The Reagan Lesson for Biden's Video Call with Putin

A signal can be sent by unrelated occurrences.

President Joe Biden is on a video chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has amassed tens of thousands of Russian troops on Ukraine's eastern border, threatening invasion.

But why is that? What made Vladimir Putin think he could get away with something so blatantly unfriendly to begin with?

To find out, let's go in the time machine and travel back to Ronald Reagan's first year in office.

August, 1981.

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

A strike was threatened by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. The union, which had defected from the Democratic Party in 1980 to support Ronald Reagan, was presenting the federal government with 96 requests, including a decrease in workweek hours, a $10,000 wage rise for every controller, and a 100 percent compensation increase within three years.

In other words, this appeared to be a routine labor dispute. Except.

Air traffic controllers were government employees, therefore striking by federal personnel is forbidden. Regardless, the union head was threatening a general strike by all union members, which would, of course, halt aviation travel across the country.


President Ronald Reagan, a former labor leader and president during his Hollywood days, was unconcerned. His message to the union president: there will be terrible consequences if you take these 16,412 controllers on strike in violation of federal law.

The union boss was deafeningly deafeningly deafening The air traffic controllers walked off the job at 2:30 a.m. on August 3rd when discussions struck a snag.

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 is the biggest month for air travel in the United States, as one might assume during the height of summer. The union leaders believed they had the upper hand, believing Reagan would never have the courage to dismiss nearly 16,000 air traffic controllers. They were mistaken.

He fired them, replacing them with military controllers and prohibiting them from reapplying for their previous positions.

Here's the twist — and a Reagan lesson for Vice President Joe Biden as he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who now has tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border. 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 anything in 1981, it was that the Kremlin's leaders were "hard men" intent on world dominance 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 case did, alert 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 appear to be a pleasant man, but underneath he had "a two-inch rod of chrome plated steel plated steel plated steel plated steel plated steel plated steel plated 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.

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