On this day in 2004, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, dies, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan, who was also a well-known actor and served as governor of California, was a popular president known for restoring American confidence after the problems of the 1970s and helping to defeat communism.
Born on February 6, 1911, Reagan, who was nicknamed Dutch as a youngster, was born and raised in several small towns in Illinois. Despite a disadvantaged upbringing—his father abused alcohol and had trouble holding jobs—Reagan was a popular and outgoing student. He served as president of his high school’s student council and stood out at football, basketball, and track, as well as acting in several plays. During the summer, he worked as a lifeguard, reportedly saving 77 people over six years.
After high school, Reagan enrolled at Eureka College, a small, Christian, liberal-arts school in Eureka, Illinois, from which he received a scholarship. There, he continued to show athletic prowess, playing football and swimming, as well as honing his skills in his two future pursuits: acting and politics. Reagan—then a Democrat—served as Eureka’s student-body president and acted in the college’s theater productions.
In 1932, Reagan graduated from Eureka with a degree in sociology and economics and found a job as a radio sports announcer. He worked in radio for five years, before going for a screen test in Los Angeles while in California to cover the Chicago Cubs’ spring-training camp. Warner Brothers offered the future president a seven-year contract, but asked him to use his given name Ronald instead of Dutch in the movies.
Although he never became an A-list star, Reagan spent 20 years in Hollywood and appeared in more than 50 films and several television programs. His oft-used nickname as president, The Gipper, came from his turn playing Notre Dame football star George The Gipper Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne: All American. In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman. The couple had two children: Maureen, in 1941, and Michael, whom they adopted in 1945. Reagan and Wyman divorced in 1949.
Although Reagan did not serve combat duty in World War II because of his poor eyesight, he began active duty in 1942 and made training films for the military until his discharge in 1945. Politically, it was during the 1940s that Reagan gradually became more conservative and also became involved in the country’s burgeoning anti-communist movement. In 1947, he testified to the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), naming elements in Hollywood that he felt were allied with communist causes. Later that year, he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), a position he held from 1947 to 1952 and again from 1959 to 1960.
Through the course of his work with SAG, Reagan met Nancy Davis, an actress who looked to Reagan for help when she was incorrectly labeled a communist sympathizer. As he had done for others, Reagan assisted her in clearing her name. The couple also began a lifelong romance and was married in 1952. Their two children, Patricia and Ronald, were born in 1953 and 1959, respectively.
After registering as a Republican in 1962 and campaigning for Barry Goldwater in his failed 1964 presidential campaign, Reagan decided to run for governor of California in 1966. He won handily, despite his lack of experience. His plan for California foreshadowed the one he ultimately brought with him to the national stage: lower taxes, cuts in spending, and an end to big government. Despite the student protests and forced tax hikes that occurred during his first term, he ran again and was easily re-elected in 1970. Just 18 months later, he announced his unsuccessful candidacy for president at the Republican National Convention. In 1975, he left office in California and ran again for the Republican presidential nomination, losing in a close race to Gerald Ford.
In 1980, Reagan ran yet again and won the nomination easily, choosing George H.W. Bush as his running mate. Running on a platform of a return to American values, smaller government, a stronger military, and tax cuts, Reagan appealed to an American public frustrated with inflation and foreign policy problems, like the Iranian hostage crisis. He won, and at age 69, became the oldest man to be elected to the office. A talented and practiced public speaker, Reagan’s personal charm, warm manner, and optimistic message endeared him to many Americans. He was re-elected by a landslide in 1984.
Just 69 days after taking office, Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley after giving a speech at a hotel about one mile from the White House. After surgery to remove the bullet, which had lodged near his heart, he recovered quickly, which added to his image as a strong leader. Throughout his two terms in office, Reagan pursued his trademark economic program, Reaganomics—a supply-side economics theory that involved drastic cuts to both taxes and spending. At the time, and increasingly in the intervening years since his presidency, Reagan drew criticism for ruthlessly slashing social programs while building up a huge deficit with massive military expenditures. He is also criticized for his partiality to business interests, removing many regulations on big business that he felt were impeding growth, as well as authorizing the firing of striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.
It was his campaign to end the Cold War, though, that defined the Reagan presidency for many Americans. His plan was to use an unprecedented military buildup to negotiate arms-reduction treaties from a position of strength. During a visit to Germany, he famously urged then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. By 1991, the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Soviet Union Reagan had once referred to as an evil empire was no more. While many credit Reagan for this historic turn of events, and it is certain he played a significant role, others point to internal problems in the Soviet Union for its ultimate demise.
Reagan’s foreign policy included military interventions in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya, which had mixed results. He is also known for backing anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua and authorizing a secret CIA military operation there in the early 1980s. This led to the Iran-Contra scandal, in which it was found that illegal arms sales to Iran were used to fund the administration’s support of Nicaragua’s Contra rebels. No evidence was ever found to suggest that Reagan himself or Vice President Bush broke the law.Despite the scandal, George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan to the presidency in 1988.
Known as the Great Communicator, Reagan left the Oval Office as one of the most popular presidents in history, retiring to his much-loved California ranch, Rancho del Cielo. His announcement in 1994 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease was greeted with great sadness by many across the country. He wrote, in an open letter to the American people, I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
He lived out the rest of his days on the ranch, with his wife Nancy, who remained devoted to him to the end, by his side. He was buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.