Intertwined American and British flags normally would seem an odd choice to celebrate Independence Day, but they waved at Grosvenor Square in London in this July 4 under special circumstances: the dedication of a statue of Ronald Reagan commemorating the centennial of his birth on the grounds of the American embassy. Comparable ceremonies abroad over the last week honored Reagan, included a Mass of thanksgiving in Krakow; another statue unveiling in Budapest; and the renaming for Reagan of the street in front of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague.
The embrace of President Reagan’s memory 100 years after his birth was hardly predictable in his time. In a 1976 episode of All in the Family, Archie Bunker’s revelation that he had cast a write-in vote for Reagan for president was a laugh line. During the first two weeks of his presidency, Reagan bluntly condemned the Soviet government as amoral, and the Washington Post in turn criticized his supposedly simplistic “good-vs.-evil approach” to the Kremlin. A 1987 article in American Heritage magazine entitled “Presidential Follies” juxtaposed the evolving Iran-Contra scandal with the most notorious scandals in American history. The article was punctuated by an Edward Sorel cartoon of our 40th president plummeting into hell with other presidents perceived as tarnished. Such criticisms and caricatures, acceptable then, are conspicuously out of place today.
Reagan entered the White House on the heels of several presidencies that had ended with some level of disappointment. Some questioned whether the office had become too much for one man. Those questions were laid to rest by the time of Reagan’s retirement.
On the domestic front, he knew that generations of uncontrolled government expansion had taken its toll on personal freedom. He redefined a national dialogue that seemed incapable of recognizing bloated government as part of the problem rather than the solution. In the face of seemingly incurable inflation, he broke with his predecessors and supported the Federal Reserve’s new tight money policies, weathering short-term pain for the sake of the nation’s long-term economic health. He pushed sweeping tax cuts and trade policies that helped lay the foundation for years of prosperity. In his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton exploited a short-lived recession that he blamed on “twelve years of Reagan/Bush.” That claim does not withstand scholarly scrutiny today.
Reagan’s greatest achievement came in foreign policy, where the Cold War was won, in the words of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (now etched beneath the Reagan statue in London), “without firing a shot.” Here too he departed from the more defensive posture followed by predecessors of both parties. The Soviet economy, in his view, was weaker than most experts (including in the CIA) believed, and that weakness should be exploited. So he went on the offensive, waging an aggressive arms race and pushing for democratic reforms that precipitated Soviet collapse. The opposition to his defense policies was intense — the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in particular was widely lampooned — but President Reagan’s determination led the Soviets to back down. With the Soviet collapse that followed came the collapse of Communist systems throughout Eastern Europe, freeing millions of people from totalitarian rule.
As with most great leaders, his view of the task before him was of the long term. When he addressed the Republican national convention in 1976, he spoke of a letter he was asked to put into a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. He thought he would write of the challenge posed by “a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy, virtually, the civilized world we live in. And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.”
It would not take 100 years to know that, thanks in large part to his leadership, freedom had won.
— Frank Scaturro, a former counsel for the Constitution on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the author of, among other works, President Grant Reconsidered.