Ronald Reagan assumes his lapidary place in Grosvenor Square today, alongside Franklin D Roosevelt and Dwight D Eisenhower. All three presidents stood with Britain in war; yet Reagan – the man rather than the statue – towers over the other two.
We in this country have particular reason to be grateful to the Gipper. When General Galtieri attacked the Falkland Islands, he did everything he could to support us short of formally entering into hostilities with Argentina. The United States offered Britain immediate logistical and intelligence support. Caspar Weinberger recalled the president telling him to make available whatever military resources the United Kingdom requested without delay.
By contrast, FDR joined the Second World War only when Hitler – in possibly the most unhinged decision of his calamitous life – declared war on the United States. And while we owe a great debt to Ike as a soldier, his record as a president is more chequered. In later life, he identified his failure to support Britain over the Suez affair as the single greatest mistake of his career, and he was right: what misery the Middle East might have been spared had the Anglosphere stood united against Nasser.
What distinguishes Reagan, though, is not simply his Anglophilia. Every president from Theodore Roosevelt to George W Bush has been, in practical terms, pro-British: Barack Obama is the exception. No, what sets him apart is the magnitude of his achievement. At home, he reversed the disastrous decline of conservatism and began the work of constraining government. Abroad, as the inscription on his statue puts it, he won the Cold War without firing a shot.
It is easier to perceive the heroism of leaders long past. Washington and Jefferson have assumed an almost Homeric quality which familiarity denies their more recent successors. Yet, in a list of the greatest US presidents, I would put Reagan at the head. (Here is my top ten; though, looking back, I am too generous to Lincoln – or perhaps I have simply become more libertarian since drawing up the table.)
We are perhaps too free in our use of the word “great”, but Ronald Reagan merited the epithet – as an ally, as a leader and as a man. His foremost quality was his humility: his recognition that he was passing through an institution bigger than he was. If only all his successors could say the same.