Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004)

Ronald Wilson Reagan

Any man who lives to 93 has had a long life. Any man who lives to the age of 93 in the company of a loving wife and family has had a good life. If that man can add Hollywood star to his resume, he has had a great life. And if that man can add on top of that the title of President of the United States, then he is incomparable.

Ronald Wilson Reagan is an icon, as much a touchstone of America in the past fifty years as Pierre Elliott Trudeau is to Canada’s past fifty years. He was larger than life throughout his life, and he deserves to have his many accomplishments read into the history books, never to be forgotten.

But he was not a great president.

In the lead-up to his death, and in the year passing, conservative Americans have called Ronald Reagan the greatest American of all time. They’ve ascribed messianic accomplishments to him. Reagan made America great again, they say. Reagan ended the Cold War. It’s the latter claim that bothers me in particular. Not only is it ascribing too much credit to one man in a large administration of a large country, it’s an inaccurate read of history.

Despite my (according to some conservatives) hopelessly liberal education, even as Reagan was heckled during his visits to Canada (and throughout the world), our high schools had no problem painting the Red Menace of the Soviet Union as the clear enemy to our way of life. We studied Marx and ripped him apart. We followed the life of Stalin and learned that he killed more Ukrainians than Hitler killed Jews. And while we were taught that it may be foolhardy to believe we could survive even a (Reagan-coined) “limited” nuclear war, we were under no illusions that there weren’t two guns pointed at each other, ready to fire. And, flawed thought the country was, the United States were the good guys.

But my education also taught me something else; something I suspect wasn’t taught in American high schools: Soviet Communism came with a self-destruct switch.

Did you folks ever study the history of the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans? I did, in Grade 11 Regional Geography. Such was the quality of this course and its teacher (Mr. Russell), that I still remember it. It was here that I first learned about the term “guns versus butter”.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, largely with the support of the populace, sick of the incompetence of the Tsars. Immediately Lenin set about pulling the country out of its feudal existence into the modern world. Stalin followed. Being brutal dictators, with a significant cult of personality about them, they were not above essentially mobilizing slave labour and focusing the bulk of the nation’s resources to key products. Stalin formalized this in 1928 with the first Five Year Plan, wherein he said that the Soviet Union was fifty to a hundred years behind the Western World, and had to industrialize, or be crushed.

These nation-building exercises tended to fall into two categories: guns or butter. “Guns” described projects aimed towards national infrastructure, like railroad construction, steel production, power projects, a revitalized army — all items which strengthen a nation, even though it provides goods that the populace can’t eat. Butter describes improvements in the make and availability of consumer goods — items which improve the daily lives of the people, but which don’t necessarily strengthen the nation.

The first few five-year plans of the Soviet Union tended to focus heavily on guns rather than butter, and Mr. Russell demonstrated how the government managed to maintain the permission of the public to govern in this fashion by pointing to a representation of the Tsar and saying “You remember the Tsar! You remember the Great War! Yes, you may have to go to the bathroom in a frozen outhouse, but at least you have an outhouse! These projects will move us forward! Your sacrifices will pay off in the end.”

In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and, following the Second World War, Russia’s five-year plans again tended to lean heavily towards Guns, especially industrial reconstruction. And again, Mr. Russell said, “You remember the Tsar! You remember the Second World War! Yes, your bathroom may have no indoor plumbing, but at least it’s inside the house this time. These projects will move us forward, yatta, yatta, yatta.”

But as the sixties changed into the seventies, more focus was given to butter. And Mr. Russell started his tirade, saying: “You remember the Tsar— or do you? Do you even remember the war?”

By the 1970s, the first generation of children born without a memory of the war had reached the age of majority. They’d heard the tales of their parents and their grandparents about the sacrifices they’d made all their lives, and they started to realize that they were looking at a third generation of sacrifice. Their parents and grandparents may have believed that their sacrifice was bringing about a better life, but the new generation was getting impatient to see that better life. Very quickly, the new generation concluded that the promise of a better life was false. Why should they spend their entire life in sacrifice and denial?

Communism has never appeared in a vacuum. It has never toppled by force a prosperous and truly democratic government. It has always materialized in place of a regime that was measurably worse. With a few exceptions (see Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, whose uprisings were crushed by the Soviets) it has always governed with the grudging acceptance of the general public, so long as the public generally believed that their dictators have their country on the road to improvements.

Usually, this translates into the public giving their newly minted communist dictatorships forty years in which to build something better; after that point, a critical mass of dissent topples the regime. The only reason the Soviet Union got a seventy-year lease on life was because of the intervention of the Second World War. Even in the 1930s, butter was starting to win out against guns in the balance of the comparable five-year plans. The Second World War was a reset button. Hitler became the new Tsarist bogeyman for the dictatorship to point to and demand sacrifice. By the 1980s, that trick wasn’t working anymore for anybody between the Iron Curtain and the Chinese border.

It’s telling that, in 1989, the communist regime in China passed its fortieth anniversary milestone, and that was the year this government came the closest to falling. But despite some hopeful moments that change would begin in Tienanmen Square, China had done something its Eastern European counterparts had not: it had started to ditch the communist economic system, even as it maintained the Communist Party political structure. It is in some ways unfortunate that the liberalized economic policies gave enough Chinese sufficient economic freedoms that the pro-democracy revolutions fizzled and were crushed, even as the regimes of Eastern Europe toppled like a row of dominoes.

Reagan’s heralded 8% per year increase in American military spending didn’t do much to destroy the communist “economy”, since the Soviets didn’t follow suit. And it makes little sense to trumpet an ability to destroy the Soviets ten times over, when the Soviets still had the capability of destroying the West once. It was also during this period that the Reagan administration backed a number of “freedom fighters” (not a substantial departure from previous administrative policies) which, while it may have reduced communist influence in Afghanistan and Latin America, funneled support to to such “allies” as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

So, Reagan didn’t end communism; communism ended itself. It would have collapsed even if Walter Mondale were President. And other than accidentally being in power when the Soviet machine collapsed, Reagan’s other accomplishments as president are less than stellar. He tripled America’s debt. He did incredible damage to the nation’s education system, not to mention worker rights and environmental protections. Early in his administration, his budget director proposed classifying ketchup as a vegetable in order to save money on federally funded school lunch programs. And let us not forget the Iran Contra scandal.

But I will give Reagan credit for one thing: he responding wisely to Gorbachev’s peace initiatives, rather than simply turning the screws based on a perceived advantage. This allowed the moderates in the Soviet regime to ramp down the military rhetoric without losing face to the hardliners. In doing this, Reagan made sure that America was not the bogeyman that the hardliners could unite the people against.

And Reagan was larger-than-life, exceptionally good on camera (he was “The Great Communicator”, after all), and this larger-than-life president exemplified the larger-than-life consumer generation that defined the United States in the 1980s, and pulled it out of the malaise that defined the 1970s. America of the 1980s was the home of the “Me Generation” and conspicuous consumption. Our television images helped drive home to the people of Eastern Europe that their system wasn’t working, that there were better things to hope for west of the Iron Curtain. And that probably hastened the dictatorships’ defeat.

But the bulk of that credit rests more with the American people than with Reagan. If America returned to greatness in the 1980s, surely that was more the result of the people more than it was one man shaking off the malaise for them. To call Reagan the greatest American is to sell a whole lot of people in the nation short.

Further Reading

So… who really is the Greatest American?

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