Biography of Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States

He led the country during the height of the Cold War

Ronald Reagan

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Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911–June 5, 2004) was the oldest president to serve in office. Before turning to politics, he had been involved in the movie industry not only through acting but also through serving as the president of Screen Actors Guild. He was the governor of California from 1967–1975.

Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election for the Republican nomination but ultimately failed in his bid. However, he was nominated by the party in 1980 to run against President Jimmy Carter. He won with 489 electoral votes to become America's 40th president.

Fast Facts: Ronald Wilson Reagan

  • Known For: 40th president of the U.S., who led the country during the height of the Cold War.
  • Also Known As: "Dutch," The "Gipper"
  • Born: Feb. 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois
  • Parents: Nelle Clyde (née Wilson), Jack Reagan
  • Died: June 5, 2004 in Los Angeles, California
  • Education: Eureka College (Bachelor of Arts, 1932)
  • Published Works: The Reagan Diaries
  • Honors and Awards: Lifetime gold membership in the Screen Actors Guild, National Speakers Association Speaker Hall of Fame, United States Military Academy's Sylvanus Thayer Award
  • Spouse(s): Jane Wyman (m. 1940–1949), Nancy Davis (m. 1952–2004)
  • Children: Maureen, Christine, Michael, Patti, Ron
  • Notable Quote: "Every time the government is forced to act, we lose something in self-reliance, character, and initiative."

Early Life and Career

Reagan was born on Feb. 5, 1911, in Tampico, a small town in northern Illinois. He attended and graduated from Eureka College in Illinois in 1932 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Reagan began his career as a radio announcer that same year. He became the voice of Major League Baseball. In 1937, he became an actor after signing a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. He moved to Hollywood and made about 50 movies.

Reagan was part of the Army Reserve during World War II and was called to active duty after Pearl Harbor. He was in the Army from 1942 to 1945, rising to the rank of captain. However, he never took part in combat and remained stateside. He narrated training films and was in the Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit.

Reagan was elected Screen Actors Guild president in 1947 and served until 1952, and served again from 1959 to 1960. In 1947, he testified before the House of Representatives concerning Communist influences in Hollywood. From 1967 to 1975, Reagan was the governor of California.

40th President

Reagan was the obvious choice for the Republican nomination in 1980. George H.W. Bush was chosen to run as his vice president. He was opposed by President Jimmy Carter. The campaign centered on inflation, the gasoline shortage, and the Iran hostage situation. Reagan won with 51 percent of the popular vote and 489 out of 538 electoral votes.

Reagan became president as America entered the worst recession in its history since the Great Depression. This led to the Democrats taking 26 Senate seats from Republicans in the 1982 election. However, recovery soon began and by 1984, Reagan easily won a second term. In addition, his inauguration brought an end to the Iran Hostage Crisis. More than 60 Americans were held hostage for 444 days (November 4, 1979–January 20, 1980) by Iranian extremists. President Carter had attempted to rescue the hostages, but the attempt was unsuccessful due to mechanical failures.

Sixty-nine days into his presidency, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., who justified the assassination attempt as an effort to woo actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. While in recovery, Reagan wrote a letter to then-Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev hoping to find common ground. However, he would have to wait until Mikhail Gorbachev took over in 1985 before building a better relationship with the Soviet Union and easing tensions between the two nations.

Gorbachev ushered in an era of glasnost, greater freedom from censorship and of ideas. This brief period lasted from 1986 to 1991 and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

In 1983, the U.S. invaded Grenada to rescue threatened Americans. They were rescued and the leftists were overthrown. Reagan was easily elected to a second term in 1984 after running against Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. Reagan's campaign stressed that it was "Morning in America," meaning that the country had entered into a new, positive era.

Iran-Contra Scandal and Second Term

One of the major issues of Reagan's second administration was the Iran-Contra scandal, also called the Iran-Contra Affair, or just Irangate. This involved several individuals throughout the administration. In exchange for selling arms to Iran, money would be given to the revolutionary Contras in Nicaragua. The hope was also that by selling arms to Iran, terrorist organizations would be willing to give up hostages. However, Reagan had spoken out that America would never negotiate with terrorists.

The Congress held hearings delving into the Iran-Contra scandal in mid-1987. Reagan eventually apologized to the nation for what had happened. Reagan completed his term on January 20, 1989, after several important meetings with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.


Reagan retired after his second term to California. In 1994, he announced he had Alzheimer's Disease and left public life. He died of pneumonia on June 5, 2004.


One of the most important events that occurred during Reagan's administration was the growing relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Reagan created a bond with Soviet leader Gorbachev, who instituted a new spirit of openness or glasnost. This would eventually lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union during President H.W. Bush's term in office.

Reagan's largest significance was his role in helping to bring about that downfall. His massive buildup of weapons, which the USSR could not match, and his friendship with Gorbachev helped usher in a new era that eventually caused the breakup of the USSR into individual states. His presidency was marred, however, by the events of the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Reagan also adopted an economic policy whereby tax cuts were created to help increase savings, spending, and investment. Inflation went down and after a time, so did unemployment. However, a huge budget deficit was created.

A number of terrorist acts occurred during Reagan's time in office, including the April 1983 bombing attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Reagan claimed that five countries typically harbored aided terrorists: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Nicaragua. Further, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya was singled out as the primary terrorist.


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Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Biography of Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).