How Reagan Looks to a Teacher of World History


Mr. Dresner is Assistant Professor of East Asian History at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and a contributor to HNN's group weblog Cliopatria.

Since I don't teach U.S. history, I don't have to deal with the "Reagan Legacy" much. But as a World History teacher who comes right up to the present (and even makes predictions about the future), I do cover those years. There is a way in which Ronald Reagan was important as an actor in world history which goes largely unappreciated in U.S. historiography that remains fixed on the twilight Cold War and partisan electoral politics.

Reagan was at the center of a group of the most powerful world leaders all of whom were pushing a certain kind of economic and political reform and who, collectively, set the stage for the intensely and extensively globalized capitalist economics that dominates the world today. The G-7 nations, dynamic industrialized democracies, were at the center of the action, but there were other important members as well, some of them surprising. And Ronald Reagan's personal relationships with these leaders often formed an important cornerstone of this coalition.

The other ideological linchpin of the group was Great Britain's Margaret Thatcher, whose hard-won reputation as an anti-communist "Iron Lady" paralleled Reagan's, and they had a close working relationship. They even both had prominent showdowns with unions, and both won, much to the detriment of the union movements in their respective countries. Both were nationalists -- Thatcher using the Falkland Islands crisis, Reagan using anti-communism -- to revive a spirit of unity and pride in their citizens.

Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan was an eager member of the group, and as Japan's only English-fluent, over-six-foot prime minister he could engage with the group in an unprecedentedly close fashion. Being on a first name basis with Reagan -- in Japan it was known as "Ron-Yasu Diplomacy" -- was one sign of that engagement. Nakasone's domestic and foreign policy agenda, known as "Internationalization" [kokusaika], was an attempt to leverage Japan's economic strength into both national pride and renewed activism on the international stage. This would, he hoped, reduce trade barriers and allow Japan to be a full member of the international community: Japan's push for a UN Security Council seat really began in earnest under Nakasone.

Helmut Kohl of Germany, Brian Mulroney of Canada, and François Mitterand of France were active in this group as well, and all of them worked to reduce trade barriers and limit government spending. Mitterand was the only one to push his own country in a more socialist direction, but his commitment to international trade was strong.

More surprising, I would include the leaders of the Communist superpowers in this group. Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union had a remarkably good working relationship with Reagan, and though they were ideological enemies, they shared some methods. Gorbachev's "restructuring" [perestroika] and "openness" [glasnost] campaigns were attempts to deflect the effects of the Afghanistan quagmire, renew civic pride through common cause and stimulate economic growth through reducing government involvement in the economy. The parallel between Gorbachev's and Reagan's domestic reform rhetoric is striking. Like Reagan, Gorbachev realized that the legitimacy of government depends on the consent of the governed, and if the governed want less government, then that is what government must seem to give them.

Deng Xiaoping of China must be included as well. Though his personal relationship with Reagan was unremarkable, Deng was the first of China's communist leaders to push China's economy into active engagement with the global economy. Special Economic Zones, patent law, legal reform, and the emphasis on socialism instead of communism was a huge step towards the Chinese economy of today. Deng's foreign policy was much more moderate than his predecessors as well, resuming relations with the USSR and pursuing closer ties with Japan and the U.S. Like Reagan and Thatcher, Deng was unimpressed with communist radicals, and suppressed dissent from his left, including the 1989 Tiananmen protesters.

This confluence of leaders created the world we live in today. The market-driven global economy, lower trade and investment barriers, is their legacy. They renewed the classical ideology of limited government, retreating from the statist experiments of the twentieth century. Together they brought the largest hard-line versions of communism built by Mao and Stalin to an end with remarkably little bloodshed or disorder. They also revived flagging national identities and patriotism, reversing a trend towards internationalism, at the same time that they built international trade and finance instititutions which reduced national sovereignty in favor of integrated markets.

The Cold War began as the anti-fascist WW II was ending; the globalization movement was born not in the Internet-driven 1990s, but in the twilight of the Cold War. This 1980s coalition could not have succeeded in isolation: each needed the support and examples (and sometimes opposition) of the others to promote their domestic agendas, and each saw the alliance as beneficial to their own domestic constituencies. Reagan may stand as a cornerstone of this group, but the cornerstone accomplishes nothing by itself.

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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Is America engaged in an “uncritical binge” with the observance of President Reagan’s death? Well, yes, probably. But is the occasion of his death the appropriate time to be critical of him? Regardless of the many undisciplined people that cannot stop themselves from spewing their discontent, even in today’s environment of eroded respect and decorum most Americans still believe it to be inappropriate to criticize the a past President during the period of mourning. For reasonable people, if not criticisms, all that remain are affirmations of our past President. It is not as though what is being said is not true; it just offends those that can’t rest in their discontent. I think this is what angers the detractors of President Reagan most: The fact that President Reagan exposed much of the left’s ideology as misguided, and is simultaneously so loved by the American public. Even in the liberal hotbed, California.

What we are experiencing is Democracy at work, a balancing of philosophies resulting in a convergence to the center. For months the main stream media was engaged in an all out attack of the current administration by keeping negative news in the fore while ignoring and undervaluing anything positive. The liberal/media obviation of full disclosure is the same as that done for the funeral of our 40th President. The difference is that the latter is not as mean spirited nor is it as harmful to the public as the former.

Allan Lichtman - 6/13/2004

Jonathan: Thanks for this piece. I really appreciated your "outside" perspective as a world history teacher.

William R. Clay - 6/10/2004

I agree, and I agree. You are absolutely correct in asserting that Ronald W. Reagan did not leave office with the unqualified highest approval rating of any recent American president. That being said, Reagan missed this honor by a mere three percentage points to two other presidents. The first president died in office and during an incredibly powerful period of world history; he is not perhaps whom you would think of at first. The other left office in a period of unprecedented economic times; he is exactly whom you would think of.

Here is the record according to the polling firm of Gallup: Roosevelt – 66%; Truman - 32%; Eisenhower – 59%; Kennedy – 58%; Johnson – 49%; Nixon – 24%; Ford – 53%; Carter – 34%; REAGAN – 63%; G.H.W. Bush – 56%; Clinton – 66%

The polls were all taken within as close to possible the last month in office. In Kennedy’s case it was with ten days of his death. The point to be made here is simple. Roosevelt, despite his poor record of quashing the Great Depression, maintained a high popularity rating, with of course the war tinting the picture heavily. Clinton left at the top, at least in terms of economic news. Money in the pocket and good employment numbers are sure-fire ingredients to high popularity. Please understand that Presidential ratings did vary over their terms. We, however, are only dealing in the final snapshot of how the American public viewed their president. In this case, Reagan rates in the top echelon of recent presidents.

With that out of the way, the idea of the Ronald W. Reagan Harlem Memorial Dumpster has merit, after all, Bill Clinton could salute it on his way into the office everyday. Seriously, I do agree there is a distinctly voracious “feeding frenzy” surrounding the current crop of Reagan honors. Personally, I am still surprised that there is a Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. That airport name change is not a recent honor, as you will note. The proposed currency changes or the chitchat about rededication of the Pentagon seem to be a little much. This is again only a personal opinion. Your comment on the “uncritical binge” of verbiage issuing forth about Reagan is spot on the money, but not surprising. I agree that he as a president and his presidency were flawed. Critically so? No, I think not. His final popularity-ratings guarantee this.

In this case the perception of the public may not match the reality of the history, but that is of little concern. After all, as we know so well, perception is often reality. The opinion of Reagan’s greatness may well live on, perhaps far longer than either you or I might endure. Then again maybe sanity will return. We shall see…

Ralph E. Luker - 6/9/2004

Mr. Clay, It simply is _not_ the case that Reagan left office with "the highest approval ratings of any recent president." The country is now indulging in an uncritical binge eulogizing a very flawed president. When we were closer to his "holding office," we knew better than this. Sanity will return. Senator Warner has already pointed out that the Pentagon should continue to be known as the Pentagon. Every congressional district in the country does _not_ need a monument to Ronald Reagan. What would you put in Harlem? The Ronald Reagan Memorial Dumpster, perhaps?

William R. Clay - 6/9/2004

Yes, perhaps a poor choice in words, however some presidents do seem to rise above merely holding office. I think Reagan is one of those presidents. Leaving office, with I believe the highest approval ratings of any recent president (or at least since such polling has been kept), Reagan has rapidly garnered accolades well above what one would have been expected. The very push to evict Alexander Hamilton off our currency, and insert Reagan, provides a perfect example of this groundswell of recognition. Regardless, Reagan did indeed “hold office” but in a way not seen since FDR, and not soon to be repeated I suspect. This might explain my choice of the word “reign”.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/9/2004

Mr. Clay, I share your high opinion of Professor Dresner's article. I do have a minor quibble with your comment. American presidents do not "reign". They merely hold office. It's an important distinction, unless you are not skeptical about all exercise of power.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 6/9/2004

Thank you for writing this article. It's one of only 4 or 5 written on the occasion of Reagan's that I'd recommend to anyone.

John Stephen Kipper - 6/7/2004

A cornerstone is the base upon which the structure is built. A keystone is the essential entity that allows an arch to be stable. Without a keystone, the whole edifice collapses upon itself. Perhaps a minor point, but I contend that the liberalization of trade could not have been sustained without a Reagan to hold it together at the beginning. It is true that both keystones and cornerstones accomplish nothing by themselves. And any stone can act as a corner stone, but it takes a carefully shaped and specifically selected one to act as a keystone, it is the irreplacable agent that is necessary to hold all the other stones together. Without it, there can be no edifice.

William R. Clay - 6/7/2004

Thank you Professor Dresner for this excellent contribution. Living in a border state, northern border that is, it has been my pleasure to listen and view the Canadian news media over the last twenty plus years. From this vantage point I have seen the former President painted in the light of a world leader, not merely as the executive head of the United States. There are certain to be a quantity of commentaries regarding Reagan’s standing as our president, but it was refreshing to see this well thought out thesis on his role as a world leader.

Much will be made of Reagan’s part in Iran-Contra, however it will revolve around his knowledge and active consent of the illegal (by U.S. standards) operation. There is even a distinct possibility that he really did not know about the entire affair. Regardless, the superheated air generated by this topic will be related to an extremely small focal point in United States’ international dealings. On the broader scope Professor Dresner’s article allows one a glimpse of the worldview of Ronald Reagan’s reign. That worldview is far more extensive than the average self-centered American citizen will be told or care to know.

Andrew D. Todd - 6/7/2004

To say that Reaganomics diminished trade barriers is something of an oversimplification. It would be more exact to say that it diminished trade barriers between the developed countries and the third world. Traditionally, the exports of third world countries were confined to minerals and agricultural products which could only be grown in a tropical climate, eg. coffee, tea, sugar, and of course bananas. Third world countries were not allowed, by and by large, to export cheap labor per se, either by emigration or in the form of cheap manufactured goods.

By 1970, an extraordinary range of industrial processes had been broken down into jobs which were done by machines, and residual jobs which could be done by a suitably motivated monkey, but which were actually done by members of the developed country working class. The result was the kind of worker Barbara Garson interviewed for her _All the Livelong Day_ (1975)-- overqualified for his job, bored silly, but reasonably well paid, and able to buy what he made. Over time, such jobs grew fewer, and were confined to fewer industries.

The effect of Reaganomics was largely to shift the monkey job to the third world. Unemployment in the developed countries was kept within reasonable limits by the production of nonconsumer goods, notably war materiel, under more or less de luxe working conditions. The price of imported consumer goods fell. This produced a lasting alteration on the class-consciousness of the developed country working class. They stopped thinking of themselves as working class because they were in fact no longer working on an assembly line.

The ultimate implication of industrial progress is that there is no longer a strong link between work and consumption. Reaganomics succeeded because it recognized this fact.