I know exactly where I was when I learned of his passing. – I was browsing through Wikipedia’s “this day in history” page for entries for my blogiversary post and saw Reagan’s name listed. (Boy, they didn’t waste any time updating the page.)
Born in 1960, the first presidential election I could vote in was 1980. I paid little attention to politics, but I knew that Reagan had promised to deliver a 30% across-the-board tax cut. (He would be able to get away with 25%, phased in over three years.) Tax liberation was good a reason as any to vote for the guy.
Another was Jimmy Carter’s political impotence. He couldn’t do anything to fix the economy – basically because a) he’s a statist, and b) he wouldn’t listen to Paul Volcker, who knew how to fix inflation and proceeded to do so without seeking presidential approval. In Free to Choose Milton Friedman stated that only drastic cuts in the money supply would solve inflation, and that the long-term fix wouldn’t come without a short-term recession – and that’s exactly what happened.
The tax cuts eased the recession, and despite the S&L fiasco and some tax compromises in 1986 we would witness the greatest post-WWII expansion of the US economy. The tax hikes by GHW Bush and Bill Clinton would eventually stop that expansion in 2000.
In foreign policy, Carter was a wuss. I remember his tepid reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: “This could be war.” (Johnny Carson retorted, “That’s like calling D-Day trespassing on a private beach.”) And above all I remember the Iranian hostage crisis – and the failed rescue mission that relied on helicopters not suited for desert travel. I didn’t know much else about foreign policy. In his post-presidential years he would negotiate with tyrants by appealing to their better natures – which they didn’t have; I imagine he did a bit of the same when he was in the White House.
I did know one foreign policy difference between carter and Reagan; the latter took the offense in fighting the Cold War – and fighting other tyrannies. Both presidents negotiated worthless arms treaties that only the US would honor. Angola was and is a quagmire where the good guys (or the lesser of the evils, whichever the case may be) didn’t have enough support, from the US or elsewhere. I would like to have seen the Gipper depose Qadaffi rather than give him a multiwarhead spanking, but Congress probably wouldn’t have let him get away with it. (Maybe we could have helped Italy reconquer Libya?) Neither would it have approved the necessary actions – which would have included a war with Syria – to succeed in Lebanon.
The turning point of the Cold War was in our back yard. Nicaragua and Grenada were liberated from Communism, one peacefully (after years of supporting several opposition factions, known collectively as the Contras) and one through a brief war. This was the first time that Communist expansion was turned back.
The seeds of revolution had been spreading in Eastern Europe without our help. The role of the US was to take away the will and the might of the Soviet Union to crack down on dissident movements as it had done in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. The arms race bankrupted the USSR; the same level of military spending cost the US far less of its GDP than that of the Soviets. SDI forced Gorbachev to scramble for a Plan B.
Without Reagan, perestroika and glasnost may never have come into being. Soviet tanks would not roll into Eastern Europe to suppress Solidarity in Poland, the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, or various dissident movements elsewhere. Gorby tried to have a dose of freedom while preserving Communism – what Alexandr Dubcek once called “socialism with a human face” – but the people would not settle for a mere dose. The Communist governments could not turn back that tide.
On November 9, 2009, I hope to be standing within sight of the Brandenburg Gate for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I will remember Reagan’s call to Gorbachev to tear down the wall, and the events that both – one intentionally and the other inadvertently – would set in motion to make it happen.
On a whimsical note, I remember once seeing in a newspaper a photo of Reagan wearing his typical business suit and carrying a surfboard under his arm. If anyone can track down that image, I’d be grateful.