Born in northern Illinois in the second decade of a new century, Ronald Reagan grew up in a poor family, his father an Irish Catholic traveling salesman. At age 11, he chose to be baptized a Protestant, his mother’s faith. Attending Eureka College, “Dutch” (as his father nicknamed him) was a great athlete, actor and student body president, but an average student. He graduated with a degree in sociology and economics. In the early 1930s, Reagan became a sports radio announcer and then a screen actor in Los Angeles, where he would go on to act in nearly 50 films. He enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1937 and, in 1942, was called into active duty, serving domestically in California and New York.
After World War II, Reagan moved from film to television and became the president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Though he grew up with fairly liberal values, Reagan’s political stances shifted toward conservative as he worked at SAG to root out communist sympathizers in Hollywood. He and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, accusing many filmmakers in Hollywood of communist sympathies. He was divorced in 1949 and, three years later, married actress Nancy Davis.
In 1966, and then again in 1970, Reagan was elected Governor of California by a wide margin. He vied unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination twice: first in 1968 (losing to Richard Nixon) and again in 1976 (losing to Gerald Ford). On his third attempt, four years later, he was successful, winning the party’s nomination and eventually the presidency. Sixty-nine days into his first term, Reagan survived an assassination attempt. Soaring popularity and a recovering economy ushered him into a second term.
Mikhail Gorbachev was born to peasants in southwestern Russia, where, as a toddler, he survived a great famine and drought that claimed many in his family and community. He grew up helping his father with farming. In his teens, when his father left for World War II to fight for the Soviet Army, he assumed greater responsibility on the collective farm, and became the youngest person to be awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. Gorbachev was a strong student and graduated with a degree in law from Moscow State University, where he became involved in the Communist Party.
For two decades, Gorbachev rose through the ranks of the party, moving back and forth between Stavropol and Moscow. His work focused on technological modernization and the economy which, at times, involved extensive international travel and first-time exposure to people and ways of living outside of the Soviet Union. Finally in 1980, he was made a full voting member of the Politburo, the party’s executive committee. In General Secretary Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev found a dear friend, mentor and supporter who, in declining health, planned for Gorbachev to succeed him. Yet when Andropov passed away in 1984, the position was given to Konstantin Chernenko—who was in ill health himself. Chernenko passed away the following year, and Gorbachev was finally elected to the post—becoming the youngest man to hold the position. A uniquely modern leader, at least in Soviet terms, Gorbachev was the first (and last) general secretary to have been born after the formation of the Soviet Union. Compared to his predecessors, he was much less isolationist and, through his policies, desired to see the Sovie Union advance into modernity.
A lifelong economist, George Shultz grew up in New York and studied at Princeton University before joining the Marines to fight in World War II. Following the war, he taught and received his PhD in industrial economics at MIT before decamping for the University of Chicago, where he served as dean of the graduate school for business. In 1969, Shultz, a specialist in industrial labor, was first appointed Secretary of Labor in the Nixon administration, then Director of the Office of Management and Budget, followed by Secretary of the Treasury. At the treasury, Shultz gained international relations experience writing and negotiating trade protocols and founding the Group of Seven (G7)—the forum of leaders of the world’s most industrialized countries. Following his term with Nixon, Shultz became a longtime member of the faculty of Stanford University and the CEO of Bechtel, where he furthered his network of international contacts.
The departure of Secretary of State Alexander Haig only a year and a half into his appointment prompted President Reagan to call upon Shultz, though he lacked the foreign policy experience of his predecessors. The 1970s were cruel to the U.S. economy—but they were worse for that of the Soviets. Shultz knew that a stressed economy meant a more desperate administration. He entered office with ideas and hopes of outreach to the Soviets to encourage economic reforms that would help ease financial tensions in the communist union, and curtail some of the aggression in Soviet foreign policy. In contrast to many of Reagan’s more isolationist appointees, Shultz as Secretary of State saw the benefits of a more global mindset.
Born in a small, rural village in Georgia near the Black Sea, Eduard Shevardnadze learned his Communist Party loyalty from his father, a teacher and party official. In his 20s, he joined and eventually became leader of the Komsomal, a Georgian communist youth group, which provided him the opportunity to meet the rising apparatchik Mikhail Gorbachev. Shevardnadze went on to serve in several low positions in the Georgian Communist Party in Tbilisi; there, he pushed for small economic reforms, and worked his way up to become Minister of Internal Affairs. He spent much of his efforts in Georgia on anti-corruption initiatives, which caused some interpersonal friction in his professional life—but also attracted party leaders in Moscow, who eventually appointed him First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party.
Georgia experienced modest growth under Shevardnadze’s economic leadership in the 1970s, a time when much of the Soviet Union was in stagnation or economic recession. A quick learner and critical thinker, he led dozens of economic experiments and quickly implemented new plans to empower the populace and share gains.
Following the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Shevardnadze was a strong supporter of Gorbachev’s candidacy for General Secretary of the Soviet Union. And when Andrei Gromyko left the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Soviet Union in 1985, Gorbachev surprised everyone—including Shevardnadze—by asking the Georgian leader to fill the position. Shevardnadze warned that he knew practically nothing about foreign policy, but Gorbachev insisted on his admired friend: “Eduard Ambrosiyevich has shown himself as an experienced, resilient person, capable of finding needed approaches to solving problems.”
Born Anne Frances Robbins in Queens, New York, Nancy moved to Maryland when her parents divorced, and later to Chicago, where she assumed her new stepfather’s surname, Davis. At the Latin School, and later at Smith College, she followed her mother’s path and studied theater, eventually landing a minor role on Broadway. At 28, she moved to Los Angeles and signed a contract at MGM. That year, though, she found herself blacklisted in Hollywood as a suspected communist sympathizer—when, in fact, the target was another actor named Nancy Davis. Her career stalled, and in 1949, she contacted the head of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, to see if he could clear her name.
The couple began dating (Nancy had somewhat recently ended a relationship with another actor, Clark Gable), and hastily married when they learned Nancy was pregnant. Though she continued to act occasionally after the birth of her first daughter, Nancy busied herself taking care of her eventual four children. Concerned about her own privacy and that of her family, especially after her husband’s election as the Governor of California, Nancy was criticized by the press and the public for being snobbish and aloof. It took much adjustment to fit into the role of a politician’s wife—something she struggled with all her life.
Even after her husband’s presidential election (and particularly following the assassination attempt on her beloved “Ronnie”), Nancy still felt and acted on a sense that she needed to be her family’s greatest protector. Behind the scenes, she was kept up to date on her husband’s plans and policies, to the frustration of many of her husband’s aides, and frequently voiced her own opinions on political issues and the administration.
Raisa Titarenko was born in a town in southwestern Siberia where her father worked as a railway engineer. Due to the nature of his work, Raisa’s family moved frequently and she often transferred schools; still, her fierce intelligence carried her through and she studied philosophy in Moscow as young adult. At Moscow State University, she met her husband-to-be, Mikhail Gorbachev, and after graduation they were sent to Stavropol, where he was to work as a lawyer. In Stavropol, Raisa taught Marxist-Leninist philosophy and earned her doctorate. She also completed extensive sociological research in the area of communal living among the farming peasantry, talking with and listening to hundreds of the Soviet Union’s most disadvantaged citizens.
With Mikhail’s movement in political circles in Stavropol came new power and access; when he was granted an office in the Communist Party, they moved back to Moscow where Raisa continued to teach at Moscow State. When her husband was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in early 1985, she stopped teaching to focus on the Union’s cultural preservation.\ She was adored by some and fiercely criticized by others as she entered the national and international stages; unlike many first ladies who preceded her, Raisa remained present and engaged with the party and the Union; she was forward-thinking, compassionate and had a strong aesthetic style. Following an attempted coup against Mikhail in 1991, Raisa’s health began to decline slowly over the next eight years. She kept up her altruistic, educational and philanthropic work until finally succumbing to leukemia.
Presidential biographer Edmund Morris was born in Kenya to white South African parents. In his 20s, he worked as a copy writer for a South African department store, and then moved to London where he worked for an American advertising firm. He eventually moved to America with his wife and became a U.S. citizen. His first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, won him the Pulitzer Prize at age 40. In 1981, President Reagan read Morris’ Roosevelt tome, and began a several-year courtship to convince Morris to write his authorized biography. In 1985, the deal was made. The biography, later titled Dutch, was scheduled to be published by Random House in 1991—but was repeatedly delayed. The literary rumor mill churned, and Morris was reported to have said to peer historians in frustration that Reagan was “a man of benign remoteness and no psychological curiosity, either about himself or others.”
Eight years later—and five years after Reagan’s public diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease—the book was finally published with a near-unheard-of level of secrecy and security. Yet, The New York Times somehow found an excerpt and published an exposé: “Random House is guarding copies zealously, partly for fear of a controversy around Mr. Morris’s writing style… [T]he author, 59, has essentially transformed his own life…revised his age, birthplace, identity and résumé to become a Zeligesque narrator who is Reagan’s contemporary.” Many critics roared that Dutch strained the definition of non-fiction. The Washington Post’s review read, “What Morris has done, in my opinion, is a scandal and a travesty.” The New York Times’ review was kinder: “It’s difficult to approve the technique in theory; in less skilled hands it will doubtless prove a disaster. But it certainly succeeds in this case.”