He had but the foggiest idea what the policies of his own administration were. When not programmed by his staff he talked nonstop about Hollywood or whiled away the hours watching T.V. Bored with his duties, he came to work reluctantly, amusing himself doodling and nodding off in cabinet meetings. His solution for every problem was a dismissive one-liner accompanied by an amiable grin.
The first telepresident in history, he came alive only for the camera, and appeared coherent thanks to the constant assistance of a Teleprompter. Unchoreographed moments left him babbling like a small child. With curious vehemence and farcical regularity his aides announced that he was in charge and understood what was going on.
He thought by anecdote and debated with sentimental homilies. Inconvenient facts were blotted out with self-justifying stereotypes: of Soviet beachheads, of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, of voluntary ghettos, of Communist hordes descending on Texas, of rich kids getting free school lunches, and of educational loan recipients turned stock brokers. To mobilize support for unpopular budget cuts, he cited anonymous letters from altruistic blind, elderly, and disabled citizens, who urged him to slash their benefits for the good of the country.
His political convictions seemed the product of a creative catatonia. He insisted trees were a major cause of air pollution. He believed Trident nuclear missiles were recallable after firing, and dubbed the first-strike MX missile a peacekeeper. He claimed Karl Marx had invented the progressive income tax. Returning from his first trip to Latin America, he exclaimed that they're all individual countries, which was apparently a revelation to him. He once addressed Samuel Doe, Liberian head of state, as "Chairman Moe."
Carrying out a devastating array of reactionary policies, he slashed social spending and transferred the "savings" to the Pentagon. In the twelve years of Reagan and George Bush I administrations, the U.S. spent $3,700,000,000 on military spending. Major emphasis was placed on an intensification of the Cold War, especially a massive build-up in nuclear weapons and a corresponding elaboration of nuclear war-fighting strategies and ideology. In October, 1981, the Reagan administration called for 1000 warheads on 100 MX missiles, 100 B-1 bombers, the development of an advanced, radar-proof Stealth bomber, the deployment of larger and more accurate D-5 missiles on Trident submarines, and more than 3000 cruise missiles on B-52s and B-1s (plus several hundred more on submarines), the rebuilding of the command and control systems, and a civil defense program outlining procedures to evacuate 150 million American citizens from 400 cities and build blast shelters to protect "essential workers." In its five year Defense Guidance Plan of 1982, the administration revealed plans to fight and win a protracted nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Citing the Bible to justify his massive military build-up, Reagan dismissed the overwhelmingly popular Nuclear Freeze Movement as a Kremlin-instigated fraud. Instead of a freeze, he called for a space-based missile defense system popularly known as Star Wars (in hopes of making a U.S. first-strike more credible by being able to withstand a retaliatory strike). Jauntily, the Great Communicator invited U.S. scientists to plant lasers in the heavens and usher in world peace.
With the exception of a brief period at the beginning of his first term, these policies proved quite unpopular, with the U.S. public preferring social spending to military spending by a wide margin, even if it meant an increase in taxes. Reagan ignored the irrelevant public (his view) and ran roughshod over his critics with generous doses of red-baiting, charging that "pro-Soviet agents" were disseminating "disinformation" to the media and Congress.
He claimed Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev invented the U.S. Nuclear Freeze movement, and he dismissed West European anti-nuclear activists objecting to his plans to have a "limited" nuclear war on their soil as "bought and paid for by the Soviet Union." He expressed disappointment at the demise of the House Un-American Activities Committee, dispatched the FBI to harass those who disagreed with his terrorist policies in Central America, and gave the FBI and CIA broad powers to conduct domestic surveillance, while reviving the McCarran Act to prevent critics of U.S. policy from entering the country. He also insured that films criticizing the U.S. were banned as "anti-American," such as one depicting the life and work of anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott.
Overall the Reagan agenda was to redistribute wealth upward by attacking the limited welfare system, busting unions, reducing wages, and expanding public subsidies to high-technology industry through the Pentagon system. These measures seriously weakened the New Deal social contract, causing a marked decline in social welfare.
Homelessness, AIDS, and antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis surged out of control, alongside an absence of national health insurance, while the Pentagon budget mushroomed to stratospheric levels (now far exceeded by George Bush Jr. and Barack Obama), with allocations reaching $1 trillion in Reagan's first term and continuing to climb thereafter. Meanwhile, tax cuts for the rich caused a rapid ballooning of the federal deficit, an orgy of consumption by the rich, unrestrained speculation and financial manipulation, deterioration of the social safety net for the poor and middle class, reduction in occupational safety, and increased environmental degradation, among other predictable consequences of the blind pursuit of short-term gain for the few. Naturally, the workers burdened with paying off the sea of red ink saw their real incomes decline.
The sharp note of class warfare was sounded from the first days of Reagan's initial term, when he destroyed PATCO - the air traffic controllers union - hiring permanent replacement workers to take jobs away from striking workers, one of many measures taken to undermine labor and impose a Third World model on the United States. A General Accounting Office survey subsequently revealed that Reagan's crush-the-workers hostility had emboldened the private sector to act in a similarly vicious manner. Between 1985 and 1989 private companies resorted to the threat of permanent replacements in one-third of all strikes. Not surprisingly, the decade witnessed a precipitous decline in union membership, a rise in anti-labor decisions from the National Labor Relations Board, and the virtual collapse of OSHA.
A study released by the Economic Policy Institute on Labor Day, 1992, confirmed the details of Reaganomics' dismal aftermath: a majority of Americans were working longer hours for less pay and substantially less security than in the late seventies, and the "vast majority" were "in many ways worse off" than they had been then. Since 1987 wages had been in decline even for the college-educated. "Poverty rates were high by historic standards," said the report, and "those in poverty in 1989 were significantly poorer than the poor in 1979." A 1991 congressional report disclosed that hunger had grown by 50% since the mid-1980s, to include some 30 million people. By the early 1990s, the number of hungry children at Boston City Hospital's malnutrition clinic had jumped so dramatically that the staff had resorted to triage. The worst occurred in winter months, when poor families confronted the choice of starving or freezing.
As inequality widened, the impoverished were demonized with renewed viciousness and blacks were portrayed as undeserving recipients of affirmative action largesse. By the close of the Reagan era, the gap between rich and poor reached alarming proportions, (though relatively tame by today's standards), surpassing Rwanda in the global inequality index. While in 1980 the CEOs of major corporations had earned forty times as much salary as the average factory worker, by the end of the decade they were garnering 93 times as much, a lopsided extreme found nowhere else in the industrial world.
After a 70-year rise to become the world's leading creditor, the U.S. had plunged to number one debtor by the end of the Reagan era. David Hale, chief economist of Kemper Financial Services, estimated that the Reagan years had bled the U.S. of $1 trillion, a then unprecedented financial record, leaving behind a nation with "a pervasive backdrop of economic gloom," and "seemingly awash in a sea of red ink." The "fundamentals are sound," commented a clueless Reagan as the stock market crashed in 1987.
As bad as things were on the home front, the really massive suffering attributable to Reagan was inflicted abroad. Seeking to "excise the cancer of communism" (Reagan), the U.S. murdered upwards of 200,000 Central Americans in counterinsurgency wars against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, the landless peasants of El Salvador, and the immensely popular Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Salvadoreans and Guatemalans were killed to keep them from making revolution, while Nicaraguans were killed as punishment for having already done so.
The official crime of the Sandinista government was Communism, a technical term in U.S. national security parlance meaning government for the benefit of ordinary people instead of local oligarchs and foreign elites. To correct these priorities, the CIA organized Somoza's ex-National Guard and a handful of other disaffected rebels into a proxy army that launched torture and destruction from secure bases in Honduras and Costa Rica, supplied by Oliver North's mafia via El Salvador. Remarkable Nicaraguan improvements in health care, literacy, nutrition, and other aspects of social welfare were met by terror, embargo, pressures on international institutions and U.S. allies to withhold aid, a huge demonization campaign, intimidating U.S. military exercises and overflights, the mining of harbors and blowing up of oil refineries, all designed to get the revolutionary government to "cry uncle," to cite Reagan's memorable rendition of a playground thug.
Large swathes of Central America were turned over to rampaging death squads trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, popularly known in Latin America as the "school of coups." While the Catholic Church warned that Guatemalan security forces razing entire villages to the ground were guilty of genocide, Reagan retorted that presiding dictator General Efrain Rios-Montt was getting a "bum rap," and was "totally dedicated to democracy." Similar policies were carried out in neighboring El Salvador, where tens of thousands of civilians were murdered in the Reagan years, many after brutal torture. A typical case occurred in 1981, when the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion arrived in El Mozote, robbed the town, raped the women, and killed two hundred men in church, many beheaded, then dragged the bodies toward the sacristy, where they piled up the bloody remains. As a final insult, they burned a group of children alive inside a house. Unfortunately, such grotesque events were far from isolated incidents. A U.S. mercenary explained the rational basis for such appalling brutality: "The army is not killing communist guerrillas, despite what is reported. It is murdering the civilians who side with them. It's a beautiful technique. By terrorizing civilians the army is crushing the rebellion without the need to directly confront the guerrillas. Attacking civilians is the game plan . . . Kill the sympathizers and you win the war."
To justify its predatory acts, the Reagan administration went beyond all previous records for absurdity in propaganda. Upon assuming office it warned of Libyan assassination squads roaming the U.S. at the behest of Libya's "mad dog" (Reagan's words) leader Moammar Qaddafi. This was part of Reagan's announced "war on terror" (twenty years ahead of George Bush junior). After years of demonizing Qaddafi, Reagan ordered the U.S. Navy and Air Force to bomb Tripoli, killing dozens of civilians, while F-111s attacked Qaddafi's desert compound, killing his infant daughter. The French Embassy was also destroyed in this raid, which the Reagan White House termed "self defense against future attack" - the standard excuse of aggressors throughout history.
Reagan also dispatched 241 Marines to their doom in occupation of Lebanon, and gave the Green Light to Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of that country, which killed roughly 20,000 people (including the victims of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres) on a surge of Pentagon arms deliveries, and inspired Osama bin Laden to plot brutal revenge. Interimly, however, the Reagan administration supported bin Laden and his foreign Islamofascist (the preferred term of Reagan's heirs today) network dedicated to keeping Afghanistan in the political dark ages. Nearly one million Afghans were killed while their country was torn apart by U.S. and Soviet intervention, followed by almost two decades of terrorism and war under rival factions of Islamic fanatics.
For good measure, the Reagan administration also backed the white South African regime ("constructive engagement"), declared Nelson Mandela a terrorist, and supported apartheid as it went on the rampage in Southern Africa, killing some million-and-a-half people in a doomed effort to preserve white supremacy.
These are but a few of the memorable achievements of the United States' 40th president, whose claim to fame is often said to be that "he made us feel good."
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-----Michael K. Smith is the author of "The Madness of King George" and "Portraits of Empire," both from Common Courage Press.