President Ronald Reagan helped restore the American spirit. His legacy gives us hope today as we faced similar challenges during the 1970s. Our 40th president helped change the mood of an entire nation and improve the lives of millions of Americans.
Even though I was just a kid, I still remember the yellow ribbon we tied around the tree in front of our home during the 444 days Americans were held hostage in Iran. One of them was from Wisconsin.
In what felt like a miracle, the hostages were freed on Jan. 20, 1981 – minutes after the inauguration of Reagan. The radicals in Iran knew that they did not want to mess with the new leader. His peace through strength approach served Americans well throughout his eight years in office.
Nuclear proliferation was a genuine concern during my childhood. The Cold War began after the end of the Second World War. The Soviet Union and its allies were aggressive, and the threat of a nuclear attack was real.
It’s easy to forget, but when Reagan came to office in 1981, Soviet-style communism appeared to be as strong as American-style democracy.
In March 1983, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The media and the Democrats wailed that the phrase was reckless, but it was typical Reagan. Simple, clear and true.
When asked what his strategy was for fighting the Cold War, Reagan replied. “We win. They lose.”
It wasn’t just a glib line. He meant it. He expanded the U.S. defense budget to unprecedented levels, in part to develop a ballistic missile shield his critics dubbed “Star Wars.” The strategy was to pressure the Soviets to try to keep up — which he knew they couldn’t do. He was right. They didn’t have the money or the technology.
Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev did all he could to pressure Reagan to drop it, but he wouldn’t budge.
By the end of the decade, a year after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union collapsed, an outcome no one could have imagined — except possibly Reagan himself. There are many reasons why this happened, but no one played a bigger role than our 40th president.
We won. They lost.
Ironically, one of the first times that the Russians took notice was during Reagan’s first year in office. After warning members of the union representing air traffic controllers that their strike was illegal, he fired everyone who did not show up for work. It was a politically risky action, but it was clearly based on standing up for what was right. The leaders in the Kremlin took notice. Overall, it helped shape the tone for the Reagan presidency on both foreign and domestic policy.
Reagan inherited tough economic times. Think things are bad with inflation and the economy now? The 1970s were filled with stagflation — high inflation and slow economic growth. Just as there are today, the decade was filled with high prices for food and fuel, as well as housing.
Reagan convinced enough House Democrats to join him and Senate Republicans in enacting the largest tax cut in our nation’s history. Instead of a bunch of politicians standing behind him in Washington, he signed it at his home Rancho del Cielo, with his dog by his side. He understood that the tax cuts were about the American people and what went on in their house — not the White House.
The tax cuts, along with changes in regulations on small businesses and other employers, were part of an economic plan that brought on some of the longest job growth in American history. The chair of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, also took aggressive action against inflation. Businesses began hiring. Consumers started spending. And the spirit of our nation skyrocketed during the 1980s.
Economic growth averaged 4.6% annually during that decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 19 million new jobs were created.
The dark decade of the seventies, a time in which it looked like America was in terminal eclipse, faded away. It was, as Reagan put it, during his 1984 reelection campaign, “Morning in America” again.
I am proud to be celebrating Reagan’s birthday at his home in California this weekend. It is my honor to serve as the president of Young America’s Foundation. We have the distinction of now owning and operating the Reagan Ranch. We hold conferences and gatherings at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara to teach young people about the principles Reagan fought for throughout his public life.
Reagan’s legacy offers us hope that we too will rebound as a nation just as we did after the 1970s. Let’s once again be that shining city on the hill.
• Scott Walker is the president of Young America’s Foundation and served as the 45th governor of Wisconsin from 2011 to 2019.