Ronald Reagan, born Feb. 6, 1911, was a walking, talking cliché. With his sunny, feel-good persona, he fooled a lot of people into thinking they were actually living in one of his B movies that always had a happy ending.
He campaigned for re-election as president in 1984 proclaiming it was “Morning in America.” But many of us knew that in reality he was ramrodding wage-cut policies that busted unions, undermined New Deal programs, and deregulated the banks and corporations.
With an “aw shucks” grin, he carried out corporate America’s ruthless agenda of de-industrialization, turning former industrial areas into a rust belt. Thousands of mills and factories shut down, their jobs exported to Latin American and Asian lands of cheap labor even as U.S. worker productivity skyrocketed and the banks and corporations pocketed eye-popping profits.
Reagan began his political career in Oct. 1947 as a leadoff witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He was president of the Screen Actors Guild and testified that communists in the film industry were a threat to national security. His testimony helped launch the witch-hunt that destroyed the careers of the Hollywood Ten , union screenwriters of many Oscar-winning films. It was the opening shot for a decade of fear and intimidation. Tens of thousands, especially militant union workers, were blacklisted in what the writer, Lillian Hellman called the “Scoundrel Time.”
Lester Cole, one of the Hollywood Ten, writes in his book, “Hollywood Red” that Hollywood was selected for the launching of the “Red Scare” because it was an industry that reached every nook and cranny of the nation. Yet Hollywood studio owners, he adds, had motives closer to home. The 200,000 workers in the film industry were in contract negotiations to win a larger share of the enormous profits generated by their labor. The HUAC witch-hunt smashed the unity of film industry unions, forcing them to purge themselves of militant, left leadership including some communists. A strike scheduled to begin in July 1948 was called off within months of the Hollywood Ten witch-hunt. The official SAG union history laments that SAG “caved” to the redbaiters.
Reagan became the overnight hero of corporate America. He went on their short list for higher office. GE chose him to host “General Electric Theater” to keep him in the public eye. It also made him a wealthy man and gave him hundreds of speaking engagements around the country where he presented his (and GE’s) views on economic issues. All this exposure groomed him as choice for governor of California, positioning him for the GOP nominee for president. It all went according to plan.
In 1981, just months after he became president, Reagan struck again. The 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike against brutal stress on their jobs that endangered their own health and the safety of airline passengers and crews. Within 48 hours Reagan fired the air controllers and brought in military personnel as strikebreakers.
Wall Street banks and corporations greeted Reagan’s smashing of PATCO with joy. He was giving them a green light to bust unions even as they spouted clichés about “labor-management partnership.” The labor movement responded by staging “Solidarity Day,” Sept. 19, 1981 with over 250,000 union members marching past the White House to protest Reagan union-busting.
But it was not enough. Workers were forced to accept takeaway contracts. Reagan crippled or repealed outright federal regulations that protect the health and safety of workers and the public, repealed Great Depression-era financial regulations that rein in Wall Street racketeering. Again, it went according to plan.
Reagan’s foreign policy was also designed to make the world safe for corporate profiteering. This was laid bare in the Iran-Contra conspiracy in which he authorized a covert war to overthrow the progressive Sandista government in Nicaragua by secretly funding the Contras, in flagrant violation of the Boland Amendment barring such aid. Shiploads of TOW and Hawk missiles were secretly sold to Iran (violating an embargo), the profits diverted through a shadowy network of Swiss banks to pay for weapons for the Contras. Meanwhile, Reagan authorized the sale of arms to Saddam Hussein, arming both sides in the decade long Iran-Iraq war in which millions died.
An estimated 200,000 people died in the Contra war in Nicaragua. As many as a million died in a similar “Reagan Doctrine” war in Angola. Reagan defenders claim that he was a forgetful old man who knew little about the “Enterprise.” But Oliver North (National Security Council member involved in the clandestine sales of arms to Iran) himself testified that Reagan grilled him for the grisly details of these secret wars, genocide that would certainly have warranted Reagan’s impeachment for high crimes.
Now on the hundredth anniversary of Reagan’s birth, we are suffering the realities that Reagan helped create: a nation with an obscenely wealthy elite that have lost count of their mansions, yachts, and Lear jets while the rest of us scrape by. In this worst recession since the Great Depression, 14 million are without a job, over 40 million without health care, millions more facing foreclosure and homelessness. And Reagan’s tea party heirs are shredding the safety net! It brings to mind that slogan popularized by the Communist Party USA back in the Great Depression: “fight or starve!” We have no choice now. We must fight.