Reagan Revolution – OpenBUCS

Reagan Revolution – OpenBUCS


Hello and welcome back to the History
2020 lecture series here at East Tennessee State University. In the lecture today, I want to talk about
the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and what is sometimes called the “Reagan
Revolution” of the 1980s. Specifically in this lecture,
we’ll look at the rise of conservatism and
how Ronald Reagan came to develop a a viable conservative
vision for America. We’ll also examine the appeal of Reagan
and talk about his first term in office. We’ll address Reagan’s effort
to combat communism through an accelerated arms race. We’ll evaluate
Reagan’s second term and talk about how the Iran-Contra scandal threatened to
tarnish his record. And, finally, we’ll look at the
legacy of Ronald Reagan. By 1980, the power and prestige
of the United States seemed to be on the decline. The turbulent
and often tragic events of the 1970’s, such as the communist conquest of South
Vietnam, the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s resignation, the energy shortage
and stagflation, the Iranian hostage episode, all these
things generated what was termed a “crisis of confidence,”
and there was real backlash of resentment taking place in America.
Ronald Reagan, with almost perfect timing, emerged to tap the growing
reservoir of public frustration and transform his political career into
a crusade to, in his words, “make America stand tall again.”
“The United States,” Reagan declared, “remained the greatest country in the world,” and he said “We have the talent, we have the
drive and we have the imagination, now all we need is the leadership.”
Reagan’s ability to make the American people believe again
in the greatness of their country won him two presidential elections, in 1980 and then again in
1984. Just how revolutionary the Reagan era was remains a subject
of intense debate among historians. Yet, it can’t be denied that Ronald
Reagan’s actions and beliefs set the tone for the decades
political and economic life. So, let’s look at the background of
Reagan and how his conservative vision of America developed. Ronald Reagan was born
in Illinois in 1911 and he graduated high
school in 1932 during the despair of the Great
Depression. His first job was that of a radio sportscaster before moving on into
an acting career in Hollywood in 1937. Reagan appeared in 31 films
before serving three years in the Army during World War Two, where he made
training films. During this time, Reagan was a Democrat who had voted for Franklin
Roosevelt all four times. And after the war, Reagan became the
president of the Screen Actors Guild. This was the… this is the
Acting Profession’s Union. His leadership of SAG helped him
hone his negotiating skills and also intensified Reagan’s
anti-communist ideas as he fended off efforts of communists
to try to infiltrate the Union. In the 1948 election, Reagan
campaigned for Harry Truman but during the 1950’s,
Reagan came to believe that the federal taxes were too high.
So, oddly enough, in 1960, he campaigned as a Democrat for Republican candidate, Richard Nixon.
And then, two years later, Reagan joined the Republican Party. He
achieved stardom in 1964, when he delivered a rousing speech on national television on behalf of
Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. Republican conservatives found
in Ronald Reagan a new idol whose appeal survived even the defeat
of Goldwater in 1964. And supporters convinced Reagan to run
for Governor of California in 1966 and he won by landslide.
As a two-term governor, Reagan displayed flexible practicality
in working with Democrats in the State Legislature. By the eve of the 1980 election Ronald
Reagan benefitted from three developments that made his
conservative vision of America much more viable. First, the
1980 census revealed that the proportion of the
population over the age of 65 was growing rapidly and they
were moving from the midwest and the northeast to the so-called
“sunbelt states” of the south and the west. These population shifts forced
a massive redistricting of the House of Representatives; with
Florida, California and Texas all gaining seats and northern states,
such as New York, losing them. The sunbelt states were attractive not
only because of the mild climate but also because they had the
lowest tax rates in the nation and the highest rates of economic growth.
And many of those who moved to these areas tended to be a growing number of evangelical Christians and retirees. These attributes also made the sunbelt
states fertile ground for the Republican Party. Second, in the 1970s the
country experienced a massive revival of evangelical religion. A survey in 1977
revealed that more than 50 million Americans described themselves as born-again Christians and religious
conservatives formed the strongest grass-roots movement of the late 20th Century. During
the 1970’s and 1980’s, they launched the Cultural crusade
against the forces of secularism and Liberalism. For instance, Reverend
Jerry Falwell’s grassroots organization, the Moral Majority which was formed in 1979, expressed the
major political and social goals of the religious right wing. They summed up the group’s beliefs as the
following. First off, the economy should operate without interference by the government and the
government should be reduced in size. They also believed that the Supreme Court
decision of Roe v. Wade, passed in 1973 legalizing
abortion, should be reversed. They held that Darwinian evolution should
be replaced in school textbooks with the biblical story of creation. The
Moral Majority also believed that prayer should be allowed back in school, and they thought that Soviet communism
should be opposed as a form of pagan totalitarianism. Falwell, who was a televangelist Minister
of a huge Baptist church in Lynchburg, Virginia, stressed that the Moral Majority
was not a religious fellowship. Instead, it was a purely political
organization which was open to conservatives of all faith’s. Falwell’s Moral Majority
recruited over four million members in eighteen different states. Its base of support remained, however, in
the south and it was the strongest among Baptists but its appeal extended
across much of the country. But Falwell’s cultural crusade also
outraged many Americans. As Democratic leader George McGovern
called Falwell quote “A menace to the American political
process.” One curiosity of the 1980 presidential campaign is that the Religious Right opposed
Jimmy Carter who was a self-professed born-again Baptist Sunday school teacher. Instead, they supported Ronald Reagan
who rarely attended church, he had been divorced and then he had remarried.
These factors in itself were almost, at one time, had been
an automatic disqualification for the presidency. But, curiously
enough, during the 1980 election the fact that Reagan didn’t go to church very
often, and he had been divorced, and remarried, these things raised very
little notice among the voters or among the
Moral Majority as well. Nor did the fact that, as California’s
governor, Reagan had signed one of the most permissive abortion
laws in the country. That Ronald Reagan became an
almost messiah-like figure of the Religious Right can
partly be explained in the force of social issues of the time
and also to Reagan’s political skills. A third factor contributing to the
conservative resurgence was a well-organized and well-financed
backlash against the Feminist Movement. During the 1970’s, women who
opposed the social goals of feminism formed counter organizations with names
such as Women Who Want to be Women and Females Opposed to Equality. Spearheading these efforts
was Phyllis Schlafly, a right-wing Republican
activist from Illinois. Schlafly orchestrated the campaign to
defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and then she served as the driving force
behind a growing anti-feminist movement. She urged women to embrace their quote,
“God-given roles as wives and mothers.” Feminists, she charged, were anti-family,
anti-children, and pro-abortion. So, by 1980, the National
Conservative Insurgency had coalesced into a powerful
political force with substantial financial
resources, carefully articulated ideas, and a grassroots energy of all these things that help to fuel
Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory. So now let’s look at the election of
1980 and talk about Reagan’s first term as president. Reagan’s
promises of less government, lower taxes, renewed prosperity, a
revived military strength, and renewed national pride
appealed to many voters in 1980. On election day, Reagan
swept to a decisive victory with 489 electoral votes to 49 for Carter, who only
carried six states in the election. Reagan’s
lopsided triumph represented a resounding victory for
conservative Republicans. Ronald Reagan was quite different from
Jimmy Carter. Where Carter was, by training, a technocratic engineer he was also a
compulsive micromanager who in the end was unable to inspire
either his party or the public. In contrast, Reagan was a
pragmatist, a visionary, and a conservative uninterested in the
details or the complexities of an issue but with a clear blueprint of
what he wanted to accomplish. Reagan succeeded where Carter failed
for three basic reasons. First, Reagan knew what he wanted to
accomplish and he pursued his primary goals such as lower tax
rates, reduced federal government, increased
military spending, and an aggressive anti-Soviet foreign policy
and Reagan pursued all of these goals with steadfast consistency. Second, Reagan was
clever at tactical compromises and legislative maneuvering with
Congressional leaders as well as with foreign heads of state. And third, Reagan had the gift of inspiration. His
infectious optimism inspired Americans with the sense of common purpose and revived faith in the American spirit. Even those people who disagreed with
Reagan’s policies found themselves drawn to his carefully honed public image. He was a master of television
and a gifted public speaker and that led to his his nickname,
“The Great Communicator.” He appeared rugged, fearless, and
seemingly resistant to danger or misfortune. Just weeks after taking office he turned
70 and was the oldest man to serve as a US president. But throughout his presidency, Reagan
appeared to be vigorous and youthful. He spent many vacations on a California
ranch where he chopped wood and rode horses. Even after he was
wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981 he joked with doctors on his way into
surgery saying, “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.” And then after the surgery Reagan
appeared to recover with remarkable speed. Reagan became president during a time
when America was suffering from what Jimmy Carter had called “a crisis of confidence.” To put it simply, the economy was a mess. Reagan,
however, seemed to be unfazed as he brought to Washington, D.C. a conservative
philosophy that he summed up as quote “Government is
not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He used an
economic model that came to be called Reaganomics. The idea was that by reducing taxes
and easing government regulation of business, free market capitalism would be
able to spur economic growth. This, in turn, would produce more
government revenue and help reduce the budget deficit. Reagan credited 1920’s Secretary of Treasury
Andrew Mellon who served under President Coolidge’s administration as the source for Reaganomics. Using this example, Reagan,
on August 1st, 1981, signed the Economic Recovery act which cut
personal income taxes by twenty five percent, lowered the maximum tax rate
from 70 to 50 percent for 1982, and offered a broad array
of other tax concessions. In the meantime, Reagan made an effort to
reduce federal spending on various domestic programs. Liberal Democrats strongly
criticized Reagan and accused him of trying to dismantle
vital welfare programs. Interestingly, Reagan recorded in his
diary, at the time, that the press was trying to portray him as undoing the the New Deal. He
recorded that he always reminded the press that he voted for FDR four times. Yet Reagan also revealed in his diary
entry that it was not the New Deal he was after, instead he was determined to undo the
Great Society because, in his opinion, it was LBJ’s war on
poverty that as he said,
“led us to our present mess.” Overall federal spending for all social
programs in 1982 was $53 billion dollars and this was higher than the total for
1980 but because this figure was less than what Carter
had initially proposed, critics assailed Reagan for
reducing the dollar spent on education and cultural programs,
public housing, food stamps, and school lunches. Democrat Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill,
declared that the new president quote “Has no concern. No regard. No care for
the little man in America.” Reagan responded that he remained
committed to maintaining a safety net of government services for the truly needy. And
Reagan was true to his word. The food stamps were cut by only four
percent from what the Carter administration had planned to spend. Yet Reagan’s advisers realize that the
cuts in domestic spending had fallen far short of what the president needed in order to balance the budget
in four years, as he promised. Also, massive increases in military
spending complicated the situation and Reagan’s advisers warned him they
were heading for what they called a “crash landing” on the budget. And they
were right, the soaring budget deficit triggered the worst economic
recession since the 1930s and this was probably Reagan’s greatest
failure. His aides finally convinced Reagan that the government needed, what they called, revenue enhancements –
otherwise known as tax increases. Congress passed the new tax bill in 1982
that would raise almost 100 billion dollars but the economic slump continued
throughout 1982 with the unemployment
at about 10.4%. In early 1983, thirty states had
double-digit rates of unemployment. Yet by the summer of 1983 a major
economic recovery was underway, in part because of government…
increased government spending and lower interest rates and in part
because the lower tax rates. But the federal deficits had grown ever
larger. So much so that the president, who promised to balance the federal budget in 1983 had, in fact, run up
debts larger than those of all his predecessors
combined. Nevertheless, Reagan was willing to tolerate
growing budget deficits, in part because he believed it would force more
responsible spending behavior in Congress and because he was committed to
increased military spending. Reagan’s conduct in foreign
policy reflected his belief that the trouble in the
world stemmed mainly from Moscow the capital of what he
called the “Evil Empire.” Reagan had long believed that former
Republican presidents Nixon and Ford, in following the advice of
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, had been too soft on the Soviet Union.
Reagan described Kissinger’s emphasis on detente had been quote “a one
way street favoring the Soviets.” To put a stop to the advance of Soviet
Communism, Reagan developed a strategy to exert constant economic and public
pressure on the Soviets. In short, Reagan wanted to reduce the
risk of nuclear war by convincing the Soviets that they could not win such a conflict. And to do so, he and Secretary of
Defense, Caspar Weinberger, embarked upon a major build up of
nuclear and conventional weapons. Reagan also hoped that forcing the
Soviets to spend much more on their own military budgets would bankrupt their economy and
thereby implode the communist system. So, in stark contrast to his efforts
to cut back on government spending on social programs, Reagan gave the
Pentagon a blank check saying, “spend what you need.” To critics who
complained about the enormous sums of money being spent on US weapons, Reagan replied quote, “It
will break the Soviets first.” And i the end he was right. In 1983, Reagan escalated the
nuclear arms race by authorizing the defense department to develop a
controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. It was
also nicknamed Star Wars. Under this SDI plan they talked about constructing a
complex anti-missile defense system in outer space that would intercept
and destroy Soviet missiles in flight. SDI was the
most expensive defense system ever devised. Despite skepticism from scientists and others that such a
Star Wars defense system could be built the new program forced the Soviets to
launch an expensive research and development effort just to keep pace with the United States.
Over the course of Reagan’s two presidential terms defense spending totaled
nearly two trillion dollars. Reagan’s anti-Soviet strategy involved
more than accelerated military spending. He also borrowed rhetoric of
Harry Truman, John Foster Dulles, and John F. Kennedy to express
American resolve in the face of, what he called, communist aggression
anywhere in the world. Detente deteriorated even further
when the Soviets imposed martial law in Poland during the winter of 1981. The crackdown
came after Polish workers united under the banner of an independent union, called
Solidarity, challenged the communist monopoly of power.
As with the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the United States could not intervene in
Poland. But Reagan forcefully protested and imposed economic sanctions against the
Polish communist government. He also worked behind the scenes to
support the Solidarity Movement. Reagan’s foremost
international concern, however, was in Central America where he detected
the most serious communist threat. The tiny nation at El Salvador, caught up
in 1980 in a brutal struggle between communist supported revolutionaries and right-wing militants, received US
economic aid and military assistance. Critics argued that US involvement
insured that the revolutionary forces would gain public support by
capitalizing on, what they called, anti-Yankee sentiment. Supporters countered that allowing a
communist victory in El Salvador would lead all Central
America to follow communism. By 1984, the US backed
government in El Salvador had brought some stability to the
country. Even more troubling to Reagan was the situation in Nicaragua. The Sandinista Socialist government
which had seized power in 1979 over a corrupt dictator, was sending Soviet arms to rebels in El
Salvador. In response, the Reagan administration
ordered the CIA to begin training and supplying anti-communist
Nicaraguans, called Contras, which was short for
counter revolutionaries. The Contras staged attacks
on the Sandinista bases from Honduras. In
supporting these so-called Freedom Fighters, Reagan sought not only
to impede the traffic in arms to Salvadorian rebels but also to replace
the Sandinistas with a Democratic government. Critics of
Reagan’s policy accused the Contras of being right-wing fanatics who indiscriminately killed
civilians as well Sandinista soldiers. They also feared that the US might
eventually commit its own forces, leading to a Vietnam-like intervention.
The Middle East also was a concern for president Reagan
as it remained a powder keg during the 1980’s. No peaceable
end seemed possible in the prolonged bloody Iran-Iraq war. In 1984, both sides began
to attack tankers in the Persian Gulf, which was a major source of the world’s
oil. Although the Reagan administration held
no great trust in either nation, it viewed the Iranian fundamentalists
as the greatest threat and they began funneling aide to
Iraq, a policy that would end up, end up carrying very
dyer consequences. Nor was any settlement in
sight in Afghanistan where Soviet occupation forces had bogged down
as badly as the Americans had in Vietnam. American officials considered Israel as
the strongest and most reliable ally in the volatile region. And at the same time, American
diplomats continued to try to seek to encourage peace
between Israel and moderate Arab groups. The forces of moderation, however,
were dealt a blow in the mid-1970’s when Lebanon, a long-time enclave of peace despite its
ethnic complexity, had collapsed into
an anarchy of warring groups. The capital at Beirut
became a battleground. The Israelis had responded to attacks
across the the border made by the Palestine Liberation Organization, or the PLO. In 1982, Israeli forces pushed
the PLO from southern Lebanon and then began shelling
PLO strongholds in Beirut. French, Italian, and US forces
then moved into Lebanon as peacekeepers, but in such small numbers,
they became targets as well. On October 23rd, 1983 an Islamic suicide bomber drove a
truck filled with explosives into the US Marine headquarters
at the Beirut airport. The explosion left
241 Americans dead. The Israeli forces pulled back to southern
Lebanon while the Syrians remained in eastern Lebanon and bloody anarchy remained
a way of life in a formerly peaceful country. After the
blunder in Lebanon, Reagan was presented with the chance
to score a victory closer to home. On the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada,
a former British colony and the smallest independent country in
the Western Hemisphere, a leftist government had recruited
Cuban workers to build a new airfield and then signed military agreements
with other communist countries. In 1983, an even more radical military
council seized power in Grenada. Appeals from the government of neighboring
island nations led Reagan to order 1,900 Marines to invade Grenada,
depose the government, and evacuate a small group American
students who were enrolled in medical school there. The UN General Assembly condemned the
actions but it was very popular among the people of Grenada and in the United States. Although a lopsided affair,
the decisive action also served notice to other Latin
American revolutionaries that Reagan might use military
force elsewhere in the region. So, now let’s talk about the election in
1984 and Reagan’s second term in office. By 1984, Reagan had
restored strength and vitality to the White House and to the nation.
As the economy surged with new energy, reporters began to speak of what
they called the Reagan Revolution. The slogan at the Republican
Convention was quote “America’s Back and Standing Tall.”
By contrast, the Democrat nominee was
Walter Mondale. Endorsed by unions, the National Organization for Women,
and prominent African-Americans, Mondale was viewed as the candidate
of Liberal special-interest groups. Indeed, he set a precedent by
choosing his running mate, New York representative,
Geraldine Ferraro. Mondale’s acceptance speech somewhat
complicated his campaign when he stated quote “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so
will I. He won’t tell you, I just did.” Reagan responded to this by
vowing never to approve a tax increase and he scolded Mondale for his commitment to tax increases. Reagan also repeated a theme that he had
used in the campaign against Carter, saying that the future, according to
Mondale and the Democrats, was quote “dark and getting darker.” Reagan’s vision of America’s
future, however, was bright with optimism and hope. Mondale was buried in
the election. In the end, Reagan took 59 percent of the
popular vote and only lost Minnesota and the District
of Columbia. In his 1985 State of the Union message,
the president clarified, what had come to be called the Reagan Doctrine in foreign
affairs. The United States, he proclaimed would support anti-communist forces around the world
seeking to quote “defy Soviet-sponsored aggression.” America, Reagan promised, would not hesitate
to intervene in the world’s hot spots. Yet, for all of his stern talk about the
Soviet Union being the Evil Empire, Reagan was determined to reach an arms
control agreement with the Soviets. In Geneva in 1985 he met
with Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union.
The two signed several cultural and scientific agreements and issued a statement on arms limitation
talks but no treaty was in the offering. Nearly a year after the Geneva Summit
Gorbachev and Reagan met again in Iceland for two days to discuss arms reduction.
Early reports predicted a major breakthrough, including a total
ban on nuclear weapons but the talks collapsed after a
disagreement on Reagan’s commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative.
After the Iceland meeting, the two nations reduced the scope of their discussions
in order to break the impasse. The breakthrough on arms negotiations
came after Gorbachev announced he was willing to deal separately on a medium-range missile treaty. So, after
nine months of negotiations Reagan and Gorbachev met amid much fanfare in Washington DC on
December 9th, 1987 and signed a treaty to eliminate
intermediate-range nuclear missiles – these are missiles that travel from
anywhere from 300 to 3,000 miles. This marked the first time that the two
nations had agreed to destroy a whole class of weapon systems. Also, it represented a key first step
toward the eventual end of the arms race altogether. During
the fall of 1986, the Reagan administration
suffered a double blow. In the midterm elections, Democrats
regained the Senate by 55 to 45. So for his final two years in
office, Reagan would face opposition in Congress. Even worse for the Reagan administration
were reports that the United States, with Israeli assistance, had
been secretly selling arms to Iran in the hopes of securing the release of
American hostages held in Lebanon by extremist Islamic
groups with close ties to Iran.
Such actions contradicted Reagan’s repeated public insistence that
his administration would never negotiate with terrorists. Yet it appeared this was only part of
the story. Over the next few months, revelations
disclosed a series of covert activities which were carried out by administration
officials. At the center of what came to be called
the Iran-Contra Affair was the decorated Marine Lieutenant
Colonel Oliver North. An aide to the National Security Council
who specialized in counterterrorism, North had been scheming to use the
profits from the secret sale of military weapons to Iran to subsidize
the Contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua even though
Congress had voted to ban such aide. Under increasing criticism, Reagan
appointed an independent council led by former Republican Senator John Tower to investigate the scandal. The Tower
Commission issued a report early in 1987 that placed much of the responsibility for the
bungled Iran-Contra Affair on Reagan’s loose management style. The president appeared to be unaware
of what his staffers were doing. The investigations of the Independent
Counsel lead to six indictments in 1988. A Washington jury found
Oliver North guilty of three relatively minor charges but
innocent of the nine more serious counts. His conviction was later overturned on
appeal. The Iran-Contra affair hurt the image
and popularity of Reagan. So let’s talk about the Reagan legacy
somewhat. Although Ronald Reagan had declared in 1981 his intention to curb the size and influence of the
federal establishment, the welfare state remained intact when
Reagan left office. Neither the Social Security system nor
Medicare has been dismantled or overhauled nor had any other major
welfare program. Also federal agencies that
Reagan had threatened to abolish, such as the Department for Education, not
only remained in place but also had seen their budgets grow.
The federal budget as a percentage of the gross domestic product was higher when Reagan left office
than when he entered. Moreover, he did not try to push through
Congress the social issues championed by the religious right such as allowing school prayer or ban
on abortions. Yet Ronald Reagan succeeded in
redefining the national political agenda and he accelerated the conservative
insurgency that had been developing for nearly twenty years. His greatest
successes were in renewing America’s soaring sense of possibilities,
bringing inflation under control, and stimulating the longest sustained
period of peacetime prosperity in history. More importantly,
Reagan helped to end the Cold War by negotiating the nuclear disarmament treaty and
effectively lighting the fuse of the democratic freedom in Eastern Europe. In June 1987, he visited the Berlin Wall and in a very dramatic speech he called
upon the Soviet Union to allow greater freedom within the Warsaw Pact countries under
its control. He challenged the Soviets saying quote,
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity
for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization,
come here to this gate. Mister Gorbachev, open this gate! Mister
Gorbachev, tear down this wall! It was great theater and good politics
from the Great Communicator. Through his policies and persistence, Reagan
helped end communist control in Eastern Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Although the Iran-Contra scandal
hurt his image somewhat, a testament to Reagan’s popularity was
that George H.W. Bush became the first vice-president since Martin Van Buren who would follow the popular Andrew
Jackson, to win election immediately after the president under whom he served completed his term. Reagan’s admirers praised him for
reasserting the values of self-reliance, criticizing government excesses,
and restoring national pride. Aspiring Republican politicians
still seek to recapture the Reagan magic!

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