President Ronald Reagan has been remembered as an outstanding figure whose life and career served as inspiration for countless generations, and his political legacy holds forever precious lessons handed down to posterity.
Entering the political circuit from the movie industry, Reagan was the epitome of the American dream, moving from theaters to the White House, he became one of the most powerful leaders in the world. Reagan has served as the living testimony to a country of freedom and equality, where any dream can be realized and any challenge can be overcome, with the help of an authentic ability and a burning desire.
Reagan was a typical and literal right-wing representative who actively promoted and revived the classical values of American freedom, in an attempt to return to the path that American founders had put so much effort into studying and establishing: i.e. capitalism, economic freedom, limited government, peace through strength.
On that basis, Reagan built effective economic policies, powerful military strategy, and tough political diplomacy, which not only helped to restore America’s greatness in line with his campaign commitment, ‘Let’s make America great again’, but also contributed to the termination of the persistent Cold War with the Soviet Union, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the communist Soviet Union two years later (1991).
As columnist Chuck Raasch put it, “Reagan transformed the American presidency in ways that only a few have been able to.”
He redefined the political agenda of the times, advocating for lower taxes, a conservative economic philosophy, and a stronger military. His role in the Cold War further enhanced his image as a different kind of leader.
Let’s look back at the core conservative values that elevated Reagan’s leadership skills and helped him to achieve the great accomplishments of his presidency.
1. Limited Government vs. Personal Freedom
In his first inaugural speech, on January 20th, 1981, a speech drafted by Reagan himself, he pointed out the cause of the nation’s economic ills, “In the current crisis, the government is not the solution to our problems, the government is the problem.”
It was a sharp statement because, at that time, the legacy of his predecessor Jimmy Carter was one of comprehensive economic decline, a bulky government apparatus, and deep involvement of the government in the private economic sector.
In fact, as early as the 1960s, in the role of the behind-the-scene supporter of the campaign of the conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Reagan repeatedly emphasized his belief in the importance of a lean government. He expressed his thoughts in a famous speech, ‘A Time for Choosing’, on October 27th, 1964.
“They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, the government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.”
He was also quoted to have said, “You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: [up] man’s old – old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”
That speech, also known as ‘The Speech’, managed to raise $1 million for Goldwater’s presidential campaign and was the major event that opened up Reagan’s political career.
Previously, he also strongly opposed the government enacting laws that violated personal freedom, such as the Medicare bill (health care) introduced in 1961. Reagan recorded for The American Health Association warns that such laws would indicate the end of democracy and freedom in the United States. Reagan said that if his audience did not write a letter opposing the law, “we will awake to find that we have socialism and if you don’t do this and if I don’t do it 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.”
2. Capitalism and Economic Freedom
As a governor of California, Reagan strongly supported the Republican idea that the government should have few laws imposing on the economy. Later, when he took office in 1981, he concretized that by taking action. Reagan implemented policies based on supply-side policies and advocated the philosophy of laissez-faire (economic freedom) and classical liberalism. Recalling Arthur Laffer’s economic theory, Reagan advocated large and widespread tax cuts for all business circles to stimulate the economy.
During Reagan’s presidency, the federal income tax rate was significantly reduced when the Economic Recovery Act of 1981 was passed with the endorsement of Democratic and Republican bipartisan parties.
This law reduced the tax rate of the highest income group from 70% to 50%, and the lowest income group from 14% to 11%, respectively.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 further reduced the tax rate of the highest income group to 28%, increased the tax rate of the lowest income group to 15% and at the same time reduced the number of tax groups to just 4 remaining groups.
The economic achievements under Reagan speak volumes for themselves. The average inflation rate reached 12.5% in the last year of President Jimmy Carter (1980) and was just 4.4% in the last year of President Reagan’s presidency (1988). Gross domestic product (GDP) recovered strongly after the economic crisis in the early 1980s (which ended in 1982) and developed during his 8-year tenure with an annual growth rate of 3.85%. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% in December 1982, then dropped gradually during the remaining years, with 16 million new jobs created.
Some economists such as Milton Friedman and Robert A. Mundell, argue that Reagan’s tax policies energized the US economy and contributed to the economic boom of the 1990s.
3. Peace Through Strength
Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’ policy, described as ‘firm and fair’, advocated an increase in peacetime national security, in which the defense budget increased by 40% between 1981-1985.
Reagan escalated the Cold War during his presidency, accelerating a reversal from the policy of détente that began in 1979, following the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Reagan ordered a massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces and implemented new policies toward the Soviet Union. He revived the B-1 Lancer program that had been canceled by the Carter administration and began producing the MX missile. In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) deployment of Pershing missiles in West Germany.
In March of 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a defense project that would use ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.
Critics deemed Reagan’s policies as aggressive, imperialistic, and “warmongering”, however, these policies were supported by leading American conservatives who argued that they were necessary to protect U.S. security interests.
And in fact, it was this arms race, along with the effects of Saudi Arabia’s increased oil production, that caused the 1985 oil prices to fall to a third of the previous price, placing a heavy burden on the Soviet economy (with its main income coming from oil exports), bringing the Cold War to a quick end and the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter.
4. Anti-Communist Without Tolerance
Together with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan condemned the Soviet Union in a famous speech on June 8th, 1982, before the British Parliament at the Palace of Westminster. He boldly stated, “the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”
On March 3rd, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, stating, “Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.”
In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8th, 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”
After the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 near Moneron Island on September 1st, 1983, killing 269 people, including Georgia state lawmaker Larry McDonald, Reagan described the attack as a “massacre” and declared that the Soviet Union was “against the world and the moral teachings guiding human relationships everywhere”. In response to this event, the Reagan administration suspended Soviet commercial air services to the United States and canceled a number of agreements under discussion with the Soviet Union.
Under an anti-communist policy known as the ‘Reagan doctrine’, the Reagan Administration publicly and secretly supported anti-communist guerrilla movements in an attempt to overthrow the communist governments. Backed by the Soviet Union in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Reagan recognized the changing direction of the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev, so he shifted to softer diplomacy with a view to encouraging the Soviet leaders to reduce their nuclear weapons load and to democratize their country. Gorbachev and Reagan had four summits from 1985 to 1988. Reagan believed that if he could convince Soviet leaders to slacken their stance on democracy and freedom of speech, this would trigger the reform and bring about an end to communism.
Speaking at the Berlin Wall on June 12th, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to go further by calling:
When Reagan visited Moscow in 1988, he was well received by the Soviets. A journalist asked him if he still considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. He answered, “No! I’m talking about another time, another era.” At Gorbachev’s request, Reagan lectured on the topic of liberal economics at Moscow State University.
In November 1989, the “another time” that Reagan expected finally arrived: the Berlin Wall was destroyed and Germany was united. Two years later, “another era” looked exactly like Reagan had predicted: the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by the collapse of communism!
Many people praised Gorbachev for his great contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in fact, Reagan and his military and diplomatic tactics were the main drivers of this spectacular collapse. It was Reagan who opened the tomb and exhumed the grave, and Gorbachev simply closed the casket and buried it!
It can be said that Ronald Reagan succeeded in restoring classical liberal values and American conservatism, as he leaned on these values as the basis for guiding his actions and decisions. It is an eloquent testimony that the establishment of a nation’s prosperity depends greatly on proper leadership, with a strong foundation on the core values and eternal beliefs it pursues.
Reagan did nothing great but put simply and in his own words, “I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things”.
(The cover photo: Public Domain/Pixabay/Photo Illustration by TheBL)