The Good and The Bad: Remembering First Lady Reagan’s Legacy in Foreign Policy

Nancy Reagan, the wife of late U.S. president Ronald Reagan passed away on 6 March at the age of ninety-four. Headlines around the world remembered the former First Lady as a tour de force of personal style and as a woman who deeply influenced the White House during her husband’s presidency. As First Lady, Reagan went above and beyond the call of the position, pushing for advocacy and peace in a number of areas during a period of high tension and instability in American history, the Cold War. While Reagan’s legacy is one that should be remembered for the peace she helped create between the East and the West, there are somber pieces of that legacy that should not be altogether forgotten, including her role in the disastrous ‘Just Say No’ campaign and the advent of America’s zero-tolerance drug policies.

Image courtesy of Albert Bottella ©2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Albert Bottella ©2010, some rights reserved.

Although her advisory status to the president remains undisputed, Reagan’s exact legacy with regard to her influence in ending the Cold War is controversial – although, in her memoir ‘My Turn’ she admitted to often expressing her opinion on current affairs to her spouse. ‘I made no apologies for telling him (Reagan) what I thought,’ she wrote. ‘For eight years, I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does!’ In the daily affairs of the White House, Mrs. Reagan was constantly on the front line, often going head to head with the late Donald Regan, her husband’s Chief of Staff whose appointment she later called a mistake, and calling her husband’s appointed Secretary of State Alexander Haig ‘power hungry’. Allegations of Mrs. Reagan’s complicity in prompting the resignation of these men still surround her legacy, despite her constant denial of such claims during her life. She saw herself as the vanguard of the president, and exercised her power often, prompting the ousted Regan to proclaim ‘I thought I was Chief of Staff to the President, not to his wife’.

But Mrs. Reagan acted only with the best of intentions, maintaining she was always defending the president’s interest. She also played her role in the Cold War by sitting down with then U.S.S.R. chairman Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa Gorbachev, over tea at the 1985 Geneva Summit. The Summit was the first meeting leading up to the ultimate peak of President Reagan’s career: the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and the effective collapse of the U.S.S.R. It is well documented that her husband initially took a strong stance against the Soviets, deeming them ‘the evil empire’, and refused to expand bi-lateral relations or engage in nuclear armament reductions. It was the First Lady who encouraged her husband to extend an olive branch towards Gorbachev, organising several state dinners and allowing the two leaders to form a strong relationship, from which came several important treaties, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which called for a reduction in the amount of nuclear weapons of both states. While her presence in ending the multi-decade stand-off is to be lauded, part of her legacy regarding her stance on the War on Drugs is disastrous, and, even in light of her passing, it is important not to disregard these mistakes.

Mrs. Reagan took up arms against the illegal drug industry in 1983, launching her ‘Just Say No’ campaign against drugs in Oakland, California which spurred the creation of thousands of anti-drug clubs in schools nationwide along with a media blitz of anti-drug messages broadcast against popular shows like Punky Brewster. President Reagan contributed too, expanding the drug war and rapidly increasing the rate of incarcerations for non-violent drug offenses which went from 50,000 in 1980 to upwards of 400,000 in 1997. An op-ed published by the Huffington Post argued that ‘the Reagans’ ‘war at home’ was not only ineffective, it was disastrous’. Instead of advocating rehabilitation for non-violent offenders, the Reagans passed stronger mandatory minimum drug laws and blocked syringe exchange programs which not only filled prisons but also worsened America’s drug problem in keeping people from the treatment they needed. In addition, inaccessibility to clean syringes worsened the HIV/AIDS crisis that gripped America in the 1970s and 1980s. Their 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, nicknamed the ‘new Jim Crow’, mostly targeted inner-city black populations and carried a mandatory five-year drug sentence for five grams of crack cocaine. Similar amounts of cocaine, a drug that was primarily favored by rich white communities, only carried a ten to thirty-seven month sentence in comparison. That same year, a national security directive signed by President Reagan ironically led to the financing of ‘narco-guerillas’ and led to the Iran-Contra scandal as well as the resignation of Chief of Staff Regan (in an event some believe the First Lady orchestrated). Moreover, the First Lady’s rhetoric against drugs was powerful, releasing one statement suggesting casual drug users were ‘accomplices to murder’, which worsened the nationwide anti-drug sentiment and hurt drug users seeking rehabilitation.

While the First Lady’s efforts to eliminate drug use in American schools was a wholesome and passionate idea, its actual implementation was wholly destructive in nature, an issue compounded by the President’s policies. Professor Jeremy Kuzmarov penned a statement regarding Mrs. Reagan, saying, ‘whatever personal qualities and grace she may have brought to the White House, Nancy’s legacy is connected to her signature crusade… Her passing provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the failed governmental priorities of the past, and to in turn advance more steadily towards the future… In which drugs are treated as a public health problem and not one requiring military solutions.’

In her passing, there is no doubt Nancy Reagan deserves our admiration for being a graceful, strong, and powerful woman, however, for the sake of a better future for America, it is equally important not to forget past errors.

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