The centennial of Ronald Reagan has just gone by. The former President is highly praised in the media, but in reality there is much evidence that Ronald Wilson Reagan did far more to harm the people of this country and this world than to better their conditions. Both at home and abroad, his legacy is one of gross economic injustice and interventionist foreign policy that led to widespread human rights abuses and mass murder. Reagan’s indifference to and the aiding and abetting of foreign atrocities committed in the name of anti-communism place a shadow of doubt on his “democratic” character as well as the methods he used to supposedly win the Cold War. During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, United States support for anti-democratic regimes abroad reached an all-time high, culminating in massacres and even genocide.
The United States government, with President Reagan’s blessing, gave hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to dictatorial and fascist regimes in Latin America. Military governments and death squads received weapons, training and financing for decades even as they committed horrid atrocities.
“The death toll [resulting from US/CIA funding] was staggering — an estimated 70,000 or more political killings in El Salvador, possibly 20,000 slain from the contra war in Nicaragua, about 200 political ‘disappearances’ in Honduras and some [200,000] people eliminated during a resurgence of political violence in Guatemala” (Parry).
In Guatemala particularly, there was an internationally-recognized genocide of Maya inhabitants, who were seen as collectively subversive supporters of leftist guerrillas. “The one consistent element in these slaughters [in Central America] was the overarching Cold War rationalization, emanating in large part from Ronald Reagan’s White House” (Parry). All of these movements’ activities were well-known, and yet the Reagan administration’s policy remained unchanged.
The social effects of Reagan’s free market economic policies are rarely discussed in any serious manner in the mainstream media. Praise of the economic miracle that supposedly happened during his presidency is lavish. However, there is much evidence that Reagan’s policies only contributed to the well-being of a small percentage of the population of the United States. “While the richest one percent of the U.S. population saw its financial wealth grow 109 percent from 1983 to 2001, the bottom two-fifths watched as its wealth fell 46 percent” (Smith). In addition, “between 1983 and 1998 the average household net worth of the poorest 40% in the U.S. declined 76%” (Smith). In the eyes of many scholars in economics, Reagan’s presidency was marked by “a mean-spirited, economically unsound, and socially destructive policy agenda” (Miller).
Many praise Reagan’s tax cuts as creating an economic boom, but in fact “most low-income taxpayers missed out on the Reagan tax cuts […] [f]or the richest 1%, on the other hand, the Reagan tax cuts were pure elixir” (Miller). Any serious study of economic data from the period indicates that “Reaganomics” failed to achieve its stated economic boom. “When mainstream economists, such as Barry Bosworth and Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution, checked out the effects of the 1981 tax cut, they found […] men didn’t work much more at all; although women did work longer hours, their earnings failed to improve” (Miller). While the voodoo economics of the Reagan era certainly helped out those who were already well off, the “economic boom” wasn’t felt so much by working people.
Most will also remember the greatly increased military spending of the Reagan era, including CIA operations worth billions of dollars. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Soon after, “[d]uring the tenure of President Ronald Reagan, military aid to the [Afghan] mujahideen was greatly expanded and included various sophisticated munitions including advanced Stinger anti-aircraft missiles” (Lansford 3). Under the rule of Islamic fundamentalism brought about with Reagan’s help, Afghanistan has seen little improvement since, has legalized rape and supplies 80% of the world’s heroin trade.
This aggressive and interventionist foreign policy was pursued by the Reagan administration from its very beginning—in 1983, the Reagan White House invaded the small country of Grenada, an act which was condemned by the U.N. General Assembly as a violation of international law.
That same year, the Reagan administration bombed Libya and funneled huge sums of money to the Nicaraguan Contras, anti-communist death squads responsible for well-known atrocities in the Nicaraguan Civil War. Reagan was also a hard-line supporter of Israel and approved of its aggressive war against Lebanon.
Clearly, Reagan’s foreign and domestic policy cannot be reconciled with his media portrayal as a purveyor of human rights, justice and freedom. In fact, “[f]rom his eight years in the White House, [….] there are grounds to regard Reagan as the single worst purveyor of mass atrocity in the western hemisphere during the twentieth century. Very little of this surfaced in the nauseating encomiums to Reagan in the US media following his death in 2004” (Jones 146-147).
Reagan, who was allowed to die peacefully in his bed, could easily be counted as one of the greatest criminals of the 20th century, and certainly did not deserve the mantle of a fighter for democracy.
Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd. Routledge, 2010. 146-147.
Lansford, Tom. A Bitter Harvest: US foreign policy and Afghanistan (Us Foreign Policy and Conflict in the Islamic World). Ashgate Publishing, 2003. 3.
Miller, John. “Ronald Reagan’s Legacy.” Dollars and Sense. July 2004.
Parry, Robert. “Reagan and Guatemala’s Death Files.” Latin American Report. The Consortium, 10 June 1999.
Smith, Sam. “Bottom Line: The True Costs of Reagan and Extreme Capitalism.” Progressive Review Online.