Ah, Ronald Reagan! The guy that ended the Cold War, that brought the Iranian hostages home, that brought America back to world respect, that…
Wait a second… who?!
From someone who came of voting age during his administration, I’ve been dumbfounded at the accolades that Reagan receives nowadays. It was abundantly clear, right from the moment an aircraft carrier was named after him, that someone seems to be trying to create a legacy that never existed. And because most Americans get their history knowledge from sound bites and opinions it seems, it’s working to some extent.
But let’s go back a bit. None of those things mentioned in the first paragraph can be attributed to Reagan in any way. The Iranian hostages, a major foreign affairs mess from Jimmy Carter’s administration, were released just before Reagan took his oath, literally – after Carter negotiated for their release as his last act in office. Most sources now seem to say that the release took place immediately after Reagan’s oath of office, but I remember the news very clearly that day, including Reagan’s address that, even though he was not even in office, he could be thanked for their release. Most people would consider this rather crass, but that would be the pattern of behavior for the next eight years.
It repeated, most noticeably, with Reagan’s famous, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” statement as the Berlin Wall was demolished. Very dramatic, but just a tad opportunistic, since the knowledge of the destruction of the Berlin Wall had been around Washington for weeks. Reagan, far from being the catalyst to end the Cold War between NATO and Eastern Bloc countries, made every appearance of wanting to stir it up. He was particularly known for this among both the pundits and popular media – Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” is specifically about the Reagan years.
Gorbachev, however, should receive virtually all of the credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, if it can be blamed on any individual’s actions and not, realistically, on the corruption within and the overall unsustainability of a socialist dictatorship. Reagan’s contribution, following the reduction in arms from the previous administrations, was to create a new missile defense system that was both ill-advised and virtually pointless. A show of force? Only for the Americans – the Soviets knew that the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) wasn’t very effective, and weren’t hampered in their pursuits such as the nine-year invasion of Afghanistan and the shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007, a civilian commercial flight. Reports are admittedly not too dependable concerning this incident, but some sources indicate that the flight was shot down because it was believed to be a US Intel incursion into Soviet airspace, only hours after serious activity of exactly that nature, just outside of the area (the Kamchatka Peninsula was a major military area in the Soviet Union.) In other words, after convincing the Soviets that we were pushing the boundaries, the errant civilian flight received the message that the Soviets weren’t fucking around with us.
Not only that, but the Soviets continually harassed all rescue and salvage operations, and there’s some strong evidence that they recovered the aircraft and numerous bodies themselves, surreptitiously, then redistributed some of the crash debris and personal effects at another area. Reagan’s response? A couple of press conferences deploring the incident, which is about as effective as writing in your diary.
Reagan’s response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? His stalwart refusal to ratify the agreement to jointly reduce nuclear weapons (see SALT, below.) In other words, “Since you’re invading another country, we’ll be really stern with you and just maintain the same level of weapons we had before.” Yeah, there’s an effective deterrent – I’m sure the Afghans were thrilled at the support. Even the reports that the CIA surreptitiously trained Osama bin Laden for guerrilla resistance don’t have a lot of evidence backing them – the strongest evidence is that the CIA helped channel funds into Afghanistan through Pakistan. Ronnie did introduce the Reagan Doctrine, a supposed effort to reduce Soviet influence, mostly in Latin America (where, you know, the Soviet threat was overwhelming – I’m sorry, did that sound sarcastic?) But don’t let me get ahead of things, just yet.
One of the more noticeable aspects of the Reagan years was the emphasis on military buildup, such as reinstating the B-1 bomber program that was cancelled during the Carter administration. It was cancelled because the B-1 was a low-level incursion strike aircraft, intended to penetrate deep into hostile territory to deliver smaller, short range ordnance such as cruise missiles, which were the military’s shiny new toy. Cruise missiles are about 1% as effective as ICBMs (which we already had in abundance) and B-1s require, naturally, extensive base support and deployment logistics, something we had utilized with the older B-52 bombers and had been largely phased out following the development of ICBMs two decades earlier. So what use did we have for B-1s? Well, they were built by Rockwell, based in California, so I’ll give you three guesses where Reagan hailed from…
This was the beginning of the “wolf at the door” era, a justification of vastly increased military spending in the face of reduced need. Bear in mind that there had been a long history of arms reduction efforts (such as the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty, or SALT talks) right up until Reagan’s administration, which then halted until he (and his successor) had left again. First out of the chute was the invasion of Grenada to restore the overthrown revolutionary government (which had seized control itself four years earlier.) Nobody really knew why this had occurred, and internationally it was widely condemned. The entire island nation is slightly larger than the city of Durham, North Carolina, with half the population – hardly a major invasion target (it probably had even fewer guns than Durham.) Since nobody considered Grenada a military victory, this led to the “War on Drugs” that the following president, George H. W. Bush, continued with the invasion of Panama because, I’m sure you’ll agree, when you can’t handle the drugs imported into your own country, invade the supposed source. This was so effective that heroin, cocaine, and crack became nonexistent in the US in the years following. Oh, you hadn’t noticed? Yeah, there’s no drug problems here anymore. But hold that thought for a moment longer.
Reagan instigated a continuous US presence in the Persian Gulf, setting the precedent for actions that continue to this day. One of Reagan’s most distinctive conflicts was with Libya, with a decent rationale this time, because Libya was exceptionally active in supporting international terrorism. Those of us watching the news saw daily updates of the saber-rattling of both Reagan and Muammar Gaddafi (you may recognize that name) and the trading of imminent hostilities. The US went so far as to order an airstrike on Tripoli in the hopes of killing Gaddafi, which failed. Gaddafi ordered a no-fly zone over the Gulf of Sidra, threatening to shoot down any aircraft which violated this arbitrary change in international airspace. Things looked grim, and this particular blogger, who’d then only recently registered for Selective Service, otherwise known as “The Draft,” bitterly watched Reagan trying his damnedest to create a war in the Middle East.
Then, a woman named Fawn Hall changed all that. Abruptly, the news in the US was filled with the Iran-Contra scandal, where arms were being sold to Iran and the money used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. It’s hard to imagine something more controversial, since, you know, Reagan was the one that “freed the Iranian hostages” and earned the enmity and ire of the Ayatollah. As well as the Nicaraguan Contras being somewhat low on the list of the people you’d compare to freedom fighters and our own founding fathers, some of Reagan’s more infamous lines in the press. Both of these actions were prohibited by Congress and US Foreign Policy, mind you, and the Contras, one of Reagan’s targets for anti-communist aid in Latin America, were also moving drugs through the country – it would seem Reagan’s War on Drugs was somewhat lax in this respect. Libya was instantly forgotten, never to reappear again in US policy or military actions, even though their terrorist activities continued for decades. We all know what happened to Gaddafi.
Moreover, the arms sales to Iran didn’t sit well with Iraq, their sworn enemy, especially when (despite professions of neutrality in the Gulf conflict between the two) we’d been selling arms to Iraq to aid in their invasion of Iran, which wasn’t going so hot. Yes, Iraq was our ally, at least unofficially, for years, and Saddam Hussein was a puppet dictator we’d helped install.
Is that a fucking mess, or what? And notice, I’ve said nothing about astrology, aliens, jellybeans, or Alzheimers. And nothing about movie plots related as actual wartime experience.
My point isn’t to hammer home all of Reagan’s foibles as a president in favor of other administrations – plenty can be said about all others, as well, as I’ve no doubts someone will be along to tell me. My point is simply that Reagan’s legacy is hardly one of acclaim or distinction, except as being incredibly contentious throughout. To hear the blatant misrepresentation of him as a guiding force among Republicans is beyond ludicrous, bordering on pathologically insane.
If those links weren’t enough, you can also check out a series of articles about the Reagan years at Salon. Having grown up in the Cold War, I remember the constant rhetoric about Soviet propaganda and how they continually misled their populace. It would seem that one US political party, at least, considers this a useful game plan.
As I’ve said before, don’t ever take my word for it – do the research yourself. Just keep in mind that, no matter how confidently someone may assure you of something, this has no influence on its accuracy.