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date: 18 August 2017

The 1980s

Summary and Keywords

The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.

Keywords: Ronald Reagan, 1980s, conservatism, Cold War, taxation, George H. W. Bush, HIV/AIDS, terrorism

The Spirit of the 1980s

Long after people have forgotten when Rubik’s cubes or Madonna Ciccone first achieved fame, they probably will remember the 1980s as an era defined by President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) and his political followers. The turn by the United States to the political right in the 1980s had profound, wide-ranging, and lasting effects on both American society and the world. Debate about how to remember the 1980s is fundamentally an argument about how to evaluate Reagan, the political and social spirit that he represented, and the legacies of both the man and the spirit.

The conservative agenda that Reagan brought to new heights starting with his electoral defeat of an incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980 was many-pronged, but it had two essential elements: first, a celebration of unrestricted capitalism as a wholesome economic and social system, and, second, a demand that the United States reassert its military primacy in the world, in the name of both American interests and American moral superiority in the Cold War struggle against communism. The political tendency known as Reaganism—which was based in the Republican Party but which enjoyed substantial crossover support from Democrats, especially in the early 1980s—cheered on capitalist economics and U.S. power with gusto and a pointed simplicity. To dispense with qualifications and ambivalence regarding “traditional” American social mores and American power—qualifications and ambivalence that had marked the preceding era of the 1960s and 1970s all too strongly, in conservative eyes—was the conservative intention in the 1980s.

The individualistic social values of Reaganism were tied closely to conservative affirmation of the “animal spirits” of capitalism, as the economist John Maynard Keynes called them. Capitalist individualism was not the only conservative tradition. Indeed, in most lands, free-market politics and ideology are called “liberal” or “neoliberal,” which is confusing in the American context, where liberalism, in the 20th century and afterward, refers not to the advocacy of unregulated capitalism but instead to efforts to mitigate the inequality and social distress that that system often produces, even as it generates great wealth. Conservatives outside of the United States have often tried to put brakes or limits on the free market. But American conservatism, long before Reagan, turned on the ideals of a business society. Reagan said, in 1983, “What I want above all is that this country remains a country where someone can always get rich.”1 The man of wealth, or any person who aspired to that status, was Reagan’s man. The limitations on individual action that Reaganites were concerned to throw off were specifically the encumbrances that generations of Americans had laid upon the captains of industry and money. When Reagan moved into the White House, he elevated to a place of honor the presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929), who was famous for saying, “The business of America is business.” Reagan and his followers sought to undo decades of disdain, criticism, taxation, and regulation that liberals had directed against the heroes of the enterprise system.

The 1980sClick to view larger

Figure 1. President Ronald Reagan laughs with William Wilson, William French Smith, Walter Annenberg, and Charles Wick during a dinner in the Yellow Oval Room, 1982.

Reproduced with permission of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Reagan thought that the dynamism of capitalism—critics would say its destabilizing tendency—should be balanced with an affirmation of traditional family structures, familiar social roles for men and women, and moral and religious values. The moral traditionalist element in Reaganism, however, was always at war with the hedonistic individualism that characterized unrestrained capitalism and that displayed itself in many other cultural manifestations as well during the 1980s. Both traditionalist conservatives, like those who adhered to evangelical Protestantism, and hedonists, who celebrated wealth and pleasure and viewed all social obligations as optional, felt they embodied the true spirit of Reaganism in cultural terms. Both had a good case to make, and neither could vanquish the other camp within the conservative movement in the 1980s. They formed an uneasy political coalition, forged by a common enmity toward secular liberals and a shared commitment to American might abroad.

A Conservative Coalition, a Conservative Agenda

In order to understand the governing agenda that Reagan brought to power starting in 1981, it is important to see the different elements in the conservative coalition that had come together during the 1970s and that reached a new level of unity and success in 1980. It is also essential to see the several issues that brought the Reaganite coalition together. The major constituencies for the ascendant conservative movement were the business lobby, the “religious right,” anticommunists particularly concerned with foreign policy and the Cold War, and white middle- and working-class Americans who became known as “Reagan Democrats.” These groups sometimes overlapped, but they were in general fairly distinct and separately organized. The issues that brought these groups together included taxes and regulation, abortion and school prayer, the threat of ascendant Soviet power around the world, and inflation and affirmative action. In 1980–1981, Reagan elevated the issues of taxation and the Cold War above all others, while also promising, in vaguer terms, to vanquish inflation.

The business lobby had entered a new, higher gear of activity in the 1970s, mobilizing rapidly against the criticism of big business that waxed in American life in the 1960s and 1970s. Myriad Washington lobbying groups like the Business Roundtable, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, and more academic policy shops like the American Council for Capital Formation began to argue in detail for a wide range of pro-business policies. These groups specified the economic and social costs of regulation and inflation, while also promulgating a broader array of conservative ideas about issues like welfare. Their agenda was clear: taxes on business and on wealthy investors should be cut, along with regulations and social provisions that emboldened workers to drive hard bargains with employers and corporations. Economic growth in America had slowed greatly by the mid-1970s from the pace of the 1960s, while inflation remained high. This combination of stagnant growth and high inflation, which came to be called “stagflation,” frustrated familiar policy prescriptions, which usually sought to tackle either slow growth or inflation, but not both together. At this policy impasse, the business lobby gained new political traction by focusing intently on the need for more robust growth through enhanced investment, and by emphasizing the promise of higher effective profits as the key to increased investment. Members of both political parties increasingly agreed on the need to restore “business confidence.” However, by the late 1970s, the fairly well-coordinated political offensive from the business lobby had become concentrated on electing avowed conservative Republicans to national office, as they seemed most reliably and thoroughly pro-business. Reagan garnered avid support from these quarters, and key activists from the business lobby passed seamlessly, along with their long-nurtured policy prescriptions, into his presidential administration.

The organized religious component in Reagan’s coalition also was on the rise in 1980. However, the “religious right,” whose best-known national organization was the Moral Majority, established in 1979 by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and others, was in a potentially awkward position as part of the gathering conservative coalition. Not only did its members join hands with hedonists in a political cause; more basically, the dearest policy demands of the Christian right—and the organized religious right was emphatically Christian, and mostly Protestant evangelical—would increase, not reduce, government’s power. These were the calls to outlaw abortion, which had been basically legalized throughout the country in the first two trimesters of pregnancy by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and to find a way to allow daily prayers back into public school classrooms, thus undoing the Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale ruling. While political liberals tended to wish to strengthen government’s hand in economic matters but keep it loose in anything that concerned religion, personal conscience, and gender roles, conservatives often wanted to roll back government in the economic realm while using it to reinforce traditional sex roles and religious piety. Religious conservatives by 1980 had found ways to embrace this whole conservative agenda, while also broaching foreign policy issues by urging an intensified Cold War against communism abroad.

But the core of the religious right agenda was, as one prominent group put it with its very name, a focus on the family. This meant combating both feminism and the gay rights movement as menaces to the natural, God-given roles of men and women that, Christian conservatives were convinced, formed healthy individuals who would build a good society. Religious conservatives often schooled their children in private Christian academies, feeling that an increasingly secularized public school system would not let them socialize their progeny as they wished. Many of these schools were in the South and had histories of racial exclusivity. When President Carter’s administration, because of this pattern and the possible violation of federal civil rights laws that it entailed, threatened the tax exemptions that religious schools enjoyed, many Christian conservatives reacted by linking arms with the all-white schools against a supposedly anti-Christian government. Perhaps most basically, the religious right believed sexuality was wholesome only when attached to reproduction and heterosexual marriage. Nothing epitomized the destructive severing of these links, nothing betokened the impending downward spiral of American society into selfish individualism (which in this context was deemed alarming) more than the increased legal and social acceptance of abortion. But so too did the rise of homosexuality to new respectability. Some religious conservatives charged, sensationally, that gay Americans targeted children and adolescents for “recruitment.” The Christian right rallied voters across the country in the 1978 and 1980 congressional and presidential elections, and many analysts gave them credit for helping to defeat several liberal Democratic senators and elect social conservatives in their stead. Reagan made a concerted appeal to Christian right groups in 1980, taking positions they favored on abortion, school prayer, and tax exemptions for religious schools (while saying little about homosexuality), and they saw in him a champion.

Like other conservative themes, the perception of an increasingly potent global communist threat, and the need to counter it with new assertions of American power and determination, started to gain political traction in the 1970s and reached a climax of sorts in the early 1980s. Presidents Richard Nixon (1969–1974) and Gerald Ford (1974–1977), both Republicans, had advanced the policy of détente, which sought to reduce tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, mainly by negotiating limits on the nuclear arms race. Sharp differences arose within the Republican Party over this policy, which Carter tried to continue during his presidency. Conservative Republicans rebuked the Nixon-Ford-Carter “sellout” to communism, alleging that their policies gave a malevolent communist adversary breathing space that it used to marshal its forces for an offensive in many world regions. Socialists seized power in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan in the late 1970s; terrorist groups comprised of Palestinians, Germans, Italians, and others wreaked havoc around the world; the Soviets deployed new nuclear-armed missiles in Eastern Europe, prompting calls from leading American allies in Western Europe for a new generation of U.S. weapons there. Cold War hawks who opposed détente linked all of these threats, seeing Soviet perfidy at their root. Republican politicians who had supported détente in earlier years were running for cover in their own party by the late 1970s. Many longtime Democrats likewise were hostile to détente and became newly active and vocal at this same time, mainly through the Committee on the Present Danger. This “neoconservative” faction, led by the strategist Paul Nitze and others, recruited Reagan, himself a former a Democrat, to join them, at least officially. The neoconservatives crossed party lines and supported Reagan for president in 1980. Many of them retained their affiliations as Democrats, but they would support a Republican administration—if it were led by Reagan.

Reagan believed that America’s commitment to wage the Cold War like a real war had to be renewed. For years, he had called for an end to détente, for increased military budgets, and for reaffirming U.S. support for stalwart anticommunist allies abroad, like South Africa and the Philippines, which had encountered severe criticism on human rights grounds. As on some other issues, regarding the Cold War threat and the rejection of détente, Reagan personally proved a linchpin that helped a newly powerful conservative coalition hang together. Carter, in his last two years in office, began to do just the things that neoconservatives wanted in foreign policy—pledging big increases in the Pentagon budget, new missiles in Western Europe, and a new determination to push back the revolutionary tide around the world. This prompted Reagan and foreign policy conservatives, in a kind of bidding war, to raise their demands for what the United States needed to do regarding the Soviet Union.

The last major group that went to forming the Reagan coalition was the “Reagan Democrats”: often blue-collar, somewhat diverse in income but generally not wealthy, and invariably white. Most white working-class voters did not support the Republicans. But enough of them did support Reagan, first in 1980 and then again in 1984, when Reagan won two-thirds of the white vote, which accounted for 85 percent of all voters in 1984, to attract much notice and to help Reagan alter the old image of the Republicans as merely the party of the rich. The issues that drove this development were inflation and race. The pinch of rising week-to-week costs was a constant irritant to almost everyone. But something more was at work with the inflation issue. Inflation traditionally was a concern mainly of those living on inherited wealth and fixed incomes; at least indirectly, they loaned money out and lived off the interest that debtors paid them, but inflation eroded the value of that interest income. Although many working-class Americans lived quite frugally in the 1970s, enough of them did well enough that they started to take on the customary perspective of creditors. Inflation only helped them if they took on increased debt, which not everyone was eager to do. They wanted an inflation-fighter, and political convention held that a conservative was the one for that job. In 1979 and 1980, inflation became the top economic concern of the American public as a whole, overtaking unemployment according to opinion polls.

But the Reagan Democrats’ whiteness always played a big role in analysis of their switch to the Republicans. Reagan explicitly appealed to “white ethnic” voters, usually Roman Catholic or Jewish, by arguing that affirmative action policies—which, whether written into the law or used on a voluntary basis in the private sector, used statistical patterns to determine findings of, and remedies for, racial discrimination—hurt them in areas like hiring, promotion, and university admissions. American Jews were quite affluent, unlike other groups targeted as potential Reagan Democrats, but they gave Reagan almost 40 percent of their vote in 1980, partly due to their suspicions about affirmative action, but perhaps even more because of their unhappiness with Carter’s Middle East policies. The Reagan Democrats in general may have had several different motives to join the winning coalition in 1980; they often preferred Reagan’s foreign policy stance toward the Soviets over Carter’s, for example, and some of them were antiabortion. Many shared Reagan’s criticism of an overly generous welfare system, as he described it, that let shirkers bilk the working public. Although most welfare recipients were white, African Americans were disproportionately poor and more likely than whites to receive public assistance. The promise of a new individualism in social policy, one that would toughen welfare requirements and put affirmative action on ice, played to white resentment of African Americans, and may have helped solidify some of the Reagan Democrats’ newfound political stance.

While Reagan assembled a winning coalition, one that claimed a strong victory over Carter in 1980, the Democratic opposition to his coalition was weak, internally divided, and out of ideas. Reagan got a bit over 50 percent of the popular vote in 1980, but he won a huge Electoral College victory, because Carter’s share of the popular vote was so small, only 41 percent. Democratic senator Edward Kennedy had made a strong primary challenge to Carter earlier in the year, prefiguring the defections that Carter suffered from his party’s base in November. A liberal Republican congressman, John Anderson, ran as a third-party candidate and took 6.6 percent of the vote on Election Day, almost all of it surely from Carter’s potential support. The Democrats were in disarray, opening a path for a major conservative victory.

Reagan’s agenda for governing was unusually clear when he awaited his 1981 inauguration. He had communicated his agenda effectively to voters. He had made two big promises: to cut income tax rates for all Americans in similar degree and to embark on a major defense buildup that would cause the Soviets to back down in hot spots around the world. Reagan also had pledged to defeat inflation, a central factor in his victory, even though had not been clear about how he would achieve that goal. Reagan had spoken about other issues, but had not emphasized them as much or made such concrete promises about what he would do about them.

Reagan and his coalition scored big legislative victories in the first year of his presidency, and Reagan was easily reelected in 1984, becoming the dominant political figure of the 1980s. During the decade overall, the Reaganites achieved a good deal of what they had hoped to—in domestic politics and policy, in foreign policy, and in the realm of society and culture.

Successes: Domestic Politics and Policy

Politically, the Reaganite coalition seized control of the American scene in the 1980s and managed to hold onto a great deal of power through the end of the decade. Reagan was reelected in 1984 with almost 59 percent of the national vote—a landslide by the standards of presidential elections. The Democrats’ nominee in 1984, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, did worse than Carter had in 1980. Reagan did better than he had in 1980 with southern voters and also improved his results in Midwestern states like Michigan, even though a recession in the early 1980s, discussed below, had caused great suffering there. During Reagan’s first term as president, his party did not control the House of Representatives, but he pulled together a strong governing coalition of Republicans and renegade Democrats in support of his key legislative goals. Meanwhile, in 1980 the Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time in decades. After a few years, Reagan began to lose much of his early sway on Capitol Hill. As early as 1983, Democrats in Congress became more unified in resisting Reagan’s budget proposals, and in 1986 they retook the Senate. Yet Democrats never really reversed the major initiatives of Reagan’s presidency. In 1988, Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, won election as president convincingly, defeating the Democrat Michael Dukakis in a rather ugly campaign that turned on racially charged fears of violent crime and allegations that Dukakis was unpatriotic. White voters and affluent Americans were sticking with the Republicans. California, the country’s biggest state, which would become an anchor of Democratic presidential politics in later years, remained Republican throughout the 1980s. The South was a region of increasing strength for the Republicans, and the GOP remained competitive in the industrial North as well. By the end of the 1980s, the Democrats were the legislative party in Washington, but the Republicans remained the presidential party. Neither party had a strong mandate to pursue a positive agenda as of 1990, but this stalemate left the Republican achievements of the 1980s largely in place.

In terms of domestic policy, the centerpiece of Reagan’s initial agenda was his determination to cut marginal income-tax rates for all taxpayers, and in this matter he got his way in a lasting fashion. The law that effected these rate cuts, the Economic Recovery and Tax Act of 1981 (ERTA), shrank marginal rates—which represented not the tax rate paid on all income but rather the rate paid on income above a certain level—by 23 percent over three years. This was not a matter of simply subtracting twenty-three points from one’s marginal rate. It was a reduction of the marginal rate by this proportion. For example, if one paid a marginal rate of 100 percent (which no one did), this rate would drop to 77 percent; if one paid a marginal rate of 50 percent, this rate would drop by 11.5 percent, to 38.5 percent, since 23 percent of 50 is 11.5; if one paid a marginal rate of 10 percent, this rate would drop to 7.7 percent. While Reagan presented this change as an across-the-board cut that applied equally to all, in dollar amounts it cut taxes vastly more for high earners than for those of modest means. For the latter, the tax savings were so small as to be not noticeable at all in many cases. Yet this was a windfall for those at the top of the income scale. ERTA also provided other boons to wealthy individuals and to businesses. Greatly increased depreciation allowances let businesses deduct large sums from their taxable income, and individuals now could pass a great deal more wealth to heirs free from taxation.

Reaganites achieved mixed results in other areas of federal budgeting. They worked to cut domestic spending in many areas, partly to satisfy conservative demands for a rollback of government’s domain in American life, but also in order to help finance the loss of government revenue that the tax cuts would produce. Some economists, known as “supply-siders,” insisted that cutting income tax rates would actually increase government revenues, not reduce them, by spurring investment and economic growth. But this was magical thinking, as most lawmakers understood—hence their desire to establish fiscal credibility by cutting spending. Reagan’s first budget, the Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act of 1981 (OBRA), did cut or moderate spending significantly, but nowhere near enough to equal the amounts represented by the tax cuts. Although the numbers did not add up, the spending cuts put liberals back on their heels, delivering strong blows to any hopes they might have had to press their own agenda forward. In this sense, OBRA was an important conservative victory. In some ways, the Reaganites had to beat a tactical retreat on tax policy. ERTA’s depreciation changes were moderated soon afterward as part of a 1982 deficit-reduction package, a package that included a host of tax increases that were “user fees” or “sin taxes.” Reagan proved willing to sign numerous tax increases into law during his presidency, so long as they were, like these ones, regressive—meaning that they took no account of one’s income. The cuts in progressive income taxes embodied in ERTA were the crown jewels of Reagan’s governing agenda, and these he would never undo.

Reagan also succeeded in undermining and limiting business regulation. Carter, along with many Democrats, had supported certain forms of deregulation in the late 1970s, but the Reaganite crusade against regulation was far more comprehensive. Reagan saw little hope of eliminating regulatory agencies, whose missions the public in general did not question. But he was able to cut budgets for agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Most important, he appointed individuals to head such agencies who had long histories of hostility to the agencies’ missions. This was also true of civil rights enforcement; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice soon became reluctant to bring complaints of discrimination. By the late 1980s, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed new environmental laws, and in the area of civil rights, Reagan essentially had laws imposed on him as well. However, without control of the executive branch, liberals could not do very much to change the climate in which regulators felt embattled and businesses felt emboldened to push the limits of the law. Regarding civil rights, the power of appointment proved effective in closing the window for complainants. Presidents Reagan and Bush both criticized affirmative action strongly, calling it a “quota” system, but never undid such programs either by law or by executive order, perhaps because some Republicans supported at least some forms of affirmative action, and also because they sensed that there might be a tipping point after which perceived hostility to civil rights measures could become politically costly. So they advanced their views by selecting judicial nominees who were critical of affirmative action, a method that started to bear fruit by the end of the 1980s.

The new political regime proved extremely effective at curbing inflation, although the price Americans paid for this policy success was heavy. The Federal Reserve Bank, led by its chairman, Paul Volcker, was responsible for this achievement. Volcker had been appointed by Carter, not Reagan. But the Fed received more stalwart support from the White House for an anti-inflation campaign once Reagan was in office. All knowledgeable persons understood what this would mean: raising interest rates so high as to bring business activity to a screaming halt, causing a severe recession, throwing millions of people out of work—and thus reversing the upward price-wage spiral of past years. Unemployment rates passed the 10 percent mark for the first time in America since the Great Depression of the 1930s; the Reagan recession of 1981–1982 was the worst since that time. The recession had unplanned, long-term effects, accelerating the transformation of the U.S. economy away from manufacturing industries, many of which were decimated and never recovered in terms of employment, and toward an economy dominated by service employment and finance-sector profits. Inflation, however, was broken in a durable way. The increasing globalization of production and markets, which also advanced apace in the 1980s, would help to keep downward pressure on prices in many areas—including many consumer goods and working-class wages. So did a far more aggressive posture taken by employers toward labor unions starting in the 1980s, a posture that was symbolized and inspired by Reagan’s personal actions in breaking the air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO, which embarked on an illegal strike against the federal government in 1981.

Successes: Foreign Policy

On the foreign policy front, Reagan and his allies assumed a newly assertive stance that made sure to put distance between Reagan and the Carter legacy. Reagan basically shelved diplomacy with the Soviets, fielding arms-control proposals seemingly so lopsided in favor of the United States that they were likely intended to shut down negotiations. His plan was to build up American defenses enormously so that the Soviets would lose heart and cease what Americans saw as aggressive actions around the world. Congress supported the free-spending military buildup enthusiastically, to the tune of many billions of dollars beyond 1980 levels. Right-wing regimes that had received ambivalent treatment from Washington, including El Salvador, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea, found themselves embraced with new fervor. Reaganites succeeded in sending lavish military aid to these regimes. The United States also delivered major support, in the form of both cash and weapons, to rebels fighting against socialist governments—to the Contras in Nicaragua, to UNITA in Angola, and to the Afghan mujahideen who were fighting the occupying Soviet Red Army in their country.

The direct use of U.S. military force was sharply limited while Reagan was president. Americans remained leery of “another Vietnam,” as Reagan understood. In 1983, when a truck bomber detonated explosives that killed 241 U.S. Marines who were on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Reagan waited until a decent interval had passed and then pulled U.S. forces out rather than escalating U.S. military involvement. At virtually the same time as this grievous loss of life occurred, however, Reagan ordered a U.S. invasion of Grenada, an island nation near the South American coast that was ruled by a socialist junta and that Reagan feared might become “another Cuba.” This easy military victory was greeted with excitement by Americans, who were in the mood to welcome any sort of triumph. Reagan also ordered the use of air power against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, which the United States charged with fueling terrorism around the world. U.S. warfare became less restricted after Bush became president. Later, after the Soviet Union withdrew from the Cold War, Bush felt less constrained in deploying military force. He ordered an invasion of Panama in 1989 to oust the longtime ruler, Manuel Noriega, and one year later he assembled a major international coalition, involving four hundred thousand American troops, to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded and occupied. This first Gulf War would be the largest and strategically most significant U.S. war since Vietnam, by far. While the Gulf War was somewhat controversial among Americans, the fact that the United States by 1990 was in a position—in terms of military capacity, strategic predominance, and a generally more supportive public than had existed ten years earlier—to embark upon a major war in the Middle East reflected the achievement of Reaganite aims.

The most important event that put America in this prime position was the end of the Cold War with a victory for the United States. This was not an outcome that Reaganites envisioned at the start of the 1980s, and Reagan and Bush needed to shift course in their stance toward the Soviets in order to achieve it, but achieve it they did. In the early 1980s, Americans became sharply concerned over the apparent willingness of the U.S. government to consider waging a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, a concern fueled by a series of rash statements and actions from the administration. Public support quickly mounted in favor of a nuclear freeze, a bilateral hold on new deployment of nuclear weapons by both superpowers. Senators and congressman expressed their support for the idea in large numbers; the largest political demonstration in American history, in New York City in 1983, capped an outpouring of popular discontent; and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a pastoral letter, clearly aimed at the Reagan administration, condemning nuclear weapons. Reagan, looking toward a reelection campaign, started to talk far more often of the need to negotiate arms reductions with the Soviets. When Gorbachev took charge at the Kremlin in 1985, he quickly proposed a series of dramatic moves toward nuclear disarmament. His regime faced profound economic malaise, one with long roots, and he badly wanted to escape the fiscal demands of global superpower competition. Conservatives, who saw the communist foe as an implacable enemy and détente as a dirty word, were generally cold toward these entreaties.

The 1980sClick to view larger

Figure 2. President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland, during the Reykjavik Summit, 1986.

Reproduced with permission of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

But Reagan, starting in late 1986 when he and Gorbachev met in Iceland for talks, began to seriously consider working with Gorbachev toward the goal of a nuclear arms–free world. In 1987 the two leaders agreed on the substance of the Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, which ended up cutting Soviet nuclear stocks far more substantially than those of the United States. Many conservatives were outraged because of this deviation from their dogma, and this disarmament agreement advanced only a small step toward the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. Yet it was the inflection point where the relentless drive for escalating the nuclear arms race was reversed, and it moved the Soviet Union out of superpower competition and the United States into unquestioned strategic supremacy. This was not the way that the Reaganites had seen things proceeding in 1980, but it was the unexpected path toward their most ambitious international goal: American supremacy.

Successes: Culture

Reaganites also wished to alter the climate of American culture, and in certain ways they succeeded. The 1980s featured a great increase in the status of wealth in America. Financiers like T. Boone Pickens and Ivan Boesky became celebrities, along with industrialists like Lee Iacocca and real estate developers like Donald Trump; their faces adorned the covers of news magazines, and their autobiographies became bestsellers. This was a sharp reversal from the environment of the 1970s, in which big business was distrusted and plain living rather than high living was the widespread ambition of youth. In the 1980s, large proportions of graduating classes at Ivy League colleges lined up to apply for jobs at investment banks and large management-consulting firms, solely because these jobs were reputed to deliver the most extravagant starting salaries for those with bachelor’s degrees. Popular sayings of the 1980s included “Whoever dies with the most toys wins” and “Poverty sucks.” Characteristically for the time, these lines were often delivered with an ironic affect, but the irony was as thin as gold leaf, intended merely to convey a vague sense of sophistication. The materialism was quite real. The box-office returns of films became regularly reported as news. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous became a popular television program. Anything connected to money came to seem important. Yuppies—short for young upwardly mobile professionals or young urban professionals—became symbols of the era, tastefully opulent in their consumerism. Some scorned the yuppies, but more wished to imitate them. The hedonism of the era, inextricably tied to the new consumerism, was worrisome to the most socially conservative members of the Reaganite coalition. But the new culture of money still marked a great victory for the basic Reaganite drive to rehabilitate wealth in American life.

The other major Reaganite success in terms of reshaping American culture lay in the restoration of old-style national pride, embodied in what the historian Andrew Bacevich would call a “new American militarism.” The antimilitarist and anti-imperial environment of the late Vietnam War era came to an end, and belief in America’s global vocation was broadly restored. This change was evident before the Reagan-Gorbachev thaw—and appeared at the same time, paradoxically, as did public anxiety over the possibility of nuclear war. The response to the Grenada victory was one signal of a new public mood. The thirst for a return to flag-waving, for an end to criticism of America’s past misdeeds, was fully displayed during the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, staged in Los Angeles. Reagan’s willingness to use limited force against Libya persuaded many Americans that, despite the climb-down in Lebanon, America was newly determined to combat terrorism forcefully abroad. Indeed, President Reagan declared the first American “war on terror,” which fed a feeling among Americans that their country, on the side of right, had returned to a tried-and-true method of using its military power to combat evildoers. In this new cultural climate, critics of U.S. military action or U.S. power in the world found their views less welcome than before. Criticism of the U.S. military itself increasingly seemed like something close to religious heresy.

Failures: Domestic Crises

For all of Reaganism’s successes in the 1980s, it also failed on many counts, both politically and in terms of successful governance. The conservative coalition, in a position of power, failed the test of addressing major challenges that arose in America during the 1980s, some of them the result of the Reaganite policies and some of them not.

Poverty rates rose markedly during the 1980s, and the new political climate disdained efforts to combat this disturbing development. Indeed, the Reagan administration’s efforts to reduce assistance to the poor and disabled during the Reagan recession—an unprecedented action during an economic downturn—caused perhaps half the increase in poverty. The rest was the result of the recession itself, as well as long-term deindustrialization. One hallmark of Reaganism was the assertion that those in government who refused to help the poor should feel proud of taking a moral stance. Old conservative ideas about the damage that the dole did to welfare recipients by encouraging dependency made a big comeback in the 1980s, and were summarized in Losing Ground (1984), by the libertarian thinker Charles Murray. The new toughness toward the poor contributed to a surge in homelessness, which was all too visible to Americans across the country in the 1980s. The homelessness crisis had deeper sources as well. But the Reaganite view that relief should be grudging and minimal, a view reinforced by the fiscal constraints that government brought upon itself though the tax-cut policies of the day, insured an inadequate response. Adding to this largely urban pattern of distress, in the American countryside a crisis of debt and foreclosure plagued family farmers. The high interest rates mandated by the Fed to combat inflation hurt debtors badly, and many small farmers were heavily leveraged and lost everything. In the Reaganite view, this was simply the way of the world—market forces at work, even though the interest rate regime was a policy choice—and was not a suitable matter for redress through the government.

Another major social crisis of the 1980s was the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome) epidemic, which largely afflicted gay men and intravenous drug users. Conservatives, led by Reagan, were highly reluctant even to discuss HIV. Once they began to overcome their silence, in the decade’s second half, conservatives often simply condemned the behaviors—chiefly anal intercourse and shared needle use—that spread the growing plague. Scientists struggled to make HIV/AIDS a priority in public funding of medical research. Many Americans became panicked about HIV, and Reaganites in general did nothing to calm the public, to encourage compassion for AIDS sufferers, or to try to stop the disease. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general, was a very notable exception, but his isolation by other conservatives after he broke ranks with them on HIV—he recommended condom use as well as sex education to help combat the virus—underlined the movement’s general insistence on remaining bystanders in the face of tragedy. Gay Americans and their allies experienced a horrible trauma in the 1980s. But they also made meaning out of this suffering by organizing politically—for medical research and access to experimental drugs, for public education about HIV, and for a place in American public life that would render impossible a future dismissal of their concerns. Presidents Reagan and Bush found themselves harshly criticized by sometimes militant AIDS activists, compared to Nazis and ayatollahs.

If HIV/AIDS was a problem that Reaganites simply wished not to address seriously, and if poverty and homelessness were, in part, byproducts of Reaganite policies, then the tremendously tense and explosive atmosphere of race relations in America during the 1980s was, in a sense, something that Reaganites purposely helped to create. This is because Reagan himself, and many conservatives who followed in his footsteps, consciously exploited racial division in order to secure a maximum of white political support and push through their political agenda. Reagan long had been hostile to civil rights enforcement of any kind by the federal government. Once a system of penalties for discrimination against individuals was put firmly in place in the 1960s, he pivoted to a new position, stating that he supported such an individualistic civil rights regime but questioned affirmative action as a quota system. As already noted, as president Reagan appointed civil rights officials who showed little zeal for their tasks. In the realm of political strategy, during the 1984 campaign one of Reagan’s top campaign officials, Lee Atwater, argued explicitly for uniting southern whites across lines of social class and depicted interracial political coalitions in the South as threats that the GOP needed to thwart. In 1988, Atwater was the chairman and mastermind of George H. W. Bush’s campaign, which took this racial polarization strategy to new heights by playing upon white Americans’ fears of violent crime and social disorder and making the crimes of a rapist, Willie Horton—a black man whose victims were white—into the improbable centerpiece of a presidential campaign.

A minority of African Americans were doing better in the 1980s than ever before, entering the professional class in unprecedented numbers. Yet for many other African Americans, the 1980s were a harrowing time when they felt alternately abandoned and targeted by America’s power structure. A series of high-profile crime cases charged with the prevailing atmosphere of racial fear and tension, with protagonists such as Bernhard Goetz, Tawana Brawley, and Charles Stuart, erupted in the headlines across the decade, becoming occasions for the expression of outrage in all quarters. White fears of a poor, criminal urban underclass were distinctly racialized. A new “war on crime” was declared by political leaders, leading to new, harsher penalties for those convicted of crimes—with especially long sentences mandated for those who sold crack cocaine—and the start of a huge increase in rates of imprisonment in America. Reaganites led this push, but many moderates in both parties, and even some liberals, joined them. Many Americans looked with satisfaction on these initiatives during the 1980s. But in later years, discontent with this lockdown approach to crime and poverty, particularly in light of its disparate racial impact on young men of color, would grow.

Closely related to the ethos of wealth that drove Reaganism forward was the string of corruption scandals that marked government in the 1980s, and which extended to conservative elites in the private sector as well. Some of these scandals concerned personal corruption, narrowly defined. For example, Edwin Meese, long a top adviser to Reagan, was the subject of numerous investigations that showed he used his White House position to gain personal financial favors from benefactors in exchange for arranging presidential appointments. Worse yet, the scandals of the 1980s extended to the corruption of government. A very large number of top Reagan appointees at the EPA had to resign, and two were convicted in court, after they consistently, sometimes criminally, acted to protect corporate polluters. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Defense saw their programs, their purposes, and the public funds at their disposal misdirected into myriad schemes whose purpose was to divert government monies toward well-connected, often wealthy insiders. These scandals resulted in many criminal indictments. Perhaps best known was the savings and loan scandal, which saw lawmakers—of both parties—loosen the regulatory reins dramatically on this branch of finance, leading to widespread crime and bankruptcies, which the public had to pay to resolve.

These corruption scandals in government crested between 1986 and 1989, and at the same time greed and scandal rocked the world of conservative elites outside the government as well. On Wall Street, financiers who had become culture heroes in the 1980s began to get arrested for insider trading and other shady practices meant to enrich them at the expense of honest participants in the markets. Prominent conservative evangelical preachers, particularly those with a large presence on television, came crashing to earth, brought down by their hunger for money, luxuries, and sex. While not all of these corruption scandals of the late 1980s centered on conservatives, most of them detonated within key support structures of Reaganism as a movement. Combined with the Iran-Contra scandal that unfolded in public view beginning in late 1986, these scandals generated a cumulative sense that the conservative juggernaut was juddering to a halt and might be falling apart.

Failures: Foreign Policy

The Iran-Contra affair emerged as Reaganism’s most obvious failure, although the underlying policies that caused the scandal were as important as the scandal itself. Those policies were alternately feckless and highly destructive. The “Iran” and “Contra” parts of the affair were linked by money: the United States under President Reagan secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran, a regime that America denounced as an outlaw state, and proceeds from these secret sales were channeled to the Nicaraguan insurgent Contras, at a time when such aid was also prohibited by law. These hidden policies were also tied together because the same people were implementing them, mainly Oliver North, and other staff members of the National Security Council—a body that was not supposed to run foreign operations at all—and private parties whom North enlisted and paid through the illegal arms sales. In the fall of 1986, events suddenly revealed to the public both the illegal Contra supply operation that was ongoing in Central America and the bizarre visit by North and others to Tehran in pursuit of Iranian assistance in gaining the freedom of Americans who had been kidnapped by Shia militants in Beirut. A full-scale political crisis gripped the American capital, one that did not fully lift until late 1987. Political discretion alone, by members of Congress, saved Reagan from impeachment. He had ordered blatantly illegal operations abroad and remained more involved in them than most Americans ever realized, and he had to break numerous laws governing the conduct of foreign policy to keep these operations secret.

The Middle East and the related war on terror that Reagan pursued and Central America, which Reagan and his followers showered with disproportionate and sometimes lethal attention, emerged as two foreign policy areas where Reagan and fellow conservatives performed poorly.

The 1970s had been an era of new boldness by terrorist groups based in many countries, with many targets; hijackings of passenger jetliners came to seem routine. In response, Reagan declared the first war on terror, whose distinguishing feature was an American insistence that rogue states, chiefly Libya and Iran—and, many conservatives said (although they never could provide proof), ultimately the Soviet Union—funded and trained the terrorists, and that therefore besieging these states was the key to stopping the terror. In 1986, Reagan ordered intensive air strikes against Qaddafi and his forces inside Libya. The United States favored Iraq, ruled by the dictator Saddam Hussein, during Iraq’s war against Iran, providing Iraqi forces with intelligence and equipment. The success of these actions in curbing terrorism is questionable. The groups that the United States sought to combat in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, only continued to grow in power and daring. Libya eventually exacted a terrible revenge against the United States in 1988 by blowing a passenger jet out of the skies over Scotland, killing 189 Americans and many others. The public stance of the U.S. government against Iran made the arms sales to Iran, when they became known, seem outrageous. Reagan and others had hoped that Tehran could use its influence with the Shia in Lebanon to get some hostages released. It did not work well, since at least as many new Americans were taken captive in Beirut as were freed in exchange for U.S. weapons sold to Iran. Taken as a whole, U.S. policy toward terrorism and in the Middle East was incoherent. No method that Washington devised to deal with these problems succeeded, and this frustration led to impulsive and reckless changes of course. Meanwhile, U.S. aid to the Afghan mujahideen, while it succeeded in its goal of inflicting a loss on the Soviets, had unforeseen results that fueled terrorism in the longer run. The Taliban, a new Muslim fundamentalist force that arose in the 1990s, eventually took control of a destabilized and weapon-ridden Afghanistan, and they abetted the terrorist attacks of al-Qaeda on the United States in 2001.

Reaganites renewed the old U.S. view that the Caribbean was an “American lake,” and that Washington could use force to dictate who ruled in countries surrounding the sea. Reagan ordered overt U.S. military force in Grenada in 1983, and Bush would launch a similar invasion of Panama in 1989. Elsewhere in the region, the hand of the United States was indirect, but still powerful. In El Salvador and Guatemala, the United States propped up and lavishly aided rightist regimes that pursued frightfully violent campaigns of repression against their own restive citizens. In Nicaragua, where leftists were in power for most of the 1980s, America roused and supplied an insurgency. The El Salvador and Nicaragua policies were never widely popular inside the United States, and they lost political support in Washington by the decade’s end, coming to seem absurd when there was no longer a Cold War adversary whom leftists to the south might serve as proxies. In its own terms, the Reaganite approach to the Caribbean basin succeeded, since the U.S. presidents and their conservative followers got their wishes regarding who governed in each country at issue; the Nicaraguan Sandinistas held out until they fell in elections in 1990. Yet in human terms and in any larger vision, these policies were disastrous. They did not enhance U.S. national security, since it never had been threatened by any of these nations. They showcased the worst traditions of U.S. mischief within other sovereign nations and probably damaged American influence around the world. On balance, they brought enormous suffering to the peoples of the region, who became playthings of a political movement in the United States that was ideologically bent on rolling back socialism somewhere in the world—even if only in a small and rather powerless country—and preoccupied with finding someplace where Washington could flex its muscle.


One way to consider the balance sheet of Reaganism in the 1980s is to consider how satisfied each of the major constituencies in the Reagan coalition should have been in 1990. The business lobby, and wealthy individuals, had good reason to feel highly satisfied with the decade’s results. The overall outcomes are illustrated by the increasing share of national income held by top earners. The income share of the highest-earning 1 percent of taxpayer rose from 10 percent in 1980 to 14.3 percent in 1990. The highest-earning 0.01 percent, a far more select group, did even better, seeing its income share rise from 1.3 percent in 1980 to 2.3 percent in 1990. These figures meant, necessarily, that those farther down in the income structure saw their shares of national income decrease. On average, the income of the highest-earning 1 percent rose 72.8 percent in the 1980s, while the average income of the bottom-earning 20 percent did not increase at all. Those in the middle tiers of the structure saw very modest increases in income.2

Members of the Christian right openly expressed frustration by 1990 with what they considered the neglect of their priorities by Reaganites in power. Federal courts had curbed second-trimester abortion rights by 1990, and conservatives had denied public funds for abortions pursued by women on welfare. But otherwise the breakthroughs the religious supporters had hoped for regarding abortion and school prayer had proved elusive, as Reagan, Bush, and other leading conservatives gave other issues far higher priority. The acceptance and status of gay American grew during the 1980s. More diffuse aspirations to reform American culture in a newly pious mold had been mocked by the rising worship of luxury and power, a great deal of it within conservative ranks.

Cold War hawks should have been happy in 1990. The Cold War was ending with an American triumph. The United States was now freer to exert itself militarily around the world, as Bush demonstrated in Kuwait. Some worried publicly about the fiscal burden of America’s gigantic military in the late 1990s, but these concerns were outweighed by joy at the new “unipolar” world in which America was the only superpower. The failures and costs of U.S. policy in Central America and the Middle East little troubled the hawks.

The Reagan Democrats, like the Christian right, had realized mixed returns at best on the investment they placed in the conservative coalition of the 1980s. Inflation was tamed in a lasting way. But the new economic formula of cheap imports and stagnant wages (for most) was only sustainable because working-class families worked ever more hours. Reaganite economic policies did them little good and often harmed them and their children’s prospects. Affirmative action, like abortion rights and secular public schooling, survived rather easily what many expected would be a time of severe testing. However, those Reagan Democrats who hoped for a more muscular U.S. military presence abroad, and those who simply believed in the Reaganite version of freedom, could take satisfaction from the 1980s, even if they did not benefit in tangible ways from government policy.

Many important things occurred in American life besides the rise, successes, and failures of Reaganism. For example, a new wave of immigration to the United States, increasingly coming from the Western Hemisphere and from the Pacific basin, began to transform many cities and towns across America. Partly because of the economy’s structural transformation, women’s and men’s work experiences became increasingly similar, although the income gap between the sexes narrowed only modestly in the 1980s. Other items could be added to this list. Nonetheless, what distinguished American life in the 1980s most of all were the newly potent efforts of a dynamic conservative coalition to implement its views in a campaign to revitalize the United States and prepare it for the future. Long into the future, historians of the 1980s will decide how to tell the story of the 1980s by determining how they evaluate those efforts.

Discussion of the Literature

As with any era from the recent past, the earliest chroniclers of the 1980s were often journalists who wrote the “first draft of history.” Their accounts focus heavily on the figure of Ronald Reagan. Informative early works are Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling with History;3 Garry Wills, Reagan’s America,4 by a historian who wrote for a broad audience; Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, Landslide;5 Bob Schieffer and Gary Paul Gates, The Acting President;6 and Haynes Johnson, Sleepwalking through History.7 These treatments are for the most part critical of Reagan’s policies and leadership. By the early 1990s, this stream of journalistic works petered out. The main account by a professional historian produced at that time, Reckoning with Reagan by Michael Schaller,8 reflects and reinforces the journalistic verdicts on the era. In 2000, the publication of President Reagan, by Lou Cannon,9 a journalist who made a career of writing about Reagan, marked a newly comprehensive, and quite balanced, evaluation of Reagan’s presidency. This massive work, however, is more a minute history of White House affairs than a full history of Reagan’s regime, and it is most useful as a reference resource than as an interpretive work.

Professional historians began turning to the 1980s in larger numbers in the 2000s, and many of these treatments are—in light of how negative the early accounts are—surprisingly kind to Reagan. The Eighties, by John Ehrman;10 Morning in America, by Gil Troy;11 and Transforming America, by Robert M. Collins, a specialist in the history of economic policymaking,12 all seek to defend Reagan’s presidency, and the experience of Americans in the 1980s generally, from liberal criticism. All three view Reagan and his followers as successful, definitely in political terms and in some measure in policy terms as well. More neutral accounts, in general seeking neither to vindicate nor to indict Reagan, of developments in a wide array of policy areas were collected in The Reagan Presidency, edited by W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham.13 Gil Troy and Vincent J. Cannato edited another collection of essays, Living in the Eighties,14 which strikes a moderate tone in terms of political interpretation. This volume also began to bring accounts of popular culture together with political history. One notable feature of the scholarly production of the 2000s is how heavily it focuses on domestic politics and policy. With rare exceptions, analysis of international affairs in the 1980s was left to specialists in that field.

Scholars of international relations and diplomatic history began, in the 1990s, to produce significant works chronicling the dramatic turns in the last decade of the Cold War. The Great Transition, by Raymond Garthoff,15 a diplomat-historian, is a basic account. It criticizes Reagan’s confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union early in his presidency but credits both Reagan and Gorbachev for coming to terms later on. Multiple perspectives on these world-changing events were collected in Ending the Cold War, edited by Richard K. Herrmann and Richard Ned,16 and The Last Decade of the Cold War, edited by Olav Njolstad.17 The sophistication of these writings exceeds that of contemporaneous accounts of domestic policy, politics, and culture. The impact of the Cold War’s end, on American terms, in the emerging narrative of the 1980s is indicated in the expanded and revised edition of Schaller’s Reckoning with Reagan. This new edition, titled Right Turn18—intended, like its predecessor, for use in college classrooms—shrinks the coverage of the domestic scene in favor of greatly expanded discussion of foreign affairs, especially the end of the Cold War. Specialized studies of other topics in U.S. diplomatic history in the 1980s are not so numerous. Our Own Backyard, by William M. LeoGrande,19 is the leading account of a crucial area of conflict. Iran-Contra, by Malcolm Byrne,20 is the foremost scholarly history of the scandal that might have brought down Reagan’s presidency. Numerous areas of U.S. foreign relations in the 1980s, including with countries in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia, are ripe for serious scholarly inquiry.

Whether the favorable treatment of the Reagan era in works produced in the 2000s will persist is an open question. The Age of Reagan, by Sean Wilentz,21 a broad account that deals rather briefly with the 1980s, returns to a more critical stance, one marked by open partisan sympathy for Reaganism’s Democratic opposition. The Reagan Era, by Doug Rossinow,22 seeks to provide a comprehensive account of domestic and international developments; it treats Reaganism critically but depicts it as highly effective politically. Collision Course, by Joseph A. McCartin,23 is a superb study of a pivotal labor conflict of 1981; its depth of research and searching analysis make it a model for other historians wishing to examine particular facets of American life in the 1980s. Front Porch Politics, by Michael Stewart Foley,24 is a leading study of oppositional forces in the era of Reaganism.

Primary Sources

Essential sources, beyond newspapers and periodicals from the decade, include the relevant Public Papers of the Presidents, which are available online through the American Presidency Project, which is edited by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley and hosted by the University of California at Santa Barbara. Rich document collections concerning the foreign policies of the United States during the 1980s are housed at the National Security Archive, a private organization hosted by the George Washington University.

For those wishing to do in-depth, traditional research into the 1980s, the documents collected at the relevant presidential libraries are vitally important. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library is located in Simi Valley, California. The main page for researchers is hosted, like other Reagan Library web pages, by the University of Texas. The Reagan Library has a list of links for topic finding aids for the library’s holdings. The George Bush Library and Museum is located at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. It hosts an online list of audiovisual archival sources, as well as an extensive guide to the holdings of the Bush Library.

Numerous Reagan administration officials wrote memoirs of their time in the government. Among the most useful of these as primary sources are: Paul Craig Roberts, The Supply-Side Revolution; David Stockman, The Triumph of Politics; and George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph.25

Visual Materials

A fairly large collection of photographs from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library can be viewed online. The George Bush Library and Museum, at Texas A&M University, also makes a selection of photographs accessible at its own website. The cover images from issues of Time magazine—once a highly influential mass-market news periodical—are available for viewing at Time’s website.

Further Reading

Bacevich, Andrew J.The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Brownlee, W. Elliot, and Hugh Davis Graham, eds. The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.Find this resource:

Byrne, Malcolm. Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014.Find this resource:

Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.Find this resource:

Foley, Michael Stewart. Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s. New York: Hill & Wang, 2013.Find this resource:

Garthoff, Raymond. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994.Find this resource:

LeoGrande, William M.Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1998.Find this resource:

McCartin, Joseph A.Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Rossinow, Doug. The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Troy, Gil, and Vincent J. Cannato, eds. Living in the Eighties. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974‒2008 (New York: Harper, 2008), 135.

(2.) Doug Rossinow, The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 281, 353‒54n5, 6.

(3.) Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling with History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983).

(4.) Garry Wills, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987).

(5.) Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988).

(6.) Bob Schieffer and Gary Paul Gates, The Acting President: Ronald Reagan and the Supporting Players Who Helped Him Create the Illusion that Held America Spellbound (New York: Dutton, 1989).

(7.) Haynes Johnson, Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

(8.) Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

(9.) Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Public Affairs, 2000).

(10.) John Ehrman, The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

(11.) Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

(12.) Robert M. Collins, Transforming America: Politics and Culture in the Reagan Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

(13.) W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham, eds., The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).

(14.) Gil Troy and Vincent J. Cannato, eds., Living in the Eighties (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(15.) Raymond Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994).

(16.) Richard K. Herrmann and Richard Ned Lebow, eds., Ending the Cold War: Interpretations, Causation, and the Study of International Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

(17.) Olav Njolstad, ed., The Last Decade of the Cold War: From Conflict Escalation to Conflict Transformation (London: Routledge, 2004).

(18.) Michael Schaller, American Life in the Reagan-Bush Era, 1980–1992 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(19.) William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1998).

(20.) Malcolm Byrne, Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014).

(21.) Wilentz, Age of Reagan.

(22.) Rossinow, Reagan Era.

(23.) Joseph A. McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(24.) Michael Stewart Foley, Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s (New York: Hill & Wang, 2013).

(25.) Paul Craig Roberts, The Supply-Side Revolution: An Insider’s Account of Policymaking in Washington (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); David Stockman, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (New York: Harper and Row, 1986); and George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Scribner’s 1993).