It's one thing to read about the history of our United States, but it's another thing entirely, to learn about it from history itself. In today's world, it seems that we as a country, have forgotten our roots and how far we've come since the days of WWI and WWII.
Falling into place with Veteran's Day, I had the extreme privilege of speaking with Michael Reagan, son of our former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, and President of the Reagan Legacy Foundation, about the importance of recognizing our past, and forgiving others' wrongdoings for the sake of our future.
“Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.”- Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States
When President Reagan won the presidential election in 1980, there were 56 democracies in the world. When he left office in 1989, there were 76. By 1994, there were 114. This explosion in freedom and democracy was a dream of Ronald Reagan’s, and a historic achievement of his presidency.
“We always say ‘god bless the military, or god love the military,’ but if you’re married or your family member is sitting aboard an aircraft carrier or serving in Iraq, those family members are just as valuable and prestigious as their loved ones serving.”- Michael Reagan, son to Ronald Reagan
Whether we are talking about physical walls or imaginary barriers, there's no question a wall stands between our spectrum of divided values.
On June 12, 1987, when President Reagan yelled out "tear down this wall!", a wall that had divided West and East Berlin for over 20 years had finally opened, allowing for the flocking of Europeans across East and West Berlin.
Yet, while this is grounded in U.S. history, our younger generation isn't as familiar with it, let alone the influence President Reagan had, even to this day.
It's troubling, and in my conversation with his son, Michael, he agreed. “A couple years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was over in Berlin, and there was not one mention of my father, anywhere,” said Reagan.
He told me that while he was in Berlin, he ran into a high school student, and asked him what he knew of the Berlin Wall:
"The young man replied, 'the Americans tore it up to keep the communists at bay.' I said, really? I must've missed that part in my history class. It was at this very moment I realized I needed to do something."
So, what lessons did I learn from Mr. Reagan?
As a lasting tribute to his father's legacy, Michael Reagan created the Reagan Legacy Foundation (RLF), to help educate students and every other U.S. citizen about the historic contributions his father brought to our country, crippling communism and reunification of Germany.
On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, RLF christened the Ronald Reagan Room at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
“While it took three or four years to implement, individuals can now go there and learn all about what he did for the U.S. and its people.”
On the phone, Reagan told me that it's important for our generation to recognize why our country observes Veteran's Day. What I learned, is that its more than simply saying the words. It's about devoting a certain amount of time in understanding and appreciating what those brave men and women did while serving aboard the USS Ronald Reagan.
“If everyone who told me they supported Ronald Reagan gave me a dollar, I’d never have to worry about raising money for a scholarship program; unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who say the words, with no money to help support such a program"- Michael Reagan
When I asked the RLF president what one of the major challenges has has faced in his efforts of educating the public, he told me it was his name. “It becomes a battle, because people believe I have lived a life where I haven’t needed to work or have to worry about money,” he explained.
“There’s this idea that I was given everything, but this is simply not true. My parents weren’t like that. In fact, my parents raised me to work for everything I have. At ten years old, I took a loan out from my mother, in order for her to buy me a bicycle I wanted. She made me sign a promissory note with her, at ten years old. I had to get a job selling and delivering newspapers in order to pay her back for that loan. I asked my mom why she was doing this, because we lived in Beverly Hills, and the other kids were getting their bikes for nothing. She looked at me and said ‘because I build men, I don’t build boys.’ It was the greatest lesson I ever received.”
If there's one thing Reagan and I had in common, it was our wanderlust. I told him that during my junior year of college, I studied abroad on the Semester At Sea program, traveling to over twelve different countries in a period of three months.
Similarly, Reagan's passion for traveling goes beyond words:
"Many people ask me to choose a particular place if I were able to travel anywhere, anytime. I tell them, Kenya. The hardest part about my experience there, is leaving it."
He told me about the ZanaAfrica Foundation, which allows adolescent girls in Kenya to stay in school by delivering reproductive health education and sanitary pads. “The school gives out over 400 pads a day, passing them out at slums to young girls, because for the days of their menstrual cycle, they cannot attend school and have nothing to stop it.”
But, at the end of the day, these students are happy and vibrant.
- Michael Reagan
"When you travel the world and see things of this nature, you get such a better understanding of the world around you."
Reagan shared another tale with me, but this time, involving his invitation eight years ago to raise the flag at the Normandy American Cemetery, which was first established by the U.S. First Army in 1944 as the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II.
On June 6, 1944, also known as “D-Day”, the Western Allies of World War II, launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they assaulted Normandy with over 156,000 American, British, and Canadian forces, landing on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region. By late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, and by the following spring, the Allies had completely liberated Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control.
“The day before I left for Paris, I was playing golf with a 28-year-old young man, and we were talking shop. I told him I was so jazzed because I was flying to Paris the following day, and he looked up at me and asked what for. I told him that I was driving to the American Cemetery and was asked to raise the flag. He looked at me and asked, ‘why is there an American cemetery in Normandy?’ I went, you’re kidding, right?”
“There’s just no concept on why there’s an American Cemetery in Normandy, and it was for this reason, I thought about what we as the Foundation could do to help remember my father. I went over to the Airborne Museum, located in the heart of Sainte Mere Eglise, Normandy. We helped put a video and exhibit together, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, to help those leave the Museum with a better understanding of not just my father’s view of the allied troops and their permanent place in France’s history, but belief about the importance of liberty for all of mankind.”
While my conversation with Reagan was one for the books, one statement stuck out and hit me hard ever since: "find the good."
When I asked Reagan what his biggest piece of advice would be to our millennial generation, he told me the same thing his father, President Reagan, told him:
“My father taught me this — find the good. In every man there is good. Find it. We don’t do that anymore.”
Reagan recalled the first time he met former U.S. president, Barack Obama:
“We were at the opening of the George W. Bush library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The library had a private reception for First Family members and the first five sitting presidents, which was kind of cool. The Obamas knew I was in the room, and our president, at the time, knew how I felt about him politically. So, I sat there and thought to myself, what would my father have me do, right now? It would be to find the good. So, I walked in the door, and I went up to him and he said, ‘Mike Reagan?’ I said, ‘Mr. President, I want to tell you, I really appreciate the fact that of all your duties as President, and I understand those things, because of my life. But what I really appreciate, is the fact that you never stopped being a father nor stopped being a husband. I think those are great messages that more families need to see. I just wanted to tell you I appreciate you for that.’ He looked at me and said, ‘thank you.’ Find the good. We spend too much time trying to find the bad in everybody, and that’s what’s sad. You just have to do it, and if we don’t, it’s not going to get any better, it’s going to get worse day by day.”
As I ended my phone call with Mr. Reagan, he shared his last piece of advice to me — learn to forgive.
You would think that the John Hinckley, Jr., the man who shot his father, would have earned a permanent spot in President Reagan's grudge list. Think again.
“Before my father went back to the White House to resume his duties, he forgave Hinckley for trying to kill him. Three months later, Pope John Paul II was shot in Vatican City. Before he went back to resume his duties, he forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to kill him. My second piece of advice to millennials is learning to forgive.”
In actuality, I learned, that just two or three months after both President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were attacked, they got together for the first time, according to Reagan:
“When my father and Pope John Paul II got together for the first time after their attacks, they had something that bonded them together. That bond created the relationship and friendship that brought solidarity to Poland and ultimately, brought down the Berlin Wall.”
I've taken AP U.S. History and as many classes associated with it as possible, but there are just some lessons you can't get from a textbook. What my conversation with Michael taught me is that we need to be appreciative and grateful for what history has done for us, as a country and as citizens. And that all starts by communicating, openly with one another.
For more information on the Reagan Legacy Foundation, please visit the website. For those who wish to donate a brick to the Walkway To Victory, please visit the website.