January 9, 2014
Many of us look at the world and wonder why things are so crazy. Well, that has a lot to do with the people running things. I was born in early 1983, and the man running the United States was President Ronald Reagan.
I’ve been studying a lot of history over my break, particularly the 1970s and 1980s. Reagan was a character. I’ll just simply quote from my book.
“Ronald Reagan, the folksy, homespun actor turned General Electric pitch-man, had been California governor since 1967. He espoused strong family values but was estranged from his children and was the first president to divorce. A man of limited knowledge but deep religious beliefs and strong conservative convictions, he provided little guidance on policy and had no interest in or grasp of detail. His vice president, George H.W. Bush, confessed to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that he at first found Reagan’s views on international relations “almost unimaginable.” Bush, Dobrynin wrote, was “simply amazed to see what extent Reagan was dominated by Hollywood cliches and the ideas of his wealthy but conservative and poorly educated friends from California.” National Security Council Soviet expert Richard Pipes admitted that at NSC meetings the president seemed “really lost, out of his depth, uncomfortable.” Very early in the new administration, counterterrorism coordinator Anthony Quainton was summoned to brief the president. In Quainton’s words, “I gave the briefing to the President, who was joined by the Vice President, the head of CIA, the head of the FBI, and a number of National Security Council members. After a couple of jelly beans, the President dozed off. That … was quite unnerving.”
The Gipper was an uneducated Hollywood cowboy actor, lacking any deep understanding of political or economic issues. He’d start out meetings with a prayer to Jesus, sit down, somebody else would start briefing him, he’d eat a few Jelly beans, and then doze off when he couldn’t understand anything anyone was talking about. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver claimed Reagan often napped during cabinet meetings. “What should we do Mr. President?” “Uh, you guys take care of that. I’m going to go watch the ball game.”
“Many of Reagan’s close associates were struck by the depth of his ignorance. Upon returning from his late 1982 Latin American tour, Reagan told reporters, “Well, I learned a lot. . . . You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.” … Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was startled when Reagan, admiring O’Neill’s desk that had belonged to Grover Cleveland, told him that he had played Cleveland in the movie The Winning Season. O’Neill reminded him that the desk had belonged to President Cleveland, not Grover Cleveland Alexander, the pitcher. O’Neill, who served in the House for thirty-four years, said that Reagan “knows less than any President I’ve ever known.”
Reagan’s simplistic worldview seemed to be a pastiche stitched together from Hallmark greeting cards, Currier and Ives lithographs, Benjamin Franklin aphorisms, Hollywood epics, and Chinese fortune cookies. He wrote, “I’d always felt that from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that Americans were a moral people who . . . had always used our power only as a force for good in the world.”
He had no knowledge of history or international relations, so when foreign leaders visited the White House, staff members had to give him three-by-five inch cards to read off of, directly, word for word. Even worse, sometimes he’d grab the wrong card and mortify everyone there.
Take discussions with the Soviet Union regarding arms control. Gorbachev was proposing massive nuclear arms reductions, even wanting to phase out all nuclear weapons by the end of the century. He was unsuccessful though and describes their meeting:
“Reagan reacted by consulting or reading his notes written on cards. I tried to discuss with him the points I had just outlined, but all my attempts failed. I decided to try specific questions, but still did not get any response. President Reagan was looking through his notes. The cards got mixed up and some of them fell to the floor. He started shuffling them, looking for the right answer to my arguments, but he could not find it. There could be no right answer available — the American President and his aides had been preparing for a completely different conversation.”
- Mikhail Gorbachev, during a nuclear policy discussion with President Reagan
During his second term, his Alzheimer’s disease was starting to take its toll. Reporters were troubled during a photo opportunity at his ranch when he was unable to answer a basic question related to arms control. He sat there with a blank expression, lost, gesturing but not speaking. His wife Nancy tried to save him by softly moving her lips, “Doing everything we can,” to which Reagan repeated, “We’re doing everything we can.”
He had little concern for the poor. He would often repeat a fabricated story of a Chicago “welfare queen” with eight names, thirty addresses, and twelve Social Security cards who supposedly had a tax-free income of over $150,000 a year. Every time he’d tell the story, the numbers would change, but actual facts never mattered. He held this fantasy in his mind that blacks were lying in wait, ready at any moment to pounce on hardworking white Americans and take their hard earned money.
Military spending was ramped up by over 50% during his first few years in office. To pay for this, he cut funding for various domestic programs. Four hundred eight thousand people lost their eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) by 1983, and 299,000 saw their benefits cut. The food stamp budget was cut by $2 billion dollars (of a $12 billion dollar budget), and he even cut $1.5 billion of a $3.5 billion dollar budget from the school lunch program, starving poor children who couldn’t afford to eat. Medicaid, child nutrition, housing, and other programs for the poor were all cut. At the same time, taxes were cut in half for the highest income brackets, going from 70 percent to 28 percent during his presidency. This led to deficits and a huge increase in our national debt. All sorts of banking and financial regulations were lifted and they all had a heyday. This led to a major stock market collapse.
He bungled military operation after operation, whether it was in Nicaragua, Grenada, or El Salvador. We were training and providing funding to Contra soldiers who were raping, killing, and torturing innocent victims. He had William Casey running the CIA, and Casey wasn’t even able to identify our own propaganda, believing the Soviet Union was bent on taking over the world even though they were literally on the verge of economic collapse. Fear-mongering and anti-Soviet vitriol was rampant, and anyone who disagreed was purged from the CIA or Defense Department. As time went on, our view of the Soviet Union and their intentions was totally disconnected from reality.
We were secretly working to overthrow several South American countries and all of it was kept from Congress. Funding was provided by covertly selling missiles and other arms to Iran while laundering the money through drug dealers to the Contra armies in South America. This lead to the Iran-Contra scandal, which was a total disaster.
He oversaw millions of dollars in aid to Iraq when Sadaam was using chemical weapons on Iran and even his own people. He even sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld down there to give them nuclear technology, hoping to save them from using up their oil. Those same nuclear reactors would be used as a pretext to invade their country under George W. Bush’s presidency, claiming they were developing weapons of mass destruction.
President Carter had started a small program to aid Afghan fighters who were staving off the Soviet Union, but Reagan ramped up the CIA’s covert operations tremendously, spending over $3 billion dollars by the time the war ended, its largest operation to date. It was total overkill. Those stockpiled weapons would later be used against us in the war after 9/11. Also, we were so concerned with “beating” the Soviets that we were largely to blame for inciting radical Islam in the region.
“We made a deliberate choice. At first, everyone thought, there’s no way to beat the Soviets. So what we have to do is throw the worst crazies against them that we can find, and there was a lot of collateral damage. We knew exactly who these people were, and what their organizations were like, and we didn’t care. Then, we allowed them to get rid of, just kill all the moderate leaders. The reason we don’t have moderate leaders in Afghanistan today is because we let the nuts kill them all. They killed the leftists, the moderates, the middle-of-the-roaders. They were just eliminated, during the 1980s and afterwards.”
- Cheryl Bernard, wife of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, RAND expert
Considering Reagan was a religious man, he believed that Jesus’ second coming was imminent and wondered if nuclear Armageddon was around the corner. To stop our imminent demise, he created the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), aka “Star Wars” program, which was to act as an atmospheric shield against an all out Soviet nuclear attack. It was ill conceived and unrealistic. Powerful laser weaponry was to be launched up into space to shoot down Soviet missiles before they made it to us. The program was so fantastic, the American Physical Society let him know that it would take ten years of research just to find out whether such a program was even feasible to attempt. It was a massive waste of money and was later abandoned.
If you ask a typical conservative, Ronald Reagan was supposedly the greatest President to ever live. I don’t see anything that great about him. I agree with Kuznick’s assessment.
“But what is Reagan’s real legacy? One of the most poorly informed and least engaged chief executives in U.S. history, he empowered a right-wing resurgence of hard-line anti-Communists who militarized U.S. foreign policy and rekindled the Cold War. He paid lip service to democracy while arming and supporting repressive dictators. He turned local and regional conflicts in the Middle East and Latin America into Cold War battlegrounds, unleashing a reign of terror to suppress popular movements. He spent enormous sums on the military while cutting social programs for the poor. He sharply reduced taxes on the wealthy, tripling the national debt and transforming the United States from the world’s leading creditor in 1981 to its biggest debtor by 1985. In October 1987, he oversaw the worst stock market collapse since the Great Depression. He let the chance to rid the world of offensive nuclear weapons slip through his fingers because he wouldn’t let go of a childish fantasy.”