An anti-communist hawk who hated nuclear weapons. A passionate advocate of freedom who supported brutal dictators and insurgents across Central America. An advocate of low taxes and a small state who saw public expenditure on arms balloon during his time in office. These are just a few of the contradictions that historians are presented with when they examine the life of Ronald Reagan. Iwan Morgan’s new biography of the life of Reagan explores his formative years and also what might be thought of as the ‘long’ Reagan era, which began in the mid 1960s and ended at the end of the 1980s. Within the book is the story of the decline of American liberalism that had been ascendant since the 1930s and the rise of a new conservatism which Reagan embodied.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in history writing on the topic of Ronald Reagan from historians like Rick Perlstein and Jonathan Darman. What do you think has led to this?
It’s partly a case of the time being right. The Reagan era is now sufficiently in the past for a more objective assessment to emerge – helped by the increasing availability of archival sources and other primary documentation. Early Reagan studies were highly partisan in the sense of being liberal hatchet jobs or conservative hagiographies, but new work is making an effort to assess Reagan’s impact as open-mindedly as possible. Rick Perlstein and Jonathan Darman are doing so from their positions as eminent political commentators but there’s a small army of historians also turning out high quality research monographs on specific aspects of Reagan and his presidency, which help to build up a fuller picture of him. We ought to recognize too that interest in Reagan benefited from Barack Obama’s election as president seemingly marking the end of the conservative ascendancy in American politics that Reagan had initiated. The election of Donald Trump signifies another change of course in the US but I expect this to strengthen interest in Reagan as analysts look to understand whether Trump is Reagan’s legatee or a brand new force.
In the 1980s satire shaped how we see Reagan in Britain, has a more sympathetic view of him emerged?
The Spitting Image view of Reagan as the man in search of his brain was symptomatic of transatlantic mystification about him. He was not the kind of politician who could have climbed to power in the UK or Western Europe in the 1980s. Looking back today when new tensions are building up between Russia and the West, he is deservedly credited for forging a new relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev to lay the foundations for the end of the 40-year Cold War between the Soviets and the West. I think too there is a growing sense that the 1980s marked the high point of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the White House and 10 Downing Street. There were significant disagreements between Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, of course, but by and large they cooperated effectively in pursuit of peace and security. Without doubt, Tony Blair’s willingness to follow George W. Bush into the morally and strategically questionable war in Iraq put the Reagan-Thatcher relationship in good light. And any Whitehall hope for a special relationship developing between Donald Trump and Theresa May looks to be in the realms of fantasy.
What are the challenges for understanding Reagan and the Cold War for a generation that has grown up after 9/11?
The post 9/11 generation lives in a world in which security threats are a way of life and images of horrific slaughters abroad and sometimes at home are all too frequently part of news broadcasts. Nevertheless the Cold War era was even more dangerous by comparison – with major conflicts directly involving one of the superpowers in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1965-73), and Afghanistan (1979-89) plus a host of lesser conflicts featuring their regional surrogates. Towering over everything was the threat of nuclear annihilation. The world came close to accidental nuclear conflict in late 1983 when the Soviet Union wrongly suspected that NATO was planning a nuclear first strike under cover of the Able Archer war planning exercise being undertaken in the North Atlantic. When the US got wind of what had nearly happened, it was a major factor in persuading Reagan of the need to reduce tensions with the Soviets. He was fortunate that Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader soon afterwards and had his own reasons for reducing Cold War tensions to concentrate on internal reform. Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1990, but Reagan deserved to have shared it with him.
During the recent presidential campaign, Donald Trump made a number of comparisons between himself and Reagan, are these in any way justified?
They are very different in terms of convictions and style – Reagan had a conservative philosophy and sought political office to advance it, but Trump appears to lack an ideological core and any deeper cause than himself; Reagan was personally modest and behaved with presidential dignity – Trump is the opposite; Reagan’s belief system was buttressed by his deep religiosity, but Trump has not displayed much religious conviction; Reagan was a dedicated Republican, Trump is not; Reagan was an internationalist, Trump is a nationalist. They are closest in their economic beliefs about the value of tax cuts, deregulation, and pro-investment policy to boost the American economy, but the performance of the 1980s US economy in response to Reaganite measures of this ilk hardly encourages hope they can engender widespread prosperity in the Trump era.
Your book describes Reagan as an ‘American Icon’, what do you believe he symbolises or signifies about America?
In many ways freedom is the most quintessential of American ideas. Reagan was dedicated to advancing a conservative vision of freedom at home – freedom of the market, freedom of the individual from high taxes, and freedom from big government – and from oppression in the form of communism abroad. In many ways he was the most deeply philosophical president of the twentieth century but his outlook had blind spots. He did not appreciate that some groups – notably African Americans – could not achieve real freedom without the support of a strong government to help them overcome discrimination at home and he took too long to realize that American support of authoritarian dictators abroad in the name of anticommunism retarded the growth of democracy in many parts of the world. That said, Reagan stood for American’s best values of optimism, belief in individual opportunity, and openness – even if he did not always live up to these ideals.
Reagan: American Icon is available to order here.
Iwan Morgan was in conversation with Nick Shepley, a writer, book reviewer and creator of the Explaining History Podcast – a weekly discussion of modern history now with 200,000 subscribers. For more information, contact Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org.