Ronald Reagan was often called the Great Communicator and his considerable skill at speaking is usually regarded as his most important political attribute. But, more important was his raw, pure courage. Reagan’s physical courage was difficult to see because he had that laid-back California style. But it was there at critical moments in his life.
In 1946, when a violent actors’ strike erupted, Ronald Reagan was furious by what he saw. A small band of militant activists, headed by Communist Herb Sorrell, were shutting down the studios by threatening stars with violence. At Warner Brothers, the situation had become so bad that the only way performers could get onto the lot was by sneaking through a drainage ditch. Otherwise, reasoned Blaney Matthews, the giant-sized head of security, they would have to risk a gauntlet of violent, brick-throwing protesters to go through the front gate.
Reagan refused to sneak onto the lot. So, at Reagan’s insistence, Matthews arranged for a vehicle to take Reagan through the studio gate. But he offered a bit of advice: Lie down on the floor, or you might get hit by a flying bottle or rock. Again Reagan refused. Over the next several days, his vehicle would pass through the human throng of violent picketers, with a solitary figure seated upright inside.
Reagan’s steadfastness infuriated Sorrell and his thugs, so threats were made against the actor and his children. Blaney Matthews arranged for Reagan to carry a pistol. Reagan would spent several nights that fall seated in his living room holding the loaded gun, and he would spring to alert whenever he heard a noise outside.
When he became governor of California at the height of the unrest in the Sixties, he was equally unyielding. The Reagan home was nearly firebombed, and death threats were mailed to his office. When violent protesters surrounded a meeting between Reagan and university chancellors, security officials advised that he sneak out the rear of the building lest he spark “an incident.” Reagan refused, and walked out the front door as thousands of protesters stood stunned that anyone would show such audacity.
As president, he showed the same determined resolve in the face of incredible opposition. When he put together his first massive increase in defense spending, he faced opposition from a majority of his own Cabinet. Polls indicated that a majority of Republican voters favored a nuclear freeze. Former presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon wrote him suggesting that his military buildup needed to be curtailed. A majority of GOP governors declared that his defense plans were costing too much and hurting the economy. The American Business Conference, typically part of the GOP political base, came out in favor of military cutbacks. And Reagan’s response to all of this? “I’m sticking with what I said.” He would hang tough.
Reagan believed that the greatest threat to freedom was not Nazism or Communism (or, he would add, radical Islam) but fear. Communism or Nazism could not prevent you from doing what needed to be done. But fear could. So the real battle was not against your adversary but against your own fear and self-doubt. This is where Reagan’s optimism and sense of confidence came from.
Reagan never talked about his courageous stands against physical threats in his career. But for those who cared to pay attention, it was there to see. After the Berlin Wall came down, a couple of Germans wrote a love song in his honor. The title might not be catchy, but it sure is apt: “The Man Who Made Those Pussyfooters and Weaklings Feel Ashamed.”
–Peter Schweizer is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism, just out in paperback, and most recently, co-author of The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty.