5 reasons why Ronald Reagan was a great commander-in-chief

The passing of Nancy Reagan gives occasion to think back on the Reagan years and their impact on the warfighting capability of the American military. Here are five things that the Reagan administration gave to the troops that endure today:

The Reagan presidency began in a dramatic manner on January 20, 1981. As Reagan was giving his inaugural address, 52 U.S. hostages, held by Iran for 444 days, were set free.

The Reagan presidency began in a dramatic manner on January 20, 1981. As Reagan was giving his inaugural address, 52 U.S. hostages, held by Iran for 444 days, were set free. (National Archives photo)

1. Reagan’s defense spending was the hallmark of his presidency

Reagan believed the Cold War policies of Containment and Détente were both outmoded. He opted for a new way forward with a strategy determined by his National Security Council. This theory was one of a long-term strategic offense and was neither reactive or proactive. The strategy was designed to pressure the Soviets through a massive military buildup, which raised defense spending from $214 billion in 1982 to $258 billion in 1983. The Soviet Union was compelled to raise its defense spending from 22 percent to 27 percent of GDP. The total number of uniformed personnel didn’t change much, but the Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicles, F-117 Stealth Fighters, Apache Helicopters, and M-1 Tanks that rolled over Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army in 1991 did so because Ronald Reagan helped put them there.

A view of an Iraqi T-72 main battle tank destroyed in a Coalition attack during Operation Desert Storm near the Ali Al Salem Air Base (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Coleman)

A view of an Iraqi T-72 main battle tank destroyed in a Coalition attack during Operation Desert Storm near the Ali Al Salem Air Base (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Coleman)

While most historians (and former Soviet officials) agree the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, Reagan’s defense policies, including providing $1 billion worth of support to Afghan Mujahideen, certainly sped up the process.

2. Reagan began the tradition of presidents saluting U.S. troops

President Obama caught some flak from the U.S. right wing a while back when he saluted U.S. Marines with a Starbucks cup in his hand. Obviously, while rendering a salute holding something in the right hand is a no-go (which is why you’d be hard pressed to find military members in uniform holding briefcases in their right hand on base), the tradition of the President saluting military personnel is just that: tradition.

President Reagan salutes a military cadet (wikimedia commons)

President Reagan salutes a military cadet (wikimedia commons)

The fact is, military members do not salute while in civilian clothes. The tradition started with President Reagan in 1981 and even then, it was a curious thing. Reagan had served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and likely knew salutes weren’t rendered out of uniform, it also means he knew it was a courtesy, and allowed the airmen and Marines who transported him to drop their salute after he returned it. Plus, the Commander-In-Chief can do what he wants. RHIP.

3. He raised the military’s pay and gave them better gear for the fight

General Edward Meyer, Army chief of staff under President Reagan, warned him that the Army was a “hollow force,” beaten around by the Vietnam War. When Reagan took over, Meyer’s assessment of the Army for the new President found one full of racial conflict, drug and alcohol problems, and full of recruits who were barely qualified to join. He also opened large training centers for the military, such as the Army’s National Training Center in California’s Mojave Desert. Meyer to the President the military needed to be told by the top person that they were honored and appreciated, and President Reagan took the time do just that.

(White House photo)

(White House photo)

Reagan gave the military a much-needed pay raise. He modernized attack aircraft, like the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Strike Eagle. The Navy grew from 479 combat ships to 525. The military soon rolled out the B-1 Bomber, Trident Attack Submarines, and Peacekeeper Missiles. M-1 Tanks replaced aging M-60 tanks used in Vietnam. Jeeps gave way to Humvees, and money flooded into training centers. He also made sure the right men were in them. It was a military an American would be proud to join.

“Regardless of the political consequences, Reagan bought us what we needed,” Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to The Baltimore Sun. “You can see it today.”

4. Reagan improved the morale of the force by shaking off the spectre of Vietnam

The 40th President believed the United States needed a win. Like a college football team in week one, he scheduled an easy start to what could have been a tough season. With the Cold War in full swing, the Gipper gave the troops the warmup they would have needed to fight the Russians, consequences be damned.

82nd Airborne artillery personnel load and fire M102 105 mm howitzers during Operation Urgent Fury. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. M.J. Creen)

82nd Airborne artillery personnel load and fire M102 105 mm howitzers during Operation Urgent Fury. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. M.J. Creen)

After ordering 7,000 U.S. troops to storm the beaches of the tiny Caribbean island, President Reagan declared “Our days of weakness are over!” in a speech to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.” After the United Nations condemned the invasion, the President replied: “It didn’t upset my breakfast at all.”

5. Reagan’s ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ routine kept the peace with the Soviets

During his first term, he famously called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” a phrase which worried critics of the U.S. military buildup at the time and earned him the dreaded “warmonger” label. Worried that his hard stance hurt his image, Nancy encouraged the president to have a direct relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet General Secretary. President Reagan reconsidered his strategy.

Gorbachev and Reagan sign the INF Treaty at the White House in 1987 (National Archives photo)

Gorbachev and Reagan sign the INF Treaty at the White House in 1987 (National Archives photo)

In his 2004 book Nancy: A Portrait of My Years with Nancy Reagan, senior presidential adviser Michael Deaver wrote that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko once asked her, “Does your husband believe in peace or war?” Nancy told the Russian minister Reagan wanted peace and that she would remind him of that every night.

She also said that she would whisper it in Gromyko’s ear as well.

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