World History Blog Logo

Ronald Reagan

president of United States

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on the 6th of February 1911 inside an apartment on the 2nd floor of a commercial building located in Tampico, Illinois.

Ronald Reagan was the younger son of Nelle Clyde and Jack Reagan, a storyteller and shoe salesman. Jack was of Irish Catholic descent while Nelle was of Scottish and English descent. The Reagans lived temporarily in several cities and towns including Galesburg, Chicago and Monmouth.

They would also live for a while above the H.C. Pitney Variety Store in downtown Tampico, Illinois. Finally, the family settled down in Dixon, Illinois. The Reagans were quite used to living without indoor plumbing or running water, and moving from house to house as required by Jack’s various sales jobs.

Ronald Reagan at Durenberger Rally

Ronald Reagan at Durenberger Rally, 1982

FAST FACTS  2-Min Summary
  • Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911 on the 2nd floor of a commercial building in Illinois to a shoe salesman and an active proponent of the Social Gospel movement.
  • Reagan was a born-again Christian who openly opposed racial discrimination long before the civil rights movement.
  • His involvement in acting, sports, storytelling and student government during his youth would help him develop a versatility that would aid him immensely later in life.
  • Reagan would work as a radio announcer, act in movies, serve in the military, and host television shows; he would marry Nancy Davis, an actress, and the two would maintain a close and lifelong relationship.
  • Following WWII, Reagan, as a staunch Democrat, would help Democrat Party campaigns, oppose right to work legislation, and support socialized medicine.
  • Hollywood’s clandestine support of communism would cause Reagan to question his politics, and his work for General Electric would involve openly promoting conservative values such as free markets, limited government and low taxation.
  • In 1962, Reagan officially became a Republican, and his televised speech, “A Time for Choosing,” for the Goldwater campaign in 1964, would thrust Reagan into national prominence as a conservative icon.
  • Reagan would subsequently run for Governor of California, beat the two-term liberal incumbent, and go on to establish his reputation as a solid conservative during his two terms in office.
  • Following a close but failed contest for the Republican nomination for US President in 1976, Reagan would eventually beat incumbent President Carter in 1980 in a decisive victory.
  • Having survived an assassination attempt soon after taking office, Reagan would go on to reshape the judiciary, turn around America’s failing economy, and forcefully respond to Soviet aggression. .
  • Following his landslide re-election victory, Reagan would, using his alliances with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, help bring about the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • Reagan left office with an approval rating of 68%, and made occasional public appearances subsequently, especially in support of the Republican Party.
  • Ragan passed away in 2004, and was given a state funeral. However, he lives on as a conservative icon and one of the most popular US presidents in the hearts of millions.


Ronald Reagan identified himself as a born-again Christian, and was immensely influenced by the erudite scholar Beh Hill Cleaver. Cleaver was both his pastor and the father of his fiancée.

Reagan’s mother, moreover, enormously shaped Reagan’s worldview. Reagan would later note that his mother planted his faith “very deeply” in him. Nelle was a strong advocate of the Social Gospel movement, and a very active member of her church.

As a strong proponent of prayer, she would lead her church’s prayer meetings and also take charge of mid-week prayers when her pastor was not in town. Paul Kengor would note that Reagan’s faith in the goodness of others had partly stemmed from Nelle’s optimistic faith. Later, while in Hollywood, Reagan would attend the Hollywood-Beverly Christian Church.

While in California he would also attend the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, whose Pastor, Rev. Dr. Moomaw, would give the invocation at Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981.


Reagan’s humor, optimism, and faith in America pervaded his communications with the public. Moreover, his economic agenda and foreign policy would help America emerge victorious over communism in the Cold War.


Reaganomics refers to the economic policy agenda of Reagan who supported tax cuts, deregulation of markets, and decreased welfare spending in order to spur economic growth and promote economic freedom.

Reagan’s Christian faith played a vital role in his life, and this was especially manifest in his opposition to racial discrimination long before the civil rights movement. Such opposition was unusual at that time, and Reagan would go out of his way to practice what he believed.

Once he recalled how he had invited two of his black teammates to his parents’ home because a local hotel, wherein his football team was lodging, would not let black people in. Reagan’s dad was also opposed to the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-black racism and anti-Semitism.

Following WWII, Reagan would give speeches in favor of racial equality as a prominent actor. In addition to supporting racial equality, Reagan would become a vocal advocate for the unborn, and run for the White House promising to sign pro-life bills into law.


Reagan went to Dixon High School. Herein, he developed a passion for sports, storytelling and acting. Reagan was the student body president, and an athlete.

He also performed in plays. Moreover, he would work as a lifeguard at Lowell Park’s Rock River and perform 77 rescues over 6 years. Reagan attended Eureka College, Illinois, where he studied sociology and economics.

Moreover, he ran track, played football, captained the swim team, acted in productions and served as the president of the student council. After graduating from Eureka in 1932, Reagan would go on to Iowa, and work as a radio sports announcer.


Reagan went on to work for WHO radio as an announcer for the baseball games of Chicago Cubs. He created play-by-play accounts of matches, utilizing elementary descriptions the station received via wire while the matches were in progress.

In 1937, while travelling with the Chicago Cubs, he took a screen test which would result eventually in a 7-year contract with Warner Bros.. Reagan procured his inaugural screen credit in Love is on the Air. By 1939 he had appeared in 19 movies.

In the 1940 biographical film Knute Rockne, All American, Reagan would play the role of George Gipp, thereby acquiring his famous nickname “the Gipper.” In 1941, he was voted Hollywood’s younger generation’s 5th most popular star. Subsequently, 1942’s King’s Row, widely considered to be Reagan’s best movie, would thrust Reagan into fame and triple his salary from $1,000 to $3,000 per week.

The same year, he was called into active duty in the military. Reagan would never become a huge first-rank star, but following his return from wartime service, he would co-star in several films such as John Loves Mary, the Voice of the Turtle, the Hasty Heart, Cattle of Queen of Montana, Bedtime for Bonzo, Hellcats of the Navy, and The Killers.

Service in the Military

Prior to joining active military duty, Reagan had completed 14 Army Extension Courses and had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army Reserve.

However, due to poor eyesight, Reagan would be excluded from serving overseas, and would be classified only for limited service. In his first assignment, he worked as a liaison officer at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation.

Later, Reagan was assigned to the US Army Air Forces Public Relations. Subsequently, he joined the 18th US Army Air Force Base Unit at Culver City, California. On the 14th of January 1943, Reagan became a first lieutenant and was dispatched to Burbank’s Provisional Task Force Show Unit. Upon fulfilling his duties, he came back to the 18th US Army Air Force Base Unit and was promoted, on the 22nd of July 1943, to captain.

Later, in 1944, Reagan would partake in the Sixth War Loan Drive in New York City. By the end of WWII, Reagan’s units had produced nearly 400 training videos including B-29 cockpit simulations. On the 9th of December 1945, Reagan left active duty as an Army captain.

However, he would hold onto a film showing the Auschwitz camp’s liberation. He was concerned that doubts might rise in the future concerning the historicity of the Holocaust.


Following the war, Reagan stepped into television. His series of weekly dramas as General Electric Theater’s host would become exceedingly popular.

Reagan was required by his contract to tour General Electric’s plants 16 weeks per year. This meant he had to give about 14 talks each day. The show would run from 1953 until 1963, raising Reagan’s national profile while earning him about $125,000.

Meanwhile, in January 1959, Reagan acted as the announcer for the Tournament of Roses Parade covered by ABC. He would also act alongside his wife Nancy Davis in 3 television series episodes; this would include a General Electric Theater installment called “A Turkey for the President.”

In his last professional work as an actor, Reagan hosted and performed the 1964/5 television series known as Death Valley Days.

Jane Wyman

In 1938’s Brother Rat, Regan co-starred with actress Jane Wyman, whom he would marry on the 26th of January, 1940 at Glendale’s Wee Kirk o’ the Heater church.

They would have two biological daughters named Maureen and Christine, as well as an adopted son named Michael. While Maurine and Michael would go onto become Republican activists, Christine would be born prematurely and die in 1947.

Reagan’s marriage to Wyman was not without challenges. The couple soon had arguments over Reagan’s plans to enter politics, and in 1948, Wyman filed for divorce. She cited Reagan’s Screen Actors Guild duties as well as their political differences as reasons for the breakup.

Their divorce was finalized in 1949. It must be noted that at this time Reagan was a still a Democrat while Wyman was a registered Republican. Wyman would continue to be friends with Reagan till the latter’s death, and would also vote for Reagan in both the elections.

Nancy Davis

In 1949, Reagan met Nancy Davis after she had solicited his assistance while he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, after her name had been mistakenly placed on a Hollywood Communist blacklist.

Nancy would later describe their encounter as quite close to love at first sight. The couple got engaged at Los Angeles’ famous Chasen’s restaurant, and were married at the Little Brown Church in San Fernando Valley on the 4th of March 1952.

They would have Patricia Ann Davis in 1952, and Ronald Prescott Reagan in 1958. The couple maintained a close and authentic relationship. Reagan would call Nancy “Mommy,” and she would call him “Ronnie.”

In 1998, even after Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Nancy would tell Vanity Fair that their relationship was “very special,” and that she could not “imagine life without him.”

Early Politics

Following his experiences with WWII, Reagan became more interested in political causes such as organization issues and contract negotiations. Reagan, at this time, was a staunch Democrat and believed that government could solve a myriad of problems.

Government, rather than private companies, he held, should own utilities, shelter the homeless, and provide socialized medicine. He considered Franklin D. Roosevelt “a true hero.” Reagan also opposed right-to-work legislation and backed Helen Douglas in her 1950 senate race against Richard Nixon, and Harry Truman against the Republican Thomas Dewey.

Meanwhile, Reagan’s brother Neil had become a Republican and the two had heated arguments. However, at the same time, Reagan began to examine his personal beliefs.


Reagan’s post-war involvements included the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood Democratic Committee and the American Veterans Committee(AVC). He gave speeches for the AVC against the threat of fascism.

During one of them, he was asked about communism. Reagan responded that he would oppose communism just as he opposes fascism. Dead silence ensued. Reagan concluded that the AVC was merely a Communist Front, and resigned from the group the next day.

During his work for the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), he became convinced that the HICCASP too, was merely a communist front, and gave the FBI full cooperation when he was contacted for information concerning the organization.

Reagan Becomes Republican

After being hired by General Electric in 1954, Reagan would travel across the nation giving inspirational talks to more than 200,000 employees of GE.

He was influenced by a senior executive of GE named Lemuel Boulware, who championed conservative values such as anticommunism, free markets, limited government, and low taxes. Reagan wrote his speeches himself.

Though non-partisan, these talks carried a pro-business message. Soon, Republican groups extended invitations to Reagan. Finally, in 1962, while delivering a campaign speech titled “Democrat for Nixon,” Reagan was interrupted and asked whether he had yet registered as a Republican. When Reagan responded “no” but that he intended to do so, a woman, claiming to be a registrar came down the center aisle and put a registration card before him.

That day, Reagan, before his audience, officially joined the Republican Party. It bears noting however, that Reagan would often say: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

Launching Out

Reagan’s first official step onto the political stage occurred via a televised speech which he would deliver on 27th of October 1964 for then Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

His speech titled “A Time for Choosing” would thrust him to fame within the Republican Party. While Goldwater’s campaign failed to win the White House, it did succeed in securing for Reagan a prominent place in the national political stage.

Soon a staunch Republican and Los Angeles automobile dealer Holmes Tuttle, along with some of his friends, approached Reagan. They told Reagan that they wanted to support him in running against the incumbent and liberal Democrat Pat Brown for Governor of California.

Reagan despite his initial reluctance, eventually agreed to travel through California for 6 months, discussing issues of concern to Californians. Still he was not sure whether he was the right person for the job.

However, too many people wanted Reagan to run for governor, and he was convinced that California could not endure 4 more years of Pat Brown. Finally, on the 4th of January 1966, Reagan announced that he would seek the Republican Party’s nomination for Governor of California.

Running for Office

Though he had been a charismatic actor, not a lot of people considered Reagan to be a tough contender for the office of governor.

In fact, the incumbent Governor Brown would indirectly intervene in the Republican primary in order to undermine Reagan’s primary opponent George Christopher, a moderate Republican and the former mayor of San Francisco.

Brown was under the impression that the politically unversed movie actor that Reagan was, would be easier to beat. However, Reagan won the primary with more than 64% of the votes against George Christopher who managed to procure only 30.08%.

Winning against Brown at the general election, nonetheless, still seemed like a feat to accomplish. Incumbent Governor Brown has been a popular figure both inside the Democrat Party and in California in general. He had won against former Vice President Richard Nixon in his bid for a second term as governor.

Additionally, Brown was being considered for Lyndon Johnson’s ticket in 1964. However, Brown’s prospects were challenged by the Watts riots and UC Berkeley’s student protests. Moreover, his decision to run for a 3rd term after having declared earlier that he would not do so, also accounted for his diminishing popularity.

All these factors helped the conservatives capitalize upon a crucial opportunity by nominating the conservative outsider and well-known actor Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a clear message. First, he promised to “send the welfare bums back to work.” Second, speaking in reference to the anti-establishment and anti-war protests at the University of California, Berkeley, he vowed to “clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

Reagan began to make gains in the polls, and many expected a close battle. However, even to the surprise of his most ardent supporters, Reagan procured more than 57% of the ballot, and defeated the two-term governor by almost a million votes.

Governor Reagan

Reagan was sworn in as the Governor of California on the 2nd of January 1967. Even after Reagan took office, the legislature was still dominated by Democrats.

During his first term he would freeze government hiring and approve measures to balance the budget. Moreover, on the 15th of May 1969, as promised, Reagan would make an effort to preserve law and order in California.

He dispatched the California Highway Patrol to quell the People’s Park protests. However, as the chaos persisted, Reagan sent in 2,200 California National Guard troops to restore order by occupying Berkeley for 2 weeks and cracking down on the rioters.

In 1967, Reagan would also sign the Mulford Act to disarm the Black Panther Party which the director of FBI would later describe as the greatest threat to America’s internal security. Finally, following a failed attempt by his opponents to impose a recall election upon him in 1968, Reagan would win a clear victory over Jesse Unruh, and be re-elected. Reagan chose not to run for a third term as governor.

His actions while in office had established his reputation as a conservative. However, his governorship was not without regrets.

Reagan’s Regrets

Governor Reagan would sign the Family Law Act, a merger of 2 bills written by the state legislature, which would become the America’s first legislation for no-fault divorce.

He would reveal years later that signing this law happened to be his greatest regret while in office. Moreover, after the state legislature had passed a pro-abortion bill which Democrat and state senator Anthony Beilenson had introduced, Reagan would spend many days in indecision.

By now he had been governor only 4 months, and with much reluctance, he would finally sign it on the 14th of June 1967. Under the new law, the annual number of abortions in California would surge from 5,018 in 1968, to 100,000 by the 1970s.

After recognizing the consequences of the legislation, Reagan announced that he was pro-life, and declared that had he been more experienced as governor, he would not have signed the legislation. Reagan would, moreover, maintain his pro-life position throughout the remainder of his political career and write extensively on the issue of abortion.

The 1976 Presidential Campaign

In his 1976 primary campaign against President Gerald Ford, Reagan sought to win a few initial primaries to challenge the seeming inevitability of Ford’s nomination. Reagan would secure Texas, California and North Carolina.

However, the plan failed, and he lost Florida, New Hampshire and Illinois. Furthermore, as the GOP convention drew closer, Ford approached nearer to victory.

Ford finally had 1,187 delegates over Reagan’s 1,070. It is possible that Reagan’s choice of the moderate Senator Richard Schweiker to draw the Republican Party’s liberal wing backfired, and caused the chairman of Mississippi, Clarke Reed to switch over to Ford, thereby helping Ford secure the nomination.

Beating Jimmy Carter

The presidential election of 1980 saw Reagan running against the incumbent President Jimmy Carter amidst domestic problems such as a failing economy, and international concerns such as the Iranian hostage crisis.

Having won the Republican primary against several major candidates, Reagan chose his primary opponent George H. W. Bush to be his running mate. Reagan focused his campaign on an overstimulated, overspent and overregulated federal government under liberal Jimmy Carter.

Moreover, he expressed strong views on national defense, and remained outspoken concerning his opposition to abortion. He would, for instance, declare during one of the presidential debates: “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.”

Reagan united many fiscal conservatives, national security conservatives and social conservatives with his campaign, and finally, on the 4th of November, won a decisive and historic victory over Jimmy Carter. Reagan won 489 electoral votes over Carter’s meager 49, and carried 44 states against Carter’s paltry 6 (plus the District of Columbia).

President Reagan

Reagan was sworn into office on the 20th of January 1981. At age 69, Reagan, at the time, was the oldest first-term president.

His inaugural addressed succinctly expressed most of what he would do during his presidency when he said: “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

Soon after taking office, Reagan proposed a constitutional amendment concerning school prayer, thereby becoming the first president to propose such an amendment. He sought to nullify 1962’s Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court case wherein the Court had decided against voluntary school prayer. Reagan would raise his concerns over the matter in 1984, 1985 and 1987.

Attempted Assassination

A couple of months after he had become president, Reagan had a close brush with death.

On the 30th of March 1981, Reagan, James Brady (Reagan’s press secretary), a Washington police officer, and a Secret Service agent were shot at by John Hinckley, a would-be assassin seeking to impress actress Jodie Foster.

Hinckley was found not guilty due to insanity, and was placed under institutional care. Meanwhile, Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, and was considered ‘close to death.’ He was stabilized subsequently in the emergency room, and subjected to surgery. Finally, Reagan was released from hospital on the 11th of April.

He would be the first US president in office to survive an assassination attempt involving being shot. Reagan forgave Hinckley, and was convinced that God had spared him so he could fulfill a higher purpose.

Reshaping the Judiciary

During his presidential campaign, Reagan had vowed to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court if given the opportunity.

Thus, following the retirement of Associate Justice Potter Stewart, Reagan chose the conservative Sandra Day O’Connor, who would be unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 1981.

Reagan would also nominate incumbent Associate Justice William Rehnquist to replace Chief Justice Warren Burger, and the conservative icon Antonin Scalia to occupy the consequent vacancy for an associate justice. In 1987, following the retirement of Associate Justice Lewis Powel Jr., Reagan nominated the originalist Judge Robert Bork.

Bork’s nomination would result in enormous contention in the Senate. Bork had to be finally withdrawn, and Reagan chose the moderate Anthony Kennedy, who would go onto become a swing vote on the Supreme Court.

Reaganomics: The 2nd American Revolution

The pro-free market and supply-side economics which would characterize Reagan’s economic policy was based on checks on government spending, reduction of income tax, deregulation of the economy, decreases in capital gains and a stable monetary policy.

Several months after taking office, Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. During his second term, he would sign the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Both these would have a profound impact upon the economy, and fundamentally reshape America’s trajectory.

Inflation dropped from more than 13% in 1980 to nearly 4% by 1988. 20 million new jobs were created, and unemployment decreased from 7.6% to 5.5%. Employment among African-Americans rose between 1982 and 1988 by more than 25%.

Moreover, more than 50% of the new jobs went to women. Also, the net worth of families with incomes between $20,000 & $50,000 grew by 27%, and the real gross national product rose by 26%.

The recovery America experienced under Reagan was so impressive that the West German Chancellor would say to Reagan at the G7 Economic Summit, “tell us about the American miracle.”

The 1984 Presidential Campaign

Reagan, having accepted the Republican nomination at the party convention in Dallas, Texas, had to run against Democrat and former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Referring to America’s stunning economic recovery, Reagan declared in his campaign: “it’s morning again in America.” Despite the convincing numbers, Reagan’s performance in the first debate was weak and his ability to gain a second term was questioned.

However, he managed to make a comeback in the second debate, and quipped concerning his age: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” His remark generated laughter even from his opponent Mondale. Reagan would subsequently go on to win a landslide victory.

Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states, with Mondale winning only Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Reagan also secured 525 of the 538 electoral votes, the highest number any presidential candidate had ever won in US history.

Moreover, Reagan’s margin of victory in the popular vote was approximately 16.9 million, which had been exceeded only by Richard Nixon’s victory in 1972 over George McGovern.

Reagan’s Realism

Carter’s foreign policy of détente had resulted in major debacles such as the Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan’s assumption of office, however, was marked by a strategic buildup of the United States Military as well as a foreign policy which strove for peace by demonstrating strength.

Reagan restored the B-1 Lancer program, and produced the MX MIRV-capable intercontinental ballistic missile. Moreover, in response to the USSR’s deployment of the SS-20 Saber, he oversaw the deployment of the MGM-31A Pershing missile in West Germany.

Meanwhile, Reagan, together with the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, vehemently denounced the Soviet Union. Addressing the Parliament of the United Kingdom, Reagan declared that democracy and freedom would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.”

He also predicted the fall of communism noting that communism is a “sad, bizarre chapter in human history,” and that its “last pages even now are being written.” Addressing the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan would condemn the Soviet Union as “an evil empire.”

Responding to Soviet Aggression

On the 1st of September 1983, the Soviet Air Forces mistook for a US spy plane, and subsequently shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 which had been flying from New York City to Seoul via Alaska. Due to a navigational error, the airliner had flown through the USSR’s prohibited airspace, and had probably not seen the warning shots fired by the Soviets.

The incident caused outrage in the United States. The Reagan Administration soon responded by suspending all USSR air service to the US, and dropping a few agreements that were being negotiated with the Soviets, thereby hurting the USSR financially.

Following the incident, Reagan also announced that the Global Positioning System would become available free of charge for civilian use in order to prevent similar navigational mistakes.

Bombing Libya

Beginning with the incident in the Gulf of Sidra in August 1981, wherein the US shot down Libyan Su-22 Fitters, in response to Libyan aggression based on illegal territorial claims, the US and Libya would experience strained relations.

Additionally, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, were regarded an ‘unholy trinity’ by the CIA.

This tension exploded when the entertainment venue, La Belle discotheque, was bombed on 5th April 1986, killing three and injuring 229 people. Among the dead were two US soldiers, and among the injured were 79 Americans.

A court would later discover that the terrorist attack had been planned by the Libyan embassy and the Libyan Intelligence. Reagan’s response to the attack was swift. On the 15th of April, with the approval of Margaret Thatcher to use British air bases, the US launched airstrikes on Libyan targets inflicting heavy damage.

Countering Communism

Under what would be described as the Reagan Doctrine, the Reagan administration would provide covert and overt assistance to anti-communist movements to rollback USSR-backed communist regimes in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

The Special Activities Division of the CIA would be deployed in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they would equip, train and lead Mujahideen groups against the USSR forces occupying Afghanistan.

Reagan’s program of covert action would play a vital role in ending Soviet control over the nation. Moreover, the CIA would share crucial information with the Iranian regime, enabling them, thereby, to purge communists from its administration and eliminate pro-USSR infrastructure.

Finally, the CIA, via its operation “QUHELPFUL,” provided enormous support to Poland’s Solidarity Movement, which would unite much of the Polish population; about 90% of Polish families had ties to Solidarity.

It bears noting here that Reagan’s close relationship with Pope John Paul II cannot escape notice in examining how Reagan helped bring about the eventual fall of communism.

Reagan and the Pope

Both Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II had grown up poor, had been athletes and actors, had charismatic personalities, had survived assassination attempts in the spring of 1981, and shared a disdain for communism.

The two had much in common. Nancy called the pope Reagan’s “closest” friend, and Reagan himself would reveal that the pope was his “best friend.”

John Paul II would declare in 1982 that America was “called, above all, to fulfill its mission” in defense of “justice and freedom.” He also had no problem openly denouncing Soviet atrocities such as the suppression of religious freedom, or demoting church officials seeking to accommodate the USSR.

Reagan meanwhile, would formalize relations with the Vatican and send an ambassador. He would record in his diaries about discussing world affairs with the pope. The two together, would increase their coordinated economic and political pressure upon the Soviet Union as well as Mikhail Gorbachev, eventually bringing about the collapse of communism.

The Soviet Decline

Until the 1980s, the United States had primarily relied upon the superiority of her arms to deter the Soviets. This gap, however, would be gradually narrowed. Nonetheless, as Reagan started rebuilding America’s military, the USSR failed to keep up.

Additionally, the USSR’s collectivized agriculture as well as unproductive planned manufacturing would impose a heavy burden on its economy. Finally, as the oil prices fell, the already failing Soviet economy’s fundamental problems began surfacing.

Meanwhile, the reformist Gorbachev started taking steps toward liberalization and reconciliation with the free world. The January of 1986 saw Gorbachev openly calling for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, and soon he would meet with Reagan in Iceland to discuss arms reduction.

The following year, the Soviets stopped their jamming of the broadcasts of the BBC and Voice of America. Religion too, began enjoying more tolerance, and Soviet television would cover an Easter service for the first time. Gorbachev also announced that the USSR would no longer prohibit Soviet Jews from migrating to Israel.

On the 12th of June 1987, speaking near the Berlin Wall, Reagan finally challenged Gorbachev for more, saying: “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Sure enough, in June 1990, the Wall started coming down, and its demolition was complete by 1992.


In 1989, Reagan left office with an approval rating of 68%, matching that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the highest up to that time for an outgoing president in the modern era.

After leaving the White House, the Reagans bought a house in Bel Air, Los Angeles, and would regularly go to Bel Air Church. Reagan would also occasionally appear on behalf of the Republican Party, and speak at the Republican National Convention of 1992.

He continued his support for the Brady Bill (a constitutional amendment demanding a balanced budget), and the repeal of the 22nd Amendment. He would also establish the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1992 with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

Reagan made his final speech in public on the 3rd of February 1994 in Washington D.C., and his last major appearance in public occurred at the funeral of President Richard Nixon on the 27th of April 1994.

Final Years

In the August of 1994, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83.

Following the diagnosis, he told Americans via a handwritten letter: “I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done (…) I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.

I know that for America there will be always a bright dawn ahead.” Letters of support soon poured into his home. As his mental capacity began to deteriorate, Reagan’s public appearances became less frequent.

However, he remained active, taking walks near his home, and playing golf regularly. In 2001, Reagan would reach the age of 90, becoming one of only 3 presidents to do so by this time.


On the 5th of June 2004, Reagan died of pneumonia while at home in Bel Air, California. President George W. Bush described Reagan’s death as a “sad hour in the life of America,” and declared the 11th of June a National Day of Mourning.

Following a brief family funeral on the 7th of June at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Reagan’s body was flown to Washington, D.C. In 34 hours, 104,684 people would file past his coffin, and on the 11th of June his state funeral was held at the Washington National Cathedral.

Eulogies were given by President George W. Bush, former President George H.W. Bush, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Others in attendance included Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Prince Charles, and the German Chancellor Gerhard. Following the funeral, the entourage was flown to California. Another service was held there, and President Reagan was laid to rest.


Despite the debate between liberal and conservative scholars concerning the merits of Reagan’s policies, many seem to agree that Reagan was probably the most influential president after Franklin D.

Roosevelt. Via skillful communication and a pragmatic approach, Reagan has no doubt left his imprint on America’s political saga. Moreover, there is broad consensus that Reagan revived conservative politics, moved the nation to the right, championed American exceptionalism, and helped the free world prevail over Soviet communism.

Long after his presidency and death, Reagan continues to live in the hearts of millions of Americans.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Ronald Reagan." World History Blog, Aug 24, 2021.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

  • "Main Street Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form" (PDF). Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. April 1, 1982.
  • "Ronald Reagan > Hollywood Years". Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
  • "Ronald Reagan > Reagan’s Life & Times". Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
  • "Ronald Reagan: Life Before the Presidency". Miller Center.
  • "The Alzheimer's Letter". PBS. Archived from the original on December 16, 2006.
  • “A Pope and A President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.” The Heritage Foundation.
  • Bernstein, Carl (February 24, 1992). "The Holy Alliance". Time. Archived from the original on September 1, 2007.
  • Beschloss, Michael (2008). Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How they Changed America 1789–1989. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-5744-2.
  • Cannon, Lou (2000) [1991]. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1-891620-91-1.
  • Cannon, Lou (2003). Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1-58648-284-8.
  • Cannon, Lou (June 6, 2004). "Actor, Governor, President, Icon". The Washington Post.
  • Hyer, Marjorie (July 25, 1980). "Reagan, Carter, Anderson: Three 'Born Again' Christians Who Differ on Meaning". The Washington Post.
  • Kengor, Paul (2004). God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-057141-1.
  • Lynette Holloway (December 13, 1996). "Neil Reagan, 88, Ad Executive And Jovial Brother of President". The New York Times.
  • Murdock, Deroy (November 20, 2007)."Reagan, No Racist", National Review.
  • Reagan, Nancy; Novak, William (1989). My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-56368-8.
  • Reagan, Ronald (2003). Skinner, Kiron K.; Anderson, Annelise; Anderson, Martin (eds.). Reagan: A Life in Letters. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-1967-9.
  • Reagan, Ronald (2007). Brinkley, Douglas (ed.). The Reagan Diaries. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-0608-7600-5.
  • Shirley, Craig (September 24, 2015) “Another President, Another Pope.” USNews.
  • Smith, Gary Scott (2006). Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press US. ISBN 9780198041153.
  • Troy, Gil (2009). The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.