The Man & the Myth
“I’d like to harness their youthful energy with a strap.”–Concerning student demonstrations in California, 1966
“The entire graduated income tax structure was created by Karl Marx. It has no justification in getting government revenue.”–During the 1966 gubernatorial campaign in California
Ronald Reagan was the 40th President of the United States, ruling from 1981-1989. The American media portrays him as a great leader and hero who single-handedly won the Cold War, fixed the economy and gave new spirit to the United States. Liberals and conservatives alike line up to sing his praises endlessly, worshipping him as some sort of God of Americanism. Conservatives try their best to imitate his campaign policies and invoke his name, spinning tales about how great the theory of “Reaganomics” worked. We are told over and over that he was the greatest President and world leader to ever walk the halls of the White House. It’s time to separate truth from myth regarding Reagan’s legacy—in this article we will examine Ronald Reagan’s presidency and give our readers the story that few ever hear from the corporate media.
The Reality of Reaganism
“We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it, and still be home by Christmas.”–1966
“Welfare recipients are a faceless mass waiting for a handout.”–1966
During the Reagan era, wages stagnated, worker benefits declined, working hours increased and employers were allowed to crack down violently on labor unions as well as ignore labor laws entirely. Contrary to the preachings of neo-liberals, Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” enriched the few and the privileged. The wealth trickled up and not down. Reagan’s vision of American democracy was that of the true capitalist—a twisted version of “democratic” society run by a small elite stratum of oligarchs over the working classes, women, the poor, the youth and the non-white. Reagan reinforced this dictatorship of the blackest reaction with the most violent foreign and domestic policy seen for decades in US history—Reagan did not hesitate to ally himself with vicious armies of fascist butchers to eliminate his enemies and maintain US hegemony worldwide. At home, his policy was much the same, overseeing massive debt and poverty, police crackdowns and a swell in the prison population. Mindless patriotism, support for the military, surges in religious extremism, 1980s decadence and yuppie culture, rigid reinforcement of traditional gender roles (including chauvinistic and homophobic policies) and “get rich” capitalist culture of the most blatant, dog-eat-dog and cutthroat-to-the-bone variety were promoted.
Ronald Reagan brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in his ceaseless expansion of US Empire, focusing on aggressive expansion by use of force. Reagan’s policies slashed all progressive social programs while at the same time ushering in the new age of the United States military-industrial machine by setting a yearly 1.5 trillion dollar military budget, a number unprecedented in world history. Anything that was opposed to the most merciless free market policies, anything that opposed the domination of the United States, anything that was progressive or even vaguely humanitarian or liberal became a target for the Reaganites. Homelessness, national debt, inflation, unemployment and foreclosures skyrocketed, the brunt of it being born by poor people, Latinos and African-Americans.
Ronald Reagan remains perhaps the most famous “Cold Warrior” for his brutal global policies, which put weapons in the hands of anyone who opposed the Soviet Union. To this end, Reagan recruited vicious legions of right-wing death squads, fascists, drug-running kingpins, killers, religious fanatics and CIA puppets to his cause. Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko, P.W. Botha of apartheid South Africa, Ferdinand Marcos, the Nicaraguan Contras and many other unsavory characters became “champions of democracy” and “freedom fighters.”
Ronald Reagan unleashed armies of genocideres, dictators, gangsters, torturers and spies abroad and had them trained and funded in a manner unforeseen. His Administration targeted countries like Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Cambodia, Angola, Laos, Ethiopia and Afghanistan for military intervention and takeover, regardless of the popularity of democratic or leftist governments or the wishes of the people of those countries.
Strong popular movements of peasants and workers that rose in the Third World in response to massive preventable death from malnutrition, disease such as malaria and lack of human services in their countries were denounced as “communist” and put down with violence. Civilian and military targets alike were annihilated by Reagan’s cronies. In response to strikes in places like the farming plantations in El Salvador where the workers demanded an extra 40 cents a day, or the Coca-Cola plant in Guatemala where they called for a minimum wage, right-wing militias supported by the Reagan Administration would crush these attempts at reform.
In the Court of the Nuclear-Armed Warlord
“The time has come to stop being our brother’s keeper.”–Concerning welfare budget cuts in California, 1967
“If it’s a bloodbath they want, let’s get it over with.”–Concerning student demonstrations, 1970
To this day, the mentality of the Reagan era, of the predatory, corrupt culture of greed and heartless accumulation, of the psychotic faith in the absolute virtue of the free market, continues to poison the globe. Human compassion was cast aside for animal hungers and naked self-interest; ruthless colonialist ambition became the hallmark of American foreign policy. Reagan was a mouthpiece for the wealthy, the lucky, the elite and the power-hungry, an intentionally banal and wise-cracking speaker with a “folksy” crudity and passion for sound bites that managed to pass for logical arguments and sound philosophy. Understanding Reagan’s savagery is important for understanding the nature of the imperial capitalist system we live in.
US Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had left the White House in disgrace, the former for escalating mass murder in Vietnam and the latter for the same activities, plus illegal wiretapping. Both were subjected to the wrath of protesting Americans in the 60s and 70s. Reagan, however, would oversee the end of all that. Reagan was a known to purposefully instigate violent conflicts with student movements who opposed his policies—on May 15, 1969, Reagan sent in police to crush protests in Berkeley Park in a confrontation known as “Bloody Thursday.” 2,200 National Guard troops then occupied the city of Berkeley for two weeks on Reagan’s orders.
Reagan signed NSD 52, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard to round up hundreds of thousands of people and place them into military concentration camps. With help from Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who would later become infamous due to the Iran-Contra Scandal, Reagan organized an operation entitled “Rex 84 Bravo.” This contingency plan contained blueprints and authorization for the federal government to declare martial law in the United States, abolish the Constitution, place the military in charge of state and local governments and give them unlimited power to move and execute citizens and imprison Americans viewed as security threats. When the air traffic controllers’ labor union, known as Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), organized a strike in 1981, Reagan ordered the 11,345 striking controllers fired. For years after the first cases of AIDS were documented, Reagan refused to use state resources or social mobilization to help contain the virus which primarily affected homosexuals. By the time he acknowledged its existence, 30,000 people had died of the disease, the epidemic of which still plagues the United States.
Due to draconian cuts in social programs, a proposed directive by the United States Department of Agriculture in Reagan’s Administration tried to have ketchup reclassified as a vegetable, which would have allowed public schools to cut out servings of vegetables for school lunches. The Office of Management and Budget reported eliminating nutritional requirements for subsidized meals for low-income students netted a potential $1 billion a year.
Some statistics regarding the era of Ronald Reagan are also relevant for analyzing his policies:
– The top one percent’s share of household wealth had dropped from 1929 to 1981 from 44% to 27%. By 1998 it was back up to 39%.
– “The Congressional Budget Office says the income gap in the United States is now the widest in 75 years. While the richest one percent of the U.S. population saw its financial wealth grow 109 percent from 1983 to 2001, the bottom two-fifths watched as its wealth fell 46 percent” – CBS
– Meanwhile, for households of all ages, between 1983 and 1998 the average household net worth of the poorest 40% in the U.S. declined 76%.
– “The biggest indicator of a healthy society – average life expectancy – dropped. People in the U.S. now don’t live even as long as people in Costa Rica. Meanwhile the U.S. infant mortality rate has risen […]” – CBS
– In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the news media in America. By 2002, six corporations did.
– The number of Americans without health insurance climbed 33 percent during the 1990’s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
– Farmers in 1999 were getting 36% less for their products in real dollars than in 1984.
– In 1980 there were less than 500,000 people in prison in the U.S. By 2000 there were two million. In 1980, 8% of the prisoners were there for drug offenses; by 1998, 28% were.
– Ninety percent of young white male workers are now doing worse than they would have 20 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, the income of a recent male high school graduate declined 28% between 1973 and 1997.
– Wages for the bottom 10% of all wage earners fell by 9.3% between 1979 and 1999
– Median student-loan debt, 1977: $2,000. 1997: $15,000
– Ratio of executive pay to that of a factory worker in 1980: 42 to 1. Ratio of executive pay to that of a factory worker in 1998: 419 to 1. Annual pay of a factory worker if it had kept pace with executive salaries: $110,000
– In 1977, the disclosed wealth of the top ten senators was $133 million. In 2001 it was $1.83 billion.
– In 1982, U.S. foreign debt was less than 5% of GDP; by 2002 it was almost 25%
– Between 1973 and 2001, the incomes of the poorest 20% went up 14%, that of the 20% in the middle went up 19%, but the richest 5% went up 87%.
– The real value of the minimum wage peaked in 1969 at over $7 an hour. Its real value is now at $5 an hour.
– Eighty-six percent of stock market gains between 1989 and 1997 flowed to the top ten percent of households while 42 percent went to the most well-to-do one percent.
– In 1998 the top-earning one percent had as much income as the 100 million Americans with the lowest earnings.
– Two-thirds of American households headed by a person between the ages of 47 and 64 in 1998 had the same pension wealth or less in real dollars than they did in 1983. Almost 20% of all near-retiree households could expect to retire in poverty.
– By the turn of the century poor black families were working 190 hours more a year – and poor white families 22 hours more — than in 1979 for roughly the same pay.
Since Ronald Reagan:
– The two richest men in America — Bill Gates and Warren Buffet — own more assets than the bottom 45% of the country.
– Anti-trust laws, once considered the great mediator of commercial excess, have been steadily eroded.
– Organized labor has become a mere shadow of its former self […].
– Between 1980 and 2000, the U.S. per capita spending on schools increased 32%. The per capita spending on prisons grew 189%
– California built 21 prisons between 1980 and 1998; it built just one college.
– From the inauguration of a full-scale war on drugs in 1985 to 1998, the number of deaths per 100,000 for drug-induced causes almost doubled. In other words, having a drug war proved twice as deadly as not having one.
– There has been a massive shift towards the language of capitalism in all aspects of our conversation and speech, making our words more clichéd, less meaningful, less enjoyable, and less human. To an extraordinary degree we now speak to each as salesmen rather than as fellow citizens. This makes for a pretty seedy culture, full of insincerity and deceit while short on cooperation, individual creativity and shared goals.
– The age of Social Security coverage is rising as the public is being taught not to expect that either Social Security or Medicare will continue to serve as they do at present.
– There has been a dramatic increase in homelessness.
– Efforts to control individual rebellions against the banal and life-draining culture of extreme capitalism have produced increasingly authoritarian, militaristic and punitive tactics such as the war on drugs, zero tolerance, and the conversion of public schools into quasi-detention centers […].
– Advertising has invaded every aspect of our life, making existence increasingly one long commercial.
– Our environment has steadily and dangerously deteriorated […].
– Medicine has been converted from a public service to a corporate exploitive enterprise.
– [The United States] increasingly use corporatized prisons without adequate public supervision and prison slave labor to serve corporate interests.
– [V]oting turnout has declined.
– Corruption, both corporate and political, has increased to the point that it is no longer deviation but an assumed part of our culture. We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.
A Dark Legacy
“Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.”–California Governor Ronald Reagan, in the Sacramento Bee, April 28, 1966
“It’s just too bad we can’t have an epidemic of botulism.”–In response to the Hearst family’s free food giveaway to the poor as partial ransom for their daughter Patricia (kidnapped by the SLA) 1974
The “Reagan Doctrine” was akin to the “Bush Doctrine” in saying that Washington had the right to attack and destroy any state, government or movement that interfered with US corporate or state interests. In the 1980s, the United States under Reagan supported forces and governments that committed widespread atrocities.
The most famous example were the Contras in Nicaragua, who fought against the leftist policies of the Sandinistas. The Contras murdered, tortured, and terrorized the population. Human Rights groups reported “murder, rape, torture, maiming children, cutting off arms, cutting out tongues, gouging out eyes, castration, bayoneting pregnant women in the stomach, and amputating genitals.” The CIA provided the Contras with a manual instructing them how to perform sabotage and terrorism. Tens of thousands of civilians died, many of them elderly and children. The Contras routinely raped women before executing them. These actions were widely reported by human rights organizations, church groups, Latin American scholars and many others.
Reagan’s administration claimed the Nicaraguan Sandinistas wanted to conquer the world because they once used the phrase “revolution without borders.” What Nicaragua really wanted was to inspire other countries with their accomplishments. Since that was against US hegemony, they had to go. The World Court and many members of the international community condemned the crimes Reagan was committing in Nicaragua, but he ignored this. When Nicaragua took its case to the World Court, the Court ruled against the US and condemned its use of international terrorism. They said the Reagan administration’s actions were illegal.
Under Reagan, the CIA used the funds from global drug trafficking for arms purchases, flying United States planes full of cocaine from Central America into military bases on the mainland and flying back with arms. The spreading of cocaine helped to create the epidemic of crack-cocaine in the ghettos of America. This if course, happened while Reagan’s wife pushed her “Just Say No!” campaign and the expression “War On Drugs” began to be a household phrase.
In 1981, Reagan sent a United States aircraft carrier into waters in oil-rich Libya’s territory where they shot down two Libyan planes, an open declaration of war. Later, in 1986, Reagan would bomb the home of Libya’s leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in an attempt to assassinate him in his bed. The attempt on Qaddafi’s life failed, but claimed the lives of 30 people, including Qaddafi’s infant daughter.
In 1982, Reagan supported the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, which killed over 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian people. It was during this war that the Israeli massacres and mass rapes in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were committed. Reagan unleashed “Operation Urgent Fury” against Grenada, occupying the country with 2,000 troops. In the Persian Gulf, Reagan backed the government of Saddam Hussein, funneling billions in funds, arms and chemical weapons.
Now Reagan is finally dead. For a monster with the blood of so many on his hands, Reagan, like Francisco Franco in Spain, would die safely in his bed many years later, unpunished for his innumerable crimes. The tragedy of history is that he is remembered a hero and not the tyrant he truly was.