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Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall
More than any other single person, President Ronald Reagan was responsible for the destruction of the Berlin wall and the defeat of Communism. It was his policies as President of the United States (U.S.) that led to the instability in the regimes of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its puppet governments in Eastern Europe. He took the bold step of breaking with previous U.S. foreign policy to advocate the defeat of communism instead of coexistence. "Reagan's experience in winning the Cold War provides a model of strength and offers hope. In 1980, no one expected to see the Berlin Wall come down that decade."
It was this forcefulness that was the proximate cause for the opening of the wall on November 9, 1989. In an interview on November 27, 1995, Jerry Falwell said, "Many thought he was a hawk, but I never saw him that way at all. I think his 'peace through strength' initiative was just the opposite. And it turned out to be correct: it brought the Berlin wall down; it brought Soviet communism to an end. He knew that they could not match us. He broke their back militarily and economically. I believe that this was his goal upon taking office."
Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, the second of two sons to John "Jack" Reagan and Nelle Wilson. One of his four great-grandfathers had immigrated to the United States from Ballyporeen, Ireland in the 1860s. Prior to his grandfather's emigration, the family name had been spelled Regan. In 1920, after years of moving from town to town, the family settled in Dixon, Illinois. In 1921, at the age of 10, Reagan was baptized in his mother's Disciples of Christ church in Dixon, and in 1924 he began attending Dixon's Northside High School. Reagan always considered Dixon to be his hometown.
In 1928, Reagan entered Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, majoring in economics and sociology and was graduated in 1932. In 1929 Ronald Reagan joined Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity, which he recalled during numerous interviews and conversations later in life as one of the greatest experiences he had during his college years. Though earning mediocre grades, he made many lasting friendships. Reagan developed an early gift for storytelling and acting. He was a radio announcer of Chicago Cubs baseball games, getting only the bare outlines of the game from a ticker and relying on his imagination and storytelling gifts to flesh out the game. Once in 1934, during the ninth inning of a Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals game, the wire went dead. Reagan smoothly improvised a fictional play-by-play (in which hitters on both teams fouled off pitches) until the wire was restored.
Reagan was popular with audiences, and aided by his clear voice and athletic physique, he primarily starred in Hollywood in the leading man roles in B. movies. His first screen credit was the starring role in the 1937 movie Love Is On the Air. By the end of 1939, he had appeared in 19 films. In 1940 he played the role of George "The Gipper" Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American, from which he acquired the nickname the Gipper, which he retained the rest of his life.
Reagan was commissioned as a reserve cavalry officer in the U.S. Army in 1935. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he was activated and assigned, partially due to his poor eyesight, to the First Motion Picture Unit in the United States Army Air Force, which made training and education films. He remained in Hollywood for the duration of the war, and he attained the rank of captain.
In 1952 Ronald Reagan married Nancy Davis. She became a powerful background figure in Reagan's rise and roles as governor and president.
Ronald Reagan began his political life as a Democrat, supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. He gradually became a staunch social and fiscal conservative. He embarked upon the path that led him to a career in politics during his tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 until 1952, and then again from 1959 to 1960. In this position, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee on Communist influence in Hollywood.
Concluding that the Republican Party was better able to combat communism, Reagan gradually abandoned his left-of-center political views, supporting the presidential candidacies of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 and Richard Nixon in 1960, all while he was still a Democrat.
His employment by the General Electric company from 1954 to 1962 further enhanced his political image. It was during his travels for the company that his conservative beliefs coalesed. He gave speeches at GE facilities focusing on the value of a free market economy and the benefit's of GE's products, and during the course of the talk he would exchange ideas with the workers. "It was not what he said to them but what they said to him that was important. They were the kind of people with whom he grew up, and he saw them as hard-working, decent Americans for whom life had not been easy. He became a convert to their way of thinking and, in time, a champion for their interests."
By the 1964 Presidential election, Reagan was an outspoken supporter of conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. His nationally televised speech, "A Time for Choosing," electrified conservatives and led to his being asked to run for Governor of California. To this day, this speech is considered one of the most stirring ever made on behalf of a candidate. Soon after, several top Republican contributors visited Reagan at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, urging him to seek the governorship in 1966. Though these requests were initially "laughed off" by Reagan, he says in his autobiography, he eventually gave in.
In 1966, he was elected the 33rd Governor of California, defeating two-term incumbent Pat Brown. He was re-elected in 1970, defeating Jesse Unruh, but chose not to seek a third term. During his first term, he froze government hiring, but also approved tax hikes to balance the budget. One of Reagan's greatest frustrations in office concerned the death penalty. He had gone on record as a strong supporter. However, his efforts to enforce the state's death penalty law were thwarted when the Supreme Court of California issued its People v. Anderson decision, which invalidated all death sentences passed in California prior to 1972. Although the decision was quickly overturned by a constitutional amendment, there would not be another execution in California until 1992.
Reagan's first attempt to gain the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 was unsuccessful. He tried again in 1976 against the incumbent Gerald Ford, but was narrowly defeated at the Republican Convention. In 1978, Reagan visited the Berlin Wall, which has gained more importance in retrospect. He was accompanied by an aide, Peter Hannsford, who told Dinesh D'Souza, "he remembers Reagan's 'cold fury' as he gazed at the symbol of the divide between freedom and totalitarianism. Reagan's reaction was brief and to the point: 'This wall has got to come down.'"
He finally succeeded in gaining the Republican nomination in 1980. The campaign, led by William J. Casey, was conducted in the shadow of the Iran hostage crisis, and some analysts believe President Jimmy Carter's inability to solve the hostage crisis played a large role in Reagan's victory against him in the 1980 election. Other issues in the campaign included inflation, lackluster economic growth, instability in the petroleum market leading to a return of gas lines, and the perceived weakness of the U.S. national defense.
Reagan's showing in the televised debates boosted his campaign. He seemed more at ease, making fun of President Carter with remarks like "There you go again." Perhaps his most influential remark was a closing question to the audience, during a time of skyrocketing global oil prices and highly unpopular Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
While leaving the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC on March 30, 1981, Reagan, his Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delanty were shot by John Hinckley, Jr. Reagan turned what could have been a low point in his first 100 days into another high point by remarking "I hope you're all Republicans," to his surgeons and "Honey, I forgot to duck" to his wife.
In order to achieve increases in military spending to fight the Cold War, the administration had to allow increases in spending on social programs, resulting in record deficit spending and a tripling of the national debt by the end of his second term. At the same time, inflation, which had been 13% in 1979, came down to under 4% in 1982. Unemployment also dropped from 7.5% in the year that Reagan took office to 5.2% in the year that he left. Proponents often note that Reagan used his veto on public spending projects…[continue]
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