Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, to parents Jack and Nelle Reagan in Tampico, Illinois. Reagan had one older brother, Neil. His parents referred to him as "Dutch" growing up because his father claimed he looked like a fat little Dutchman. The Reagans didn't have much money, so they moved throughout the Midwest in search of work while Reagan was growing up until they finally settled in Dixon, Illinois, when young Dutch was roughly twelve years old. Reagan finished school there and graduated from his high school with athletic and extracurricular honors.
After high school, Reagan went on to attend Eureka College, a school run by the Disciples of Christ. Once again, Reagan established himself as a student leader. Although his grades weren't excellent, he graduated from the college in 1932 with undergraduate degrees in sociology and economics.
In 1932, work was difficult to find because of the Depression; however, Reagan kept his spirits up. He was turned down everywhere he went until he finally landed a job as a radio announcer for the WOC radio station. With his charismatic personality and amicable voice, he was soon transferred to a larger sister station in Des Moines called the WHO. In Des Moines, Reagan became a sportscaster and broadcasted the local university football games as well as the Chicago Cubs games from Wrigley Field. Because he was such a success on the airwaves, he was paid well and became very popular.
Reagan moved to Los Angeles in 1937 with the hopes of becoming an actor in Hollywood. After many auditions, he was soon hired by Warner Brothers Studios to act in their low-budget "B" films. He accepted WB's offer and appeared that year in his firm film, Love is in the Air. He made roughly fifteen movies during his first two years in Hollywood. Much as he had in Des Moines, Reagan grew more and more popular and was given better scripts for better movies. His two greatest movies were Knute Rockne, All American in which he played the legendary football star George Gipp, and King's Row for which he nearly won an Academy Award. During World War II Reagan served in the First Motion Picture Unit and made training films for bomber pilots. During his motion picture career, Reagan appeared in over fifty films.
In 1940, Reagan married Academy Award-winning actress Jane Wyman. The couple raised two children together, Maureen and Michael (their third child died after a premature birth). They were married for eight years until they divorced in 1948. Reagan later married actress Nancy Davis in 1952. They had two children together as well, Ron and Patricia. Reagan remained married to Nancy for the rest of his life.
Towards the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Reagan initiated his political career by speaking out against the Communists in the United States and against those he believed were trying to infiltrate Hollywood. In 1946 he was elected to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild. It was also during this time that Reagan switched political parties, from Democrat to Republican.
Reagan decided to run for Governor of California in 1966 and defeated his opponent Pat Brown. As governor, Reagan tried to cut government spending and taxes. He also slashed many liberal social welfare programs that he believed the state governments shouldn't provide. In 1969, he sent the National Guard to occupy the Berkeley campus of the University of California in order to end the violent student protests over People's Park. The rioters protested and the National Guard had to use force to end the protest. Many students were injured and one student died. This was by far the most stunning event during Reagan's two gubernatorial terms.
In 1976, Reagan decided to run for the presidency. He challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford in the Republican primaries, and lost. He bounced right back in 1980, though, and took on liberal Republican George Bush in the primaries. He defeated Bush, and then offered him the vice presidential position on the Republican ticket. The two went on to defeat President Jimmy Carter (who had defeated Ford in 1976). In 1981, at the age of sixty-nine years, Reagan became the oldest man to ever be elected President of the United States.
Reagan's presidency started off with a bang when John Hinckley shot the President on March 30, 1981. Strangely, Hinckley shot Reagan not to make a political statement, but to impress young actress Jodie Foster. After emergency surgery, Reagan pulled through. Then, in August of the same year, Reagan fired 13,000 air-traffic control tower workers throughout the country when they refused to follow his order and return to work from their strike.
Reagan based his domestic policy on the principles of reducing the size and role of the federal government and "Reaganomics," one of the popular terms given to his economic policies, which were based on the supply-side theories of economist Arthur Laffer. During the 1980 Republican primary race, Bush referred to this theory as voodoo economics because he–like many others–believed these policies would never work in real life. In retrospect, many economists today agree with Bush.
President Reagan also increased government spending on defense, even though he had campaigned against increased spending. Reagan spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the military, weapons (both conventional and nuclear), technology, and research. His pet project, SDI or Star Wars, had projected costs of over $1 trillion alone, although the project was eventually scrapped. Reagan did this to prepare for a possible attack from the Soviet Union with which American had been fighting the Cold War since the mid 1940s. Ironically, despite all his preparations, when Reagan left the presidency relations between the US and USSR had actually improved because of the efforts made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbechev. Gorbechev and Reagan signed several treaties during Reagan's second term that reduced the production of nuclear arms in both countries.
Relations with the Soviet Union may have improved, but Reagan still attacked Communists throughout the rest of the world. He authorized the US invasion of Grenada in 1982 and supported the Contras in Nicaragua, even after Congress made it illegal for him to do so. During his presidency, the US also sent peacekeeping forces to Lebanon and bombed the terrorist-supporting country of Libya.
In 1984, the people elected President Reagan to serve a second term in the White House. Reagan defeated Democratic challenger Walter Mondale in a landslide victory. Much of Reagan's second term was mired in the Iran-Contra scandal in which Reagan was accused of selling arms to Iran to raise money to help the anti-Communists in Nicaragua.
Reagan left the presidency in 1989 after George Bush was elected President. He retired to his new home in Bel Air, Los Angeles. In 1992, he agreed to testify in one of the many investigations looking into the Iran-Contra scandal, but his testimony was quickly dismissed when investigators realized that Reagan had trouble clearly remembering events that occurred during his administrations. Soon, doctors determined that Reagan had developed Alzheimer's disease and that his memory had been affected. Reagan retired from public life in 1994 to live out the rest of his days with his wife, Nancy.