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Ronald Reagan

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Ronald Reagan

In 1980, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H W Bush were elected in a landslide victory against Democrat Jimmy Carter. America had taken a turn to the right, voting for increased pressure on the USSR abroad and conservative economic policies at home. From the beginning, Reagan was meeting political successes. Just hours into his presidency, a group of hostages that the Carter administration had been trying to free since November 1979, were finally released.

Ronald Reagan Image of Ronald Reagan StudySmarterRonald Reagan/Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan: Biography

Ronald Reagan first became famous as a radio announcer for baseball games in the 1930s, before becoming a successful movie star in the 1940s. He was originally a liberal New Deal supporter who campaigned for Democrat Harry Truman in 1948, but throughout the '40s and '50s he became increasingly conservative, switching his party to Republican in 1962 and campaigning for Nixon in 1960. In the '50s, with his movie career waning, he became the spokesman for General Electric, honing his ability to deliver conservative pro-business speeches. In 1966, Ronald Reagan successfully ran for governor of California, before unsuccessfully attempting to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976.

Reagan's political shift to the right occurred in the late 40s and early 50s, influenced by the Red Scare. Reagan testified before HUAC and participated in the Hollywood Blacklist. His second wife, Nancy, also harbored very conservative views that influenced him.

Ronald Reagan's Presidency

Ronald Reagan's presidency began with two events that increased his already high popularity: the return of the hostages and his survival of an assassination attempt. He built on the good will and sympathy that the events created to pass a legislative agenda that changed the economy and resulted in an even greater landslide in his 1984 reelection. Despite controversies over a tragedy in Lebanon and the Iran-Contra Affair in his second term, Reagan left office as a popular president.

Ronald Reagan Hospital StudySmarter Reagan Conducts Business from His Hospital Room 1981/Wikimedia Commons

Assassination Attempt: Ronald Reagan

John Hinkley Jr shot Ronald Reagan in a failed assassination attempt on March 30, 1981. Still close to the beginning of his term, how he handled the assassination attempt endeared him to the public. He was reported to have joked with the doctors working on him that he hoped they were Republicans. Although he survived, his wounds were life-threatening and kept him in the hospital until April 11th. His return to the Oval Office in late April was greeted with a standing ovation.

Hinkley was controversially found not guilty by reason of insanity. He also wounded two others in the attack, leaving one with permanent brain damage. He was fully released from psychiatric rehabilitation in June 2022.

Reagan Doctrine

The Reagan Doctrine was a foreign policy concept that the US needed to not just contain Communism, but actively roll it back. Reagan felt that this should be done by supporting resistance movements in any country where pro-Soviet forces were present. Much of the activity was in the form of covert actions committed by the CIA and included things like the Iran-Contra Affair.


Reagan's controversial economics ideas, known as Reaganomics, proposed cutting taxes, reducing regulations on businesses, and creating a tight money supply to halt inflation. Reagan liked to call them "trickle-down economics", stating that tax cuts for employers would result in more jobs and higher wages, but critics pointed to a widening gap between the rich and poor.

There were strong GDP gains, the end of 1970s stagflation economic problems, and increased entrepreneurship during the Reagan years, but also an increased federal deficit and long-term problems created by irresponsibility in deregulated industries.


An economics term for when economic growth stagnates (Stag-), inflation rate is high (-flation), and unemployment rates remain high.

When both were competing for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, George H W Bush called Reagan's economic ideas "voodoo economics".

Ronald Reagan AIDS

The spread of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) had become a global pandemic in the 1980s. To address the issue, President Reagan appointed the President's Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1987. The administration had previously been criticized for not making AIDS a priority, as its perception to primarily be an issue facing the LGBTQ+ community marginalized the problem.

The commission faced accusations that it was politically biased against taking the issue seriously and that it did not contain a single LGBTQ+ representative. Ultimately, the June 1988 final report from the commission recommended a significant investment in combatting AIDS and anti-discrimination protections for AIDS patients. Reagan said he agreed with the report's anti-discrimination proposals, but did not act on it for the six months of his term that remained.

Lebanon and Granada

In 1983, Reagan sent US Marines to join an international peace keeping force in Lebanon to halt a violent conflict involving Israel, Syria, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. A bombing in October 1983 resulted in the death of 241 US Marines stationed in Lebanon, and US forces soon left the country.

Ronald Reagan Marines in Grenada StudySmarterUS Marines in Grenada/Wikimedia Commons

Just days after the Lebanese bombing, the US invaded the island of Granada during a violent power struggle on the island. They claimed to act on an invitation by other Caribbean nations to intervene, and feared that US medical students on the island would be taken hostage. The intervention was popular domestically in the United States, but was condemned by the United Nations as illegal.

Ronald Reagan Iran-Contra

The Contras were a right wing paramilitary group in Nicaragua fighting the left wing Sandinista government. Reagan had supported the group in an effort to keep Communist governments out of Latin America, but Congress banned US money for the Contras under the 1982 Boland Amendment. While the US publicly opposed selling arms to Iran because of their connections to terrorist organizations, the Reagan administration was secretly selling them arms in order to leverage those very connections for the freeing of hostages. Colonel Oliver North connected the two elements by funneling off the books proceeds from the illegal arms sales to the Contras.

Reagan and Iran-Contra

When the scandal became public in 1986, Reagan admitted that the arms sales had occurred, but stated there were no arms for hostages trades. In 1987, he admitted that arms had been traded for hostages, and stated that while he was not directly aware of what was happening, he took responsibility for it. Congressional investigations found no direct proof of Reagan's awareness, but did result in the conviction of several involved officials.

Ronald Reagan Accomplishments

Reagan's economic policies resulted in GDP growth and the end of stagflation. However, the long-term consequences of his policies remain debated. One clear victory for Reagan was seeing the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Ironically, the man who campaigned on getting tough on the USSR developed a friendly relationship with its new leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.

Ronald Reagan Photograph of Reagan and Gorbachev StudySmarterReagan and Gorbachev/Wikimedia Commons

Escalating Defense Spending

Even before he entered office, Reagan had been critical that his predecessors like Nixon and Carter had been too soft on the Soviet Union, which Reagan called an "Evil Empire". He massively increased military spending, most controversially with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), based on fears that the Soviet Union was getting ahead of the United States. Although defense spending seems like a counterintuitive way to end a war, some historians believe that Reagan's defense spending was a major reason for the end of the Cold War. Already hampered by the massive expenses of the 1979 Soviet invasions of Afghanistan, trying to match US defense spending pushed the Soviet economy towards collapse. The resulting reforms and a new desire to work with the United States were a part of easing tensions.

SDI was controversial for its plan to use space-based weapons to create an impenetrable shield around the US, which would consist of weapons that could shoot down incoming nuclear weapons. Critics who viewed the idea as too costly and too far into the realm of science fiction dubbed the idea "Star Wars", after the film series, to make fun of it.

Easing Cold War Tensions

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the USSR in 1985, he quickly instituted reforms to deal with its faltering economy. At the Geneva Summit in 1985, Gorbachev and Nixon made an agreement to discontinue seeking military supremacy. The two began arms reductions negotiations in 1986, despite controversy over Reagan's famous 1987 speech asking Gorbachev personally to remove the Berlin Wall, resulting in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The popular 1987 treaty reduced nuclear weapons, dramatically improved relations, and caused Reagan to state that he no longer viewed the USSR as an "Evil Empire".

Shortly into his successor George H W Bush's term, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Cold War ended.

Speeches Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was known as "The Great Communicator". Before entering politics, he had been a radio announcer and an actor, giving him a great deal of experience in presenting himself to people and communication. He spoke in simple plain language that related to his base's values. Many voters found Reagan likeable through his self deprecation and his general placing of the credit for his administration with the voters instead of himself. His focus on communication was greatly inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats.

Ronald Reagan - Key takeaways

  • Reagan was elected in 1980 with Vice President George H W Bush then reelected in 1984
  • The Reaganomics policy of "trickle down economics" was to place more money in the hands of employers to result in higher wages and more jobs
  • The Reagan Doctrine foreign policy believed that the US should roll back Communism by supporting resistance movements
  • Reagan's increased defense spending helped to draw the Cold War to a close
  • Iran-Contra Affair scandal involved trading arms for hostages, but Reagan was never proven to have direct knowledge

Frequently Asked Questions about Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election due to low approval of Jimmy Carter over the economy and hostages, as well as his charisma and organizing of the New Right. 

Ronald Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. 

Ronald Reagan was popular for his communication abilities and tapping into conservative frustration with the 1970s social changes. 

Ronald Reagan stood for small government and fighting Communism abroad. 

Ronald Reagan lowered taxes, deregulated business, tried to roll back Communism and began the end of the Cold War.

Final Ronald Reagan Quiz


What did Ronald Reagan call the USSR?

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An Evil Empire 

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What was the idea behind Reaganomics or "Trickle Down Economics"?

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Tax breaks for companies and entrepeneurs will result in more jobs and higher wages

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How did Ronald Reagan feel about his predecessors' policies on the Soviet Union?

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Nixon and Carter had been too soft 

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What Soviet Leader was Ronald Reagan able to develop a good relationship with?

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Mikhail Gorbachev 

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Congressional hearings found no evidence that Ronald Reagan was aware of the Iran-Contra Affair when it was going on 

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What was the US trading with Iran during the Iran-Contra Affair?

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Arms for hostages 

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What did Ronald Reagan first become famous as?

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A radio announcer 

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Who was Ronald Reagn's Vice President?

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George H W Bush 

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Ronald Reagan was known as the Great ______?

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What was the Reagan Doctrine?

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The US should support Anti-Communist forces anywhere on the globe

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