Reagan's Vision Triumphed ... But Is His the World We Want to Live in?





Mr. Tygiel is a Professor of History at San Francisco State and the author of the forthcoming, RONALD REAGAN AND THE TRIUMPH OF AMERICAN CONSERVATISM (Longman, July 2004).

Illustration by Joshua Brown. Click to see his series, Life During Wartime In the aftermath of his death, Ronald Reagan's remarkable life fully deserves a period of celebration. Among American political leaders in the twentieth century, only Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose 1930s New Deal reforms reshaped the American scene for succeeding generations, matches or exceeds the influence of the movie star who became president. Reagan established a near-moribund political conservatism as a dominant American ideology and, as much as any other individual, shaped the world in which we live. But as with many popular figures, the romance of Reagan has long since superceded the reality. When the mourning period has ended, particularly amidst a bitterly contested presidential campaign, it is necessary to come to grips with the complexity of his legacy.

Historians and biographers have struggled to understand Reagan's enigmatic personality and performance as president. Given the diversity of his experiences and the contradictions inherent in his nature, capturing the essence of Ronald Reagan has never been easy. Reagan maintained a strong belief in God, and courted and won the support of Christian evangelicals. But he generally eschewed organized religion, attended church irregularly, and steered away from moral controversies that might undermine his broader political base. He preached the virtues of family values, but neglected and alienated his own children and grandchildren.

Reagan, along with other conservatives, introduced a discourse of "law and order" into the political arena, but by the early 1990s, nearly two hundred Reagan era officials had faced investigation and indictment for illegal practices, stemming from criminal activities in the savings and loan scandals, departments of Defense and Housing and Urban Development, and the Iran-contra affair. Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh's conclusion that Reagan, had "created the conditions which made possible the crimes committed by others" in the Iran-contra debacle, holds true for the more widespread lack of ethical standards characteristic of his administration.

Reagan was in many respects a visionary who hearkened back to the early ideals of America as a "City on A Hill," and forward to a world in which communism would be vanquished and America's own government bureaucracy would be limited. For most of his career Reagan wrote his own speeches and clearly formulated the ideas that became the essence of the "Reagan Revolution." In the Reagan worldview, however, ideology dictated facts rather than the logical reverse. His vaunted defense buildup was predicated on the false assumption, encouraged by deliberate neoconservative juggling of intelligence reports, that the Soviet Union had outstripped the United States in its nuclear capacity. He believed that the Soviets, had "a laser beam capable of blasting our missiles from the sky," and sought to counter that with his Strategic Defense Initiative, a program that few scientists or military personnel considered viable.

Reagan has earned his greatest acclaim as a champion of world freedom. His clarion calls to the citizens of the Soviet Union and its satellites invigorated resistance to communism and contributed to the end of the Cold War. But the Reagan Administration invoked a constricted definition of freedom. It included not the Four Freedoms defined by Franklin Roosevelt in World War II--which included not only freedom of speech and religion, but also freedom from want and fear--nor an overall rejection of dictatorship and tyranny. Freedom, in the Reagan sense, meant only a release from communism.

During the Reagan era, the United States offered aid and assistance to a variety of despots throughout the world. In El Salvador and Guatemala, American officials turned a blind eye to right-wing death squads that murdered tens of thousands of civilians. The CIA forged close alliances with President Manuel Noriega of Panama despite Noriega's repressive regime and close ties to Columbian cartels exporting drugs to the United States. In Liberia the United States backed the murderous anti-communist Samuel K. Doe, whose reign destabilized Liberia and neighboring countries for decades. The Reagan Administration demonstrated scant inclination to assist those seeking to unseat dictatorships and oppression in Haiti, the Philippines, and South Africa, which, Reagan incorrectly asserted had "eliminated the segregation that we had in our country."

Reagan Administration officials bequeathed the title of "freedom fighters" and lavished support on Muslim extremists in Afghanistan and contra terrorists in Nicaragua. In Iraq, American officials embraced the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in its war against neighboring Iran, despite knowledge of Hussein's use of poison gas on the battlefield.

In the Middle East, as in all areas of the world, the Reagan administration viewed the growing turmoil through the narrow lens of the Cold War, failing to recognize the importance of the indigenous militancy spreading through the region. Like both his predecessors and successors, Reagan never discovered a suitable and consistent response to terrorism. The interception of a jet carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers and a bombing raid on Libya, notwithstanding, most terrorist acts during the Reagan era went unpunished. While Reagan could pronounce, "The United States gives terrorists no rewards and no guarantees. We make no concessions. We make no deals," his administration repeatedly acted otherwise, culminating in the arms-for-hostages trades that lead to the Iran-contra scandal.

Although Reagan had come of age as part of the "Greatest Generation," whose personal sacrifices during the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War would form the core of a modern mythology, Reagan essentially removed the concepts of sacrifice and compassion from the political mainstream. In his first political campaign in 1966, he complained about Americans paying "exorbitant taxes to make possible compassion for the less fortunate." People should ask, he implied, not what they could do for America, but how they could harness America's blessings for their own betterment. "Reagan asked Americans to dream great dreams," observes journalist Bill Keller, "but he rarely asked them to give up anything." This played well in an age in which religious thinking replaced the altruism of the Social Gospel with an unfiltered emphasis on personal salvation.

The absence of sacrifice was emblematic of a host of Reagan's policies. Not surprisingly Reagan embraced a fanciful economic doctrine that assumed the nation could simultaneously lower tax rates, increase tax revenues, expand defense spending, and avoid deficits. When some aides pointed out that this might require cutting back on popular programs like Social Security or Medicare, Reagan rejected these options as well. In this area, as in the realm of environmental concerns, the indulgences of the present could be passed on to future generations for resolution or reckoning.

At the start of the twenty-first century the United States and the world adhere more closely to Reagan's vision than at any time during his adult life. United States foreign policy operates in a unilateral universe, a dominant military power unchecked by powerful foes, treaty obligations, international law, or entangling alliances. The extremes between not only rich and poor, but rich and middle class, have grown ever wider. Conservatism has replaced liberalism at the core of American political discourse. The social contract of mutual dependence and governmental oversight forged during the New Deal has been rewritten to reflect a less compassionate brand of unrestrained economic acquisition and individualism. In reflecting upon Ronald Reagan's death it is time for Americans to ask if this is the world that we really choose to live in.


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