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Ronald Reagan, De-Mythologized

I did not say anything about Ronald Reagan's death on Saturday. The day a person dies he has a right to be left alone.

But yesterday is now history, and Reagan's legacy should not pass without comment.

Reagan had an ability to project a kindly image, and was well liked personally by virtually everyone who knew him, apparently. But it always struck me that he was a mean man. I remember learning, in the late 1960s, of the impact Michael Harrington's The Other America had had on Johnson's War on Poverty. Harrington demonstrated that in the early 1960s there was still hunger in places like Appalachia, deriving from poverty. It was hard for middle class Americans to believe, and Lyndon Johnson, who represented many poor people himself, was galvanized to take action.

I remember seeing a tape of Reagan speaking in California from that era. He said that he had heard that some asserted there was hunger in America. He said it sarcastically. He said, "Sure there is; they're dieting!" or words to that effect. This handsome Hollywood millionnaire making fun of people so poor they sometimes went to bed hungry seemed to me monstrous. I remember his wealthy audience of suburbanites going wild with laughter and applause. I am still not entirely sure what was going on there. Did they think Harrington's and similar studies were lies? Did they blame the poor for being poor, and resent demands on them in the form of a few tax dollars, to address their hunger?

Then when he was president, at one point Reagan tried to cut federal funding for school lunches for the poor. He tried to have ketchup reclassified as a vegetable to save money. Senator Heinz gave a speech against this move. He said that ketchup is a condiment, not a vegetable, and that he should know.

The meanness was reflected, as many readers have noted, in Reagan's "blame the victim" approach to the AIDS crisis. His inability to come to terms with the horrible human tragedy here, or with the emerging science on it, made his health policies ineffective and even destructive.

Reagan's mania to abolish social security was of a piece with this kind of sentiment. In the early twentieth century, the old were the poorest sector of the American population. The horrors of old age--increasing sickness, loss of faculties, marginalization and ultimately death--were in that era accompanied by fear of severe poverty. Social security turned that around. The elderly are no longer generally poverty-stricken. The government can do something significant to improve people's lives. Reagan, philosophically speaking, hated the idea of state-directed redistribution of societal wealth. (His practical policies often resulted in such redistribution de facto, usually that of tossing money to the already wealthy). So he wanted to abolish social security and throw us all back into poverty in old age.

Reagan hated any social arrangement that empowered the poor and the weak. He was a hired gun for big corporations in the late 1950s, when he went around arguing against unionization. Among his achievements in office was to break the air traffic controllers' union. It was not important in and of itself, but it was a symbol of his determination that the powerless would not be allowed to organize to get a better deal. He ruined a lot of lives. I doubt he made us safer in the air.

Reagan hated environmentalism. His administration was not so mendacious as to deny the problems of increased ultraviolet radition (from a depleted ozone layer) and global warming. His government suggested people wear sunglasses and hats in response. At one point Reagan suggested that trees cause pollution. He was not completely wrong (natural processes can cause pollution), but his purpose in making the statement seems to have been that we should therefore just accept lung cancer from bad city air, which was caused by automobiles and industry, not by trees.

In foreign policy, Reagan abandoned containment of the Soviet Union as a goal and adopted a policy of active roll-back. Since the Soviet Union was already on its last legs and was not a system that could have survived long, Reagan's global aggressiveness was simply unnecessary. The argument that Reagan's increases in military funding bankrupted the Soviets by forcing them to try to keep up is simply wrong. Soviet defense spending was flat in the 1980s.

Reagan's aggression led him to shape our world in most unfortunate ways. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that Ronald Reagan created al-Qaeda, it would not be a vast exaggeration. The Carter administration began the policy of supporting the radical Muslim holy warriors in Afghanistan who were waging an insurgency against the Soviets after their invasion of that country. But Carter only threw a few tens of millions of dollars at them. By the mid-1980s, Reagan was giving the holy warriors half a billion dollars a year. His officials strong-armed the Saudis into matching the U.S. contribution, so that Saudi Intelligence chief Faisal al-Turki turned to Usamah Bin Laden to funnel the money to the Afghans. This sort of thing was certainly done in coordination with the Reagan administration. Even the Pakistanis thought that Reagan was a wild man, and balked at giving the holy warriors ever more powerful weapons. Reagan sent Orrin Hatch to Beijing to try to talk the Chinese into pressuring the Pakistanis to allow the holy warriors to receive stingers and other sophisticated ordnance. The Pakistanis ultimately relented, even though they knew there was a severe danger that the holy warriors would eventually morph into a security threat in their own right.

Reagan's officials so hated the Sandinista populists in Nicaragua that they shredded the Constitution. Congress cut off money for the rightwing death squads fighting the Sandinistas. Reagan's people therefore needed funds to continue to run the rightwing insurgency. They came up with a complicated plan of stealing Pentagon equipment, shipping it to Khomeini in Iran, illegally taking payment from Iran for the weaponry, and then giving the money to the rightwing guerrillas in Central America. At the same time, they pressured Khomeini to get US hostages in Lebanon, taken by radical Shiites there, released. It was a criminal cartel inside the US government, and Reagan allowed it, either through collusion or inattention. It is not a shining legacy, to have helped Khomeini and then used the money he gave them to support highly unsavory forces in Central America. (Some of those forces were involved after all in killing leftwing nuns.)

Although Reagan's people were willing to shore up Iranian defenses during the Iran-Iraq War, so as to prevent a total Iraqi victory, they also wanted to stop Iran from taking over Iraq. They therefore winked at Saddam's use of chemical weapons. Reagan's secretary of state, George Schultz, sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad twice, the second time with an explicit secret message that the U.S. did not really mind if Saddam gassed the Iranian troops, whatever it said publicly.

I only saw Reagan once in person. I was invited to a State Department conference on religious freedom, I think in 1986. It was presided over by Elliot Abrams, whom I met then for the first time. We were taken to hear Reagan speak on religious freedom. It was a cause I could support, but I came away strangely dissatisfied. I had a sense that "religious freedom" was being used as a stick to beat those regimes the Reagan administration did not like. It wasn't as though the plight of the Moro Muslims in the Philippines was foremost on the agenda (come to think of it, perhaps no Muslims or Muslim groups were involved in the conference).

Reagan's policies thus bequeathed to us the major problems we now have in the world, including a militant Islamist International whose skills were honed in Afghanistan with Reagan's blessing and monetary support; and a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which the Reagan administration in some cases actually encouraged behind the scenes for short-term policy reasons. His aggressive foreign policy orientation has been revived and expanded, making the U.S. into a neocolonial power in the Middle East. Reagan's gutting of the unions and attempt to remove social supports for the poor and the middle class contributed to the creation of an America where most people barely get by while government programs that could help create wealth are destroyed.

Reagan's later life was debilitated by Alzheimer's. I suppose he may already have had some symptoms while president, which might explain some of his memory lapses and odd statements, and occasional public lapses into woolly-mindedness. Ironically, Alzheimer's could be cured potentially by stem cell research. In the United States, where superstition reigns over reason, the religious Right that Reagan cultivated has put severe limits on such research. His best legacy may be Nancy Reagan's argument that those limitations should be removed in his memory. There are 4 million Alzheimers sufferers in the U.S., and 50 percent of persons living beyond the age of 85 develop it. There are going to be a lot of such persons among the Baby Boomers. By reversing Reaganism, we may be able to avoid his fate.