Ronald Reagan was an influential figure in modern-day politics, not just in the United States but around the world. His focus on boosting the American economy and preserving Western democracy has defined the Republican Party decades after his term. This timeline explores the life of Ronald Reagan before and after he served as the 40th president of the United States.
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.
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 around Illinois several times 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.
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.
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.
Ronald Reagan is historically remembered as the 40th President of the U.S., but the presidency wasn't Reagan's first (or second, or even third) career. Reagan started out in the military and had a successful acting career.
Reagan's job with the Chicago 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. He made his film debut playing a radio news reporter in the film Love Is On The Air. 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.
On January 24, Reagan married his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, whom he met while filming 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."
Reagan’s first child, Maureen, was born on January 4. Later that year he was elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild.
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.
In December, Reagan was relieved of active duty in the military and returned to acting. His adopted son, Michael, was born.
Jane Wyman divorced Reagan. He met Nancy Davis, an actress in the Screen Actors Guild, when she appeared on the Hollywood blacklist after being confused with another Nancy Davis.
Reagan married Nancy Davis on March 4th in Studio City, California. His friend, actor William Holden, was the best man. Their daughter Patti was born later in the year.
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.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan had their second child, Ronald Jr.
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.
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.
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.
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 and held a strong stance against abortion throughout the rest of his career.
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.
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.
On November 20, Reagan announced that he would be running for the nomination on the Republican ticket for president once again.
Reagan spent the rest of the year working on his ranch, making speeches and writing a newspaper column. He also worked on the Ronald Reagan Radio Commentary series.
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.
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 chose George H.W. Bush to be his vice-presidential running mate.
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. At 69 years old, Reagan was also the oldest president to take office up to that point (both Donald Trump and Joe Biden would go on to beat that record at 70 and 78 respectively).
On March 30, 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 sitting president to survive an 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.
Also in April, he terminated economic assistance to Nicaragua and authorized what would become known as the Contras or “counterrevolution” which was made up of ex-Nicaraguan National Guard members who opposed the socialist Sandinista party in Nicaragua. The Contras would go on to apply to numerous U.S.-backed and funded rebel groups that culminated in the Iran-Contra affair.
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.
President Reagan became the first president to address both Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom. He joined with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to address the threat of the Soviet Union, 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.
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 that 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.
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 the Sandinista party in Nicaragua.
Reagan was reelected in November when he defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide victory of 525 electoral votes to Mondale's 13. He carried 49 out of 50 states, losing only Minnesota, Mondale's home state. Reagan lost the state by only 3700 votes.
President Reagan began a second term at 73. 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.
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 Ukraine.
In April, President Reagan ordered airstrikes 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.
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 told Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in a speech at Berlin's Brandenburg 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.
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.
President Reagan gave his farewell address, perhaps his best-known speech, to the nation on January 11th.
On January 20th George H. W. Bush was inaugurated. Reagan left the White House with what was at the time 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 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.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum opened in Simi Valley, California.
On November 5, Reagan announced in a letter to the American people that he had Alzheimer's disease.
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.
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.
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. Or, if you'd like to hear more of his wit and wisdom, read some of Reagan's most famous and funny quotes.