Note: The post was originally published on Feb 11, 2017
Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911 – 2004) was an American politician who served as the 33rd Governor of California and the 40th President of the United States. He became president at a time when US was gripped by a feeling of despondence due to high inflation and unemployment; and reverses in the Cold War. Reagan’s optimistic outlook lifted the spirits of many Americans. He immediately set about bringing changes in US foreign and domestic policy. The economic policy of Ronald Reagan, known as Reaganomics, brought about a considerable decrease in unemployment and inflation; and initiated one of the largest peacetime economic booms in US history. His foreign policy was dominated by the Cold War with USSR. Along with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan played a key role in bringing about a peaceful end to the Cold War; his greatest achievement in foreign affairs. Here are the 10 major accomplishments of Ronald Reagan, who is regarded as one of the most influential presidents in American history.
#1 He served as the 33rd Governor of California from 1967 to 1975
In 1937, Ronald Reagan went to Hollywood. His acting career spanned more than 25 years and he featured in more than 50 films. His first political activities were associated with being a union leader. Reagan served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild, the labor union for actors, from 1947 to 1952 and again in 1958–1959. Reagan’s national political career took off after his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater during the 1964 US presidential election campaign. Reagan ran for Governor of California in 1966 and defeated the incumbent Democrat Edmund G. Brown by nearly a million votes. He was re-elected in 1970 and served as Governor of California from 1967 to 1975. He didn’t seek re-election to a third term. As governor, Reagan froze government hiring and approved tax hikes to balance the budget in his first term; and enacted major reform of the welfare system during his second term. Reagan turned California’s budget deficit to a surplus during his governorship.
“Ronald Reagan”. The White House.
Cannon, Lou; Beschloss, Michael (2001). “Ronald Reagan: The Presidential Portfolio: A History Illustrated from the Collection of the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum”.
#2 Reagan was re-elected as President with the largest electoral college victory in US history
After failing to get the Republican ticket in the 1976 Presidential Elections, Ronald Reagan ran for US president in 1980 against the incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Reagan won the election by a landslide. He won 489 electoral votes carrying 44 states. In comparison, Carter won just 49 electoral votes representing six states and Washington, D.C. Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States on January 20, 1981. At that time he was the oldest person to be inaugurated as president with an age of 69. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected President at the age of 70, surpassing Reagan’s record. In the 1984 US Presidential Elections, Reagan was re-elected. He won 49 of 50 states; won a record 525 electoral votes; and received 59% of the popular vote. Reagan’s 1984 landslide victory is the largest electoral college victory in American history.
** Ronald Reagan Presidency – Successes And Failures
Domestic Policy Major Successes
- The economic policy of Ronald Reagan, known as Reaganomics, is mostly considered a success. Among other things, Reaganomics favored reduction of taxes and free market activity, that is getting government out of the way of growing businesses. By the end, Ronald Reagan is credited for making the United States a more competitive economy. American companies thus became more responsive to customers and more innovative. Moreover, among other things, inflation rate and unemployment rate dropped significantly during the Reagan presidency.
- Under the previous administrations, the government had put a limit on the price of oil. The made it unprofitable for oil companies to respond to high prices in the usual way, that is by increasing production. This in turn led to inadequate supplies and fuel shortages. After assuming office, Reagan removed the control in prices forced by the government and restored a more free petroleum market. The prices soon dropped and the petroleum crisis was thus resolved.
- On August 3, 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) declared a strike. Ronald Reagan took unprecedented strict action against the strikers by firing them and making them ineligible for federal service. Since then, the United States has seen a huge drop in the number of strikes. However, others criticize Reagan for his action as loss of strike as a bargaining chip for the workers was a major blow to them.
Domestic Policy Major Failures
- While the American economy boomed during the Reagan Presidency, the United States borrowed heavily, raising the national debt from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion. In the words of Reagan this was the “greatest disappointment” of his presidency.
- One of the greatest criticism of Ronald Reagan as President was his response to the AIDS epidemic. In the early 1980s, it became apparent that the nation was looking forward to a health crisis regarding the disease. By February 1, 1983, 1,025 AIDS cases were reported, and at least 394 had died in the United States. However, Reagan said nothing about the crisis. By the time Reagan ultimately addressed the disease in May 1987, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. In the words of his biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan’s response to the disease was “halting and ineffective”.
Foreign Policy Major Successes
- The foreign policy of Ronald Reagan was dominated by the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Prior to Reagan, the United States had followed the policy of “containment” in the war. Reagan changed this stance adopting a more aggressive policy known as the Reagan Doctrine. It may be summarized as a policy “to contain and, over time, reverse Soviet expansionism” particularly in the developing world. The Reagan Doctrine may be termed as successful due to the fact that the Cold War ended in favor of the United States. This has been explained in more detail in “Ronald Reagan and the Cold War” section.
- In Afghanistan, as part of the Cold War, the Reagan administration escalated covert support to the Afghan rebels. American high technology and military expertise was made available to them to support their fight against Soviet occupation. The rebels defeated the leftist government in Afghanistan and forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from their nation in 1989.
Foreign Policy Major Failures
- The most infamous scandal during the Reagan’s presidency was the Iran-Contra Affair in which the United States sold weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran, as part of a largely unsuccessful effort to secure the release of seven US citizens being held hostage in Lebanon. This came in the backdrop of a wide-ranging diplomatic effort by US to persuade other nations not to sell arms to Iran as Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, had openly declared his intention to overthrow the governments in the Middle East. On top of that, the Reagan administration used some of the money from the arms deal with Iran to covertly and illegally fund the Contras counter-revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. It was well known that the Contras committed a large number of human rights violations and used terrorist tactics. Among other things, the American public was outraged as the affair showed that Reagan had not been true to his long-standing policy against dealing with terrorists. Moreover, he lied to cover up the truth. The Iran-Contra Affair came to light in November 1986 and did serious damage to the Reagan presidency.
- During the presidency of Reagan, South Africa had a non democratic system of government and it was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation’s minority white population. Moreover, there was systematic discrimination against the majority black population of the nation, known as apartheid. During his first term, Reagan granted recognition and economic and military aid to the South African government. In his second term, even when US Congress made demands for economic sanctions against South Africa, Reagan vetoed the bill calling it “economic warfare” and alleging that it would harm the black majority. US Congress however, overrode his veto and enacted into law the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Reagan’s silence and inaction against the otherwise internationally isolated South Africa is considered among his failures.
Niskanen, William A. (1992). “Reaganomics”. The Library of Economics and Liberty.
Gibbs, Nancy (June 14, 2004). “The All-American President: Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004)”. TIME.
Lieberman, Ben (September 1, 2005). “A Bad Response To Post-Katrina Gas Prices”. Heritage Foundation.
“Historical Debt Outstanding – Annual 1950 – 1999”
White, Allen (June 8, 2004). “Reagan’s AIDS Legacy / Silence equals death”. San Francisco Chronicle.
“Reagan Doctrine”. U.S. Department of State.
Coll, Steve (July 19, 1992). “Anatomy of a Victory: CIA’s Covert Afghan War”. Washington Post.
“The Iran-Contra Affair 20 Years On”. (Nov 24, 2006). The National Security Archive.
Mayne, Alan (1999). “From Politics Past to Politics Future: An Integrated Analysis of Current and Emergent Paradigms”. P 52.
Rotberg, Robert I. (1990). “Reagan Era in Africa”. pp. 119–138 [p. 125]
#3 He changed the course of the Cold War through the Reagan Doctrine
When Ronald Reagan assumed office, the influence of the Soviet Union was on the rise and it had just invaded Afghanistan. In the previous decade, the US policy regarding USSR had been that of Détente (“relaxation of tension”) and administrators assumed the Cold War would continue for the foreseeable future. Reagan, however, believed that Soviet economy was weak and increased pressure would make it crumble. He adopted a more aggressive approach and reversed the policy of Détente by ordering a massive build up of the US armed forces. He adopted a strategy known as the Reagan Doctrine by which US provided open and covert support to anti-communist forces in Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Though controversial, the policy did diminish Soviet influence in certain regions. For example, in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration provided support to the Afghan rebels which ultimately led to ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The advocates of Reagan Doctrine consider it as an important contributor in ending the Cold War.
#4 He introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative
Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is a military strategy and national security policy by which if a side is attacked by nuclear weapons, it will strike back with full force leading to escalation of the war and possibly complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. MAD was applied during Cold War by both sides to deter direct conflict. Reagan was a vocal critic of MAD. In 1983, he introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which aimed to protect US from attack by nuclear ballistic missiles by interception and destruction of attacking missiles. It was considered dangerous as it undermined the “assured destruction” required for MAD. SDI is seen by some as a measure by Reagan to start an economic war through a defensive arms race to cripple the Soviet economy, which was already weakened. SDI did put pressure on the Soviet Union to build their own anti-ballistic missile system. Although SDI never fully developed, its research and technology paved the way for some anti-ballistic missile systems of today and it gave US a competitive advantage in the field of missile defense.
#5 Ronald Reagan played a key role in ending the Cold War
Ronald Reagan shifted his policy towards the Soviets from “peace through strength” to a mixture of firmness and reassurance when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in USSR. The two leaders held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988. During the third summit in December 1987, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev. The INF treaty eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles with short and intermediate range. 2,692 of such weapons were destroyed due to it. Reagan’s firm but fair policy towards the Soviet Union played a key role in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end. Other major factors include Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power; and citizens of Eastern Europe who rejected Communist regimes. It is to be noted that without these important factors it would have been impossible for Reagan to end the Cold War. In November 1989, 10 months after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was opened. The Cold War was unofficially declared over at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989; and the Soviet Union collapsed on December 26, 1991.
“Reagan and Gorbachev : How the Cold War Ended”. Wilson Center.
Cox, Michael. “Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War: The Debate Continues”. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
** Ronald Reagan And The Cold War
Change of Policy Under Reagan
Prior to Ronald Reagan, American policy in the Cold War for more than a decade was that of Détente, or relaxation of tension. When Reagan assumed office, he immediately upped the ante and announced in his first presidential press conference that Soviet leadership was still dedicated to “world revolution and a one-world Socialist-Communist state.” On the basis of intelligence reports, Reagan came to a conclusion that Soviet communism was on the verge of crumbling.
Initial Course of Action
To end the Cold War in favor of the United States, Reagan took a series of steps including:-
- Authorizing covert action and other means to support anti-Soviet groups in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.
- Attacking the economy of the Soviet Union by driving down the price of oil and limiting natural gas exports to the West.
- Reducing access of the Soviet Union to western high technology.
Effectiveness of the Reagan Doctrine
The policy of the Reagan administration in the Cold War, known as the Reagan Doctrine, was the most cost-effective of all the cold war doctrines. It cost US less than $1 billion a year while forcing the Soviet Union to spend around $8 billion annually to deflect its impact. The Reagan Doctrine was also politically successful as it brought about Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, the election of a democratic government in Nicaragua and removal of 40,000 Cuban troops from Angola. Also, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) started by Reagan put pressure on the Soviet military.
Reagan, Gorbachev and the End of Cold War
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in USSR, Reagan changed his tactics to a mixture of firmness and reassurance. Among other things, Gorbachev weakened the grip on power of the Communists in the Soviet Union. Reagan and Gorbachev are regarded as the key leaders due to which the Cold War ended. It was their ability to get their administrations behind the decisions they made together that resulted in the peaceful resolution of the conflict. By the time Reagan left office, Cold War was all but over. It was unofficially declared over at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989. In the words of former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan “won the Cold War, not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting enemies out of their fortress and turning them into friends.”
Edwards, Lee. (December 26, 2019). “How Ronald Reagan won the Cold War”. The Hill.
“Reagan and Gorbachev: How The Cold War Ended”. Wilson Center.
#6 His economic policy resulted in a considerable decrease in unemployment and inflation
Prior to the Reagan administration, the US economy experienced a decade of stagflation, a situation in which the inflation rate is high, the economic growth rate slows, and unemployment remains steadily high. The economic policy of Ronald Reagan, known as Reaganomics, was based on four main principles: restrained government spending, lower tax rates, reduced government regulation and tightening of the money supply to reduce inflation. During the Reagan administration, the unemployment rate was reduced by 1.6% from 7.1% in 1980 to 5.5% in 1988; and the inflation rate fell from 13.5% in 1980 to 4.1% in 1988. The misery index, the sum of inflation and unemployment rate, shrank from 19.99 to 9.72 during Reagan’s term, the greatest improvement record for a President since Harry S. Truman.
Niskanen, William A. (1992). “Reaganomics”. The Library of Economics and Liberty.
Anderson, Martin (Jan 17, 1990). “The Reagan Boom – Greatest Ever”. The New York Times.
Data: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
#7 Reaganomics led to one of the largest peacetime economic booms in US history
During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, among other things, top marginal tax rate on individual income was reduced from 70% to 28%; corporate income tax rate was reduced from 48% to 34%; and most of the poor were exempted from individual income tax. Real GDP per working-age adult increased at a 1.8% annual rate. During the Carter administration, this rate was only 0.8% annually. From November 1982, when Reagan’s economic policies began to take effect, to November 1989, shortly after he left office, 18.7 million new jobs were created; a record for a comparable period at that time. More than half of these jobs paid more than $20,000 a year. The amount of wealth produced during this seven year period was around $30 trillion worth of goods and services; again a world record. The economic reforms of Ronald Reagan resulted in one of the largest peacetime economic booms in American history. Reagan also simplified the tax code by reducing the number of tax brackets to four and slashing a number of tax breaks. This was done through his famous Tax Reform Act of 1986.
#8 Reagan took unprecedented firm action when PATCO went on strike
On August 3, 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) declared a strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay, and a 32-hour workweek. The strike was a violation of a federal law which prohibits government unions from striking. The strike also had national security implications as the air traffic included planes of airborne early warning and control (AWACS). Ronald Reagan declared the PATCO strike a “peril to national safety” and stated that if the air traffic controllers didn’t report to work within 48 hours, they would be fired. Only around 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work. On August 5, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order and banned them from federal service for life. The defeat of the PATCO strike is considered one of the most important events in 20th century US labor history. Reagan’s action, though controversial due to its far reaching consequences, led to a massive drop in illegal work stoppages against the federal government. In the decades before 1981, major work stoppages averaged around 300 per year; in the 2000s, that number fell to below 30.
Schalch, Kathleen (August 3, 2006). “1981 Strike Leaves Legacy for American Workers”. Morning Edition [NPR].
#9 He introduced strict legislation for drug offenses
Reagan considered drugs to be a major menace to American society. Soon after he became president, he promised drug-free workplaces, expanded drug treatment and stronger law enforcement. During his first five years as president, he strengthened drug enforcement by creating mandatory minimum sentencing; and forfeiture of cash and real estate for drug offenses. On October 27, 1986, Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that budgeted $1.7 billion to fund the War on Drugs. Among other things, the Act funded drug counseling; AIDS research; and international cooperation to limit drug production. Ronald’s wife Nancy Reagan played an important part in his War on Drugs through her “Just Say No” campaign to increase drug awareness among children and teenagers. She traveled to 65 cities in 33 states, raising awareness about the dangers of drugs.
Reamer, F.G. (2005). “Heinous Crime: Cases, Causes, and Consequences”.
“Thirty Years of America’s Drug War”. Frontline
#10 Ronald Reagan is considered one of the most influential presidents in US history
In 1989, Reagan was made an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, one of the highest British orders. He is one of two US Presidents to have received the honor, the other being George H. W. Bush. The same year, Japan awarded him the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum, the highest Japanese order. On January 18, 1993, Ronald Reagan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States. In 1999, he was included in TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In 2005, millions of Discovery Channel viewers voted Reagan as The Greatest American. Ronald Reagan is considered one of the most influential presidents of the United States. He continues to be an iconic figure in the Republican Party. The years of his presidency are known as the Reagan Era and the conservative “Reagan Revolution” he led had a permanent impact on US foreign and domestic policy.
“Order of the Bath”. The Official website of the British Monarchy.
Weisman, Steven R (October 24, 1989). “Reagan Given Top Award by Japanese”. The New York Times.
“TIME 100 Persons of The Century”. (June 06, 1999). TIME.
Wilson, James. “The greatest American? Lincoln? Einstein? No – it’s Ronald Reagan”. (June 28, 2005). The Guardian.