The Life and Major Accomplishments of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

40th US President Ronald Reagan – life and accomplishments

Ronald Reagan was an Illinois-born actor and Hollywood star who went on to become the 33rd Governor of California and later the 40th U.S. president. History fondly remembers him for being the president that revived the ailing U.S. economy in the 1980s.

Reagan was also a good communicator- often called the Great Communicator. This augured well for him, as he was able to precisely communicate his vision to the American people. In return, American voters rewarded him with two presidential terms. His stern approach in dealing with foreign nations helped plant the U.S. as the number one and undisputed superpower of the later part of the 20th century. One of such foreign policy successes came at the expense of the Soviets- America’s fiercest enemy of that era. Join us as we explore in details the life and major accomplishments of Ronald Reagan.

Early Life, Childhood and College

On February 6, 1911, the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan, was born in Tampico, Illinois. His parents were Nelle Clyde and Jack Reagan. Ronald Reagan had one older brother- Neil Reagan. His father worked as a sales agent and sometimes a storyteller. Jack Reagan’s roots can be traced to Irish Catholic immigrants that came from Tipperary County in Ireland. Ronald Reagan’s mother, on the other hand, had both English and Scottish descent.

Growing up, Reagan opted for the Protestant faith of his mother instead of Catholicism- the faith of his father. The influence his mother had on him was immense. One very remarkable thing that his mother inculcated into him was the spirit of optimism and to always respect and see the good in other people regardless of the differences in terms of race or religion. Similarly, his father was a staunch opponent of all forms of racial abusive groups. We could say that the Reagans did not take kindly to the anti-Semitic and anti-black sentiments that seemed to dominate the American society back then.

At the Dixon High School, he honed his skills in sports, drama acting, and storytelling. He was an extremely outgoing individual. In 1927, Reagan was employed as a lifeguard in Lowell Park. It is estimated that he was directly involved in about 77 life rescues during his 6-year tenure as a lifeguard.

After high school, Reagan enrolled at Eureka College, where he would later graduate in 1932 with  majors in economics and sociology. He played active roles in the fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon. He was also an active member of the cheerleading squad of the college. As president of the student council, Reagan successfully organized several student protests that bemoaned issues primarily ranging from flawed administration practices to budget cutbacks.

Ronald Reagan’s Spouses and Children

Reagan’s first wife was Jane Wyman. The two met in 1938 during the production of Brother Rat. Two years after their meeting, they got married in mid-winter of 1940 at Glendale, California. The marriage produced two children- Maureen (born in 1941) and Christine (born in 1947, but lived for only a day). In 1945, the couple also adopted a child- Michael. Their marriage could not survive the stress that came with Reagan’s political pursuits and ambitions. Therefore, in 1948, Jane Wyman and Reagan divorced.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Ronald Reagan with his second wife, Nancy Reagan.

A year after divorcing his first wife, Reagan met Nancy Davis in 1949. The two hit it off and got engaged in 1952 at San Fernando Valley. Their children Patti and Ronald “Ron” Jr. were born in 1952 and 1958 respectively.

Hollywood Successes and Rise to Fame

Reagan’s first jobs after college were in the radio and television industry. He worked in several Iowa radio stations. Most of those gigs came in sports presenting and commentary. For example, the Chicago Cubs baseball games were often announced by him.

In 1937, he moved to California to pursue a career in the acting. Luckily for him, Warner Brothers Studios signed him on. His first relatively big role was in the 1937 movie “Love Is on the Air. The next two years proved very successful for Ronald Reagan; he appeared in close to 20 films from 1937 to 1939. Along with stars such as Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, Reagan received very good reviews in the 1939 movie “Dark Victory”.

In Hollywood, he soon earned the nickname, “the Gipper” as result of his stellar performance in the movie “Knute Rockne, All American.However, his departure from Warner Brothers Studios resulted in his career taking a nosedive for a brief period of time.  He gradually moved from stellar roles to appearing in B-films in the 1940s.

The 1942 film “Kings Row”, which he starred in, earned him a very huge paycheck after production. Other movies that he starred in before and after World War II include: The Voice of the Turtle, Hellcats of the Navy, Cattle queen of Montana, and The Hasty Heart.

Time in the military

Just as his acting career was about to lift off properly, he was drafted into the military in San Francisco. Reagan was in the Army Enlisted Reserve as a lieutenant in Officers’ Reserve Corps. His poor eyesight meant that he was only placed in non-combative areas of the military. During World War II, he was stationed as a liaison officer of the Port and Transportation at San Francisco Port of Embarkation, California. He also served in the Army Air Forces Public Relations and the First Motion Picture Unit during the War. By the close of the war, Reagan and his team had successfully produced about 400 training films that help to instruct Air Force personnel on a range of issues ranging from flight simulations to aircraft maneuvering.

Ronald Reagan’s Accomplishments at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)

Reagan joined the guild in 1941 as a member of the Board of Directors. In 1946, he was made the vice-president. A year after that, in 1947, he was elected as the President of the guild. The guild took fate in him again and re-elected him for a seven-year term. All in all, Reagan spent about twenty years in the guild. He took part in several collective bargaining agreements between labor and management.

In the 1950s, Reagan was employed as a host for the popular T.V. series General Electric Theater. The series involved him making periodic trips to General Electric’s plants across the country giving pro-business speeches and talks. This was a very financially rewarding experience for Reagan. The series also helped him become a very popular entertainment figure in America, especially among the right-leaning politicians and Republicans.

Early Political Career and entry into the Republican Party

For a great chunk of his early life, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. However, this changed in the 1960s. Reagan switched political parties and joined the Republicans in 1962. By 1962, he was already neck-deep in several Republican campaigns in Hollywood. He leveraged his pop and Hollywood star appeal to support presidential bids of Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Ronald Reagan's life and achievements

Reagan explaining the reason why he switched from the Democrats to the Republicans

As a Republican, he opposed several policies that he considered too socialist. Examples were the legislation of universal health care, the Food Stamp Program, minimum wage, and Peace Corps.

In 1964, Ronald Reagan’s speech, “A Time for Choosing”, in support of Barry Goldwater- a conservative presidential hopeful- was forever etched in history. The speech brought Reagan into the full limelight of American politics. Despite such rousing speeches, Barry Goldwater failed to win.

A time for Choosing Speech

A Speech (“A time for Choosing”) delivered by Reagan in support of Barry Goldwater on October 27, 1964

Accomplishments as Governor of California (1966-1975)

After his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech, the public in California began warming up to him. They were taken aback by his energy and desire to bring change to the state. All of that culminated in a resounding victory for Reagan during the 1966 governorship election in California- he defeated the incumbent governor, Pat Brown. On January 2, 1967, the former actor, Ronald Reagan became the 33rd Governor of California.

His tenure as governor was marked by tax hikes in order to balance the state’s budget. Reagan also reduced government spending in the first few years as governor. His popularity and approval ratings went up due to his sound fiscal policy.

He also received a lot of criticism for the manner in which he handled students’ protest and demonstrations in the state. On May 15, 1969, a group of aggrieved students gathered to protest about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The People’s Park protest, as it was called, occurred at the University of California, Berkely. Reagan responded with his full might and squashed it. The ensuing confrontation with police officers resulted in the death of a student- James Rector. Another student, Alan Blanchard, got blind. Several police officers and students sustained multiple injuries. The day the incident happened is commonly referred to as Bloody Thursday. Reagan put the city on a two-week lockdown in order to restore order and peace.

Depending on which aisle of the political divide you are on, some of Reagan’s policies as governor of California can be viewed too harshly or beneficial. For example, the liberals might see the Mulford Act that he signed in 1967 was too bad. The act allowed people to openly carry loaded firearms in the state. Conversely, his pro-choice Therapeutic Abortion Act in 1967 will definitely be considered as a good act by the liberals.

During the 1970 state election, incumbent Governor Ronald Reagan ran on the campaign promise to get “the welfare bums back to work”. This proved very beneficial in his campaign. Besides, his track record in his first term was not so bad. But for the students’ protest and a few acts, Reagan was liked by Californians. As a result of this, he was re-elected in 1971 for another four-year term. He swept aside his opponent Jesse M. Unruh (also known as “Big Daddy”).

Major Accomplishments during Reagan’s second term as Governor of California

In his second term as governor of California, Reagan got himself in a bit of hot waters when he supported capital punishment in the state. To his frustration, the U.S. Supreme Court did not let him have his way because this went against the ruling in People V. Anderson decision. It banned death sentences in California.

His leissez faire style to managing the state saw him reduce spending on state welfare programs. This was him fulfilling his promise of getting the “the welfare bums back to work”. There was also less regulation of the economy. All of these were done to create a favorable business environment that would, in turn, reduce unemployment.

Up until his tenure was over (on January 6, 1975), Reagan continued to receive positive ratings in terms of the manner in which he steered the economy of California. There were suggestions of him running for the third time, but he bluntly refused to do so. He turned his attention to the White House.

Presidential bids in 1968 and 1976

While as Governor, Reagan tasted defeat on two attempts at getting a Republican Party nomination for the presidential election. In the first attempt, Reagan finished third in the Republican Party nomination for the 1968 presidential election. He finished behind President Richard Nixon and Rockefeller. The second attempt at the presidency was in 1976.  He lost to incumbent United States of America President Ford. That year, the Republicans lost the White House as well.

Away from any elected office, he got more and more affiliated or associated with conservative groups. Most notable of these groups were the American Conservative Union.

Reagan’s Achievements during his first term as President of the US

Ronald Reagan got elected in the 1980 U.S. Presidential election. He campaigned on the promises of lowering taxes; reducing government interference; increasing states’ rights; and an increase in defense spending. His vice-presidential candidate was George H. W. Bush. The Republicans swept their way into the White House by defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter. Reagan won 44 states and 489 of the electoral votes. His opponent, President Jimmy Carter could only manage six states and 49 electoral votes. Ronald Reagan took his oath of office on January 20, 1981.

President Ronald Reagan's quote

A line from Reagan’s Inaugural address in 1983

  • Reagan Completely turned around the American Economy

As president of the United States, Reagan had a herculean task of reviving the ailing economy. The recession of the early 1980s saw America experience high inflation rates and unemployment. Inflation rate was at 12.5% towards the latter end of his predecessor’s tenure. The unemployment rates hovered around 7.5%. Again, he relied on the economic tactics he used back when he was California governor.

  • He survived an assassination attempt in 1981

On March 30, 1981, an assassination attempt was made on Reagan’s life. He was in the company of his Press Secretary James Brady; a Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty; and a Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy. The assassin, John Hinckley Jr., took aim at the president at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The president was quickly sent to George Washington University Hospital. Emergency personnel conducted an exploratory surgery. Luckily, President Reagan pulled through, and on April 11, he was discharged. This meant that he was the first U.S. president to survive an assassination attempt. His public approval ratings were boosted by the assassination attempt.

  • Ronald Reagan robustly resolved the Professional Air Traffic Controllers strike of 1981

In August 1981, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) decided to lay down their tools in a protest against poor service conditions and long working hours. Considering the fact that the federal laws prohibited government workers from going on strike, Reagan took a bold decision. He gave them a 48-hour ultimatum. Majority of the striking workers called the president’s bluff and refused to report to work.

Once the ultimatum period elapsed, Reagan went on to fire 11,345 federal air traffic controller on August 5, 1981. The workers were banned for life from seeking any federal job. The president then went on to deploy supervisors and military personnel to temporarily fill the gap created by the striking workers. This drastic move by Reagan sent shivers down the spines of unions in America, especially federal workers.

  • Piled up the pressure on the Soviets

Prior to Reagan taking office, the U.S. foreign policy on the Soviets was often called Détente. What it meant was that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R strived not to escalate tensions. However, Reagan’s administration took an entirely different approach to deal with the Soviets. Reagan believed that instead of being passive, the United States should take an aggressive military and economic approach. He made it his prime goal of eliminating pockets of communist movements across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. By providing support to anti-communists in those parts of the world, Reagan gradually started isolating the Soviets.

The Soviets met fierce resistance from guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan. Reagan provided all the support that these fighters (Mujahideen) needed to deal with the Soviets’ invasion.

  • Started the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)

As part of his aggressive stance against the Soviets, Reagan rolled out the Strategic Defense Initiative to give the U.S. an edge over the Soviets. He was never okay with the “mutual assured Destruction” paradigm. He began the SDI in 1983 with the main goal of intercepting and destroying nuclear missiles that were aimed at the U.S. The SDI symbolized sharp shift from attack capabilities to more defensive prowess. It rendered most of the existing nuclear weapons possessed by the Soviets useless against the U.S.

Reagan and Gorbachev INF signing IN 1987

Gorbachev (left) and Reagan signed the INF Treaty in December 1987.

Shortly after the SDI was rolled out, the Soviets reluctantly came to the negotiating table. From 1985 to 1988, the Soviets’ leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan had a total of four summits. The SDI successfully arm-stronged Gorbachev to begin negotiating. The two world superpowers- the U.S. and the Soviets- ended up signing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) on December 1987. The treaty required that all nuclear and conventional missiles with short and intermediate-range be destroyed. A total of 2692 missiles were destroyed as a result of the treaty.

  • Took a firm stance against the Soviets resulted in the demise of the U.S.S.R.

The Soviets, perhaps in an attempt to open their economy, decided that the time had come to enter a new era. Their current governmental system was too overstretched. The union was crumbling in on itself. to make matters worse international prices of oil were so low, it means that the Soviets were not getting as much money from their sale of oil. Before he left office, Reagan made sure that the Soviets had a hard time coming out of their predicament. A year after his departure, the U.S.S.R. crumbled on December 26, 1939. Besides, many Eastern European countries wanted out of the U.S.S.R. Some historians believe that the U.S.S.R. was already on its last legs. All that Reagan had to do was nudge it a little bit for the U.S.S.R. to come crashing down- just like the Berlin Wall did 10 months after Reagan left office.

What is left of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

  • He was responsible for deregulating the American economy

He embarked on deregulating the economy. What would later be termed as Reaganomics, Reagan quickly rolled out tax cuts (federal income tax) using the Tax Recovery Act of 1981. His trickle-down economic policies were designed to spur further growth through job creation. There were even rumors that he wanted to return the U.S. to the gold standards. Additionally, President Reagan cut down on public spending. However, he did increase military spending by about 40 percent in his first term. He believed in giving economic rights back to the states. By so doing, he encouraged a lot of public-private partnerships in virtually every facet of the U.S. economy. It was during his term that the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TERRA) came to being.

When Reagan took office, unemployment peaked at about 10.8%- higher than any time since the Great Depression. But as his presidency progressed the rates started dropping. By the close of his second tenure, Reagan successfully added a whopping 16 million new jobs. The low marginal tax rates helped boost investment, which in turn spurred of new jobs. Inflation rate in the U.S. was down from 7.5% to 5.4%. GDP (gross domestic product) growth was around 3.4%.  In 1983 for example, the U.S. had a stellar growth rate of about 8.6%.

Ronald Reagan’s Achievements during his Second term as President (1984-1988)

Due to impressive figures as the above, Reagan was able to secure re-election in the 1984 presidential election. he won 524 out of 538 votes- the highest win in U.S. history. With regard to the popular votes, Reagan won 58.8% while his opponent, Walter Mondale, got 40.6%. Reagan’s 97.6% of electoral votes meant that he holds the record of being the president to receive the highest electoral vote ever in America’s history.

At 73 years and 349 days, Reagan was the oldest person to take the presidential oath. His inauguration ceremony was done on January 20, 1985.

His second term as president was similar to his first term. He did, however, step up the war on drugs usage and drug trade. Reagan set aside about 1.7 billion U.S. Dollars to fight the drug menace that was prevalent at schools and workplaces. He was joined by his wife, Nancy Reagan. The latter’s campaign with slogans such as “Just Say No” proved very effective. Funding was made available for several rehabilitation centers. The first lady, Nancy Reagan, went on a tour of about 65 cities in 33 states. However, Reagan’s war on drugs faced some criticism from civil societies because of its propensity to use inappropriate force. As a deterrent measure, some of the drug-related offenses carried mandatory minimum sentencing. Critics said that the law enforcement agencies in a biased manner overly targeted minorities, especially African Americans.

Reagan’s second term saw him sign the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. The act made it a federal offense to knowingly employ into one’s services, illegal immigrants. With the act, Reagan was able to give amnesty to over 3 million illegal immigrants that resided in the U.S. on a continuous prior to January 1, 1982.

Retirement and Life after politics

After his presidency, Reagan set forth to retire at Bel Air residence that he and Nancy bought. The couple occasionally spent time at the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara.

In June 1989, the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed on him an honorary knighthood- the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath (GCB).

On a rather sad note, his retirement was plagued by Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed with the disease in 1994. Shortly after the diagnosis, Reagan began limiting his public appearances. There were even rumors that the disease started long before he left office in 1988.

The disease took a huge toll on Reagan. However, that did not stop him from making some few public appearances at Republican rallies and award ceremonies. The most notable of these award ceremonies was when he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush in 1993.

His last major public appearances came on April 27, 1994, at former President Richard Nixon’s funeral.

Ronald Reagan’s Death

On June 5, 2004, Ronald Wilson Reagan – the 40th President of the United States- passed away at his Bel-Air home in Los Angeles. He was 93 years. The cause of death was pneumonia. Doctors say the Alzheimer’s disease that he suffered made it difficult for him to recover properly. Six days after his passing, President George W. Bush proclaimed the June 11 as a national day of mourning.  About 100,000 people came to view his coffin at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Frequently asked questions and answers about Ronald Reagan

The questions below provide a brief overview about Reagan’s life and legacy:

When was Ronald Reagan born and when did he die?

Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, and died on June 5, 2004, in Los Angeles, California.

What work did he do before becoming president?

Before his political career, Reagan was a radio sports announcer and an actor in Hollywood films. He later became a prominent figure in the conservative movement and served as Governor of California from 1967 to 1975.

What were some of Reagan’s key policies and accomplishments as president?

Reagan is known for his economic policies, often referred to as “Reaganomics,” which focused on tax cuts, deregulation, and reducing government spending.

He played a major role in ending the Cold War by ramping up defense spending, initiating the Strategic Defense Initiative, and negotiating with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan also oversaw tax reforms and a significant increase in the national debt.

Was Reagan ever impeached?

No, Ronald Reagan was never impeached. However, his administration did face several controversies, including the Iran-Contra affair.

Did he survive an assassination attempt?

Yes, on March 30, 1981, just 69 days into his first term, Reagan was shot and wounded by John Hinckley Jr. outside a Washington, D.C. hotel. He recovered and returned to his duties.

Who served as Ronald Reagan’s vice president?

George H.W. Bush served as Vice President under Ronald Reagan.

What was Reagan’s stance on social issues?

Reagan was generally conservative on social issues. He opposed abortion and supported the “War on Drugs.” He was also criticized for his initial response (or lack thereof) to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

What was Reagan’s background in entertainment?

He appeared in over 50 films and numerous television shows. He was also the president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952.

How is Ronald Reagan remembered today?

Reagan is remembered both positively and negatively, depending on one’s political perspective. Supporters praise his economic policies and credit him with helping to end the Cold War. Critics point to the rise in income inequality, his handling of the AIDS crisis, and the Iran-Contra scandal as negative aspects of his presidency.

Famous Quotes

Quotes by Ronald Reagan

Famous Quotes by Ronald Reagan

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