In December 1981 about 1,000 civilians, mostly women and children, were massacred by the Salvadoran army at a village called El Mozote. The killers were an elite unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, that had been organized, trained and equipped by the United States. The Reagan administration denied that any such crime had occurred, and the Atlacatl and its commander continued to be favored by US military advisers in El Salvador. (Photo: Susan Meiselas / The New York Times Magazine)
As president of the United States, Ronald Reagan wove a rich tapestry of illusions – “It’s morning in America!” – that did a lot to obscure the substance of his administration. Since his death in 2004, the myths have become denser. Comparing him with George W. Bush even created a certain nostalgia for the Reagan years, and by now the reality of his administration has all but vanished from sight and memory. This is unfortunate, because a clear vision of the past is vital for constructing a better future.
All the 2008 Republican presidential candidates (except perhaps Ron Paul) tried to claim a Reagan legacy. John McCain said Reagan was one of his heroes. This is hardly surprising, since Reagan was unquestionably a great vote getter; he won two elections for governor of California and two for president, and not one of them was close. He was known for “communicating” with people who didn’t agree with, or were harmed by, what his administration was really doing; hence the “Reagan Democrat” phenomenon. Many politicians would love to have such an ability.
But something else has been happening as well. Numerous Reagan biographies, plus thick volumes of his letters and diaries, have been published , and they’ve caused a strange Reagan revival that goes beyond admiring his vote-getting skill. Various writers think they have discovered in that material intellectual depths and moral excellence that escaped everyone’s notice during Ronald Reagan’s years in office. It is his spirit and grand ideals that really count, some of these authors think, while the actual policies pursued by his administration are not very important.
The worst of these mythmakers is an intellectual historian, and he illustrates the proverb that if one’s only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. John Patrick Diggins , who once thought that as California’s governor Reagan stood mainly for “tear gas and police,” has belatedly decided that he “may be, after Lincoln, one of the two or three truly great presidents in American history.” Diggins writes that Reagan was “an intelligent, sensitive man with passionate convictions.” He “delivered America from fear and loathing. He stood for freedom, peace, disarmament,” and many more good things. Thanks to his “Emersonian outlook” he became “the great liberating spirit of modern American history.” Other authors share much of Diggins’s admiration with a variety of shadings.  When (some) intellectual historians try to capture the “mind and character of an era,” mere facts are apparently not very important.
It is, of course, entirely reasonable to assess Reagan’s role in American politics, as does historian Sean Wilentz in his new book “The Age of Reagan.”  Wilentz is far more grounded in reality than Diggins et al., and his book seems to be a valuable analysis of the Reagan administration. But even Wilentz claims (in a recent Newsweek interview held jointly with George Will and absurdly titled “The Left Starts to Rethink Reagan” ) that “Ronald Reagan was much more serious than people have given him credit for.” Serious perhaps, but what did he do?
In fact, things did not go well even inside Reagan’s own head. He was famously ignorant about such life-or-death questions as whether nuclear missiles can be recalled once they were launched. (Imagine the president of the United States not understanding that!) Reagan once claimed that the Russian language had no word for “freedom.” (Of course it does.) His policy speeches were largely stitched together from generalities and platitudes rather than factual analysis, and they were replete with anecdotes that he often made up or borrowed from old movies. At times, he seemed to confuse his own motion picture roles with history, as in 1983 when he told Jewish leaders that “I was there” at the liberation of Nazi death camps – while in reality he spent all the World War II years in Hollywood.  Finally, according to his former chief of staff, many presidential activities were strongly affected by the advice of his wife’s astrologer. 
But above all, surely, a president should be judged not by his personal life or his “passionate convictions,” but by what his administration actually does. That sort of reality does not loom large for Reagan’s admirers, and it’s important to recall a few major themes of the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s presidential legacy included big tax cuts for the rich and record budget deficits; after denouncing the much smaller deficits of previous administrations in his first inaugural address, Reagan in a few years tripled America’s national debt. His administration distorted the Russian threat, and pushed preparations for a “winnable” nuclear war that could cost “only” a few million US lives. He slashed the social safety net, and introduced deregulation leading to the savings and loan meltdown and contributing to the current crisis. He promoted extreme anti-environmental policies and appointments, gave us the Iran-Contra scandal, advanced costly fantasies of a perfect missile defense, and a great deal more. It is difficult to conceive how Diggins imagines that Reagan “stood for peace.” “Our military forces are standing tall!” Reagan told us after the United States invaded tiny Grenada in 1983. From the beginning, he enthusiastically promoted the MX missile, deployed in 1986 and cynically renamed the “Peacekeeper” – the most accurate and deadly multi-warhead nuclear weapon ever built. Reagan’s officials insisted, and he himself may have believed, that our missiles and bombs were peaceful and defensive, while theirs – they were, after all, the “evil empire” – were aggressive and offensive. Other nations did not find this distinction credible.
The idea that President Reagan stood for freedom, peace and disarmament would be an especially tough sell to the people of Central America. His election in November 1980 was widely, and correctly, seen as offering a green light for right-wing terrorism. The region was deeply troubled by long-standing internal problems, but the Reagan administration saw it only as a cold war battleground where it hoped to score easy victories against the USSR. That view was basically false and the “victories” imaginary, but the cost to the people who lived there was all too real. 
From its first day in office, the Reagan team conspired to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution. At that time, the new Sandinista government had achieved major progress against illiteracy and the ills of extreme poverty, as attested by both UNESCO and WHO. The rural poor, released from the Somoza dictatorship, enjoyed new hope that their lives could be better. But led by the “great liberating spirit” (Diggins) of Ronald Reagan, the United States rejected peaceful coexistence with Nicaragua and subjected its people to devastating economic warfare and years of bloody terrorism from the CIA’s “contra” army, a campaign that cost at least 50,000 lives. The CIA even intervened directly, violating international law by mining Nicaragua’s harbors. When Congress objected to all this, the Reagan team secretly sold missiles to Iran and used the payments, together with drug-running profits, to continue funding the counterrevolution. Ronald Reagan called the contras “freedom fighters” and compared them to US founding fathers, but the US attacks and proxy war were condemned by the World Court of Justice, which ordered the United States to halt its aggression and pay Nicaragua billions of dollars in reparations. The UN General Assembly also overwhelmingly repudiated the US intervention. Those judgments, representing basic international law and world opinion, were contemptuously ignored by Mr. Reagan’s government.
Elsewhere in the region, the United States intervened with massive military and economic support to prop up the ruling military-led junta in El Salvador. “Disarmament” indeed! The Reagan team repeatedly lied about appalling massacres and murders there to keep the aid flowing after Congress demanded that abuses be controlled. Honduras and Guatemala were encouraged to become “national security states” where military and police ruled arbitrarily with little concern for law or human rights. Even in Costa Rica, the United States undermined the democracy it claimed to admire, trying to involve that nation in the US campaign against Nicaragua. In the name of anti-communism, Mr. Reagan’s government backed highly repressive regimes throughout the Americas, and hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives at the hands of military and paramilitary forces financed and armed, and sometimes also organized and trained, by the United States.
The Central American wars were only one ugly facet of the Reagan administration’s world impact, but they were hardly an exception to the overall trend. Whatever Professor Diggins and the others believe was in Ronald Reagan’s heart and mind, during his years in office, the United States stood for “freedom, peace, [and] disarmament” only in the administration’s rhetoric. The reality – the spectrum of actual policies behind that image – was tragically different. The Reagan legacy must be remembered as it really was – so that its crimes will not be repeated.
 “The Reagan Diaries” (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), reviewed by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker of May 28, 2007.
 “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History” (Norton, 2007). I have read parts of the book plus a summary article by Diggins himself in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” (“The Review,” February 2, 2007). Diggins’s conclusion that Ronald Reagan was a “truly great president” is not supported by his book’s factual content.
 See Russell Baker, “Reconstructing Ronald Reagan,” The New York Review of Books, March 1, 2007. Time magazine added to the confusion with its cover story of 3/26/07.
 “The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008” (HarperCollins, 2008).
 May 12, 2008, pages 36-38. While Wilentz certainly counts as a liberal in US political terms, he hardly represents “the Left.”
 See Reagan’s New York Times obituary, June 6, 2004, page 1.
 Donald Regan, “For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington” (Harcourt, 1988).
 For example, see the author’s “What Are We Afraid Of? An Assessment of the ‘Communist Threat’ in Central America” (South End Press, 1988).