Ruth Rosen: FDR Should Remain on the Dime

Roundup: Historians' Take

Ruth Rosen, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle (Dec. 11, 2003):

YOU'D THINK that Republicans would be content to control the presidency and both houses of Congress, but apparently not. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., and 89 co-sponsors have launched a symbolic crusade to repeal the New Deal by replacing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's visage on the dime with that of President Ronald Reagan.

It's a bad idea -- for all kind of reasons. It's inappropriate and distasteful to put anyone's face on a coin while he is still alive. Nancy Reagan, who knows that her husband admired FDR, has asked that the resolution be withdrawn. Souder has ungraciously denied the request.

The best reason Republicans should abandon this campaign, however, is that Reagan's mythic greatness won't survive historical scrutiny and cannot favorably compete with FDR's legacy of extraordinary accomplishments.

Although both presidents were great communicators who knew how to reach out to the American people, that's where the similarity stops.

FDR's New Deal provided working people with Social Security pensions, unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children and compulsory education. It also banned child labor, gave workers the right to unionize, authorized a minimum wage and pushed progressive taxation. As a skillful leader, FDR helped millions of Americans to survive the Great Depression and rallied the nation to fight a successful war against fascism.

So far, Teflon and myth have protected Reagan's legacy. Many Americans liked him because he was a genuinely decent and charming man. As a result, few of us know that his foreign policies helped promote a long list of despots and fanatics around the world, including Osama bin laden and Saddam Hussein.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Reagan administration gradually began providing Osama bin laden and his followers with huge arsenals of weapons. What Reagan's foreign policy failed to grasp was that these Islamic holy warriors, who had traveled from across the Muslim world to liberate the Afghan people, hated the United States as much as the Russians.

After Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, the Reagan administration -- fearful that Iran's Islamic revolution might spread -- quietly began providing Saddam Hussein, a secular Arab leader, with intelligence and logistical support. It also approved, according to a December, 2002 Washington Post report, the sale to Iraq of dual-use items -- those with military and civilian applications -- that included chemicals and germs, even anthrax and bubonic plague.

Support for Iraq, however, didn't stop Reagan administration officials from secretly selling weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages and funds to support the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, who were then fighting the leftist Sandinista government. Financial assistance to the Contras defied a congressional ban; the sale of arms violated U.S. law and our nation's stated policy. Reagan and other high officials, however, claimed ignorance of what came to be called the Iran-Contra scandal.

To these foreign policy failures, add the unhappy history that under the Reagan Doctrine, which stated that America should support any anti-communist groups or governments, our country ended up supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, the government of El Salvador and Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebels in Angola. This support instigated or prolonged civil wars and resulted in the"disappearance" or slaughter of tens of thousands of people.

Nor did Reagan end the Cold War by boosting military spending and bankrupting the Soviet Union. He certainly tried to end the Cold War, but the idea that he was responsible is a myth. The Soviet Union began to implode and collapse in the late 1980s when a corrupt Communist Party elite dismantled the USSR's failed economic policies and appropriated its nationalized industries.

On the domestic front, Reagan blew 90 percent of a federal budget surplus on tax cuts for the rich and tripled the national deficit by the time he left office. Under Reaganomics, the country fell into a deep recession in 1982, the gulf between the wealthy and poor widened, funds for public housing and mental health evaporated and the media began describing growing homelessness on the streets of America's cities.

This is not a legacy that we should inscribe on our dime. Republicans should listen to Nancy Reagan, perpetual guardian of her husband's legacy. She knows better.

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