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What if Reagan had been murdered? A successful assassination attempt could have precipitated an eternal Cold War

Press Secretary James Brady and Agent Timothy McCarthy were injured in the actual shooting. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/Liaison)

Press Secretary James Brady and Agent Timothy McCarthy were injured in the actual shooting. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/Liaison)


March 30, 2021   6 mins

Forty years after John Hinckley Jr. aimed his Röhm RG-14 revolver at President Ronald Reagan and pulled the trigger, it is tempting to speculate what might have happened if he hadn’t survived…

 

As every American schoolchild knows, Hinckley was a schizophrenic loner who had become obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster after seeing her in the film Taxi Driver. To impress her, Hinckley planned “the greatest love offering in the history of the world” — the assassination of the President of the United States. And so it was that at 2.27 p.m. on 30 March 1981, outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, fate brought him together with his victim.

The events of that terrible afternoon are well known. Reagan, who had taken the oath of office less than two months earlier, had just been addressing a conference of labour union leaders. He was still waving to the small crowd outside when Hinckley opened fire, and although none of the bullets hit him directly, the sixth ricocheted off the door of his armoured limousine and lodged in his lung, coming to a halt less than an inch from his heart.

Had Reagan been a younger man, perhaps things would have turned out differently. But he had just turned 70. And although he was remarkably fit, his blood pressure was in free-fall by the time his car reached George Washington University Hospital. As all the world remembers, the dying president still had the poise and presence of mind to joke to his horrified wife Nancy — “Honey, I forgot to duck”. They were, however, the last words he ever said. Shortly after 3pm, with the news of the shooting still only just breaking across the world, the 40th President of the United States was pronounced dead. He had been in office for just sixty-nine days, the second shortest tenure in American history.

Ever since Reagan’s untimely death, amateur historians have traded in ghoulish fantasies about the consequences if he had lived. Today most academic experts agree that his economic policies would have plunged the United States into a second Great Depression, and many also argue that his hawkish foreign policy would probably have pushed the world into a Third World War. Bucking the trend, the ever-contrarian Niall Ferguson has suggested that Reagan might actually have presided over a softening of Cold War tensions, sketching out a fanciful scenario in which he and Mikhail Gorbachev enjoyed a warm personal relationship, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union even broke up two years later. Most academics, however, treat this idea with disdain.

What did happen, of course, is well known. Vice President George Bush was in Texas at the time of the shooting; he flew back to Washington immediately, landing on the south lawn of the White House at 6.30pm. He was sworn in an hour later as the 41st president, live on television from the mansion’s East Room. He looked pale and composed, his wife Barbara by his side. When it was over, he spoke directly to the American people. It was a time for “mourning again in America”, he said grimly, reminding his listeners that Reagan was the second president to be murdered in eighteen years. But he would never waver, he said, from the task his Californian predecessor had begun.

In many ways Bush had an unenviable inheritance. He knew the intricacies of American government inside out, having served as ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China and director of the CIA. But he had little electoral experience, since he had served for a mere four years as congressman from Texas. Reagan had been a breezy populist; Bush, despite his attempts to rebrand himself as a plain-talking Texan, was really a patrician New England mandarin. Almost immediately, then, there were mutters of discontent from within the conservative movement. Barely a month after Reagan’s murder, there was even talk that Christian conservatives would prefer a different candidate in 1984.

Yet Bush proved a rather firmer president than many had expected. Although the US economy entered a deep recession in July 1981, with unemployment soaring towards 20% in states such as Michigan and West Virginia, he backed the Federal Reserve’s determination to wring inflation out of the system with high interest rates. By the spring of 1982 recovery was on the horizon. And it was at that point that Bush showed he was not afraid to take decisions abroad, too. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands at the end of March, he was adamant that the US should back the Galtieri regime, one of its closest anti-Communist allies in the western hemisphere, instead of yoking itself to Margaret Thatcher’s doomed British government. It was, he said firmly, the course the late President Reagan would have taken.

Although Anglo-American relations never really recovered — indeed, the next British Prime Minister, Francis Pym, was reportedly incensed when Bush invaded Grenada a year later — Bush had shown that he was not a man to go wobbly. The American people respected him for it, and by early 1984 he seemed set fair for re-election. Campaigning alongside his vice president, the former Tennessee senator Howard Baker, he easily dismissed a primary challenge from the conservative maverick Pat Buchanan, and was heavily favoured against the Democrats’ Walter Mondale in November’s general election. And with the economy booming, everything fell into place. On the night of 6 November, Bush won in a landslide, carrying every state except for Mondale’s native Minnesota and the District of Columbia. As one of Bush’s aides remarked that night, the elderly Reagan, had he lived, could never have dreamed of such a crushing victory.

Under the 22nd Amendment Bush was barred from running for the White House again, since he had served for more than two years of Reagan’s term. In any case, his second term was overshadowed by tensions abroad. He had always been a cautious man, and his years at the CIA had taught him to be very wary of his Soviet counterparts. So when, in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took over in the Kremlin, Bush knew better than to take his apparent moderation at face value. The Russian bear, he remarked to his White House aides, would never change. And as he reminded the American people a few weeks later, the Soviet Union was, and always would be, an “evil empire”.

Could history have worked out differently? Was there really a chance of dĂ©tente in the late 1980s? Given how things unfolded, it seems very unlikely. Although the two leaders’s personal relations seemed relatively cordial, Bush’s CIA analysts reminded him that it would be foolish to trust a word the Russians said. So when Gorbachev talked of arms control, Bush was wary of committing himself. Reagan, despite his image, had been a genuine nuclear abolitionist. But Bush believed that strong deterrence was the only guarantee of lasting peace. As he told American journalists after the frosty Reykjavik summit in 1986, Communism was never going away. So the task of any US president must be to preserve his nation’s nuclear defences, not to tear them down.

By this point, attention was already turning to the 1988 presidential campaign. Following the drab Bush-Mondale walkover in 1984, both parties had an appetite for pizzazz, and after a bruising contest the Democrats eventually nominated the self-styled blue-collar populist Joe Biden. The Republican contest, however, was chaos. Religious conservatives had long since lost confidence in the Bush administration, and his heir apparent Howard Baker was thrashed in the opening primaries. That opened the door for the veteran Bob Dole, who duly won the nomination.

But then came a wild card — a bizarre third-party candidacy by the real-estate mogul Donald Trump, who had for months been calling for ‘reducing the budget deficit, working for peace in Central America, and speeding up nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union’. At one point, Trump was polling as high as 15%, and although he fell away eventually, he had left the infuriated Dole (“Crooked Bob”, as Trump called him) holed beneath the waterline.

It was Biden, then, who strolled to victory, memorably quoting the new British Prime Minister, Neil Kinnock, in his inaugural address. Yet his presidency was an exercise in crisis management from the very beginning, especially after the Red Army repression of the Eastern European uprisings in late 1989. As the temperature of the Cold War dipped below freezing, the pendulum was swinging towards confrontation, and in the summer of 1991 Gorbachev was eased out by Kremlin hardliners and replaced with the more conservative Yegor Ligachev. Just as the CIA had predicted, in other words, the Cold War was here to stay.

It is, of course, tempting to imagine that things might have been different. With a more liberal president at the helm, might the two great superpowers have found common ground in the mid-1980s? Speculations of this kind, though, are pointless. The sheer longevity of the Soviet Union, which celebrates its official centenary next year, proves that it was never likely to disappear overnight. Ronald Reagan loved to talk of mankind’s desire for freedom, but this was the hot air of a former Hollywood matinee idol, not the sober analysis of somebody who truly understood international affairs. And although cyber and chemical weapons have replaced the nuclear missiles that terrified our parents, the fear of war against the Communist bloc will surely remain with us for the rest of our lives.

As for Reagan, how many people genuinely recall him today? While other recent presidents, such as Al Gore, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, are household names, most young people know only that he was assassinated after just 69 days. He is the late 20th century’s answer to James A. Garfield, remembered only for his tragic and violent death. There are historians, of course, who claim it was all for the best, since Reagan was a trigger-happy warmonger who would have precipitated Armageddon. Even so, it seems a tragic irony that the California cowboy was denied what he so richly deserved — a Hollywood ending.


Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

dcsandbrook

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David K. Warner
David K. Warner
3 years ago

Reagan is an enormously underestimated president for the very reason that made him both popular and successful, his instinct. Neither he nor Thatcher were ideologues, rather they were instinctive small-c conservatives, who were sufficiently intelligent to articulate their policies in terms of the free market conservative ideas that emerged as a critique of the postwar social and economic failures of western social democracy and corporatism, but always made policy on the basis of practicability and efficacy rather than ideological purity (the Poll Tax being the exception that proves the rule).
Reagan, elected as a fiscal conservative, ran up huge federal deficits in order to fund his military buildup, not because he believed in deficit spending per se, but because it was the only way to fund his Cold War policy while maintaining his political pledge to cut taxes and provide enough ‘pork’ to satisfy Congress (look what happened to the less politically adept George H.W. Bush). Similarly, he never tried to reform Medicare or Social Security because they were popular with a large part of his constituency, the Reagan Democrats.
And it was Reagan’s (and Thatcher’s ‘a man we can do business with’) instinct that Gorbachev was genuinely seeking both reform of the USSR and to de-escalate superpower tensions that led him to ditch his ‘evil empire’ rhetoric for a constructive negotiating policy, while continuing to enhance US military strength, thereby keeping in reserve Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Big Stick’.
No US president since Reagan has had such an instinct for what is both practical and popular. Clinton came closest, but would often descend into wonkery and triangulation, while Trump, although predominantly instinctive was totally incapable of building the political coalitions Reagan formed that are necessary to get things done within the Beltway (regularly playing poker with Tip O’Neill, for example, to help ease passage of his policies through a Democratic Congress).
Reagan, like Thatcher, was a rarity, and it may be both were products of their time, but they stand as giants compared to their successors, who are either ideological, technocratic, or untrusting of instinct, or a veritable mishmash of all three, such as Johnson, who has turned into a model-dependent, autocratic technocrat since 2020 in complete opposition to the political persona he presented before. Reagan had an instinctive ‘feel’ that most politicians lack, and, along with his brilliant communications strategy and star power, that is why he was so successful in his primary aims of rebuilding American self-confidence after Vietnam and Watergate and in winning the Cold War. He didn’t just, like all good conservatives, ‘trust the people’, he also trusted his own instincts.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

The book “Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended” by Jack Matlock, is very good on Reagan’s policy towards the Soviets. Reagan never thought there was a big difference between his policy during his first and second terms. He was always willing to negotiate with the Soviets, but he had to wait until Gorbachev before he had a man in the Kremlin he could negotiate with.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Hinckley obviously didn’t do his homework.

Jodie Foster is a lesbian.

Jim Richards
Jim Richards
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

There’s a very funny Bill Hicks routine about that

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

You had me all the way up to “quoting the new British Prime Minister, Neil Kinnock.”
Great piece of alternative history. The modern media is full of “experts” making predictions about politics, business, whatever, but it’s all a giant lottery.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Without Reagan, and to a lesser extent for obvious reasons Thatcher who solidly cheerled for him, particularly vitally in Western Europe, it seems pretty safe to assume that the world might well be a very different place today.

Whether it would have been materially ‘worse’ it’s impossible to say given how there was a certain global stability, albeit uneasy, offered by the presence of two ideologically opposed, apparently evenly matched superpowers that carved up the globe and kept a kind of order in their own way.

Reagan, implacably opposed to the idea of ‘communism’ anywhere in the world basically took up where the immediate post war US President Truman and his vehemently anti-communist Doctrine left off, resolving to take the fight to it wherever and whenever possible, but, in his case, avoiding a full on, face to face ‘hot’ war at all costs.

His, ultimately successful in terms of setting out what he intended to achieve, strategy basically amounted to a game of high risk, ever higher stakes poker whereby he knowingly lured the relatively politically dysfunctional, technologically and economically backward and far poorer USSR into a seemingly neverending arms race which it couldn’t afford.

Something eventually had to give, and aided in no small part by the world’s most effective propaganda machine at the time, Hollywood and various laughable, but not totally incredible ruses like the supposedly game changing Star Wars project, the Soviet state basically bankrupted itself trying to keep up, spending decades chucking most of its valuable resources on arms at the continuing expense of its social stability.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Though in his younger days Reagan had been more left-wing , when he was married to Jane Wyman , before changing political direction. He basically called Soviet Union’s bluff , assessing that they weren’t as powerful as was claimed. The problem is the military industrial complex love an enemy ( and its profitable) so they are busy re-creating the cold war with the new Russia supposedly the evil villain of the world.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Precisely, you must have an enemy, and if there isn’t one, ‘produce’ one.

After all how much of the US Economy is tied up in ‘Defence’? What would they be doing otherwise?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
3 years ago

Point of order: Trump was a Democrat at that time

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
3 years ago

Reagan was a great President, but you credit him too much for the collapse of Communism. It fell in Russia mainly due to internal factors, not external.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Regan forced Russia to overspend on the Cold War, that was how it fell. Industrial Military Complex spending in USA is strength, in Russia it is a strength, but at that level it meant no toilet paper and other life needs, so was too much for the country to bear, and so gave up.

Robert Forde
Robert Forde
3 years ago

Contrary to the headline, this article postulates a great many other changes beside that of Reagan’s death, all of which would have had their own effects. As it states in a later paragraph: “Speculations of this kind, though, are pointless.”

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Forde

I kept wondering throughout, ‘But What if Regan had been a woman, and Thatcher a Man? Surely that was the real debate of that time, the great ‘What If’, because of that that lack I found the entire article pointless and silly.

Simon Melville
Simon Melville
3 years ago

Enjoyed the reference to the Biden plagiarism of Kinnock as part of an inauguration speech

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Melville

Also Kinnock as PM would mean his hereditary position left to his useless children would not just be the EU Mandarins they became, but likely be Leader of the Opposition instead of Corbyn, and so led Labour to win the majority, and rather than May wandering, Dead Man Walking, about, have taken UK to a Blair Mark II direction, importing of 10 million Somali immigrants to empower Britain through even greater diversity. I love playing the ‘What If’ game.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

“The sheer longevity of the Soviet Union, which celebrates its official centenary next year, proves that it was never likely to disappear overnight.”

In otherwise interesting piece that is too far fetched.
It was patently obvious to those who needed to know that from 1960 the Soviet Union was a basket case. In that year the US CORONA Satellite System became operational revealing the the USSR as a naked, moribund corpse, devoid of infrastructure, barely capable of even feeding itself.

Reagan only needed to give it a very gentle push for it to dissolve.

0924: BST

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
William Gladstone
William Gladstone
3 years ago

Nixon had gone to China, its embrace of capitalism had doomed the soviet union, yes there was an attempt to assassinate Reagan but there was also 3 suspiciously quickly in succession dead soviet leaders straight after that.
Leading to a “moderate”, leading to super rich oligarchs, everywhere!!! Would the world be much different without Reagan? no, or without Thatcher, or without Gorbachev, no, come to that Clinton, Blair etc etc as all of them played a part but its the nature of geopolitics and our world order that they are pretty much interchangeable.

mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago

Don’t think Bush would have been much different from Reagan in practice. Certainly don’t think he’d have backed Galtieri or that SU would have lasted that long.

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
3 years ago

I find these articles interesting and lead to lots of interesting speculation. In my own musings I speculation on how the UK would have looked if we hadn’t elected someone with the IQ of a cabbage (yes, I mean you Boris) into number 10.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Preston

It would be good to know, although unfortunately the other option had the IQ of a cucumber (Corbyn)

lewisjclark25
lewisjclark25
3 years ago

As you may know already, the attempt to assassinate Reagan was life imitating art imitating art.

John Hinckley was inspired by the plot of Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro’s character tries to kill a presidential hopeful, and then goes to try and ‘liberate’ a teenage prostitute played by Jodie Foster.

And that plotline was inspired by the attempted assassination of Presidential candidate George Wallace (of ‘segregation forever’ fame) in 1972.

Jacques René GiguÚre
Jacques René GiguÚre
3 years ago

Fun read. Apart there was no way the US would have supported Argentina against his biggest ally.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

A lot of this is speculative, but I do think it is true that George H.W. Bush would not have been as successful in ending the Cold War as Ronald Reagan was. If you read the great American historian of Russia Richard Pipes’ memoirs, he was a huge admirer of Reagan, but not a big fan of his successor.

James McSweeney
James McSweeney
2 years ago

Now do “What if Eisenhower hadn’t knifed Eden?”