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Over the years, Ronald Reagan has become the icon of the conservative movement. His roots were humble; growing up in a poor family in the middle of the country with an alcoholic father, Reagan rose through the ranks in Hollywood to become a household name before beginning his political career. Reagan became the 40th president of the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989. His term saw a restoration of prosperity at home, with the goal of achieving "peace through strength" throughout the world. He forced the hand of the Soviet Union to bring down the Berlin Wall and usher in the end of the Cold War.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. He was the son of Nelle Clyde Wilson, a woman of half Scots, half English descent, and John Edward Reagan, the son of an Irish Catholic immigrant couple. Reagan’s father was a salesman, and the family moved often, living for shorts periods in several towns and cities in Illinois. John and Nelle had two sons, Neil and Ronald, nicknamed “Dutch” for his appearance and haircut similar to the fat little Dutchman image. The family returned to Tampico in 1919, where they lived above a convenience store but later settled in Dixon.
As a child, Reagan was very optimistic, kind, and trustful of people’s good intentions, mostly influenced by his mother Nelle, who was an optimistic and enthusiastic follower of the Disciples of Christ. Regan was baptized in 1922 into the same faith. During his time at the Dixon High School, the young boy became interested in sports, acting, and storytelling. In 1927, he took his first job at the Rock River in Lowell Park, near home, where he worked as a lifeguard and performed 77 rescues during his six years there.
After graduating from high school, Reagan enrolled at Eureka College, a liberal arts school oriented along the values of the Disciples of Christ. Reagan chose to study economics and sociology, and in his spare time, he was a cheerleader and member of a fraternity. He was a popular student yet did not excel in his classes, being mostly known as a jack-of-all-trades with talent in school politics, sports, and theater. Besides being the captain of the swim team and member of the football team, he often got involved in campus politics and was elected student president. From this position, he initiated a student revolt to fight back against the college president when he tries to impose new rules.
In 1932, Reagan graduated from Eureka and moved to Iowa, where he took several different jobs, mostly in the sports industry, working as a radio sports announcer for baseball games, among others. In 1937, during a journey to California with the Chicago Cubs baseball team, Reagan managed to take a screen test. Unexpectedly, the positive feedback got him a seven-year contract with the Warner Brothers studios in Hollywood.
Two years later, Reagan had made an appearance in 19 films, including Dark Victory with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, Santa Fe Trail with Errol Flynn, and Knute Rockne, All American. In 1941, only four years after his trip to California, Reagan was already the fifth most popular young star in Hollywood. His best performance was in the film Kings Row from 1942. However, he could not enjoy his success since two months after the film’s release, he was called for active duty with the U.S. Army. He had previously completed the Army Extensions Courses and enlisted with the Army Enlisted Reserve, becoming a second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps of the cavalry in 1937. However, during World War II, he did limited service and only on the territory of the U.S. due to his poor eyesight. In 1943, as compensation for his work, he was promoted to captain.
After being separated for four years from acting due to the war, Reagan co-starred in several other films. In 1964, he appeared in his last film, The Killers. Along with his acting career, he also resumed his work in the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild, known as SAG, where he was a massive influence and often took leadership.
For a major part of the 1940s, Reagan and Jane Wyman, his then-wife, collaborated with the FBI, disclosing names of actors from the film industry that they considered sympathizers of the communist ideology. Reagan was always a zealous anti-communist and never stopped declaring his loyalty to democracy and its principles.
After he became less involved in acting, Reagan changed direction, turning into a motivational speaker for General Electric, where he hosted the General Electric Theater and gave daily speeches. His weekly appearance on television propelled him to become one of the most well-known names in American households.
Governor of California
Reagan started his political career as a Hollywood Democrat, and his hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, during the 1950s, he shifted to the right, finally declaring himself a Republican in 1962. During his time as a speaker for General Electric, he traveled across the country to deliver speeches to the GE employees, often declaring his conservative, pro-business agenda. Forbidden to enter politics by his contract with General Electric, Regan quit.
Having acquired impressive popularity due to his work as a speaker, Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California in the 1966 election. Californians were already familiar with his political views and admired his charisma. During his campaign, Reagan promised to clean up the mess at Berkeley, where student anti-war protests had taken place at the University of California. Reagan won the election and was sworn in at the beginning of January 1967.
Reagan began his governor career by freezing government hiring and increasing the taxes, but the most controversial moment of his term was the Berkeley student protests, which led to several waves of violent conflicts. After weeks of negotiation, the demonstrations receded.
In 1967, Reagan got involved in another controversy after signing the Therapeutic Abortion Act, making abortion legal in cases where the mother’s well-being was threatened. Later, after two million abortions had been performed in California, he declared regretting his decision and stated he was pro-life.
In 1970, Reagan won a second term as governor of California. During his time in the office, he often criticized the idea of the welfare state and enforced his views on an economy less dependent on government regulation. At the end of this second term, Reagan decided not to run again for the governor election.
In 1976, Reagan announced his desire to enter the presidential election as the Republican Party’s candidate. Benefiting from strong support, he entered the race but lost to Gerald Ford, who became the Republican Party’s nominee to run against Jimmy Carter in the general election. Ford lost in the presidential election to the Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Four years later, in the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan won the Party’s nomination and run against Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president. After a TV debate with Carter, Reagan increased his popularity while making Carter drop in the rating polls significantly. Carter’s reputation had suffered immensely due to the Iran hostage crisis, while Reagan was a charismatic figure with a strong agenda.
"If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under." - Ronald Reagan
President of the United States
After a landslide victory against Jimmy Carter in 1981, Ronald Reagan became the 40th president of the United States. Included under the term of Reagan Revolution, Reagan’s presidency was marked by policies on individual freedom, changes in the economy, military expansion, and foreign policies that put to an end the Cold War. Reagan was praised for bringing an air of invigoration and freshness to the U.S. economy and morale and for his success in reducing people’s reliance upon government.
Shortly after his inaugural address as president-elect, Reagan and a few members of his staff were victims of an assassination attempt by a deranged young man named John Hinckley, Jr. They were struck by gunfire in front of a hotel in Washington and Reagan, severely hurt, underwent surgery. A month later, he was released from the hospital. The incident influenced his public image positively.
One of the most difficult areas of policy for Reagan was foreign affairs, where the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis had created highly tense conflicts. Supported by the UK’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, Reagan openly criticized the Soviet Union and predicted the fall of communism, naming it a sad and strange phase of human history.
In March 1983, he went as far as to call the Soviet Union an evil empire. After short episodes of altercation, Reagan elaborated the Reagan Doctrine policy meant to provide aid to anti-communist fighters in countries with communist governments supported by the Soviets, in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
He also introduced a new defense program called Strategic Defense Initiative, aimed at protecting the U.S. from nuclear attack through a shield based on space systems. Some of Reagan’s measures under foreign affairs were criticized as overly aggressive and imperialistic, yet American conservatives supported him in his attempts to protect the security interests of the country. Reagan’s military actions in Lebanon and Grenada were also viewed as controversial.
Other important policies of the Reagan administration were related to the War on Drugs, announced in 1982. Nancy Reagan became a forceful advocate of the anti-drug movement, traveling around the country for her mission.
In 1984, Reagan ran for the second term at the White House against former Vice President Walter Mondale. While some questioned his ability to perform his duties due to his age and a few public episodes of confusion and forgetful behavior, Reagan regained his popularity with his wittiness in the second presidential debate. He won with an overwhelming majority, a record of 525 electoral votes, more than any other candidate in the history of the United States.
Concerning foreign affairs, Reagan authorized military actions in Libya, justifying the attack by denouncing the terrorist acts of Libya’s dictator, Gaddafi. The United Nations General Assembly condemned the attack against Libya, classifying it as a violation of international law.
The Cold War
When it came to the Cold War, Reagan launched diplomatic negotiations with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, initiating discussions on nuclear disarmament to free the world of the nuclear weapons fear. Reagan and Gorbachev developed amiable relations. In 1989, the last year of Reagan’s presidency, the Cold War finally ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Locally, Reagan’s second term went through a critical moment when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated, causing the death of all seven astronauts.
After his two terms in office, Ronald Reagan declared himself satisfied with the achievements of his original program, the Reagan Revolution. His campaign goal of reviving the American optimism and motivating Americans towards progress proved successful.
In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman, whom he met on the set of Brother Rat, where the two of them were co-stars. The couple had two biological daughters, Maureen and Christine (who lived only one day), and later adopted a boy named Michael. Displeased with her husband's political ambitions and after numerous arguments on the issue, Wyman decided to divorce. The couple legally separated in 1948 but continued to be friends until Reagan’s death.
In 1949, Reagan met actress Nancy Davis. They were married in a private ceremony in 1952, declaring their meeting as almost love at first sight. Reagan had two children with Nancy. Many persons close to the couple described them as very affectionate and loving toward each other, and they remained the same for the whole extent of their marriage until Reagan’s death. Nancy Reagan died at age 94 in 2016.
After leaving the White House, Reagan and his wife moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to make public appearances and to give speeches on political and social issues. Reagan had his last important public appearance at the funeral of former president Richard Nixon in 1994. Around the same period, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The disease slowly reduced his mental capacity as time passed. Even though he remained slightly active, he could only recognize his wife, Nancy, and a few other people.
On June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan died of pneumonia aggravated by Alzheimer’s disease. He is the second longest-lived president after Gerald Ford. His presidency has led scholars, historians, and American people with contradictory opinions on his performance. He generated significant economic growth, both in terms of efficiency and prosperity, he negotiated the peaceful end of the Cold War, and most of all, he promoted an optimistic belief in the American Dream and the power of the United States. However, many critics accuse him of creating a larger wealth gap among Americans. Nonetheless, Ronald Reagan is considered the most influential president that followed Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- Weisberg, J. Ronald Reagan. The American Presidents series. Times Books. 2016.
- Matuz, R. The American Presidents Fact Book - The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President From George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 2009.
- Hamilton, N. and I. Friedman. Presidents - A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
- West, Doug. President Ronald Reagan: A Short Biography. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2017.
© 2017 Doug West