Reagan’s Lesson for Biden’s Putin Video Call - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Reagan’s Lesson for Biden’s Putin Video Call

President Joe Biden is having a video call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — when Putin has massed thousands of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, threatening invasion.

But why? What made Vladimir Putin think he could get away with doing something so wildly hostile in the first place?

To answer that, let’s hop in the time capsule and go back to the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

August, 1981.

Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward, in his biography of Reagan, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989, recounts what happened.

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization was threatening a strike. The union — which had left the Democratic Party fold to endorse candidate Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election — was presenting the federal government with 96 demands that included a reduction in work week hours, a $10,000 salary increase for every controller, and a 100 percent salary increase within three years.

In other words, this was, on the surface, a humdrum labor dispute. Except.

Air traffic controllers were federal employees — and it is illegal for federal workers to go out on strike. Be that as it may, the union president was threatening exactly that — a walkout of all union members which would, of course, cripple air traffic across the country.

President Ronald Reagan, himself a onetime union leader and union president in his Hollywood days, would have none of it. His message to the union president: if you take these 16,412 controllers out on strike in violation of federal law there will be consequences — severe consequences.

The union leader refused to listen. When negotiations hit a brick wall, at 2:30 in the morning of August 3rd, the air traffic controllers walked off the job.

By 10:55 a.m. that morning, Reagan walked into the Rose Garden in front of cameras and said bluntly:

“I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

August, as might be expected in the height of an American summer, is the busiest month for air travel. The union leadership thought they had the leverage — that Reagan would never have the guts to fire over 16,000 controllers. They were wrong.

Fire them he did, replacing them with military controllers, banning them from reapplying for their old jobs.

Here’s the twist — and a Reagan lesson for President Biden as he has his much ballyhooed conversation with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who now has those thousands of Russian troops massed on the eastern border of Ukraine. Hayward writes this:

There was one unanticipated audience that paid close attention to Reagan’s manhandling of the strike: the Soviet Politburo. Since taking office the administration had been looking for an opportunity to demonstrate in some concrete ways its toughness toward the Soviet Union. As is often the case, the most effective opportunity came in an unexpected way and from an unlooked-for place. The White House realized it had gotten Moscow’s attention when the Soviet news agency Tass decried Reagan’s “brutal repression” of the air traffic controllers.

Now. Move over to the Wall Street Journal’s recent editorial titled:

Rogues Are on the March Around the World.

Iran and Russia give every sign they don’t take President Biden seriously.

Without any mention of Reagan, it gets to Reagan’s lesson that Joe Biden should be heeding. Says the WSJ:

If you think President Biden has trouble at home, take a look at what’s happening around the world. Iran, Russia and China are all seeking to establish new regional hegemony, and they’re often working together to do it. Their leaders don’t appear to believe Mr. Biden can or will do anything to stop them.

The editorial runs through a list of Biden’s foreign policy mistakes.

* Iranian disdain for U.S. “entreaties” to the infamously terrorist state in the talks to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The U.S. response to that disdain? “It will beg Iran some more to return to the table with a better attitude.”

* China “is buying Iranian oil in violation of U.S. sanctions, but the U.S. is also doing little about that.”

* “Moving on to Russia, the Administration leaked on Friday that it believes Vladimir Putin is moving forces in preparation for an invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. ‘The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery and equipment,’ a U.S. official told the Washington Post.

“The U.S. is predicting dire consequences if Russia does invade, but it hasn’t sold more weapons to Ukraine and couldn’t marshal much collective action at last week’s meeting of NATO ministers. The White House says Mr. Biden will talk with Mr. Putin in a virtual call on Tuesday, though after their first meeting the Russian became more aggressive.”

The Journal ends this assessment by saying this of Biden (emphasis added):

The world is entering a dangerous period. The hard men in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing are going to test Mr. Biden to expand their power and spheres of influence, and it isn’t at all clear if or how Mr. Biden will respond.


If Ronald Reagan knew nothing else it was that the leaders of the Kremlin in 1981 were precisely “hard men” bent on world domination and winning the Cold War. The lesson Reagan learned from the confrontation with the air traffic controllers was that seemingly unrelated actions by an American president could and in that instance did wake up the Soviets to the fact that they were dealing with a President of the United States who meant what he said and was more than capable of making decisions that revealed that he may be a man of genial appearance — but underneath Reagan had, in his biographer’s words, “a two-inch rod of chrome steel.”

There is no indication, to say the least, that Joe Biden has learned Reagan’s lesson. To the contrary, he has led the “hard men” rogue leaders of Iran, China and Russia to believe he is weak — both in policy and in his physical and mental capacities.

Not good. Not to mention dangerous.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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