Morning in America

*By the end of the 1970s, a decade of social upheaval and economic stagflation had produced a sense of malaise in America.   Furthermore, ever since the New Deal, and certainly since the Great Society and the turmoil of the counterculture, there had come to be a greater and greater divide between liberals and conservatives.

*The union of religious and economic conservatives formed the basis of the New Right, as moral traditionalists rejected the counterculture and middle-class and wealthy Americans grew weary of government taxing and spending.  The silent majority was no longer silent, as Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority in 1979 to encourage conservative Christians to get out and vote.

*In 1980, Republican and Democratic conservatives of all types--religious, economic, libertarian--united behind a man who promised a small government, a strong military, and traditional morality: Ronald Reagan, a B-movie actor, and California politician.

*This was called the Reagan Revolution.  By building on Goldwater’s conservative movement and Nixon’s Southern Strategy and appeals to the Silent Majority, it brought white Southerners and conservative Christians--including 'Reagan Democrats'-- solidly into the Republican Party and let him beat Carter in a landslide in 1980, becoming (at age 69), the oldest man to be sworn in as president to that point (Donald Trump would be sworn in at age 70 and Joe Biden at 78).

*Reagan had asked voters if they were better off today than they were four years ago. In his inaugural address, Reagan said that 'government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,' and he supported deregulation of businesses so they could be more competitive (and thus profitable) since they had less government oversight.

*As president, he also hoped to fix the economy through supply-side economics:  cutting taxes would allow corporations to increase investment and employment, thus enriching citizens (who would also grow richer as their tax rates were cut) and allowing them to spend more.  Furthermore, as people made more money, the government would get more taxes, because a lower percentage of a higher income level would generate more money.  Some people described this as trickle-down economics, Reaganomics, or voodoo economics (depending on how they felt about it).  In his first three years as president, he lowered taxes by 25% (although he later approved some tax increases to try to deal with increasing defence spending).

*Despite these policies, there was a bad recession from 1980 to 1982 (with 10% unemployment in 1982), and Republican congressmen and senators did poorly in the 1982 elections.  However, by 1983 the economy had begun to turn around and the economy as a whole grew, although the number of poor Americans increased (partly due to immigration), while middle class incomes largely stagnated, and the wealthy saw their incomes grow most.

*Although Reagan promised to cut government spending, it was not that simple.  While he did cut spending on some programmes, he increased military spending to keep up with the Soviet Union in a new arms race.  Furthermore, taxation did not keep up with spending, and the annual budget deficit more than tripled until the national debt had grown from $907 billion in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 1988 (by October, 2018 it was over $21.7 trillion, or 100.5% of the GDP, the highest percentage since the late 1940s).

*The economy also suffered from the deregulation of the Savings and Loan industry.  Some of them had executives who skimmed off millions of dollars, while others simply made bad loans, and over a thousand collapsed.  In 1989 (right after Reagan left office), the US Government spent $200 billion to bail out depositors who had lost money when these Savings and Loan banks failed.

*Two areas where Reagan was criticised for not spending enough money were on environmental protection (especially to combat air pollution that caused acid rain) and on AIDS research.

*AIDS was first reported in the US in 1981, and at first was poorly understood and deeply stigmatised.  Some Americans wanted the government to sponsor medical research to find a cure, but the government did not invest much in it.

*Reagan also opposed unions, which he said hampered the efficiency of businesses and the government.  When air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981, he announced that as public employees they did not have the right to strike and that their work stoppage was creating a national emergency, allowing him to use the Taft-Hartley Act to break the strike.  He ordered the 13,000 strikers back to work, but only 1,300 went, so he fired the rest and dissolved their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.  The Federal Aviation Administration had to train new air traffic controllers, as the fired ones were not able to apply for work in that field again until 1986.  This was part of a trend of declining union power, which some people believe has hurt the working class of America while others feel it has made companies more profitable, which benefits America's economy as a whole.

*Despite the deficit, many Americans felt they were doing better by 1984 and voted for Reagan’s re-election.  He defeated Walter Mondale and the first female vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, in a landslide, with 525 electoral votes to 13 (Mondale won D.C. and barely carried his home state of Minnesota), the largest victory in the Electoral College in American history.  Reagan assured voters that it was 'Morning in America.'

*Many Americans admired Reagan’s positive attitude, even after an assassination attempt in 1981.  Furthermore, women appreciated his nomination in 1981 of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court.

*Ronald Reagan restored Americans’ confidence and pride in themselves and their country.  He did this partly by building up the military in a new arms race with the Soviet Union, which Reagan called an Evil Empire.  This not only made the US capable of defending ourselves and our allies from attack, but it also forced the USSR to spend money to keep up with American military spending.  The Soviet Union, however, was not truly able to afford this, particularly because of its commitment in Afghanistan.

*Reagan not only built new bombers and missiles, but he promoted the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) or Star Wars, a plan for land- and space-based lasers to shoot down enemy missiles, potentially making the US and our allies safe from nuclear attack, although he also offered to share this with the USSR so they could feel safe, too.

*Reagan also funded anti-communist groups around the world.  He supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.  He sent troops to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 when a power struggle within the ruling local Communist movement who had seized power in 1979 threatened regional stability.

*He sent money, weapons, and advisors to the Contras who were fighting the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua until the passage of the Boland Amendment--actually a series of three laws passed in 1982, 1983, and 1984--to prevent the United States from directly funding the Contras or allowing the CIA to support their activities.  The Contras were controversial because they were accused to committing atrocities in their counter-revolution at least as brutal as those committed by the Sandinistas they were trying to overthrow.

*Because the US could not fund the Contras directly, some members of the government began to secretly sell military equipment through Israeli agents to our enemy Iran to get money to support the Contras and to get Iran's help in negotiating the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah, a group of Lebanese terrorists.  When the Iran-Contra Affair was discovered in 1986, it became a scandal that embarrassed the Reagan administration.  The President claimed not to have known about it, which suggested that he was either lying or that he was ignorant of what was going on in his own administration--in either case, it suggested that Reagan was not a competent leader of his nation.  In 1987, though, Reagan took responsibility for the whole affair, even parts he was unaware of (but all those people involved were later pardoned).  

*Reagan supported right-wing forces in El Salvador, although they, too, were at least as bad as the Communists they opposed.

*Reagan sent the Marines to Lebanon in 1983 to try to stop a civil war there, but pulled them out after a suicide bomber drove a truck with explosives into their barracks.

*Reagan bombed Libya in 1986 after terrorists supported by Libya bombed a nightclub in Berlin that was popular with American soldiers (two of whom were killed in the blast).

*Although the United States secretly sold weapons to Iran in the 1980s, American also supported Iraq in a border war with Iran that lasted from 1980 to 1988, building Saddam Hussein's army in the fifth largest in the world.

*During Reagan's first term, the Soviet Union was led by Leonind Brezhnev until his death in 1982, then by Yuri Andropov (1982-1984), former head of the KGB and a strong opponent of any reform or democratisation ever since witnessing the Hungarian Revolution of 1956) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985, who boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles), and none of them were willing to return to the détente of the 1970s.

*By Reagan’s second term, the Soviet Union was under enough pressure from the West and from its own people to consider reform, partly because it had a new, young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.  He had grown up on a collective farm and seen the hardships of the peasants, and asked if their life was really any different from serfdom.

*Gorbachev began policies of perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness, including limited freedom of the press).  He did this partly because he truly believed that the Soviet Government was not taking care of its people (especially its farmers) as it should, but also because the Soviet economy was falling apart due to its military commitments and to the failure of its state-run economy.

*Between 1985 and 1989, Reagan and Gorbachev met four times.  Together they worked out the basis of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1987 (although it was not ratified until 1991 and did not go into force until 1994) which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons each country owned.  By 2001 the world's nuclear arsenals had been cut by about 80%.

*In 1987, not long before their third summit, Ronald Reagan visited Berlin, and gave a speech in front of the Berlin Wall.  Although he praised Gorbachev’s reforms, he said they had not gone far enough and directly addressed the Soviet leader:  'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'

*As Soviet citizens began to experience some freedom and to have more exposure to the luxuries of the West (like Levi's jeans, Pepsi-cola, and McDonald's) they wanted reform to come even faster than the government was allowing it to, even though Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in 1989.

*The Soviet Union's satellite countries began to demand greater freedom, too.

*In 1989, Hungary elected a non-Communist government and opened its border with Austria, and soon people from all over Eastern Europe, especially East Germany, went to Hungary, then Austria, then West Germany or elsewhere in Europe.

*In East Germany pressure for reform led to demands for free travel between East and West Berlin, and when the government agreed (but did not specify how it would work) jubilant crowds took matters into their own hands.  They flooded the checkpoints on 9 November, 1989, and within days, began tearing down the Berlin Wall.  On 3 October, 1990, Germany officially re-unified.

*The other communist countries of Europe also overthrew their communist governments between 1989 and 1991, and Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia even broke up into different countries.  Czechoslovakia did so peacefully in the 'Velvet Revolution,' but Yugoslavia broke up during a civil war characterised by ethnic cleansing by most sides.

*On the other hand, demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 were brutally crushed by the Chinese government.

*In August 1991, hard-line politicians and military officers in the Soviet Union attempted a coup, arresting Gorbachev.  They did not have the support of the people or many members of the government, and the president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (and former mayor of Moscow) Boris Yeltsin led opposition to the coup, which quickly collapsed.  Gorbachev was released, but had lost his authority.

*In August and September, 1991, all the republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (except Russia, although it also considered it) declared independence from the USSR.  On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev resigned.  On the 26th, the USSR dissolved.

*Boris Yeltsin went on the serve as president of Russia until 1999, during which time he oversaw democratisation, economic liberalisation, and friendship with Europe and the United States, but also a rise in corruption.

*Ronald Reagan is generally given credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union.  His consistent support of anti-Communist groups and his military spending were too much for the USSR to keep up with.

*By the time the Soviet Union fell, George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice-president, had become president of the United States, defeating the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, 426 to 111 in the Electoral College, becoming the first sitting Vice-President to be elected president since Martin van Buren in 1836. 

This page last updated 14 May, 2021.
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