Conservapedia:American History Lecture Thirteen
This lecture is about Ronald Reagan, whose influence on American history remains high even 20 years after he was president. An entire course could even be taught about him.
Many politicians still define themselves by reference to President Reagan, who served from 1980-88. President Clinton, who served in the 1990s, imitated President Reagan in style (but not in substance). The first President Bush, who served from 1988-1992, only won because he had been President Reagan’s vice president.
Called the “Great Communicator” for his ability to connect with the American people through television, President Reagan was both the most-ridiculed president in history and the one who left office with the highest popularity of any modern president. A recent telephone and internet poll selected Ronald Reagan as the greatest American ever, to the dismay of those conducting the survey (who expected someone like Lincoln to win).
Reagan was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981. On that day, Iran released unharmed all of our hostages that it had held in retaliation against Jimmy Carter’s support of the Shah of Iran. That hostage crisis paralyzed Jimmy Carter’s final year in office, and contributed to his defeat for reelection.
Reagan immediately went to work in enacting the conservative agenda. Within one month, on Feb. 18th, Reagan proposed the biggest tax and spending cuts in history. Reagan adhered to “supply-side economics,” a new theory advanced by Arthur Laffer that cutting taxes would actually increase government revenue. He drew a curve on the back of a napkin in a restaurant one night to explain his theory: as taxes approach 100%, government revenue decreases towards zero because people lose reason to work (all their income is taken by the government). By cutting taxes, we can actually increase revenue. Most established economists laughed at this theory, sarcastically calling it “Reaganomics”.
In 1981 the House of Representatives in Congress was controlled by Democrats, and the media was also completely against him. It was a very rough initial two months in office for Reagan.
Then, on March 30th, John Hinckley shot Reagan as he was walking from a speaking event to his car in D.C. The bullet came with an inch of killing him. But Reagan survived with charm and good spirits. Despite losing a great deal of blood, Reagan was even cracking jokes about his misfortune as he was rushed to the hospital. Hinckley tried to kill Reagan because Hinckley had been inspired by a filthy Hollywood movie featuring a prostitute played by Jodie Foster. Hinckley was trying to impress the actress. Hinckley was later found not guilty by reason of insanity, and that led to changes in many laws to limit the insanity defense. Many people gave Reagan a break at this point, and grew sympathetic towards him. His tax cuts passed Congress, as many Democrats voted for it in exchange for a promise by Reagan not to campaign against them when they ran for reelection.
In August 1981, the Air Traffic Controllers union (PATCO) went on strike in order to obtain much higher wages. Reagan went on television to address the nation and told the union workers to stay on the job or be fired. He was acting just as one of his heroes, President Calvin Coolidge, did when Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts and the police went on strike. Reagan then fired all the PATCO workers who went on strike and barred them from ever being rehired. The airports remained open through use of military traffic controllers who filled in for the strikers.
In 1982, unemployment hit 10.8%, the worst since the Great Depression. Reagan was blamed for this and things looked bleak. But the criticism did not change Reagan. “Stay the course” was his campaign slogan for Republicans up for reelection in 1982. The Democrats countered with “stay the curse.” After hitting rock bottom in 1982, the effects of Reagan’s tax and spending cuts began to take hold in 1983. An unprecedented economic boom began in 1983 and lasted throughout the remainder of the 1980s.
In 1983, Reagan turned to foreign policy. He called the communist Soviet Union the “evil empire.” Then Reagan advanced a completely original idea in a speech to the nation: he proposed a missile defense system called the “Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).” This was probably the most original and powerful idea ever proposed by a president in our entire history. Reagan’s enemies derisively called it “Star Wars.”
To understand the idea, it is first necessary to appreciate our military defense strategy in the 1970s. Throughout the 1970s, our foreign policy towards the Soviet Union consisted of “Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).” Under this approach, each side was deterred from attacking the other side because the result would be the mutual destruction of both sides through massive nuclear war. While neither side could defend against an attack, each side threatened massive retaliation as a deterrent to the attack. Simply put: “if you attack me, then I’ll attack you back and we’ll both be destroyed!”
There were obvious flaws in MAD. What about an accidental firing of a nuclear missile by the other side, which we could do nothing to stop? What about an attack by smaller countries? What about a terrorist missile attack? What about an attack by a crazed dictator who might rise to power and not mind mutual assured destruction? MAD left us defenseless against such attacks.
Reagan wanted a defense against missile attacks. He thought this would bring us to a new level of freedom and security. Critics immediately attacked his theory as impossible, wasteful, and destabilizing. Enormous debate and controversy followed, and many were vicious in their criticism of Reagan over this. Also in 1983, communists backed by Cuba invaded Grenada, where there were over one hundred American medical students. Reagan immediately sent in our troops and saved the students, bringing them back to the United States safely. Students were seen on television kissing the ground of American soil as soon as they got off their planes.
In 1984, Reagan stood for reelection against Walter Mondale, the former Vice President under Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s mind was stuffed with facts by his advisers in preparation for his first of two debates with Mondale, and Reagan did poorly. Mondale pulled nearly even in the polls. For the second and final debate, public supporters of Reagan demanded that his advisers “let Reagan be Reagan.” Free to be himself, Reagan destroyed Mondale in the second debate and went on to win one of the biggest landslide victories in U.S. history.
In 1985, Reagan began authorizing the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for its work to free American hostages held captive in the Middle East. Two years later this would turn into the “Iran-Contra” scandal, as the proceeds of those sales were intended to be sent to anti-communist freedom fighters in Nicaragua (the “Contras”). Congress, which was controlled by Democrats, had passed a law prohibiting funding of the Contras, and saw this as a violation of that law. Reagan was never charged with any crime, however.
In 1986, Reagan cut taxes much further. He also met with Gorbachev (the leader of the Soviet Union) in Reykjavik, Iceland to negotiate an arms reduction deal. Gorbachev was willing to give Reagan almost anything he wanted in return for just one demand: abandon Star Wars. Reagan refused, and left Iceland embarrassed and dejected for not reaching a deal. He was further criticized in the media for this.
In 1987, Reagan insisted on visiting the Berlin Wall, despite obvious security risks of being in the range of communist East German sharpshooters. In preparing for his speech there, Reagan wrote into his draft remarks this demand: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” His advisors removed this phrase from the speech as being unrealistic, silly and confrontational. As the drafts of the speech went back in forth between Reagan and his advisors, Reagan kept inserting the phrase and his advisors kept removing it. But Reagan included the phrase in his spoken words, the world heard it, and within a few years the wall was miraculously torn down. Reagan is credited with ending communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, though it still remains in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba.
In 1988, Reagan struck a deal for free trade (no tariffs) with Canada. Reagan was also instrumental in enabling his Vice President, George H.W. Bush, to be elected president in 1988 in a close race.
In 1990, during the (Persian) Gulf War against Iraq, Americans were amazed by the use by our troops of a new missile defense system that knocked Saddam Hussein’s deadly missiles out of the sky before they could hit our troops, civilians, or Israel. Hussein had planned to use chemical warfare with his missiles, and his threatened use of the missiles terrified the world until our missile defense system removed the threat. In addition to giving the United States an important tactical advantage, this new technology inspired by Reagan’s “Star Wars” idea saved thousands of lives.
In class we then debated this topic: Should Ford have pardoned Nixon?