Washington, 7 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, died on 5 June at his home in Bel Air, California. He was 93 years old.
Ronald Reagan was called "The Great Communicator." His ability to articulate complex ideas in a few simple sentences, and stir the passions of the nation with memorable phrases, made him one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history.
Reagan, who was in office from 1981-89, left the presidency with the highest personal popularity ratings of any U.S. leader since Franklin D. Roosevelt, despite a controversial legacy, especially in domestic affairs.
At home, Reagan's political philosophy could be summarized by the words of the 19th-century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: "The less government we have, the better." In the eyes of his critics, Reagan's espousal of sharp cuts in social programs and taxes widened the gulf between rich and poor in the United States.
But Reagan will be best remembered and revered by his admirers for his unshakeable, crusade-like drive to fight communism.
Sometimes this drive took the administration into muddy waters, such as the notorious Iran-Contra affair, in which the United States was found to have illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the profits to fund an anticommunist insurgency in Nicaragua, without the knowledge or approval of Congress.
But at other times, Reagan's philosophy helped to shape history in a more positive way.
While his exact role in the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union is still being sorted out by historians, there is no doubt that Reagan's fervent anticommunism hastened its demise.
Reagan's beliefs were tested almost from the day he took office in January 1981.
Detente -- the policy of coexistence with the Soviet Union that was crafted in the 1970s -- was falling apart. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow was deploying nuclear missiles among its Warsaw Pact allies that could reach any Western European city. Poland was cracking down on the Solidarity trade-union movement and would soon impose martial law.
"General-Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" -- President Reagan, West Berlin, 1987.
At this low point in U.S.-Soviet relations, Reagan signaled the start of his anticommunist crusade in an emotional speech to the British Parliament in 1982. He declared that it was the Soviet Union that ran against the tide of history.
"What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term," Reagan said. "It is the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of people."
Reagan matched his rhetoric with action. He began the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. He helped to stiffen the resolve of NATO members to meet the Soviet European missile threat with weapons of their own, while starting talks with Moscow to remove all missiles from both sides.
Although he was 69 years old and the oldest man ever to be inaugurated as U.S. president, Reagan witnessed four leadership changes in the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev, Yurii Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko all died in office. It was with the fourth Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that Reagan had the greatest success.
Gorbachev and Reagan had four summits between 1985 and 1987. One of their greatest triumphs was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 accord that eventually led to the removal of the Soviet and NATO nuclear missiles that were threatening the heart of Europe.
U.S.-Soviet relations improved dramatically under Reagan and Gorbachev, but even with the warming, Reagan did not relent in his rhetorical pressure on the Soviet Union.
In June 1987, standing near the Berlin Wall in what was then West Germany, Reagan called on Gorbachev to remove the wall that was an international symbol of the division between East and West.
"There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace," Reagan said. "General-Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
A little more than two years later, in 1989, that wall would come down.
Reagan's belief in the power of words and symbols stemmed from his career as a film actor during the so-called Golden Age of the Hollywood film studios in the 1930s and 1940s. He never became a star of the magnitude of his Hollywood contemporaries like Clark Gable or Cary Grant, but Reagan was popular.
He appeared in 53 films from 1937 to 1964.
In 1964, he burst onto the national political scene when he made an impassioned televised speech in support of the conservative Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost the election, but Reagan won praise from the Republican Party and captured the attention of millions of Americans.
Reagan decided to run for governor of California in 1966 and surprised many when he won by a landslide. He was easily re-elected for another four-year term in 1970.
Between 1974 and 1979, Reagan traveled around the country lecturing and gathering public support for a bid for the U.S. presidency. In 1980, Reagan won the Republican Party's presidential nomination. He defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, in the 1980 election and then won a second term by a landslide in 1984.
"In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with ports that hummed with commerce and creativity and, if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here." Reagan explaining his interpretation of his "shining city."
Reagan retired to California in 1989, summing up his legacy in his farewell address, in which he returned to his favorite metaphor of the United States as a "shining city on a hill" -- a beacon and example to the rest of the world.
"I've spoken of the 'shining city' all my political life. But I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with ports that hummed with commerce and creativity and, if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here," Reagan said. "That's how I saw it and see it still. And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that, after 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge."
He wrote his memoirs, presided over the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and went on speaking tours.
In 1994, Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative condition of the brain marked by severe memory loss, confusion, and disorientation.
In 1995, Reagan and his wife founded the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute to help find a cure for the debilitating disease.