In 1989, after two terms in office, Ronald Wilson Reagan left the White House one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century -- and one of the most controversial. A Democrat turned Republican and an actor turned politician, Reagan is a study in complexity. He believed in balanced budgets but never submitted one, feared a nuclear apocalypse but built a huge stockpile of weapons, and preached family values while presiding over a dysfunctional family.
As president, Reagan unleashed a dramatic series of economic and political initiatives that became known as "the Reagan revolution." He invested in a massive military buildup, challenged the Soviet Union, called for tax cuts and less government. Supporters credit Reagan with winning the Cold War, as well as restoring America's self-confidence and rebuilding its economic and military strength. Detractors assert that the "prosperity" of the Reagan years was built on borrowed money, driving up the national debt and benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Reagan's legacy is still in dispute, but his impact on American life and politics is unmistakable.
Program Chapters -- The entire program is streaming on the PBS and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE websites. The total viewing time is 4.5 hours. For your convenience, we have described the program in chapters. You may want to use specific chapters to focus classroom discussion and activities.
Part One -- Lifeguard
Chapter 1 -- Introduction
Overview of Reagan as an enigma -- ideological yet his policies wavered at times, anti-Communist yet became friends with Gorbachev, proponent of family values yet presided over a dysfunctional family.
Chapter 2 -- The Lifeguard
Born in 1911, grew up poor in Tampico, Illinois, alcoholic father -- family settles in small town of Dixon, Illinois -- mother becomes Reagan's "moral compass" -- he adopts her fundamentalist Christian faith -- in high school plays football, acts in plays, works as a lifeguard.
Chapter 3 -- A Career in Media
Reagan graduates Eureka College in 1932 -- hired as a radio announcer then sportscaster -- moves to Hollywood in 1937 to pursue acting, makes 50 films -- marries actress Jane Wyman in 1940 -- daughter Maureen is born, son Michael is adopted --Reagan's most famous role is as George Gipp in "Knute Rockne, All American," earning him the nickname "the Gipper".
Chapter 4 -- Communists in Hollywood
Elected Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) president -- liberal Democrat becomes anti-Communist and an FBI informant, cooperates with McCarthy's HUAC, supports blacklisting of communists -- Jane Wyman asks for a divorce. Reagan marries actress Nancy Davis in 1952 -- Patti born several months later -- Ron, Jr., born in 1958 -- Reagan's movie career begins to fade.
Chapter 5 -- Political Apprenticeship
Offered job as host of G.E. Theater on television, develops oratory and political skills -- reducing size of government becomes his political mission -- after eight years with G.E., Reagan emerges as a conservative. Reagan switches from Democrat to Republican -- becomes national figure after speech endorsing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Chapter 6 -- Campaign for California Governor
Runs against incumbent Pat Brown in race for governor of California in 1966 -- cultivates "American West" image and promotes a return to "traditional" values.
Chapter 7 -- Governor of California
Reagan wins the governor race -- Nancy's refusal to live in the governor's mansion draws sharp criticism -- at 1968 Republican Convention conservatives back Reagan, but Nixon wins nomination. When Berkeley students revolt in 1968, Reagan sends in highway patrol -- National Guard occupies the city for 17 days -- Reagan is reelected as governor and begins cutting government spending.
Chapter 8 -- Another Run for President
Loses the 1976 Republican nomination to Gerald Ford.
Chapter 9 -- President Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan campaigns on a conservative platform against President Jimmy Carter -- U.S. experiences depressed economy, gas crisis, Iran hostage situation -- Reagan wins 1980 presidential race on conservative platform (less government, stronger defense).
Chapter 10 -- A Plan for Economic Recovery
Reagan takes office -- administration concentrates on economic recovery via the "Reagan Revolution" (tax cuts, reductions in domestic spending, "supply-side economics") -- Reagan also advocates military build-up.
Chapter 11 -- A Wounded President
Assassination attempt on March 30, 1981 -- attitude during the crisis makes him even more popular -- Nancy orders aides to tighten security -- Reagan becomes more isolated as contact with public diminishes -- economic bill passes, creating the largest deficit in U.S. history.
Chapter 12 -- Reagan's Recovery Plan Fails
Recession begins -- Reagan criticized for his insensitivity toward the disadvantaged -- Nancy criticized for her lavish spending -- by 1982 "Reaganomics" is derided -- Nuclear Freeze Demonstration in New York attracts thousands -- Democrats win back 26 seats in the House -- Reagan's popularity plummets to 35 percent by 1983.
Part Two -- An American Crusade
Chapter 13 -- Prologue, Part II
Overview of Reagan as rescuer and crusader -- Reagan's belief that USSR is an "evil empire" -- wants Soviets to relinquish their hold on Eastern Europe.
Chapter 14 -- Battle on Two Fronts
Reagan rejects détente -- authorizes massive arms build-up -- 1981 Polish Solidarity movement is supported by U.S. economic sanctions -- covert U.S. operations back anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan and CIA-trained forces (the Contras) harass the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Chapter 15 -- Nuclear Freeze Movement
Nuclear Freeze Movement gains momentum -- "Survival Sunday" rally is spearheaded by Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis.
Chapter 16 -- Strategic Defense Initiative
Reagan challenges U.S. scientists to develop an impervious defense system -- Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Chapter 17 -- Nuclear Negotiation
Weinberger advocates "Zero Option" response to arms reduction talks -- Reagan advocates for Pentecostals in the Soviet Union -- strikes a secret deal for their release.
Chapter 18 -- Missile Deployment in Europe
Korean airliner strays into Soviet airspace in 1983 and is shot down -- arms talks continue with Soviets despite Weinberger's advice to the contrary -- Yuri Andropov's health begins to fail -- Soviet delegates walk out of arms control talks.
Chapter 19 -- Campaigning for a Second Term
1984 presidential campaign TV ad, "Morning in America," captures spirit of Reagan's policy -- Reagan regains the support of both blue-collar workers and middle class -- Nancy rids the White House of any advisor who opposes dealing with the Soviets --Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko visits the White House -- Nancy delighted that Reagan is seen as a peacemaker -- meeting with Gromyko diffuses tensions between U.S. and Soviet Union -- Reagan's age (73) becomes an issue during reelection campaign -- wins the election by 59 percent of the vote.
Chapter 20 -- A New Staff for a Second Term
Reagan's "troika" of advisors (Deaver, Meese, and Baker) leave the White House -- Don Regan becomes new chief-of-staff --Brezchnev dies in 1981, Andropov dies in 1983, Chernenko dies in 1985 -- reformer Gorbachev comes to power in the Soviet Union -- terrorists hijack plane and kill U.S. passengers -- seven other U.S. citizens kidnapped by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and held hostage in Beirut -- Reagan operated on for colon cancer -- Reagan takes a firm stand against terrorists, yet secretly approves plan to court moderate leaders in Iran -- Reagan sends weapons to Iran but later denies they are in exchange for hostages.
Chapter 21 -- U.S.-Soviet Summit in Geneva
Summit with Soviets in 1985 -- Reagan and Gorbachev become friends -- leaders discuss "building down" their arsenals, but when Reagan refuses to kill SDI they fail to reach an agreement -- Reagan receives a warm welcome when he returns to the U.S. and his "trigger happy" image begins to fade.
Chapter 22 -- Reagan's Changing Role
Reagan excels in the presidential role of "American Master of Ceremonies" -- U.S. forces Soviets out of Afghanistan -- Congress cuts off funding for Reagan's Nicaraguan operations and makes it illegal for the CIA to support the Contras -- Reagan becomes forgetful and disinterested in his job
Chapter 23 -- Summit at Reykjavit
Reagan and Gorbachev meet for a second arms summit in October, 1986 -- they agree for the first time that human rights would be a "legitimate recognized, regular item on [the] agenda" during negotiations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. -- Reagan and Gorbachev hold a summit in Reykjavik -- Gorbachev insists U.S. limit SDI but Reagan is unwilling and leaves without an agreement -- summit is criticized as a failure, but Gorbachev later views it as a "breakthrough" in ending the Cold War.
Chapter 24 -- The Iran Contra Crisis
Iran-Contra scandal -- Reagan continually denies involvement in arms- for-hostages deal -- National Security Advisor Pointdexter, and aide Oliver North resign -- Reagan undergoes prostate surgery -- conflict between Nancy and Chief-of-Staff Don Regan -- Regan resigns.
Chapter 25 -- Confession and Triumph
New Chief-of-Staff Howard Baker disturbed by reports of Reagan's increasing forgetfulness and disinterest, but assures the public that Reagan is in control -- Tower Committee finds that Reagan is responsible for a "lax management style and trading arms for hostages" -- Reagan finally admits that there was an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. Don Regan publishes For the Record which exposes Nancy's use of an astrologer -- "Black Monday" stock market crash occurs in October 1987 --"Reagonomics" is scrutinized, national debt has tripled, gap between rich and poor wider than ever, homelessness is rampant --AIDS becomes an epidemic -- Reagan's memory seems to be failing -- Gorbachev accepts "Zero Option" treaty.
Chapter 26 -- The End of the Cold War
Reagan visits Berlin Wall -- Reagan visits the Soviet Union in 1988 -- states that he no longer views the USSR as an "evil empire" -- Trip to Russia results in Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan -- Berlin Wall is torn down in 1989 -- Sandinistas are voted out of power in Nicaragua in 1990 -- Gorbachev dissolves the Soviet Union in 1991.
Chapter 27 -- Back on the Ranch
Reagan returns to California ranch at age 78 -- reconciles with daughter Patti -- failing health becomes apparent at his 83rd birthday tribute -- Reagan is diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.
Chapter 28 -- Credits
To find more film resources and classroom activities, visit the Teacher's Guide for Reagan.
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?