Presidential historian H. W. Brands’s new biography of Ronald Reagan and his conclusion that modern American politics is best seen as “The Age of Reagan” has aroused liberals to circulate once again the hoariest myths about the man and his presidency, including the malicious charge that Reagan was deliberately indifferent to the lot of African Americans and other minorities.
Liberal Myth No. 1: Reagan’s dangerously belligerent foreign policy had little to do with the disintegration of Soviet Communism. Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader most responsible for bringing the Cold War to a non-nuclear conclusion.
Reality: In the 1970s, as presidential scholar Kiron Skinner has written, Reagan formulated four key ideas about U.S.–Soviet relations and the Cold War. One, discussion of Soviet expansionism around the world had to precede any talk about arms control, not the reverse. Two, America was an “exceptional” nation obligated to match deeds with words in the promotion of freedom around the world. Three, because the Soviet Union was an “abnormal” nation with no popular base of support, it was prepared to foment global crises to maintain its control. Four, the Soviet Union’s inefficient economy and inferior technology “could not survive competition” with America. Once elected president, Reagan began carrying out a multifaceted victory strategy based on these ideas.
Reagan ordered an across-the-board buildup of the defense establishment, including land-based weapons, new ships, and new medium-range missiles. He launched a psychological offensive, declaring that the Soviets’ “evil empire” was headed for “the ash heap of history.” He made SDI (the Strategic Defensive Initiative) the cornerstone of the Reagan Doctrine and would not surrender it, even at the Reykjavik summit. He strongly supported anti-Communist forces in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia.
He carried his crusade for freedom into the disintegrating Soviet empire. Standing before Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987, he directly challenged the Kremlin, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” A little more than two years later, the wall came down and Communism in Eastern and Central Europe collapsed. Lech Walesa, Nobel laureate and founder of the Polish trade union Solidarity that confronted the Communist regime, said of President Reagan, “We in Poland . . . owe him our liberty.”
Democracy triumphed in the Cold War, Reagan wrote in his autobiography, because it was a battle of ideas — “between one system that gave preeminence to the state and another that gave preeminence to the individual and freedom.” The Cold War ended in triumph for the idea of freedom because of Ronald Reagan, not Mikhail Gorbachev, who as late as 1988 quoted the Communist Manifesto when asked his position on private property.
Liberal Myth No. 2: The Eighties were a decade of greed that benefited only the wealthy and overlooked the middle class.
Reality: Reagan inherited a dangerously weakened economy. High tax rates had severely limited jobs and investment and brought in less than expected government revenue. President Reagan reversed the process by cutting personal tax rates and government regulations, stabilizing the economy and encouraging entrepreneurs.
Following the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, unemployment in the succeeding years fell an estimated 45 percent. During the Eighties, the consumer price index rose only 17 percent, private domestic investment grew 77 percent, and economic growth averaged 4.6 percent annually. The real income of every stratum of Americans increased, and total tax collections rose from $500 billion in 1980 to $1 trillion in 1990 (in constant dollars).
At the same time, Reagan deregulated oil prices, making energy cheaper, and launched U.S.–Canadian free trade, setting the stage for NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Perhaps most important of all, he created IRAs (individual retirement accounts) and 401(k) programs, giving birth to what has been called “the investor class.” New industries arose in computing, software, communications, and the Internet that streamlined and transformed the American economy.
Liberal Myth No. 3: The federal government continued to grow and expand under Reagan, who callously tripled the national debt.
Reality: During the Reagan years, overall domestic spending did increase, as the president battled with a Democratic House of Representatives led by a fiercely partisan Speaker Tip O’Neill. Spending on education, social services, medicine, and food almost doubled. However, federal outlays on regional development, commerce, and housing credit decreased by about 22 percent. And the size of the federal civilian workforce declined by about 5 percent, because of conservative managers such as Donald Devine, described by the Washington Post as “Reagan’s terrible swift sword of the civil service.” The annual federal deficit as a share of GDP fell significantly from 6.3 percent in 1983 to 2.9 percent in 1989. As Reagan left office, CBO (the Congressional Budget Office) projected that “deficits were on a path to fall to about 1 percent of GDP” by 1993.
The near tripling of the national debt was mostly due to Reagan’s defense spending. In President Carter’s last budget, America spent just under $160 billion on national defense. In 1988, the Reagan administration spent $304 billion, including more than twice as much on military hardware. During his years in office, Reagan expended a total of $1.72 trillion on national defense, an unprecedented amount that he stoutly defended.
Challenged in a cabinet meeting that he “couldn’t spend all of this money on the military” and that it would look bad to boost spending on guns while cutting the butter, Reagan replied: “Look, I am the president of the United States, the commander-in-chief. My primary responsibility is the security of the United States. . . . If we don’t have security, we’ll have no need for social programs.”
The essential question was, “What price peace?” Was it worth $1.72 trillion to build up America’s defenses so that Reagan could end the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield? Most Americans would not hesitate to emphatically answer, “Yes!”
If we examine the economic report cards of postwar presidents from Truman through Reagan, according to Harvard economist Robert Barro, Reagan easily finishes first. Using the change each year in inflation, unemployment, interest rates, and growth in gross national product, Reagan ranks first. He engineered the largest reduction in the misery index (inflation plus unemployment) in history — 50 percent. The 1980s, says economist Richard B. McKenzie, were, up to then, “the most prosperous decade in American history.”
Liberal Myth No. 4: Reagan was a cynical, calculating politician who used “states’ rights” to win the 1980 election and paid little attention to African Americans as president.
Reality: The African-American columnist Joseph Perkins has calculated that black unemployment fell from 19.5 percent in 1983 to 11.4 percent in 1989. The income of black-owned businesses rose almost one-third between 1982 and 1987. The black middle class grew from 3.6 million to 4.8 million during the Reagan years, while the cash income of black households (adjusted for inflation) rose by 12 percent. By contrast, the median income of black households fell by 2.2 percent during the Obama years from 2010 to 2013.
Throughout the Seventies, Reagan exhorted fellow Republicans to address the party’s failure to attract black voters. At the 1977 Conservative Political Action Conference, he said, “We [Republicans] believe in treating all Americans as individuals and not as stereotypes or voting blocs.” Speaking to the Urban League in August 1980, after having won the GOP’s presidential nomination, Reagan said, “I am committed to the protection and enforcement of the civil rights of black Americans . . . into every phase of the programs I will propose.”
While marking Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday in 1983, President Reagan drew an arresting parallel between the first Republican president and the man Americans were honoring that day. “Abraham Lincoln freed the black man,” he noted. “In many ways, Dr. King freed the white man. . . . Where others — white and black — preached hatred, he taught the principles of love and nonviolence.”
Who better than Ronald Reagan to have the last word about which is the myth and which is the reality about his commitment to civil rights?
- Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center on Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation and the author of the first political biography of Ronald Reagan.
Originally appeared in National Review