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A near-death experience changed his presidency and led to the most important steps ever taken to reduce the threat of nuclear war.

Ronald Reagan had learned to read audiences during decades of public speaking, so it didn’t take him long to perceive the one he addressed on March 30, 1981, as skeptical, even unfriendly. He opened with a joke, as he usually did, but it barely got a chuckle from the crowd attending the national conference of the building trades division of the AFL-CIO. Nor were the union men impressed when Reagan pointed out that he was a lifetime member of an AFL-CIO affiliate, the Screen Actors Guild.

Organized labor was a Democratic constituency, and though some unions had crossed the line to endorse Reagan and the Republican ticket in 1980, 600,000 construction workers were out of work when the president stepped to the lectern. Their representatives were not satisfied by what he told them of his economic plans. “Speech not riotously received,” the president noted wryly after the event.

Reagan left the Washington Hilton and walked toward his waiting car. As he was about to get in, he heard what sounded like firecrackers. His security detail immediately recognized the noise as gunshots, and one member of the Secret Service, Jerry Parr, reflexively shoved Reagan into the presidential limousine, pressing him down on the floor. A second agent pushed Parr in on top of Reagan. From his awkward position, Parr ordered the driver to pull away.

Neither Reagan nor Parr realized that the president had been hit. Reagan felt a sharp pain but thought it was a rib broken by Parr’s rough handling. He told Parr, who directed the driver to George Washington University Hospital. Reagan insisted on walking into the emergency room but fainted from loss of blood before he got inside. Within moments doctors would discover a bullet wound and take action to save the president.

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Failed assassination, changed presidency

The failed assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., a disturbed drifter, dramatically changed the dynamic of Reagan’s presidency. No other president in American history had recovered from a gunshot wound sustained while in office, and Reagan’s survival generated a wave of public sympathy that boosted his popularity and gave crucial momentum to his conservative political agenda early in his first term. It also prompted some unusual behavior on the part of Reagan and his wife that his aides carefully shielded from the public. Nancy Reagan began to consult a secret outside adviser whose karmic predictions affected virtually every move and decision that the Reagans made for the next seven years. Most profoundly, the assassination attempt heightened the president’s sense of destiny. It made him realize how fleeting life is, and how little time a president has to make his mark. From that realization followed his historic summit talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the most important steps ever taken to rid the world of the threat of nuclear war.

“Am I dying?” Reagan asked fearfully as an attendant placed an oxygen mask over his face. An internist assured him he would be fine. “I can’t breathe,” Reagan said. “My chest hurts.”

The senior doctor in the emergency room, still thinking Reagan might have merely a broken rib, listened to the patient’s lungs. The right lung sounded normal but the left was failing to inflate. The doctor ordered Reagan rolled onto his right side.

It was then that he saw the bullet wound, an inconspicuous slit beneath Reagan’s left armpit. Hinckley, who had become obsessed with the actress Jodi Foster after seeing her portray a teen prostitute in the movie Taxi Driver and hoped to impress her with his daring act, had fired six shots at the president. One gravely wounded James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary. The second hit a police officer; the third, a member of the Secret Service. Two others did no damage, but the sixth ricocheted off the president’s car and struck Reagan under the left arm. The doctors discovered no exit wound and concluded that the bullet remained within the patient’s body.

Critical surgery

The emergency room trauma team went to work. They drained the blood that was constricting Reagan’s breathing, and with intravenous fluids helped restore his blood pressure. As he began to breathe more easily, the president regained the stage presence that was part of his political persona. Looking at the medical team gathered around him, he quipped to Jerry Parr, “I hope they are all Republicans.”

The bullet had lodged close to Reagan’s heart. The surgeons briefly considered leaving it there, lest their efforts to remove it cause greater harm, but decided to operate. As the anesthesiologist readied Reagan for sedation, the president realized he had a fresh audience and, with a smile, repeated his earlier political quip. The chief surgeon responded, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.”

The operation was tricky but successful. The chief carefully withdrew the bullet, and then the surgeons repaired a damaged artery and the president’s left lung. Reagan was sewed up and dispatched to recovery.

WhO’s in Charge?

Meanwhile, an unscripted drama was unfolding at the White House. James Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff, had received a call from his deputy, Michael Deaver, saying Reagan had been shot and was in serious condition. Baker hurried to the hospital, where he was joined by Edwin Meese, the president’s counselor and the third member of the White House “troika.” The three pondered whether to invoke the 25th Amendment, which permits a transfer of authority to the vice president when a president is incapacitated. But Vice President George H.W. Bush was out of the city and wouldn’t arrive back for some hours. Who would have responsibility for the country until then?

Secretary of State Alexander Haig thought he knew the answer. Haig watched White House spokesman Larry Speakes struggle with reporters’ questions about the president’s status and prognosis. Haig was in the White House at the time and was troubled by the vague responses. He thought they might cause America’s foes to think no one was in charge in Washington.

Haig impetuously decided to intervene. He dashed into the briefing room and seized the lectern. His face flushed, he explained the chain of command. “Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order,” he said. “Should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm, he will do so. He has not done that. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the vice president and am in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.”

Haig’s statement was supposed to calm the country, but it had just the opposite effect. His facts were wrong. The secretary of state was not third in line. The speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate preceded him. Haig’s authoritative sound bite, “I am in control here,” combined with his well-known ambition, lent the impression that this former four-star general was mounting some kind of coup.

The White House corrected Haig’s misstatement and declared that the president was, in fact, in charge. The secretary of state never recovered from his rash performance that day. Reagan’s closest advisers lost their trust in him, and in the summer of 1982 the president allowed Haig to resign.

Nancy’s Fears — and the astrologer

Nancy Reagan worried chronically about Reagan, and the shooting naturally intensified her anxiety. “Nothing can happen to Ronnie,” she wrote in her diary while her husband was recovering in the hospital. “My life would be over.” Even as the immediate danger passed, Nancy couldn’t stop fearing for his life. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep. Always slender, she grew thin and then gaunt. She prayed. She cried. She sought advice from friends.

One who offered a suggestion was Merv Griffin, the television host, whom she knew from Hollywood. “He mentioned that he had recently talked with Joan Quigley a San Francisco astrologer,” Nancy recalled later. “He had talked to Joan, who had said she could have warned me about March 30. According to Merv, Joan had said, ‘The president should have stayed home. I could see from my charts that this was going to be a dangerous day for him.’” Nancy remembered her response to Griffin. “Oh, my God!” she said. “I could have stopped it!”

Nancy, with the acceptance of her husband, had consulted astrologers for years, dating back to Reagan’s stint as governor of California. She called Quigley, who offered sympathy and support. Additional conversations ensued, until Nancy found herself consulting Quigley as to which days were auspicious for the president and which days threatening. The astrologer sent her celestial prognostications to Nancy, who used them to arrange the president’s schedule.

“Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise,” Donald Regan, successor to James Baker as chief of staff, wrote in his memoir, For the Record.

Quigley’s role was a closely guarded secret. Michael Deaver knew, as did Baker and then Regan. And the world learned about Quigley after Don Regan resigned in 1987—following friction with Nancy over various matters, including the influence of an astrologer on the daily routine of the leader of the Free World—and wrote his book. Reagan was embarrassed; Nancy was incensed. Reagan’s critics had a field day with the revelation.

Emerging a different man

On the surface, the aftermath of the shooting was distinctly positive. A month later, Reagan stepped again onto the public stage. He rode to Capitol Hill to address a joint session of Congress on his priority issues of taxes and spending. His election victory the previous November had given him a mandate to try to cut both, but the Democrat-controlled House kept putting up roadblocks.

Not on this day, however. As the president entered the House chamber every senator and representative leaped up to give him an ovation. The shooting had threatened not merely the life of the president but the democratic principle that politics is conducted without violence. The applause was a collective sigh of relief. Reagan worked the aisle like the old pro he was, accepting congratulations on his recovery.

He played the moment for all it was worth. At the lectern, Reagan cracked a joke about his near demise, thanked the congressional members for their prayers and paid tribute to Thomas Delahanty, the wounded police officer, and James Brady, whose wife, Sarah, sat in the gallery. He read from a letter a little girl sent him: “I hope you get well quick or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas.”

Reagan let the laughter mingle with the tears. The legislators, even the Democrats, were in his hands. There they remained when he turned to the substance of his address: the need for tax reductions and budget cuts. “Thanks to some very fine people, my health is much improved,” he said. “I’d like to be able to say that with regard to the health of the economy.” And he would be able to say it if Congress joined him in the fight the American people had elected him to lead.

difficulties and destiny

Reagan didn’t get everything he wanted from the legislature. Spending proved harder to trim than taxes. Nor was his success entirely a result of the magnanimity that followed his return from the brink of death. Yet, three months later, when he put his signature to the biggest tax cut in American history, few denied that good feelings for the wounded president had been central to the accomplishment. Journalist David Broder had never seen anything like the popular embrace of Reagan after the shooting. “He was politically untouchable from that point on,” Broder said. “He became a mythic figure.”

He also became a figure touched by the hand of God. Or so Reagan interpreted his brush with death. Reagan had always been religious, but in a fairly conventional way. His shooting caused him to reconsider. He asked himself why he had been spared, when he could easily have died. He concluded that God had a reason. “Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can,” he wrote in his diary while in the hospital.

The more he thought about it, the more he grew convinced that God wanted him to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Reagan had long been appalled by the specter of nuclear destruction that had hung over humanity since 1945, and he wondered whether he might be the one to banish it. He decided to give it a try. “Perhaps having come so close to death made me feel I should do whatever I could in the years God had given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war,” he recalled later. “Perhaps that is the reason I was spared.”

Reaching out to the Soviets

He acted at once on this conclusion. He wrote a personal letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, assuring him that the United States had no aggressive designs against the Soviet Union. As a goodwill gesture he lifted a grain embargo imposed by Jimmy Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And he called on Brezhnev to join him in working toward better relations between the superpowers. “Should we not be concerned with eliminating the obstacles which prevent our people from achieving their most cherished goals?” he asked.

He got no good response from Brezhnev, who was ailing and died the following year. The two subsequent Soviet leaders, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, didn’t live long enough to respond to Reagan’s entreaties. And even as he was reaching out to Moscow, Reagan put military pressure on America’s strategic rival. In 1983 he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” deployed Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe and proposed an American missile-defense system—dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics.

Then, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took charge in the USSR and Reagan found the negotiating partner he had been looking for. Gorbachev shared Reagan’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and in a series of summit meetings they moved their countries toward deep cuts in nuclear arms.

Fighting the cold warriors

Many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, old-school Cold Warriors including former president Richard Nixon, viewed any serious arms-control initiatives with the Soviets as naive and risky. But Reagan was getting to know Gorbachev, and sensed both his sincerity and his desperate desire to reduce the USSR’s crippling military spending. At their 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev broached the possibility of getting rid of nuclear weapons entirely. “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” Reagan told Gorbachev.

That didn’t happen, but a breakthrough nonetheless came in December 1987, when the two leaders signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which abolished intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles. Reagan no longer considered the Soviet Union an evil empire, based on his many talks with Gorbachev, and he said so publicly.

Additional dramatic cuts in the nuclear arsenals of both countries would come later with the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. By then both Reagan and Gorbachev had left office. But the genesis of START, which eliminated some four-fifths of all strategic nuclear weapons, lay in the crucial talks between Reagan and Gorbachev. And the roots of these, in turn, lay in the moment when a madman nearly assassinated the 40th president of the United States.

H.W. Brands’ most recent book is The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.

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