Truth to tell, President Reagan was not exactly a fan of traveling – especially if it meant to far away places without Nancy. Once when talking to an aide about some upcoming foreign travel and the number of flights required, the President said “the highest I want to go is on the saddle of a horse.” But he understood the importance of representing America abroad and of forming relationships with his counterparts, and climbed the steps of Air Force One many times over the eight years, visiting more than two dozen countries. When he stood in a foreign capital and heard “The Star Spangled Banner” played by the host country’s band, President Reagan seemed to stand just a little taller and his chest swelled ever so slightly. You could almost feel his pride in representing the USA.
He believed fervently in the greatness and goodness of America, and knew that American strength was central to world peace. One of his first priorities as President was taking a demoralized and underfunded U.S. military and giving it the support and resources it needed to keep America safe and to be a force for peace around the globe. Nothing made him prouder than to be Commander in Chief. You could see in his face how much it meant to receive – and return – a salute. He felt a special bond with the men and women in uniform, especially the young people from the small towns across America. That they were willing to risk their lives for their country never ceased to amaze and humble President Reagan. He took no responsibility more seriously than to keep them out of harm’s way. But he made a commitment to them that if it ever became necessary to send them into battle, he would make sure they had what they needed to get the job done. By the time President Reagan left office, the U.S. military budget had increased 43% over the total expenditure during the height of the Vietnam War. Troop levels increased, there were significantly more weapons and equipment and the country’s intelligence program was vastly improved.
Ronald Reagan strengthened the military because he was a realist. He understood the world, and had a clear sense of what America’s role should be – the champion of freedom for peoples everywhere.
Perhaps his most steadfast ally in that pursuit was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. From the day they met, the two just “clicked.” They saw the world in similar ways, and found themselves in agreement on most global issues. The U.S. and British were said to have a “special relationship,” perhaps best evidenced by the fact that the Reagans’ first State Dinner in 1981 and last State Dinner in 1988 were both in honor of Mrs. Thatcher.
The “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. was not limited to the Prime Minister. Indeed, the Reagans and the British Royal family came to like each other quite a bit, so much so that Queen Elizabeth II invited President Reagan to go horseback riding with her at Windsor Castle, and Mrs. Reagan was an honored guest at two Royal weddings.
Pope John Paul II was another leader with whom President Reagan had a special rapport. Their relationship went well beyond the usual ceremonial events between a President and a Pope. As they came to know each other, they found they had similar views about Communist domination of Eastern Europe, and quietly worked together to support the Solidarity movement which eventually led to Poland becoming a free nation.
Poland was not the only nation which benefitted from President Reagan’s steadfast advocacy of democracy. While President Reagan was in the White House, Free, democratic elections were held for the first time in many years in the Republic of Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Philippines. By the time President Reagan left office, the number of people in Latin America living under freely elected governments tripled from what it had been ten years earlier.
The President did more than just talk. In 1983, when he was asked by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, President Reagan sent U.S. troops to Grenada to lead a multi-national force in liberating that country from an oppressive Marxist dictatorship. Not only were the communists ousted, the troops rescued nearly 1,000 American medical students whose safety was in jeopardy under the brutal regime.
Maybe because growing up in the heartland of America Ronald Reagan learned the importance of being a good neighbor, he paid special attention to our neighbors to the north and south – Canada and Mexico. Wasting no time in reaching out, he took the unprecedented step of visiting Mexico as President-elect, and visited six more times while in the White House. He made Canada the first foreign country he visited as President, travelling there less than two months after assuming office, the first of five trips. While President Reagan enjoyed strong relationships with all of the Mexican and Canadian leaders during his Presidency, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney became a particularly staunch ally and valued friend.
Over the eight years, there were some frustrations in foreign policy, chief among which was the elusiveness of lasting peace in the Middle East. Progress was made, such as the finalization of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but the region remained unstable – as it had been for centuries. The 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon was particularly disappointing and sad for President and Mrs. Reagan.
Overall, the impact of the Reagan Presidency on the world was undeniably positive. America’s foreign policy objectives were clear and consistent. We stood by our friends and did not back down when adversaries tried to spread their oppressive systems. Friend and foe alike knew that in the Oval Office was a President who kept his word. America was once again the beacon of freedom in the world.