In the American right-wing media there is an almost religious devotion to Ronald Reagan. He is commonly referred to as a ‘conservative’ in the most Orwellian misuse of the word imaginable. The traditional meaning of ‘conservative’ is something more like ‘someone who supports limited, decentralized government with low spending and low taxation, and maintaining traditions and hierarchies.’ So basically the polar opposite of the Reagan Administration. Despite having an unpopular platform, the Republicans continue to win elections on a wave of good branding (and gerrymandering) and now control both houses of congress, the White House and a majority or state houses. Institutions like Fox News have built up Reagan as some type of messianic figure, and many people look back on his administration with patriotic nostalgia. So I am going to take on honest look at American policy in the 80s and find out if they were really a time to be proud of. The short answer is ‘they weren’t.’
The right wing pretends to care about the debt (or at least they did during the Obama Administration, but I assume they will suddenly forget that it was ever an issue as Trump continues the upward climb.) Lets take a look at the national debt graph.
Uh oh. The right-wing narrative is already falling apart. As you can see, there was a long period of balanced budgets from WWII to when Reagan took office. There was a brief recovery during the Clinton years, then the debt began a precipitous spike around 2007 that continues, only slightly leveled, to this day. The Reagan administration presided over a 12% net increase in government spending. He had one big tax cut in his first year, then he signed 11 tax increases over the next seven years, but it still wasn’t enough to balance out the spending increases and the initial cut.
As for domestic policy, I find it interesting that Reagan advocated for amnesty for illegal immigrants and stricter gun control. Both of these policies are contrary to Republican dogma.
But at least he was tough on communism, right? After all, he did say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” (Never mind the fact that East Germany wasn’t part of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev had no authority over said wall.) Not so fast. The Reagan administration were committed supporters of the Khmer Rouge (probably the most radical left-wing regime to ever control a national government in the history of the world). If you need visual conformation of this, I’ll direct you to John Pilger’s brilliant documentary The Betrayal in which you can literally see trucks driven by Americans drive right up to the Khmer Rouge camps to deliver supplies. Crimes that were punishable by death under the Khmer Rouge included wearing glasses, speaking a foreign language and owning a book. For their worst enemies, they didn’t just kill them. They killed their entire families. They had a saying that went something like, “When you pull a weed, you need to get it all the way down to the root, or it will grow back.” This was a euphemism for killing babies, usually done by grabbing them by the ankles and swinging their heads into trees. It’s nice to know where your tax dollars are going.
But the Reaganites were not ideologically consistent. They supported right-wing terrorists as well as militant Marxists. For example: the Contras. They were an American-backed Nicaraguan drug cartel and terrorist group tasked with overthrowing the liberal, democratic government of that country. The Reaganites gave them money and aid, as well as legal protection, in their cocaine-smuggling business. All they had to do in return was destroy democracy in Nicaragua and open it up to American corporations. They ravaged the countyside, killing and raping tens of thousands of people. But the Contras were very unpopular, even in a world that allowed the khmer Rouge a seat at the UN, and they wouldn’t have gotten congressional approval, so the Reaganites paid for their aid to the Contras by selling arms to Iran. As I mentioned in Biggest State Sponsor of Terrorism: Iran or Saudi Arabia? the CIA was supporting Saddam, Iran’s arch enemy, at that same time. The Reaganites really seemed to have had some kind of special relationship with Iran. The year and a half long hostage crisis that sunk the Carter Administration came to an end about 20 minutes after Reagan’s inauguration.
Allow me to paraphrase the 80s propaganda regarding Guatemala and El Salvador: “both countries are engaged in brutal civil wars between the radical right and radical lift, but their democratically elected governments, under the benevolent guidance of Uncle Sam, are desperately trying to restore peace.” Any New York Times, Newsweek or CBS report you can dig up will be some variation of that central theme. We now know this to be utter nonsense. The mainstream story today is that both governments were fighting leftest rebel groups aided by Nicaragua and Cuba. They have gotten about half way to the truth. The reality was that US-backed military dictatorships were terrorizing defenseless civilian populations. Democracy in both countries was nonexistent. Candidates threatening to represent the people were assassinated. Elections were completely controlled by the militaries, and the militaries always won. Voters were intimidated at the barrel of a gun along every step of the electoral process.
In one village in El Salvador called El Mozote, the Salvadoran military went ‘My lai style’ and murdered all 800+ inhabitants, first raping all the females over 10. In 1980, the military raped and murdered 4 American missionary women. The US media would have loved to sweet this under the rug, but the women’s families and fellow church goers just wouldn’t shut up about it. At first the media tried to downplay military involvement, and when that didn’t work they said ‘this was just a few bad apples.’ Tell that to the people of EL Mozote if there are any left. Christians were some of the most vocal critics of the Salvadoran regime, and military responded accordingly to eliminate the threat. Many priests were killed including Archbishop Oscar Romero. In February 1980, he sent a letter to Jimmy Carter, pleading with him to stop sending aid to the Salvadoran army. In his last sermon, he appealed to the army and security forces to refuse to kill their Salvadoran brethren. He was murdered a few days later, Carter having never replied. Reagan promptly increased aid to the Salvadoran army upon assuming office.
Things were even messier in Guatemala where the US-backed military tried to exterminate the ethnic Mayan population. According to a British Parliament human rights group, there were an average of one hundred political murders and over 40 disappearances per month in 1984. This is in addition to the Mayan genocide. Human rights activists and journalists were routinely kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Mass disappearances of activists began in the 60s. An organization led by their family members called GAM was formed. Despite a martial law ban on public gatherings, GAM organized a mass march and protest on the streets of Guatemala City. Some were murdered on the spot, others were arrested and disappeared. (about a hundred in all) One GAM leader was kidnapped along with her brother and two year old baby. They were all found dead in a ditch. She had, of course, been raped first. Some human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch tried to draw attention to these facts, and the Reagan Administration launched a propaganda campaign do discredit them as left-wing and biased. The total death toll is hard to measure, but it certainly runs in the hundreds of thousands.
But at least Reagan put the Muslims in their place, right? Well…not so much. The Reaganites were supporters of the Mujaheddin, a group of radical Sunni extremists defending Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. In Reagan’s own words, “they are the moral equivalent of the American Founding fathers.”
Here is a very telling interview with Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinsky in which he admits that aid for the Mujahideen began in ’79 (6 months before the Soviet invasion.) When asked if he had any regrets about supporting terrorists, he returned the question, “What’s worse: the Taliban or the soviet Union?” Brzezinsky was some type of Kissingeresque evil genius, because his plan did work, but at what cost? Brzezinsky would go on to write a book in the 90s called ‘The Grand Chess Board’ in which he theorized that Central Asia was the key to global domination. The Soviet economy collapsed due in large part to over spending in their Afghan war, and they were forced to dissolve their parliament. Sound familiar Modern America? You’ve been there for 16 years, spent trillions of dollars and the Taliban still controls 40% of the country’s territory. I’ve heard it said that ‘Afghanistan was the Soviet’s Vietnam,’ but I think a better analogy is, if the US doesn’t pull out soon ‘Afghanistan will be America’s Afghanistan.’ But I digress.
What is now known as ‘The Mujahideen’ was actually a collective of two separate groups: the original Mujahideen, (comprised mostly of local Pashtuns) which was an organic Afghan movement that predated US involvement, and the so called ‘Afghan Arabs’ (Arab Wahhabists recruited to go join the Mujahideen in their fight. The former would later change their name to ‘The Taliban,’ the latter to ‘Al Qaeda.’ The CIA recruited one of the heirs to the Saudi BinLadin Group construction company (which has large business interests in the US). His name was Osama. He acted as their main asset to recruit extremists into the Afghan-Arab faction of the Mujahideen. ‘Al Qaeda’ is Arabic for ‘the base,’ but it’s more common usage is slang for ‘toilet.’ The name comes from a CIA database they used to keep track of all their assets. In Biggest State Sponsor of Terrorism: Iran or Saudi Arabia? I just talked about these two Middle Eastern countries but, in the 80s, the top state sponsor of terrorism was without a doubt the US.
To be fair to Reagan fans, most of these policies (with the notable exceptions of Iran-Contra and the unbalanced budget) were inherited from the Carter Administration which just underscores my point in Is America Really a Democracy? that there is no real difference between the two parties.
The Reaganites (like all administrations) were not idealists. They weren’t Communists, Fascists or Jihadists. They would exploit any kind of extremism that would help them achieve their geopolitical goals of dominating the global economy. The idea behind all three of these foreign policies I’ve mentioned was containment. They were willing to sacrifice my adopted country of Cambodia to keep Thailand and Malaysia securely in the Capitalist block. The idea was to bog down the Vietnamese army, and unleash local gorillas on them to give them a taste of their own medicine. Likewise in Central America, the US was terrified that Nicaragua’s experiment in liberal democracy would spread across the region and … heaven forbid … into Mexico. Their mission in Afghanistan was to exhaust the Soviet’s imperialist efforts and free up Eastern Europe with all the resources and cheap labor that comes with it.
I fully understand that an actor with Alzheimer did not mastermind all these policies. I know that the oligarchs who run the multi-trillion dollar American economy would not allow a system where any one individual can come along and fuck everything up. But the people who fall for partisan propaganda don’t understand this. That’s why I’m doing this.
Looking back on recent American history, I think the Carter-Reagan-Bush period set a dark and shameful new precedent. It normalized unilateral executive branch, covert foreign intervention. The Vietnam era definitively ended America’s ability to assume any sort of moral high ground, but, even then, things were different. When Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia was relieved it was scandalous. There were nation-wide protests. Whistle blowers like Daniel Ellsberg were rightly regarded as heroes. Now contrast that with the Obama Administration where the White House authorized illegal drone strikes on 7 different countries to the sound of crickets and whistle blowers were hunted down like bank robbers.
Demographics in American have shifted, and Republicans can’t win merely on gay bashing and Islamophobia anymore, so I understand the necessity for supplemental propaganda, and cults of personality are very effective on an uninformed population as proven by the various communist regimes like North Korea. But sometimes I wonder, ‘Why Reagan?’ I get it. He’s one of the best actors ever to play president. He looks and talks like the grandpa next door with a heart of gold. But why not a strict constitutionalist like Eisenhower? He was once quoted as saying the, “The president can’t authorize a single bombing without congress.” Contrast that with the administration that secretly funded a genocide by selling arms to an enemy state. Do you see what I mean?