Reagan’s Legacy of Poverty and War

Fight Back! editor’s note: A flood of commentaries are appearing in the press to mark the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan. The following is an editorial evaluating the Reagan legacy that we published in 2004.

While the corporate-controlled media is singing praises of Ronald Reagan for “restoring confidence to America,” millions of Americans and millions more around the world have been forced into poverty and war as a result of his policies.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, at a time when the U.S. empire was reeling from blows abroad and here at home. The 1970s saw an Arab oil boycott to protest U.S. support for Israel; the liberation of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique from U.S. supported Portuguese colonial rule and, most significantly, the victory of the Vietnamese people against the world’s greatest military power in 1975.

Here in the United States, the economy was plagued by high inflation and unemployment. Workers hit the picket lines and oppressed nationality communities organized to defend and expand the victories of the 1960s. A new generation of revolutionaries arose from the African American, Asian American, Chicano, Latino and Native American people’s struggles, as well as a student movement that challenged U.S. imperialism.

The monopoly capitalists had already begun a turn to the right under President Carter by bringing back registration for the draft, beginning the deregulation of industries and putting limits on the affirmative action programs – programs which were originally designed to reduce inequality in education between oppressed nationalities and whites. Under Reagan, the United States made a bid to restore the economic and military power of its heyday after World War II.

One of the biggest changes was in the economy. Under Reagan, income taxes for the rich were slashed while social security taxes, which mainly fall on working people, were raised. One of Reagan’s first acts was to break the air traffic controllers’ union, signaling an all-out war on organized labor. Reagan also continued the process of cutting back government regulation of business, especially in the financial sector.

The United States under Reagan launched a huge military build-up and increased U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. Reagan also began to step up U.S. intervention and attacks on progressive governments by trying to overthrow the Sandinistas government of Nicaragua and by invading Grenada. The United States trained Latin American police, military and paramilitary terrorists in torture and assassination and freely gave aid to repressive governments in El Salvador and Honduras. In Afghanistan, the CIA funneled aid to the reactionary and brutal forces.

Here at home, Reagan began the process of undoing many of the reforms started during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and which were expanded due to people’s struggles in the 1960s. As governor of California, Reagan was the first to impose tuition on students at state colleges and universities. His anti-environmental stance was legendary, with his infamous secretary of the interior James Watt. The anti-immigrant movement grew under the banner of ‘English-only.’ Pat Buchanan, the administration’s communications director, remarked that AIDS was “nature’s revenge on gay men.” Last but not least, Reagan introduced the ‘Christian right’ to the halls of power in Washington D.C. as they unleashed vicious and often violent attacks on women’s right to choose.

This is not to say that there were no victories in the people’s struggle under Reagan. In the Middle East, the United States was forced to withdraw from occupying Lebanon after hundreds of marines were killed in Beirut. Local workers’ struggles such as that by Chicano cannery workers in Watsonville and the fight of meatpackers in Minnesota were able to win wide community support. And Jesse Jackson’s historic 1984 run for the presidency galvanized many African Americans and progressives to action.

But all things considered, the Reagan presidency was a setback for the struggle for peace, justice and jobs. The gap between the rich and the poor widened and homelessness exploded in cities across the country under Reagan. Workers’ wages, after adjusting for the rising cost of living, were lower at the end of the Reagan presidency than they were at the beginning. The flight of U.S. corporations overseas accelerated, hitting African Americans particularly hard – in the 1980s the average income of blacks in the Midwest fell almost 20%. Deregulation of the economy opened the doors to corporate greed and fraud, leading to the great stock market crash of 1987 and the savings and loan crisis a couple of years later. Tax cuts for the rich tripled the federal debt from less than $1 trillion when Reagan came into office to almost $3 trillion eight years later.

CIA funding of reactionary, feudal forces in Afghanistan sowed the seeds of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, while Reagan’s military build-up and interventions, often in violation of international law, put the United States on track to occupy Iraq. Reagan’s rise to power also marked the end of the New Deal tradition of reform in the Democratic Party that began under Franklin Roosevelt. In response to Reagan, the Democratic Leadership Council moved the Democratic Party to the right, leading to the Clinton presidency – known for its embargo of Iraq, welfare ‘reform’ and promotion of Wall Street.

While politicians from George Bush on down try to raise the banner of Reaganism and reaction even higher, we have to learn from and gain inspiration from the millions who fought Reagan and his policies for the causes of peace, justice, equality and socialism.

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