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On His 100th Birthday, Reagan’s Legacy Resonates at the Archives

It seems somewhat appropriate that on Jan. 5, the day Republicans seized control of the House, the National Archives unveiled the first part of its yearlong exhibit celebrating a beloved icon of the right, President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s 100th birthday would have been Feb. 6, and the Archives is partnering with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to mark the centennial by studying various aspects of his presidency. The Archives will rotate four small exhibits about the “Teflon” president throughout the year, each with a different theme, including his status as a great communicator, his Western roots and his personal style.

“President Reagan spoke in a way that the American people could understand,” said Sharon Fawcett, the Archives’ director of presidential libraries. “He had a distinct style that was unique to the man himself.”

Up first is foreign policy, primarily analyzing how Reagan’s relationship with the Soviet Union changed over time. 

“Hopefully, it will give the public some glimpse as to how we got from ‘evil empire’ to ‘trust but verify,’” Reagan Presidential Library Supervisory Archivist Michael Duggan said.

Included in the display, which opened to the public earlier this month, are three rarely seen pages from the 40th president’s famous “evil empire” speech, complete with his handwritten notes. Reagan delivered the speech in 1983 before the National Association of Evangelicals to argue against a nuclear freeze between the United States and the Soviets. 

“You saw what you got from Reagan. When he said the Soviet Union was an evil empire, he meant it at that time,” Duggan noted.

There’s also a letter sent to Reagan by then-General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 about the lack of progress in negotiations following the 1985 Geneva Summit, and Reagan’s talking point cards he prepared for a private meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1985.

But the exhibit also highlights the significant progress the rival nations made during Reagan’s time in office, including fragments of the first U.S. missile destroyed after the signing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and a fragment of the last Soviet SS-20 missile, destroyed in 1991. 

Reagan’s famous friendship with Gorbachev is exemplified in a bronze cast of the Kremlin that the Soviet leader gave to the president. 

“Reagan had a deep belief in personal diplomacy and his ability to negotiate,” Duggan said. “Reagan and Gorbachev had a very close, personal relationship.”

Duggan worked with Archives officials to coordinate the exhibition, noting that there were perhaps millions of historic documents and artifacts to choose from. “I just presented four or five things that I thought were cool and let the exhibit staff decide from there,” he said.

At the unveiling, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero noted that Reagan has a unique place in history when it comes to the National Archives — he signed the legislation in 1984 that established it as a separate federal agency.

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