COVER STORY: The legacy of Ronald Reagan
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, June 19, 2004
Amidst the more pressing events of the war in Iraq, the oil price spiral and forthcoming American and Australian elections, the death of Ronald Reagan on June 4 is an occasion to reflect on how one man can change the course of history.
Ronald Reagan, who as Republican candidate was widely derided as a B-grade actor in American Westerns, was elected President of the United States in 1980, succeeding the personally decent but naive Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who had presided over a calamitous decline of American influence around the world.
At the time it seemed that America's star had waned - its friends feared permanently - for it had lost the will to oppose the global power of the Soviet Union following the American defeat in South Vietnam, and the ability to resist other American enemies, after the Iran debacle.
Over the next eight years, Ronald Reagan vindicated the vote of the American people, resolutely opposing the Soviet Union - which he described as the "evil empire" - and then outspent the Soviet military machine to the point where, by the end of his presidency, the Soviet economy was near collapse. On the other hand, he also entrenched free-market economics as the guiding principle in the economy.
What is not well known is that in the 1930s, when he began his acting career, Reagan was himself a Democrat, and a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He became active in the trade union for motion picture actors, the Screen Actors' Guild, where he encountered the American Communist Party for the first time.
A patriotic American, Reagan joined the effort to rid the American union movement of the Communist influence in the 1940s. As president of the Screen Actors' Guild, his approach to meeting the Communist challenge was the same as that adopted by the Industrial Groups in Australia at the same time.
He described it in evidence given in 1947 to the US Congressional committee, which was then investigating the Communist Party of the USA. After describing how he and his colleagues had defeated the Communists democratically, he said, "I abhor their philosophy, but I detest more than that their tactics, which are those of the fifth column, and are dishonest; but at the same time I never as a citizen want to see our country become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment. I still think that democracy can do it."
Ronald Reagan, formerly Governor of California, won the Republican nomination for President in 1980, and embarked on a campaign to restore American honour in the world. With powerful oratory and a clear message, he won an overwhelmingly victory.
On being elected President, Ronald Reagan lived up to his reputation as the "Great Communicator". He said, "The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilisation. The West will not contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we will dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written."
He added, "It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history ... [It is] the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people."
In the end, what made possible the final demise of Soviet communism was not the economic or military power of the United States - great though these were - but the moral force, represented by the first Polish Pope, John Paul II, elected in 1978, which de-authorised communism from within. It collapsed in 1989, leaving a rejuvenated United States as the world's only superpower.
Like his political legacy, Ronald Reagan's economic policies had a significant impact on the rest of the world. An outspoken advocate of small government, he was elected on the themes of cutting taxes, increasing military expenditure (to outrun the Soviet Union), and balancing the Budget, an agenda called Reaganomics. It was a mathematical impossibility, that produced record deficits and a near tripling of the national debt.
His economic legacy is now a national debt of $6 trillion ($6,000 billion), which on a per capita basis, is even larger than Australia's. Arguably, the fact that America was able to run huge and continuing trade deficits encouraged Australian governments, of different political persuasions, to do the same.
One difference between Australia and the United States is that in America the debt was largely caused by investment to increase productive output. In Australia, it has been spent largely on consumption.
Whatever one thinks of his economic policies, his successors - Republican and Democrat - have had ample opportunity to change direction, but chose not to.
Ronald Reagan was perhaps the greatest American President of the 20th century: a man of principle who, through his own actions, changed the course of history. May he rest in peace.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council