H W Brands, Ronald Reagan: The Life. Doubleday, 2015

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were a symbiosis: two very different characters who simultaneously led a conservative revival after decades of decline. They were the most important political leaders of their countries since the Second World War. Both picked up the cans that predecessors had kicked down the road: trade unions holding government to ransom, rampant inflation caused by Keynesian economics, and the relentlessly expanding but decreasingly productive state. While Thatcher fought Arthur Scargill, Reagan defeated the air traffic controllers’ union, which had threatened to clear the arterial skies. Parallels can be drawn throughout H W Brands’s hefty 800-page biography, but British readers should bracket out the trials and tribulations of Thatcherism to immerse themselves in this fascinating American life.

Eternally known as ‘The Gipper’ after his most celebrated Hollywood role as a footballer, Reagan was brought up in a Democrat family in Illinois. The New Deal had saved millions from the Depression scrapheap, and Reagan regularly cited its architect, Franklin D Roosevelt, throughout his political journey. After the war, however, Reagan had a day of reckoning. As head of an actors’ union, he was troubled by the overt support for communism and the Soviet Union in Hollywood. He saw the federal schemes of Roosevelt morphing into the ideology of statism, which interfered in lives and stifled the freedoms espoused by the Founding Fathers.

After his acting career faded, Reagan joined the Republican Party, and was elected Governor of California. Conservatives were in the doldrums in the 1960s, but Reagan was a popular figure with a unique ability to connect with ordinary people. In 1968 he pitched for the Republican nomination for the presidency, but it was not until his third try in 1980 that he was put before the American electorate – and the rest is history.

Exposure to the ‘useful idiots’ in the movie business influenced Reagan’s later battle with communism. Unlike Jimmy Carter and previous incumbents of the White House, Reagan decided to confront the enemy. He was sceptical of arms control treaties, believing that the Russians were exploiting the West’s internal weakness (in this there are similarities with Donald Trump, who sees through climate-change agreements that allow recklessly polluting China to build hundreds of coal-fired power stations).

The USSR seemed to have a bright future in the 1950s, as Khrushchev relaxed the rigidities of Stalinism, but his reforms were not appreciated by party purists. By the 1970s, as the Kremlin desperately tried to keep up with the military prowess of the Americans, living standards for the masses were worsening. Ordinary Russians cooped in chilly concrete apartment blocks were forced to queue for bread, and a greasy roll of offal was as much as they could expect to feed the family. Meanwhile, informers lurked in every corner of the grim oblast.

Western society has allowed liberals to write the political history books and claim the credit for all social progress. But let us unapologetically assert this truth: it was Ronald Reagan, not the mealy-mouthed social democrats of Europe, who ended the Cold War. The Berlin Wall tumbled after Soviet hegemony had been undermined by a resolute president in Washington. Reagan exploited internal weakness in Russia by substantially increasing defence spending, pushing Brezhnev towards bankruptcy. The Soviet system, despite the once-powerful state propaganda, was losing legitimacy.

With a moral compass influenced by his Hollywood past, Reagan simplistically divided the world into good and evil. He used the Solidarity movement in Poland to present this dichotomy: godless Communists versus a culture steeped in Catholicism. Supporting the Gdansk shipyard workers’ protest, Reagan built a rapport with Karol Wojtyla, the Pole who had become Pope John Paul in 1978. Liberty was a Christian value at the bedrock of the American Constitution, and by casting himself as leader of the free world, Reagan beckoned to people who endured atheist totalitarianism.

‘God bless America’ was the closing line of all Reagan’s speeches. Secularist liberals on the seaboards had long dominated American politics, but he forged a strong bond with the evangelical Christians of the flyover states. Disparaged by the establishment, now these folks had a friend in Washington. Reagan took counsel from them, perceiving their ethos as the true spirit of America. If their free will was to be subjugated by the state, what hope for the oppressed in other parts of the world?

Domestically, Reagan turned the supertanker of public spending around. He reduced taxes, again on the principle of individual freedom. One amusing story is of Reagan’s first meeting with Paul Volcker, head of the Federal Reserve. As this esteemed expert sat facing the president, he was taken aback by the opening question: ‘Why do we need a Federal Reserve?’ Reagan’s aide Martin Anderson recalled Volcker’s reaction: ‘The view was priceless. His face muscles went slack and his lower jaw literally sagged a half-inch as his mouth fell open. For several seconds he just looked at Reagan, stunned and speechless.’ Volcker recovered to engage in a useful dialogue on monetary policy. This was classic Reagan: for a healthy democracy, people in positions of power should justify their existence.

Naturally Reagan is a bête noire of the intellectual Left, but he remains widely revered in American society, as illustrated by this anecdote. A professor at my London university was speaking to an audience of scholars and clinicians from New York, and referred to Reagan’s divulgence of his diagnosis of dementia. The opinionated professor needlessly added that this positive signal in reducing stigma about the disease came despite Reagan being a ‘profoundly evil man’. Assuming the listeners would be enlightened Democrats, he was taken aback by the heckling.

Reagan was a true conservative in a Republican Party that had slipped its moorings – arguably like the British Conservative Party today. A quarter of a century after his administration, Brands had access to declassified reports. With revealing quotes from documents and diaries, he tells a thoroughly illuminating story of a great man.


  1. Ronald Reagan, for all the accusations made against him that he “named names” [i.e., of actors subsequently blacklisted for Red sympathies], did not do so in his testimony before Congress, and indeed, emphasised that, as he had no investigatory authority in his position as SAG president, he had no firm knowledge as to who was a member of the Communist Party and who wasn’t. What he DID say in connection with the Red influence is important to note– he alleged that the number of members of his union and other guilds in Hollywood that were likely Communists was probably on the order of a small clique, but that those he suspected (but did not openly accuse) were quite active in their attempts at getting people like himself to lend their name to causes that may not have been completely candid about what their aims were– “snares for the unwary,” one might want to call it.
    Why this important is that, in this modern day, the bandwagoning of artists in Hollywood and elsewhere with regard to “social justice-y” causes is so common as barely to be noticed– it will be thought of as “Just another luvvie running their gums about something or another, so what’s new about that?” Reagan credited the large majority of his membership with enough perspicacity to see, were it shown to them, that Leftie causes were merely looking to use them, and he said that such had been reflected in their election of officers of SAG and rejection of any clearly subversive positions for the union to take.
    One wonders what Mr. Reagan would think of the current crop and whether he would alter his opinion as to their basic commonsense.

  2. Reagan and Thatcher were the last grown ups in Western politics. The West is now (mis)governed by kidults.

  3. The second last paragraph of the article sums up what is wrong with British universities; the arrogant assumption of many of the staff that any well educated (or supposedly well educated) person will share their own views on political and moral issues. This shows not only how out of touch many of them are but also how bogus their notion of “diversity” is.

    • It is a general presumption of most on the left that they speak for everyone and that only they have the answers.

  4. The Soviet Union collapsed exactly as and when Old Right figures such as Enoch Powell said that it would. Reagan and Thatcher just happened to be there when it happened to happen. She could not have found Minsk on a map, and he went to his grave without ever having heard of it.

    • David you write obscure comments that nobody but you knows what you are referring to or indeed what your point is

    • The USSR did collapse mostly from its own weight, but you cannot just simply write Reagan and Thatcher off – their unrelenting pressure certainly had an effect on its collapse – in particular the huge American military build up under Ronald Reagan after years of decay under Jimmy Carter contributed significantly to the collapse of the USSR when it attempted to keep up with US military spending (ie: SDI the visionary project to create an anti-missile defense system intended to protect the United States from attack by Soviet ballistic nuclear weapons) which is why Gorbachev looked to deescalate the arms race – also Soviet attempts to equalize its workforce eliminated much of the human spirit in the USSR. When you take away a persons individual hope for a better existence for themselves and their families then you stamp out all inspiration and take away their reason for living, there was a huge lack of spirit among the Soviet workforce back then compared to a wealthier and much more motivated American workforce – the fact is that the “workers’ paradise” that was the Soviet Union back then had lost all touch with its workers.

      • The economy of the place would have guaranteed its fall anyway and as to the workforce, there was a saying, I think in East Germany that ‘they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work’ that speaks to the condition of the labour market across the whole of Eastern Europe.

        At the time, as a teenager, I felt a fascinated contempt for them, but now I’m not so sure we’re better off. We have job insecurity, live in rented accommodation and can’t afford to buy a house with a health service in its death throes. They might have had uncertain access to healthcare, but they also had low rents, security of tenure and had jobs that were dull but which they were never going to lose.

        Something in me wonders if they weren’t onto something.

  5. In the prologue the author talks about the “A Time for Turning” speech for Goldwater in 1964. The speech is seminal. I was considerably too young to vote, but that is where my conservatism began. This speech (and the Reagan Library has it on Youtube) is one that many, many American Conservatives still listen to often, as i do. It may the best explanation of Constitutional Conservatism there is.

    Reagan, and yes, along with Thatcher, have become heroes for all times here, and this book is good. Just in case I’m not the only Yank in these parts, the American link is:


    You owe it to yourself, especially if you’re one of the young folks who don’t remember those fraught days to read it.

  6. Who has the power to wrongly censor this under the cover of spam?

    Left have achieved their long march through the institutions. Such is
    the overwhelming hegemony of normatised Left Wing ideology in the mass
    media, most people are simply unaware that the very political air which
    they breathe is highly contaminated with Left-liberal ideology.

    the Conservative Party to be able to seemingly unashamedly adopt ‘same
    sex marriage’ (a Left Wing euphemism in itself) and to pick up the baton
    of gender politics entirely, reveals the full extent to which we are
    all now the unwitting carriers of the socialist disease.

    There are
    some, such as Melanie Phillips, who like Saul. converted on the road to
    Damascus, who have seen the light. Much like Ronald Reagan as he slowly
    recognised the creeping and dangerously insidious nature of socialism.

    Phillips, once steeped in 60’s revolutionary politics, former Editor of
    the Guardian, now masterful and incisive commentator on the manfest
    evil, that is the evolution of this monster in embryo called
    Left-liberal ideology.

    We now have a political Establishment who
    are virtually indistingushable, one from another. All follow slavishly
    the Politically Correct Party Line. The Establishment are a One Party
    dictatorship, with a mere patina and illusion of choice as to which
    dictator you wish to have for the next five years.

    The most recent
    manifestation of this Conservative Neo-Statism, being the introduction
    of ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crime’ legislation where an offence can be
    caused merely by the subjective event of ‘feeling hurt’ or ‘offended.’

    If ever there was a siren call for all freedom loving people to wake up, then surely this is it.

    no. There is more to come as the Conservative Neo-Statists press ever
    onwards and upwards with their socialist control weapons.

    Next in
    line is your childs mind. Compulsory ‘Relationship Education’ will
    guarantee the death of the nuclear family as the next generation of
    children are indoctrinated into the mind warping control freakery that
    is Left-liberal ideology.

  7. An interesting review and much i agree with. I do think that in the USSR it became clear to those in power ( particularly in the KGB) that the cold war was over and that it was time to enjoy some real wealth and power. Gorbechev is key to much that went on and to what has often seemed a KGB takeover of the USSR . The case of Matthias Rust who landed the plane in Moscow and enabled Gorbechev to purge the old Red Army and CP high command is odd. Not quite as it seemed at the time. It is a bit too soon to write definitively about those times.

  8. I wonder who it is who choses titles for prominent people, and how it is that they stick?

    If Reagan was ‘The great communicator’ the surely May can be named ‘ The great capitulator’ ?

  9. Meanwhile… back in the real world… during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the national debt of America nearly tripled and the United States, went from being the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation in under eight years.

    A pretty staggering achievement putting George Osborne’s efforts in the shade.

    What kind of admirable or successful conservatism is that?

Comments are closed.