Ronald Ray Gun? Star Wars and the U.S. Presidency in historical perspective

Did U.S. Republican President Ronald Reagan allow his deep love of movies to shape his perceptions of domestic and world politics? During his time in the White House, Reagan often peppered his speeches with references to the ‘Rambo’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ movies. He was also a big fan of Star Wars.

As with a number of other Presidents, Reagan also regularly enjoyed special private screenings at the White House of the latest cinema releases.

Last week film fans were given an early Christmas present when Star Wars: The Force Awakens, under new director J.J. Abrams, and the seventh entry in the smash-hit science fiction series, had its World Premiere in Los Angeles and, a short while later, its European Premiere in central London. The  movie opened at cinemas across the UK on Thursday, December 17th, and is already on course to break all box-office records.

Star-Wars-The-Force-AwakensSince the original George Lucas Star Wars film hit the big screen back in 1977, there has been much interest on the part of historians in the cultural impact and possible wider political meanings of the Star Wars franchise. One dimension to this has been some fascinating theories put forward by scholars of American history about the world-view of President Reagan (who was in office 1981-89). These theories raise the tantalising possibility that the Star Wars series, as bizarre as this may sound, was a key influence on Reagan and, in particular, on his views of defence and foreign policy. Reagan’s decision to develop what became known as the ‘Strategic Defence Initiative’ (SDI), for example, a project unveiled in his first term of office (and even dubbed by the press at the time as ‘Star Wars’), together with his wider rhetoric about the ‘evil empire’, may have been partly drawn from his love of the George Lucas movies.

ReaganSo, what is the evidence? Is it really the case that a man who reached the very top in U.S. politics (and arguably the most powerful position in the world), viewed the globe rather like a blockbuster space movie, perhaps blurring science fiction with geopolitical reality? The evidence is rather mixed. However, as strange as it might be, some of it is indeed quite compelling.

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), of course, was a former film and TV actor himself, and it has been suggested by some of his biographers that he tended to blur fiction and fact even before he formally entered the national political arena. In the 1940s, Reagan had played a Secret Service agent in the Warner Brothers B-movie Murder in the Air, which saw his character preventing an enemy spy from stealing plans for a top-secret new defence weapon, a weapon which could blast any missile out of the sky and make the USA ‘invincible’. Did this film sow the seeds of Reagan’s future outlook, even if unconsciously?

As President of the Screen Actor’s Guild in Hollywood, Reagan had also worked enthusiastically to publicly identify and remove all ‘Communists’, joining with those who tended to see ‘Reds’ nearly everywhere in U.S. society and elsewhere in the 1950s. There did appear to be a rather Manichean strand in Reagan’s outlook, whereby things were often seen in terms of the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world. Perhaps Star Wars merely encapsulated how Reagan already viewed the moral Universe?

Similarly, when he ran as Republican candidate for the Presidency against Democrat Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, Reagan’s notably populist ‘Morning in America’ campaign looked back to a supposedly much simpler time when there were ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, and no shades of complex political grey. Some commentators have claimed this campaign deliberately tapped into the ‘feel good’ optimism so much on display in 1977’s Star Wars. Again, it is difficult to know for certain.

When he took office as President in January, 1981, Reagan initiated what he and the Republicans regarded as a necessary and major ‘modernisation’ of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. This culminated in his announcement on March 23rd, 1983, of the SDI programme.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Reagan had been persuaded to go for the SDI programme partly because of the impressive footage put together by the key defence corporations to illustrate what they claimed was possible in terms of building a ‘defence shield’ over America: this included glossy SFX-style filmed images of missile-laiden satellites circling the earth and ‘zapping’ enemy missiles out of the sky. Perhaps all this reminded the President of Murder in the Air, or the hi-tech vision laid out in Star Wars? Again, one can only speculate.

The first politician to actually employ the term ‘Stars Wars’ to describe Reagan’s ambitious new defence vision was the Democrat Senator Edward Kennedy (in the Senate, the day after Reagan’s speech), and this was quickly taken up by headline writers in the media. But far from seeing this as a criticism, Reagan’s supporters actually embraced the term ‘Star Wars’ as a captivating and memorable label, perfect for their boss, who was already known as the ‘Great Communicator’.

Ronald Reagan evil_empireSignificantly, in the very same month, just two weeks before he announced the SDI programme, Reagan had also made a speech to the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, where he had declared the Soviet Union to be ‘the focus of evil in the modern world’, and also used the phrase ‘evil empire’ for the first time. Almost immediately, commentators made links between Reagan’s moralistic rhetoric and the grand battles against evil on display in the Star Wars movies (the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, had been released in May, 1980).

A combination of Reagan’s faith in the possibility of space-based weapons systems and his near-Evangelical views of the role of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world made for a potent mix, and one can certainly see why so many historians have made links between Reagan’s politics and the Star Wars franchise. Reagan’s general habit of borrowing movie terminology for his speeches has also reinforced this.

Trying to appropriate the appeal of the latest blockbuster entry in the Star Wars series is something that will undoubtedly continue in U.S. politics. At the Democratic Presidential debate held last Saturday (December 19th), Hillary Clinton livened things up for the audience by signing off with the words: ‘Thank you, good night, and may the force be with you’.

Perhaps she was also paying a tribute to J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Abrams and his wife donated $1 million to Clinton’s campaign to be President in June, 2015. 

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

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