Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois on 6 February 1911. He began his acting career while studying economics at Eureka College. He broke into show-business when he landed a gig as a sports caster at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa. Attracted to his distinctive voice, WHO radio signed him as an announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games, his speciality was creating play-by-play accounts of games that the station received by wire. While travelling with the Cubs in 1937, Reagan went for a screen test with Warner Brothers and was successful, the studio signing him on a seven year contract. Limited mainly to B-movies, he made almost twenty movies in the space of two years. However, in 1939, he was cast in the Bette Davies tearjerker Dark Victory which raised his profile amongst the Hollywood community. It helped him land a starring role in Knute Rockne, All American in the role of George ‘The Gipper’ Gipp, hence the moniker that would stick with him for the rest of his life – The Gipper. During World War II, he served as a non-active captain in the Army Air Corp, producing a number of training films, he was not sent abroad due to being near-sighted. Upon returning to Hollywood in 1947, he commenced a five year term as president of the Screen Actors Guild. It was during this period that Reagan became an active voice in Hollywood politics, speaking out against communist influences in the film industry. Finding it difficult to land further film roles, he went into television in 1954 becoming the host of the series General Electric Theater. Part of his contract involved speaking at General Electric plants, he wrote his own speeches which became more and more political, eventually proving too controversial for the company’s taste and he was fired in 1962.
His entry into politics occurred when he made a televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s bid for the Presidential nomination in 1964. In 1966, Reagan beat Pat Brown to become Governor of California, his electoral manifesto had included imposing ten per cent pay cuts, ‘to send welfare bums back to work’ and to quell the anti-war and anti-establishment student protests at Berkeley. However, once in office he found that he had to compromise his ideals – taxes actually increased, he had to accept an increase in abortion rights and he increased spending on higher education. He was re-elected to a second term in 1969, he made even further compromises with the Democrats and generally presented the more liberal side of his politics with a view to his seeking the Republican nomination for President in 1976. That bid failed, during his campaign he articulated his fears of Russian re-armament and the fact that America was facing economic obsolescence because of business taxes and regulation and social chaos because of social welfare dependency. During his 1980 Presidential campaign against President Jimmy Carter, these concerns became amplified due to Carter’s about turn on defence and welfare; due to a widespread if not a completely committed tide of conservative sentiment, Reagan prevailed. After little more than a year in the post, Reagan was victim of an assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr., a bullet missing Reagan’s heart by one inch, but piercing his left lung, it had the effect of soaring his popularity amongst voters. He introduced widespread tax cuts, increased defence expenditure, cuts in welfare and education budgets, business deregulation and a tightened control over government information. America’s new belligerent rhetoric and heightened demand of it’s priorities unsettled governments across the world.
When this rhetoric was followed by a threatened invasion of Nicaragua and an actual invasion of Grenada, North Atlantic affairs were in disarray. His foreign policies were defined by the tremendous antipathy towards the Soviet Union which he referred to as the ‘evil empire’. Reagan presided over a huge military build-up, spending over 2 trillion dollars on the strengthening of the armed forces. In addition, the Reagan Doctrine offered support to anti-Soviet guerrillas anywhere in the world, which led to America becoming involved in covert operations in Central America, Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Congressional hearings in 1987 revealed that the Reagan administration had being raising funds through arms sales to Iran in order to finance the activities of Contra revolutionaries against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Reagan’s polarity plummeted as a result of these findings. It was not until he came to an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce short and intermediate range missiles that his popularity was restored. The Reagan administration claimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent ending of the Cold War was a direct result of US military spending and covert operations; this claim is contested by commentators who credit it to the reformism of Gorbachev and long term structural problems in the Russian economy. On the domestic front, Reagan’s predicted revolution in 1980 had failed to materialise – however a combination of conservative dogma, practical action and mastery of the media ensured that he held the public’s affection although the majority of the electorate disagreed with his policies.