Happy 100th Birthday Ronald Reagan

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*

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25 Responses to Happy 100th Birthday Ronald Reagan

  1. Dan Trabue says:

    I saw your comment over at Nate’s place and followed you here and saw this post.

    Interestingly, I came in the opposite direction. I was a conservative traditionalist Southern Baptist Christian who liked Reagan at first, but he was largely responsible for me turning away from at least that version of conservatism.

    After years of seeing his policies on the homeless, wealth and poverty, USSR and (especially) Latin America, I decided, “if THAT’s conservatism, then that’s definitely NOT what I am…”

  2. jackhudson says:

    What was your issue with his policies on the USSR?

  3. Dan Trabue says:

    If two fellas are playing Russian Roulette, and one of them shoots himself, that dos not make the other guy the “winner” or even especially smart. It was like that, for me.

    I disapproved of Reagan’s way of handling the Cold War, felt that it was not a smart way to handle things. As it turned out, things worked out without disaster, but it still doesn’t make the approach right, moral or rational.

    It was his behavior in Latin America (Iran-Contra, the support of all manner of thugs, terrorists and war crimes in order to “stop the commies”) that I found most objectionable. We were convicted of War Crimes in Nicaragua! And promptly chose to ignore that conviction!

    There was a hubris and willingness to put ourselves above the law that I found reprehensible as a nation and horrifying from a Christian point of view.

    At least, that’s how it seems/seemed to me.

  4. jackhudson says:

    Does it all encourage you that tens of millions of people live in significantly greater freedom and prosperity as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union?

  5. Dan Trabue says:

    To be sure, there have been some good results following the fall of the Soviet Union. More freedom is always a good thing. Less oppression is always a good thing.

    But the ends do not justify the means.

    I have been to Nicaragua and seen and heard of the results of Reagan’s policies there. We supported terrorists, we committed war crimes, and that sort of behavior, I cannot stand by in the defense of a possible good end.

    Beyond that, we don’t know how else things might have worked out. I don’t believe Soviet style communism is a sustainable real world model. I believe it will always collapse on its own weight eventually. Yes, Reagan’s (in my opinion, foolish) arms war hastened this demise, but I tend to think it would have fallen eventually. Of course, we can’t know for sure.

    Nonetheless, as a Christian, I cannot condone or abide the sort of behavior that was done in our name by the Reagan White House. As a citizen, I do not approve of anti-American behavior in the pursuit of American ideals. As a world citizen, I do not think Might makes Right or Ends justifies the Means are workable, rational models.

    Beyond that, EVEN IF Reagan’s “commie” policies “worked” at getting the USSR to collapse, there are on-going debts we have to pay for resorting to those steps. We supported Bin Laden, Hussein and other thugs and terrorists. That support has continued to come back and bite us in the butt. Our actions have repercussions that aren’t always immediately evident.

    Do you think the Ends justify the Means?

  6. jackhudson says:

    So, what would you have recommended as the correct course of action in the ’80s with the Soviets pushing into Afghanistan, and influencing governments in Central America?

  7. Dan Trabue says:

    I would always recommend NOT committing war crimes or supporting terrorists as a course of action.

    Do you agree with this point?

    Nicaragua was no threat to the US, we were not at war with them, Ortega was democratically elected in a flawed but reasonably fair election. He enjoyed popular support and the Sandinistas had overthrown another oppressive regime (the Somoza regime had become so erratic and dangerous that even the US had withdrawn support for them, even though we had been supporting them).

    Congress had not declared war and we had no business trying to overthrow a democratically elected gov’t, even if they were leaning communist.

    Do you think we have the right to go in and support attempts to overthow other democracies?

  8. Dan Trabue says:

    And I’m using Nicaragua as an example. The problems we had with Nicaragua are representative of the problems we had across Latin America.

  9. jackhudson says:

    Personally, I am not particularly supportive of the machinations of the CIA in Central and South America during the Cold War (that go back long before Reagan, and include the Carter administration). At the same time I don’t think we were free to ignore the Soviet involvement and influence in the region, and open conflict was a danger because of the fear of it breaking into open, even nuclear war. So I think the question is more complex than you are presenting it.

    Indeed, that is one of the additional benefits of the fall of the Soviet Union – the Soviets are no longer a factor in the equation, and it gives us greater latitude to deal with Latin countries on their own terms rather than within the Cold War framework. And for that, I appreciate Reagan’s efforts as well.

  10. Dan Trabue says:

    Jack…

    So I think the question is more complex than you are presenting it.

    Well, there you go. That was/is the difference between me and the Reagan type of conservatives and why he chased me far from them. I believe that some things are always wrong.

    I believe it is always wrong to support or engage in terrorism. I believe it is always wrong to target innocent civilians. I believe it is always wrong to commit war crimes/crimes against humanity.

    The Reagan type of conservatives didn’t. They had what I consider an ends justifies the means approach that does not correspond with my notion of morality and certainly not my notion of Christianity.

    And so, perhaps you can see – if not understand or agree – why Reagan chased me away from conservatism and Republicans. We had/have significantly different core values.

    I’ll never forget while in Nicaragua listening to this little old lady from the village of El Regadio (where the people there welcomed this American boy into their homes, despite our history) who said, “We weren’t a perfect nation, things were not perfect. But we could work. We could raise our food. Our children were healthy and educated. Who let this man, Reagan, destroy it all?”

    I don’t mind telling you, I was quite ashamed of my nation’s behavior.

  11. jackhudson says:

    I actually met people on the other side of the equation Dan; people who desired freedom and democracy in Nicauragua but were persecuted, jailed and threatened with death by the Sandanistas.

    This is what makes it complex, that there were a number of good people opposing the Sandanistas. Now it might have been that we should have stayed out of it all together and not not lent any support to groups opposing the Sandanistas (just as we lent support to fighters in Afghanistan) and we could have just let the Soviets and the Cubans do what they wanted in the region, and it might have been that they would eventually fall apart of their own accord – but I don’t think any fewer people would have been harmed, and I don’t think that the people experiencing freedom and life today would be doing so if Reagan hadn’t made the efforts he did.

    I would love for freedom to advance by way just saying the right things, but I am afraid that at some point it requires men to make hard decisions.

  12. Dan Trabue says:

    And, again, if “hard decisions” means decisions to engage in war crimes, terrorism and other wrongs, then I will always be opposed to it.

    Jack, just for clarity’s sake, I wonder: Are you coming at this as a Christian or person of some faith tradition, or as a secular citizen?

  13. Dan Trabue says:

    For my part, after the conservatives and Southern Baptists chased me away from that form of conservatism, I have moved towards a more anabaptist position (think Amish, Mennonites, if you’re unfamiliar with Anabaptists).

    I oppose/opposed Reagan’s positions on the Cold War/Latin America for what I consider sound reasons that would apply to any citizens, regardless of faith (we were violating our OWN laws, after all), but it was/is certainly informed by my faith tradition.

  14. jackhudson says:

    Are you coming at this as a Christian or person of some faith tradition, or as a secular citizen?

    Well, I am a Christian, but I am trying to come at this as a reasonable person (I don’t consider these to be mutually exclusive). I don’t think the intent of the support the Contras was to terrorize or engage in ‘war crimes’. I do think the intent was to oppose the establishment of a Soviet client state in the Americas, and to prevent the spread of influence of Cuba and the Soviet Union in the region. I think in retrospect the administration was mistaken in going it alone – but given the fear of open war between the Soviets and the US, and the post Viet Nam reluctance by the American people to committing American troops to direct combat, I think the options for responding to the situation were few.

    As a Christian I would love for the world live according to Christ’s principles, but I try not to be pollyannaish about it. As long as there is evil in the world I think it is incumbent upon governments that believe in freedom and human rights to oppose the spread of those that would threaten such freedoms if we can. I think Reagan had a greater effect in this regard than did many who came before or after him, even if the results were imperfect.

  15. Dan Trabue says:

    Thanks for the polite discussion.

  16. jackhudson says:

    Thank you for your comments.

  17. Dan Trabue says:

    One last thought, Jack. Where you said…

    As a Christian I would love for the world live according to Christ’s principles, but I try not to be pollyannaish about it.

    I dont think in any way that living out Christ’s teachings is pollyanna-ish. The early church as found in the Bible did not opt out of living out Christ’s teachings even when the rest of the world did not embrace them. They did not opt out of living out Christ’s teachings even when it meant their lives.

    If it was good enough for them, I think it’s good enough for us. I’m sure you don’t generally think that “Well, the rest of the world isn’t going to live this way, therefore we ought not live this way,” do you? That is, regarding infidelity, you wouldn’t say, “I hear you saying you want to be faithful to your wife, Dan, but I’m trying not to be pollyanna-ish about it. I would love for the world to live by Christ’s teachings, but it ain’t happening, so I don’t think Christians have to be faithful to their spouses/not steal/be honest… etc”

    I’m willing to bet that, in general, you think that Christians are to follow Christ’s teachings regardless of what the rest of the world does, so why would you make an exception in this one area?

  18. jackhudson says:

    Dan, what I am not pollyannaish about is the ability of large complex government policies to reliably deal with complex dangers in a way that fully satisfies my Christian sensibilities. This is quite different than what I expect of myself or my fellow believers. It is certainly a goal to strive for, but invariably the actions of any administration are a mixed bag of good results and bad. I think the same is true of Reagan, and while I think his policy in Central America wasn’t what it should have been, I find his efforts and success in ending the reign of the Soviets worthy of admiration

  19. Dan Trabue says:

    I’m not speaking of “the gov’t.” I’m speaking of Christian behavior of Christians.

    Let me offer an example: Suppose some gov’t spy agency finds that they can get some information by one of their employees seducing “the enemy,” engaging in extramarital sex in order to gather information…

    Or suppose the agent could get information by torturing “the enemy,” or the child of “the enemy…”

    Would you also find this behavior worthy of admiration?

    Would you think this behavior is something Christians should engage in?

  20. jackhudson says:

    No Dan, I don’t think a Christian should engage in those activities.

  21. Dan Trabue says:

    So, you and I agree that the ends do not justify the means, then? That we can’t just do ANY old thing in order to get to what we think is a good end?

    That, if Reagan had gone to Nicaragua himself and raped women and killed children, and as a result, the democratically-elected Ortega had lost his power, you would NOT be suggesting that he was worthy of admiration because of that end result, is that a fair assessment?

    If so, then I guess I don’t get the holding up of Reagan as some good leader when he achieved those results (which I contend are of dubious quality and morality) by immoral means.

    If Jack the Ripper and Ted Dahmer had somehow brought down communism, I would not hold them up as admirable. Not that I’m comparing Reagan to them, I’m making the point that the MEANS matters a great deal, and when we turn from our Christian and even our American ideals, breaking our own morality and laws in order to try to achieve a goal, we have LEFT those ideals and given up any reasonable claim to admiration.

    Do you see my dilemma?

  22. jackhudson says:

    Oh, I understand the dilemma; the problem isn’t necessarily one of choice, but foresight. In choosing to either join or aid a particular side in a conflict, a leader always runs the risk that events will occur that may be contrary to a leaders desires or convictions. Unfortunately the only other choice is to do nothing, and that choice can have it’s own unintended consequences.

  23. Dan Trabue says:

    I think Jesus, Gandhi, MLK and others have all taught us quite well that there is rarely if ever “only” the choice to do nothing or engage in evil. I believe that to be a false dichotomy. There are always multiple choices, multiple options.

    I’m willing to bet you’d agree.

    My position would be that engaging in evil actions (and supporting terrorism and oppression, rape and torture, these are all evil acts) will never lead to good results and, even if some thought they DID lead to good results, that EVEN IF that were true, Christians ought not engage in those evil actions and EVEN IF they did, they ought not call those evil actions a moral good.

    But again, this is why I left that sort of conservatism as fast as I could, once I realized what they were teaching.

    Thanks again for the respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

  24. jackhudson says:

    I agree Christians should never intentionally engage in evil actions.

    But let me ask you. If the actions of MLK and Gandhi incited some to go beyond their leading and teachings and do violence to others in pursuit of the same cause, should that cause us to not praise either man, or deny the results of their actions?

  25. Dan Trabue says:

    If someone did the OPPOSITE of Jesus’, Gandhi’s and MLK’s teachings, would I hold it against them? No.

    But we (ie, Reagan) mined the harbor in Nicaragua, we funded known terrorists, we supported known oppressive regimes… it wasn’t a matter of someone acting contrary to Reagan’s wishes. We supported these folk knowing their behaviors. So, Reagan does not compare to Jesus, MLK or Gandhi.

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