Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)

Figure 1.--Ronald Reagan as a baby is pictured here with his older brother Neilin a photograph taken in 1911. Ronald was known by his nickname 'Dutch'. He was an impressive 10 pounds at birth.

Ronald Reagan envisioned a smaller Government, a greater America. At the end of his two terms in office, Ronald Reagan viewed with satisfaction the achievements of his innovative program known as the Reagan Revolution, which aimed to reinvigorate the American people and reduce their reliance upon Government. He felt he had fulfilled his campaign pledge of 1980 to restore "the great, confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism." Overall, the Reagan years saw a restoration of prosperity, and the goal of peace through strength seemed to be within grasp. Some view Reagan as genial, but poorly informed and unengaged. Others credit him with the destruction of Soviet Communism. What virtually all historians agree on is that his presidency fundamentally changed American politics.


Ronald Wilson Reagan was the sone of John and Nelle Reagan. John (Jack) Reagan was a quick witted shoe salesman who dreamed of having his own shoe store. He was a committed Roosevelt New Deal Democrat. He was also quick to speak up when ever he heard anyone make religious or ethnic slurs. He was also a great story teller and a heavy drinker. Some have called him the town drunk. Jack was Catholic. Ronald's mother Nelle was a member of the Disciples of Christ who believed in faith healing. She would visit prisons and mental hospitals to propagate the faith. She was a strong influence on her son, especially his religious beliefs. Nelle had wanted to be an actress and would give impassioned dramatic readings.


Ronald had a brother Neil who was 3 years older than him. As a boy he became known as 'Moon'" to many family members and friends, a nickname coming from the 'Moon Mullins' comic strip character. His team mates on his hihh school football team gave him the name. Ge was described as spirited, easy-going, and having a whimsical sense of humor. He pursued a 40-year career career in advertising and as a radio and television director. He directed the hit radio series, 'Dr. Christian' staring ean Hersholt which ran for almost 20 years. His main career connecton with his brother was dorecting the popular television show 'Death Valley Days'. His brother was the presenter and in his commentary began to bridge the gap netween jow business and politics. Neil retired just as his brother was developing a national political reputation (1973). Unlike Presiudent Carter's brother Billy who tried to capitalize on the Carter name, Neil stayed in the backfround and was virtually unknown to the American public.


Ronald was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, a small Illinois town. The family lived in a rented apartment over a bank. He weighed a rather large 10 pounds at birth. Probably the largest Presidential baby, although as an adult Taft clearly set the record. His Irish father started bragging about his "fat little Dutchman". That provided his nickname, "Dutch". They were not well off. The family moved 10 times. They settled down in Dixon, Illinois when Dutch was about 9-years old. By all accounts, Dutch was a momma's boy. His mother Nelle got him interested in Sunday school skits. Dutch loved it, especially the applause afterward. Neil taught him to read before he entered school and Dutch loved the popular adventure stories of the day. His myopia was undiagnosed, but his excellent memory helped him do well in school. He was also a talented athlete and became a life guard. He claims to have saved 77 people.

Figure 2.--Ronald wears a tunic suit while his brother wears a Norfolk knicker suit. Also nitice the Dutch-boy bangs. The photograph was taken about 1913.

Boyhood Clothing

Available images show Ronald wearing a white tunic at about 3 years of age. It appears to have been a sailor tunic. His brother at about 5 years of age wears a knickers Norfolk suit. Ronald probably wore a similar suit. Later as a teenager of about 15 years, he still wears knickers.


Reagan attended high school in nearby Dixon and then worked his way through Eureka College. There, he studied economics and sociology, played on the football team, and acted in school plays.


Reagan was a devout Christian. He attended Church regularly andtaught Sunday school. His fervent anti-Communism was in part related to his deeply held Christian values. Reagan did not regularly attend Church during his presidency. This appears to be primarily because the necessary security measures required a huge imposition to other church goers that Reagan did not want to inconvenience them. Reagan with little publicity decided to help the Siberian Pentacostals and Jewish Refuse-niks. He decided to insist on this with the Soviets despite the possible adverse impact on thecarms talks underway. Hec was wise enough not to push the Soviets publically and the result was the Soviets allowed the Pentacostals and their families and released thousands of human rights advocates from jail. [Kampelman]


Reagan, upon graduation, became a radio sports announcer. A screen test in 1937 won him a contract in Hollywood. During the next two decades he appeared in 53 films. Reagan's film career never took him to star status and be began o become more interested in union organizing in Hollywood. He resigned from a Hollywood political group which he saw as under the influence f Communists. After election as president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan found himself in the middle of an acrimonious dispute over charges of Communism in the film industry. [Schweizer]

Political Career

Reagan's political views shifted from liberal to conservative. He toured the country as a television host, becoming a spokesman for conservatism. Reagan honed his anti-Communist catechism while traveling throughout America as a spokesman for General Electric. His first major step politically was in 1966 when he was elected Governor of California by a margin of a million votes--an impressive result in an increasingly democratic state. He was easily re-elected in 1970.

Failed Presidential Run (1976)

Governor Regan began his run for the presudency within the Republican Party still reeling from the collapse of the Nixon presidenct and the Wartergate debacle. Governor Reagan by the force of his personality was able to emerge from a social order in disaray and unite many under his unique brand of Republican politics. It was not just a failed president and Watergate tht unerved Americans. They were still affected by the shadow of Vietnam. Nre York City experience and economic collspse. Prices for food and gas were riing at inprecedented rates. And thgere were disscliures of CIA wrongdoing. One historian describes a 'Weimar Summer' referring to the failed German democratic experiment tht ended with Hitler. He quotes New York Times colunist William Shannon wjo describes 'a new spirit of nihilism, a radical disbelief in any rational, objective basis for ethical norms or for orderly political change." [Perlstein] A huge shift was note in public opinion polls beginning in 1965 from a nation that fundamentally trusted their government to one that did not. The Ford president was rioned by his deesion to pardon President Nixon. This may have been the rightr=t decesion, but in fueld pubkic mistrust. It is at this point that Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and Governor Regan enter presidential politics (1976). They both ran agaunst Washington and promised major reforms. Regan cjhallenge the sitting president of his own party. He dod not gain the nomination and Carter won the election. America was, however, captivated by the buyont optimism of Governor Regan, especialy as President Carter proved unable to tackle the big issues. Reagan was positive he could do just that and as the Caryer oresidency collaosed in the wake of the Iran histage crisis and the siviet invasion of Afghanistan, more amore Americans were attracted by Regan's optimis and his claim that he could rebuild that 'city on a hill'. And indeed he would achieve just that, bruning about 'morning in Zmerica'. [Perlstein]

Presidential Campaign (1980)

Ronald Reagan won the Republican Presidential nomination in 1980 and chose as his running mate former Texas Congressman and United Nations Ambassador George Bush. Voters troubled by inflation and by the year-long confinement of Americans in Iran swept the Republican ticket into office. Reagan won 489 electoral votes to 49 for President Jimmy Carter.


On January 20, 1981, Reagan took office.


Only 69 days later he was shot by a would-be assassin, but quickly recovered and returned to duty. His grace and wit during the dangerous incident caused his popularity to soar. In also resulted in the imposition of security measures which sharply curtailed his direct contact with the punlic.

Major programs

Dealing skillfully with Congress, Reagan obtained legislation to stimulate economic growth, curb inflation, increase employment, and strengthen national defense. He embarked upon a course of cutting taxes and Government expenditures, refusing to deviate from it when the strengthening of defense forces led to a large deficit.

Second term

A renewal of national self-confidence by 1984 helped Reagan and Bush win a second term with an unprecedented number of electoral votes. Their victory turned away Democratic challengers Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro.

Economic policies

Reagan in 1986 achieved a major overhaul of the income tax code, which eliminated many deductions and exempted millions of people with low incomes. Economic problems persisted during the early years of the Reagan administration, causing considerable political difficulties for him. At the end of his administration, inflation had been brought under control. Most economist credit Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Voker more than Reagan. The the Nation began its longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity without recession or depression. Regan's admirers credit the economic prosperity to Presiden Regan's policies. The President's admirers may well be correct here. The economic debate is too complicated to persue here. The tax cuts do seem to have had a stimulative impact. There were very substantial economic defecits which were created during the Reagan years, deficits which have greatly expanded the national debt. Economists differ as the impact of the defits, but they certainly affected Government policy making any major new social initiatives virtually impossible. One serious economic concern that became increasingly apparent during the Reagan years was a growing disparity between affluent and low-income Americans. There were substantial tax cuts, but it was the taxes of wealthy Americans that were substantially cut. The result was that the share of the national wealth owned by the wealthiest 1 percebt of Americans increased by 5 percent. This undercut the primary achievement of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in creating a prosperous working class. This needed to be included in any comprehensive economic assessment of the Reagan years. There are two basic economic concerns of Government. First are economic policies which promote sound growth. The second are policies which promote an equitable distribution of the wealth created by that growth. The Reagan policies seem to have suceeded in the first task, but largely failed in the second task.

Civil rights

A major shift in American politics began during the Nixon presidency when the Reoublicans began to make significant inroads in the South. Regan help to complete this shift. Part of Reagan's success in the South was a none to subtle pandering to some of the basest elments in the South. Reagan chose to launch his preidential campaign there with a ringing endorsement of "states rights" at Philidelphia, Mississippi. This small town known only as the place were three civil rights workers were brutally murdered by the Klu-Klux-Klan one of the most publicized acts of terrorism during the Civil Rights struggle (1964). Regan was a leader know for symbolic staging, speaking at the Berlin Wall and holding the inaguration on the west side of the Capitol. Why would he choose Philidelphia to launch his campaign in Philadelphia other than appeal to racists? Reagan also spoke at Stone Mountain, Georgia--a favoriate location for Klan rallies. There were many who disguised deeply held racist viwes with conservatism and state rights. This does not appear to have been the case of Reagan. There are numerous examples of a generosity of spirit on personal occassions. One notable incident was when his parents hosted Black atheletes from Eureka College in his own home when they could not find accomodation (1930). [Shields] His opposition to the Civil Rights laws which broke the back of overt descrimination in America is not fully understood.

Nuclear weapons

The Soviets broke the nuclear status quo in Europe by installing IRBMs in Europe. Reagan stood with Prime-minister Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in confronting the Soviets. The West tried to negotiate with the Soviets. They refused to remove the missles. At this stage Reagan began to deploy Pershing IIs. The result was a nucleat hysteria which spread over Europe in the early 1980s. The ban the bomb movement, European leftists, greens, and other did not react, or have any impact, on the Soviet deployment, They saw, however, the American deployment as the end of Western civilization. Maasive anti-American movements swept Western Europe. Reagan but not the Soviets was vilified as a warmonger. Thatcher and Kohl stood up to the criticism and the deployment of Pershing IIs began. The result was a change in Soviet policy, they finally decided to talk about removing the missles. The important point here was the ban the bomb movement had no affect on the Soviets and was unable to prevent Soviet deployments. Reagan and the Pershing IIs did bring the Soviets to the negotiating table and in the end the Soviets removed the missles.


President Reagan's primary foreign policy goal was to shift the decades-long American Cold War foreign policy of containing the Soviet Union to a policy of confrontation. Some historians denigrate Reagan's role, viewing him as a genial, but poorly informed and unengaged. Other historians dispute the image of Reagan as unegaged and credit him with aggressively pursuing his crusade against Soviet Communism. [Schweizer] Reagan to back his anti-communist policy, increased defense spending 35 percent in the face of a flagging economy. The policy was not popular with much of the American electorate and caused massive anti-American and disarmament protests though out Europe. The Reagan Administration took a series of steps to increase pressure on the Soviet Union--especially economic pressure. Reagan early in his political career became convinced that Communism was most vulnerable economically. Economic sanctions against Poland to support Solidarity proved costly to the Soviets as did blocking a second gas pipeline to Western Europe. Other actions such as limiting Soviet access to western technology and restricting commercial credits caused additional problems. Other actions such as assisting the Mujahidin in Afghanistan and increasing pressure on Cuba created further costs for the Soviets. These and other actions combined with the massive U.S. military buildup and the anti-balistic missile Star Wars program were an important factor in forcing the Soviets to initiate a reform program that the Communist Party could not control. [Schweizer] Historians debate as to how important Reagan's confrontational policy was. There were of course many other factors involved, but the added strain of competing with America was undeniably a major aspect of the demise of the Soviet Union. The actual implosion of the Soviet Union did not come about until several years after Reagan left office. There can be little doubt, however, that was Reagan's remorseless anti-communism that an important factor. Here considerable credit has to be given to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who declined to use the brute force that would have been needed to hold the Soviet Union together. While Reagan's anti-Communism was the center-piece of his foreign policy, he was willing to work with the Soviets, especially Gorbachev. Reagan and Gorbachev, negotiated a treaty that eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. It was the threat of an American buildup that convinced the Soviets to agree to to the treaty. This is rarely mentioned by European disarmament forces, in part because of a strong anti-American component to the movement. On the other hand, some of Reagan's most ardent admirers fail to appreciate that Reagan was one of a series of presidents that played important roles in winning the Cold War. Reagan's most staunch supporters, for example, often dennigrate President Carter. Yet Carter's efforts on human rights helped America gain the moral highground which was very important. (President Bush's experience shows the dangers of persuing an agressive policy without first establishing that moral highground.)

Other foreign policy issues

Reagan declared war against international terrorism, sending American bombers against Libya after evidence came out that Libya was involved in an attack on American soldiers at a West Berlin nightclub. In keeping with the Reagan Doctrine, he gave support to anti- Communist insurgencies in Central America, Asia, and Africa.

Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)

Iraq under Saddam Husein invaded Iran in 1980. The United States response to the resulting protracted War was complicated. remain officially neutral, but the aggressively anti-American policies of the Revolutionary Iranian regime cause the Reagan administration to offer intelligence information to Iraq. Later it was learned that money earned by covert arms sales to Iran were used to support the Contras (anti-Communist insurgents) in Nicaragua--causing the resulting Iran-Contra scandal. By ordering naval escorts in the Persian Gulf, he maintained the free flow of oil during the Iran-Iraq Battle of the Tankers.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Any assessment of Reagan is incomplete without a consideration of Soviet Genera Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev became General Secretary in March 1985, only 2 months after Reagan began his second term. President Reagan sought to force the Soviets to the arms bargaining table by a military buildup that they could not match. Gorbachev's concern with Reagan Strtegic Defense Initiative (SDI) suggests there is some validity to this. Gorbachev rejects this saying, "The Soviet Union could have withstood any arms race. The Soviet Union could hve decided not to build more weapons, because the weapons we had were more than enough." This issue is in didspute. What is not in dispute is that Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union needed more freedom. He saus that "The country was being stifled by the lack of freedom. We were increasingly behind the West, which ... was achieving a new thechnological era, a new kind oif oproductivity ...." Also not in dispute is that Gorbachev refused to use the Red Army to supress the democratic forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. It was these two decessions taken by Gorbachev that brought the Cold War to the end. (Remember it was the Soiviet insistence on a Communist police states in Poland and other Eastern European countries thst launched the Cold War.) Gorbachev also came to the conclusion that it was inconceivable that the United States would launch a nuclear strike at the United States. He maintains that it was a change in Washington that made the arms reductions agreements possible. [Kaiser] That of course is controversial. Gorbachev's policies opening the Siviet system undoubtedly helped changed Regan views so that he could say the Soviet;s changed. The first meeting between Regan and Gorbachev in Geneva did not go well (November 1985). Sibsequent meetings in Reykjavik (1986) and Washington (1987) made progress leading to the signing of the first real nuclear arms reduction treaty in Moscow (1988). Historians can debate the precise roles and motivations of these two leaders, but it is undeniable that they formed a partership that had an imense positive impact on world affairs.

Berlin Wall

There are two seminal moments in the Cold War, both roughly book mark the Berlin Wall. The First was President Kenndy speaking at the Wall, proclaiming, "Ich ein Berliner". The other was President Regan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, challenging the Soviets, "Mr. Gorbechev, open this Gate. Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this Wall." Nothing so captured the inhumanity of Communism and the limits on freedom imposed by the Soviet Union and East Germany (DDR). Less well known is the German woman who inspired those words. Peter Robinson was the President's speech writer who went to Berlin to research the speech. He met a German woman at the Wall. She told him that id Gorbechev was serious he would come here ahd do something about the Wall. Robinson knew instantly that this should be the heart of the President's speech. As soon as he circulated a draft, it ignited a controversy. The State Department, the National Securuty Council, and others were more interested in placating the Soviets and not stirring up trouble. Regann let them debate, but he knew instantly when he saw the draft that this was what he wated to say. In a car with Robinson, he told him, "The boys in the State Dept are going to killme for this." He slaoed Robinson on his knee and added, "But it is the right thing to do."

Political Realignment

While President Reagan's place in history is a subject of considerable debate among historians, there is no doubt that President Reagan helped bring about a major transformation of American politics comparable to that achieved by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. American politics from Franlin Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter was dominated by a political coalition of the working class, farmers, minoroitirs and the South. The Democratic Party was dominated by liberals seen as progressives and conservatives seen as old fashioned an inward looking. The Republican Party was dominated by northeastern moderates. President Reagan broke the old New Deal coalition coalition. The focus of the Republican party shifted to the South and the West. Reagan also helped shift the image of conservatives from old fashioned to a new modern image that attracted young people. Historians debate the consequences of this transformation of American politics, but there is no doubt that it occuured and that Reagan played a major role in that transformation.

Presidential Debates

Television appeared in the United states after World war II. It did not, however, becone important until the early 1950s. There was no incumbent in 1952, but the issue of a televised debate did not surface. The first televised Preidential debates were conducted by Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy (1960). It played a major role in the outcome of the election. Incumbent presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon refused to debate their challengers. President Ford did agree to debate (1976), primarily because he was behind in the polls. A gaff about Eastern Europe was a major reason he lost the election. Carter debated Reagan (1980), but there was no well established precedent requiring the president to engage in debates. President Carter like many liberals, believed he was smarter than Reagan. To his surprise, Reagan performed very well in the debates. Reagan asc an incubent debates former Vice-President Walter Mondale (1984) because he considered it a matter of fairness. In doing so he established a now well-accepted prescedent that future incumbant presidents will find difficult to break. [Shields]


President Reagan married twice, both Holywood marriages. The first marriage was with Hollywood star Jane Wyman (1940). The marraige failed, probably because Wyman saw her Hollywood career as more important than her marriage. Reagan thus would be the first divorced president. Soon afterward, Reagan met Nancy Davis, a Hollywood starlet, but not as big a star as Wyman. They married (1952). Davis in contrast to Wyman decided her marriage was more important than her Hollywood career. "My life really began when I married my husband," Nancy Reagan tells us. While she would put her marriage before her film career. She would, however, be a significant assett to her husband's political career. There were four children, two from each marriage.


The Reagan children were all grown by the time he became president. Ron Jr. the youngest was in college. For a president who championed what he called family values, President Reagan does not appear to have had a very close personal relationship with his children, especially the children he had with Nancy.

Maureen (1941-2001)

Maureen's mother was Jane Wyman. She followed her father and pursued a Hollywood career and appeared in a number of films as a young actress. She married three times to: John Filippone (1961), David Sills (1964), and Dennis Revell (1981). She was active in Republican politics working for her father. She co-chaired the Republican National Committee. She headed the U.S. delegation to the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985. Secretary of State George Schultz appointed Maureen the U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. She promoted human rights. In a trip to Uganda she met a little orphan named Rira Mirembe and she and her husband Dennis Revell adopted her in 1994. She worked to raise money for Alzheimer's research as a tribute to her father. Maureen duied of cancer in 2001.

Michael (1946- )

Micalel's mother was Jane Wyman. He is a successful radio talk show host. He publishes The Monthly Monitor newsletter and maintains the web based Reagan Information Exchange. He married Pamela Putnam in 1970 but soon divorced. He then married Collleen Sterns in 1975 and they have two children: Cameron and Ashley Marie. He rembers his father much more affectionately than his hakf-brother Ron, Jr.

Patricia Ann (1952- )

Patrica's mother was Nancy Davis. She was called Patti. She was active in the woman's movement and objected to many of her father's policies. She wrote a book exposing a rather dysfunctional Reagan family. She appears to have resolved the conflicts with her parents and today gives seminars about the importance of family. She married, but divorced. There were no children.

Ronald Prescott (1958- )

Ronald was called Ron Jr. He attended Yale but left to pursue a professional dancing career with the Joffery Ballet company. He became active with AIDS prevention when friends died of the disease. He produced a film and advocated for increased funding. He works as a print and television journalist. His wife Doria is a psychologist. There are no children. He has written a book about his father. He claims that the President was affected by Alzeimers while stillmin office. He also claims that he never had a real conversation with his farher.

President Obama

No President in recent times has been more ideoligally different from President Obama than President Reagan. Reports suggest, however, that President Obama has taken a great interest in Reagan. He read a Reagan buigrapht\y over the Chritmas 2010 holiday. We even see (February 7, 20q11) picturing the two together on its cover with a red heart. The two certainly were talented communicators. In most other ways, however, they are very different. He has described Reagan as a 'transformational figure', something for which Obama aspires. President Obama remains convined that he failed to properly explain his health care reform to the public. This despite the fact that no other president in history has given more talks on a single piece of legislation. President Obama remains convinced that it was the sales job, not the legislation that was flawed. Thus there are reports that President Obama has been studying President Reagan to learn his communication 'tricks'. Apparently it has not dawned on him that that President Reagan was effective in part, not because of his communication skills, but because he was simply right about so many of the issues. President Obama was in for a shock when another conservative relaced him as president--Donald Trump.


Kaiser, Robert G. "Gorbachev: 'We all lost Cold War,'" The Washington Post June 11, 2004, p. A1, 31.

Kamprlman, Max M. "Rescue with a presidential push," The Washington Post June 11, 2004, p. A25.

Perlstein, Rick. The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nion and rhe Rise of Reagan (2014), 880p.

Reagan, Nancy. My Turn (1989).

Schweizer, Peter. Reagan's War: The Epic Story of his Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communish (Doubleday, 2002), 339p.

Shields, Mark. "Reagan's fairness legacy," The Washington Post June 12, 2004, p. A21.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: May 11, 2002
Spell checked: June 7, 2004
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