Ronald Reagan Timeline

Ronald Reagan is a beloved figure in the Republican party and in modern-day politics. His focus on boosting the American economy and preserving Western democracy has defined the political party decades after his term. This Ronald Reagan timeline shows the major events of his life, including his presidency and his activities before and after he served as the 40th president of the United States.

Ronald Reagan speaking in Berlin 1987 Ronald Reagan speaking in Berlin 1987
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Ronald Reagan: Childhood and Education

While Ronald Reagan is often associated with the state of California, he was not a native Californian. Read more about Reagan's childhood and education in his home state of Illinois.

1911

On February 6, 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois. His parents, Edward "Jack" Reagan and Nelle Wilson Reagan moved Ronald and his older brother Neil several times around Illinois before settling in Dixon. Ronald received the nickname "Dutch" from his father, who said that he looked like "a fat little Dutchman."

His father was an Irish Catholic and his mother was a Protestant Christian, leading to Reagan's later connection to the Christian faith. Reagan also staunchly opposed racial discrimination based on the tenets of his religion.

1928

In the summer months during high school, Reagan worked as a lifeguard at Rock River near Dixon. He was credited with saving 77 struggling swimmers.

Reagan also ran track, played football and acted in the school plays. He was also elected student body president. Reagan graduated from Dixon High School and attended Eureka College to major in economics and sociology.

1932

Reagan graduated from Eureka College and moved to Iowa. He broadcasted football games for the University of Iowa and then received a temporary sports broadcasting job to broadcast Chicago Cubs baseball games.

Sportscaster Ronald Reagan in Des Moines, Iowa 1934
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Ronald Reagan: Officer and Actor

Ronald Reagan is historically known as an American president, but the presidency wasn't Reagan's first (or second, or even third) career. Keep reading the Ronald Reagan timeline for more information about Reagan's military and acting career.

1937

Reagan's job with the Cubs took him to California in 1937. After taking a screen test with Warner Brothers Pictures, he received a seven-year contract as an actor. Reagan played a radio news reporter in the film Love Is On The Air, his film debut. He went on to make 19 films in the next two years.

In addition to acting for Warner Brothers, Reagan enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve in 1937. In May he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps.

1940

On January 24, Reagan married his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, whom he met in their film Brother Rat in 1938. He also played football player George Gipp in one of his most well-known movies, Knute Rockne, All American. The film included the line "Win one for the Gipper," which was the origin of Reagan's later political nickname, "the Gipper."

1941

Reagan was elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild. His first child, Maureen, was born.

1942

On April 18, Reagan was called to active duty in World War II. He did not serve overseas due to his poor eyesight. Reagan was later assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit in California to film and produce over 400 training films for the Army Air Force.

Reagan also starred in the film Kings Row, in which his character says the famous line "Where's the rest of me?" in reference to his amputated legs. The line was forever associated with Reagan and eventually became the title of his 1965 memoir.

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1945

In December Reagan was relieved of active duty in the military and returned to acting. His adopted son, Michael, was born.

1947

Reagan became the President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), an office he held through 1952 and then again in 1959. He led the SAG during the McCarthy trials and Hollywood blacklist era. Reagan also testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

1949

Jane Wyman divorced Reagan. He met Nancy Davis, an actress in the Screen Actors Guild, when she appeared on the blacklist after being confused with another Nancy Davis.

1952

Reagan married Nancy Davis on March 4th in Studio City, California. His friend, actor William Holden, was best man. Their daughter Patti was born later in the year.

1954

Reagan became the official spokesperson for the General Electric Company and host for the television show General Electric Theater. He hosted the show until 1962 and spoke out against government control and overspending.

1958

Ronald and Nancy Reagan have their second child, Ronald Jr.

Ronald Reagan with James Garner laughing behind him
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Ronald Reagan Political Career

Ronald Reagan put his successful acting career aside to pursue politics. His first elected position as governor of California was only the beginning of Reagan's historic legacy.

1962

Reagan, previously registered as a Democrat and having campaigned for Democratic politicians, officially changed his political party registration to Republican. His role as General Electric spokesperson and marriage to Republican Nancy Davis Reagan influenced his pro-business, anti-communist approach to conservative politics.

1964

On October 27, Reagan gave his televised A Time for Choosing speech in support of Barry Goldwater for president. While Goldwater lost his election, the charismatic speech gave Reagan national attention in the political world.

1966

Reagan was nominated by the Republican Party to run for Governor of California on an anti-liberal platform against the incumbent Democrat Edmund "Pat" Brown. In November, Reagan was elected as governor of California.

Ronald Reagan Republican candidate for governor 1966
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1968

Reagan ran for president as a means of stopping Richard Nixon from becoming president. He came in third in delegate votes at the Republican convention behind Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, and Nixon became the Republican candidate.

1969

Reagan sent in the National Guard to break up protests in People’s Park in Berkeley, sending police forces to “crack down” upon the civil disobedience measures being practiced there. Reagan’s forces occupied the area for about two weeks.

On June 14th, he signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, which was an effort to reduce dangerous abortions and allowed abortions when the mother's life was threatened. He later expressed regret over signing the act, which resulted in more legal and safer abortions, and held a strong stance against abortion throughout the rest of his career.

1970

Reagan was reelected as California's governor. He went on to serve one more term as governor and declined to seek reelection for a third.

1975

On November 20, Reagan announced that he would be running for the nomination on the Republican ticket for president once again.

1976

In November Reagan lost the Republican nomination to Gerald Ford, who would later go on to become the president of the United States. He did receive one electoral vote in the general election from a faithless elector in the state of Washington.

Reagan spent the rest of the year working on his ranch, making speeches and writing a newspaper column. He worked on the Ronald Reagan Radio Commentary series.

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Ronald Reagan Presidential Timeline

After two successful terms as governor of California and two unsuccessful runs for president, Ronald Reagan remained in the political scene before his 1980 election. Reagan's accomplishments placed him in the history books as a president who valued the growth and safety of his country.

1979

Reagan again announced that he would run for the Republican ticket for president. His platform included a strong military, tax cuts and a smaller federal government. This time, he won the Republican nomination and he chose George Bush to be his vice presidential running mate.

1980

On November 4th, Reagan won the presidential election against Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan won with 489 out of 538 electoral votes (Carter won only 49), making him the only non-incumbent president to ever win over 90% of the Electoral College vote. Reagan was also the oldest president at 69 years old to take office to that point (though both Donald Trump and Joe Biden would beat that record 40 years later).

1981

Two months into his presidential term, President Reagan was shot in the chest during an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. Three other people — press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and police officer Thomas Delahanty — were wounded. Reagan left the hospital two weeks later and became the first president to survive a shooting assassination attempt.

In April, Reagan appeared before Congress to get support for his economic plan to cut social program funds and to increase defense spending. He was given a great deal of support.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) identified a rare illness found primarily in the gay community. The disease would later be known as HIV/AIDS and would become much worse throughout Reagan's administration.

In September, Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor as the first female justice to the United States Supreme Court. Later in the year, he imposed sanctions on the USSR and Poland.

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1982

President Reagan became the first president to address both Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom. He joined with Margaret Thatcher on this view, and his June 8th speech to the British House of Commons included his famous quote that Communism will land on the "ash heap of history." Three days later, Reagan visited West Berlin and spoke there as well.

Reagan also made moves to escalate the Cold War against the Soviet Union, including building up the American military and cutting off Moscow's access to a gas line in Western Europe. He began the War on Drugs campaign to reduce the illegal drug trade across American borders.

1983

On March 23, Reagan unveiled the famous Strategic Defense Initiative, referred to as "Star Wars." He established a federal holiday to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. later in the year.

A Soviet attack on a Korean passenger plane on September 1, 1983 resulted in Reagan's implementation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) for civilian use. Reagan also implemented policies known as the Reagan Doctrine, which provided aid to global political movements who were fighting Communist governments.

Reagan sent troops overseas to several countries, including Lebanon and Grenada, in an effort to stabilize their governments and prevent communist governments from taking control. Operation Urgent Fury was the codename for the U.S. invasion of Grenada on October 25th; it was a successful operation that later resulted in the country becoming a functioning democracy.

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1984

President Reagan was the first American president to open the Olympic Games when the 1984 Summer Olympics took place in Los Angeles. On May 9, he urged people to help the Contra "freedom fighters" who were trying to overthrow Sandinista in Nicaragua.

Reagan won reelected in November when he defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide victory of 525 electoral votes to Mondale's 10. He carried 49 out of 50 states, losing only Minnesota, Mondale's home state. (Reagan lost the state by only 3700 votes.)

President Ronald Reagan campaigning for second term 1984
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1985

President Reagan began a second term at 73, the oldest president ever sworn in until Joe Biden's inauguration in 2021. On July 13th, he underwent surgery for colon cancer and relinquished power to Vice President Bush for the duration of the procedure.

On November 19, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time. They did not agree on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), but they did agree to a 50% cut in nuclear spending.

1986

President Reagan addressed the nation after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live television in January. He spoke to the country again after the April explosion at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Kiev, Ukraine.

In April, President Reagan ordered air strikes in Libya after a West Berlin bombing in which two U.S. servicemen were killed and 200 others were injured.

Reagan made his second Supreme Court nomination in September, and Justice William Rehnquist was confirmed for the seat.

He signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, which granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States. It also made hiring illegal immigrants illegal for employers.

Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 in September. Congress overrode his veto, and Reagan signed the act a week later.

On October 11, Reagan and Gorbachev met again in Iceland. However, they could not come to an agreement on SDI.

In November the Iran-Contra affair widened. Reagan admitted to sending defensive weapons and spare parts to Iran. Colonel Oliver North was fired and Attorney General Edwin Meese announced the $10-$30 million of profits from the sale of U.S. weapons and parts to Iran had been sent to the Nicaraguan Contras.

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1987

President Reagan fired Chief of Staff Donald Regan in February after the Tower Commission concluded that Reagan's staff had misled him about the trade of arms for Iran in trade for hostages held in Lebanon. In addition, there were allegations of a plan to have a secret war against Nicaragua. On March 4, Reagan said that he did make a mistake in the Iran-Contra issues.

On June 12th, Reagan forcefully asked Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in a speech at Berlin's Brandenberg Gate. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to get rid of 4% of the nuclear arsenals and to provide for on-site monitoring of the destruction.

The President's Commission on the HIV epidemic was formed on June 24th.

Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, but Bork was rejected by the Senate. Reagan then nominated Anthony Kennedy to the Court in November.

1988

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was unanimously confirmed by Congress in February.

The President's Commission on the HIV epidemic issued its final report, recommending a national strategy to combat the virus. President Reagan supported their findings but only implemented a few of the more than 500 recommendations.

In April, the Soviet Union agreed to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The Senate ratified the INF treaty in May.

On November 8, Reagan's vice president, George Bush, defeated Governor Michael Dukakis to become the 41st president.

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1989

President Reagan gave his farewell address, perhaps his best-known speech, to the nation on January 11th.

On January 20th George Bush was inaugurated. Reagan left the White House with the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He returned to California with Nancy.

Reagan was thrown from a horse in July, resulting in a subdural hematoma. His wife, Nancy, believed that it brought on the onset of Reagan's later diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.

Ronald Reagan: The Final Years

Ronald Reagan was 78 years old when he left office with one of the highest approval ratings in history. He continued to work and speak publicly until his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease in 1994. Take a look at the final years of Reagan's life.

1991

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum opened in Simi Valley, California.

1994

On November 5, Reagan announced in a letter to the American people that he had Alzheimer's disease.

1999

Reagan began to leave public life and make fewer public appearances. He lived in a semi-isolated state with a few loved ones, including his wife Nancy.

2004

Reagan died at home in Bel Air, California on June 5th after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease and a bout of pneumonia. He was laid to rest in Santa Monica, California.

The Legacy of a President

While there may be differing opinions on the political legacy of Ronald Reagan, there's no debate that the 40th president led a full and influential life. Check out more interesting facts about Ronald Reagan if you'd like to learn more. Or, if you'd like to hear more of his wit and wisdom, read some of Reagan's most famous and funny quotes.