The centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birthday this month sparked reverential commemorations across the United States. Spurred on by a rare consensus among American media, members of both parties have competed to out-lavish each other in tributes to his sainted memory. President Barack Obama can’t seem to get enough of him. Even his estranged children now find they adore him. He has become the man for an undivided America. And no wonder. Only an ideological curmudgeon would deny Ronald Reagan his due. He was a wildly successful president, achieving a remarkable number of his goals.

He entered office in 1981 determined to block advancement for black Americans, to halt the sluggish march towards equality for American women, to make America walk tall again by beating up tiny poverty-stricken nations, to allow insatiable greed and ruthless personal ambition to reap lavish rewards, to fire up the economy through trillions of dollars in defence expenditures, to invite industry to desecrate the environment, and to legitimate a morality in which any means justified his ends.

Notwithstanding his unparalleled laziness, indifference to most issues and immersion in fantasy, in all these areas his administration triumphed, a splendid record for conservatism in action.

His values were never in doubt. This was conviction politics. One of his very first acts was to cast the only vote opposing the World Health Organization’s code of ethics against feeding babies in poor countries with instant formula using contaminated water. At the end, the multiple scandals of his administration had resulted in the investigation, indictment or conviction of at least 138 of his officials, the largest number for any president to that time.

The world was Ronald Reagan’s movie set. History will long debate his role as the man who ended the Cold War. But as president, death was the Gipper’s co-star. Morning in America meant that the United States could aggress around the world at whim, recklessly flouting both American and international law, disdaining such outmoded leftist dogmas as honesty, morality, legality, democracy and resolutions of the United Nations. The multi-faceted immorality and illegality of the Iran-contra scandal was one direct consequence.

But what a classic Reagan caper it was — offer arms to the new American-hating Islamist fanatics in Iran in return for funds to support Nicaraguan terrorists targeting the health clinics and schools the new Sandinista government had just built; if patients and children were within, all the better. Fifty-thousand Nicaraguans, mostly civilians, were killed in a war planned, armed and financed by the United States. By any reasonable standard, the Contras were guilty of palpable war crimes. Mr. Reagan considered them “the moral equivalents of the American founding fathers.”

Coached by the Heritage Foundation, Mr. Reagan assembled a team of bellicose cold warriors, typified by Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, backed up by an entire semi-secret team of senior government officials, ex-CIA agents, ex-Pentagon officials, fascist Cuban exiles, professional killers and international drug traffickers. Gaudy patriots all, in the name of American exceptionalism they repeatedly violated their own Constitution; eleven of the president’s officials were convicted for Iran-Contra alone. Under them, state terrorism by the United States was the order of the day. They organized a succession of clandestine wars and open attacks on very small nations that paid an appalling price for the principles of Reagan’s City on a Hill.

The first target for violent regime change was Nicaragua (population three million), in the process causing unspeakable horror as well to hundreds of thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans (70,000 killed) and Guatemalans (100,000 killed) whose soldiers the Americans trained in the finer points of torture. Mr. Reagan then sent the Marines to Lebanon (population three million) to demonstrate that Americans could go wherever they damn well chose; 241 of them died in a widely predicted attack on their barracks. The CIA soon sought vengeance to demonstrate that no one could kill Marines with impunity. But it missed its target, instead causing collateral damage to 280 dead and wounded Lebanese bystanders.

Two days after the Marines were blown up, needing to demonstrate that no one pushed the United States around, Mr. Reagan ordered 7,000 American troops to invade the minuscule Caribbean island of Grenada (population 95,000). As in Lebanon, CIA intelligence proved somewhat faulty: 19 American soldiers were killed and 115 injured, some by other American troops. For this gallantry under friendly fire, 8,612 U.S. army medals were awarded, some to soldiers who never left the States.

To fight Communism, Mr. Reagan championed and aided across Africa – in Liberia, Chad, Zaire/Congo, Sudan, Somalia – tyrants who caused unimaginable pain and catastrophic damage. Mr. Reagan described Mobutu Sese Seko, who brutally disemboweled his country, as “a voice of good sense and good will.” His senior Africa aide, Chester Crocker, was guilty of overseeing a mountain of crimes against humanity throughout the 1980s. Like Henry Kissinger before him, Mr. Crocker came to be seen as an elder statesman and was duly appointed chair of the prestigious U.S. Institute of Peace.

Apartheid South Africa, launching the most brutal decade in its violent history, was embraced by Mr. Reagan as a trusted ally. In besieged Angola, CIA director Bill Casey teamed up with the South African government he so admired to make that country, like Nicaragua, a total basket-case, while tens of thousands of Angolans perished miserably. In the Persian Gulf, an American destroyer attacked without provocation or reason a regular commercial Air Iran flight, killing 290 people; no American apology or reparations have ever been offered.

At home too, Reagan conservatism worked its magic. Poverty bloomed. Fourteen million more Americans lived below the poverty line when Mr. Reagan retired in 1988 than when he was elected. Almost one in four American children that year lived in poverty. The enforcement of civil rights for blacks in housing, voting, employment and education almost ground to a halt. Committed reactionaries were appointed to courts at every level to entrench the rights of the privileged for generations to come. The president travelled to Bitburg, Germany, to lay a wreath at the grave of Nazi SS soldiers who, he explained, were victims of the Nazis “just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps.” He was a great friend of Israeli extremists and the powerful Jewish-American neoconservative clique adored him.

The old Gipper never lost his faith in Gipperish. Dedicated to a more peaceful world as he was, almost his last act in office was to ask Congress to increase the swollen defence budget by another $5-billion and to cut the same amount from child nutrition programs and medical insurance for the aged and the poor.

His country, Republicans and Democrats alike, reveres his memory, his spirit and his deeds. The tributes and tears gush still. His truths go marching on.

This post first appeared in The Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...