What was President Ronald Reagan's biggest mistake?

United States

Prof. Dr. Ursula Lehmkuhl

Prof. Dr. Ursula Lehmkuhl

To person

Ursula Lehmkuhl is Professor of Modern History at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin. Her research interests are the colonial history of North America, the cultural and political history of the Atlantic region in the 19th century, international history and American and Canadian foreign policy in the 20th century. Among other things, she is the author of "Pax Anglo-Americana: Power-Structural Foundations of Anglo-American Asian and Far East Policy in the 1950s" (1999) and co-editor of "History and Nature: Comparative Approaches to Environmental History" and "Governing without a State? Governance in Areas of limited statehood ".

Ronald Reagan was a symbol of the "American Dream": Coming from a poor background, the actor switched to politics and in 1981 took over the presidency. After two terms in office, he left behind a huge mountain of debt, mainly due to enormous military spending. His second term in office was marked by a policy of opening up to the Soviet Union. His famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he called on the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down the Berlin Wall, is remembered.

Ronald Reagan with his wife Nancy on his inauguration day as 40th President of the USA on January 20, 1981. (& copy AP)

On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan took office after an overwhelming Republican election victory. His government program envisaged cutting government spending, revitalizing the economy through tax cuts, increasing the military budget and taking a tougher position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Reagan's strategy was aimed at giving an insecure and suspicious population an impression of courage, determination and drive by acting quickly.

Reagan was perceived by the great majority of the population as a symbol of the American Dream. Because he came from a poor background, had achieved great success as an actor and was ultimately elected Governor of California. After an assassination attempt on him shortly after taking office in March 1981, his popularity increased.

Arms race and politics of strength

Reagan took over the presidency after a decade of real crisis in US history. The Watergate scandal and the forced resignation of President Nixon had sparked a constitutional and confidence crisis inside the United States. In addition, the USA had lost the Vietnam War and was now looking for a new global balance of power. In view of the massive armament program of the Soviet Union, the course was already set when Reagan took office in the direction of an arms race and a politics of strength. With his promise to restore "American greatness", Reagan appealed to the country's deeply rooted patriotism.

Patriotism and new religiosity

The basic conservative mood of that time was strengthened by evangelical Protestant Christianity, the New Christian Right. The conservative turnaround that began with the Reagan presidency lent political backing to fundamentalist and neoconservative circles. In the form of revival movements, evangelical Christianity in particular contributed to restoring religion to a high status and a clearly visible profile in public life. The well-organized and generously funded fundamentalists had already made a significant contribution to Reagan's election victory. Her message of a return to the old American values ​​of family, church and patriotism fell on fertile ground in broad sections of the population who were deeply insecure by domestic political scandals, foreign political defeats, social changes in values ​​and economic stagnation.

In terms of economic policy, the Reagan administration relied on a revival of individualism and the pursuit of profit as well as a departure from the New Deal and the utopia of the Great Society. Reagan's neoliberal policy was aimed at deregulation, the privatization of public tasks, the regression of the state bureaucracy and the dismantling of central state regulatory powers. Taxes were cut, while social spending was cut drastically at the same time.

Politics of contradictions

The two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan from January 1981 to January 1989 belongs because of its contradiction between unleashed capitalism and economic liberalism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism and conservatism of values ​​on the other, as well as its contribution to significant global political changes such as the dissolution of the bipolar world order in connection with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification among the most interesting phases in 20th century American history.

Although Reagan's foreign policy initially dangerously increased international tensions, in his second term in office the president was able to end the Cold War together with the Soviet state and party leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Its economic policy, known as "Reagonomics", gave American capitalism new dynamism, but left its successors with serious problems due to high budget deficits and an explosive increase in national debt.

Détente before Reagan's term ends

Even before Reagan took office, the détente policy of the 1970s had reached a zero point. The Cuban combat troops in Angola and Ethiopia, the Soviet support for a coup by the Marxist military in Afghanistan and the invasion of Vietnamese armed forces in Cambodia were classified by the Western powers as Moscow's gambles aimed at winning strategically important regions for the communist camp.

Two Berliners celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. (& copy AP)
As part of a massive armament program, the Soviet Union replaced the medium-range missiles stationed in Europe with more accurate, long-range missiles of the type SS-20 equipped with triple warheads. NATO responded to this on December 12, 1979 with a double decision: it offered Moscow disarmament negotiations, but at the same time provided for the stationing of 198 Pershing II missiles and 464 cruise missiles in Europe.

Initially, this statement was seen as a typical expression of Reagan's rhetorical exuberance. Within a short time, however, the policies promoted by Gorbachev took on the character of a peaceful revolutionary upheaval, which finally led to the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 and the end of the bipolar world order.