The legacy of Ronald Reagan 16-Apr-16 19
On September 11, 2012, Swedish television showed a two-hour long documentary on the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan (1981-89). A number of people who knew him closely and had worked with him, including some who had written his biographies, were interviewed. To my very great surprise, I realised that he was an icon who was rated as one of the greatest US presidents.
Born in a working class family, Reagan got a university education. He started his career as a lifeguard at a swimming pool, something his son Ron believes created in him a sense of responsibility to protect others. Later, he worked as a radio announcer, and then, in Hollywood, he became a B-rate actor. Politically, he started as a democrat. His family had benefited from the Great Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt and thus survived the ravages of the Great Depression. Reagan became active in the Actors’ Union and even took part in some strikes.
However, during the critical McCarthy era (1949-1959) when a crackdown on left-leaning intellectuals was ordered by the FBI, Reagan quickly changed sides and helped the authorities in their enquiries about Communists in the film industry. Later, Reagan worked for General Electric as a salesman, appearing frequently on television to sell electrical gadgetry. At General Electric, he began to cultivate strong pro-business biases. He backed the arch-hawk Republican Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential election. Thereafter, he ran for the governorship of the State of California and won. That stint was marked by his repression of student protests and liberation movement in the background of the Vietnam War.
Such conduct endeared Reagan to big business, Christian fundamentalism and general conservative forces in American society. Not surprisingly, he won their backing as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1980 against the beleaguered president, Jimmy Carter, who had proved ineffective in getting American hostages released from captivity in Iran. We now know that the then CIA chief, George Bush Senior had negotiated with the Iranians not to release the hostages until the election was over and Carter had been defeated.
Ronald Reagan was vehemently anti-Communist. That led him to increase massively defence spending, which included the Star Wars project. He described the Soviet Union as an evil empire. The binary opposition between freedom (USA) and un-freedom (USSR) defined his approach towards the Soviet Union. He found his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev committed to reforming the Soviet system as well as willing to end the arms race. However, historical forces converged instead to set in motion processes that resulted in the disintegration of the Soviet bloc countries. Reagan’s admirers attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to him and hence his reputation as the American president who stood out resolutely against Communism and brought about its collapse.
While most of the interviewees are unequivocal admirers of Reagan and we learn how big business and the media can concoct myths about some individuals to project them as super-heroes, the documentary does have space for critical voices too. We learn that Reagan had no qualms of conscience in violating the US constitution to sell weapons to Iran. The deal was done via Israel, which of course poses questions about the Iranian regime’s image as a defender of Islam, but that is another matter. The money procured from the illicit sale of arms to Iran was then used for funding the Nicaraguan Contra movement and other anti-socialist insurrections in Latin America. Reagan lied about no such deal being done, but later when the evidence was provided, he shrugged it off, saying that one should learn from one’s mistakes and move on. I recently read a scientific paper that suggests the percentage of psychopaths is much higher among politicians than in many other professions and that does ring a bell.
From the American point of view, the greatest harm Reagan did to the US was to favour the super-rich by drastically cutting taxes. Working class and middle class families were the worst hit by his so-called ‘Reaganomics’. Government revenues declined sharply and thus spending on welfare decreased dramatically and unemployment increased while spending on defence skyrocketed. His son Ron Reagan admitted in the film that he found his father’s biases in favour of the rich indefensible since his own family had benefited from the New Deal ‘welfarism’ of Roosevelt. For the first time in history, the US encountered a budget deficit. Over the years that was to become a chronic reality, something from which the US never recovered and which is now a disease endemic to all Western economies.
The documentary omits any mention of what in my opinion has been the greatest harm done by Reagan to the world. By arming Islamist forces during the so-called Afghan jihad (1979-1989), he created a monster far more vicious than the so-called Evil Soviet Empire. No doubt, the Americans succeeded in bringing down their perceived enemy number one without firing a single bullet and without a single American life being lost. However, it has been replaced by a faceless but ubiquitous enemy that adheres to no reason, is contemptuous of international norms and law, and thus not amenable to rational calculations that nation-states are compelled to consider when they deal with each other.
Global jihad does not have access to nuclear weapons yet but it is steeped in a culture of violence and terrorism that has generated so much fanaticism and extremism that for a long time would threaten world peace and could even jeopardise it any time with rash behaviour. If ever such an evil force does get hold of nuclear or chemical weapons, the consequences can be irreparably devastating.
By viciously attacking the welfare state, Ronald Reagan and his close collaborator Margaret Thatcher rendered egotism, greed and opportunism as positive values and downgraded human sympathy and compassion. That such a world is always susceptible to extremism and fundamentalism is not surprising.
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at email@example.com