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Paul Craig Roberts is in terminal denial. The entire basis of his defense of the Reagan Administration rests on the need to preserve his source belief: it had to be good, I was in it. I understand the psychological attraction of this retreat deep down into a bunker of denial, but I have no sympathy for it in this case.
I am a leftist who is not “too young to have experienced and know about” the Reagan Administration. I can assure you my tirades against that administration come from living through its blatant and pigheaded drive to regress American society toward some 1950s fantasy reminiscent of Franco Spain and apartheid South Africa, of a racially tiered hierarchy dominated by knucklehead Anglos lumbering forward with the noxious pretense of invigorating the economy and of helping the dumber lower classes by racing a primitively exploitative extractive economics: big capitalist greed run by white people.
I remember waking up on the morning December 9, 1980, preparing to go to my two year new job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and being stunned to hear the radio news report of John Lennon’s shooting death — he’d been shot in the back four times at close range — and soon after of Ronald Reagan’s quick response: pure NRA boilerplate, a vigorous defense of the Second Amendment. Yeah, what a humanitarian. At least Obama and Romney have been bleating about “sympathy” and “honor” for the victims in Aurora, Colorado, while just keeping quiet about “the right to bear arms.” But, Reagan had decades of loyal service as a pitchman for big capital (General Electric), and he didn’t miss a beat when came to defending the patrons who payed his way (in this case the gun lobby), against the potential restrictions of public sentiment. That day I vowed I’d try to get myself a new job that applied my Ph.D. engineering skills and interest in energy research to some non-weapons project, ideally for developing alternative sources of energy. I had been hired by the Livermore Lab in 1978, halfway through Jimmy Carter’s administration, when the memory of the 1973 oil embargo was still fresh and the 1979 oil embargo about to begin, and there was still public sentiment in favor of government-sponsored research into alternative sources of energy.
But, that was not to be. The first thing Reagan did on moving into the White House in January of 1981 was to have the solar collector, which Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof, removed. This symbolic act was duplicated with a vengeance throughout the federal budget in the gutting of alternative energy research projects, along with anything “social” or “environmental,” and with a vast increase in funding for weapons programs. James Watt and Anne Gorsuch were uncaged to lead the pillage of the environment, which Watt, a Christian fundamentalist, viewed as a storehouse stocked by a blue-eyed Jesus for the benefit of the human berserkers who won the free-for-all scramble to empty it. Many science types like me found out that the only employment available, which could use and finally pay for the hard-won skills we had struggled through years of low-wage graduate school to develop, were in weapons and military-related jobs. Pursuing my technical ambitions and feeding my young family were a higher priority for me than leading a life of penury by taking on the problem of attempting to transform a knuckle-headed society that was determined to plunge itself into the self-congratulatory low-brow high-waste Reaganite orgy of conspicuous consumption and extractive economics. I remember thinking at the time, “why the hell should all the high-paying welfare jobs go to these fat-face right-wingers? I think hippie leftists deserve as much of this good government pay as any of these fake-patriot assholes.” I went on to work on over a dozen nuclear tests, up until the end of US testing in 1992.
Being a Latino (Hispanic American), I was so disheartened by the vicious, sickening cruelty inflicted on Central American peasants by agents of US imperialism during the Reagan Administration. Among the worst perpetrators of this barbarism were the Contras in Nicaragua, and the military junta regimes in El Salvador. It was more than just imperialist greed that drove the Reaganite obsession with these wars, it was out and out racism, the need to exert pasty-faced American domination over the lower orders of humanity in the Western hemisphere. The license for bringing this fascist mentality to the fore in American society (Rush Limbaugh began broadcasting in 1988) was one of the longest lasting and most grievously wounding legacies of the Reagan Administration, which was the foreskin of a three decade long sinking thrust degrading American public life and leading to its nadir during the George W. Bush Administration, with its economic crash of 2008. Paul Craig Roberts proudly yammers on about about “fixing the Phillips curve” and other technical tweaks to the economic machinery of the country, which he claims produced great benefits for Americans. But, there is no single technical fix done by the Reaganites — nor even all of them put together — that even comes close to compensating for the vast long-term economic and social harm the Reaganites are responsible for, and whose legacy still seeps out socio-political toxicity like a leaking Superfund site.
Reagan was a tout for a group of big capital con men who simply wanted to work a mafia type scam on a national basis: to take over the government so as to have the power to guide public money flows into the pockets of their corporate associates. They could call the movie “Mister Al Capone Goes To Washington.” The Reaganites were so vocal about being against the government, but since the government in a representative democracy is merely the physical and bureaucratic realization of the machinery needed to enact the popular will (read Rousseau, Jefferson did), the Reaganites were entirely anti-democratic crooks who wanted to extract value from the masses against the public interest (e.g., more weapons, kill alternative energy, more Central American bloodshed, defend apartheid, rape the environment for private profits), to distort the functioning of government for the preferential enrichment of their factional associates, and the higher economic classes with preferred racial mixes.
The Reagan Administration did not end the economic doldrums and high inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Paul Volcker did. Volcker was the chairman of the Federal Reserve, appointed in 1979 by Jimmy Carter and reappointed in 1983 by Ronald Reagan, because by then every Republican investor could see Volcker was doing it right even when the fix was economically painful on Main Street. A second Carter Administration with Paul Volcker at the Fed would have been much better for the country, then and now.
The actual economic events (achievements?, consequences?) that occurred during the eight years of the Reagan Administration were not in general desirable outcomes:
(1) breaking the air traffic controllers union in 1981
(2) “supply side” and “trickle down” economics, and tax cuts
(3) deep recession of 1982 with 10% unemployment
(4) stock market crash of 1987
(5) Savings and Loan crisis, a $125B public bail-out
(6) deregulation and hostility to regulate
(7) no change to the minimum wage
(8) raised national debt from $997B to $2.85T
(9) The share of US income received during 1980-1988 by the:
5% highest-income households grew from 16.5% to 18.3%;
20% highest income households grew from 44.1% to 46.3%;
20% lowest income households fell from 4.2% to 3.8%;
second poorest 20%, fell from 10.2% to 9.6%.
Reagan was a wholehearted supporter of apartheid South Africa. I personally know an American mercenary, “Paul,” who led black troops of the South African Defense Forces (SADF) fighting in Angola. Paul had been a highly trained commando-type US soldier who was allowed to become a private mercenary for the SADF, and involved in secret SADF operations throughout the countries of southern continental Africa. These SADF missions involved spying, smuggling, assassination, as well as open military invasions. Contrary to US law making such activity illegal for a US citizen, Paul was both permitted and encouraged to commute between the U.S. and South Africa for “business,” with each trip being prefaced by and concluded with a friendly briefing or debriefing with US intelligence officials. Paul carries on a vastly different and happily useful life today. Prior to freelancing for the SADF in the defense of apartheid, Paul carried out covert missions for the U.S. in southeast Asia and eastern Europe. I’ve seen trophies. So, please, don’t tell me that the Reagan Administration was too clean to engage in foreign assassinations. It knew and approved of the assassinations the South Africans planned and committed in the countries of the southern half of the African continent (it is quite likely US intelligence agencies even suggested targets). Bad as complicity in foreign assassinations is, what the Reagan Administration condoned and paid for in Central America was astronomically worse: wholesale slaughters of the most indiscriminate and barbaric kind, obvious war crimes of the highest magnitude.
And how did the Reagan Administration pay for it war crimes by proxy? The US Congress tried to end the bloody Central American misadventure by resorting to a legislative trick from the Vietnam War era, cutting off funds for military aid to the Contras (the Boland Amendment). Oliver North, a Marine Corps colonel working as a staff member of the National Security Council, managed a secret (White House without the fingerprints) operation in which arms were clandestinely sold to Iran by Israel in exchange for both cash and Iran’s influence with the Lebanese group Hezbollah, to convince the latter to release seven American hostages. The proceeds from the arms sales were then used to clandestinely buy arms and supplies for the Contras, so they could continue working their terrorism against the people of socialist Nicaragua. The scheme eventually unravelled, became a public scandal and the basis of numerous successful criminal prosecutions of US officials including Reagan Administration cabinet members, and a complete legal basis for the impeachment of President Reagan. This was the Iran-Contra Scandal of 1986.
Reagan escaped impeachment because the nation was sickened by the prospect of another long impeachment agony so soon after the Nixon drama of 1972-1974, and preferred to avoid it; and because the old grade B actor pulled out his best “aw shucks” Will Rogers and Tom Sawyer “ain’t I too cute to spank?” routine. He was given a pass. The Iran-Contra convicts of the Reagan Administration were pardoned during President George H. W. Bush’s administration (1989-1992); G. H. W. Bush was Reagan’s vice president.
Apologists for Reagan give his Administration credit for helping to topple Soviet Communism by causing Soviet leaders to spend beyond their national means in a weapons race against the US Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars,” which for this I-witness was both scientific hokum by Edward Teller and his buddies, and a careerist mud wrestle which resulted in the promotions of the worst of the careerists inside the US nuclear labs). In his monumental book “Postwar,” Tony Judt writes:
Back in September 1981 Reagan had warned that without a verifiable nuclear arms agreement there would be an arms race and that if there were an arms race the US would win it. And so it proved. In retrospect, the American defense buildup would come to be seen as the cunningly crafted lever that bankrupted and ultimately broke the Soviet system. This, however, is not quite accurate. The Soviet Union could ill afford the armaments race upon which it had begun to embark as early as 1974. But bankruptcy alone would not have brought Communism to its knees.
The collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe was driven by internal processes in those states, primarily Russia, and to the extraordinary actions of reformers like Gorbachev, and later Yeltsin. The precipitating disaster was “the spectacularly unsuccessful neocolonial adventure” in Afghanistan, which began in 1979. The Russian quagmire in Afghanistan was deepened by the massive covert support of the Afghani mujahidin by the Carter Administration, under a policy devised by Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski. By 1989, the damage done to the Red Army was fatal.
In addition to the cost in men and matériel, the decade-long war of attrition in the Afghan mountains constituted an extended international humiliation. It excluded for the foreseeable future any further deployment of the Red Army beyond its frontiers: as Politburo member Yegor Ligachev would later acknowledge to the American journalist David Remnick, after Afghanistan there could no longer be any question of applying force in Eastern Europe.
After this the policy of reform initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Secretary General of the Communist Party appointed in 1985, quickly took on a life of its own, and Communism collapsed eastward from its western frontier at the Berlin Wall in 1989 to its source in Moscow by 1991.
My father was a Cuban who emigrated to the U.S. in 1948. His father was a small businessman in Havana, owning a workshop for the manufacture of fine ladies shoes. My father became a Wall Street stock broker, and was able to bring our American family into the middle class after 1955. He welcomed the Cuban Revolution, because he had been disgusted by the corruption of the Batista regime, and we began planning a permanent return to Havana after 1960. Things did not work out our way. Eisenhower and the Kennedy brothers went ape-shit on Fidel, who in turn followed Raul’s inclinations and openly plunged deeply into Marxist-Leninism (he’d been cagey about it beforehand). The embargo split our extended family physically (not politically), and the rabid anti-Castro war and its reflection as repression on the Island soon claimed my father’s parents as victims: the business and family fortune (cash not stashed in overseas banks) were confiscated, and my grandfather became gravely ill in the mid 1960s, by which time half the 1959 medical personnel of Cuba had emigrated, yet before the now wonderful Cuban national health system had been fully organized. After some years of effort and expenses-bribe-ransom money all triangulated through Union City, New Jersey and Madrid, Spain into Havana, my grandparents left Cuba for Spain in June of 1967. My grandfather died there later that month. I remember my father weeping over the loss of his father, and the destruction of his country by blundering US policy, one night just before his forty-third birthday, which was on October 9, 1967, the day Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia.
By 1980, my father was a Reagan man because he was disgusted with the economic situation of the late 1970s. I was a Carter man, anxious to devote my life to the development of alternative energy sources and break the US addiction to oil, an anticipated national effort that I had spent hard years of technical schooling to prepare for. Life in the 1980s proved to be different from my expectations. In the late 1990s, my father’s views had evolved to the point where he was handing me books by Noam Chomsky. Before he died in 2008, he even approvingly enjoyed a few of my political essays. In his last years, my father was scathing in his disapproval of the what the US financial system had become since the late 1980s, and despite our own family tragedy regarding the Cuban Revolution, he never in his life was swayed by the anti-communist and anti-Cuba rhetoric of American politics. He absolutely refused to ever play golf, and he absolutely refused to ever visit Miami, even after numerous of his old New York Cuban friends had retired there. He saw the “Little Havana” of Miami as a mirage produced by the “pain in the neck” Cubans who were the kind of people who had created the need for a Cuban Revolution in the first place.
Why share this bit of my family’s history with you? Just to illustrate that a man with my father’s experience could look back with new understanding, and see Reagan, along with all the US Presidents since Truman, with Chomsky-expanded vision. When he would slap an opened section of “Deterring Democracy” for emphasis while speaking with anger about the Miami-based terrorist operations launched against Cuba, and Reagan-sponsored Contra terrorism in Nicaragua, I knew we had both come home together. This has been a comfort to me since he died.
When I think of Ronald Reagan, I realize that atheism does have one drawback in comparison to Christianity. Since it has no hell, I do not have the pleasure of imagining Reagan and his gang burning in eternal agony on account of the many vicious crimes they are responsible for. Even if such eternal justifiable torment did occur, it could never compensation for the suffering and losses by the hundreds of thousands of victims of US-allied right-wing terrorism in Central America during the 1980s, and of that of their surviving family members. Atheism is kinder than Christianity, even to war criminals.
I do not imagine anything I could write or say would convince Paul Craig Roberts to see the Reagan Administration differently, nor do I care to. My interest in writing this response is in presenting the readers of these pages with an I-witness view of that Administration, which contradicts Robert’s praise for it. I want to reassure those “leftists [who] are too young to have experienced” the Reagan Administration, “and know nothing about” it from direct experience, that it was every bit as bad for the course of American history as they have come to believe. I was there as a fully engaged leftist (“liberal”) adult trying to work out a useful technical career, raise a family, and save up something for the future, and I saw and felt the onset and progression of the degradation of the American public sphere and the American psyche — what its cult worshipers call “the Reagan Revolution” — on a daily basis. It was the the first feverish outbreak of a political malignancy called neoliberalism, which continues to this day and whose Republican Party adherents call themselves “conservatives” and “neo-cons,” which is a distinction without a difference beyond the realm of talk.
I was there, and I tell you this: Roberts is wrong, Reagan was rotten.
Manuel García, Jr. is a retired physicist who worked on nuclear weapons testing and high-energy pulsed power, did a bit of teaching, was a union organizer at the Livermore Lab, and was not a team player for the careerist mud wrestling, his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org