[29] Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who continued to use the stage name Nancy Davis, acted together in three televised episodes.[67] The show ran for ten seasons from 1953 to 1962, increasing Reagan's profile.[68] He was also the host and announcer for ABC's coverage of the 1959 Rose Parade.[69] In his final work as an actor, Reagan was a host and performer from 1964 to 1965 on the television series Death Valley Days.[70]

Early political activities

Reagan campaigning for Goldwater, 1964

Reagan began as a Democrat, viewing Franklin D. Roosevelt as "a true hero".[71] He joined left-wing political committees such as the American Veterans Committee and fought against right-to-work laws.[72] He supported President Harry S. Truman in the 1948 presidential election[73] and Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1950. It was Reagan's belief that communists were a powerful backstage influence in Hollywood that led him to rally his friends against them.[72] In 1945, Warner Bros. stopped Reagan from leading an anti-nuclear rally in Hollywood, though he continued to make nuclear weapons a critical issue throughout his political career.[74]

Reagan shifted to the right when he endorsed the presidential candidacies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.[75] As the host of Electric Theater, Reagan gave his own motivational speeches to GE employees across the country. The non-partisan speeches carried a conservative, pro-business message on free markets, anti-communism, lower taxes, and limited government, which senior GE executive Lemuel Boulware championed.[76] When Medicare was introduced in 1961, Reagan warned that its legislation would mean the end of freedom in America. He said that if his listeners did not write letters to prevent it, "we will awake to find that we have socialism ... 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."[77][78] He opposed the Food Stamp Program, raise in the minimum wage, and establishment of the Peace Corps.[16] When Reagan quit his job as a GE spokesman in 1962, he formally registered as a Republican.[79][80] He often said, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me."[81] He also joined the National Rifle Association, where he became a lifetime member.[82] In 1964, Reagan gave speeches for conservative presidential contender Barry Goldwater,[83] stressing the importance of smaller government. He consolidated themes that he had developed in his talks for GE to deliver his 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.[84][85]

The speech was not enough to turn around the faltering Goldwater campaign, but it established Reagan's national political visibility. David S. Broder called it "the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his Cross of Gold speech".[86][87][88] California Republicans were impressed with Reagan's political views and charisma,[89] and Reagan ran for governor of California in the 1966 election[90][91] He was accused of appealing to white racial resentment and backlash against the civil rights movement. He promised to repeal legislation barring housing discrimination. Certain in his own lack of prejudice, Reagan responded resentfully to claims he was racist while defending his position, arguing: "If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so."[15] He believed that "the right to dispose of and control one's own property is a basic human right".[92] Nevertheless, Reagan went on to defeat incumbent Democratic governor Pat Brown.[93]

Governor of California (1967–1975)

Main article: Governorship of Ronald Reagan

Governor Reagan campaigning with Edward Gurney in May 1968. Gurney would be elected U.S. senator for Florida in the same year.[94]

As governor of California, Reagan froze government hiring and approved tax hikes to balance the budget.[95] He initially campaigned as a tax cutter with the promise to squeeze, cut, and trim, but instead increased spending by nine percent. He worked with Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh to secure a series of tax increases that raised rates and balanced the budget while also cutting property taxes. As a result, the sales tax was raised from three percent to five percent. The highest income tax bracket saw a rise from seven percent to ten percent. Taxes on banks, corporate profits, and inheritance were increased slightly. Liquor taxes jumped from $1.50 to $2.00 per gallon; and cigarette taxes from three cents to ten cents per pack.[96][97][98] Reagan sought for a "tax relief" in his reelection campaign, but the 1970s recession caused him to raise taxes once more.[99]

In 1967, the national debate on abortion began to gain traction. Democratic state senator Anthony Beilenson introduced the Therapeutic Abortion Act in an effort to reduce the number of "back-room abortions" performed in California.[100] The bill, which had a provision allowing abortions for the wellbeing of the mother, was sent to Reagan's desk where, after many days of indecision, he reluctantly signed it on June 14. Reagan 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.[101] Reagan maintained that position later in his political career and wrote extensively about abortion,[102] though in 2022, his daughter Patti stated that "his religious faith left him questioning when life begins" and that in 1981, he said that abortion "should be allowed only for rape, incest or the risk of a woman dying."[103]

Immediately after winning the governorship in 1966, Reagan and his campaign began to plan a run for the upcoming Republican presidential nomination. He spent most weekends of 1967 and 1968 travelling across the country to campaign and speak at the party's fundraising events.[104] The ongoing Vietnam War was an issue that helped the Republicans eventually win the 1968 presidential election[105] and Reagan presented himself as a war hawk in hopes of slowing down the spread of communism.[106] He ran as an unannounced candidate in an attempt to cut into Nixon's southern support[107] and be the conservatives' compromise candidate[108] if there were to be a brokered convention. However, by the time of the convention, Nixon received enough delegate votes to secure the nomination. Reagan's only primary victory came in California, where his was the only name on the ballot.[107]

Governor Reagan was critical of administrators tolerating student demonstrations at the University of California, Berkeley. On May 15, 1969, he sent the California Highway Patrol and other officers to quell the People's Park protests. This led to the "Bloody Thursday" incident in which one student died while a carpenter was blinded.[100][109] In addition, 111 police officers were injured in the conflict, including one who was knifed in the chest. Reagan then commanded 2,200 state National Guard troops to occupy the city of Berkeley for seventeen days to subdue the protesters.[100] The troops camped in the park, and demonstrations subsided as the university removed fencing and placed all development plans for the park on hold.[100][110] One year after the incident, Reagan responded to questions about the protests, saying, "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement."[111]

Reagan's governorship helped shape the policies in his presidency, including the expansion of the welfare state. He strongly advocated conservative ideals involving reduced government regulation of the economy, including the elimination of undue federal taxation.[112] One of Reagan's greatest frustrations was capital punishment, which he strongly supported.[33] His efforts to enforce it were thwarted by People v. Anderson in 1972, though the decision was later overturned by a constitutional amendment. Yet, only one execution occurred during his tenure.[113] Earlier in 1969, Reagan signed the Family Law Act, an amalgam of two bills that had been written and revised by the state legislature for more than two years.[114] It became the first no-fault divorce legislation in the United States.[115] Years later, he told his son Michael that signing that law was his "greatest regret" in public life.[116][117]

Seeking the presidency (1975–1981)

1976 presidential campaign

Main articles: Ronald Reagan 1976 presidential campaign and 1976 Republican Party presidential primaries

Reagan and President Ford shake hands on the podium after Reagan narrowly lost the nomination at the 1976 Republican National Convention

Reagan's 1976 campaign relied on a strategy crafted by campaign managerJohn Sears to win several primaries early to lessen the possibility of President Gerald Ford's likely nomination. Reagan won North Carolina, Texas and California, but the strategy failed[118] as he lost New Hampshire, Florida and his native state of Illinois.[119] The Texas primary lent renewed hope to Reagan when he swept all 96 delegates, with four more awaiting at the state convention. Much of the credit for that victory came from the work of three cochairmen including Ernest Angelo and Ray Barnhart, whom Reagan as president would appoint in 1981 as director of the Federal Highway Administration.[120]

As the Republican National Convention neared, Ford appeared close to victory. Acknowledging the moderate wing, Reagan chose moderate U.S. senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate in the event he was nominated. Ford would prevail, earning 1,187 delegates to Reagan's 1,070.[119] Reagan's concession speech emphasized the dangers of nuclear war and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. In the general election, Reagan received 307 write-in votes in New Hampshire, 388 votes as an independent on Wyoming's ballot, and one electoral vote from a faithless elector in the state of Washington.[121]

Opposition to the Briggs Initiative

Main article: Briggs Initiative

In 1978 California state elections, conservative state legislator John Briggs sponsored the Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California's public schools.[122] 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.[123][124] The timing of his opposition was significant and surprised many because he was then preparing another 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, Reagan actively courted leaders from the religious right, including Jerry Falwell, who would later form the Moral Majority to fight the culture war issues.[125] As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon wrote, Reagan was "well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue", but "chose to state his convictions."[126] Cannon also wrote 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."[126] Reagan's 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."[123]

1980 presidential campaign

Main articles: Ronald Reagan 1980 presidential campaign and 1980 United States presidential election

1980 electoral vote results

The 1980 presidential election pitted 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,[127] less government interference in people's lives,[128] states' rights,[129] and a strong national defense.[130]

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, as his running mate. Reagan's relaxed and confident appearance during the televised debate on October 28 boosted his popularity and helped to widen his lead in the polls.[131][132]

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 and the District of Columbia. He 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, even though Democrats retained a majority in the House of Representatives.[132][133][134]

Presidency (1981–1989)

Main article: Presidency of Ronald Reagan

For a chronological guide, see Timeline of the Ronald Reagan presidency.

Further information: Domestic policy of the Ronald Reagan administration, Foreign policy of the Ronald Reagan administration, and Reagan Doctrine

First term

First inauguration

Main article: First inauguration of Ronald Reagan

The Reagans at the 1981 inauguration parade

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 the age of 70 years, 220 days.[6] 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."[135]

Organized prayer

Reagan campaigned vigorously to restore organized prayer to the schools, first as a moment of prayer and later as a moment of silence.[136] His election reflected an opposition[137] to the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, which prohibited state officials from composing an official state prayer and requiring that it be recited in the public schools.[138] In 1981, Reagan became the first president to propose a constitutional amendment on school prayer,[137] which 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?"[139] 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".[140] In 1987, Reagan renewed his call for Congress to support voluntary prayer in schools and end "the expulsion of God from America's classrooms".[141]

Assassination attempt

Main article: Attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

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. Although "close to death" upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital, Reagan was stabilized in the emergency room before undergoing emergency exploratory surgery.[142] He recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11, becoming the first American president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt while in office.[143] The attempt had a significant influence on Reagan's popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73 percent.[143] Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a higher purpose.[144]

Sandra Day O'Connor

On July 7, 1981, Reagan announced that he planned to appoint 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.[145] On September 21, O'Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 99–0.[146]

Air traffic controllers' strike

In August 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike, violating a federal law prohibiting government unions from striking.[147] Declaring the situation an emergency as described in the 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".[148] 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.[149] 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."[150]

"Reaganomics" and the economy

Main article: Reaganomics

Reagan outlines his plan for Tax Reduction Legislation in a televised address from the Oval Office, July 1981

Reagan implemented neoliberal policies based on supply-side economics, advocating a laissez-faire philosophy[151] and seeking to stimulate the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts.[152][153] 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.[154] 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.[155]

During Reagan's presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981,[156] which lowered the top marginal tax bracket from 70 percent to 50 percent over three years,[157] 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 gross domestic product (GDP) as compared to 18.1 percent over the 40 years of 1970 to 2010.[158] The 1981 tax act also required that exemptions and brackets be indexed for inflation starting in 1985.[157]

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.[159][160] TEFRA was the "largest peacetime tax increase in American history".[160][161][162][163] 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.[164] 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.[165] Sixteen million new jobs were created, while inflation significantly decreased.[166] 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.[167][168]

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.[169] However, federal income tax receipts increased from 1980 to 1989, rising from $308.7 billion to $549 billion[170] or an average annual rate of 8.2 percent, and federal outlays grew at an annual rate of 7.1 percent.[171][172]

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.[173] Questions arose whether Reagan's policies benefited the wealthy more than those living in poverty,[174] and many poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their struggles.[174] These views were exacerbated by the fact that his 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.[175] 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.[176] 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.[177] Reagan is viewed as an anti-tax hero despite raising taxes eleven times throughout his presidency, all in the name of fiscal responsibility.[178] 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 the 1993 tax increase."[179] Historian and domestic policy adviser Bruce Bartlett stated that Reagan's tax increases throughout his presidency took back half of the 1981 tax cut.[180]

Reagan was opposed to government intervention, and he cut the budgets of non-military[181] programs[182] including Medicaid, food stamps, federal education programs[181] and the Environmental Protection Agency.[183] He protected entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare,[184] but his administration attempted to purge many people with disabilities from the Social Security disability rolls.[185]

The administration's stance toward the savings and loan industry contributed to the crisis. A minority of Reaganomics critics also suggested that the policies partially influenced the 1987 stock market crash,[186] though there is no consensus regarding a single cause of the crash.[187]

To cover newly spawned federal budget deficits, the United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, causing the national debt to nearly triple from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion.[188][189][190][191] Reagan described the new debt as the "greatest disappointment" of his presidency.[166]

Reagan reappointed Paul Volcker as chair 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 1970s energy crisis.[192][193] The price of oil subsequently dropped, and there were no fuel shortages like those back then.[193] Reagan also fulfilled a 1980 campaign promise to repeal the windfall profits tax in 1988, which had previously increased dependence on foreign oil.[194] Milton Friedman and Robert Mundell argued that Reagan's tax policies invigorated America's economy and contributed to the economic boom of the 1990s[195] while Robert Solow argued that Reagan's deficits were a major reason his successor, Bush, reneged on his campaign promise by raising taxes.[195]

During Reagan's presidency, Project Socrates was initiated within the the Intelligence Community to ensure America's economic strength. The program 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 this, Reagan, during his second term, had an executive order drafted to create a new federal agency to implement the program's results on a nationwide basis. However, Reagan's term came to an end before the executive order could be coordinated and signed, and his successor terminated Project Socrates, labeling it as "industrial policy".[196][197]

Civil rights

The Reagan administration was often criticized for inadequately enforcing, if not actively undermining, civil rights legislation.[198][199] In 1982, he signed a bill extending the Voting Rights Act for 25 years after a grassroots lobbying and legislative campaign forced him to abandon his plan to ease that law's restrictions.[200] He also signed legislation establishing a federal Martin Luther King holiday, though he did so with reservations.[201] 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.[202]

Escalation of the Cold War

Further information: Cold War (1979–1985)

As the first American president invited to speak before the British Parliament, Reagan predicted that Marxism–Leninism would end up on the "ash heap of history".[203]

Reagan escalated the Cold War, accelerating a reversal from the policy of détente that began during Carter's presidency, following the Saur Revolution and subsequent Soviet invasion.[204] He ordered a massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces[155] 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.[205] In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw NATO's deployment of the Pershing missile in West Germany.[206] 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.[207][208]

In 1984, journalist Nicholas Lemann noted that the Soviet Union's economy, education, and technology were too weak "to enter the information age" and that their military production was unsustainable, which he believed would "break them, and then there will be just one superpower in a safe world—if, only if, we can keep spending."[209] Lemann thought the Reaganites were living in a fantasy world in 1984, but by 2016, he stated that the passage represented "a fairly uncontroversial description of what Reagan actually did".[209]

Reagan and the United Kingdom's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, both denounced the Soviet Union ideologically.[210] In a June 8, 1982 address to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, Reagan said, "the march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism–Leninism on the ash heap of history."[203][211][212] On March 3, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, calling it "another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written."[213] In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals five days later, Reagan called the Soviet Union "an evil empire".[214]

After Soviet fighters downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983, which included 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".[215] His 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.[215] 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 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.[216][217]

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.[218] 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.[219]

Reagan meeting with leaders of the Afghan mujahideen in the Oval Office, 1983

Reagan deployed the Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were instrumental in training, equipping and leading Afghan mujahideen forces against the Soviet Army.[220][221] President Reagan's Covert Action program has been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan,[222] though some of the United States funded armaments introduced then would later pose a threat to American troops in the 2001 war in Afghanistan.[223] The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also began sharing information with the Iranian government 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.[224]

In March 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a defense project[225] that would have used ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.[226] Reagan believed that this defense shield could make nuclear war impossible.[225][227] 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.[225] The Soviets became concerned about the possible effects SDI would have;[228] leader Yuri Andropov said it would put "the entire world in jeopardy".[229] For those reasons, David Gergen, a former aide to President Reagan, believes that in retrospect, the SDI hastened the end of the Cold War.[230]

Though supported by leading American conservatives who argued that Reagan's foreign policy strategy was essential to protecting their security interests, critics labeled the initiatives as aggressive and imperialistic, and chided them as "warmongering".[228] The administration was also heavily criticized for backing anti-communist leaders accused of severe human rights violations, such as Hissène Habré of Chad[231] and Efraín Ríos Montt of Guatemala.[232][233] Montt was the president of Guatemala and 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",[234] and described him as "a man of great personal integrity".[235] Previous human rights violations had prompted the United States to cut off aid to the Guatemalan government, but the Reagan administration unsuccessfully appealed to Congress to restart military aid. However, the administration successfully provided nonmilitary assistance such as the United States Agency for International Development.[234][236]

Lebanese Civil War

Further information: 1983 Beirut barracks bombings

Reagan and Nancy Reagan paying their respects to the 17 American victims of the 1983 United States embassy bombing in Beirut[237]

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 war, were attacked on October 23. The barracks bombing killed 241 American servicemen and wounded more than 60 others by a suicide truck bomber.[238] Reagan sent in USS New Jersey to shell Syrian positions in Lebanon before withdrawing all marines from Lebanon.[239]

Invasion of Grenada

Main article: United States invasion of Grenada

On October 25, 1983, President Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade Grenada, where a 1979 coup d'état had established a Soviet-Cuban supported Marxist–Leninist government led by Maurice Bishop. A week before the invasion, Bishop was overthrown and executed following a coup d'état by Bernard Coard. A formal appeal from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States led to the intervention of U.S. forces; Reagan also cited a regional threat posed by a Soviet-Cuban military build-up in the Caribbean nation and concern for the safety of several hundred American medical students at St. George's University as adequate reasons to invade. This invasion 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,[240] with 19 American fatalities and 116 wounded American soldiers.[241] In mid-December, after a new government was appointed by the governor-general, U.S. forces withdrew.[240]

1984 presidential campaign

Main articles: Ronald Reagan 1984 presidential campaign and 1984 United States presidential election

1984 electoral vote results

Reagan accepted the Republican nomination at the party's 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.[29]

Reagan's opponent in the general 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.[242] 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.[243]

That November, Reagan won a landslide reelection victory, carrying 49 of the 50 states. Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.[132] Reagan won 525 of the 538 electoral votes, the most of any presidential candidate in U.S. history.[244] In terms of electoral votes, Roosevelt's 1936 victory over Alf Landon, in which he won 98.5 percent or 523 of the then-total 531 electoral votes, was the most-lopsided presidential election.[245] Reagan won 58.8 percent of the popular vote to Mondale's 40.6 percent.[246][247]

Second term

Second inauguration

Main article: Second inauguration of Ronald Reagan

Reagan's second term portrait, 1985

Reagan was sworn in as president for the second time on January 20, 1985 in a private ceremony at the White House. At the time, the 73-year-old Reagan was the oldest person to take the oath of office, though the 78-year-old Joe Biden surpassed this record in 2021.[6] 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, Reagan shook up his staff somewhat, moving White House Chief of Staff James Baker to secretary of the treasury and naming Treasury Secretary Donald Regan chief of staff.[248]

War on drugs

Main article: 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.[249] 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.[250][251]

In 1986, Reagan signed a drug enforcement bill that budgeted $1.7 billion to fund the war on drugs and specified a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses.[252] The bill was criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population,[252] 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.[253] Defenders of the effort point to success in reducing rates of adolescent drug use which they attribute to the Reagan administration's policies;[254] marijuana use among high school seniors declined from 33 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 1991.[255] 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.[256]

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.[257][258][259][260] They also claimed that AIDS research was chronically underfunded during Reagan's administration and requests for more funding by doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were routinely denied.[261][262]

When President Reagan gave his first prepared speech on the epidemic, six years into his tenure, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 20,849 had died of it.[262] 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.[263]

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.[264] In a September 1985 press conference, Reagan, responded to a related question: "This is a top priority with us, yes, there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer."[265] Gary Bauer, Reagan's domestic policy advisor 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.[266]

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 United States impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on South Africa.[267] 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.[268][269] 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".[270]

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.[267] This policy however, engendered much public criticism and renewed calls for the imposition of stringent sanctions.[271] In response, Reagan announced the imposition of new sanctions on the South African government, including an arms embargo in late 1985.[272] These sanctions were seen as weak by anti-apartheid activists and as insufficient by the president's opponents in Congress.[271] 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, also imposed their sanctions on South Africa soon after.[273]

Libya bombing

Main article: 1986 United States bombing of Libya

Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Thatcher granted the United States use of British airbases to launch the Libya attack.

Relations between Libya and the United States under President Reagan were continually contentious, beginning with the 1981 Gulf of Sidra incident; by 1982, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was considered by the CIA to be, along with Soviet Union 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.[274] 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.[275]

British Prime Minister Thatcher allowed the United States Air Force to use Britain's air bases to launch the attack, on the justification that the United Kingdom was supporting America's right to self-defense under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.[275] The attack was, according to Reagan, designed to halt Gaddafi's "ability to export terrorism", offering him "incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior".[276] After the attacks began, Reagan addressed the nation, 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."[275] 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 condemned the attack and deemed it a violation of the Charter and international law.[277]


Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, making it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants, requiring employers to attest to their employee's immigration status, and granting 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 beside the 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."[278] 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."[278]

Iran–Contra affair

Main article: Iran–Contra affair

Reagan receives the Tower Commission Report regarding the Iran–Contra affair, 1987

The Iran–Contra affair stemmed from the use of proceeds from covert arms sales to Iran during the Iran–Iraq War to fund the Contras fighting against the Nicaraguan government, funding which had been specifically outlawed by an act of Congress.[279][280] The International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction to decide the case was disputed by the United States,[281] ruled that the United States had violated international law and breached treaties in Nicaragua in various ways.[282][283] President Reagan later withdrew the agreement between the United States and the International Court of Justice.[284] He professed that he was unaware of the plot's existence and opened his own investigation, appointing John Tower, Brent Scowcroft and Edmund Muskie 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.[285] A separate report by Congress concluded that "If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have."[285] As a result, Reagan's approval ratings dropped from 67 percent to 46 percent in less than a week, the most significant and quickest decline ever for a president.[286] The scandal resulted in eleven convictions and fourteen indictments within Reagan's staff.[287] Many Central Americans criticized Reagan for supporting the Contras, calling him an anti-communist zealot, blinded to human rights abuses, while others say he "saved Central America".[288] Sandinistan President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega said that he hoped God would forgive Reagan for his "dirty war against Nicaragua".[288]

Soviet decline and thaw in relations

Further information: Cold War (1985–1991)

Reagan challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" at the Brandenburg Gate, June 1987
Gorbachev and Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House, December 1987

Until the early 1970s, the United States had relied on the qualitative superiority of its weapons to offset the Soviet superiority in number of weapons possessed, but Soviet technological advances had narrowed that advantage by the time Reagan took office in 1981.[289] Although the Soviet Union did not accelerate military spending in response to Reagan's military buildup,[290] 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.[291]

Meanwhile, Reagan escalated the rhetoric. In his famous 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, 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 optimism, he praised liberal democracy and promised that such a system eventually would triumph over Soviet communism.[292][293]

Reagan's foreign policy towards the Soviet Union entailed both carrots and sticks.[294] Reagan appreciated the revolutionary change in the direction of the Soviet policy with Gorbachev and shifted to diplomacy, intending to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements.[295] He and Gorbachev held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988.[296] 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.[297] The critical summit was in Reykjavík in October 1986, where they met alone with translators but 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.[298]

Speaking at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, 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!" [299] Later, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, as did the inner German border, caused by the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany. Authorities began allowing citizens to pass freely through border checkpoints[300][301] and began dismantling the wall the following June;[302][303] its demolition was completed in 1992.[302][303]

At Gorbachev's visit to Washington in December 1987, he and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons.[304] The two leaders laid the framework for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.[305]

When Reagan visited the Moscow 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 to which he replied, "No, I was talking about another time, another era."[306] At Gorbachev's request, Reagan gave a speech on free markets at Moscow State University.[307]

Subsequent judicial nominations

Further information: Ronald Reagan Supreme Court candidates and List of federal judges appointed by Ronald Reagan

When Chief Justice Warren E. Burger retired in September 1986, Reagan nominated incumbent Associate Justice William Rehnquist to succeed Burger as chief justice. Then, following Rehnquist's confirmation, the president named Antonin Scalia to fill the consequent associate justice vacancy.[308] 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, which was strongly opposed by civil and women's rights groups, and by Senate Democrats,[309] was rejected by a roll call vote of 42–58 after a contentious Senate debate in October.[310] Soon afterward, Reagan announced his intention to nominate Douglas H. Ginsburg to the Court. However, before his name was submitted to the Senate, Ginsburg withdrew himself from consideration.[311] Anthony Kennedy was subsequently nominated and confirmed as Powell's successor.[312]

Along with his four Supreme Court nominations, 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. 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".[313][314][315]


Early in his presidency, Reagan started wearing a custom-made, technologically advanced hearing aid, first in his right ear[316] and later in his left ear as well.[317] His decision to go public in 1983 regarding his wearing the small, audio-amplifying device boosted their sales.[318]

On July 13, 1985, Reagan underwent surgery to remove a section of his colon due to colorectal cancer.[319] 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, he underwent a third skin cancer operation on his nose.[326]

On January 7, 1989, Reagan underwent surgery to repair a Dupuytren's contracture of the ring finger of his left hand.[327]

Post-presidency (1989–2004)

Public speaking

After leaving office in 1989, the Reagans purchased a home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, in addition to Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara. They regularly attended Bel Air Church[328][329] and made public appearances including at the dedication and opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 1991.[330] On April 13, 1992, Reagan was assaulted by Richard Springer, an anti-nuclear protester, while accepting an award from the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas,[331] though Reagan was not injured.[332] Reagan later gave a well-received speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.[333] He continued to speak publicly in favor of the Brady Bill,[334] a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, and the repeal of the 22nd Amendment.[335] His final public speech occurred on February 3, 1994, during a tribute to him in Washington, D.C.;[336] his last major public appearance was at the funeral of Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.[337]

Alzheimer's disease

Ronald and Nancy Reagan with a model of USS Ronald Reagan, 1996

In August 1994, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease,[338] an incurable neurodegenerative disease which destroys brain cells and ultimately causes death.[338][339] In November of that year, he revealed the diagnosis through a handwritten letter.[338] Letters of support from well-wishers then poured into his home,[340] though there was also speculation over how long Reagan had demonstrated symptoms of mental degeneration.[341] In 1981, Reagan erroneously referred to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce as a mayor,[342][343] although he later realized his mistake.[344] 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,[345][346] but later clarified that 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.[347] In 1986, Lesley Stahl recounted that in 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.[348]

Lay observations that Reagan suffered from Alzheimer's while still in office have been widely refuted by medical experts, including the physicians who treated Reagan during and after his presidency.[349][350][351] 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" his diagnosis.[351] Though all were familiar with the disease, none of Reagan's White House physicians were experts 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.[349] Reagan's doctors said that he first began exhibiting overt symptoms of the illness in late 1992[352] or 1993.[351] Lawrence Altman, 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.[350] 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.[351] In July 1989, Reagan suffered an episode of head trauma after being thrown from a horse in Mexico; a subdural hematoma was found and surgically treated later in the year.[338][339] Nancy, citing what doctors told her, asserted that her husband's fall hastened the onset of Alzheimer's,[339] although acute brain injury has not been conclusively proven to accelerate Alzheimer's or dementia.[353][354] Daniel Ruge said it was possible that the horse accident affected Reagan's memory.[352]

As the years went on, Alzheimer's disease slowly destroyed Reagan's mental capacity. He was able to recognize only a few people, including Nancy. However, he remained active, walking through parks near his home and on beaches, playing golf, and until 1999, often going to his office in nearby Century City.[351] In January 2001, Reagan fell at his Bel Air home and broke his hip.[355] The fracture was repaired the following day,[356] and Reagan returned home later that week with difficult physical therapy.[357] Eventually, his family decided that he would live in quiet semi-isolation with Nancy,[358] who became a stem-cell research advocate, asserting that it could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's.[359]

Death and funeral

Main article: Death and state funeral of Ronald Reagan

Reagan died of pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer's disease,[360] at his home in Los Angeles, in the afternoon of June 5, 2004.[361] President George W. Bush called Reagan's death "a sad hour in the life of America".[362] Three days later, a brief family funeral was held at Reagan's his presidential library.[363] On June 9, his body was flown to Washington, D.C. to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda[364] with a state funeral conducted in the Washington National Cathedral on June 11, the day Bush declared Reagan's death a national day of mourning.[365] Eulogies were given by former British Prime Minister Thatcher,[366] former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and both former President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush. Many other world leaders attended, including Gorbachev and Prince Charles, representing his mother Queen Elizabeth II.[367] Reagan, then the longest-lived American president at 93 years and 120 days,[368][369] was interred at his library.[370]


Ronald Reagan in the National Statuary Hall Collection

Reagan's legacy is the subject of substantial debate among scholars, historians, and the general public.[371] Supporters have pointed to a more efficient and prosperous economy as a result of his economic policies,[372] foreign policy triumphs including a peaceful end to the Cold War,[373] and a restoration of American pride and morale.[374] Proponents say that he had an unabated and passionate love for the United States which restored faith in the American Dream[375] after a decline in American confidence and self-respect under 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.[376] Critics point out that Reagan's economic policies resulted in rising budget deficits,[166] a wider gap in wealth, and an increase in homelessness,[175] and that the Iran–Contra affair lowered American credibility.[377]

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 that his economic policies "took an America suffering from 'malaise' ... and made its citizens believe again in their destiny."[378] However, Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, contended that Reagan's "economic policies were mostly a failure"[379] 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".[380]

Despite the debate, many conservative and liberal scholars agree that Reagan has been the most influential president since Roosevelt, leaving his imprint on American politics, diplomacy, culture, and economics through his effective communication and pragmatic compromising.[381] 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.[382][383]

Cold War

Reagan's exact role in the Soviet Union's collapse is debated, with many proponents 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.[174][295] 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,[295] a conviction that was vindicated by Gorbachev's foreign ministry spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, who said that the Strategic Defense Initiative was "very successful blackmail. ...The Soviet economy couldn't endure such competition."[384]

Gorbachev said Reagan "was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Cold War",[385] and deemed him "a great president".[385] Gorbachev did 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.[386] Thatcher said that Reagan, who noticed the Soviet Union's "systemic failures",[387] "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."[388] Mulroney said that Reagan "enters history as a strong and dramatic player".[389] Former Polish President Lech Wałęsa acknowledged, "Reagan was one of the world leaders who made a major contribution to communism's collapse."[390]

Professor Jeffrey Knopf has argued that Reagan's leadership was only one of several causes of the end of the Cold War and that his aggressive rhetoric toward the Soviet Union had mixed effects; being labeled "evil" probably made no difference to the Soviets but gave encouragement to the East-European citizens opposed to communism.[295] President Truman's policy of containment is also regarded as a force behind the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan undermined the Soviet system itself.[391]

Political legacy

Further information: Political positions of Ronald Reagan and Reagan coalition

Reagan in 1982

Reagan reshaped the Republican Party and led a new conservative movement, altering the political dynamic of the United States.[392] He famously said regarding the role of smaller government: "Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem."[393] Since his presidency, conservatism has been the dominant ideology for Republicans, displacing the party's liberals and moderates.[394] More men voted Republican and Reagan tapped into religious voters, resulting in Reagan Democrats.[392] He often emphasized family values, despite being the first president to have been divorced.[395] Furthermore, Reagan, the oldest president at the time, was supported by young voters, an allegiance that shifted many of them to the party.[396] Despite appealing to black voters in 1980,[397] he did not fare well with them and some other minority groups in terms of approval.[398]

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 as the Reagan era, which emphasized that the Reagan Revolution 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 era, as is the George W. Bush administration.[399] Republican presidential candidates since 1988 have frequently invoked Reagan's policies and beliefs,[29] especially the 2008 candidates who aimed to liken themselves to him during the primary debates, even imitating his campaign strategies;[400] John McCain, frequently said that he came to office as "a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution".[401] The Washington Post reporter Carlos Lozada noted Trump's praising of Reagan in a book he published during his 2016 campaign.[402] Conversely, historian Eric Foner noted that Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign "aroused a great deal of wishful thinking among those yearning for a change after nearly thirty years of Reaganism".[403]

Public image

Further information: Opinion polling on the Ronald Reagan administration

Shortly before Reagan left office in 1989, a CBS/New York Times poll indicated that he held an approval rating of 68 percent, equaling Roosevelt's as the highest for a departing modern president.[404][405] In retrospect, Gallup polls continued to show a majority of Americans approving Reagan's performance in 2010[406][407] and 2018.[408][409] Similarly, their 2001, 2005, and 2011 surveys considered Reagan the "greatest president" in American history.[410][411] C-SPAN's surveys of scholars ranked Reagan tenth place in 2000 and ninth in 2009,[412] 2017,[413] and 2021.[414]

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".[415][416][417] Of it, he 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."[418] He also earned the nickname "Teflon President" in that public perceptions of him were not tarnished by the controversies that arose during his administration.[419] According to U.S. Representative Pat Schroeder, who coined the phrase, the epithet referred to Reagan's ability to "do almost anything and not get blamed for it".[420]

Reagan's age and soft-spoken speech gave him a warm grandfatherly image.[421][422][423] He was known for storytelling[424] and humor[425] in which many of his jokes and one-liners have been labeled "classic quips" and "legendary".[426] In preparation for a radio address in 1984, Reagan joked about outlawing and bombing Russia.[427] During the celebration of the 750th anniversary of Berlin in 1987, a balloon popped. Without missing a beat, he quipped, "missed me" in reference to his assassination attempt.[428] Former aide David Gergen commented, "It was that humor ... that I think endeared people to Reagan."[230] Reagan also had the ability to offer comfort and hope at times of tragedy as demonstrated in aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.[429] The combination of Reagan's speaking style, unabashed patriotism, negotiation skills, and savvy use of the media, played an important role in defining the 1980s and his legacy.[430]


Further information: List of awards and honors received by Ronald Reagan and List of things named after Ronald Reagan

Reagan returns to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush, 1993

Since leaving office, Reagan received numerous awards and honors including the honorary knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath,[431] Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum,[432] and Presidential Medal of Freedom.[433] On his 87th birthday in 1998, Washington National Airport was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.[434][435] In 2001, USS Ronald Reagan was christened by Nancy and the U.S. Navy.[436] In 2002, Congress authorized the creation of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home.[437] In 2009, Nancy unveiled a statue of her late husband in the Capitol rotunda as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection.[438]


Further information: Cultural depictions of Ronald Reagan and Ronald Reagan in music

Reagan is depicted in television films such as The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001), The Reagans (2003),[439] and Killing Reagan (2016).[440] Reagan is also depicted in a feature film named The Butler (2013).[439] In 2018, feature film Reagan, based on two biographies by Kengor, received funding with Dennis Quaid portraying Reagan.[441][442] The film is scheduled to be released in 2023.[443] In music, Reagan has been the subject of rock and pop songs.[444]


  1. ^ Reagan's record was surpassed by Donald Trump upon his 2017 inauguration.[6]


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