I detested Ronald Reagan when he first became president; so great was my hatred of him that when he was shot and survived, I complained to a teacher that, “I was sad Hinckley wasn’t a better shot” (a remark which probably would get a kid thrown out of school today – but I digress). By the time he left office, I was profoundly appreciative of having witnessed his presidency, and understood that he was one of the greats.
Not that he was perfect; like all presidents he had his share of shortcomings, scandals, and missed opportunities. But I believe presidents are best measured by how they faced the greatest problem of their day, and for Ronald Reagan that meant dealing with the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
For those who weren’t around at the time it is hard to explain how the world felt at that time. The Soviet Union was the other great super-power, and its influence was growing around the world. It dominated European politics through its satellites in Eastern Europe; it had in-roads into Central America via Cuba, was pressing into the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and was attempting to annex Afghanistan. Tension was high over its nuclear capabilities, and American resolve in large part under the weak President Carter was waning. Into that milieu stepped Ronald Reagan, and suddenly we had a voice to match the threat – we were no longer retreating out of fear but we were advancing by principles that had not been articulated in decades. He articulated the notions that we could negotiate from a position of strength, that democracy and liberty were critical in dealing with other countries, and that there existed real moral evil in the world.
And his principles had effect. By the end his presidency the Soviet Union was in retreat from Afghanistan and the man who would be its last head of state was instituting reforms that would lead to its collapse. In the course of eight years the Soviet Union went from being the primary existential threat to the survival of the United States to a non-entity. Ronald Reagan, allied with other free world leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Pope John-Paul, had won the Cold War.
Few people realize how much impact this has had on our lives today. Few walk around fearing that a nuclear holocaust is imminent; the 1983 movie The Day After seems dated thanks to Reagan. The incredible prosperity of the ’90s was due in part to the ‘peace dividend’ that came after the Cold War ended, as did the freedom and prosperity we see in parts of Europe that were previously inaccessible to the West.
So it is good that we honor the man and his legacy. It is for good reason that his reputation has increased over the years. His speech before now extinct Berlin Wall serves as a fitting memorial to his work:
Happy Birthday Mr. President, you are missed.
*The Centennial of Ronald Wilson Reagan’s birth is February 6th, 2011*